President Donald Trump’s new press secretary, Sean Spicer, opened his relationship with the White House press corps over the weekend with a flurry of condemnations for the “deliberately false,” “reckless,” and “shameful and wrong” reporting on the president’s first 24 hours in office. “We’re going to hold the press accountable,” he declared.
It was not the first such threat from the Trump team. Earlier this month, Trump himself warned that BuzzFeed News would “suffer the consequences” for having published a dossier of unverified claims, initially compiled by a former British intelligence agent, about the depths of the incoming president’s entanglement with Russia.
On this, as on so many other things, the question is how exactly a Trump presidency would go about translating aggressive rhetoric into policy. The conventional mechanisms for payback by politicians against the press are mild—reducing access, feeding leaks to competing outlets, making unkind remarks. Trump did his own version of this at his pre-inaugural press conference, refusing to take questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta and barking at him about trafficking in “fake news.”
But the Trump Administration has also demonstrated a readiness to apply pressure to its designated opponents in less conventional ways. As a thought experiment, what could Trump do to impose more severe “consequences” on an individual news outlet, or to hold one “accountable”? If the president wanted to punish BuzzFeed, for instance, and drive it to ruin, what tools would he have?
In this, as in other things, the Trump administration might take its cues from the business world. A showdown between a government and a news organization may play out as matter of laws and principles. But a showdown between a corporation in the news and a corporation that publishes the news is often enough a matter of money and power.
A news organization is only as strong, or as principled, as its financial backers are. One instructive example comes from the career of George Conway, the husband of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway and a possible candidate to be Trump’s solicitor general. George Conway’s page on his law firm’s website says that he “played a substantial role in prosecuting one of the most prominent defamation cases in recent memory (Philip Morris v. American Broadcasting Cos.).”
In that 1994 case, ABC News was forced to publicly apologize to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds and to pay the tobacco companies’ legal fees, after ABC had reported that the companies had manipulated nicotine levels in their cigarettes. The specifics of the nicotine fiddling mattered less than the fact that the companies were suing for $10 billion, while ABC was in the process of being acquired by Disney. Lawsuits are an obstacle to investment or acquisition, and investors prefer to make them go away, rather than fight them on the merits.
Someone who wanted to put pressure on BuzzFeed’s investors would have plenty of potential targets. In the 10 years of its existence, BuzzFeed has raised $446.3 million over six funding rounds from venture capital and private equity investors, several of whom now sit on the company’s board of directors, where—unless BuzzFeed’s board differs significantly from how boards typically operate—they might make decisions about budgetary requests, potential sales and acquisitions, whether the company should go public, who is the CEO, and that kind of thing.
“How much influence does a board of directors have? It depends on how much influence they want to have,” Chris McGarry, Director for Entrepreneurship at Columbia University, told Gizmodo. “Not all investors are created equal: Some are task-masters, micro-managers. Others are encouragers, mentors—a little more nurturing, from a management style point of view...Typically, the board is there to be the boss of the CEO and president, to be the boss of upper management.”
Some of those investors, like Chris Dixon of the influential firm Andreessen Horowitz and Patrick Kerins of New Enterprise Associates, are members of firms that have other business before the government, and who stand to make or lose a lot of money depending on the relative amiability of regulators and legislators. “It doesn’t serve the individual board members interests to have a stake in conflicting interests,” McGarry said, although this is not something investors can always anticipate. “The administration changes; the complexion of their portfolio also changes. Investors are going to make that calculation for themselves.”
Andreessen Horowitz invested $50 million in BuzzFeed in 2014; Dixon, a general partner at the firm, invested separately in BuzzFeed during an earlier fundraising round. Meanwhile, Bitcoin baron and Silicon Valley secessionist Balaji Srinivasan—one of Andreessen Horowitz’s so-called “board partners”—visited Trump Tower in New York last Thursday to discuss the future of the FDA. A consistently unhinged Twitter user, Srinivasan has had a lot to say about BuzzFeed’s publication of the Trump dossier, lamenting the lack of “some kind of Yelp for journalists” and dubbing the whole affair “basically the inverse pizzagate at this point.” He also floated a (baseless) theory that the dossier was disinformation passed to intelligence sources by members of the Internet message board 4chan—which, incidentally, was actually the origin of #PizzaGate.
Srinivasan is one of a cadre of venture capitalists recruited by fellow immortality enthusiast Peter Thiel to advise Trump. Thiel also visited Trump Tower on Thursday; Srinivasan subsequently deleted all of his tweets.
While “Yelp for journalists” is a chilling enough idea on its own, Trump could conceivably ask Srinivasan—who has criticized the FDA for being overly-regulatory and is being considered for a position in the agency—to lean on his Andreessen Horowitz colleagues to punish BuzzFeed. Several of Andreessen Horowitz’s other investments, like Lyft and Oculus, have business before the federal government, though none more precarious than troubled healthcare startup Zenefits, in which the firm has invested more than any other company in its portfolio. It is worth noting that BuzzFeed has reported aggressively and extensively on Zenefits and a number of other businesses that its investors hold financial stakes in—the open disdain that people like Marc Andreessen have for this kind of work apparently notwithstanding.
The opportunities for pressure or mischief against BuzzFeed investors’ other business interests are ample. NBCUniversal has invested some $400 million in BuzzFeed; its own parent company, Comcast, constantly has business before the government. In 2016 alone, the communications giant spent $10.5 million on lobbyists who pushed the company’s agenda on a variety of fronts, including intellectual property law, set-top box regulation, drones, and cybersecurity; a year earlier, a merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable was called off after it drew scrutiny from federal regulators including the FCC and the Justice Department.
These vulnerabilities are not unique to BuzzFeed. NBCUniversal has its own NBC news operations to consider, but also a $200 million investment in Vox Media, which leaves that company’s publications in a similarly—theoretically!—exposed position. Andreessen Horowitz has investments in Genius and Medium.
Meanwhile, the growth equity firm and BuzzFeed investor General Atlantic has also invested in Uber and Airbnb, which are caught in regulatory disputes all over the country and spent $970,000 and $355,000 on lobbyists last year, respectively. Patrick Kerins and New Enterprise Associates, which led later funding rounds in BuzzFeed, are also investors in Uber and 23andMe, the beleaguered genetic testing startup. RRE Ventures, which has participated in several rounds of funding and also invested private equity in BuzzFeed also has a stake in Spaceflight Industries, a satellite manufacturer, and K2 Intelligence, a risk consulting firm, both of which employ lobbyists.
The executive branch could also affect the portfolio of BuzzFeed chairman Ken Lerer. Lerer is an investor in spectacle startup Warby Parker, which has aggressively lobbied the Federal Trade Commission for stricter enforcement of the so-called Eyeglass Rule, which requires ophthalmologists to provide patients with a copy of their eyeglass prescription immediately following an eye exam, ensuring the consumer’s ability to comparison-shop for prescription glasses, especially at decentralized places like Warby Parker.
The Eyeglass Rule is not a law, however, and as such it is relatively easily rescinded—reason enough for a startup to keep paying lobbyists to keep lobbying the FTC on this “and other legislative proposals,” despite the fact that the FTC issued a warning favorable to Warby Parker in May of last year. Through Lerer personally or his Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Warby Parker’s interests also intersect with those of the Huffington Post, Business Insider, Mic, and Pando Daily.
The new president has already made a point of cultivating the investor class. Earlier this week, Trump hosted Jack Ma and Michael Evans of Alibaba, the Chinese online retail colossus, in what was by all accounts a very successful meeting. (Ma promised Trump that he would help create one million American jobs!) Alibaba’s consumer-to-consumer website, Taobao, would benefit if it could get removed from the “notorious marketplaces” blacklist of Office of the United States Trade Representative, where it landed in December due to accusations of “unacceptably high” levels of counterfeiting and piracy. Alibaba shares an investor, Anton Ley of General Atlantic, with BuzzFeed.
Last month, Trump met with the Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, of SoftBank, the holding company that owns the debt-ridden wireless provider Sprint. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Masa of SoftBank of Japan,” Trump announced to reporters. “He has just agreed to invest $50 billion in the U.S. and 50,000 jobs.” (This was probably already going to happen, but whatever.) SoftBank has participated in four of BuzzFeed’s fundraising rounds; it is also an investor in the Huffington Post, as are Lerer Hippeau Ventures and RRE Ventures.
Recently, SoftBank announced a $100 billion investment fund led by Rajeev Misra, who spearheaded Deutsche Bank’s embrace of credit derivatives and securitized mortgages in the late-90s and early-00s. These are the financial mechanisms that led to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the global economy in 2008, lax financial regulations having empowered a culture of recklessness—a regulatory climate likely to reassert itself under the Trump administration.
(As it happens, the president-elect may be somewhere around $300 million in debt to Deutsche Bank, which also happens to be negotiating one multibillion-dollar settlement with the Justice Department while it faces another DOJ investigation pertaining to the “systemic” failure of internal controls intended to prevent money laundering and capital flight from—where else?—Russia.)
The financial pressures on media companies are stressful enough without adding a proxy war to the mix, and for the U.S. government to go to such lengths to crush domestic dissent would be unprecedented. “The idea that in the United States an Administration might go after a media company because they disagreed with a story is unimaginable,” a BuzzFeed spokesperson said in a statement provided to Gizmodo. “We are sure this won’t happen.” Maybe so! But then again, many things that were once unimaginable have nevertheless come to pass in the last year and a half.
“As a business person, I think that’s fair—it’s playing dirty, but it’s fair,” Columbia’s McGarry said of such clandestine reprisals. “But as president? I don’t know if it’s fair to leverage his personal relationships to put pressure on a company because they upset him somehow. Under normal circumstances, if a president were caught doing that, there would be outrage. But this president does a lot of things that his constituents don’t seem to mind.”
As ever, if you know anything about how President Trump seeks to punish his enemies, please do get in touch.