/ 8 December 2023

Duelling Western Sahara commentaries expose Washington media swamp things

David Keene
David Keene, the editor-at-large of The Washington Times and former president of the National Rifle Association. (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

In Washington, regional experts have expressed concerns that the authors of two high-profile commentaries on US foreign policy on Western Sahara have potentially serious conflicts of interests that were never declared to readers of one of the most prominent American conservative daily newspapers. 

One of the authors is David Keene, the editor-at-large of The Washington Times and former president of the National Rifle Association. The other is Mark Brnovich, a former Arizona attorney general. Both commentaries were published in The Washington Times.

These opinion articles took stands on polar opposite sides of the US foreign policy debate on Western Sahara.

In a piece headlined King of Morocco’s New Energy Ploy Amounts to Greenwashing Thuggery, Keene presents the government of Morocco as a brutal, colonial occupier that drove the Sahrawi people from their land through military force.

In Hold Algeria Accountable, Too, Brnovich portrays the Polisario Front as a terrorist organisation and calls for the government of Algeria to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

What is truly remarkable about these commentaries is the disclaimers or, to be precise, the lack thereof, that are made about their authors. 

As part of their editorial review, The Washington Times should have noted a seemingly controversial connection between Brnovich and the Attorney General Alliance.

The Attorney General Alliance has been criticised in the media for courting “donations from lobbyists and corporate partners to pay for its lavish conferences and foreign junkets”. This includes trips to Morocco.

To make matters worse, Brnovich has been criticised in the media for the appearance of impropriety in the awarding of seven-figure settlement funds to the Attorney General Alliance

In that incident, the appearance of impropriety revolved, in part, around the fact that a former high-ranking Brnovich staffer left his office to work at the alliance.

When that news story broke, a local reporter revealed that Brnovich had been on at least one foreign junket to Morocco through the Attorney General Alliance.

Similarly, The Washington Times should have noted a seemingly controversial connection between Keene and Carmen Group.

As a former registered lobbyist, it is reported that Keene once represented the Algerian government on behalf of the government affairs consulting firm. That was never declared on his author byline

On the basis of these observations, it is not possible to determine whether these potential conflicts of interest met the seriousness threshold to bar either of these authors from publishing their commentaries. 

However, there certainly appears to be enough information to warrant a careful review by the editorial team, followed by some sort of explicit statement to the readers, at a minimum.

The Washington Times has a responsibility to hold itself to the highest standards in journalistic ethics at all times. 

This is especially the case when it comes to foreign policy-relevant topics that are particularly juicy targets for state-sponsored disinformation, misinformation and lobbying campaigns.

The Washington Times appears to have failed to hold itself to that standard in the case of these duelling commentaries on the Western Sahara. 

This is particularly damning given that one of the authors is identified on their website as one of the former opinion editors of the national newspaper.

This represents a leadership failure that not only harms the national reputation of The Washington Times, it risks a negative halo effect on the global reputation of American media.

Across the US, Americans often complain about the need to drain the swamp. This was a favourite mantra of President Donald Trump and his supporters. 

The problem with that analogy is that this kind of swamp is invisible to the naked eye. 

Another favourite slogan of the American right is, “Let’s go Brandon!”

Among other things, it is used to criticise bias in the media. For conservatives, this typically means liberal bias. 

This is problematic. Bias is not liberal by its nature. 

In his commentary, Keene devoted considerable ink to warning his readers that, “Morocco spends lavishly on Washington lobbyists and has recently been caught bribing elected members of the European Parliament.” That is almost comically ironic.

To Keene, that line was intended to serve as a warning about the malign influence of the Moroccan government.

To a critical reader, the article instead serves as a much bigger warning about editorial standards and journalism ethics on display in American news outlets.

Too often, we talk about the business of journalism when it comes to the American media. We need to spend a little more time on the ethics of journalism as well.

If we gloss over these issues, American media outlets will continue to struggle to outcompete authoritarian state media with foreign audiences.

Media trustworthiness matters.

Mike Walsh is a PhD student serving as a visiting researcher at the University of California Berkeley. Views expressed are his own.