Most news consumers understand that media, in general, plays favorites. They cheer on and protect Designated Heroes, and with seemingly boundless energy relish every opportunity to assail Designated Villains.
We’ve long known, from polling and other quantifiable metrics, that journalists have very pronounced political biases. Even as journalists often indignantly tout the objectivity of their work product and defend the credibility of others in their profession, the sorry results stand for themselves.
It’s no longer controversial—other than in the most surreal, eye-rolling conversations with committed left-wing partisans—to say the American media leans overwhelmingly left and has a strong preference for Democrats rather than Republicans.
The Designated Heroes and Villains
Many in the media sees themselves less as factfinders chronicling and relaying information about current events, and more like participants in a morality play, maybe with starring roles. The media’s foreign villains are the enemies of the political left. Today that means relentless attacks on conservative or nationalist movements in Hungary, Brazil, Poland, Israel, and the Brexit effort in the United Kingdom.
Each of these share crucial similarities with the coalition that elected Donald Trump in 2016, taking a stand against leftist transnational mores and the attack on sovereignty that limitless immigration represents. Each movement, too, broadly supports a strong, conservative America. While the particulars in each case differ, that’s more than enough to make them the media’s Designated Villains.
What the public knows about these places and the leaders who govern them is almost exclusively a reflection on what they hear in the media. This, of course, makes journalists and editors remarkably powerful shapers of public opinion on American foreign relations—and, in a time when their pretense of objectivity is abandoned so wantonly, they can be remarkably dangerous to our national security.
Anti-Islamist Muslim States in the Crosshairs
It was inevitable that, as Islamic countries in the Middle East more confidently embraced a new, pro-American nationalism, they would become the latest Designated Villains. Muslim states that embrace political Islam and anti-Americanism, like Turkey, Qatar and Iran, are seen as relatively sympathetic warriors against a western global hegemon, with all the usual alleged vices of imperialism, capitalism, Islamophobia, and so on.
On the other hand, American-allied states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) draw these journalists’ ire as they more forcefully take a stand against political Islam in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. All three Arab countries have, in recent years, banned the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the group an “incubator for all terrorists.”
The UAE even has gone as far as recognizing the Brotherhood roots of U.S.-based Islamist groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Islamic Relief and designating them under their anti-terrorism provisions on the sound basis that they constitute the Brotherhood’s powerful propaganda mechanism.
As all Islamist are keenly aware, these are significantly more aggressive steps against the Brotherhood than the United States or any non-Muslim country has taken—or, for that matter, has even contemplated—and form the basis of a near-hysterical hatred Islamist activists and politicians hold for these countries globally.
No country is hated more by Islamists and the left today than Saudi Arabia, the richest and most powerful of the Arab anti-Islamist states—at least, as evidenced by the sheer number of relentless tweets about the country from the Brotherhood’s favorite new nember of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar. The latest narrative from the pro-Islamist left is that, for their opposition to Islamists, Saudi Arabia and bin Salman are leading purveyors of anti-Muslim bigotry. “Arab Regimes are the world’s most powerful Islamophobes,” write Ola Salem and Hassan Hassan in Foreign Policy.
Late in October 2018, the campaign went into high gear. The avalanche of anti-Saudi media coverage in the mainstream press reached a crescendo in the wake of the killing of Brotherhood-sympathetic Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi late last year, and has been building ever since.
For the media’s partisans, President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017—and Jared Kushner’s reportedly close relationship with the young anti-Islamist reformer Bin Salman (MBS)—went a long way in setting the Kingdom as the next target for the hyper-partisan media. Like Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, MBS is so hated by the press, he might as well be a Republican.
Following the murder of Khashoggi, especially, the media found a Designated Villain in Saudi Arabia and its crown prince. It drove a massive public relations effort to ostracize and punish Saudi Arabia economically, politically, and (with regard to undermining its defensive war in neighboring Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi insurgents) militarily.
Reporters contacted companies and entertainers doing business in Saudi Arabia, and demanded they cease and condemn Saudi actions. Lobbyists with contracts with the Kingdom were harassed by, among others, journalists at The Daily Beast, who threatened them with media exposure and shaming for legally working to make the Saudis’ case to the American public.
The Media’s Love Affair with Pro-Islamist Qatar
Throughout its recent war against Saudi Arabia, the media has been egged on by its Islamist regional rival, Qatar, which realized that its goals could be advanced by breaking apart the longstanding U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Qatar’s ability to influence Beltway and media opinion in this country is a deep subject that deserves its own close examination. (I’m featured in a new film about this subject called “Blood Money,” and have written on the issue extensively.) Because of its promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood and its alliance with Iran, more and more Americans are coming to understand that Qatar is a malign force—not just in the Middle East but in this country, as well.
Despite being a relatively unstable country—where a whopping 88 percent of the population is comprised of foreign laborers—Qatar’s vast wealth can alter policy by carefully manipulating narratives and perceptions using weaponized information in the United States.
Most of their most effective spending, though, isn’t on well-heeled advertising and public relations firms like Ogilvy. Qatar has funded think tanks and media outlets that get them a much bigger bang-for-the buck. In that way, they’re able to shape the information battlefield. Rather than simply replying to a story, owning or partnering with media outlets allows Qatar to create an environment favorable to their interests.
In a messaging decision that has had profound strategic consequences, the tiny Gulf emirate has been deftly speaking the left’s language. Qatar was able to appeal to partisan journalists by tailoring their propaganda and messaging to find a receptive audience. By echoing issues of concern to the political left—like Islamophobia, anti-capitalism, white supremacy, and the like—Qatari media outlets, lobbyists, and agents of influence have been able to amass a great deal of goodwill from this very powerful community with giant megaphones.
This is deliberate tactic in information warfare. While it is sophisticated and difficult to pull off with message discipline, it has often been used before. Russia’s English-language state media offers several flavors of pro-regime messaging, each framed in a different way. For example, Russia Today (RT) served a predominantly left-wing audience, while the website Sputnik primarily targeted those on the right. Both outlets could promote pro-Russia narratives from different directions.
In just the same way, the narratives Qatar’s state-run al Jazeera-English network promote dovetail perfectly with a social justice-focused audience in the United States. Al Jazeera commentator Mehdi Hasan even rails against widespread “white supremacy” in America and Trump’s alleged Islamophobia nightly on CNN, earning him and his network tremendous credibility and support from its left-wing viewers.
The Cyber-Espionage Front
In Qatar’s war against Saudi Arabia in the United States, the tiny emirate had the help of a phalanx of grossly well-funded lobbyists. After the 2016 election, several figures from Trumpworld unfortunately went to work for Qatar and have been the locus of most of the anti-Saudi activity in media and in Congress. Republican lobbyists like Stonington Strategies’ Nick Muzin and Avenue Strategies’ Stuart Jolly and Barry Bennett (at a jaw-dropping rate of $500,000 per month) work in the shadows to relentlessly attack Qatar’s enemies.
Last year, Qatar was accused of hacking nearly a thousand people globally, including prominent American opponents of its Islamist politics, soccer players, Bollywood stars, think tank experts, and journalists. A recent lawsuit by one of the victims of Qatari cyber-espionage, the outspoken regime critic Elliott Broidy, alleges that American lobbyists for Qatar, including Muzin, used Mercury Public Affairs’ media and public relations expert Greg Howard to disseminate Broidy’s confidential information in an attempt to destroy his reputation.
As the lawsuit winds its way through the courts, the plaintiff’s case seems to get stronger. New FARA filings show the lobbyists working with reporters Mark Mazetti and Dean Baquet of The New York Times, who later wrote articles using Broidy’s hacked documents.
Perhaps to deflect from this massive Qatari hacking scandal, both the emiratis and the Saudis have recently been accused of waging shadowy wars of cyber-espionage against their enemies, as well. Unsurprisingly, the media has generated dozens of articles and investigated deep-dive articles on these scandals, yet there’s been scant media attention paid to Broidy’s claims and those of others involved in Qatar’s cyber-espionage scheme.
In the most famous case, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos has, since February, been accusing Saudi Arabia, without evidence, of hacking his phone and procuring embarrassing personal text messages with his paramour, Laura Sanchez. Even as subsequent examination revealed that Sanchez’s estranged brother Michael was responsible for obtaining Bezos’s text messages—and he has admitted to doing so—Bezos’ relentless campaign against Saudi Arabia hasn’t abated.
Jordan Schachtel at Conservative Review has covered this story extensively, pointing out how the media has uncritically accepted Bezos’ assertions of Saudi culpability. Tucker Carlson’s opening monologue on February 8 clipped together an amusing string of left-leaning journalists debasing themselves by echoing Bezos’ allegations.
Of course, some of this media sycophancy has to do with Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post, the flagship purveyor of anti-Saudi messaging since the death of their onetime columnist Khashoggi. Also, certainly, flattery of the world’s richest man is something to be expected, if not respected.
From RussiaGate to SaudiGate?
Does Bezos believe his conspiracy theory about Saudi hacking? For that matter, does he believe the Russia conspiracy theories his Washington Post has been peddling for three years?
As RussiaGate fizzles with the release of the Robert Mueller report and the lack of collusion-related indictments of anyone from the Trump team, all but the most committed conspiracy theorists and collusion obsessives are beginning to wake from their Cyrillic nightmares. But the narrative of a perfidious president in league with a foreign power seems to provide too much dopamine for opponents of the president to abandon.
Without discounting the vehemence of the left-wing media’s attacks on Russia, though, that country never became one of the press’s real Designated Villains. For all of Rachel Maddow’s fulminating against the former Soviet Union and its leadership, talking up Russia’s wickedness was just a bank-shot with which to attack Trump, his family, and his associates. Vladimir Putin had become a partisan Democrat target merely as a cudgel with which to strike at the president. Barack Obama’s foreign policy embraced Russia and, if not for the 2016 election, there would be no calls to substantially reevaluate America’s relationship with that country.
As we have seen, though, the way the media has treated Saudi Arabia is different. Over the last several months, there is a clear and palpable desire among the left-wing press and Democrat politicians to break not just the multi-generational U.S.-Saudi relationship, but to replace its leadership structure and interfere with its line of succession.
For these obsessives, the villain and the narrative are always the same; it’s the details that keep changing. Already, some professional Twitter trolls like Bill Kristol and Ed Krassenstein have begun fixating on Saudi Arabia as a possible next furious locus of the president’s alleged seditious treachery. “He might not be a Russian agent,” they might say, with increasing desperation, “but he’s a pawn of the Saudis.”