After the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, Western agents began probing the documents long squirreled away in Soviet-satellite archives. Among the documents unearthed following Prime Minister Eric Honecker's democratic decisions was a money trail circling an Australian journalist named Wilfred Burchett.
To those long critical of Burchett, who had died a half-dozen years prior to the Wall's fall, the documents proved what had long been accused. Warm with Hanoi, sympathetic with the communists within his home nation, and over-eager to expose America's purported "germ warfare" within the Korean War, Burchett had earned a special place of ire from Western nationals. To some, the one-sidedness of his reporting pointed in one clear, anti-American direction.
Burchett, however, had long denied any financial incentives for his invectives. He was just reporting. He was just conveying what the West didn't want you to know.
And then, in Berlin, these communist-era documents came to light. "They went through all the files, and it was revealed that Burchett had been in the pay of East Germany," University of Houston communications professor Garth Jowett told Hair Balls. "This is one of the classic examples of being paid [off] by a foreign government, and of this type of propaganda."
Jowett, an expert in propagandism, felt it necessary to convey Burchett's tale -- a prominent, putatively objective voice caught in the coffers of a foreign nation -- not because of an anniversary or upcoming lecture, but because it's the first one that came to mind when he heard Joshua Treviño's name. It's the first thing that popped into Jowett's mind when a story broke late last week here in Texas, blurring lines of both journalism and patriotism in one effective drop.
For those who haven't followed, BuzzFeed reported last week on the financial career of Joshua Treviño , the current vice president of communications at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. According to reporter Rosie Gray, Treviño had received a steady stream of nearly $400,000 between May 2008 and April 2011 from the Malaysian government. Additionally, he shuttled smaller sums to a series of conservative writers during that time-frame. (The TPPF is one of the more prominent right-wing lobbying organizations within the state, and has yet to offer a statement on Treviño's current status with the organization.)
While these sums, on their face, carry nothing unethical, Treviño 's work during this time-frame casts a questioning light on his actions and stances.
Among his other activities during this time-span, Treviño wrote multiple columns denouncing democratic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, including a defense of the sodomy charges leveled against Ibrahim by the authoritarian government in Kuala Lumpur. (Certain of these columns, such as the sodomy-charge one that appeared on the Huffington Post, have since been removed due to editorial decision.)
Moreover, the funds funneled through Treviño , the co-founder of RedState.com, ended up with a cast of conservative writers submitting sympathetic columns and articles in a series of right-leaning outlets across the nation:
The payments to conservative American opinion writers [helped fund] work ... in outlets from the Huffington Post and San Francisco Examiner to the Washington Times to National Review and RedState.
The payments came to light through a belatedly filed Foreign Agents Registration Act, in which Treviño filed receipt for $389,724.70. According to Treviño, a "lawyer friend" initially determined that Treviño would not needed a FARA form for his income, leading to a years-long delay in its filing. That delay, and that inability for journalists to access subsequent public records, allowed Treviño to deny any involvement with Kuala Lumpur. When confronted by these fiscal allegations in 2011, Treviño was blunt. "I was never on any 'Malaysian entity's payroll,'" he told Politico's Ben Smith, "and I resent your assumption that I was."
Now that these new payments have come to light, Treviño has ended his denial. He offered a public apology to Smith -- via Twitter, at least -- and has refrained from chastising subsequent media coverage.
"I think the media coverage has been generally fair," Treviño told Hair Balls. "They've done their proper due diligence."
Meanwhile, Treviño wanted it known that the reason such information came out wasn't due to some Woodwardian sleuthing, but because he opted to follow the letter of the law.
"It's important to emphasize the reason the story came out -- I voluntarily decided, upon learning of legal requirements, to file this paperwork," Treviño said. "I approached the [Department of Justice] and made full disclosure to it."
Unfortunately for Treviño, this is not the first time his work and his words have landed him in controversy. In 2011, observing the raid on a Gaza flotilla, Treviño Tweeted, "Dear IDF: If you end up shooting any Americans on the new Gaza flotilla - well, most Americans are cool with that. Including me."
Interestingly, since the fiscal information has come to light, Treviño has repeatedly denied that he should be characterized as a "journalist." While this claim is presently true -- TPPF is anything but unbiased within its literature -- Treviño has maintained columns for both the UK's Guardian and Texas Monthly, both of which let him go due to public pressure and undisclosed ties to the Malaysian government.
"He's playing semantics," Jowett told Hair Balls. "This line between journalism and blogging and commentating has become so blurred that it's so difficult to establish where one ends and the other begins."
Dr. Lindita Camaj, a UH communications professor specializing in journalistic ethics, said that despite Treviño's repeated points on the legality of his actions, his credibility and ethical standing have seen a marked drop.
"You need to understand that when it comes to this profession, legality doesn't really cut it enough -- being legally justified is not the same as being ethically responsible for your work," Camaj told Hair Balls. "Even if it was only PR, the fact that is still that he lied about this issue, which brings up ethical issues, because even PR people have certain ethical standards."
As to how the current controversy will reflect his relationship with TPPF, Treviño is clear.
"I don't think there's anything more to say, as far as the Foundation goes," Treviño said. "I've severed the ties close to [the Malaysian relationship]."
Indeed, while speaking with Hair Balls, Treviño sounded distinctly calm for a man whose entire objectivity and conscience have just been outed and trampled. He sounded almost ... chipper.
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"He's got his money in the bank, that's why," Jowett said. "Does that mean everything he did in the past should be wiped out? ... What he did is clearly reprehensible journalistically, but also, more importantly, it undermines the whole concept of the internet as being essentially a place where you can now buy voices."
While Treviño does admit that he should have come clean in 2011, he reiterated that, as far as his professional career entails, he sees little wrong with any of his actions. Despite shilling for one of the more reprehensible governments in Asia, despite enrolling conservative characters whose choice to write on Malaysia reads like one large non sequitur, Treviño says he wouldn't do a thing differently.
"I'm fine -- I'm fine," Treviño told Hair Balls. "You have these experiences, and you try to learn from them. I knew this would come to pass. It's important to do right thing, and if I had to do it again, I would."