The guy who once wrestled for a living, then blew away the pundits by getting elected governor of Minnesota, has a new gig — on Russian state television.
“I am working for the enemy of mainstream media now,” Jesse Ventura said of “The World According to Jesse,” a commentary show airing Fridays beginning this month on RT America, the Washington, D.C., arm of the international network RT. Formerly known as Russia Today, RT is funded by the Russian government and says it brings “the Russian view on global news.”
A promo for the show features Ventura on a motorcycle, ponytail flapping in the breeze as he cruises down a mountain-lined highway.
“It’s called the feeling of freedom,” Ventura’s voice echoes. “Welcome to my world; come along for the ride.”
Ventura was elected as an independent and remains so. He says he voted for the Green Party’s Jill Stein last year. And he can be expected to use his program to skewer both major political parties, the news media, President Donald Trump and America’s military industrial complex.
One thing Ventura is unlikely to do: criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ventura doesn’t consider that to be the point of the show, although he said he has assurances from RT that he will not be censored.
“I have total artistic control and I can talk about anything I want,” he said. “We’re more interested in talking about our country. I didn’t join RT to report on Russia.”
A review of more than 50 recent headlines that mention Putin on the RT website did not include a single story that appeared to be critical of the Russian leader. Ventura shrugs it off. “Maybe nobody’s interested in talking about Putin on RT America,” he says.
Ventura won’t be the first U.S. personality on RT. Ed Schultz, a liberal commentator formerly with MSNBC, also hosts a show. But his gravitation to RT is no accident. His son, Ty, has worked for the network for years, as a producer and now co-host of “Watching the Hawks,” a television show that examines media, pop culture and politics.
Many have criticized RT. Columbia Journalism Review called it “an extension of [Putin’s] confrontational foreign policy” and “provocative just for the sake of being provocative.” In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, RT America anchor Liz Wahl resigned on air, saying she cannot be part of a network “that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”
An RT spokesperson did not respond Wednesday afternoon to a request for comment on Ventura’s employment.
While RT claims 800 million viewers, most U.S. cable networks don’t carry it, so most viewers will have to watch Ventura’s show on RT’s website.
The former governor had a show, “Off the Grid,” on Ora TV, an online TV network, but he said new managers demanded last year he take a pay cut. He refused and signed a contract with RT to do 16 shows in 2017 and 16 more in 2018.
Ventura is loyal to the network in part because he and his wife, Terry, lost his union health insurance in 2016 with the Screen Actors Guild-AFTRA because he was doing too little union-related work.
“I was in a panic,” he recalled. He called RT, where he already had a contract, and the network enrolled him in a health insurance plan in 10 days. “Russian Television saved my wife and I,” he said.
During lunch of a grilled cheese sandwich and a side of coleslaw at a White Bear Lake restaurant, Ventura said he continues to pride himself on being in top condition. He spends hours lifting weights and exercising on an elliptical machine. He weighs 220 pounds, he says, less than he did when he finished his tour of duty in the Navy SEALs during the Vietnam War.
Ventura says he was flown to Moscow by RT to attend the 10th anniversary of the network in December 2015. The featured speaker was Putin. This appears to have been the same dinner attended by Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser who was forced to resign after 24 days in part due to his communications with the Russian ambassador. Flynn’s resignation is part of growing scrutiny into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election.
Ventura said he does not know Flynn and did not see him at the event.
He toured the network station in Moscow, he said, and spoke with five or six Americans employed by RT.
“Every one of them said it’s the best job [they’d] ever had in the industry,” he said.
But another reason Ventura has wound up on Russian television is his disdain for mainstream media. Ventura often tangled with reporters who covered him at the Capitol and called them “media jackals.”
He won a defamation suit in federal court in St. Paul in 2014, then saw it overturned by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016, which ruled that a $1.3 million jury award for “unjust enrichment” was an improper application of Minnesota law. Ventura blames the media for the overturning of the verdict, saying the appeals court was swayed by many major news organizations including the New York Times and CNN, which signed an amicus brief that said unjust enrichment would set a dangerous precedent. (The Star Tribune did not sign on to the brief.)
“They control what people think,” he said. “Now they can lie to their hearts’ content.”
The appeals court also rejected the St. Paul jury’s $500,000 award for defamation, saying improper arguments were used. The case will go to a second trial if settlement negotiations fail.
“You’re the ones that caused us to have a second trial,” he told a reporter.
Ventura says he spent $1 million on lawyers and court fees. He says he planned to use that money for retirement, which is why he needs to work for Russian TV.
“I am avoiding our national media,” Ventura says with a grin. “I am going international.”