Disclosure: Kevin Gosztola co-hosts the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast with Rania Khalek, who is a contributor for Maffick Media’s Soapbox. “Unauthorized Disclosure” is entirely listener-funded. Shadowproof is member-supported and funded by reader donations.
By Kevin Gosztola
CNN went in search for a story about a Russian-funded digital media project that produces viral videos aimed at undermining American democracy. When CNN journalists could not find what they were looking for, they effectively manufactured the news by giving Facebook a pretext for removing the project’s pages used to share videos. Now, the cable news network had their story.
Four CNN journalists worked on the report, “Russia is backing a viral video company aimed at American millennials.” It appeared online late in the day on February 15 and broke the news that Maffick Media had their Facebook pages for three video channels suspended.
Maffick also produces In The Now, which Facebook took down as well.
Facebook never required pages to include information about their parent companies nor has the social media company ever labeled state-sponsored media, which CNN acknowledged. Yet, since the project involves funding from Russian state media, CNN believed Facebook may want to require the pages to disclose such details.
CNN contacted Facebook on February 13, and Facebook informed CNN they were “contemplating doing something about labeling state-funded media,” according to Donie O’Sullivan, a CNN reporter who worked on the story. The media organization held their story until Facebook took action.
Maffick produces three video channels—Backthen, which explores the history of Western imperialism, Waste-Ed, which covers environmental issues, including climate change, and Soapbox, which covers politics and current events.
As O’Sullivan said during an interview on CNN, “The content was pretty critical of the U.S government, of U.S mainstream media, but nothing that would be totally out of the ordinary necessarily.” Videos made a “lot of legitimate arguments,” and they “weren’t necessarily really hiding their Russian ties.”
“If you were to start Googling these pages, you could quickly work it back to see,” O’Sullivan added.
Journalist Rania Khalek, who produces videos for Soapbox, was interviewed by CNN, along with Maffick Media chief operating officer J. Ray Sparks. The interview took place in Berlin on February 11. However, CNN did not initially contact them.
“CNN was contacting peripheral employees, some of the people in the U.S., one of the camera people that I worked with. They contacted her,” Khalek shared. “And they actually lied to [this person] and told her they had already spoken to me, when they had not.”
According to Khalek, CNN seemed to be interested in whether any Maffick employees were difficult to work with, whether employees or contractors were paid decently, and whether they were leery of the stories they were asked to cover.
J. Ray Sparks contacted CNN to inform them that they were aware the news network was attempting to dig up dirt. Maffick made CEO Anissa Naouai, Khalek, and Sparks available to CNN in the interest of transparency, even though it was clear journalists were looking for material for a hit piece on the project.
Shadowproof was provided with a copy of the unedited interview that CNN conducted with Khalek and Sparks.
More Like An Interrogation By Intelligence Agents Than An Interview
The interview was conducted by CNN correspondent Drew Griffin. In February 2018, Griffin went to the home of a woman in Florida, a private citizen who supported Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and insisted she was duped by Russia when she ran the “Team Trump Broward County” Facebook page.
The page’s events were reportedly promoted by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm operated out of St. Petersburg.
“I don’t go with Russians, c’mon, give me a break,” the woman insisted, while Griffin tried to take away her independence as a campaign supporter and shame her for something out of her control.
The questions asked by Griffin collectively amounted to an interrogation. He went out of his way not to engage with answers to his questions that conflicted with the story CNN was chasing.
Also, Griffin was fishing for very private details involving the business model of Maffick that would help CNN attack the project. Sparks provided answers, despite the fact that the questions were invasive, and the vast majority of U.S. news media outlets would probably refrain from sharing such information with the public.
CNN misquoted Sparks twice. In the print report, they said Sparks claimed it was “standard business practice” not to disclose who owned a Facebook page. That made it seem like Sparks was specifically referring to Maffick and that he was exhibiting a flippant attitude to the question of who funds Maffick. However, Sparks said “standard industry practice” and was making a general point about CNN holding Maffick to a standard most media organizations throughout the world do not follow.
Griffin asked why Maffick tells employees and contractors they are funded by the Russia government but not their audience. “There’s no mention of Russia or Ruptly on the Facebook pages. Why is that?”
“Because that’s standard industry practice,” Sparks replied. “We get this question a lot, and it’s a funny question to me because why does Great Big Story not put CNN on their Facebook page? Why does CNN not put Time Warner on their Facebook page? The audience is not interested in these things.”
Sparks added, “I worked for Comedy Central for many years. No one ever knew that Comedy Central was owned by MTV, and that MTV was owned by Viacom. These were things that you had to discover as a more esoteric audience within the industry. The general audience never is interested in these things, and the standard practice is to just simply not mention them because the audience is not interested.”
Whether Sparks is right or not is insignificant. CNN used a different word so it better suited their story.
[Note: CNN later issued a correction during the weekend after Shadowproof published this report:
“The original version of this article incorrectly quoted Sparks as saying it is ‘standard business practice’ for a media outlet not to disclose its ownership on its Facebook page. He actually referred to ‘standard industry practice’ and ‘standard practice.’”]
Baselessly Accused Of Boosting ‘Kremlin Narratives’
Although Khalek and Sparks detailed their editorial independence at Maffick extensively, Griffin remained incredulous at the reality that officials working at the Kremlin are not dictating what specific stories should be covered. CNN quoted Ben Nimmo, a “senior fellow for information defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab,” to undermine their assertions.
“They routinely boost Kremlin narratives, especially those which portray the West negatively,” Nimmo stated.
He added Maffick’s pages are “broadly anti-U.S. and anti-corporate. That’s strikingly similar to RT’s output. Maffick may technically be independent, but their tone certainly matches the broader Kremlin family.”
The Atlantic Council is a militaristic think tank that receives funding from the U.S. government. In particular, Nimmo holds himself out as some bot hunter, who is an expert at exposing “Kremlin influence networks.” Yet, as journalist Max Blumenthal highlighted in 2018, Nimmo misidentified “several living, breathing individuals as Russian bots or Kremlin ‘influence accounts.’ Nimmo’s victims included Mariam Susli, a well-known Syrian-Australian social media personality, the famed Ukrainian concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa, and a British pensioner named Ian Shilling.”
Khalek told Griffin why her journalism challenges U.S. foreign policy and the power of U.S. corporations.
“I’m an American, right? My priority and my responsibility is to challenge destructive policies [of] the government that I pay tax dollars to. And that’s what I focus on in my videos,” Khalek declared. “I challenge war. I challenge corporate ownership of our government and of our political system. And this is one of the few places that I have where I can actually do that with complete editorial control.”
“Now, if CNN would like to give me a job to spend my time challenging the war industry and corporations, I’d be happy to do that. But that’s just not the case.”
“I have complete editorial control over my work on Soapbox,” Khalek said, prior this comment. “I get to tell the truth about war and corporations, which you don’t get to hear much about in corporate outlets, like CNN, where people oftentimes even get fired for being antiwar. You know, I’d ask, you where was Marc Lamont Hill’s editorial freedom when CNN fired him for telling the truth about Israeli occupation of Palestine?”
Griffin plowed forward as if he was oblivious to what happened to the former CNN contributor, and at no point did Griffin offer any examples, where specific Russian policies were mindlessly championed by Khalek or other Maffick contractors to boost the Kremlin.
Succumbing To Russophobia
It was the German Marshall Fund, which brought records on the ownership of Maffick to the attention of CNN. They also were the source CNN used to back up the notion that Facebook should require Maffick to disclose its ownership.
Bret Schafer, a social media analyst at the German Marshall Fund, said “that he believes most people who see content from the pages on Facebook have no idea it could be tied to Russia.”
“It should be clearly labeled,” he told CNN, “and when they don’t label them, they need to be called out on that.”
The German Marshall Fund receives funds from the U.S. government, and as it states on its website, the fund was founded in 1972 as “a non-partisan, nonprofit organization through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance.”
“GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, D.C., GMF has offices in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.”
The Marshall Plan was a foreign policy strategy adopted in 1947 to expand American dominance in the world. It aimed to expand access to European markets for U.S. businesses and fend off the rise of communism in countries like Italy and France.
One of the German Marshall Fund’s projects is the Alliance For Securing Democracy. It was far more strident in its assessment of Maffick than CNN.
The project’s advisory council includes Michael Chertoff, former Homeland Security Department chief, Bill Kristol, who was a board member of the Project for the New American Century, which pushed for the invasion of Iraq, Rick Ledgett, former NSA deputy director, Mike McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Mike Morell, former acting CIA director, John Podesta, former chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Mike Rogers, former congressman and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, James Stavridis, a former admiral who led European Command, and Jake Sullivan, former national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. (Journalist Glenn Greenwald further detailed the “marriage of convenience” between establishment Democrats and neoconservatives.)
It is the Alliance For Securing Democracy that developed Hamilton 68, a “tracker” it claimed could unearth Russian influence operations. But the individuals involved with Hamilton 68 have refused to share their methodology. They follow accounts “run by people around the world who amplify pro-Russian themes either knowingly or unknowingly,” which means any dissent deemed to be “anti-American” can draw their attention to hashtags worth tracking.
James Carden, a contributor for The Nation, wrote, “Projects like Hamilton 68 are the opposite of what one would expect in an open society like the United States: In essence, it seeks to police and narrow the scope of acceptable political discourse. The implicit message is that Americans should ignore unpleasant news so long as it comes from foreign outlets, regardless of the veracity of the story.”
“That the well-regarded German Marshall Fund has succumbed to the Russophobia now so in vogue across the political spectrum is cause for both sadness and concern,” Carden added.
“Completely In Line With What We’re Hearing From The Kremlin”
Twice Griffin pressed Khalek on her views. He maintained they are “completely in line with what we’re hearing from the Kremlin, especially on Venezuela.”
“Okay, do you have a specific criticism about what I said about Venezuela?” Khalek replied. “The U.S. right now under Trump—the president that CNN is very much against—is currently attempting to launch a right-wing coup in Venezuela and what I see from the mainstream press in the U.S., across the board, is support for that.”
“What I’m interested in is accurate reporting in Venezuela about what’s happening and what the U.S. is doing there,” Khalek continued. “And you know, that might align with this entity or that entity, but that’s not what I care about. What I care about is telling the truth. And I would like to know why CNN isn’t telling the truth about what’s happening in Venezuela.”
Khalek further outlined why this notion of “views aligning with the Kremlin” is dangerous.
Say I’m antiwar. Say that Trump right now is threatening a military intervention against Venezuela. If I oppose that, which the Russian government I think does—and so do other governments in the world. They also oppose it. But if I oppose U.S. war, does that automatically mean I’m going to be accused of being aligned with the Kremlin? And with this Russia hysteria that we’re experiencing now, I feel like this is a very, very dangerous McCarthyist tactic to start saying that leftist views, antiwar views are just the Kremlin government’s talking points.
Immediately following this statement from Khalek, Griffin said, “Business model folks and others who think there’s so much negative publicity surrounding a Russian label, especially in the world of journalistic freedom, that your company is probably purposely distancing itself from any kind of public or branding related to Russia.”
“Is that true? In terms of trying to grow this company and grow these channels, it would be wise that you did not have any kind of connection with Russia available to the public?”
Either Griffin has a lot of gall or is plainly ignorant. Khalek, Naouai, and Sparks granted unprecedented access to their work. Because it did not conform to widespread notions of state-funded media bandied about in Russia investigation coverage, Griffin and others at CNN discounted what was shared.
Griffin stuck to hyping the danger of Russian-funded media so CNN can keep profiting off the panic. So, it is stories like this one that drive media and journalists with ties to Russia underground and pushes them to engage in secrecy for their survival.
The key issue, which CNN deliberately avoids, is one that has been prevalent since 2014, when Abby Martin was an anchor for RT America and spoke out against Russian military aggression in Crimea. She went on Piers Morgan’s show on CNN and told Morgan that RT was no different than any other corporate media station in America.
“We’re talking about six corporations that control 90 percent of what Americans see, hear, and read, lead up to the Iraq War parroting exactly what the establishment said. I mean, you could reflect the exact same criticism on all the corporate media channels,” Martin contended.
As she put it, “RT toes a perspective of the Russian foreign policy just as the entire corporate media apparatus toes the perspective of the U.S. establishment.”
“Why do I have to work for RT to tell the truth about corporations and the U.S. government?” Martin asked. “I mean, seriously, you guys are beholden to advertisers that you cannot criticize.” That is why Martin was working for RT, not CNN.
Until journalists at U.S. media outlets, like CNN, quit projecting images on the cave wall for citizens in order to help the U.S. government maintain its global dominance and insulate government officials from scrutiny, particularly on matters of war, there will always be Americans who seek out jobs with foreign media outlets. They will seek out companies like Maffick to produce dissident journalism, which establishment media organizations refuse to support.
UPDATE: The report was updated on February 18 to reflect details from an interview with Donie O’Sullivan on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” and to include the correction CNN printed after Shadowproof published this report.