The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani says the Saudi Arabian government has been able to present its point of view free of any challenge in the western mainstream media
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people, including prominent Shia cleric and dissident Nimr al-Nimr, has flared up a diplomatic crisis in the region. But then here in the United States, a well-funded Saudi public relations apparatus moved in quickly to shape how it was being covered in the United States. This included expert analysis provided for us by major publications such as the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Politico; essentially, that some of their commentators were cited without disclosing their ties to the Saudi government, says the Intercept in an article titled After Executing Regime Critic, Saudi Arabia Fires Up American PR Machine. The article is coauthored by Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani, who is now joining us from Atlanta. Zaid, thank you so much for joining us. ZAID JILANI: It’s great to be here. PERIES: Zaid, how is the corporate media covering the 47 people executed in Saudi Arabia, including the prominent critic al-Nimr? And how do you specifically link Saudi PR machine in the U.S. and how it has influenced what we are seeing in these major publications? JILANI: I would just say that the Saudi government is counting on the idea that the mainstream media in the United States, particularly corporate media, will not thoroughly vet the people that it quotes. It doesn’t have very good institutional knowledge and institutional history of the issue. And I think a lot of what’s been happening since the executions over the weekend is that the Saudi government has been able to successfully bring its point of view into major mainstream media outlets such as Politico, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, through a network of analysts, consultants, and others, who write in favor of the Saudi government, who are often funded on the side or directly from the Saudi government, or from Saudi businesses. And this has allowed them to get their point of view out in the U.S. media in a way that Saudi dissidents or others opposed to Saudi sphere of influence such as Iran have not been able to do as successfully. PERIES: Now, we ourselves in covering Saudi Arabia have noticed that there’s been a number of new organizations that have popped up in Washington and in New York that are think tanks and Saudi research institutes, and organizations to support and influence military strategies in the region. Now, these kinds of things governments often do, including hiring PR companies in the U.S. to get their message out. So what’s actually wrong with that? JILANI: I do think it’s common, but I think that something that perhaps is not, you know, perhaps is unfortunate is that I think a lot of Americans are unaware that this is happening. For example, a number of the people that Lee and I quoted, for example, there was a gentleman from the Arab Gulf States Institute that was quoted basically uncritically in Politico. You know, that’s an institute that’s financed entirely by the Saudis and also the Emirates. And this was not disclosed anywhere. You know, he was simply, he was simply identified as a consultant or a political analyst. And I think that what this does is it creates a false image to Americans who are reading these publications, they’re thinking, hey, this is someone who spends a lot of time on this. They gain subject matter expertise. They know what they’re talking about. Me, you know, I’m a waitress in Kansas or a truck driver in Georgia, or something, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I want to open the newspaper and read these experts, right, because they, they spend all their time researching this and talking about this. And they, and I think there’s an assumption that’s made that okay, these are the smart people. But when we don’t disclose the fact that, hey, they are a fellow at a think tank entirely funded by Saudi Arabia, or hey, they are a columnist at a website that is entirely operated by Saudi royals and businessmen, I think that what happens is people get a false picture. They think that the news they’re getting is, quote-unquote, objective. Or at least it has some balance to it, right. Whereas the, you know, the fact of the matter is many of these people are simply paid [flags] for Saudi Arabia, but they were not identified as such. You know, the funding sources were not identified, the ties were not identified. So you know, to me this is a way to manipulate Americans. And I think the Saudis do this in a very clever fashion. And certainly they’re not the only ones. There are other countries and obviously private firms in this country that do it very well. But I do think that Americans need to have the intellectual self defense to be able to say, hey, I wonder who these people are. You know, why are they the ones chosen to talk about this topic, and what are their interests before the topic? And I think that’s something, any time any of your, you know, your audiences is consuming news or seeing expert–particularly experts quoted, they should be asking those questions. And that’s why we wrote this piece. We wanted people to understand the background and the context of who these people are. PERIES: And do you find that other media outlets are doing a better job covering it, and in particular how is Al Jazeera doing, covering this issue? JILANI: Well, actually–you know, we wrote about several of the mainstream papers. You know, Politico, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. But you know, actually, the New York Times I think did a little bit better job than the others this time around. You know, they have a pretty good, robust international team that I think a lot of these papers have cut back on. And they–maybe they advertised a little bit more discretion this time. But in general, you know, I don’t think that the mainstream press has done a terribly good job of doing this because they don’t provide the context of what’s happening. With regards to Jazeera, Jazeera generally provides positive, good coverage on this. You know, I watched a segment actually that Jazeera English did last night on the topic, and you know, I think it was fairly good. They had some, they had a few Saudi [inaud.], but they also had someone, a human rights person debating them. And I think that’s the proper approach to this topic. I mean, some of the, some of the people, some of the articles that we quoted in our article on Intercept, you know, they just didn’t provide a critical view at all of the operations from the Saudis. So I think, you know, Jazeera did a little bit better, although I think people should be, should recognize that Jazeera is also operated by Qatar’s government. And Qatar, often it’s a neutral country in these matters but sometimes it’s not a neutral country. And I think that, you know, that can also cut against their coverage in certain ways. You know, recently there was a, I believe there was an article, an op-ed published on Jazeera’s website that they took down. It took issue with Saudi Arabia, or something. And yeah, that was a kerfuffle. And so I think, you know, I think people should definitely practice some discernment there as well. Although typically Jazeera does–I think they have a pretty remarkable amount of independence, given the situation, that they are based in Qatar. I mean, probably moreso than most comparable news networks. But I would just tell viewers to keep that in mind about their chief sponsor, and the fact that there may be editorial pushback behind the scenes. PERIES: Now, Zaid, let’s get specific here. The Wall Street Journal in particular quotes Joseph Braude, the Foreign Policy Research Institute associate to push the claim that the executed cleric, Nimr, was no human rights activist, without any proof, opportunity for a rebuttal of that. And I know that BBC and the Guardian is reporting otherwise about the reputation of the cleric. What is your thoughts on that, and why did you isolate this particular example? JILANI: Well I think that, you know, the problem is the Wall Street Journal basically grabbed someone who can maybe access a confirmation bias and that, you know, many people who read Wall Street Journal are already very antagonistic to Iran. And Saudi Arabia has wanted to portray this entire thing as, oh, it’s an Iranian conspiracy. This cleric was working for Iran, we were protecting ourselves from Iran. And then, you know, Wall Street Journal grabs someone who had that point of view, and then that person also happens to be a contributor to Saudi-owned media outlets. You know, media outlets like Al Arabiya, which often is, you see all over the internet. People don’t realize Al Arabiya is operated by a Saudi businessman who actually, his sister was married to the late king, King Fahd. And it’s, most of the investors, the principal investors in the company are Saudi royals. So you know, I think that the problem here is that people who are directly financed by Saudi are the ones whose voices are being promoted here. And it’s not that, necessarily that okay, this guy doesn’t really believe that. He might really believe that. But the reason that he can get his voice out there is because he has the Saudi backing with Saudi public relations publications. And I’m sure somebody pitched him to the Wall Street Journal. I’m sure they didn’t grab him out of thin air. We don’t know who. The Saudis also, they hired an American–well, it’s an American PR firm. It’s also worldwide. But in America it’s Qorvis. And Qorvis handles a lot of their, their public relations in the US. Their lobbying, and I’m sure getting things out on the internet. And I’m sure Qorvis was managing a lot of these calls to reporters and editors saying hey, look, we have this expert. He knows all about this, you should talk to him. And that’s how these things work. And unfortunately in that process many publications don’t do the proper vetting and they don’t, you know, they don’t offer the right analysis, which is to say, hey, is this person speaking in this way because they have some financial interest to it, are they tied in some way to this topic that’s a real conflict of interest that we–at least we should disclose it. I’m not saying they can’t quote these people at all, but they should at least disclose the ties. They shouldn’t present them as oh, this is just someone really smart, someone who studied this topic, so they’re, you know, they’re the experts. PERIES: Now, the key message that the Saudis want to get out is that, you know, they’re dealing with terrorism. That the people executed were somehow militants, destabilizing the government in Saudi Arabia. Now, the Human Rights Watch has come out saying that Saudi laws pertaining to what constitutes terrorism includes smearing or critiquing the royal family. This leads a lot of room for maneuvering in terms of who is considered a terrorist. How is that issue being covered in the U.S. media? JILANI: Well, I think, you know, there’s an issue in that 99.9 percent of Americans I’m sure have never heard of this issue before, you know, these executions. And I think a lot of people are hungry to find out. People are watching CNN, people are seeing, you know, reading the New York Times, they’re doing all this trying to figure out who this guy was. So I think the Saudis saw that as an opportunity to say, hey, this is a topic where nobody in the West really follows this until now. So we can just fill that information vacuum with information, and we can say, hey, he was an instigator. They booted out some YouTube videos, a Saudi-owned Twitter account–Saudi government, like a propaganda account, basically. They put out a YouTube video in English. Usually all their YouTube videos are in Arabic. You know, they’re talking to their own people, or they’re talking to the Middle East. They actually started putting out English language video. And it was really, it’s basically right after the execution. So you know that basically they made it in the leadup to the execution. It was planned. It wasn’t like, hey, people are asking us about this now so we’ll answer them. But no, it was a strategy they had, to put the video out and basically to call him an instigator, and so on and so forth. And honestly, it looked a little bit silly. I don’t–I think most Americans would watch the video and think, this is really laid on thick. You know, they’re really not telling us both sides of this issue. So I don’t even know how successful that was. But I think that, you know, the–certainly the tapping of folks who write in English language media but who have ties to the Saudis, probably a little bit more pernicious than the official propaganda they did. But I think, you know, the message they wanted to portray was that they’re defending themselves against terrorism. And they executed Nimr al-Nimr alongside numerous other people whose, whose trials were, you know, were very different. Some of those people–you know, [inaud.] international groups say some of those people may have been involved in violence. But there was never any evidence that the Sheikh was involved in violence. So by executing them all together, Saudi was trying to say hey, these are all terrorists. You know, look, this guy was a terrorist. We have evidence on him, so this one must be, too, right? So yeah, that’s certainly the image they’ve tried to put out. And I think that, you know, it’s an image that resonates in the U.S. because the U.S. is very scared of terrorism, like beyond, beyond maybe even any rational, rational reason to be that scared of terrorism, and I think that’s what the Saudis are taking up on. They’re trying to play to the biggest fears of the West right now in their justification. PERIES: And when it comes to the cleric Nimr, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, the BBC apparently all came out editorially saying that Nimr had not advocated any violence or attacks on the Saudi government, that he was actually an advocate of nonviolence and encouraged his followers to protest peacefully. But that was not portrayed, in your opinion. JILANI: Yeah, I mean, I think that it was a mixed bag. I mean, it all–these people are rarely 100 percent successful. You know, they’re rarely going to control everyone, and be able to do everything they set out to do. And I think the New York Times was an example this time of an outlet that sort of rose above a lot of what was being put out to other outlets, and that, you know, their editorial actually did object to, to what the Saudis did to the Sheikh. And I think that, you know, like I said, I think that a lot of–I think that there was plenty of information out there, people to make this verification. You know, the human–the two big human rights groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, had monitored the trial of Nimr al-Nimr for months. They have put out a lot of good information. And they also have fairly robust public relations strategy and try to get good information out to people. And I think there are counters to what the Saudis were doing. But I think, again, I think the pernicious thing is that there were people in the United States media quoted several times, over and over, and in large publications, defending the Saudi conduct. And their ties to Saudi Arabia, financial or otherwise, were not disclosed, which is–you know, which is bad. The media should not do that. The media should not provide that kind of information without that context, because it’s an obvious conflict of interest. And I think the Intercept will continue to tackle this Saudi issue, because I think again and again, they have various tactics and influence American policy, debate American policy, whether it’s financing think tanks or placing people in the media, or just having a very, very sort of robust strategy to portray themselves in every public sphere as victims, or as defending themselves against terrorism. Which is, by the way, particularly ironic given the fact that Saudi’s behavior over the past 25-30 years has certainly not been to be adversarial to a lot of extremism. I mean, they’ve helped spread a lot of extremism, whether it be in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, or within Syria itself before it spun out of control. And now they’re, obviously they have a problem with, with ISIS. PERIES: We at the Real News won’t rest, either. We have done a great deal of coverage on Saudi Arabia and will continue to do so, and if Intercept will do this as well we would love to have you back. Zaid Jilani from the Intercept, thank you for joining us. JILANI: Thank you. PERIES: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.