The above is audio of the full and uncut interview that CNN correspondent Drew Griffin conducted with journalist Rania Khalek and J. Ray Sparks, Maffick Media’s chief operating officer.
Facebook suspended the pages of In The Now, a Russia-backed project that produces videos that cover climate change, history, politics, and current events. They were led to censor content when CNN brought the pages to the social media company’s attention.
The pages were restored by Facebook about ten days later after Facebook public policy manager Semjon Rens had Maffick Media, the parent company, add ownership information to the “very top” of the pages.
For example, “‘In the Now’ is a brand of Maffick which is owned and operated by Anissa Naouai and Ruptly GmbH, a subsidiary of RT.”
Facebook has announced no formal policy for regulating the pages of state-funded media organizations, and Shadowproof contacted Facebook’s “Press Room” with questions about when the company may roll out such a policy and what it may look like. No one from Facebook responded.
According to a press release from Maffick Media, Rens told the company, “As far as I know, we are in the middle of rolling this out for all pages, similar to your pages, so it would definitely be a coherent approach. It’s not something we’re rolling out just for you.”
Rens was apparently unsure if Maffick Media was the first to be required to disclose ownership information on Facebook. “It’s possible that there’s no other page, but I’m not 100 percent sure.”
Maffick Media chief operating officer J. Ray Sparks and In the Now contributor Rania Khalek, who co-hosts the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast with this journalist, were remotely interviewed by CNN correspondent Drew Griffin.
As part of “Unauthorized Disclosure,” audio of the full interview is being released. It was edited to improve the volume, but aside from that, the interview is uncut, even including moments when Khalek and Sparks had to stop and start because they were confused by how CNN setup production for the interview.
“Early in February 2019,” Maffick Media stated in their press release, “CNN was allegedly contacted by a disgruntled former contractor,” who worked for the company. They accused Maffick of “being part of a new secret Russian plot to undermine American democracy by targeting millennials on social media.”
Curt Devine and Donie O’Sullivan, two reporters for CNN, contacted several Maffick associates. Those associates forwarded messages to management. They sent Los Angeles-based CNN reporter Scot Glover to a female associate’s home and knocked on her door.
An email sent by Sparks to Devine and O’Sullivan indicates Devine interviewed a contractor who worked on a documentary produced in Alabama. She said Devine claimed he had already spoken to Khalek, but that was false.
Facts about Maffick Media were provided by Sparks to CNN, like “Maffick receives funding from its parent company, Ruptly, in Berlin. Anissa owns. a slight minority share,” and, “RT is a subsidiary of ANO TV Navasti in Moscow, which is the umbrella non-profit media organization that is entirely funded by the Russian government.”
“We have made a policy of pointing out in advance our funding connection to the Russian government to every employee, freelancer, contractor, or otherwise with whom we work,” Sparks shared.
“CNN continued to pursue a conspiratorial narrative, seeking, and finding support from NATO member-based think tank the German Marshall Fund, ironically financed through a consortium of public-private entities led by government-owned German banking giant KfW,” Maffick Media detailed in their press release.
“None of The German Marshall Fund’s financial backers are displayed on their own Facebook page,” Maffick Media added. “Nevertheless, CNN’s Drew Griffin interviewed recent intern with the U.S. State Department in Moscow, Bret Schafer, who assured for the camera, ‘Oh, they’re definitely state-funded. I mean, you can pull the German registration data,’ conveniently restating facts of which CNN had already been informed in writing by Maffick themselves.”
It all served to help CNN engineer the “false impression that there was potentially a sensational new Russian secret, perhaps even one Facebook should fear,” that required the company to take action.
Shadowproof previously covered CNN’s report, which was published on February 15. What is crucial is even O’Sullivan, one of the reporters who worked on the story, said Maffick Media wasn’t “necessarily really hiding their Russian ties.”
“If you were to start Googling these pages, you could quickly work it back to see,” O’Sullivan added during an interview for CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
O’Sullivan also said, “The content was pretty critical of the U.S government, of U.S. mainstream media, but nothing that would be totally out of the ordinary necessarily.” Videos made a “lot of legitimate arguments.”
But getting the pages of a Russia-backed video company censored would help boost their report so no one at CNN had a problem with this attack on press freedom.
Griffin interrogated Khalek and Sparks for about 40 minutes. The interview offers a rare window into the mind of a U.S. establishment journalist, who seems only capable of understanding the world through the framework of “Russia must be responsible for pockets of dissent in the country” or “the Kremlin must be behind whatever is wrong with America’s current politics.”
Below is a transcript of the full interview minus when CNN was shooting B-roll.
DREW GRIFFIN: The first question might be to you J.Ray, how did Maffick come about? Tell us about the company’s origin.
J.RAY SPARKS: We created Maffick as a holding company for In The Now video productions. In the Now was already developed originally as a TV show and then branched off as a digital channel. We created Maffick to make that commercial and provide video marketing services as an agency to clients.
GRIFFIN: And the funding of it—whom did you have to convince in terms of getting the financing?
SPARKS: Well, so, uh, funny. If we were in the U.S., PBS we all grew up hearing PBS is funded in part by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So it’s the same for us except that the government is Russia in that case.
GRIFFIN: Okay. Maybe this is Rania, but you guys can decide. The company’s mission to tell interesting human stories and that editorial controls lies 100 percent with Maffick. Why is everything on Soapbox about politics or global issues?
RANIA KHALEK: Soapbox is a channel devoted to politics so that’s why everything on there is about politics. And as for editorial control, I have complete editorial control over my work on Soapbox. So I get to tell the truth about war and corporations, which you don’t get to hear much about in corporate outlets, like CNN, where people oftentimes even get fired for being antiwar. You know, I’d ask you where was Marc Lamont Hill’s editorial freedom when CNN fired him for telling the truth about Israeli occupation of Palestine.
GRIFFIN: Why did the Russia government, as J. Ray said PBS of Russia – why did the Russia government fund Maffick?
SPARKS: The choice to support Maffick was similar to the way that CNN has invested in Great Big Story, which we’re big fans of. It was an idea that was proposed by Anissa Naouai who created In the Now to create a company that would focus on video content that was broader and more human-focused and she made that pitch to the people in that nonprofit system and they approved it because they believe in their work.
GRIFFIN: What do you think that the Russian government gets out of it?
SPARKS: They get stories told about Russians, Russian people, to a Western audience that are not just demonizing them and contributing to the hysteria that is currently being experienced in the Trump era.
So, we show a lot of stories that come from a wide range of places in the world. That includes Russia. We might show for example a story about a young girl, who speaks seven langauges, and it’s an amazing prodigy and then oh by the way that girl is Russian. That’s the kind of story about a Russian that you are not typically receive in the so-called mainstream media of the [United States].
GRIFFIN: Yeah. And J.Ray, maybe sticking with you—The business model. Are these channels designed to make money? And if so, how will they make money?
SPARKS: That’s a great question. We hope that we will be able to make money. Part of the reason for founding Maffick was to become a commercial company, to have clients, to work on branded campaigns for brands and companies. So, we certainly do hope not just to make money but have it become profitable at some point.
GRIFFIN: In which model? Are you going to be running advertising? Are you going to be selling data? How will you make money?
SPARKS: In the digital media video business, you need to create multiple revenue streams. So, we will make some money, small money from advertising that is sold through platforms like Facebook and YouTube. But there’s not a lot of money in that. So, we will focus more on clients as a branded video marketing agency. And we might also do some licensing. We have a small team that’s focused on finding and acquiring content, user-generated content, and since our parent company, Ruptly, in Berlin, is also in the business of licensing video, we may also be able to realize some revenue through that process.
GRIFFIN: One more business-related question—do you have a target age or country that you are trying to attract to make money in any of the multiple different ways you just outlined?
SPARKS: It’s more—It’s a bit opposite in the direction. We don’t start with a targeted demographic and then try to build an audience around that. We focus on the content then try to look at the audience that we’re getting through things, like Facebook Insights and other apps that provide those insight services, and then we look at how we might be able to build a business model around the audience that we are building organically.
GRIFFIN: Yeah. Rania, to you. Soapbox, Waste-Ed, Back Then, In the Now, do these serve different roles?
KHALEK: I can only really speak to Soapbox because that’s where I present by sort-of political rants. But they do serve different roles in the different topics they cover. Soapbox covers politics. Wasted covers environmental issues, including climate change. And Back Then is a history channel.
GRIFFIN: Rania you talked about how you have 100 percent control but you know just the fact that Russia is involved in the financing here and Russia has an unfortunate history with journalists going missing, arrested, worse – how can you actually say to viewers that Maffick is independent of any kind of influence in its reporting from Russia?
KHALEK: Working for In the Now, or working for Soapbox, or Maffick, is not an endorsement of the policies of its sponsors. Just like working for CNN is not an endorsement of the pharmaceutical companies or weapons companies that play advertisements on CNN. Or just like working for the BBC or Al Jazeera is not an endorsement of the policies of the British government or in Al Jazeera’s case of Qatar’s absolute monarchy.
We should judge journalists on the content that they produce, right. So, if you want to judge me, judge me on the content. Judge me on the facts I’m presenting. If you have a problem with that, challenge me on that.
But as far as funding goes, you know all media is funded either by corporations or governments. And so if we’re going to have a conversation about funding, we should really open that up to include all media outlets, including CNN by the way.
You know, there’s weapons companies that finance advertisements on CNN. Does that impact CNN’s coverage of war? You know, in fact, most of the mainstream American press is quite pro-war. Is that by chance or is that a result of funding from the war industry? We should talk about that and we should also be judging journalists on the content they produce. And I’m happy to address any questions about a particular piece of content that I’ve produced.
SPARKS: If I could answer that as well—Not everything that the U.S. government does is good and not everything that the Russian government — [production issue with microphone, adjusted for recording]
So, I think we can agree that not everything the U.S. government does is good and not everything the Russian government does is bad. And in that sense, no matter what the case may be, we expect people to believe that we’re independent in the same way that CNN should expect people to believe that they did good journalism to be waiting outside Roger Stone’s house. CNN’s currently defending themselves against this conspiracy theory that they got tipped off. It was inside information. And we have to do that constantly in the same way.
We have to defend ourselves and say no, really, no one tells us what to do. We are perhaps an exception, to some degree. I don’t know. But I know in our experience we are independent.
GRIFFIN: Let’s stay on J. Ray, but Rania you may also want to answer this question because we have reviewed most if not all of Maffick’s content, and we can’t find any posts critical of President Putin at all. But there’s no shortage of content critical of the U.S. and the West as a whole. Is that just the viewpoint of Maffick?
KHALEK: I can take that. And I’m looking at you? Oh, it’s okay to look at.
In the Now actually does have some content that does focus on Russia, and is critical of Russia. But that’s beside the point— oh sorry, I’m looking at the camera. I’m just going to look at you.
In the Now actually does have some content that does focus on Russia, and is critical of Russia. But that’s beside the point. I’m an American, right? So, my priority and my responsibility is to challenge destructive policies that the government that I pay tax dollars to. And that’s what I focus on in my videos.
I challenge war. I challenge corporate ownership of our government and of our political system. And this is one of the few places that I have where I can actually do that with complete editorial control. Now, if CNN would like to give me a job to spend my time challenging the war industry and corporations I’d be happy to do that. But that’s just not the case.
GRIFFIN: And the fact that you do not do any kind of criticism of Russia, its various [cross-talk]
SPARKS: I’m sorry. That’s just not the case. We’ll follow up with a long list of examples that In the Now has done that are at least as critical of Russia as our Alabama documentary was.
KHALEK: —of the U.S. [cross-talk] Sorry Drew. We’re having some issues with where we’re supposed to look.
SPARKS: In the Now has done multiple stories that are either critical of some aspect of Russian infrastructure or social customs. We don’t really do hit pieces on Trump or Putin or any politicians. We’re not trying to be hard news. And we think that most of our audience is bored with hearing those stories over and over again.
KHALEK: I would like to say, add something. Hang on the thought just left my head, but I really want to say it so give me a second.
Right, so also part of my position, part of what I care about doing is challenging mainstream narratives and talking about what the mainstream media isn’t talking about. The mainstream media is constantly talking about Russia. I mean, they do plenty of that. I don’t really see that as a space that I need to fill.
What I do see in the mainstream corporate press in the U.S. is a lack of criticism of U.S. meddling around the world, what the U.S. is doing in Venezuela right now, for example. So, I see my place as really filling the role of challenging that and informing and really telling people what they’re not hearing about what my government is doing around the world.
GRIFFIN: It just seems just viewing so many of your posts, Rania, that your views are completely in line with what we’re hearing from the Kremlin, especially on Venezuela.
KHALEK: Okay, do you have a specific criticism about what I said about Venezuela? The U.S. right now under Trump, the president that CNN is very much against, is currently attempting to launch a right wing coup in Venezuela and what I see from the mainstream press in the U.S. across the board is support for that.
What I’m interested is accurate reporting in Venezuela about what’s happening and what the U.S. is doing there. And you know that might align with this entity or that entity but that’s not what I care about. What I care about is telling the truth. And I would like to know why CNN isn’t telling the truth about what’s happening in Venezuela.
GRIFFIN: Mmm-hmm. You tell all your employees and contractors—J. Ray this may be particularly about you so if we have the camera move to you—that your funding connection with the Russia government but not your audiences. There’s no mention of Russia or Ruptly on the Facebook pages. Why is that?
SPARKS: Because that’s standard industry practice. We get this question a lot, and it’s a funny question to me because why does Great Big Story not put CNN on their Facebook page? Why does CNN not put Time Warner on their Facebook page? The audience is not interested in these things. I worked for Comedy Central for many years. No one ever knew that Comedy Central was owned by MTV and that MTV was owned by Viacom. These were things that you had to discover as a more esoteric audience within the industry. The general audience never is interested in these things and the standard practice is to just simply not mention them because the audience is not interested.
GRIFFIN: The production company behind RT has registered in the U.S. as a foreign agent. Maffick is a separate company but of course under the same umbrella and operates in the U.S. Why is Maffick not registered under the FARA Act?
SPARKS: We just incorporated seven months ago. We’re way too small to have a U.S. subsidiary. We are a small German company. And we have a network of freelancers and contractors with whom we can work with in many locations, including the U.S., but we are nowhere near launching in the U.S.
GRIFFIN: Well you certainly have audiences in the U.S. and you have employees in the U.S… [cutoff]
SPARKS: We do not have employees in the U.S.
GRIFFIN: You employ people in the U.S.
SPARKS: We contract the services of a lot of people, and some of them are in the U.S.
GRIFFIN: So, how would you describe those people? They’re not employees, but they’re employed?
SPARKS: In some cases, they might be freelance. In other cases, they might be legal vendors. We sometimes get people through agency platforms. There’s Upwork. There’s Storyhunter. There’s many different ways to contract human resources without having to make the commitment of setting up a subsidiary company and paying people full time and insurance and all that stuff.
KHALEK: Can I go back to a question that Drew asked? There’s something that Drew asked. You asked about – you said views aligning with the Kremlin.
I think that this is a very, very dangerous way of thinking because then you get into a territory where, okay, say I’m antiwar. Say that Trump right now is threatening a military intervention against Venezuela. If I oppose that, which the Russian government I think does and so do other governments in the world. They also oppose it.
But if I oppose U.S. war, does that automatically mean I’m going to be accused of being aligned with the Kremlin? And with this Russia hysteria that we’re experiencing now, I feel like this is a very, very dangerous McCarthyist tactic to start saying that leftist views, antiwar views are just the Kremlin government’s talking points.
GRIFFIN: Okay, J. Ray, back to the media ownership-FARA Act thing, we talked to media critics. Well, actually, business model folks and others who think there’s so much negative publicity surrounding a Russian label, especially in the world of journalistic freedom, that your company is probably purposely distancing itself from any kind of public or branding related to Russia. Is that true? In terms of trying to grow this company and grow these channels, it would be wise that you did not have any kind of connection with Russia available to the public?
SPARKS: No, I don’t think that’s true.
GRIFFIN: Then again, why wouldn’t you just openly label your funding source on this product, especially since it is a funding of a government?
SPARKS: Again, we are completely open about those facts. Again, it is standard industry practice to put your brand on the front page. No one including CNN puts information about their parent companies on their Facebook pages.
KHALEK: I want to add to that as well, just a quick comment.
GRIFFIN: Well, hold on, Rania. I’ll give you a chance. But just for this camera situation. You mention public broadcasting and certainly for public broadcasting, PBS in the United States does exactly what you have said you shouldn’t do. So what is the difference?
SPARKS: You’re saying that if I go to NPR’s Facebook page, it will say something about Corporation for Public Broadcasting?
GRIFFIN: No, you mentioned in the beginning of our interview that the reason that Russia was providing some funding to you was similar to a PBS kind of setup. And umm — [cutoff]
SPARKS: Well, the structure is the same because at the very top of the Russian system you have a nonprofit corporation that is dedicated to the purpose of state-funded media, very similar to Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the States or DW in Germany or France24 in France, of course. And the list goes on and on. It’s the way that almost every country structures its state-funded media.
GRIFFIN: Right. And the PBS channels in the United States fully acknowledge that to their audiences. You do not.
KHALEK: AJ Plus doesn’t.
SPARKS: I honestly don’t know the details of how PBS does it. But our audience is younger, more faster, and more mobile. And AJ Plus, Qatar’s state-funded digital news outlet, don’t mention that the AJ stands for Al Jazeera, or that Al Jazeera is funded by the state government of Qatar. And, again, the reason for not mentioning these things is not to hide them. It’s because the audience is not interested in those kinds of details.
GRIFFIN: Rania, you wanted to say something?
KHALEK: I was – I was just going to add the issue of AJ Plus. I mean, are you running around asking AJ Plus the same questions? Are you running around asking TRT the same questions? I mean, they all function the same way. This seems like a bit of a witch hunt after anything that’s affiliated with Russia.
GRIFFIN: Right. J. Ray, you answered the question I think of why Maffick is not registered as a business in the U.S. You do have multiple people working for the company based here. You haven’t registered as a business here. The workers here tell us they are paid through LLCs and then the money comes from a bank in Germany.
Is this just a complete business decision made [cross-talk] a way to get around the cumbersome rules of business?
SPARKS: It’s mostly a way to keep everything square for the German tax authorities. Umm, it’s better for us to setup. If we know we want to have a long term relationship with a particular freelance contractor that’s outside of Germany, then it makes the business structure better if they are setup as their own company so that we’re dealing with them as a vendor instead of having employees that are outside of the German jurisdiction and so forth. And so our employees are all in Berlin,
GRIFFIN: Yeah. How many employees do you have currently in Berlin on staff?
SPARKS: On staff in Berlin, we have 10.
GRIFFIN: Rania, this most likely will be for you. You know, journalists who have worked for RT, Sputnik say without a doubt editorial content and control decisions are made by and for the Russian government. That’s what some of them have told us.
You—I just want to kind of re-ask the same question because it’s an important one for us—you say that there’s absolutely no influence from the Kremlin or the Russian government on your particular product. Do you get any kind of editorial involvement from anyone other than yourself?
KHALEK: No, I do all the research, and I write the scripts. The only thing I get is fact checking, which is pretty standard.
And I really feel lucky that I have the freedom to work somewhere where I can do that, where I can choose my own topics, write my own scripts, and produce my own content without input from anybody else. Anissa trust mes. And she trusts my abilities as a journalist and so I do it all myself.
GRIFFIN: And how do you describe your overall editorial view of the world? Because it is a one viewpoint just by definition view.
KHALEK: Politically speaking, I consider myself a leftist. I consider myself an anti-imperialist and that’s the position I’m coming from partly because of the part of the world my family’s from. My family’s from a part of the world that’s been negatively impacted by U.S. wars, by U.S. bombing campaigns, by U.S. proxy wars.
So, that really does drive my passion. And also again I’m an American and so I really do care about the destructive impact of the policies that are being enacted by my government.
SPARKS: We don’t have any kind of editorial input from the RT system or there is no editorial system at Ruptly. And if that seems unbelievable to you then the most that I can do to explain it to you is to say they trust Anissa Naoui to manage her own project and In the Now and Maffick and Waste-Ed and Back Then and all of our planned verticals come from her, from her vision, from her politics, from her editorial filter. And that’s 100 percent of the extent of that.
GRIFFIN: And we’ve seen nothing in content—and you say you’re going to provide a list, which we will gladly accept and take a look at—but we’ve seen nothing that the Kremlin would be particularly concerned about. So, there perhaps is no reason for any outreach because the two seem completely in line.
KHALEK: Well, I would say that — [pause to move camera] – I would say that CNN’s coverage of foreign policy seems completely in line with the U.S. State Department. [pause] That’s all.
GRIFFIN: But there doesn’t seem to be any distance between the Kremlin view and all of the channels that are supported under Maffick.
SPARKS: I would disagree with that statement. And I think that if you compare the way that even Russia Today manages their editorial process to the way that the editorial process is managed at Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting you would find that RT pales in comparison to how well those other two organizations do propaganda.
GRIFFIN: Okay. Couple of follow-up just clean up questions – Oh My Goddable is a Facebook page that’s out there. It follows all three of your Facebook pages, but there’s nothing on it. Is this going to be another branch of Maffick or are you trying to grow this page?
SPARKS: Yes, this is a channel that has – Its launch has been delayed, but I think maybe. Hopefully, the brand speaks for itself. It’s focused on these sort of stories that make you go, Oh my god! But we weren’t satisfied by the performance we were getting from the contractor we had involved with that from the beginning, and so we had to sever that relationship, which is probably why we’re sitting here talking to you now.
GRIFFIN: Are there additional launches planned?
SPARKS: Yes, absolutely. We want to fully launch Oh My Goddable. That’s in the works. We want to expand our production with our most successful new channel, which is Waste-Ed, which is the one that is really nearest and dearest to our mission.
We really feel like we need to get beyond some of the more contentious issues of politics and social differences and focus on uniting around sustainability and defeating climate change, giving our children a sustainable future. It doesn’t matter whether those children are Russian or American. They all need to survive.
GRIFFIN: Is there any relationship with Margarita Simonyen?
J. RAY: Margarita is the—Okay, Margarita is the head of RT certainly. I can’t really speak in detail to her precise title. She is a young powerful woman in Russia, who has been friends with Anissa Naouai for many, many years. They both worked for Russia Today for a long time. They’re both women in their 30s, who are in positions of power at the network, and I think that their friendship and relationship as professionals definitely plays into the level of independence that Anissa is granted.
GRIFFIN: Is her viewpoint – is her advice sought out as you grow these channels?
GRIFFIN: Guys, I’m at the end of my questions. Is there anything that either one of you would like to add or both of you would like to add? I just ask that you give the photographer time to zoom in on you if you do.
SPARKS: Umm, I’ll add something. I don’t expect you to use it, but I want to share it because this is, uh— [camera direction issue]
I want to share it because this is honestly part of what motivates me to be involved with this project as an American.
I am of an age that I grew up in the 1980s under constant fear as a young boy of nuclear holocaust because Russia was going to bomb us. Because Russia was going to destroy the world, and we have to destroy them back and we would destroy the world in the process. And it was a terrible way to feel as a child, and I now—Now I have a partner who is of a similar age and happens to be from Russia. We did not meet in Russia. We met in Berlin. But she has the exact same stories in reverse of being a young girl in Moscow.
And hearing these stories coming from their side—oh, we have to be afraid of this nuclear holocaust because the Americans are going to bomb us. We would never start a war. That would only be the Americans. The Americans! The Americans! The Americans! And now we hear in the media all the time, the Russians! The Russians! The Russians!
It’s time I think—and I would love to see this come from CNN and all of mainstream American media, especially MSNBC, stop saying the Russians. The Russians are the Russian people. Like I’m an American and I disagree with a lot of things that my government does. I definitely don’t want to be lumped in with my government. I don’t want to hear somebody say the Americans, but they’re really talking about my government and they’re including me with that.
I have marched in the streets of DC in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. I’ve done all other kinds of political aspects of activism in the U.S. system and what I found when I accepted this job and I went to Moscow was what my perceptions of what Russians were like and what Moscow was like were all wrong.
Like, Americans and Russians are a lot more alike than they are different. The people are a lot more alike than they are different. The governments have problems with each other, and if the governments can’t work out those problems and move on, we’re going to kill the planet, and it won’t matter whether you’re Russian, or German, or English, or American.
GRIFFIN: Great. Rania, is there anything?
KHALEK: No. I think I said everything I needed to.