The last programming that viewers of RT America saw, on the morning of March 1, was a half hour of BoomBu$t—the Russian-funded network’s business show. That day, cohost Rachel Blevins, a 27-year-old from Mineral Wells, an hour west of Fort Worth, had led with a roundup of economic fallout from Western sanctions against Russia over, as she put it, “its ongoing military operation in Ukraine,” using Vladimir Putin’s euphemism for his war.
Though that day’s coverage of the conflict on BoomBu$t was mellow compared to the previous RT America show, which had featured one guest averring that “not all Ukrainians are Nazis” and another complaining that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was being hailed as a “hero.” Blevins focused on the negative impacts from the sanctions: higher oil prices, a potential 2008-style global financial crisis, recession fears, and even tensions over the International Space Station. Next: a plug for The World According to Jesse—hosted by Jesse Ventura, the wrestler, conspiracy theorist, and former Minnesota governor—followed by a cheeky house ad that said, “RT is not alt-left or alt-right, but we are a solid alternative to the bullshit.” Then, abruptly, the screen went dark and a message appeared: “This channel is no longer available. DirecTV.”
It was another blow to a network that was seeing its reach drastically curtailed due to government bans in Europe (an EU ban took effect the next day) and restrictions imposed by big tech companies such as Facebook and TikTok. Two days later, RT America announced that it was suspending its operations altogether. Launched in 2010, the channel was the Washington, D.C.–based offshoot of the network formerly known as Russia Today. RT had begun broadcasting in 2005, soon expanding into a globe-spanning network of TV channels and digital media funded by the Russian government and run by close affiliates of Vladimir Putin. RT America became a home for iconoclasts, second-act pundits, and opportunistic apparatchiks, many of whom pretended not to notice their employer’s alignment with the Kremlin.
Blevins, along with most of the staff, was out of a job. She hadn’t been the most prominent host at RT America, but she was one of its most loyal. She started working at RT America in 2018, just over a year after graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in journalism. Her last BoomBu$t show was her 196th. In the early days of Russia’s invasion, Blevins’s coverage had been highly diversionary; while the Russian military pressed into Ukraine on February 25, the second day of what RT called a “special operation,” Blevins led the program with a story about a Russian investigation into “genocide” in the breakaway Donbas region of Ukraine that had purportedly been carried out by Ukrainian “neofascists.” Analysts had warned just a week before that Putin would use exactly such a fabrication in order to justify invading Ukraine, as he had done in the lead-up to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
As RT was systematically deplatformed in Europe and America, Blevins became one of the loudest voices defending her employer. On Twitter, she batted back at a legion of critics who saw her as a fitting target for their rage over RT and Russia’s war. A representative example: “Your profile bio has a typo, it says ‘Opinions are my own,’ it should say ‘Opinion are from Vlad.’ Fixed it for you, I take payments in euros or dollars (sorry no rubles atm).”
On February 27, as Russian troops bore down on Ukraine, Blevins took to Rokfin.com—an Austin-based subscription platform similar to Patreon that mostly features wrestling and conspiracy content—to address RT critics. “I’ve never been told by RT what I should or shouldn’t say. I’ve never been told I needed to follow any sort of narrative and that’s why I work for the network I work for,” she said. She went on to defend the way RT covered the war in Ukraine, referring to the “so-called invasion” and linking the conflict to U.S. policy. “For all the people sitting there saying, ‘Well, Ukraine is a sovereign country, they should be able to do what they want to do’—well, to a certain extent, sure, however, that’s not what’s happening now. Ukraine is not acting as a sovereign nation . . . it is acting under the influence of NATO.”
On February 28, when Twitter slapped a label on her account warning that it constituted “Russian-affiliated state media,” Blevins fired back, insisting that she is “an individual journalist who does not speak for Russia or Russian media.” After being bombarded by what she describes as a flurry of hate mail, Blevins deleted the tweet only to surface the next day to address her critics. “If you’re one of the people pushing to ban RT and threatening myself and my colleagues—I hope you know that you’re not achieving what you think you are.” And when RT America shut down on March 3, she was one of the few RT employees to speak out, writing on Twitter that she was “heartbroken” and signing off with a George Orwell quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published—everything else is public relations.” When I talked to her on the phone the next day, she said she felt as if she was in “a nightmare I still haven’t woken up from.”
Blevins, for all her pro-Kremlin messaging, had never quite fit the stereotype that might leap to mind when one thinks of Putin’s American puppets. For lack of a better term, she came across as a normal young American journalist, passionate and seemingly sincere. But she’d been with RT America for three and a half years, and she continues to vociferously defend its journalism. All of which raises some questions, foremost among them: how did a young woman from a small town in Texas end up as the face of RT America as the network spectacularly imploded?
Blevins’s family moved from Colorado to Mineral Wells, an economically struggling town of around 15,000, when she was eleven. She attended Community Christian School, a small, private religious institution, where she graduated as valedictorian in 2013. A scholarship landed her at Texas Tech, where she began taking journalism classes. After her professors warned that young journalists usually have to toil for years covering local crime and local elections, Blevins said she planned to switch majors—that is, until one of her professors assigned her and her classmates to conduct an official interview with a source. She chose the topic of government control of media. Her father, a regular listener of talk radio, suggested she interview Ben Swann, a TV journalist originally from El Paso who has alternated between stints as an award-winning major-market local TV anchor and an enthusiastic promulgator of conspiracy theories—sometimes at the same time. When they met, Swann had a short-lived radio show on the Republic Broadcasting Network, 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 terms “independent journalists” and “independent networks.” Facebook’s algorithm had catalyzed the explosive growth of viral content farms, many of them seat-of-the-pants publishers that specialized in sensational and conspiratorial stories—and it just so happened that Swann was launching a website, Truth in Media, that needed writers. “I was kind of in the place of saying, ‘Okay, well, I don’t have much experience, but I can try.’ And so I started out writing for him.” By June, she was regularly freelancing for the site.
Swann was also a regular guest on RT America at the time, sometimes echoing Kremlin propaganda. In one 2014 segment, he averred that “any credible evidence does not seem to exist” that Russian-backed insurgents in Ukraine were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17—an argument that was part of a larger campaign by Putin and RT to sow confusion about who was responsible for the 298 deaths that resulted. (An RT reporter resigned on air in disgust over the outlet’s coverage of the incident.) Years later, when Blevins had her own RT America show, Swann would pop up as a guest; in one of her last shows, he was introduced as a “crypto analyst.”
It didn’t take long for Blevins to get noticed by RT higher-ups. Just a few months into her freelancing gig at Truth in Media, during the fall semester of her sophomore year, the news director for RT America saw one of Blevins’s stories and reached out to offer her a job as a reporter. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m still in college; I’m going to get this degree. I will reach back out, and let’s keep in touch and basically keep the networking going until I graduate.’ ” The offer might seem odd, or premature, but it was standard practice for RT. A 2020 Oxford study, based on interviews with 23 RT journalists, found that the network’s management deliberately recruited journalists with little to no experience, in order “to be able to mold the newly hired journalists and shape their minds.”
The Truth in Media site no longer exists, but from what I could find, Blevins’s work was fairly tame—mostly write-ups of headline news with a libertarian bent. But it introduced her to a wider community of conspiracy-prone, Russia-credulous outlets. Soon she was freelancing for two more such sites, the Free Thought Project and We Are Change, the latter of which is run by Luke Rudkowski, an associate of Alex Jones who got his start as a leader of the 9/11 “Truth movement” in New York and came to viral YouTube fame in 2007 for yelling that former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was “New World Order scum.” Blevins produced stories that mostly focused on police brutality in the U.S. and American atrocities abroad, but bore the hallmarks of the RT style: persistent whataboutism, fury at the mainstream media, and a reflexively pro-Putin posture.
For a newsletter for Texas Tech’s College of Media and Communication, Blevins was writing articles with headlines like “Department of Public Relations Presents Student and Faculty Member of the Year Awards.” At the same 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 published in January 2017 and argues in the lede that Putin’s “latest sensational comments put the nail in the coffin of this whole ‘Russian hacking’ scandal that we have been hearing about for the past two months.”
Two Texas Tech journalism professors I spoke to said they knew nothing about Blevins’s unusual freelance gigs during her time there. But they praised her as a top student. “She was one of the sharpest young girls that came through the program,” said Mary Ann Edwards, who taught her news writing. “She was diligent; she was so conscientious about everything she did.” Professor Randy Reddick recalled that she got a 94 on a paper criticizing media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign. His main criticism to her: “Be careful, this is opinionated—you might rephrase.”
After graduating in 2017, Blevins kept churning out freelance pieces as well as making her own videos for Facebook—at least until the platform began cracking down on misinformation in the wake of Trump’s election. In 2018, Facebook scrubbed the Free Thought Project—which was reaching 20 to 30 million people per week, according to one of its founders—from the platform. Later it zapped Blevins’s own Facebook page, where she had accumulated close to 70,000 followers and posted videos, some of which she claims had a million views. With her freelance work drying up, Blevins turned to her next best option: the network that had made her an offer three years earlier.
“I was reaching out to RT America, saying, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve been very vocal about foreign policy. I’ve been very vocal in my frustration with some of the things that the U.S. government is doing and with the way the media landscape is today.’ And for me, RT America was the only option where I could actually cover the stories that I was passionate about, and it was the only place where I was seeing that coverage happen.” She got the gig.
Part of the appeal for Blevins, she says, was RT’s version of the old Fox News “Fair and Balanced” slogan: “Question more.” And indeed, RT wasn’t left-wing or right-wing in the style of so many U.S. outlets. That’s because, as RT’s own top leaders have acknowledged, the outlet is intended to impress Kremlin talking points on its audiences, particularly during times of war, and to sow division among Americans. It attracted American viewers—and some of its editorial staff—through a resonant critique of the failings and moral outrages of mainstream media and U.S. foreign policy. On some days, RT sounded like Noam Chomsky, on others, like Steve Bannon. The one constant theme was that America is a failing empire—a contention that many Americans find appealing and absent from mainstream media.
Plus, as Bloomberg put it in 2017, referring to another young RT America anchor: “Where else on cable news could a 27-year-old inveigh against U.S. imperialism on a nightly basis?”
In conversations I had with Blevins, she had no qualms about working for RT and seemed mostly mystified by the backlash toward the network’s coverage of the war in Ukraine.
“It frustrates me that taking the stance of providing context to a conflict is automatically seen as supporting that conflict or supporting what the Russian military is doing,” said Blevins, who calls herself “incredibly anti-war.” She added: “And I think that it’s frustrating to come from a standpoint of ‘everything has to be one way or the other. Everything has to be left or right, right or wrong, whatever.’ ”
Does Blevins really think Putin invaded Ukraine to fight Nazis? Had she used the Kremlin’s euphemistic phrase “military operation” because that was the Kremlin’s preferred phrasing for its war?
She admits to being “surprised” that Russia actually went through with an invasion, but can’t quite process the criticism over the network’s terminology. “It feels like I’m in a place where I can’t win,” she said. “Every single thing I say, every term I use is going to be blown up in one way or another. And at the time, RT as a whole had been using that phrasing, and that was what we continued to use for our show just because we were in a position of trying to find the best way to navigate it, and we may not have chosen the best way to navigate it.”
Blevins kept returning to context she said had been omitted by the mainstream media. In her account, it’s the U.S., not Russia, who is the primary aggressor. “Russia did not wake up and decide that it was going to just take over Ukraine. I don’t necessarily think that they’re fighting to take over Ukraine from what I’ve heard and from what I’ve paid attention to. But the way that the media coverage has been, that, you know, Putin is someone who wants to go in there and to overthrow the Ukrainian government and to install someone who he agrees with. And what we’ve actually seen happen is that the Russian government has two main demands from the moment that they lead this invasion in the country. Their demands have been that Ukraine be a neutral state and that it be a demilitarized state.”
Moreover, she said, the U.S. media had turned a blind eye to the American financing of “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine. “Russia understands the threat of having Nazis on their doorstep,” she said. Exaggerating the threat of the far right in Ukraine—which elected a Jewish president, Zelensky, in 2019— has been a consistent Kremlin messaging tactic at least since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Like most propaganda, there is an element of truth—Ukrainian nationalists with neo-Nazi views played a prominent role in fighting Russia in the Donbas region in 2014. But outside Russia and the hallways of RT, Putin’s claim that his goal in waging war on Ukraine to “denazify” the country is greeted with ridicule.
With RT America off the air, perhaps forever, Blevins is trying to reboot as a freelancer. Her Twitter account, still bearing that “Russian-affiliated state media” label, looks scarcely different than it did when she was employed by RT. She’s making weekly videos for a tiny paying audience on Rokfin; the most recent had her explaining to fans that she had “struggled with my coverage” of the Ukraine “conflict” and conceding that she “may not personally agree with exactly the way [Russia] has gone about” invading Ukraine, while arguing again that Putin is taking on neo-Nazis.
But as for her time at RT, she says she has few regrets. “The opportunities that I was given there—going from being straight out of college into a reporter position, then going on to hosting an international business-finance show—those are opportunities I would not have gotten anywhere else,” she said. “I will always be so grateful for that.”