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The rearguard battle against Eurasia’s incredible spin-men

In their chase for traffic and prestige, western editors are often all too ready to let autocrats and their lobbyists onto the comment pages of the international press.

 

Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, interviewed by David Frost for Al Jazeera in 2012. Image still via YouTube / Al Jazeera. Some rights reserved.

In late February, the Huffington Post ran a column praising the appointment of Mehriban Aliyeva, the Azerbaijani president’s wife, to the newly-created position of First Vice President. Where other US-based outlets, from the Washington Post to EurasiaNet, pointed out the farce of the appointment, the Huffington Post write-up compared Aliyeva to former American First Ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan. “I would be proud to call First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva my Vice-President,” the op-ed closed.

The author, Mallory Moss Katz, carried no distinct ties to Azerbaijan in her listed biography. Rather, Huffington Post described Katz as a “commentator on women’s issues and psychiatry,” with a “passion” for, among other things, “the Chicago Cubs.” However, for those familiar with prior hagiographies on Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family, Katz’s track record is well-known — and takes only a few moments of Googling to discern. Katz, at last check, was married to Jason Katz, the founder of a public relations firm named Tool Shed Group, LLC. And according to Department of Justice records, Tool Shed currently represents a single foreign client in the US: the Republic of Azerbaijan—a relationship that was not disclosed in Katz’s Huffington Post biography.

All told, Katz’s latest op-ed is not only of a piece with her prior writings — as well as those of her husband, whose pro-Baku writings were described in 2010 by Harper’s as a “blow job… for his firm’s client” — but serves as something of a microcosm for how lobbyists working on behalf of post-Soviet autocracies target American readers and editors alike. Searching out outlets that conduct less-than-rigorous background checks, these lobbyists have spent years spinning outlets and audiences alike, banking on click-hungry publications allowing them to publish. All too often, American publications have proven willing to ignore the obvious red flags surrounding the writers in question.

The past few years have seen a decided uptick in those tasked with whitewashing post-Soviet autocracies failing to disclose their ties

To be sure, spinning editors and readers alike is simply an extension of Baku’s — or Moscow’s, or Astana’s, or Chisinau’s — lobbying efforts elsewhere. For Azerbaijan, such efforts extend to undisclosed financing in American academia to one of the most notable ethics scandals in the US Congress over the past decade, which saw Azeri lobbyists wine and dine US Representatives with lavish, and undisclosed, gifts. And lobbyist misrepresentation is by no means a novel phenomenon. Lobbyists posing as supposedly riled-up citizens is one of the reasons the US passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.

But the past few years have seen a decided uptick in those tasked with whitewashing post-Soviet autocracies failing to disclose their ties — and American editors, chasing the viral dragon, proving all too eager to go along for the ride. While think tanks are increasingly moving toward greater transparency in terms of financing, lobbyists — especially as interest in the post-Soviet space has spiked— have increasingly targeted American publications. “Many digital publications, and traditional journals under pressure from digital age conditions, try to generate extra traffic by publishing a lot of stuff, including unpaid opinion columns,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor and media ethics expert at New York University, tells me, explaining that the need for “any content, at low or zero cost” has “creat[ed] the conditions in which pieces like these can slip through.” 

These efforts have spanned the political spectrum. From the left-leaning Huffington Post to conservative outlets like National Review, Washington Times, and Daily Caller, as well as centrist publications like The Hill, post-Soviet spin-men have run the political gamut, targeting policy-makers across the American political landscape. And editors at these respective publications, through some form of lethargy, willful blindness, and desires for clicks-at-all-cost, have failed in their due diligence time and again. 

Azerbaijan has led the charge, forcing outlets like National Review and The Hill to issue post-hoc editor’s notes to articles written by people tied to Azerbaijan’s lobbying machine. One of those tasked with whitewashing Azerbaijan’s image — in this instance, former Republican congressman Dan Burton — memorably erupted when confronted by the Washington Post about his failure to disclose his ties to Baku, calling the reporter a “scandal monger”. Both The New York Times and Washington Post also issued similar addenda after a writer failed to disclose her ties to Azerbaijan’s state-run SOCAR energy firm, although, to these publications’ credits, such information only came to light after a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty investigation uncovered these ties.

Birds of a feather. The presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia attend a CSTO conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 2017. Photo (c) Aleksey Nikolsky / RIA Novosti. Some rights reserved.

Baku is by no means the only post-Soviet country pushing its messaging via such subterfuge. In 2013, BuzzFeed reported that “[s]everal conservative bloggers repeated talking points given to them by a proxy group for the Ukrainian government — and at least one writer was paid by a representative of the Ukrainian group, according to documents and emails obtained by BuzzFeed.” Likewise, a recent spate of pro-Kazakhstan op-eds (one of which bizarrely claimed that Washington “could find the key to fighting [ISIS]” in Kazakhstan) share all the trappings of a coordinated public relations campaign, though documentation offering confirmation is yet to surface.

Of course, not all of the op-eds pushing post-Soviet interests come without requisite disclosure. But that doesn’t make their publications any less noteworthy, or any less curious. For instance, Vladimir Putin’s New York Times write-up in 2013 became one of the Times’s most-read op-eds over the past five years, showing post-Soviet governments the efficacy of well-placed articles. More recently, The Guardian’s New East Network ran a piece from Vadim Novinsky, an Orthodox metals oligarch often believed to be a conduit of Kremlin influence in Ukraine, slamming Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s domestic policies. 

Attendant editors, even as interest in the post-Soviet space increases, appear willing to let a simple Google search slide

Elsewhere, Vladimir Plahotniuc’s recent write-up in POLITICO Europe served as perhaps the most prominent piece pushing Moldova’s accession to the EU in western media. As Plahotniuc wrote, “[T]his is not about me — this is about putting Moldova on a long-term path toward Western alignment.” The writer was identified as the “executive coordinator of the Moldovan Government Coalition Council and deputy chairman of the Democratic Party of Moldova”—which, while technically true, nonetheless departs from common wisdom. A recent New York Times article described the notably reclusive Plahotniuc as the “most-feared figure” in Moldova. “[W]e are committed to transparency in our journalism, and that includes in making sure that all relevant facts about opinion writers are shared with readers,” Matthew Kaminski, POLITICO Europe’s executive editor, wrote to me via email. 

“Given her many accomplishments, why is [Mehriban Aliyeva] so controversial?” asks Katz in her op-ed for the Huffington Post, later deleted. Screenshot via WayBack Machine Archive. Some rights reserved.

Those trying to point out governmental ties between writers and spin are fighting a rearguard battle. When this dearth of disclosure finally comes to light, American editors have appeared responsive, issuing corrections and Editor’s notes alike. But for all of these articles, these corrections come months and years later, far after the respective columns have made readerly rounds. As the articles above illustrate, attendant editors, even as interest in the post-Soviet space increases, appear willing to let a simple Google search slide.

There’s little sign these lobbyists have slowed their efforts at op-ed placement, although, when contacted in mid-April, Huffington Post editors removed Katz’s piece wholesale. As Bryan Maygers, Huffington Post’s managing blog editor, commented in an email, Katz “never disclosed her relationship [to Azerbaijan] in any of her communications” with the publication, adding that the outlet’s terms of use “stipulate that [writers] must disclose any relevant material conflicts of interest. Since those terms were clearly violated in this case, we’ve removed the piece from the site.”

Unfortunately, such removal came nearly two months after the material was published, with an untold number of readers potentially convinced that Aliyeva’s appointment makes her, somehow, the Eleanor Roosevelt of the Caucasus.  

Readers need to know who they’re reading, what bones they may have to pick or axes to grind. And it isn’t necessarily an intricate campaign of fake news which prevents them from finding out. Today’s media economy increasingly constrains editors’ resources and perhaps more importantly their time. Amid these pressures, rigorous fact-checking and specific regional expertise can fall by the wayside — and the incredible spin-men of Eurasia have their say.

About the author

Casey Michel is a journalist based in New York. He recently received a Master's degree from Columbia University's Harriman Institute, where he researched post-Soviet media manipulation in the western press.


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