Back in October of last year, several American conservative columnists began covering the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, and particularly defending the ruling party's jailing of the opposition's leader. None of those pundits, who wrote for the right-wing outlets Breitbart, RedState, and Pajamas Media, regularly covered Eastern European politics, and have not returned to the topic since those elections.
So why, exactly, did these small-government-loving and individual-freedom-hawking conservatives support a Ukrainian political party with a sketchy human rights record? Well, why does anyone do anything in the world? For money, a BuzzFeed article earlier today explained, citing one of those pundits:
One of the writers who participated in the campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and because of lingering qualms about the arrangement, they said, described being offered $500 for a blog post praising Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions. The payment was arranged by George Scoville, a libertarian media strategist, and Scoville’s name was on the check, the source said.
Ukraine's propaganda is the second case this year involving right-wing columnists accepting pay for parroting the words of foreign governments. In March, federal tax filings revealed that the Malaysian government had paid The Guardian columnist Joshua Trevino almost $400,000 in March to trump the ruling party's talking points. Trevino then paid several other conservative pundits to write about Malaysia using the same talking points as guidance. In the current case, the Ukrainian talking points were not explicitly from the ruling party itself, but were funneled through a nominally independent group led by Scoville, ostensibly to avoid having to make those same tax filings.
In one example, Breeane Howe of RedState took the framing and some exact wordings from a document sent with talking points for Ukraine. From Buzzfeed (emphasis added):
A document titled “BACKGROUND INFO FOR MESSAGING (NOT FOR PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION)” includes the following: “The current Ukrainian government is also reforming its energy sector to ensure efficient use of its resources and preserve its important role as an energy corridor between the Caspian Basin and Europe — a corridor that is not subject to Russian interference.”
On October 8, Howe wrote: “Ukraine actually has a large reserve of natural gas and serves as an energy corridor between the Caspian Basin and Europe. A corridor which, incidentally, is not subject to Russian interference.”
Those accused in the article, including Breitbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro, Howe, and freelance columnist Warner Todd Huston, admitted to referencing talking points, but denied that they did so for money.
"I found them newsworthy because they involved Hillary, Obama, and/or anti-Semitism,” Shapiro said. Howe, too, responded to the report on Twitter this morning: "Thanks for the concerns re: BuzzFeed smear. I'm at beach w/my family so if you don't mind, I'll be spending time on more important things."
If the report is true, the conservative pundits would be following in a long tradition of foreign countries attempting to take advantage of the open American media. In 1932-33, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter denied the famine in the Soviet Union based on evidence provided by a Soviet propaganda source. And in 1953, the editor and publisher of The New Republic, Michael Straight, covertly worked as an agent of Soviet Communists.
Unlike with those past instances of media influence, modern Ukraine, of course, does not want to promote Communism. But the former Soviet satellite has found an unlikely source of media help in American conservative pundits, and as long as those talking points in some way criticize U.S. liberals, they will likely continue to find landing spots for their ideas.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.