Reexamining coverage of MBS after Khashoggi’s disappearance

“There’s a streak in American journalism to allow glittering narratives about budding authoritarians to obscure less appealing facts,” writes The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg in the return of the “Mediator” column. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the budding authoritarian Rutenberg writes of, received glowing press coverage for much of the past year, right up until the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

Salman, known as MBS, consolidated his power last year by arresting several leading Saudi businessmen and political figures, including members of his own family. He then embarked on a calculated media campaign, casting himself as a youthful reformer who planned to modernize the Gulf state. Many American journalists proved receptive to the effort, crediting him with launching an “Arab Spring, Saudi style” and following his every move on a whirlwind US tour that saw MBS meet with big names in business and entertainment.

In the days since Khashoggi’s disappearance, however, the narrative around MBS has sharply turned, with the focus shifting to the Crown Prince’s crackdown on dissent, his kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, and the Kingdom’s ongoing participation in atrocities in Yemen. As reports continue to indicate that the Saudi government played a direct role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, business leaders and media organizations have pulled out of a conference in Riyadh scheduled for later this month.

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

Why it took the disappearance and reported murder of a well-known journalist to expose the lie behind MBS’s reformer façade is a question worth exploring, but for the moment, the focus is still on Khashoggi’s fate. Saudi Arabia has continued to deny any involvement in the matter, but it has provided no evidence that he left its consulate after entering. The case has taken on international relations implications, with pressure mounting on President Trump, who has enjoyed a close relationship with the Saudi government, to take action. “There’s a lot at stake,” President Trump told CBS’s Lesley Stahl in an interview aired Sunday evening. “And maybe especially so because this man was a reporter….You’ll be surprised to hear me say that. There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that were the case. So we’re gonna have to see. We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.” Trump, however, balked at the idea of imposing sanctions that would threaten an arms deal he had agreed upon with the Saudis last year.

As Rutenberg notes, it’s not uncommon for the American media to celebrate foreign leaders who promise reforms only to be forced to reconsider that perception after atrocities are exposed. Both Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi were once held in high esteem before a brutal war and the jailing of journalists led to their respective reevaluations. For MBS, the time for a shift in narrative has clearly come. “When the Crown Prince took over and started talking about wanting to bring reform, it was legitimate for the media and for others to give it a chance and see what happened,” Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told CNN on Sunday. “But I think even for people who wanted to give MBS the benefit of the doubt, this has to be a watershed moment. This is—if the reports are true—a crime of an entirely different caliber. It should not be possible for anybody to go back to business as usual.

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Below, more on Mohammed bin Salman, Jamal Khashoggi, and the media.

  • Duped by a false reformer: MBS played Kushner, Trump and his other American acolytes for suckers,” writes the Times’s Nicholas Kristof. “It’s a disgrace that Trump administration officials and American business tycoons enabled and applauded MBS as he imprisoned business executives, kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, rashly created a crisis with Qatar, and went to war in Yemen.”
  • Saudi coverage: Media in Saudi Arabia are treating Khashoggi’s disappearance as “a foreign conspiracy to denigrate the image of the kingdom,” and have claimed that Qatar, a regional rival, owns The Washington Post, reports The Intercept’s Lee Fang.

 

Other notable stories:

  • One week after the UN released a dire warning about our changing climate, the story has “essentially disappeared from the news,” Politico’s Dan Diamond tweeted. He notes that the Newseum’s collection of Sunday front pages from all 50 states included just one with a story that mentioned climate change. President Trump, questioned by CBS’s Stahl about whether he still thinks climate change is a hoax, admitted that “something’s happening,” but equivocated over whether human activity plays a role, and accused scientists of having a political bias.
  • As part of CJR’s series on coverage of midterm elections, Elizabeth Catte checks in from Virginia, where Republican Corey Stewart is running a failing campaign challenging Senator Tim Kaine. Stewart trafficks in racial demagoguery that has made him unpopular even among other conservative candidates, and Catte writes that “so far, coverage of Stewart reflects a workable mix of ignoring the cheapest shots, reporting significant campaign events, and contextualizing Stewart’s political style and ascendency as a product of a hard-right fringe.”
  • The New Yorker’s Sheelah Kolhatkar has a big piece on the influence of Sinclair Broadcasting, the largest owner of local television stations in the country. She writes that the company’s stations, which include affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, “enjoy the trust of viewers because they appear independent, even though much of the content is dictated at a national level.”
  • The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reports on “the strange story behind the departure of the New York Times’s Baghdad bureau chief.” Margaret Coker left the paper due to what the Times called an “internal personnel matter,” and Wemple reports that her departure “stemmed from a bizarre set of run-ins with her colleague Rukmini Callimachi.”
  • CJR’s Zainab Sultan reports on fact-checking efforts in Brazil amid a hotly contested presidential race. “As Brazil faces one of its most consequential elections in recent times, news organizations are battling the same kind of misinformation that has plagued voting in the US and elsewhere,” she writes.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.