Karen Attiah: The Atlantic’s Elevation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Is an Insult to Journalism

From a Washington Post column by Karen Attiah headlined “The Atlantic’s elevation of MBS is an insult to journalism”:

In 2018, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embarked on a cross-country, getting-to-know-you tour of the United States, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi sent me a warning on WhatsApp: “I think America is brainwashed.”

The idea behind the visit — during which MBS, as the crown prince is known, met with everyone from President Donald Trump to Oprah Winfrey, with stops at media outlets, including The Post — was to present MBS as the modern, youthful face of reform in Saudi Arabia. But as he smiled for the cameras and dined in the Hollywood hills, Saudi Arabia was jailing critics, had started a destabilizing spat with Qatar and was bombing Yemen.

Seven months later, Jamal was murdered by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul.

MBS was swiftly condemned and ostracized — but something told me this wouldn’t last long.

Now we have proof.

Washington media has a long history of cooking up overbaked puff pieces on murderous autocrats — especially when those autocrats are key U.S. allies. The Atlantic’s April cover story, “Absolute Power,” about MBS — which was written by Graeme Wood and included interviews conducted along with the magazine’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg — is part of this tradition, a case study in everything that is wrong with access journalism and the immoral fixation on powerful, brutal men.

Early in the article, Wood performs intellectual gymnastics to try to justify the lengthy whitewashing to come. “I’ve been traveling to Saudi Arabia over the past three years, trying to understand if the crown prince is a killer, a reformer, or both,” Wood writes.

The piece checks all the boxes of everything wrong with so much journalism about Saudi Arabia under MBS. There are the attempts to make MBS relatable (“The crown prince was charming, warm, informal, and intelligent”; “he eats breakfast every day with his kids”). We learn insightful details such as how he prefers “Game of Thrones” (a show with a heavy doses of palace intrigue and medieval brutality? Who knew!) to “House of Cards.”

The piece does include some pointed criticism, such as saying MBS has created an unprecedented climate of fear and repression in Saudi Arabia. But it appears to fit as part of an appealing male-domination narrative that sells in the United States. After all, it was Wood who also wrote a profile of white supremacist Richard Spencer that described him as looking “like the scion of a Montana banking family, dressed up and ready to film a commercial in a log cabin, assuring local ranchers that their deposits would be safe with him.”

Most sickeningly, the Atlantic gave MBS a platform to not only continue his absurd denials of having anything to do with Jamal’s murder (even though it was carried out by figures in his close circle and the CIA concluded he gave the order to capture or kill), but also to present himself as the real victim. “The Khashoggi incident was the worst thing ever to happen to me,” the magazine reported that MBS has told people close to him. The murder “hurt me and it hurt Saudi Arabia, from a feelings perspective.”

It would have been one thing for the Atlantic to drill MBS on his role in Jamal’s assassination. Instead, MBS was allowed to denigrate Jamal, saying he wasn’t important enough to kill. “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.” It’s hard to imagine that they would have done this if Jamal had been American.

The profile has very little pushback on Yemen (where the Saudi-led war has caused a humanitarian crisis that has killed as many as 85,000 children) or about the many dissidents and activists languishing in Saudi jails.

When I reached out to the magazine for comment, a spokesperson said that “we encourage people to read Graeme Wood’s story for themselves. The 12,000-word piece addresses issues about Saudi governance, religion, and society, and also addresses various manifestations of MBS’s autocratic and repressive rule.”

The comment was a classic dodge. “Read the article” is not an answer to why they decided to platform a tyrant. Maybe the Atlantic thought MBS’s own blatant lies and narcissism would be enough to condemn him in the eyes of readers.

But all they did was show themselves to be mere tools in MBS’s campaign to restore his image. The long piece recycles the same narrative MBS has been promoting for years — that he alone is standing between modern Saudi Arabia and the religious conservatives. The writing is also sprinkled with dashes of orientalism, such as the astonishment of watching “Zombieland: Double Tap” in a theater next to a woman who had sneakers or seeing foreigners on flights on their way to Comic-Con. There is little about the Saudi regime’s AstroTurf campaign to shower celebrities, influencers and PR firms with gobs of money to populate their events and post on social media about their experiences.

But more crucially, the piece reinforces a superficial view of power and treats the Saudi people as an afterthought. Influential figures such as the jailed cleric Salman al-Awda — who arguably held much more influence throughout the entire Middle East with his progressive reformist views before MBS came on the scene — are given just a passing mention. Loujain al-Hathloul, the women’s rights activist who was freed from jail, is given just a few throwaway lines. There is little engagement with their visions for Saudi Arabia, women’s rights and Islam — which they had the space to express before MBS came on the scene.

“Absolute Power” is an insult to Jamal’s memory and to journalism. When history looks back at this period, this Atlantic piece will shine as an example of how the path to the resurgence of brutal, global authoritarianism is paved in no small part by the worst aspects of access journalism in the United States.

Karen Attiah is a columnist for The Washington Post. She writes on international affairs, culture and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curacao, Ghana and Nigeria.

Also see a response from Graeme Wood on theatlantic.com headlined “Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats”:

Thursday morning, after the publication of my profile of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the April issue of The Atlantic, Saudi Arabia’s propaganda machine cranked into operation. For the rest of the day, I watched it work: attempting to hide the uncomfortable parts (in my article I made numerous observations that would get a Saudi journalist imprisoned or worse), amplifying the parts the government liked, and straight-up lying about others.

Two Saudi insiders have told me that my access to Saudi Arabia is finished after the story’s publication, and that the crown prince will “never” see me again.

The government also leaked to the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya an edited—and scrubbed—transcript of the interview with MBS that I’d conducted alongside The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. The official Saudi edits were helpful, because close comparisons between their versions and what was actually said will direct you to what the crown prince’s media team wishes to suppress—a guide, curated by the government, to the interview’s juicy bits (or at least the ones they thought they could get away with deleting from the record).

Here are some differences:

  • We pressed MBS on the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and MBS made a number of galling and bizarre claims—including the notion that, no, he did not order Khashoggi’s death but that if he were to send a hit squad, he’d send a top-notch group, not the bumblers in Istanbul. “If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000.” The Saudis detected the O.J.-like “If I Did It” notes in this response and changed it to “If we assume for argument’s sake that we’re going to go for an operation like that, it would have been professional and someone on the top of the list.” The Arabic version adds “God forbid!” (la samah Allah), a nice passing-the-smelling-salts touch.

  • During the interview, MBS claimed to us that he’d “never read a Khashoggi article.” Khashoggi was a very prominent dissident, and they had met personally. The Saudi transcript backs off that implausible claim, and says he never read a “full” article by Khashoggi.

  • We asked how MBS could justify imprisoning those who’d dissented from his near-blockade of Qatar after he himself had reversed his Qatar policy, with hardly an explanation, months before our conversation. He said Qatar and his country are now “very, very close” but told us that Saudis who supported Qatar during the boycott were like Americans who may have supported Nazis during the Second World War. “What do you think [would have happened] if someone was praising and trying to push for Hitler in World War II?” he asked. The Saudi transcript erases the comparison of his Qatari counterpart, a recent guest at MBS’s palace on the Red Sea, to Adolf Hitler.

  • MBS dilated on the question of Islamic law, and he told us that even crimes whose punishments are divinely mandated would not be prosecuted vigorously. “Even if there is a divine punishment for fornication, the way that we should prosecute it is as the Prophet did. We should not try to seek out people and prove charges against them. You have to do it the way that the Prophet taught us how to do it.” The official transcript erases this comment, which would be incendiary to Islamists, because it calls into question the point of criminalizing antique crimes like fornication at all.

  • I asked whether alcohol would ever be sold legally in Saudi Arabia, and I received no reply. In this case my words are stricken from the transcript, presumably because his refusal to answer this question suggests such a change is possible. (Islamists noticed his non-answer and bemoaned the arrival of Heineken “in the land of the two Holy Mosques.”).

As every chef knows, the ingredients make the meal, but the art is in what you do with them. From the interview the Saudis prepared a propaganda feast, snipping out the crown prince’s less controversial comments and adorning them with his smiling face and, on social media, the hashtag #meetingthecrownprince. Propaganda is tedious, and within minutes of the story’s debut, my social feeds were chloroformed by Saudi sources sharing the “BREAKING” news that the crown prince had spoken and said he intended to continue the kingdom’s economic development.

Then it became more interesting. The Saudi Posttweeted an account of the interview that purported to be in my voice:

“When [The Atlantic’s] team went to meet the Crown Prince in his palace in Riyadh, we had heard bad things about him abroad, especially from the son of [the exiled Interior ministry official] Saad al-Jabri, who fed us false information about him. When we met him face to face, we were amazed: We saw only a humble, outspoken, strong, and very smart leader.”

This tweet and many like it are fictitious—and although I observed in our meeting that MBS is personally smart and cordial, my article notes that it was not his intelligence but his self-pitying megalomania that stupefied us.

By the time you assess what has happened in one skirmish of the media war, another has begun. Saudi English speakers could read the article for themselves—and would immediately know, upon its opening paragraphs’ description of forbidden subjects like the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, the climate of fear and oppression, torture and imprisonment of dissidents, and the crown prince’s facial tic, that they could not disseminate the substance of the article without personal risk.

Various Saudis of prominence tweeted positively about the article—and thereby showed that they had not read it. One Twitter user reported, “I just finished reading [it], and I swear to God, without exaggeration, the most beautiful article I’ve read about an important Arab figure! The article makes you feel the strong personality of Prince Muhammad bin Salman 💚.” That is the general approach to bad news. Pretend it is good news. Lie. Flood the zone with what you like, and ignore what you do not. A writer cannot stop an autocrat from running his work through the propaganda machine. But that doesn’t mean autocrats should never be written about or asked questions. The fact that they try to claw back quotes and invent stories that do not exist shows they fear the story that does exist, and that exhibits their leader’s delusions and self-regard in his own words.

Many Saudis do read English, or know how to use Google Translate. Some, mostly overseas, have written kind and polite notes, expressing disagreement with some parts and agreement with others. Exiles who cannot return have done the same. Fans of MBS also send me little valentines. “Fuck you, dog,” one wrote this morning. “Shut fuck up you little boy. This [is] the GREAT KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA.” The Saudi flag icon after a username greatly increases the probability of incoming verbal abuse.

And of course obtuseness is not an exclusively Saudi vice. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor, wrote that my profile “couldn’t be more sympathetic if [MBS’s] own press team had written it.” “Access journalism”! cried Elizabeth Spiers, a journalism professor at New York University, perhaps unaware that “access journalism” is meant to increase access to one’s subject rather than end it.

Various journalists complained that I described MBS as personally “charming” and “intelligent.” To this my reply is twofold. First, MBS was indeed charming and intelligent, and if you want me to say otherwise, then you want to be lied to. Second, if you think charm and intelligence are incompatible with being a sociopath, then your years in Washington, D.C., have taught you less than nothing.

Any publication bragging that it is too sanctimonious to accept an invitation to interview the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is admitting it cannot cover Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic is not in the business of sanctimony, and it expects its readers to understand, without being told, that someone who dwells on his own indignities as the result of a murder, rather than on the suffering of the victim, might not be the perfect steward of absolute power.

All journalism is an attempt to bring readers things they do not know, and all interviews with heads of state involve getting them to say things they wish they had not said. To elicit these utterances, one must approach the subject sideways—and, most of all, keep him talking, and reveal more than he intends to say. “Giving a platform”—to use the cliché that imprisons the minds of those who don’t know how journalism is done, or what its purpose is—is not a favor bestowed on important people. It is an invitation to walk the boards and fall through trap doors. And that is exactly what Saudi officials themselves, whose past two days have been spent desperately fluffing pillows for a soft landing below, seem to think their ruler did.

Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

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