A group of conservative bloggers and journalists have once again been caught taking money for repeating approved talking points on behalf of a client. This time it’s the government of Ukraine, who contracted with a consultant named George Scoville to get their views into the conservative media. Buzzfeed has the documents to prove it:
The Ukrainian campaign began in the run-up to high-stakes Ukrainian parliamentary elections last year, and sought to convince skeptical American conservatives that the pro-Russian Party of Regions, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, deserved American support. During that period, articles echoing Ukrainian government talking points appeared on leading conservative online outlets, including RedState, Breitbart, and Pajamas Media.
The emails and documents, which include prepackaged quotes from election officials and talking points that some writers copied nearly word-for-word, offer a glimpse into how foreign governments dodge tight Justice Department regulations on foreign propaganda to covertly lobby in the United States: The payments were routed through a front group in Belgium to an American consultant, who has urged writers not to cooperate with a reporter investigating the campaign.
The model resembles a recent stealth campaign in which bloggers were paid by the Malaysian government to write favorable stories, though the Ukraine campaign appears to have involved smaller sums of money.
The Malaysian campaign attracted the attention of the Department of Justice for possible violations of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. This one involves far smaller sums of money, but the evidence is pretty obvious:
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.
An email from October 26, 2012 shows Scoville inviting writers to join a conference with Mikhail Okhendovskyy of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. The call was organized by the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based group headed by Leonid Khazara, a former senior member of parliament from the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. According to its website, it is a “a unique ‘Modern Ukraine’ organisation based in Brussels and operating internationally as an advocate for enhancing EU-Ukraine relations.” …One email from October 29, the day after the election, shows Scoville sending out documents full of exit poll results and prepackaged statements from election observers.
“I just wanted to share the attached documents with you in case you were interested,” Scoville writes. “You’re under no obligation to write anything, but I wanted you to have this info in case you were feeling nostalgic and/or entrepreneurial :)”.
“But in all seriousness, if you could spend a few minutes today tweeting about the results using #ukrainevotes and promoting some of the pieces you wrote, that would be very helpful to us,” Scoville writes.
His next email, sent five minutes later, consists of a list of “talking points that are mostly tweetable — some may need to be shortened.” These include “Ukraine has demonstrated its commitment to democracy and passed the test put forth by the international community of holding transparent elections” and “The victory for the Party of Regions is a victory for the people, for Ukraine and for democracy.”…
The source who provided BuzzFeed with the emails and documents said that other writers involved in the Scoville campaign had included Breeanne Howe of RedState and Warner Todd Huston, a freelance conservative writer. The source estimated that around five or six writers were on the October 26 conference call…
Howe denied having accepted payment for her pro-Party of Regions blog posts published in October when asked about it in March. “I can’t speak for anyone else that wrote on the subject, I can assure you that my employment at RedState is an unpaid labor of love and I was absolutely not employed by or on the payroll for the Ukranian gov’t (or any other gov’t for that matter),” she said at the time.
But her posts hew closely to talking points issued by Scoville, sometimes nearly verbatim.
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.”
Looks like a smoking gun to me. The source for the story told Buzzfeed that Scoville had told them to deny being paid for the story, which Howe did. Huston was a bit more circumspect:
Huston didn’t directly deny being paid by Scoville.
“I would not be open to say who pays me and who doesn’t,” he said.
Other writers who were producing incongruous pro-Party of Regions stories at the time include Ben Shapiro of Breitbart and Seton Motley, a conservative blogger.
Well there’s a shock. Whether they were paid or not, the fact that they were shilling for a group that has been criticized for strongly authoritarian tactics (and being the victim of them as well, via Putin) speaks volumes.