Who could’ve known, prior to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, that there was anything ethically queasy about doing business with ― or acting as a straight-up paid agent of ― the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Besides anyone with a functioning moral core and a passing familiarity with the history of the regime, that is ― a category that doesn’t seem to have included the editors of The Washington Post, the newspaper Khashoggi regularly contributed to.
As the Post reported in its own recent story on the scope of the Saudi “influence machine,” two of the paper’s regular opinion writers, Ed Rogers and Carter Eskew, were connected to lobbying firms with contracts with the Saudis. The newspaper “told them they could not continue to write for The Post and lobby for Saudi Arabia,” and both of their firms dropped their Saudi clients. We have heaped well-deserved scorn on men like Eskew and Rogers for only realizing that it’s bad to take money from a repressive absolute monarchy with a mile-long body count once that count included one of their colleagues. But I think we have let the Post off too easy for only instituting a “don’t be quietly cashing checks from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia while we publish what are supposed to be your expert opinions” policy after the monsters paying some of their columnists on the side executed a different one.
A certain brand of swampy amorality has long defined the Washington Post opinion section under editor Fred Hiatt. It is a section that, to its credit, has habitually published writers representing a broader ideological spectrum than the voices featured in The New York Times, including actual avowed (democratic) socialists. But, much less to its credit, the other side of that spectrum has tended to include people like Marc Thiessen, one of George W. Bush’s many odious former speechwriters, who was hired at the paper immediately upon publication of his dishonest and morally repulsive book defending his former boss’ torture program.
So perhaps it is actually not that surprising that the Post published both Khashoggi and a few Blob denizens who were also on the payroll of the people who’d eventually kill him. The normalcy of that arrangement only highlights how profoundly unmoored elite Washington is from any coherent sense of virtue.
Because Official Washington is awash in unclean money, because so many people are on the take, it did not seem ridiculous or embarrassing for the primary daily newspaper of the nation’s capital to pay people to produce opinion-writing who were also, simultaneously, representing their influence-peddling shops, which had contracts with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Davos Man’s favorite Middle East reformer, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has, if anything, only become more authoritarian and intolerant of dissent. It has imprisoned scores of activists, including more than a dozen women’s rights activists ― while winning positive write-ups in the U.S. for acquiescing to the campaign launched by those activists and allowing women to drive cars. It has been engaged in a brutal and genocidal war against Yemen, starving its people and indiscriminately bombing civilians. It kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon and seemingly threatened to do another 9/11 to Canada on Twitter. All of this was very easy to find, if one chose to do a quick Google search before signing a contract with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to help its public image in Washington; most of this information is on the prince’s Wikipedia page.
And they have been arresting journalists, too ― usually the final straw for American journalists who refuse to pass judgment on abuses of power until one of their own is affected ― with a prominent columnist sentenced to five years in prison for “insulting the royal court.” You might’ve read about the columnist’s arrest in Jamal Khashoggi’s Jan. 3 column for The Washington Post. Meanwhile, Glover Park Group, the lobbying firm founded by Eskew, was pulling in $150,000 lobbying for Saudi Arabia. And Rogers’ lobbying shop, BGR Group, soon began billing the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia $80,000 a month, plus expenses, to “provide public relations and media management services,” along with “government relations work.” (It was not the first such contract: BGR Group had done lobbying work for Saudi Arabia as far back as 2016.)
In a signed editorial after Khashoggi’s death, Hiatt asked everyone who works for the Saudi Arabian government, “Why do you work for a murderer?” The Post issued ultimatums to Eskew and Rogers, and both of their firms dropped the kingdom as a client. But it certainly took a long time for Hiatt to ask that question of his own writers.
Imagine yourself a newspaper editor, in charge of the opinion section for the capital city of the world’s leading hegemon. What audience does it serve to give a platform to a paid agent of a repressive theocratic monarchy ― paying him to write replacement-level columns like “Trump’s distractions overwhelm Republicans’ economic success” and “Democrats and the liberal media are afraid of Kanye West”? These are the keen insights of a longtime political veteran, and also a person who advertises ― right there in his author bio! ― that his purported ability to influence people is literally for sale. Who is this for? It doesn’t seem to be intended to make any normal reader smarter, sharper or better informed.
Why should any lobbyist ― any professional influence-peddler ― be a columnist anywhere? But if they must be, why did it take so long to draw the line at ones who work for tyrants?