The Media Today

Press freedom comes second to self-interest—again—as Biden lets MBS off the hook

March 1, 2021

On Friday, a day later than expected, the Biden administration made official a fact we already knew: that, in the judgment of the US intelligence community, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder, at a consulate in Turkey in 2018, of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist, columnist for the Washington Post, and US resident. The report that Biden made public was brief and did not contain a smoking gun, but it nonetheless made a damning case. Ahead of time, the decision to release the report was a study in contrasts—it would mark, NBC wrote, “a new chapter in US-Saudi relations and a clear break from Trump’s policy of equivocating about the Saudi state’s role in the brutal murder.” Trump had kept the report under wraps, despite bipartisan pressure from Congress and legal demands mandating its release. He instead put out a statement explaining why he was “standing with Saudi Arabia”: it began “The world is a very dangerous place!” and continued, “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Separately, Trump called Khashoggi’s murder “a very bad original concept,” that was “carried out poorly.” The cover-up, he added, “was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

After Biden released the report, he continued to win points for transparency. On her MSNBC show Friday, Nicolle Wallace called Biden’s decision “exponentially better than the last guy”; her guest Julian E. Barnes, a national security reporter at the New York Times, stressed “that this is a return to the normal state, where a high-confidence conclusion by the CIA is given weight and not dismissed”; facts, Wallace concurred, “are facts again.” But the dominant mood of much coverage was scathing criticism of what Biden did—or rather didn’t do—next. His administration announced that it would be slapping sanctions on dozens of Saudis, but not MBS himself; per the Times, Biden concluded that personally punishing the de facto leader of a close ally would carry unsupportable diplomatic costs (despite having promised, on the campaign trail, to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”). The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer called the decision “pathetic.” The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who knew Khashoggi, wrote that Biden “let a Saudi murderer walk”; members of the Post’s editorial board, who worked with Khashoggi, wrote that Biden had given “what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East in recent years while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history.” On CNN, Jake Tapper asked whether “the difference between Trump bragging about saving MBS’s ass and Biden acting as if he has no choice but to save MBS’s ass” was just words. Ultimately, Tapper noted, MBS’s ass had been saved.

New from CJR: Michael Tubbs on disinformation, racism, and news deserts

The Biden administration didn’t only sanction various Saudis, but simultaneously announced a new category of visa restrictions, called “the Khashoggi Ban,” that Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, pledged to wield, going forward, against agents of any foreign government “who are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists”; on Saturday, meanwhile, Biden said that he would have more to say about Saudi Arabia on Monday. It does seem, though, that MBS is definitively off these hooks. A White House official told Reuters that while the State Department will today “provide more details and elaborate” on its Saudi decisions, it will not make any new announcements. And, touring the Sunday shows yesterday, Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, defended leaving MBS untouched. “Historically—and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations—there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” she said, on CNN.

The sad bottom line here is that when it comes to press-freedom issues, particularly internationally, there is less distance between Trump and Biden than we’d like to believe. Despite his coddling of MBS, Trump already sanctioned lower-level Saudi officials implicated in the Khashoggi killing—and despite his fusillade of “fake news” rhetoric at home, his surrogates commonly wielded press freedom as an American Value abroad when it served their purposes to do so. Vice President Mike Pence pressed Aung San Suu Kyi, the now-deposed leader of Myanmar, to release jailed reporters in 2018; Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, often stressed media freedoms in his dealings with countries including Kazakhstan and Belarus. This is not to defend either man—both abetted all of Trump’s horrors; Pompeo blew up at an NPR journalist and barred her colleague from his plane—but rather to say that Biden and his representatives must clear much higher bars than basic transparency and civility. It’s easier to punish your enemies than your friends; easy, too, to hide behind lame statements about bipartisan precedent. Does a sanctions regime that purports to protect the truth but doesn’t apply to those with the most power really deserve to carry the name of a man who was killed for holding power to account?

According to the Times, one of the key costs of punishing MBS, in Biden’s view, would have been lost Saudi cooperation on Iran. The day before he released the Khashoggi report, Biden targeted that country, albeit indirectly—dropping bombs, for the first time as president, on facilities in Syria with links to Iran-backed militias that previously targeted US troops in Iraq. Wallace, of MSNBC, called the bombing and the release of the Khashoggi report “a show of force coupled with moral clarity” that together constituted Biden’s “boldest moves to date in asserting American leadership on the world stage.” More accurately, they were our clearest reminders to date that the normality for which so many pundits pined is not a moral state at all, but one where strategic self-interest almost always wins out. The release of the Khashoggi report is a good thing—even if we shouldn’t have to rely on the CIA for the truth—but ultimately, diplomatic choices speak much louder than words on a page. We now have one more reason to believe that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing, but the world is still a very dangerous place.

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Below, more on the White House and press freedom around the world:

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Akintunde Ahmad spoke with Michael Tubbs, a rising star in the Democratic Party who surprisingly lost his bid for reelection as mayor of Stockton, California, last year after a local website targeted him with a sustained campaign of lies. Afterward, Tubbs called Stockton “the miner’s canary for the impact of disinformation”; he now plans to work on potential solutions to the problem. “I definitely see myself advocating for policy and really being a voice around the dangers of disinformation and also about the need for local press—the need for a vibrant and free press that’s local, that has trust, that has credibility, that can be as objective as possible and at least bring us to a shared understanding of what the facts are,” he said. (You can also listen to Ahmad’s conversation with Tubbs on The Kicker, by following this link.)
  • Last week, Lindsey Boylan, a former aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, accused him of sexual harassment. Charlotte Bennett, another former Cuomo aide, shared Boylan’s post on Twitter; Jesse McKinley, of the Times, subsequently reached out to Bennett, who agreed to share, on the record, that Cuomo had harassed her, too. Yesterday, Cuomo apologized for behavior that could have been “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” and agreed—eventually—to a fully independent investigation. Even before the allegations, Cuomo was in the thick of a negative news cycle that has contrasted, as I wrote last month, with his hero status of the early days of the pandemic.
  • Zeynep Tufekci, of The Atlantic, makes the case that much pandemic coverage is unduly negative. “We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead,” she writes, but instead, “the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.”
  • Jason Ravnsborg, the attorney general of South Dakota, acknowledged to investigators that he was browsing right-wing conspiracy content on his phone while driving in the minutes before he struck and killed a pedestrian last year. Ravnsborg initially told police that he thought he’d hit an animal, but, per the investigators, the victim’s glasses were found inside Ravnsborg’s vehicle. Timothy Johnson, of Media Matters, has the video.
  • David Brooks, a columnist at the Times, lavished praise on Facebook Groups in a blog post for the platform’s corporate website, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac report. The Times said that editors were not aware of the post, which instead stemmed from Brooks’s work on the Weave Project—an initiative, housed within the Aspen Institute, that has received funding from Facebook. (Brooks was not paid for the post.)
  • Bryan Curtis, of The Ringer, spoke with Catalin Tolontan, a Romanian journalist whose explosive reporting on a health scandal is the subject of Collective, a new documentary. Tolontan, curiously, works for a sports newspaper. As he sees it, “a political investigation that’s sandwiched between match reports is one that’s more likely to be read with an open mind,” Curtis writes. “In a funny way, sports suppresses the public’s passions.”
  • Last week, journalists who worked at Q, a British music magazine that was forced to shutter by the financial wreckage of the pandemic, launched The New Cue, a weekly publication hosted on Substack. Ted Kessler, the former editor of Q, told The Guardian that the new venture is an “evolution” of the final years of Q, when “we had very little to work with, so we were more imaginative”—a period that he found “creatively satisfying.”
  • And New York’s Olivia Nuzzi writes about learning of her mother’s death, from breast cancer, while covering a visit by Jill Biden, the first lady, to a cancer center in Virginia last week. “If you think about it for long enough, any story about the presidency is a story about the meaning of life and, in that sense, a story about death,” Nuzzi writes. “If you stare at it hard enough, ambition can look like running hopelessly away from mortality.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.