The List

Hey, Larry King: Have You Ever Watched Russia Today?

7 crazy clips the former CNN host should have checked out before joining Kremlin TV.

Larry King, the gruff-voiced, suspender-clad, 79-year-old talk show host, has found a new home. Ever since his CNN program Larry King Live ended its 25-year run in 2010, he's bounced around a bit, co-founding an online programming channel and hosting a version of his old show on Hulu. But on Wednesday, Russia Today (RT) announced that King will be joining the network with a new show, Politics with Larry King, starting in June -- and that RT would also be airing King's Hulu show, Larry King Now.

"I would rather ask questions to people of positions of power than speak on their behalf," King says in RT's new promotion for the show. "And that's why you can find my show, Larry King Now, right here on RT."

All of which raises the question: Does Larry King realize who he's working for? This is RT, the Kremlin's English-language network. It's propaganda under the thinnest of veils. Facts and supporting arguments be damned, RT is known for peddling the Russian government's policies -- from supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to provoking the European Union to tarring-and-feathering U.S. officials and policies -- with an unabashed eagerness that would make Fox News or MSNBC blush.

Well, maybe King does know who he's working for. The New York Times points out that he's something of a fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the move still seems strange for someone who considers himself a genuine journalist. I mean, has the celebrated host even seen RT? Here are seven clips from four shows he probably should have watched before signing any contracts.

 

Peter Lavelle leads RT's flagship program, CrossTalk, with a quote lifted straight from NPR: "Where all things are considered." And that's about where the similarity to real journalism ends.

In a recent episode about the Benghazi investigation, Lavelle barks this leading question at each of his guests: "Is this a scandal or just incompetence, or is it both?" He then proceeds to talk over or cut off anyone who breaks from the show's narrative. When the Iran Policy Committee's Raymond Tanter tries to explain the Obama administration's rationale for intervening in Libya and U.S. interests in working with dissident groups in autocratic states, Lavelle laughs him off. Meanwhile, statements like this, from Raymond McGovern, founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, are treated as fact: 

We have a source very close to David Petraeus, at that point he was head of the CIA, and her name was Broadwell of something like that, she said publicly in Denver that the CIA was trying to interrogate people at a CIA installation there in Benghazi, and that the locals knew these people because they were their brothers and sisters, and that was the reason.... Yeah, I think there's abundant evidence that there were all manner of reasons why the CIA was in Benghazi en masse, so to speak. One was gun running to the Syrian rebels -- that seems clear. Another was just to find out who these people in Benghazi are that we liberated.

"Oh my god! Oh my god!" responds Lavelle. At one point, the show gives way to trailers for RT's other shows, airing an ad for a show glorifying the Russian coal industry in front of one demonizing the American oil industry. Subtle.

 

On his ironically titled show, The Truthseeker, Daniel Bushell tells the stories the "mainstream media" doesn't -- mostly because they're demonstrably false.

For example, there's Bushell's episode about the Boston Marathon bombing in which he accuses the FBI and security contractors of being behind the attack. Bushell's evidence: unfounded speculation, Reddit posts, conspiracy theory sites, and the fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's last Facebook status "is how patsies write." Journalism!

"An investigation finds the FBI behind practically every so-called terrorist plot in the United States," Bushell claims. "Agents find someone poor enough to bribe and set the plot up for them from start to finish."

Bushell then interviews 9/11 truther Kevin Barrett, who tells him that the FBI "need to kill a few people every now and then to keep the war on terror going, to keep their budgets flowing."

RT has a soft spot for conspiracy theories. Over the years, it has dallied with 9/11 trutherism, birtherism, and climate change. Back in February, FP noted that its coverage of the Chelyabinsk meteor included Russian politicians claiming the meteor was a U.S. weapons test, and that the meteor was intercepted by a Russian missile.

The Truthseeker also enjoys a good hit piece, like this 10-minute smear of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"Media gloss that the murder of Chris Stevens, his colleague, and two Americans sent to save him is a direct consequence of Clinton forcing mob rule on the region," Bushell begins, and it's all downhill from there.

"Let's get this straight," he says at one point. "She wants U.S. soldiers in Iran, continue U.S. deaths in Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, and Iraq, she can't remember voting for war, and no one is even questioning her."

Bushell cites interviews with presidential candidate Mike Gravel and an editor at the online tabloid WorldNetDaily to support his claims. And in a remarkably un-self-aware moment, as Bushell accuses Clinton of controlling the media to shape a narrative, he cites Clinton giving congressional testimony. "The Russians have opened up an English language network," Clinton says in the clip. "I've seen it in a few countries, and it's quite, uh, instructive."

 

As Larry King should know well, interviews are generally conversations. There's a give and take, and the best interviewers challenge the people with whom they are speaking to be clear and honest. And yet RT has chosen a pretty misleading title for the show Interview with Sophie Shevardnadze, which is really more of a vehicle for collaborative monologues.

Take, for example, the recent episode featuring Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban. Shevardnadze starts by asking, "What more can BRICS countries do, other than Russia and China, to help this conflict? Is there anything else to do?" (Russia and China are already doing enough to help the Assad regime, apparently.)

Shevardnadze nods along as Shaaban explains, "The Syrian government said we want to start talks right now. Dialogue is the only option. Political solution is the only solution. President Assad came up on the 6th of January, we support the Geneva communiqué, we want to start dialogue now." 

As is this statement from Shaaban on chemical weapons investigations:

Now if the U.N. is unwilling to [conduct an inquiry of a specific incident in which the government has accused rebels of using chemical weapons], we'll go even further. We are ready to receive people from neutral countries, like Russia and China, to investigate this particular incident. But any other incident needs to be brought to the attention of the Syrian people correctly and in time and we need to look at the evidence before saying yes or no.

That the Assad government's arms suppliers are "neutral countries" best suited to conducting investigations on chemical weapons is accepted without comment. If Larry King so much as asks his guests a follow-up question, he'll be raising the bar when it comes to the quality of RT's interviews.

 

When Julian Evans described Russia's English-language propaganda blitz in 2005, he wrote that RT's offices "reminded me of a college radio station."

On the 6 o'clock news, the presenter started off by looking at the wrong camera. She spoke of riots in Iraq, and the screen showed pictures of a crowd of angry Muslims. The next story was about Iran trying to get nuclear power, and the screen showed the same angry crowd.

Most of RT's programs have a more polished look now, but not all. And none feels quite so much like a high school production as the creepily condescending, if not downright angry, Why You Should Care! Each installation of the series, only a few minutes long, has a basic premise:

In his secret laboratory, Tim Kirby was able to build the world's most sophisticated robot, which unfortunately doesn't give a darn about anything. Tim's mission: to teach his creation why it should care about humans and world events. This is Why You Should Care!

"Apathybot," as he's called, sounds like a bit of a stoner bro. (On the advantages of 3-D printing, it mused, "I'm going to replicate up some guns and bongs, homie. Toke and then make some gunsmoke, bro.") Apathybot's foil, Kirby, who is an American expatriate and radio personality in Russia, has been described by the Wall Street Journal as "a kind of Kremlin-appointed Joe the Plumber who explains a broken America to Russian listeners."

 

In an odd stylistic choice, Why You Should Care! resembles early television sitcoms like The Honeymooners in appearance, acting quality, and subtlety. Its approach to sexual orientation similarly harkens back to another time in this offputtingly homophobic episode based on an RT report that former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili orchestrated a "gay spy ring" to entrap and blackmail political opponents.

Other random topics have included an episode on state secession, in which Apathybot chains Kirby to a chair and tazes him repeatedly, telling him, "No, I ain't gonna tolerate no talk of secession there, boy."

"I mean, when you think about it, wasn't the U.S. born of secession?" Kirby protests. "I just want to talk about this." It's as weird as it sounds, but don't take my word for it:

Russia Today

The List

And You Thought the IRS Was Bad?

The world's five most out-of-control tax agencies.

Taxes are a testy subject the world over. The controversies over whether the Internal Revenue Service was politically motivated in screening groups seeking tax-exempt status based on loaded keywords -- and Tuesday's congressional hearing about Apple's alleged tax evasion -- are just the latest manifestations of America's distinct complex about taxation. In the United States, though, at least there are investigations into allegations of political intent; elsewhere, the politicization of the tax system is unambiguous. If the IRS is serious about hounding the political opposition, the agency's got a long way to go -- as these five countries attest.

RUSSIA

The Russian government isn't terribly good at keeping track of tax records -- the Los Angeles Times reported last month that the "government has no idea how about 44% of the country's registered workers are making a living" -- unless, that is, you're the subject of a political investigation. When, in March, the Russian government started investigating NGOs and civil society groups with international funding under its "foreign agents" law, state prosecutors showed up unannounced at the organizations to request tax records. That's still happening; just today, the New York Times reported that the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency, may be forced to close because the government is targeting it with "foreign agent" provisions.

The tactic isn't limited to NGOs, though. Auditor Sergei Magnitsky revealed a $230 million tax fraud scandal that implicated members of the Russian police, judiciary, and mafia, only to have tax charges brought against him. After Magnitsky died in prison under mysterious circumstances, the Russian government went after his former employer, William Browder, of the British firm Hermitage Capital Management, with similar charges.

FRANCE

When François Hollande swept into office last year, the biggest unknown was how his socialist credentials would translate into policy. Ever since, some of the biggest policy fights have centered on taxes. A one-time tax on 2011 incomes reportedly required 8,000 French households with more than $1.67 million in assets to pay more than 100 percent of their annual income, while other severe tax rates on high-earners have been struck down by France's Constitutional Council. Some wealthy French notables aren't waiting for the tax system to sort itself out; actor Gérard Depardieu, for instance, made a big show of renouncing his French citizenship over taxes on the wealthy. Depardieu has adopted Russian citizenship instead -- but it's OK, he's friends with Putin.

ARGENTINA

Approximately a third of Argentina's workers get paid off the books, part of the country's unofficial economy and a thorn in the side of a government trying desperately to get a hold of its finances. Argentina's Federal Administration of Public Revenue (AFIP), the country's tax agency, has vestiges of the past: Under an old rule still on the books, if an AFIP agent dies on the job, the agency is required to try to hire the surviving spouse or a child. But it's also begun surveiling citizens' digital records and using satellite imagery of agricultural production to detect tax evasion. These high-tech tools can be used selectively, though, and for targeting government critics; President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has used tax investigations to discredit opponents and AFIP has routinely targeted journalists and media organizations.

CHINA

For decades, Chinese leaders engaged in half-hearted crackdowns on tax dodgers. Xi Jinping pledged to root out corruption among Communist Party officials when he became president in March, but so far politicians have primarily been targeted for accepting bribes and keeping mistresses, not tax evasion. While government officials may be getting a pass for now, the same is not true for political dissidents. The noted artist Ai Weiwei and his company Fake Cultural Development Ltd., for instance, have been slapped with $2.4 million in fines for allegedly violating tax laws.

ISRAEL

It shouldn't be surprising that taxes in Israel are a sensitive matter, especially when you consider the delicate arrangement the Knesset has with the Palestinian Authority. Israel collects taxes on all imports entering the country and forwards to the PA taxes on goods that wind up in the West Bank. Israel also returns to the PA taxes on Palestinian labor and purchases; likewise, though to a much smaller extent, the PA is liable for taxes collected on Israeli transactions in the West Bank. This all works fairly well -- until a crisis. During periods of violence, the Israeli government has suspended the transfer of tax revenues to the PA (which, as of 2006, financed about half of the PA's operating expenses). This included a two-year hiatus after the intifada in 2000, and more recently, a four-month suspension from December 2012 to March 2013 in retaliation for the PA seeking observer status at the United Nations. The PA didn't get that money back, though -- it was held to pay off the PA's old water and electric bills.

ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images