Glenn Simpson, the former Wall Street Journal reporter turned high-priced “oppo” merchant, didn’t like to think of himself as a private investigator. He preferred to describe what he and his firm, Fusion-GPS, did as “journalism for rent,” an activity a class above spying, because a journalist can’t just say what he or she thinks.
“You have to prove it,” Simpson said. “And that imposes a discipline to the investigative process that people in other fields don’t really absorb… When you’re a spy, you really don’t have to get into a lot of that stuff.”
Spooked, the meticulous new book on private spying by former New York Times reporter Barry Meier, reads like a direct rebuttal to Simpson, the book’s central character. “There is little question that private investigators take on legitimate assignments,” writes Meier at one point. “Still, everyone in the industry knows its secret — that the big money is made not by exposing the truth but by papering it over.”
Meier, a two-time Polk award winner who was also part of a team that won a Pulitzer in 2017, is the first mainstream press figure to break the industry omerta over the reporting failures of Russiagate. That Spooked is an important book can be judged by the nervous reaction to it. Though the Times did publish an excerpt and a review by William Cohan, and the Wall Street Journal commended him for saying “what hardly anyone else in his circle of elite mainstream journalists has had the courage to say,” much of the rest of the business has looked askance. This reveals how much industry discomfort remains about the Steele story, still treated by media critics as a minor fender-bender and not the epic crackup Spooked describes.
Much of the point of Meier’s book is that there can be no such thing as “journalism for rent,” because the mere act of putting information up for sale corrupts the process Simpson claims to love. As Meier put it to me, “People who think of themselves as journalists and rent out those talents are no longer journalists.”
Although Spooked covers other private agencies like Black Cube (hired by Harvey Weinstein to dirty up his accusers) and K2 (the corporate descendant of Kroll Associates, who planted a phony documentarian to investigate health activists), the spine of the book is the story of Glenn Simpson’s Fusion-GPS. Simpson is the kind of half-absurd, half villainous character who makes for a great character study, and Spooked readers are fortunate he made the mistake of leaving a trail of unflattering stories before very gossipy witnesses across his years in the media business. Meier coldly gathers these tales together in a way that makes for a particularly entertaining read for anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom (Simpson imploring his “dachsund-beagle mix named Irving” to take a dump on his editors’ desks on his last day at the Journal is just one of many amusing anecdotes).
Simpson had a rocky relationship to the journalism profession when he was in it. On one level, he apparently was well-liked, funny, a prankster. On another, editors were wary, finding him combative and, as Meier writes, “quick to see conspiracies where they didn’t exist”:
One Journal editor became so concerned about the conclusionary leaps that Simpson was capable of making that he asked another journalist on the paper’s staff to double-check Simpson’s reporting. His response to any pushback he got from editors was usually the same: they could go fuck themselves…
As Simpson soldiered on in a business whose ranks were shrinking, he drifted into a world where a thinker prone to “conclusionary leaps” might feel more comfortable, filling his rolodex with the names of private operatives who became his top sources. He did a series of reports about a fierce (if uninteresting) squabble between Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev and his former son-in-law and political rival, Rakhat Aliyev, with Aliyev’s lawyers and operatives serving as Simpson’s sources.
Feeling less wanted in the newsroom, and tempted by the money and allure of the private spy world, Simpson made the jump to become an informational Pinkerton, to disastrous effect. Meier emphasizes that for all its flaws, the journalism business at least once imposed some constraints on personalities like Simpson’s, forcing them to stay stuck in the world of evidence. In private spying, those constraints are removed, and a person prone to skipping steps in the proof process can get themselves into some very nasty situations. As Meier put it, “things could go really wrong.”
As the world knows by now, things did go wrong, in what Meier describes as “a media clusterfuck of epic proportions.”
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