Two interesting characteristics of journalism’s recent decline are apparent in the wake of last week’s dramatic layoffs at BuzzFeed, Gannett, Yahoo, AOL and the Huffington Post. The first is the industry’s commitment to propagandizing for social justice politics in thousands of cheap, disposable clickbait articles. The other, in ostensibly serious reporting, is the extent to which reporters and editors allow freelance influence operators and media manipulators to craft meta-narratives using their bylines and media outlets.
When both of these potent temptations collide—often in stories about Donald Trump and his associates that fit into a pre-set narrative of “collusion,” corruption, “treason,” and perfidy—the resulting media products are nearly always so histrionic as to undermine the potential for serious reportage about America’s political scene. What’s left is essentially stage-managed conspiracy-mongering delivered in a self-righteous, venomous, and vindictive style.
Last week, thanks to a new lawsuit, we learned the backstory for yet another cynical media operation involving a prominent Republican, and a campaign of email hacking and destruction the American media was only happy to abet. Former GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy filed a complaint in Washington alleging that three Americans working for the tiny but remarkably wealthy terror-funding Emirate of Qatar had conspired to silence one of that country’s most prominent critics by hacking his emails and distributing their contents to the media in an effort to destroy his reputation and his ability to oppose Qatar’s continued sponsorship of Islamist groups.
The lawsuit alleges that lobbyists for Qatar Nick Muzin and Joey Allaham, together with Greg Howard of the prominent public relations shop Mercury Public Affairs, organized and distributed confidential information in Broidy’s emails to journalists at The New York Times, McClatchy, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
These outlets then pounded the Republican using the stolen documents, eager to take advantage of the former Republican National Committee official’s relationship to the president. Broidy’s support for Trump provided a news-hook used not only to generate coverage in the mainstream press, but to villainize Broidy to the media’s partisan readers, damaging his reputation.
What American Media Has Become
While Broidy’s lawsuit is a story about crooked American lobbyists for Qatari interests, the fascinating details also give an important insight into the operations of today’s media in full flight, including astounding levels of partisanship and bias that contribute to the collapse of honest journalism as an industry.
Even as the danger of cyber-espionage is now a fact of life, it nevertheless remains illegal. Media outlets were once more circumspect about the ethics of splashing the purloined contents of hacked documents on their front pages. They were once uncomfortable with using leaks from unscrupulous information operators and media fixers. How the media got there is a story worth exploring.
Over the last week, as more and more journalists face unemployment, media partisans have sought to blame corporate consolidation and the changes brought to the industry by the crisis of cratering advertising revenue. Of course, there’s a strong element of self-serving denial in this analysis. It’s far easier to blame the usual capitalist bugaboo than to face the prospect that, for too many years, news consumers thought their product was partisan rubbish.
At Tablet, Lee Smith has written persuasively about the toll the economics of the changing media landscape has taken on the content produced by today’s journalists, rather than just the number of reporters or editors, fact-checkers, or expense accounts an outlet can boast about having. As media companies have found their resources shrink, they found it more profitable to jettison some of the work from highly paid, more experienced reporters and editors in favor of increasingly ideological woke clickbait generated from young staffers, listicles, and fulsome explorations of things like the “internet culture” beat. The importance of agitating for political priorities and enforcing new cultural standards blinded many in the industry to the reality of their failing business model.
To the extent that many in the media industry noticed their dropping readership and the growing hostility of many Americans to their political hectoring, the media began to view dissenting customers as literal counter-revolutionaries to be pushed from civic life. “The last mass trials were a great success,” Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka intoned, with dramatic, Soviet earnestness in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 film. “There are going to be fewer, but better Russians.” So it goes with the dwindling number of the media’s consumers.
Leveraging the Media’s Weaknesses
Obama National Security Council Communications Director Ben Rhodes was among the first to harness this new media landscape, taking advantage of the sudden dearth of hardened, jaded, and knowledgeable reporters covering his beat, national security. He told New York Times Magazine, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
What they did know, Rhodes found, was ideological and partisan commitment. He discovered it relatively easy to influence a press corps of young liberal reporters who viewed themselves more as partisan “agents of change” than of dispassionate journalists.
“When the foreign and national bureaus were closed, [young reporters] didn’t know it wasn’t OK to be a journalist and a political operative at the same time,” Smith wrote of this problem in 2017. “They thought it made them more valuable, even patriotic, to put themselves in the service of a historic [Obama] presidency. And they’d replaced for pennies on the dollar all the adults who could have taught them otherwise.”
At the same time this content was being generated by ideological fervor, Smith observed, much of the exhaustive investigative reporting produced by these media outlets’ more experienced reporters had been—from the dual necessities of the bottom-line and dwindling attention spans—largely outsourced to public relations shops, opposition research peddlers, or other political operators.
A journalist’s job had always entailed help from a variety of gray-area agents of influence who would be helpful in a variety of ways, from pitching a story to providing carefully selected experts to interview and more. However, this new media environment of green, partisan reporters made reliance on these cynical political operators nearly ubiquitous. Given the politics of the press corps, and the right target—that is, a conservative, Republican, or anti-Islamist—it is remarkably easy for one of these operators to successfully bounce a story through the media, onto television news, to Congress and back again.
Lots of Money in Pre-Writing News Stories
Nearly a decade ago, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch found a far more lucrative gig than their previous work writing and editing at the Wall Street Journal. With a massive list of contacts to fellow journalists they’d amassed from years in the industry and their skill in writing and research, they founded Fusion GPS, the public relations shop that would be an engine for hundreds of articles promoting wild conspiracy theories about Trump and Russia.
By any standard, Fusion GPS should be considered among the most successful information operators of the last century: for nearly three years, the political media landscape has been a hall of mirrors that Simpson, Fritsch, and his colleagues created.
Being able to pull off that hall of mirrors effect has been remarkably profitable. It’s labor-intensive work, building on years of professional and personal relationships. Only the most well-heeled of clients can afford to engage in this kind of political warfare at the very highest of levels.
Prior to the 2016 election, Fusion GPS’ clients on their Russia stories included the Hillary Clinton campaign and unnamed supporters of several of Trump’s Republican primary opponents. If political campaigns have the resources to ensnare most of the media (and half the country) into a maelstrom of Russia conspiracy drama, surely a foreign nation with vast oil and natural gas wealth could underwrite such a campaign to destroy a single man’s reputation in the service of its interests.
As we have seen, Fusion GPS isn’t the only sleazy, journalism-corrupting influence operator; it’s just among the most effective. According to the information in Broidy’s lawsuit, Muzin and Allaham’s Stonington Strategies and Howard’s Mercury Public Affairs seem to be others in this dirty business.
U.S. Media as a Weapon for Foreign Powers
Unfortunately, the breach of Broidy’s privacy seems to have been a result of the tremendous sums that Qatar has spent on lobbyists, media and think tanks in service of its ongoing feud with its Gulf neighbors on the issue of Qatar’s support for virulent strands of both Sunni and Shiite Islamism.
Since the disastrous ascent of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have taken the threat of Islamist movements to heart. Both countries have banned the Brotherhood’s operations on their soil and have halted funding to Islamist groups. The UAE has even designated American fronts for the Islamist group as terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile, in Qatar, the Brotherhood—and its many offshoots including, most prominently, Hamas—flourishes with official state support and prestige. It would take a tremendous effort, including large sums of money, to obscure these facts in the United States. It’s one thing to bankroll cultural events and hire well-connected former policymakers to run lucrative trade associations, but the chutzpah of trying to convince American Jewish community to brush off Qatar’s support for the terrorist enemy Israel faces would take a lot of money and determination.
Lobbyist Nick Muzin parlayed his connections to conservative, Israel-supporting senators Tim Scott and Ted Cruz to peddle his connections as a paid agent of Qatar. Muzin partnered with failed New York restauranteur Joey Allaham in an effort to spend millions to convince the pro-Israel Jewish community to advance the Islamist Emirate’s interests.
Thankfully, they failed in this manipulative effort, but not before Broidy’s emails could allegedly be illegally harvested, catalogued, and then disseminated to the press by Howard at Mercury Public Affairs, who was also then acting a registered lobbyist for Qatar. Howard worked with several media outlets to place negative articles about Broidy using these documents.
Open Anti-Trump Media, Insert Foreign Agitprop
In running the contents of Broidy’s emails, these reporters and their editors waded into a complicated geopolitical quarrel. Whether more experienced journalists would have been immune to the efforts of Qatar’s lobbyists is an open question, but there’s no doubt that the ferociousness of much of the reporting against Broidy was influenced by the Trump administration’s strong support for the anti-Islamist posture of Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and strong antipathy for the Islamist groups Qatar funds, harbors, and promotes. As a prominent Republican who shares these views, this is all that was required for many partisan journalists to make Broidy a target.
Unable to resist the temptation to ideologically signal to its readers, the media transformed another serious Middle East national security issue into a simple morality play with the president and his allies, as ever, playing the part of the heavies. In this way, the vehemence of the media’s anti-Trump hysteria aligned with Qatar’s interests—and with Muzin, Allaham, and Howard’s efforts in service of their Islamist-sponsoring patrons.
Thanks to the work of dogged reporters and analysts covering GPS’ media machinations on RussiaGate—including Mollie Hemingway, Chuck Ross, Lee Smith, Dan Bongino, Julie Kelly, my Security Studies Group colleague Nick Short, and others—many Americans have gotten a peek into the dark world of information operators-for-hire, where political activism combines with media skullduggery. The story of how Qatar’s paid actors targeted one of their critics deserves to be as well-known.
If Broidy’s civil suit goes to trial, Politico reported, “it could shed new light on the shadowy intersection of nation states, for-hire hackers, private intelligence firms and public relations professionals that increasingly drives political events in the U.S. and around the world.” Indeed, every American would benefit from the exposure of this scheme. Hopefully, news consumers will learn more about how the news is created and demand more transparency, honesty, and impartiality from what remains of the fourth estate.