The tagline for this feature is “Quill asks 10 questions to people with some of the coolest jobs in journalism.” But Liz Wahl is on our radar, and the world’s, for the job she doesn’t have. You might not recognize her name off hand, but you probably know the headline: “Anchor resigns on-air to protest coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” That resignation ended Wahl’s 2 1/2-year stint at Russia Today, an English-language outlet funded by the Russian government. Before RT, Wahl lived in the middle of the Pacific, covering tourism, military and local government on Saipan and Guam. It was a post not too foreign to Wahl, having family roots and being born on a U.S. military base in the Philippines. But most of her formative years were spent growing up in Redding, Conn. Now she’s back in the job market and, aside from looking for her next opportunity, dealing with the fallout of leaving her job in such a public way.
Is it safe to say this has been one of the more eventful months in your professional career? What’s it been like?
It’s been unbelievable. The response has been inspiring at times, and overwhelming at others. I didn’t think it was going to blow up the way it has. The video went viral. My phone was ringing in 15 minutes. One of the more difficult things was dealing with the reaction from RT.
For the uninitiated, what led to your resignation from RT?
I resigned from RT over the network’s coverage of the crisis in Ukraine. I felt that I had an ethical duty to speak up and inform viewers of the biased coverage. For instance, the network was painting the opposition as a whole as driven by Neo-Nazi nationalists, when we know that the people of Ukraine were rising up against the direction of the country’s leadership — characterizing the opposition as something that it’s not. It left me with a bad feeling. Russia had invaded Ukraine under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians. And the network was characterizing it as that. I think by leaving out and cherry picking details that fit the narrative of the Kremlin, it was propaganda. I think that’s very troubling in a part of the world that is very unstable.
That on-air resignation made headlines and spread quickly online. But likely fewer people are aware of what happened afterward. What’s the quick(ish) version of the reaction and people with whom you’ve dealt?
I’ve never heard the word neo-con so many times. It’s absurd. The way that the network is dealing with it is trying to bash me instead of addressing my message. I’ve gotten a very strong response from current and former employees. There are some people there who have been a part of a campaign to smear me. And part of that is to say I’m a pawn for neo-cons. I guess they’re taking issue with the person who published the exclusive, a reporter for The Daily Beast. I knew that he would be sympathetic to my story and would publish my story. (The writer in question, James Kirchick, had appeared on RT last year and protested the network’s coverage of Russia’s controversial anti-gay laws.) I let him know this story was coming. Now, RT has spun this as a neo-con conspiracy because this particular writer for The Daily Beast leaned conservative. I can’t control that. I have friends in all areas of the political spectrum, but this has been their strategy to associate me and smear with neo-conservatives. And it’s just not true. It’s really an elaborate narrative for what happened. Sometimes the simple explanation is the truth, and I was disgusted with the network’s coverage of Ukraine.
Given what you’ve experienced, are you now reluctant to work for any other similarly funded news outlets? (e.g. Voice of America? Al-Jazeera? The BBC?)
There are many outlets that receive government funding in some form that do great work. And there are some that are more beholden to their (funding) source. I will be more diligent.
We’ve heard a lot about Liz Wahl the journalist. And I understand from a Slate article that you have a dog named Dallas, correct? Tell us about Liz Wahl the dog owner.
I have a dog, a German shorthaired pointer. He’s very loyal, understanding, comforting. He’s very active and loves chasing squirrels. He can chase them for hours. He forces me to get out and get fresh air. I actually had a pointer growing up. Always loved dogs.
The first point in the SPJ Code of Ethics is to “Seek Truth and Report It.” Another admonishes journalists and news outlets to “Act Independently.” I wonder if, given your experience, you think of those in different ways now than before you worked for RT.
I think I’ve learned the importance of those points. Journalists have a responsibility to seek the truth and report it. It’s our duty to report the facts as we learn them.
I remember a journalism ethicist saying that there’s really no such thing as true objectivity in journalism, because we all bring our own experiences and biases, and what we’re really trying for is fairness and accuracy. I’m curious what you think of that sentiment?
I think that’s true. Journalists are humans, and it’s impossible to be completely 100 percent objective. But we should do our best to leave those biases out of the story. And I think that news has gotten away from that, and it’s more about representing the facts and inserting your opinion. And I think that’s a shame.
You describe yourself in your Twitter bio as a Filipino-Hungarian-American. How does that identity and background shape and inform you as a journalist?
I think it shapes who I am greatly. I learned about how different cultures can interact. My grandparents were refugees who came from Hungary. My mother passed away when I was very young. My roots have shaped my identity as a person, as well as a journalist.
You’re still young and relatively early in your journalism career. Do you think you want to stay in the field for your entire career? Put another way: If not journalism, what else interests you?
For now I think I see myself staying in this field. The night I resigned I didn’t know how it was going to be received. I was thinking a lot about going to law school. Whatever path I choose, I’m confidant I’ll do well.
There will be a lot of students and early-career journalists reading this. To them, what’s your advice for getting experience and a step up in the field?
I guess my advice would be to just get out there and get internships and stay motivated. Talk to people in the field and reach out to other journalists you respect. Immerse yourself in all things news.