Is This The New Media Normal: Manufactured News For Hire?
Donald Trump, Jr. appears to be the latest figure in President Donald Trump’s inner circle to be caught in the giant web of the Great Kremlin Conspiracy. Trump the younger said he was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, but that all he got in his June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer was an earful about dropping the Magnitzky Act, which sanctions Russian officials involved in the death of a Russian lawyer who was killed in detention.
If the Trump, Jr. meeting is just another chapter in the Beltway telenovela about Trump selling out America to the Russians through an ever-changing cast of supposed intermediaries – come back, Mike Flynn and Carter Page, we hardly knew ye – it sheds valuable light on the ways and means by which the news that fills our iPhone screens and Facebook feeds is now produced.
You see, the Russian lawyer – often carelessly presented as a “Russian government lawyer” with “close ties to Putin” – Natalia Veselnitskaya, who met with Trump, also worked recently with a Washington, D.C. “commercial research and strategic intelligence firm” that is also believed to have lobbied against the Magnitzy Act. That firm, which also doubles as an opposition research shop, is called Fusion GPS – famous for producing the Russia dossier distributed under the byline of Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent for hire.
Steele’s report, a collection of anonymously-sourced allegations, many of which were said to come from “high-ranking former Russian government officials” – i.e. not exactly the kinds of people who seem likely to randomly shoot the shit with ex-British spooks – detailed Trump’s ties to Russian officials and strange sexual obsessions. Originally ordered up by one of Trump’s Republican challengers, the dossier circulated widely in D.C. in the months before the 2016 election, pushed by the Clinton campaign, but no credible press organization was able to verify its claims. After Clinton’s surprise loss, the dossier became public, and it’s claims – while still unverified – have shaped the American public sphere ever since.
Yet at the same time that Fusion GPS was fueling a campaign warning against a vast Russia-Trump conspiracy to destroy the integrity of American elections, the company was also working with Russia to influence American policy – by removing the same sanctions that Trump was supposedly going to remove as his quid pro quo for Putin’s help in defeating Hillary. Many observers, including the press, can’t quite figure out how the firm wound up on both sides of the fence. Sen. Chuck Grassley wants to know if Fusion GPS has violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
As the founders of Fusion GPS surely understand, flexibility is a key recipe for success – and the more room you can occupy in the news cycle, the bigger the brand. After all, they’re former journalists – and good ones. Fusion GPS is the story of a few journalists who decided to stop being suckers. They’re not buyers of information, they’re sellers.
Fusion GPS was founded in 2009—before the social media wave destroyed most of the remaining structures of 20th-century American journalism—by two Wall Street Journal reporters, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch. They picked up former colleagues from the Journal, Tom Catan, and Neil King, Jr., who were also well-respected by their peers. When the social media wave hit two years later, print media’s last hopes for profitability vanished, and Facebook became the actual publisher of most of the news that Americans consumed. Opposition research and comms shops like Fusion GPS became the news-rooms—with investigative teams and foreign bureaus—that newspapers could no longer afford.
As top reporters themselves, the principals of Fusion GPS knew exactly what their former colleagues needed in order to package and sell stories to their editors and bosses. “Simpson was one of the top terror-finance investigative reporters in the field,” says one Washington-based journalist, who knows Simpson professionally and personally, and who asked for anonymity in discussing a former reporter. “He got disillusioned when Rupert Murdoch took over the Journal because there was less room for the kind of long-form investigative journalism he thrived on.”
And now, says the journalist, “they’re guns for hire. They were hired to dig up dirt on donors to Mitt Romney’s campaign, they were hired by Planned Parenthood after a video exposing some of the organization’s controversial practices.”
Besides Russia, Fusion GPS has also worked with other foreign countries, organizing campaigns and creating news that furthers the aims of the people who pay for their services—using the fractured playing field of “news” to extend old-fashioned lobbying efforts in a way that news consumers have been slow to understand.
Fusion GPS, according to the company’s website, offers “a cross-disciplinary approach with expertise in media, politics, regulation, national security, and global markets.” What does that mean, exactly? “They were hired by a sheikh in the UAE after he was toppled in a coup and waged an information war against his brother,” one well-respected reporter who has had dealings with the company told me. “I believe they seeded the New Yorker story about the Trump Hotel in Azerbaijan with alleged connections to the IRGC. They may have been hired to look into Carlos Slim. It’s amazing how much copy they generate. They’re really effective.”
Yet it is rare to read stories about comms shops like Fusion GPS because traditional news organizations are reluctant to bite the hands that feed them. But they are the news behind the news—well known to every D.C. beat reporter as the sources who set the table and provide the sources for their big “scoops.” The ongoing transformation of foundering, profitless news organizations into dueling proxies for partisan comms operatives is bad news for American readers, and for our democracy. But it is having a particularly outsized effect on reporting in the area of foreign policy, where expert opinion is prized—and easily bought—and most reporters and readers are only shallowly informed.
For the past seven years, I’ve reported on and written about American foreign policy and what I saw as troubling trends in how we describe and debate our relationship to the rest of the world. What I’ve concluded during that period is that the fractious nature of those arguments—over the Iran Deal, for instance, or the war in Syria, or Russia’s growing role in the Middle East and elsewhere—is a symptom of a problem here at home. The issue is not about this or that foreign policy. Rather, the problem is that the mediating institutions that enabled Americans to debate and decide our politics and policies, here and abroad, are deeply damaged, likely beyond repair.
The shape of the debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action illustrated this most clearly. The Obama White House turned the press into an instrument used not only to promote its initiatives, but also to drown out and threaten and shame critics and potential opponents, even within the president’s own party. Given the financial exigencies of a media whose business model had been broken by the internet, mismanagement, and the rise of social media as the dominant information platform, the prestige press sacrificed its independence for access to power. If for instance, your beat was national security, it was difficult at best to cross the very few sources of power in Washington that controlled access to information. Your job depended on it. And there are increasingly fewer jobs in the press.
Ironically, the seeds of the moral and physical collapse of the American press were planted at the moment of its greatest popular triumph – All the President’s Men. Not the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but the 1976 film lionizing the work of journalists whose big story about the Watergate break-in and cover-up was based on information provided by a government official, who steered their reporting until he brought down the President of the United States. Oh sure, have it your way, Mark Felt—aka “Deep Throat”—was a whistleblower, a man of conscience serving the people he protected for decades as a federal agent. But he was also a man who wanted to become Director of the FBI, and became furious at Nixon for snubbing him for the top job. In other words, the hero of this epic tale was an embittered law enforcement official who instead of going public with what he knew about a crime, manipulated a vital American institution, the free press, to pay back his boss, while the reporters manfully withheld that information from their readers.
This is to take nothing away from the sedulous and detailed reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But the lesson of Watergate has been imprinted on two generations of journalists, and it was only a matter of time before it was raised to the level of a virtue in the Obama years—if you want to break real news, you need to ingratiate yourself with the mid to high-level officials who are in position to leak it to you. And then, the bottom fell out of the news business.
Try to imagine what it’s like for recent graduates from the country’s top journalism schools when they first hit the Washington happy hour scene. It’s their first time out with their senior colleagues, their mentors—whoever still has a job. Everyone is three drinks into the evening and bragging about who’s closer to some deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon, or the scheduler for the vice president’s chief of staff.
Gee, the apprentice reporter thinks to herself, in my “Sociology of the Fourth Estate” seminar at Medill, my favorite professor told me that as journalists, those who help provide the free flow of information necessary for the electorate to make choices about how we live at home and influence others abroad, we serve the American people. And now you’re saying that what we’re really doing is advancing the interests of certain bureaucrats against their rivals in other bureaucracies. So we’re political operatives—except we get paid less. Much much less.
The news media is dead broke. Print advertising is washed up and all the digital advertising that was supposed to replace lost revenue from print ads and subscribers has been swallowed up by Facebook and Google. But the good news is that people will still pay for stories, and it’s an awful lot easier to bill one customer than invoicing the 1,500 readers of your blog. The top customers for these stories are political operations.
There is no accurate accounting of how many of the stories you read in the news are the fruit of opposition research, because no journalist wants to admit how many of their top “sources” are just information packagers—which is why the blinding success of Fusion GPS is the least-covered media story in America right now. There’s plenty of oppo research on the right, but most of it comes from the left. That’s not because Republicans are more virtuous than Democrats and look for dirt less than their rivals do. Nor conversely is it because Republicans make a richer subject for opposition research because they’re so much more corrupt. Nope, it’s simple arithmetic: Most journalists lean to the left, and so do the majority of career officials who staff the federal government. There are more sounding boards on the left, and more sources. It’s not ideological, it’s business.
Thus, most of Fusion GPS’s contracts seem to come from the left—except for its most famous project, the Russia dossier. Before it was passed on to the Democrats, it started on the right, when one Republican candidate—thought to be Jeb Bush but never confirmed—hired the outfit to amass damning material on Trump. From humble beginnings, it has taken on the shape of a modern-day legend.
Plugging in various members of the president’s circle as possible accomplices—including his former national security adviser Mike Flynn, Carter Page, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and now Donald Trump, Jr.—the narrative has led the news, print and broadcast, nearly every day for seven months. The Great Kremlin Conspiracy has fueled the energies of the anti-Trump resistance and turned obscure twitter feeds into folk heroes. More importantly, it has helped obstruct the legislative and political agenda of an administration that has had no shortage of big problems of its own making without also being the target of what has turned out to be most innovative and successful campaign of political warfare in recent memory.
The Trump-Russia story has frequently been likened to Watergate, a specious comparison since the latter started with evidence of a crime and the former with publication of an anthology of fables, pornography, and Russian-sourced disinformation put together and distributed by partisan political operatives. The salient comparison is rather in the effect—it has the same feel as Watergate. And it’s taking up the same space as Watergate—and that’s because comms shops-for-hire like Fusion GPS have assumed the role that the American press used to occupy.
Brickbats and Bouquets
On Wednesday, three major news organization published variations of the same story – about the line of succession to the Saudi throne. It seems that in June the son of King Salman, Mohammed Bin Salman, muscled his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef out of the way to become the Crown Prince and next in line.
It’s a juicy narrative with lots of insider-y details about Saudi power politics, drug addiction, and the ambitions of a large and very wealthy family, but the most salient fact is that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Reuters published what was essentially the same story, with minor variations, on the same day—not a breaking news story, but an investigative feature.
In other words, these media organizations were used as part of an information campaign targeting Riyadh, for as yet unknown reasons. Who’s behind it? Maybe an opposition research shop like Fusion GPS, or a less formal gathering of interests, like Saudi opponents foreign and domestic, as well as American intelligence officials.
It’s certainly embarrassing to be played for the sucker and see what you likely assumed was a scoop break in two other outlets the very same day, and some of the bylines involved are capable and talented journalists. But it’s perhaps worst for the New York Times, which was compelled to run what amounted to an article-length correction the next day, under the headline, “Saudi Official Who Was Thought to Be Under House Arrest Receives a Promotion.” On Wednesday, the Times reported that Gen. Abdulaziz al-Huwairini had been put under house arrest by a faction loyal to Mohammed Bin Salman. On Thursday, the Times reported that he was in fact named head of a government body overseeing domestic security and counterterrorism issues.
Still, the Times published what was far and away the best piece of foreign news reporting this week, Tim Arango’s July 15 feature, “Iran Dominates in Iraq After US ‘Handed the Country Over.’ ” It’s a terrifically well-reported and well-written piece explaining how the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama are both to blame for bungling one of the costliest and most controversial foreign engagements in American history.