How a 27-Year-Old Texan Became the Face of Russia’s American TV Network As It Imploded – Texas Monthly

todayMarch 14, 2022

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The final programming that viewers of RT America noticed, on the morning of March 1, was a half hour of BoomBu$t—the Russian-funded community’s enterprise present. That day, cohost Rachel Blevins, a 27-year-old from Mineral Wells, an hour west of Fort Value, had led with a roundup of financial fallout from Western sanctions in opposition to Russia over, as she put it, “its ongoing navy operation in Ukraine,” utilizing Vladimir Putin’s euphemism for his battle. 

Although that day’s protection of the battle on BoomBu$t was mellow in comparison with the earlier RT America present, which had featured one visitor averring that “not all Ukrainians are Nazis” and one other complaining that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was being hailed as a “hero.” Blevins centered on the adverse impacts from the sanctions: increased oil costs, a possible 2008-style world monetary disaster, recession fears, and even tensions over the Worldwide House Station. Subsequent: a plug for The World In accordance with Jesse—hosted by Jesse Ventura, the wrestler, conspiracy theorist, and former Minnesota governor—adopted by a cheeky home advert that mentioned, “RT will not be alt-left or alt-right, however we’re a strong different to the bullshit.” Then, abruptly, the display screen went darkish and a message appeared: “This channel is not obtainable. DirecTV.”

It was one other blow to a community that was seeing its attain drastically curtailed as a consequence of authorities bans in Europe (an EU ban took impact the following day) and restrictions imposed by large tech corporations resembling Fb and TikTok. Two days later, RT America introduced that it was suspending its operations altogether. Launched in 2010, the channel was the Washington, D.C.–based mostly offshoot of the community previously often known as Russia Right this moment. RT had begun broadcasting in 2005, quickly increasing right into a globe-spanning community of TV channels and digital media funded by the Russian authorities and run by shut associates of Vladimir Putin. RT America turned a house for iconoclasts, second-act pundits, and opportunistic apparatchiks, lots of whom pretended to not discover their employer’s alignment with the Kremlin. 

Blevins, together with many of the workers, was out of a job. She hadn’t been essentially the most outstanding host at RT America, however she was one among its most loyal. She began working at RT America in 2018, simply over a 12 months after graduating from Texas Tech College with a level in journalism. Her final BoomBu$t present was her 196th. Within the early days of Russia’s invasion, Blevins’s protection had been extremely diversionary; whereas the Russian navy pressed into Ukraine on February 25, the second day of what RT known as a “particular operation,” Blevins led this system with a narrative a few Russian investigation into “genocide” within the breakaway Donbas area of Ukraine that had purportedly been carried out by Ukrainian “neofascists.” Analysts had warned only a week earlier than that Putin would use precisely such a fabrication with a view to justify invading Ukraine, as he had finished within the lead-up to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

As RT was systematically deplatformed in Europe and America, Blevins turned one of many loudest voices defending her employer. On Twitter, she batted again at a legion of critics who noticed her as a becoming goal for his or her rage over RT and Russia’s battle. A consultant instance: “Your profile bio has a typo, it says ‘Opinions are my very own,’ it ought to say ‘Opinion are from Vlad.’ Fastened it for you, I take funds in euros or {dollars} (sorry no rubles atm).”

On February 27, as Russian troops bore down on Ukraine, Blevins took to—an Austin-based subscription platform just like Patreon that largely options wrestling and conspiracy content material—to handle RT critics. “I’ve by no means been informed by RT what I ought to or shouldn’t say. I’ve by no means been informed I wanted to observe any kind of narrative and that’s why I work for the community I work for,” she mentioned. She went on to defend the best way RT lined the battle in Ukraine, referring to the “so-called invasion” and linking the battle to U.S. coverage. “For all of the individuals sitting there saying, ‘Effectively, Ukraine is a sovereign nation, they need to have the ability to do what they wish to do’—effectively, to a sure extent, certain, nevertheless, that’s not what’s occurring now. Ukraine will not be appearing as a sovereign nation . . . it’s appearing underneath the affect of NATO.” 

On February 28, when Twitter slapped a label on her account warning that it constituted “Russian-affiliated state media,” Blevins fired again, insisting that she is “a person journalist who doesn’t converse for Russia or Russian media.” After being bombarded by what she describes as a flurry of hate mail, Blevins deleted the tweet solely to floor the following day to handle her critics. “For those who’re one of many individuals pushing to ban RT and threatening myself and my colleagues—I hope that you simply’re not attaining what you suppose you might be.” And when RT America shut down on March 3, she was one of many few RT workers to talk out, writing on Twitter that she was “heartbroken” and signing off with a George Orwell quote: “Journalism is printing what another person doesn’t need revealed—all the pieces else is public relations.” After I talked to her on the telephone the following day, she mentioned she felt as if she was in “a nightmare I nonetheless haven’t woken up from.” 

Blevins, for all her pro-Kremlin messaging, had by no means fairly match the stereotype which may leap to thoughts when one thinks of Putin’s American puppets. For lack of a greater time period, she got here throughout as a traditional younger American journalist, passionate and seemingly honest. However she’d been with RT America for 3 and a half years, and he or she continues to vociferously defend its journalism. All of which raises some questions, foremost amongst them: how did a younger lady from a small city in Texas find yourself because the face of RT America because the community spectacularly imploded?

Blevins’s household moved from Colorado to Mineral Wells, an economically struggling city of round 15,000, when she was eleven. She attended Group Christian College, a small, personal spiritual establishment, the place she graduated as valedictorian in 2013. A scholarship landed her at Texas Tech, the place she started taking journalism courses. After her professors warned that younger journalists normally need to toil for years protecting native crime and native elections, Blevins mentioned she deliberate to change majors—that’s, till one among her professors assigned her and her classmates to conduct an official interview with a supply. She selected the subject of presidency management of media. Her father, an everyday listener of discuss radio, steered she interview Ben Swann, a TV journalist initially from El Paso who has alternated between stints as an award-winning major-market native TV anchor and an enthusiastic promulgator of conspiracy theories—typically on the similar time. Once they met, Swann had a short-lived radio present on the Republic Broadcasting Community, a fringe Texas-based outlet that has repeatedly featured hard-core white supremacists and Holocaust deniers. 

Blevins says the interview helped open her eyes to what she phrases “impartial journalists” and “impartial networks.” Fb’s algorithm had catalyzed the explosive progress of viral content material farms, lots of them seat-of-the-pants publishers that specialised in sensational and conspiratorial tales—and it simply so occurred that Swann was launching a web site, Reality in Media, that wanted writers. I used to be sort of within the place of claiming, ‘Okay, effectively, I don’t have a lot expertise, however I can attempt.’ And so I began out writing for him.” By June, she was commonly freelancing for the location.

Swann was additionally an everyday visitor on RT America on the time, typically echoing Kremlin propaganda. In a single 2014 phase, he averred that “any credible proof doesn’t appear to exist” that Russian-backed insurgents in Ukraine had been answerable for capturing down Malaysia Airways Flight MH17—an argument that was half of a bigger marketing campaign by Putin and RT to sow confusion about who was answerable for the 298 deaths that resulted. (An RT reporter resigned on air in disgust over the outlet’s protection of the incident.) Years later, when Blevins had her personal RT America present, Swann would pop up as a visitor; in one among her final reveals, he was launched as a “crypto analyst.” 

It didn’t take lengthy for Blevins to get seen by RT higher-ups. Just some months into her freelancing gig at Reality in Media, through the fall semester of her sophomore 12 months, the information director for RT America noticed one among Blevins’s tales and reached out to supply her a job as a reporter. “I mentioned, ‘Hey, I’m nonetheless in school; I’m going to get this diploma. I’ll attain again out, and let’s communicate and principally hold the networking going till I graduate.’ ” The provide might sound odd, or untimely, however it was normal observe for RT. A 2020 Oxford examine, based mostly on interviews with 23 RT journalists, discovered that the community’s administration intentionally recruited journalists with little to no expertise, so as “to have the ability to mildew the newly employed journalists and form their minds.”

The Reality in Media website not exists, however from what I might discover, Blevins’s work was pretty tame—largely write-ups of headline information with a libertarian bent. Nevertheless it launched her to a wider group of conspiracy-prone, Russia-credulous retailers. Quickly she was freelancing for 2 extra such websites, the Free Thought Undertaking and We Are Change, the latter of which is run by Luke Rudkowski, an affiliate of Alex Jones who bought his begin as a pacesetter of the 9/11 “Reality motion” in New York and got here to viral YouTube fame in 2007 for yelling that former nationwide safety advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was “New World Order scum.” Blevins produced tales that largely centered on police brutality within the U.S. and American atrocities overseas, however bore the hallmarks of the RT model: persistent whataboutism, fury on the mainstream media, and a reflexively pro-Putin posture. 

For a publication for Texas Tech’s Faculty of Media and Communication, Blevins was writing articles with headlines like “Division of Public Relations Presents Pupil and School Member of the Yr Awards.” On the similar time, for We Are Change, she was writing articles with all-caps headlines like “WHY IT’S TIME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST TO GIVE UP THE ANTI-RUSSIA CAMPAIGN,” “WHY THE U.S. IS DEMONIZING RUSSIA TO COVER UP FAILURE IN SYRIA,” and “RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN WARNS DONALD TRUMP OF COUP D’ETAT,” the latter of which revealed in January 2017 and argues within the lede that Putin’s “newest sensational feedback put the nail within the coffin of this entire ‘Russian hacking’ scandal that now we have been listening to about for the previous two months.”

Two Texas Tech journalism professors I spoke to mentioned they knew nothing about Blevins’s uncommon freelance gigs throughout her time there. However they praised her as a high pupil. “She was one of many sharpest younger ladies that got here by means of this system,” mentioned Mary Ann Edwards, who taught her information writing. “She was diligent; she was so conscientious about all the pieces she did.” Professor Randy Reddick recalled that she bought a 94 on a paper criticizing media protection of the 2016 presidential marketing campaign. His important criticism to her: “Watch out, that is opinionated—you would possibly rephrase.” 

After graduating in 2017, Blevins saved churning out freelance items in addition to making her personal movies for Fb—a minimum of till the platform started cracking down on misinformation within the wake of Trump’s election. In 2018, Fb scrubbed the Free Thought Undertaking—which was reaching 20 to 30 million individuals per week, based on one among its founders—from the platform. Later it zapped Blevins’s personal Fb web page, the place she had amassed near 70,000 followers and posted movies, a few of which she claims had one million views. Along with her freelance work drying up, Blevins turned to her subsequent most suitable choice: the community that had made her a proposal three years earlier. 

“I used to be reaching out to RT America, saying, ‘Hey, , I’ve been very vocal about overseas coverage. I’ve been very vocal in my frustration with among the issues that the U.S. authorities is doing and with the best way the media panorama is at the moment.’ And for me, RT America was the one choice the place I might truly cowl the tales that I used to be obsessed with, and it was the one place the place I used to be seeing that protection occur.” She bought the gig.

A part of the enchantment for Blevins, she says, was RT’s model of the outdated Fox Information “Truthful and Balanced” slogan: “Query extra.” And certainly, RT wasn’t left-wing or right-wing within the model of so many U.S. retailers. That’s as a result of, as RT’s personal high leaders have acknowledged, the outlet is meant to impress Kremlin speaking factors on its audiences, notably throughout instances of battle, and to sow division amongst People. It attracted American viewers—and a few of its editorial workers—by means of a resonant critique of the failings and ethical outrages of mainstream media and U.S. overseas coverage. On some days, RT seemed like Noam Chomsky, on others, like Steve Bannon. The one fixed theme was that America is a failing empire—a competition that many People discover interesting and absent from mainstream media.

Plus, as Bloomberg put it in 2017, referring to a different younger RT America anchor: “The place else on cable information might a 27-year-old inveigh in opposition to U.S. imperialism on a nightly foundation?”

In conversations I had with Blevins, she had no qualms about working for RT and appeared largely mystified by the backlash towards the community’s protection of the battle in Ukraine. 

“It frustrates me that taking the stance of offering context to a battle is robotically seen as supporting that battle or supporting what the Russian navy is doing,” mentioned Blevins, who calls herself “extremely anti-war.” She added: “And I feel that it’s irritating to return from a standpoint of ‘all the pieces must be someway. The whole lot must be left or proper, proper or incorrect, no matter.’ ”

Does Blevins actually suppose Putin invaded Ukraine to combat Nazis? Had she used the Kremlin’s euphemistic phrase “navy operation” as a result of that was the Kremlin’s most popular phrasing for its battle?

She admits to being “stunned” that Russia truly went by means of with an invasion, however can’t fairly course of the criticism over the community’s terminology. “It  appears like I’m in a spot the place I can’t win,” she mentioned. “Each single factor I say, each time period I exploit goes to be blown up in a technique or one other. And on the time, RT as an entire had been utilizing that phrasing, and that was what we continued to make use of for our present simply because we had been ready of looking for one of the best ways to navigate it, and we might not have chosen one of the best ways to navigate it.”

Blevins saved returning to context she mentioned had been omitted by the mainstream media. In her account, it’s the U.S., not Russia, who’s the first aggressor. Russia didn’t get up and resolve that it was going to only take over Ukraine. I don’t essentially suppose that they’re preventing to take over Ukraine from what I’ve heard and from what I’ve paid consideration to. However the best way that the media protection has been, that, , Putin is somebody who desires to go in there and to overthrow the Ukrainian authorities and to put in somebody who he agrees with. And what we’ve truly seen occur is that the Russian authorities has two important calls for from the second that they lead this invasion within the nation. Their calls for have been that Ukraine be a impartial state and that or not it’s a demilitarized state.”

Furthermore, she mentioned, the U.S. media had turned a blind eye to the American financing of “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine. “Russia understands the specter of having Nazis on their doorstep,” she mentioned. Exaggerating the specter of the far proper in Ukraine—which elected a Jewish president, Zelensky, in 2019— has been a constant Kremlin messaging tactic a minimum of since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Like most propaganda, there is a component of reality—Ukrainian nationalists with neo-Nazi views performed a outstanding function in preventing Russia within the Donbas area in 2014. However outdoors Russia and the hallways of RT, Putin’s declare that his aim in waging battle on Ukraine to “denazify” the nation is greeted with ridicule.

With RT America off the air, maybe without end, Blevins is attempting to reboot as a freelancer. Her Twitter account, nonetheless bearing that “Russian-affiliated state media” label, seems to be scarcely completely different than it did when she was employed by RT. She’s making weekly movies for a tiny paying viewers on Rokfin; the latest had her explaining to followers that she had “struggled with my protection” of the Ukraine “battle” and conceding that she “might not personally agree with precisely the best way [Russia] has gone about” invading Ukraine, whereas arguing once more that Putin is taking up neo-Nazis. 

However as for her time at RT, she says she has few regrets. “The alternatives that I used to be given there—going from being straight out of faculty right into a reporter place, then happening to internet hosting a global business-finance present—these are alternatives I might not have gotten anyplace else,” she mentioned. “I’ll all the time be so grateful for that.”

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