When Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi visited D.C. in the late 1980s, the Washington press corps swooned. Savimbi, shuttled around in a stretch limo and decked out in a Nehru suit, was hailed as the “charismatic, swashbuckling general” who “stopped Soviet imperialism dead in its tracks in Angola.” Introducing Savimbi at the National Press Club, the Scripps Washington bureau chief said that, in areas under Savimbi’s control, “songs glorify his wisdom and valor.” Meanwhile, back in Angola, Savimbi’s rebel forces were massacring hundreds of people.
It’s easy to pinpoint when all this positive press coverage started. In 1985, Savimbi hired Paul Manafort’s political lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, shelling out $600,000 a year for its services. In return, the firm positioned Savimbi as a “freedom fighter”—a hero poised to root out Communism in a country American officials saw as an important battleground in the Cold War. While a handful of American news outlets called out Savimbi for the “gross human rights violations” that UNITA, Savimbi’s rebel group, was committing in Angola, most gave Manafort what he wanted: the portrait of a leader worthy of millions of dollars of U.S. aid.
I spoke to several Washington journalists who covered Savimbi in the late 1980s. Most of them said they’d known about his terrible human rights record. “One look at this guy, and you knew he was a complete fraud,” said Howard Fineman, former chief political correspondent for Newsweek. So why did so many national media outlets—The Washington Post, The National Review, Reader’s Digest, 60 Minutes—have good things to say about him?
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, much of the Washington press corps struggled to find sources in the new administration. Manafort, and the other partners at his firm, were perfectly positioned. As leaders in the Young Republicans, they had supported Reagan early on, and had played a central role in his 1980 presidential campaign. “They were in the right place at the right time, with a built-in network that was perfect for the Reagan years,” Fineman said. “They were the dark princes of the 1980s.”
Journalists connected to Manafort, Black, Stone, and Kelly had an easier time understanding what was going on in the Reagan administration. You’d never want to use them as your only source for a story, Fineman said, but they’d give you leads you couldn’t find anywhere else. “Anybody with half a brain who looked at these guys knew that they were important, and was interested in what they were selling.”
Manafort, Black, Stone, and Kelly seemed to genuinely connect with journalists. Evan Thomas, former correspondent at Time and editor-at-large at Newsweek, said the feelings were often mutual. “There is a certain class of lobbyist that is very good at the care and keeping of journalists,” Thomas said. “They share their sense of humor, they share their worldliness, they are cynical about their own clients. There is an easy banter, an easy familiarity.” The lobbyists would also learn new things from the journalists. “Each side was using the other.”
When Savimbi came to Washington, journalists had good reason to cover him because of his position in the world. And it certainly didn’t hurt that covering him would help to ingratiate those journalists with the firm’s partners.
Manafort’s firm decided to anchor Savimbi’s 1988 trip to the U.S. with a speech at the Heritage Foundation, the think tank most closely associated with the Reagan administration. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation gave Savimbi a “vaguely intellectual gloss,” said Fineman. Several conservative leaders with close connections to Manafort’s firm, including President Reagan as well as Senate Majority Leader and former Manafort client Bob Dole, either took meetings with Savimbi or publicly praised him. Even if journalists doubted Savimbi’s sincerity, many likely felt obligated to cover a leader who was quickly becoming a darling of the Republican Party. In this way, Manafort’s firm created a feedback loop: Conservative praise for Savimbi begat positive media coverage; positive media coverage begat conservative praise for Savimbi.
Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a D.C.-based investigative journalism nonprofit, had a different theory of why journalists were willing to provide Manafort the kind of coverage he wanted. In the 1980s, Lewis said, “the Washington press corps was, frankly, lazy and asleep.” He told me that, among investigative journalists, this era is widely recognized for its lack of aggressive political coverage.
“The Washington press corps became pretty dutiful,” Lewis said. “Their reporting had just brought down a Republican president, with Watergate. Suddenly you have a very popular president, who won overwhelmingly in 1980. A lot of the press wanted to show that they could do responsible, daily coverage that maybe did not include investigative, “gotcha” journalism.” They wanted to charm the popular president and the people around him.
“It’s about power, and the proximity to power, and—let’s be really direct here—the financial interests of the media.” The Washington press corps’ tendency to bend to the will of Washington elites, Lewis said, was what spurred his decision to move away from mainstream media, and start CPI, in 1989.
A few years later, CPI published “The Torturer’s Lobby,” a report on Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly—and other lobbying firms like it. The report, written by USA Today journalist Pamela Brogan, called Savimbi “a brutal murderer,” and exposed the ways in which Manafort’s firm had propped him up in Washington. But when CPI released “The Torturer’s Lobby,” almost no one would cover it. Two hours before a segment on the report was scheduled to air on ABC, producers decided not to run it. “When they realized what the story was about,” Lewis said, “they killed it on the spot.”
The journalists I spoke with told me that, almost three decades later, Washington journalists and Washington lobbyists are still closely connected. In some cases, they’ve even melded together. According to her LinkedIn profile, Pamela Brogan is now a partner at DC Message Pros, a Washington-based public relations firm. As the media has drastically contracted over the last fifteen years, many former journalists have found work in lobbying or PR.
“These things all become so intertwined,” Lewis said. “Sometimes the media is magnificent and we’re all deeply proud of the profession. Other times, you wince.”
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