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New Media Outlet Grid Backed by Progressive Stars, Gulf Money, and Foreign Agents

Grid touts journalistic independence, but funding raises red flags with ethics experts

Emirati royal Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and journalist Matt Yglesias / Getty Images
• January 25, 2022 5:00 am

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The new progressive media outlet Grid, which has attracted press buzz and big-name talent, was developed by registered lobbyists for the United Arab Emirates with funding from UAE's deputy prime minister, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

Grid, which went live earlier this month and whose masthead boasts ABC News, Vox, and NPR alums and left-leaning blogger Matthew Yglesias as its editor-at-large, raised seed money from a holding company owned by Emirate royal Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Grid also consulted with a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that is a registered foreign agent for the UAE during its development.

The foreign funding and lobbyist involvement raise questions about the news outlet's independence—and whether it should be required to register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice, according to ethics experts. In recent years, the DOJ has cracked down on news outlets that receive foreign funding and seek to influence a U.S. domestic audience, pushing Russia's RT and China's CGTN to register as foreign agents. News of Grid‘s funding ties comes amid scrutiny into UAE's ramped-up lobbying in Washington, where the oil-rich Gulf state has poured millions into influencing the United States on issues such as climate change and relations with its regional adversary, Qatar. Last year, former Trump associate Tom Barrack was indicted for allegedly working as an unregistered lobbyist for the Emirates, charges he denies.

"While Grid‘s goal to provide more comprehensive and in-depth coverage of news stories is laudable, it's concerning that the seed money for this project came from a company owned by the deputy prime minister of the UAE," said Ben Freeman, an expert on foreign influence and author of The Foreign Policy Auction.

"The UAE has one of the worst levels of press freedom in the world and the UAE government has repeatedly been caught illegally meddling in U.S. politics and elections," Freeman said. "Is this really who we want bringing us the news?"

Grid was first conceived in August 2020 by former National Geographic executive Mark Bauman, who raised seed money from a company called International Media Investments, according to the New York Times. International Media Investments is a holding company owned by Emirate royal Nahyan, the deputy prime minister of the UAE and the half-brother of the nation's president.

Also closely involved with the project was APCO Worldwide, a D.C. lobbying firm and registered foreign agent for the UAE. The firm was an adviser to the news outlet during its development last year, sources told the Free Beacon.

Grid describes itself as a "collaborative newsroom of beat reporters" that seeks to provide a "more-complete picture" of major news stories ranging from climate change to the global economy. It touts the importance of journalistic independence on its website and says its reporters will "take rigorous steps to avoid personal conflicts of interest and disclose them when they cannot." It did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Free Beacon. IMI did not respond to a request for comment.

APCO confirmed that it advised Grid before its launch, but declined to identify which client enlisted the firm in the project.

"APCO Worldwide provided consulting services for Grid during the first half of 2021," APCO spokesman Jimmy Koo told the Free Beacon. "APCO has no continuing role at Grid."

During this same time period, APCO was a registered foreign agent for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the UAE's state-owned oil producer, according to records filed with the Department of Justice's Foreign Agent Registration Act database. Mansour bin Zayed sits on the board of the state oil company.

In the Justice Department filings, the firm said it was advising the UAE on its media outreach strategy in the United States, as it related to the "global climate agenda."

Freeman said it was "troubling that a FARA-registered firm working for the UAE was consulting Grid."

"That, plus the UAE funding, might raise eyebrows at the Department of Justice's FARA unit, which in recent years has asked a number of foreign media outlets, including Al Jazeera's AJ+, to register under FARA," Freeman said. "A big question is how much of Grid‘s funding comes from the UAE and how much, if any, editorial control do they have."

While APCO said it is no longer working with Grid, one of the lobbying firm's senior advisers, John Defterios, sits on the media outlet's board, according to Grid‘s website.

Defterios, a former anchor in CNN's Abu Dhabi bureau, was hired by APCO last July to "support the development of branded content for global media platforms," the lobbying firm announced in a press release at the time. According to his LinkedIn, Defterios is based in "London and UAE."

Grid did not disclose Defterios's work for APCO in his biography on the media outlet's website. In addition to representing the UAE, APCO is also a registered lobbyist for Kazakhstan and Cote d'Ivoire.

IMI is not the only investor in Grid, the outlet's founder told the New York Times. An undisclosed portion of the $10 million seed funding came from Brian Edelman, who was described by the Times as a "tech investor." Grid, APCO, and IMI did not respond to questions about what share of the funding was provided by each of the two investors.

Edelman, who did not respond to questions about the investment, runs a small digital marketing firm called RAIN. He also works as a creative adviser to TrailRunners International, a PR firm that is a registered foreign agent for a U.S.-sanctioned Chinese cotton company, according to DOJ records. Edelman sits on the advisory board for Ventura Capital, a UAE-based investment firm.