Newsguard, the beltway establishment-backed “news rating” browser plugin that assigns websites a green or red rating based on their “trustworthiness,” claims to care about integrity in news. But one of the project’s top investors operates a D.C.-based subsidiary that has been trying to manipulate American news media on behalf of Saudi Arabia and its brutal military intervention in Yemen.
Navigate to Newsguard’s website and you’ll be greeted with a slogan that proudly proclaims “restoring trust and accountability.”
Yet do a little digging on that same website, and you’ll discover that Newsguard’s third-largest investor is Publicis Groupe, a Paris-based advertising multinational whose subsidiaries include a vast range of P.R. firms whose sole purpose is to spin the news and influence the public on behalf of corporate clients.
Among these P.R. firms is Qorvis Group, a Washington, D.C.-based outfit whose clients include Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Bahrain. The firm has represented Saudi Arabia since the aftermath of the September 11 attacks when the Sharia-run country was desperate to protect its image amidst revelations that 15 of the 19 attacking terrorists were Saudi nationals.
The Saudis were serious about too: in a seven-month period between March and September 2002, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia spent an eye-popping $14.7 million on Qorvis’ services.
The money was well-spent — Qorvis launched a media blitz on behalf of the Saudis.
Via Mother Jones:
Qorvis launched a TV campaign with ads on political talk shows featuring a procession of Saudi royals appearing alongside U.S. presidents, to highlight Riyadh as a close ally. Other TV spots, which ran in 14 American cities, touted the “shared values” of the United States and Saudi Arabia. The firm also shuttled Saudi officials on whirlwind tours of major media outlets, and broadcast ads promoting the 9/11 Commission finding that there was “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded [Al Qaeda]”—while omitting the report’s conclusion that “Saudi Arabia has been a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism.” The PR blitz helped reduce the number of anti-Saudi articles and speeches, says McCauley, which allowed the Bush administration to keep ties to the kingdom close.
The P.R. campaign worked — despite former senators who served on the 9/11 commission now claiming significant links between the 9/11 attackers and Saudi Arabia, media attention (following the lead of the Bush Administration) in the aftermath of 9/11 instead shifted to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. We all know how that ended.
Qorvis continues to represent Saudi Arabia, and more recently promoted its brutal war in Yemen, which has featured numerous alleged human rights violations, including the use of cluster bombs to attack civilian locations. The Trump administration has stubbornly supported the Saudi intervention in Yemen, but bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and House have both resolved that the U.S. support lacks congressional authorization.
The Intercept describes how Qorvis tried to shape American public opinion in favor of Saudi Arabia’s policy.
The Saudi Embassy’s effort to shape media coverage is led by Qorvis, a consulting firm that has worked for the Saudi government since the months following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Qorvis’ recent disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that it created an entire website — operationrenewalofhope.com — to promote the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It also “researched potential grassroots supporters in select states” and provided an ongoing effort to reach out to reporters concerning the Yemen war.
In July, the Saudi Embassy announced the launch of Arabia Now, an “online hub for news related to the Kingdom,” according to a press release. Since then, the site has work to promote Saudi Arabia as a bastion for human rights and progress, with posts claiming that the Kingdom is the “most generous country in the world.” While Saudi Arabian war ships blocked humanitarian assistance to Yemen, the Arabia Now news hub claimed that “Saudi Arabia was the only country that responded to the humanitarian assistance appeal launched by the U.N. to help Yemen by extending a donation of $274 million.”
Recently filed disclosures show that Targeted Victory, a consulting firm founded by Zac Moffatt, a GOP strategist who served as digital director for Mitt Romney’s campaign, has helped to manage Arabia Now. Moffatt’s firm was brought on by Qorvis.
Arabia Now does not currently have a rating from NewsGuard — but users of the browser extension have an option to submit the site for review.
One website that does have a rating from NewsGuard (green for Real News!) is far-left Newsweek, which ran an article from Saudi Arabia’s then-foreign minister in 2016, talking up the kingdom’s efforts to fight terrorism. The article was placed by Qorvis.
Naturally, the Saudi Arabian propaganda piece gets a green “trustworthy” tick from NewsGuard.
Given NewsGuard’s large number of Bush Administration alumni, and other assorted members of the beltway establishment elite, it’s unsurprising that they wouldn’t have a problem associating with Qorvis. The Bush Administration’s ties to Saudi Arabia are well-documented (mostly by the left, when they still opposed the establishment).
But any American, left or right, who is not a member of the same insular group is likely to have difficulty believing that a project linked to Saudi Arabia’s favorite spin artists has a shot at restoring “trust and accountability” to the media.
Responding to Breitbart News’ request for comment, NewsGuard co-founder Steven Brill denied that the association of Qorvis’ parent company with NewsGuard would undermine public trust in the project.
“Publicis has nothing to do with the content or operations of NewsGuard and has a small stake in the company” said Brill. “Gordon [Crovitz] and I have the controlling interest.”
Allum Bokhari is the senior technology correspondent at Breitbart News.