There are many things about life inside the Beltway (physical and metaphorical) that people in the rest of America might find strange. The subway system has ads from defense contractors boasting about their new warplane in between ads for a new salad at Panera; there’s often an important person’s motorcade blocking your route home; and you might end up eating dinner one table over from Stephen Miller and be forced, by all standards of moral decency, to call him a prick before you leave.
One of the strangest phenomena is that so many people seem to have full-time jobs in “advocacy,” which is a Beltway term for undisclosed lobbying, churning out total nonsense that is micro-targeted at an audience of the hundreds or dozens of other Beltway suits who control the levers of policy. Does any of this actually work, you might wonder? Is it a good use of their clients’ money, for these people to spend their entire, well-paid work day at their “public affairs” firms doing things like creating Twitter accounts for fake grassroots campaigns, or ghostwriting editorials for some other schmuck to attach their byline?
It is that last part that seems to fuel a significant portion of opinion pieces at The Hill, a newspaper and website that very important Beltway people mostly read for news from inside the grim machinery of our government, and which has drawn in a large audience beyond that crowd thanks to its laissez-faire approach to breaking news aggregation—the faster (and more useless) the better. These stories tell us important facts like, for example, that anonymous Democratic staffers and members of Congress are mad at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Have Concerns about Medicare for All. But its opinion section is even more egregiously attuned to the interests and concerns of whoever happens to have the most money to spend. It is a dumping ground for whichever policymaker, think tank lanyard, or corporate CEO might want to publish some poorly-written—and self-serving—dreck about public policy that day.
It was also a regular platform for John Solomon, who until last week was the executive vice president of The Hill. Solomon also wrote regular columns for the paper, making him more productive than most executive vice presidents of anything. These columns, in the words of The Washington Post, “veered rightwards”; in more honest terms, they were right-wing fever dreams.
Solomon’s work this year for The Hill feels a lot like the right-wing equivalent of the effluvia in which Resistance liberals partook during the Mueller investigation: inscrutable to people who are not already major Nellie Ohr enthusiasts, deeply satisfying to those who are gullible, thinly-sourced, and not moored to reality.
Alas, baffling as they are to the normal reader, Solomon’s animated defenses of Trump have become newly relevant. Solomon’s interview with Yuri Lutsenko, then the top prosecutor of Ukraine, appears in the whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump asked Ukraine to interfere with the U.S. election, for which the Trump White House engineered a cover up.
As The Washington Post detailed Thursday night, Solomon’s work “has played an important role in advancing a flawed, Trump-friendly tale of corruption in Ukraine,” most notably the allegation that law enforcement leaked files pertaining to Paul Manafort to try and help Hillary Clinton win the election, and that the American ambassador to Ukraine had tried to interfere with Lutsenko’s ability to prosecute corruption under Obama. In one column, Solomon quoted Lutsenko openly asking to speak with Attorney General Bill Barr about his investigation into Hunter Biden’s finances.
It’s a familiar tale: Conservative media hypes up some thinly-spun allegation; the president, who is a Fox News grandpa, gets deeply suckered in; the president then goes on Fox News and calls the allegations “big” and “incredible.” Eventually, the story falls apart, but by then it’s already too late. (Lutsenko later said “that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe Biden or his son,” according to the Post.) And now we all have to find out who Yuri Lutsenko is, and keep track of dozens of competing claims about Democratic schemes to sway elections, just in order to follow the news. Never mind climate change or gun control; now you have to spend all your energy figuring out which Ukrainian is the good prosecutor and which is the bad one, and remembering the details of why Joe Biden really is innocent in case your uncle starts shouting at you about it over the spaghetti.
Solomon’s account of this matter, essentially an apple of discord thrown into an already fraught polis, is the kind of fast-and-loose nonsense that would stick out like a sore thumb—and likely draw a torrent of controversy and comment—were it to be published at most mainstream outlets. The Hill, however, was a happy home for this balderdash, thanks to the famously lax editorial standards that suffuse the paper’s operations.
This week, for example, The Hill published an op-ed from a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) explaining that actually, drug companies’ high revenues allows them to Do Innovation, and that drug prices should “continue to reflect the social value that they create.” ITIF has previously received hundreds of thousands of dollars from PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s massively well-funded advocacy group; in 2017, the most recent year for which records are available, PhRMA gave ITIF $60,000. Well worth the price of an op-ed arguing with a straight face that high drug prices that often result in ordinary people dying are socially valuable. Another poorly-written op-ed from the same day criticizes Democrats for trying to stop the Trump administration from allowing states to sell junk health insurance plans, courtesy of the vice president of policy of the Buckeye Institute, a right-wing, Koch-funded think tank.*
Again, these op-ed efforts are targeted at less than 500 people roaming the Beltway fiefdom. Outside of this minute population, literally nobody cares about, let alone reads, the ruminations of the senior fellows who staff Washington’s ersatz think tanks, churned out to satisfy the whims of dotty donors. No one. Not even their mums care. This content doesn’t excite Google’s algorithms. Your friends are never going to excitedly pollute your Facebook feeds with these great works.
Nevertheless, The Hill persists in being a platform for this boring garbage. The site also publishes op-eds from liberal think-tanks and advocates. These tend to be fewer, however, as the right simply has more money to waste on this stuff. Just check out the balance of their opinion pieces on, for example, Medicare for All to see this in action.
But above all else, The Hill’s opinion section just reeks of the same laziness Solomon displays. In 2016, the paper ran an op-ed from Michael Flynn about how great Turkey’s government is without disclosing that Flynn was a paid agent of said Turkish government. In 2018, the paper ran an op-ed from former senator Norm Coleman praising the Trump administration for junking the Iran nuclear deal, without noting in his bio that Coleman was a long-time paid agent of Saudi Arabia. In 2015, a truly asinine op-ed written on behalf of for-profit education companies was published with an aside written by the piece’s ghostwriter left in: “(or from an employer perspective, if that fits the writer).” Whichever public affairs firm drafted this piece didn’t even know who was going to stick their name on it when they wrote it! If you are going to run an opinion section that serves as a platform for the lies of frauds and lobbyists, you could at least do them the courtesy of checking their copy for embarrassing mistakes.
We have here a collision of two bizarre media ecosystems. First, the conservative media fever swamp-to-mainstream media pipeline—which is by no means new to the Trump administration; it’s how we got years of absurd Benghazi investigations under Obama. Second, the role of The Hill as what seems to be a publication with imperceptible editorial standards for the opinion section, where anyone, whether it’s a paid-off think tank goon or the paper’s executive president, can really just say any old nonsense they like.
Those who profit most handsomely in Washington have long benefited from organizations that will transform their naked financial interests into simulacra of compelling public interest, from think tanks that spout the views of their industry funders, to media outlets that will publish those industries’ thin justifications for their greed—or partner with them to do boring but slick panels and festivals, where everyone pretends to listen and eats the free breakfast. It shouldn’t be a shock when one of the worst offenders for idea-laundering turns out to be an equally fruitful platform for batty right-wing nonsense. To no one’s surprise, muck unleashed from the heights of our K Street redoubts eventually flows down The Hill.
* A previous version of this article misstated the job title of the author of a Hill op-ed who works at the Buckeye Institute.