Margarita Simonyan acknowledges that she was rather young, at 25, to be given the reins of Russia Today three years ago.
The editor in chief of Russia’s English-language television network was one of many who benefited from an abundance of opportunities for young journalists after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Basically everybody who used to work in Soviet journalism lost their jobs,” she says. “They preferred to hire people with no experience. You would even find announcements of jobs available where it would say, ‘We’re looking for journalists with no experience, please.’”
Now 28, she has been a working journalist for a decade, having juggled her college course work with the demands of her first job as a correspondent for Rossiya, one of Russia’s main TV stations. Based in the country’s southern region, Ms. Simonyan reported on the war with Chechnya.
Years of seeing and writing about bloodshed causes one to “grow a bit not so perceptive,” she says. That changed in September 2004, when Chechen terrorists invaded a secondary school in Beslan, a town in North Ossetia. Ms. Simonyan was one of the first journalists to arrive at the horrific scene.
After a two-day siege, 334 people died - 186 of them children.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “Beslan was absolutely something different. I remember every time I wrote my stories, I couldn’t write because I cried and the paper became wet, and obviously I couldn’t write anymore.”
Ms. Simonyan later relocated to Moscow, where she joined the pool of reporters covering the Kremlin. After about a year of covering President Vladimir Putin, she was tapped to lead a new television channel. Its mission: to present the news from Russia’s point of view to English-speaking audiences.
“The purpose is mainly to tell the world about Russia, what sort of country we are, why what’s happening is happening, to explain things that might not be so obvious and also to give an alternative view of the world,” she says.
This is necessary, she says, because there is persistent bias against the country throughout the world - particularly in the Western media.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding. A lot. And it’s everybody’s fault, actually,” she says. “The journalists who write about Russia sometimes cannot abandon their stereotypes, sort of just realize that it’s a different, different, different country right now. Whatever is going on is sometimes perceived as the old Soviet ways rather than make an attempt into looking into the details, the nuances of what’s going on.”
At the same time, Russia does not always explain itself well, she says.
“We feel that if we are right, we do not defend ourselves, we do not explain ourselves,” she says. “By doing that, you sort of admit that you are wrong. That’s the mentality.”
Russia Today, funded by the state news agency RIA-Novosti, first aired in late 2005. Critics didn’t wait for its first broadcast to question its objectivity or dismiss it as a mouthpiece of the government.
“It’s just all stereotypes,” Ms. Simonyan says, visibly frustrated. “Whatever comes from Russia, especially if it gets government support, is going to be bad, bad propaganda. Is anyone worried that the BBC is getting its funding from people’s taxes? Nobody seems worried by that.”
She says the channel reports on whatever she and its editorial staff decide is newsworthy that day - without interference from the Kremlin. For example, they cover anti-government protests, she notes.
The channel boasts nearly 90 million viewers across Europe, North America and South Africa. In the United States, Russia Today is available to cable subscribers in the Washington and New York metropolitan areas. Ms. Simonyan says the network is eyeing an expansion.
The network gained increased visibility during the recent military conflict in South Ossetia, Georgia. On the day the war ended, its YouTube channel was one of the top-watched among the video site’s global partners.
“It’s obvious why,” Ms. Simonyan says, “because we were the only ones among the English-language media who were giving the other side of the story - the South Ossetian side of the story.”
The network’s coverage of Georgia’s military incursion and Russia’s subsequent response wasn’t without controversy, however. Will Dunbar, a correspondent who was based in Tbilisi, Georgia, resigned, telling various media outlets the station wanted to downplay Russian bombing raids.
Ms. Simonyan rejected his account, calling it a “sad and pathetic story.” She says the station assumed he quit to protest Russia’s actions, as he told a Georgian newspaper, and only later learned of his claims of censorship by Russia Today, which she flatly dismissed.
On a recent morning broadcast, a Russia Today anchor cited Sen. John McCain’s “belligerent stance toward Russia.” Although Ms. Simonyan maintains the network is fair, she is unapologetic when it comes to Russia Today’s mission.
“Every station says they’re the most objective on Earth,” she says. “But … you can still feel the stances. We are not making a secret out of the fact that we are a Russian station, and, of course, we see the world from a Russian point of view. We are being much more honest in that sense.”
Ironically, the United States and Russia are more alike than most Americans realize, according to Ms. Simonyan, who spent a year as exchange student studying in New Hampshire.
“It’s absolutely not any different from the USA at all. We are so much alike in terms of culture, in terms of family values, ways of life, reactions, sense of humor,” she says. “I hope in my lifetime I will see us realize we are pretty much the same and that we share the same values and there’s nothing really to quarrel about, even to compete about, let alone to fight.”