Another Perspective

Greetings From Kuala Lumpur!

A Malaysian scandal raises questions about 21st-century journalism.

By 3.6.13

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My apologies to readers for the misleading headline. Actually, I’m not in Kuala Lumpur, and have no idea what’s going on in the Malaysian capital. Nor is it likely I’ll ever go there, as The American Spectator can’t afford to send correspondents off on globetrotting expeditions to exotic foreign locales. It was tough enough for me to make it to Des Moines, Tampa, Toledo, and other domestic destinations along the 2012 presidential campaign trail. If I asked our editor Bob Tyrrell to send me on a trip to Malaysia, Bob’s laughter might damage my hearing, and there’s no health insurance for freelance correspondents. On the other hand, if I could somehow hustle up a trip to Kuala Lumpur on my own, Bob would be happy to have the coverage at the usual rate, which might enable me to purchase some native trinkets as souvenirs to bring home for the kids.

The woes of journalism in the 21st century are an industry-wide phenomenon, and times are tough all over. The other day, veteran foreign correspondent Nate Thayer published his e-mail exchange with a young editor at the Atlantic. The editor, who was still in high school when Thayer was covering the war in Iraq, seemed to be under the impression that Thayer would write 1,200 words for free. “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it,” explained Olga Khan, adding that many writers are happy just for the exposure of being published on the Atlantic’s prestigious “platform.” Thayer was most certainly not happy, and indeed seemed quite insulted by the presumption that an award-winning journalist would be willing to write merely for “exposure.” Finally, in an effort to convey to the impudent Olga just how much she didn’t know about the man she was dealing with, Thayer explained that a decade earlier, he had been offered “a staff job with the Atlantic to write 6 articles a year for a retainer of $125,000, with the right to publish elsewhere in addition. The then editor, Michael Kelly, was killed while we were both in Iraq, and we both, as it were, moved on to different places.”

The heroic namesake of journalism’s Michael Kelly Award could never imagine what humiliations have been inflicted on the business in the nearly 10 years since Kelly died in a Humvee crash while embedded with the Third Infantry Division on the outskirts of Baghdad. The advent of the Internet has devastated print journalism, no one has yet figured out how to turn a profit doing serious reporting on the Web -- given the relatively low revenues of online advertising -- and the evisceration of newsroom staffs has led to an awful decline in the general quality of reporting and editing. If the Atlantic is compelled to employ as its “global editor” a 26-year-old who didn’t know who Nate Thayer is (and evidently couldn’t even be bothered to Google his name), this is hardly the worst embarrassment the industry has suffered lately. This brings us back to Kuala Lumpur, and the unfortunate journalistic scandal I’ve started calling “MalaysiaGate.”

In 2008, powerful interests in Malaysia recognized that their regime had a public-relations problem. A constitutional monarchy on paper, Malaysia is effectively a one-party state in which the ruling Barisan National (BN) coalition exercises authoritarian power. The word “dictatorship” has been applied to the Malay government, although it doesn’t seem as oppressive as that term would suggest. The BN’s rule is not as mild as the regime in Singapore, but it is certainly not a totalitarian nightmare like North Korea. In 2008, however, the BN was the target of negative publicity for suppressing political opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim. Human-rights activists echoed Ibrahim’s criticisms of the Malaysian regime as abusive and corrupt. To push back against that message, Malaysia evidently decided to hire the services of a public relations firm based in Washington, D.C. That decision subsequently resulted in a contract that paid nearly $400,000 over a three-year period to a conservative consultant and writer named Josh Trevino. He in turn subcontracted out work to ten other conservative writers and bloggers, who published online pieces about Malaysia that were in general favorable to the ruling regime and/or critical of Anwar Ibrahim. The articles appeared in venues ranging from National Review to the San Francisco Examiner to the Huffington Post.

This Malay pay-to-play P.R. operation, which had previously been the subject of suspicion, denials, and controversy, blazed into headlines last week when Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed reported on Trevino’s belated filing of a form complying with the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). This form, filed in January with the U.S. Department of Justice, specified for the first time the names of those hired by Trevino and the amount they were paid for their services, described as “opinion writing.” The sums ranged from $36,000 paid to Ben Domenech, a co-founder of the Red State conservative blog, to as little as $2,000 for Red State contributor Kevin Holtsberry. On the FARA form, Trevino described the clients who footed the bill: “Government of Malaysia, its ruling party, or interests closely aligned with either, acting through one or more of APCO Worldwide and the David All Group (May 2008 through September 2008), and FBC Media (February 2009 through April 2011), with whom registrant had its relationship.”

As might be imagined, liberal bloggers had a Schadenfreude festival over the right’s embarrassment. The BuzzFeed article provoked sneers and guffaws from such leftward outfits as Talking Points Memo, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blog, and Daily Kos, which crowed that Trevino’s Malaysian P.R. campaign proved that the Republican Party “really is just an astroturf operation from top to bottom.”

The left’s glee, however, overlooked the fact that one of the original partners in this foreign-funded astroturf operation was a pioneer of progressive blogging, Jerome Armstrong. David All had brought aboard the liberal Armstrong for one of their projects, a now-defunct website called MalaysiaMatters.com. On the website of his own consulting firm, Armstrong listed the Malaysian government as one of his former international clients. Armstrong is no obscure or marginal figure in left-wing politics. A former business partner of Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, Armstrong is credited with having coined the word “netroots” to describe the Internet-based movement that helped progressive activists seize control of the Democrat party after 2004. And, quite interestingly, Armstrong’s U.S. consulting clients have included such eminent Democrats as a former senator from Massachusetts who just happens to be the current Secretary of State, John F. Kerry.

My own blogging about Armstrong’s role in the MalaysiaGate controversy prompted BuzzFeed’s Gray to follow up Monday with a new article that made an obvious point: If Trevino was required to report his Malaysian clients to the feds -- as Trevino says his lawyer advised him to do -- why haven’t David All and Jerome Armstrong also complied by filing FARA forms? If Trevino was paid nearly $400,000 as a contractor, what was the total value of the Malaysia business reportedly brokered by All, and how much was Armstrong paid for his share of the deal? Have laws been broken? Will Congress or the Justice Department investigate this Malaysian P.R. operation? The left-wing bloggers who chortled at the embarrassing spectacle of Republicans engaged in pay-for-play journalism don’t seem too interested in the answers to those questions, now that one of their own “netroots” heroes is part of the scandal.

The larger and more embarrassing scandal, however, may be what MalaysiaGate exposes about the decrepit state of journalism in the 21st century. A few decades ago, American newspapers and magazines had their own overseas bureaus, and offered freelance assignments to independent correspondents. The foreign bureaus have been nearly all shuttered in recent decades of cost-cutting. Entire publications have ceased to exist, with what remained of the once-mighty Newsweek having been gobbled up by Tina Brown’s Daily Beast site, which can scarcely afford to send reporters to cover whatever is going on Kuala Lumpur these days.

Hollowed-out and decadent, with even such once-proud publications as the Atlantic forced to beg reporters to write stories for free, American journalism has reached a sad state when editors are so desperate for anything to publish that they even don’t care who’s paying for the stories. Much of the anger over MalaysiaGate came not from anyone who cared about the alleged human-rights violations of that country’s government, but from bloggers apparently upset that they can’t get paid to write about anything, foreign or domestic.

No authoritarian regimes have offered to pay my bills, but I’m sure Bob Tyrrell wouldn’t complain if the Malaysians wanted to fly me in for an all-expenses visit at the luxurious Genting resort. How oppressive and dictatorial can the regime be? There are no luxury resorts in such genuinely despotic nations as North Korea, Cuba, and Iran. But some facts are so obvious that it’s hard to get paid to report them, so it’s unlikely I’ll be filing under a Kuala Lumpur dateline anytime soon.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.