BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray today drops news that a number of people writing for a whole host of websites across the political spectrum were doing so on behalf of the Malaysian government. And for their work they were paid handsomely. In other words, they were secretly pawning off talking points from the Malaysian government as their own in exchange for money. This is how some journalists get paid now.
In 2011, then-Politico political reporter Ben Smith accused conservative writer Josh Treviño of working on behalf of special interest groups in Malaysia. Trevino fired back, "I was never on any 'Malaysian entity's payroll,' and I resent your assumption that I was."
Fast forward two years, and today we have Treviño's Foreign Agent Registration Statement [PDF], filed in late January, which states clearly that from 2008 to 2011, Treviño received hundreds of thousands of dollars from "the Government of Malaysia, its ruling party, or interests closely aligned with either." In return, Treviño offered blogging services at a now defunct website, MalaysiaMatters.com, and the promise to "generate and secure placement of opinion pieces in US media." Also named in the filing as "independent contractors" were people like Ben Domenech and Rachel Ehrenfeld, who were paid $36,000 and $30,000, respectively, for "opinion writing." These independent contractors were tasked with writing freelance pieces that propagandized for the Malaysian government and attacked opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and then publishing them in places like the National Review and the San Francisco Examiner and the Huffington Post.
Treviño lost a column with the Guardian last year for his ties to Malaysia, but both he and Domenech allege there was nothing too underhanded about what they were doing (emphasis ours):
"It was actually a fairly standard PR operation," Trevino told BuzzFeed Friday. "To be blunt with you, and I think the filing is clear about this, it was a lot looser than a typical PR operation. I wanted to respect these guys' independence and not have them be placement machines."
Trevino said neither he nor the client knew what the writers were going to write before it went up.
"I provided a stipend to support their work in this area and they would just ping me whenever something went up," he said.
Domenech, a former Washington Post blogger who runs a daily morning newsletter called The Transom, said he "was retained by Josh's Trevino Strategies and Media PR firm in 2010 with the general guidance to write about Malaysia, particularly the political scene there."
"I did not ever have anyone looking over my shoulder for what I wrote, and the guidance really was just to write about the political fray there and give my own opinion," Domenech said. "Of course, Josh picked me knowing what my opinion was—I stand by what I wrote at the time and I continue to be critical of Anwar Ibrahim, who I think is a particularly dangerous fellow."
And why wouldn't Domenech still maintain those old views? He's now got 36,000 reasons to hold a grudge.
Despite the fact that he thinks he's only guilty of operating a "fairly standard PR procedure," Treviño did find it important to apologize to Ben Smith, to whom he outright lied in 2011:
[Image by Jim Cooke]