Thursday, March 17, 2022
Contracts Fall-Out From the War: The Case of RT America
As we noted last week, many novel contracts issues will arise in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on the demise of RT-America. From the perspective of this blog, the Times buried the lede. Only in the final section of the article does the Times make clear that it was not the U.S. war machine or rivals within the mainstream media that did in RT America. It was contracts:
DirecTV and Dish Network had taken RT America off their distribution networks. Ora TV announced on March 1 that it would suspend production of content for RT America. Companies were distancing themselves from the Russian government-backed media company in protest of the invasion of Ukraine.
The Times story focused on how working at RT America felt like working at any other U.S. cable news station. In fact, some of RT America's talent had come from other networks. For example, Rick Sanchez, fired from CNN in 2010 after an anti-Semitic outburst for which he apologized, landed at RT America. America is a country that believes in second chances, and so is RT America.
But Sanchez does not seem to have been representative of RT America's work force as a whole. The station was a great place for people new to the industry to launch their careers. The Times article gives the impression that the station was pretty hands-off when it came to editorial content, with the exception of Russia's intervention in Ukraine in 2014. In that context, the station required that Russian troops be referred to a peacekeepers and the term "invasion' was not permitted. But for the most part, the station did not have to censor its employees because it attracted journalists (or whatever) who wanted to do reporting critical of the United States. A lot of people with critical angles on U.S. policy and culture landed at RT. They could further their own political agendas without any encouragement from foreign handlers because their critical perspectives meshed nicely with the message those foreign handlers wanted to promote. And at least some RT America employees were also critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But none of that has much to do with contracts.
Barrons provides a more direct account of what happened. Two weeks ago, DirecTV announced that it was "accelerating this year’s contract expiration timeline and will no longer offer [RT's] programming effective immediately.” RT America's contract with DirecTV was due to expire this summer. The article does not reference contractual provisions permitting such an acceleration. Other media companies and Internet companies: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Roku, and Microsoft also removed RT from their platforms. Dish and Sling TV followed suit a few days later, as reported here.
I wonder whether RT America had to sign up for these platforms through a contract of adhesion similar to those that ordinary consumers confront. Were RT America's agreements with all of these platforms subject to the platform's unilateral right to change terms or terminate service in the platforms' sole discretion? If not, World War III might have a new front: the contracts battle. Look to this space for unique coverage of that theater of war.