Malaysia Buys Bloggers, Forgets to Haggle Over Price

The government of Malaysia paid a lot of money to get some blogs placed at various outlets.

blogging

The government of Malaysia paid a lot of money to get some blogs placed at various outlets.

Rosie Gray, BuzzFeed (“Covert Malaysian Campaign Touched A Wide Range Of American Media“):

A range of mainstream American publications printed paid propaganda for the government of Malaysia, much of it focused on the campaign against a pro-democracy figure there.

The payments to conservative American opinion writers — whose work appeared in outlets from the Huffington Post and San Francisco Examiner to the Washington Times to National Review and RedState — emerged in a filing this week to the Department of Justice. The filing under the Foreign Agent Registration Act outlines a campaign spanning May 2008 to April 2011 and led by Joshua Trevino, a conservative pundit, who received $389,724.70 under the contract and paid smaller sums to a series of conservative writers.

Trevino lost his column at the Guardian last year after allegations that his relationship with Malaysian business interests wasn’t being disclosed in columns dealing with Malaysia. Trevino told Politico in 2011 that “I was never on any ‘Malaysian entity’s payroll,’ and I resent your assumption that I was.”

According to Trevino’s belated federal filing, the interests paying Trevino were in fact the government of Malaysia, “its ruling party, or interests closely aligned with either.” The Malaysian government has been accused of multiple human rights abuses and restricting the press and personal freedoms. Anwar, the opposition leader, has faced prosecution for sodomy, a prosecution widely denounced in the West which Trevino defended as more “nuanced” than American observers realized. The government for which Trevino worked also attacked Anwar for saying positive things about Israel; Trevino has argued that Anwar is not the pro-democracy figure he appears.

The federal filing specified that Trevino was engaged through the lobbying firm APCO Worldwide and the David All Group, an American online consulting firm. The contract also involved a firm called FBC (short for Fact-Based Communications), whose involvement in covert propaganda prompted a related scandal and forced an executive at The Atlantic to resign from its board.

According to the filings, Trevino was also employed to write for websites called MalaysiaMatters and MalaysiaWatcher.

Trevino’s subcontractors included conservative writer Ben Domenech, who made $36,000 from the arrangement, and Rachel Ehrenfeld, the director of the American Center for Democracy, who made $30,000. Seth Mandel, an editor at Commentary, made $5,500 (his byline is attached to the National Review item linked to above). Brad Jackson, writing at the time for RedState, made $24,700. Overall, 10 writers were part of the arrangement.

Naturally, this is causing quite a stir. First, Trevino lied about this when it was first raised and got him fired from the Guardian. Second, to the extent the writers in question seek to be viewed as credible analysts, the extent to which what they write in the future should be taken as their honest opinion is naturally suspect.

To be sure,  as Glenn Reynolds has long argued,  blogging is by its nature a low trust environment.

The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.

That’s because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren’t linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that’s impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.

(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in — nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that’s been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress — except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).

You can also refine your arguments, updating — and even abandoning them — in realtime as new facts or arguments appear. It’s part of the deal.

This also means admitting when you’re wrong. And that’s another difference. When you’re a blogger, you present ideas and arguments, and see how they do. You have a reputation, and it matters, but the reputation is for playing it straight with the facts you present, not necessarily the conclusions you reach. And a big part of the reputation’s component involves being willing to admit you’re wrong when you present wrong facts, and to make a quick and prominent correction.

When you’re a news anchor, you’re not just putting your arguments on the line — you’re putting yourself on the line. Dan Rather has a problem with that. For journalists of his generation, admitting an error means admitting that you’ve violated people’s trust. For bloggers, admitting an error means you’ve missed something, and now you’re going to set it right.

By this standard, blog posts can be judged solely on the basis on the quality of the facts and arguments marshaled therein. But bloggers develop a reputation over time based not only on the quality of their collected posts but on how they respond to new information, arguments that they hadn’t previously considered, and so forth.

In full disclosure: I indirectly took money from APCO Worldwide years ago, as they were the principal behind the old Tech Central Station and TCS Daily sites. But, while they likely wouldn’t have published my pieces if they weren’t generally pro-business, it was a standard pitch-and-write relationship. That is, I sent either a precis or completed article to Nick Shultz and he either green-lighted or rejected it; occasionally, he’d make suggestions, which I’d either incorporate or not. The relationship was no different than the one I’ve had since with magazines published by traditional media companies. I also had some contact with David All many years ago, first when he was a Communications Director for a Republican Congressman and later when he was getting the David All Group started. He may have paid for a beer at a happy hour one time.

That all said, I’m more than a little leery of a pay-for-play arrangement. It’s hard for opinion writers, even good ones, to get paid. So I’m not four-square against bloggers taking money for writing posts supporting causes they already agree with. But it’s problematic, not to mention rather weird, for writers to suddenly start crusading on an issue they never cared about previously and which seems remote to their natural interest.

What’s particularly odd about this one is that, with the possible exception of Trevino, none of these bloggers are foreign affairs guys. Why would the government of Malaysia pay out some half million dollars to Trevino and his band of merry contractors to crank out content about Malaysia and post them to readerships that couldn’t point out Malaysia on a map? Aren’t there actual Malaysia experts who would be able to write credibly on the matter who hold views sympathetic to the government?

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    James,
    You seem to be treating Trevino and his cronies as “bloggers who sold their credibility”. What you’re really looking at are scam artists who were slumming it as bloggers. It’s a subtle, but important, distinction…




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  2. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @legion:
    Grifters gonna grift..




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  3. Andre Kenji says:

    And Domenech was fired from the Washington Post due to plagiarism.




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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Aren’t there actual Malaysia experts who would be able to write credibly on the matter who hold views sympathetic to the government?

    Is it possible that any one who is an expert on Malaysia knows the inherent corruption of the Malaysian gov’t? So to be pro- Malay gov’t is to be pro-corruption?




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  5. Woody says:

    The Buzzfeed article was funny to read, but before we convene another blogger ethics panel (thank you Mr Black), I seem to remember multiple traditional media giants (Tom Friedman, for one) being compensated stupendous sums of money as honoraria or speaking fees to all sorts of interest groups over the years. Many of these lucrative assignations are never disclosed to their readers.

    I simply do not see why bloggers have committed sin here, while the big boyz are given dispensation.




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  6. @Woody: Don’t forget the conservative pundits that were paid to promote the “No Child Left Behind Act”.




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  7. Nick says:

    I simply do not see why bloggers have committed sin here, while the big boyz are given dispensation.

    Who says they are exempted? The key points here are the price, which is eye popping for about a dozen not-too-influential articles, and Trevino’s admission that this is a very common practice. It seems obvious the price is much higher for the big boyz.




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  8. Isn’t anyone going to mention that these guys broke the law? Apparently DoJ let Trevino off, but acting as the agent of a foreign power and failing to register as such is a crime.




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  9. @Mark A.R. Kleiman: IOIYAR.




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  10. de stijl says:

    @Woody:

    Friedman (as far as I know) wasn’t being paid to shill for a foreign government in his newspaper column.

    Speaking to someone who is paying you on honoraria and writing an article (or blog post) for hire are two different animals. Especially when you do not disclose that you are a paid agent of the foreign government about which you’re writing about.

    Lanny Davis commonly shills for dictators and countries with wretched human rights records, but at least he registered those arrangements with the FARA, so one knows to basically ignore any of his commentary on those countries.




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  11. Andre Kenji says:

    @de stijl:

    Friedman (as far as I know) wasn’t being paid to shill for a foreign government in his newspaper column.

    He does that for free.




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  12. Barry says:

    James, you’re quoting Glenn ‘Heh’ Reynolds on the credibility of bloggers?
    The man’s been shot down so many times that he’s an negative ace of negative aces by now, but I’ll bet he still counts as one of the 1% of (non-corporate) blogs.




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