Saudi crown prince attracts fresh scrutiny, if not sanction

On Friday, the seemingly endless scandal over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident writer killed in his country’s Istanbul consulate early last month, took another twist. The Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked as an opinion columnist, reported the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) personally ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The paper wrote that the CIA had “high confidence” in its finding despite weeks of Saudi official denial—denial that has been aided and abetted by President Trump.

The scoop renewed calls for Trump to take strong action against MBS and the broader Saudi regime. Two especially strong calls came from Republican senators yesterday. Rand Paul told CBS’s Margaret Brennan that the evidence of MBS’s involvement was “overwhelming” and pushed for a halt to US–Saudi arms deals. Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that it was “impossible for me to believe” that MBS didn’t sanction the murder. “He’s irrational. He’s unhinged,” Graham said. “I have no intention of working with him ever again.”

ICYMI: Jamal Khashoggi, feared murdered, on press freedom in Saudi Arabia

It nonetheless looks likely that the US government will continue to treat MBS with kid gloves. According to the Post, the CIA still sees him as a “good technocrat” likely to retain both his status as heir apparent and the outsize power he has brought to the role. Over the weekend, Trump himself doubled down on the same, awkward line he’s taken since Khashoggi’s killing came to light—mixing non-committal remarks about “taking a look at” at MBS’s role with broader praise for the US–Saudi relationship. He told reporters the kingdom remains “a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development.” And in an extraordinary interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace that aired last night, Trump admitted he hasn’t listened to an audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder that Turkish officials passed to the US. “It’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape,” Trump said. “I’ve been fully briefed on it, there’s no reason for me to hear it.”

Despite promising that a “very full report” on the Khashoggi affair will wrap today or tomorrow, it’s hard to imagine Trump turning on MBS whatever new evidence it might contain. The crown prince’s dismal long-term record on free expression has never been a secret, and MBS’s denials that he ordered Khashoggi’s killing have always looked implausible given its heavy-handed, pre-planned extent.

In the court of global public opinion, however, MBS has been irreparably weakened. The enlightened reformer of so much old coverage is gone—erased by a heavily critical news cycle that, well into its second month, continues to link MBS to a gratuitously brutal crime, and furnish excellent, overdue reporting on other aspects of his power, particularly the deadly war he is prosecuting in Yemen.

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Khashoggi’s murder is clearly no cause for triumphalism: an innocent man is dead, MBS has so far escaped hard consequences, and the arms sales fueling a humanitarian catastrophe look almost certain to continue. But sustained US media scrutiny of MBS and Saudi Arabia is, in its own small way, a victory. When I spoke with Khashoggi in March, he told me he supported some of MBS’s reform program, but that a franker conversation was needed, particularly around MBS’s crackdown on dissent. Tragically, it took Khashoggi’s murder for that wish to come true.

Below, more on the ongoing Khashoggi story:

  • Willful ignorance: The New York Times’s Mark Landler spells out why Trump is sticking by MBS. The president’s remarks on Fox News yesterday, Landler writes, “were a vivid illustration of how deeply Mr. Trump has invested in the 33-year-old heir, who has become the fulcrum of the administration’s strategy in the Middle East—from Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—as well as a prolific shopper for American military weapons, even if most of those contracts have not paid off yet.”
  • Sanctions, and fallout: Last week, the US did levy sanctions against 17 Saudis it said were implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, including senior officials close to MBS. On Friday, a key architect of those sanctions, White House official Kirsten Fontenrose, resigned. Fontenrose may have annoyed foreign policy officials by pushing for a tougher response to the killing, the Times reports.
  • “A methodical, systematic investigation”: Writing for CJR earlier this month, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called on the United Nations to launch an independent inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing, warning that Turkey, which has its own dire record on press freedom, cannot be trusted to investigate alone.
  • Solidarity act: Fox News’s Wallace pushed Trump hard on his anti-media attacks in the interview that aired yesterday, telling the president he is seen around the world as “a beacon for repression.” When Trump said he didn’t view Wallace as an “enemy of the people,” Wallace replied, “We’re all together… When you call CNN, The New York Times… we’re in solidarity.”

Other notable stories:

  • As wildfire continues to ravage Northern California, David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record, criticized the national news media’s response in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter. “I felt a little frustration yesterday, all the national media was here, and it was just for the presidential visit,” Little said. “I just wish the focus was more on the recovery and less on the politics.” ICYMI, CJR’s Amanda Darrach has interviews with Little; two other Enterprise-Record staffers; and Rick Silva, the editor of a different local paper, the Paradise Post.
  • On Friday, Judge Timothy J. Kelly ordered the Trump administration temporarily reinstate Jim Acosta’s press pass on Fifth Amendment grounds, but did not address the First Amendment underpinnings of the case. The White House continued to play hardball over the weekend, telling Acosta his pass will be revoked again once the court order expires, and promising a new code of conduct for reporters. Further hearings are expected in the next few weeks.
  • The fallout from Wednesday’s stunning Times exposé of behind-the-scenes skulduggery at Facebook continues. On a Friday call with employees worldwide, Mark Zuckerberg aggressively defended the company, calling the Times investigation “completely unfair,” and pledging to fire employees who leak to media outlets. In a Saturday op-ed in the Post, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief, confirmed key elements of the Times’s reporting about top executives’ reaction to Russian interference on the platform, but also implicated the intelligence services and news media in the spread of the problem. And yesterday, the Times’s Jim Rutenberg wrote that the warning signs about Facebook were all there in the 2010 film The Social Network.
  • The Post’s Eli Saslow has this must-read story about Christopher Blair, a liberal who runs a satirical right-wing fake news website, and Shirley Chapian, a reader who thinks the content is real and shares it on Facebook. Blair, who makes up to $15,000 a month in ad revenue, started the site “to engage directly with people who spread false or extremist stories and prove those stories were wrong,” Saslow writes. “What Blair wasn’t sure he had ever done was change a single person’s mind. The people he fooled often came back to the page, and he continued to feed them the kind of viral content that boosted his readership and his bank account.”
  • A much-mooted merger between CBS and Viacom could be closed within months, the New York Post’s Alexandra Steigrad reports (a third partner, the video-game publisher Take-Two Interactive, could yet make it a three-way deal). Former CBS boss Les Moonves strongly opposed the merger, but his September resignation following allegations of sexual misconduct has cleared a path forward.
  • For CJR, Lyz Lenz looks at a new format for Axios: “smart brevity” longform. “Despite the Axios language, it all seems a fairly standard online media project: SEO-optimized articles, with lots of links to other pages on the site. The kind that anyone who has worked as a proletariat cog in the machinations of content churn knows very well—the SEO chum bucket of clickbait,” Lenz writes. After it published, Lenz tweeted that Axios CEO Jim Vandehei phoned her and called the piece “dopey.”
  • And Thrillist food writer Kevin Alexander reflects on crowning, then killing, the best burger joint in America. “Apparently, after my story came out, crowds of people started coming in the restaurant, people in from out of town, or from the suburbs, basically just non-regulars,” Alexander writes of Stanich’s in Portland, Oregon. As staff struggled to handle the increased demand, angry customers “had no problem going on Yelp or Facebook and denouncing the restaurant and saying that the burgers were bad.”

ICYMI: Meditations on Axios’s smart brevity longform

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.