Not long ago, Liz Wahl and Abby Martin were friends and co-anchors at the Washington, D.C. bureau of Russia Today, a state-run cable channel that has garnered a U.S. audience with its outside-the-mainstream news coverage. But ever since Wahl publicly resigned from the network in March, the two have been embroiled in a bitter dispute involving allegations that Russia Today is not only pro-Kremlin but also extremely, perhaps dangerously, anti-American.
Some background: Breaking the Set host Abby Martin kicked up a media shitstorm on March 3 when she announced on-air that she opposed Russia’s invasion of Crimea. “What Russia did is wrong,” Martin said directly into the camera, flouting the conventional wisdom that all RT hosts must toe the Russian party line. While Martin’s statement was called “spectacularly off-message,” co-anchor Wahl tweeted her support of “her girl Abby.”
Then, two days later, Wahl went even further, not just condemning the Russian government’s interference in Ukraine but resigning on-air over it. A clip of Wahl’s walkout went viral immediately and now has more than 1 million views.
One might think that Wahl and Martin would bond over their disagreements with the network’s coverage. But when a Truthdig article came out on March 19 alleging that “Cold War-hungry neocons stage managed” Wahl’s resignation, Wahl suspected Martin’s involvement in the leak. The piece was co-written by Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek, a frequent RT guest who Wahl says is close friends with Martin. Since then, Wahl has tweeted about her beef with her former co-worker nearly a dozen times, most recently accusing Martin of inspiring Frazier Glenn Miller, the suspect in the Jewish community center shootings that killed three people on April 13.
“One of the things that encouraged me to resign was the kind of following that the network has,” Wahl tells Vocativ. “It’s a cult following. Abby Martin has a cult following. They worship her. She’s anti-government to the point that she’s rallying a base of paranoid people in the United States that want to overthrow the government and believe a revolution is mandatory. It’s very strange and it’s very disturbing.
“When I tweeted that link—this is an example of her spreading her lies and the anti-American message, a message which the Kremlin loves,” she says. “I think RT is just one arm of their whole propaganda machine.”
Alyona Mink, another former RT anchor who now works for HuffPost Live, thought Wahl’s tweet claiming a connection between Martin and the shooting suspect crossed a line. In response, Wahl reiterated her thesis that the network is staunchly anti-American:
It’s not all that surprising that such public disagreements have happened. RT has a long history of hiring young, outspoken women like Mink, Wahl and Martin to present an “alternative news bent.” They’re kind of like the Kremlin’s equivalent to all those blond anchors on Fox News.
And what did Martin, who is still at RT, make of Wahl’s Twitter grenades?
“The fact that we were such close friends at one point makes me extra disappointed to see her resort to inflammatory ad hominem attacks against my character that she knows are patently false,” Martin says in an email. “She is either a cold, calculated opportunist or just a useful idiot.” By “useful,” Martin means useful for the neoconservative hawks, who she believes have been working with Wahl and are bent on inciting another Cold War.
Martin’s brother Robbie has also taken to Twitter to publicly call out Wahl on her latest statements. Robbie was once featured on his sister’s show playing a sample of his music (“We Killed Kids On A Basketball Court” cuts together clips of Obama saying “we killed…kids” over electronic music).
Perhaps fittingly for a she-said-she-said story that has played out largely on social media, the allegations about Wahl’s resignation began with a tweet: About 30 minutes before Wahl quit live on-air, The Foreign Policy Initiative, a neocon think tank, posted that “something big” was going to happen on RT. The tweet and timing seemed to suggest that she was in collusion with neocons at FPI, according to the Truthdig authors. Wahl, however, says those tweets surfaced because she relayed her plans to the Daily Beast’s Jamie Kirchick, who is also a fellow at the FPI.
“Immediately after my resignation, [Abby Martin] texted me and said, ‘Liz, let’s try to be on the same team. Let’s not be against each other in the media,’” Wahl recalls. “That’s why initially when it happened, I was conscious to make sure I didn’t say anything about her. After the Truthdig piece,” she adds, trailing off. “We’re not friends anymore.”
Martin says she had nothing to do with the Truthdig article. “As far as I know, it used six or seven different anonymous sources from RT to back up the allegations against Liz, none of which have been disputed,” she says. “The people who wrote that article were intrigued by the FPI tweets predicting her resignation…especially because FPI has made clear that Russia is a superpower that needs to be dealt with.”
Even if Martin did help with the story—which she vehemently denies—why go after Wahl?
“[Martin is] in self-preservation mode,” Wahl claims. “This is her fan base, it’s her identity, and when I came out and told the truth about the network, it questioned her credibility. I think she felt like she was attacked.”
Wahl’s critics, including Martin, have said she simply capitalized on the Internet success of Martin’s dissent and wanted to become an overnight sensation in her own right.
“I was proud of her,” Wahl says of Martin’s viral Crimea moment. “But I think what I found disturbing and what encouraged me to quit even more was the way the network used that as a shining example of how RT is better than the mainstream media. They were using Abby’s moment of dissent there to try to hype the network up as some journalistic, independent entity, when I knew that’s absolutely not what it was, especially when it came to Ukraine. The day after she did that, every story about Ukraine was absolutely propaganda trying to paint the opposition as being fascist neo-Nazis.”
Some current RT employees tell Vocativ they wonder whether Kirchick is ghost-writing Wahl’s latest tweets. Wahl laughs at the suggestion.
“That is such an RT response,” Wahl says. “Jamie Kirchick does not know the password to my Twitter.”