Monday, October 17, 2016

Mother Jones' Very Familiar Haim Saban Article

Today, I came across a very long investigative piece in Mother Jones by Andy Kroll of The Nation Institution on the connections between Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban and Hillary Clinton. As I was reading it, I couldn't help but think it sounded very familiar. Was it an older article, moved to the top of MoJo's front page because it became topical? No, it's slated for the magazine's November/December 2016 issue. Did I somehow come across an early release copy? I don't think so -- where would I have gotten my hands on that? Yet the feeling persisted and persisted, until I got to this segment:
Saban says he still believes in a two-state solution, but his all-consuming concern is defending Israel and fortifying its relationship with the United States. "For me," he said several years ago, "bringing the American president closer to the people of Israel is a life goal."
One year at the Saban Forum, an annual conference featuring top officials and public figures from the United States and Israel (with the odd Arab leader), the mogul outlined his three-pronged approach for influencing American politics: fund political campaigns, bankroll think tanks, and control the media. In addition to the Saban Forum, he funded a Brookings Institution research center focused on US-Israeli relations. He has tried for years to buy media outlets in the United States and Israel; it wasn't a profit he was after, per se, but "a return with influence," as he once told a journalist.
That did it: I knew I had seen something like that line before (right down to "control the media"). And so I looked into it, and realized I had indeed read such an article -- in 2010 in the New Yorker, where Connie Bruck had published her own long profile piece on Saban. Compare the passage above to one from that article:
[Saban] remains keenly interested in the world of business, but he is most proud of his role as political power broker. His greatest concern, he says, is to protect Israel, by strengthening the United States-Israel relationship. At a conference last fall in Israel, Saban described his formula. His “three ways to be influential in American politics,” he said, were: make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets. In 2002, he contributed seven million dollars toward the cost of a new building for the Democratic National Committee—one of the largest known donations ever made to an American political party. That year, he also founded the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. He considered buying The New Republic, but decided it wasn’t for him. He also tried to buy Time and Newsweek, but neither was available. He and his private-equity partners acquired Univision in 2007, and he has made repeated bids for the Los Angeles Times.
Huh. Yes, I'd say "familiar" is one way to describe the relationship between those two passages. (The New Yorker profile is mentioned -- but not linked to -- once much deeper in Kroll's essay, on an unrelated point). That's probably the most stark overlap, but by and large Kroll's piece reads as basically a slightly rewritten and updated rehash of Bruck's older profile.

While we're on the subject, I remain curious about the "control the media" line. Obviously, "politically active Jewish billionaire says he wants to 'control media outlets'" is rather fraught territory to tread on. It would be one thing if Saban actually said as much -- and hey, brash Hollywood executives have been known to say alarming things -- but you'll note that it isn't actually placed in quotations (the "three ways to be influential in American politics" are apparently a direct quote, but the actual list is Bruck's paraphrase).

Kroll doesn't give a source for his own paragraph -- it certainly seems to track Bruck's closely -- and now we have two sources attributing to a powerful Jewish figure a desire to "control the media" without any indication of what, precisely, Saban said. And again -- maybe he did use the word "control". But the lack of a direct quote here is noteworthy given the decision to describe his position in terms that smack of a classic anti-Semitic trope. If Kroll -- who matter-of-factly describes Saban's "divided loyalties" in his very third paragraph -- has a direct quote from Saban wherein he says he wants to "control the media", he should provided it. If he simply is cribbing from Bruck's prior work, he should say so.

I have no particular desire to laud or indict Haim Saban. I find him an intrinsically interesting figure for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is his Egyptian-Jewish background -- given about a paragraph's worth of relatively similar attention in both essays), but his politics are more hawkish than my own and the beneficence of his influence is no doubt mixed. But I don't think it's too much to ask that an essay holding itself out as a major piece of novel investigative journalism should do more than give a glorified update of another profile published six years ago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The best thing about this is that now someone can put it in Wikipedia since it has multiple sources, and any future journalist that write about Saban can state matter-of-factly that he said he wants to control the media.