The duplicity of Axios

Axios scolded the media for paying attention to Sam Nunberg's wild media tour. There's something else going on.

Executive Editor of Axios Mike Allen speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017 on May 16, 2017 in New York City.  (CREDIT: Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
Executive Editor of Axios Mike Allen speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017 on May 16, 2017 in New York City. (CREDIT: Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

On Monday, former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg gave a series of wild interviews on television and radio. Nunberg went on the media circuit after special counsel Bob Mueller served him with a subpoena. Over the course of a few hours, Nunberg suggested Trump himself could ultimately be implicated, accused a campaign aide of colluding with Russia, said he didn’t care about going to jail, and was confronted about whether he was drunk during an interview.

Axios’ Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei deemed Nunberg’s broadcast comments “awful scandal porn.”

Allen and VandeHei describe Nunberg’s media appearances on Monday as a “sad, epic meltdown — a troubled Trump flunky, pecked at and picked apart like roadkill on the Russia Interstate, in his last gasps of public fame and shame.”

Both Right-wing pundits and Donald Trump Jr. alike echoed that sentiment.

Nunberg’s cable news appearances on Monday afternoon did create a spectacle partially fueled by political reporters making jokes about him on Twitter. But Axios’ suggestion that Nunberg’s public comments were not newsworthy is contradicted by the facts — and by Axios’ own reporting. It raises the question of why Axios is making this point. Is it an altruistic and pure expression of media ideals? Or are pieces like this part of a strategy to enhance their own access?

Axios used Nunberg as an anonymous source two days ago

On March 4, Axios published a blind item entitled “Scoop: Mueller’s hit list.” The piece was a summary of “a Grand Jury subpoena that Robert Mueller’s team sent to a witness last month.”

That witness was Sam Nunberg. Axios, without naming Nunberg, wrote that the subpeona revealed “Mueller’s team could easily stumble into goodies about Trump’s inner circle given so many people are coughing up material.”

Axios believed the details of the subpeona was newsworthy enough to cite anonymously on March 4. But on March 6, when Nunberg began to publicly discuss his subpoena with other outlets, it was no longer news.

Also, as Washingtonian notes, Axios covered the interviews on Monday extensively:

Zachary Basu aggregated Nunberg’s Washington Post and MSNBC interviews.
Basu and Lauren Meier typed up highlights from Nunberg’s CNN interview.
Axios’ afternoon email, written by Allen, aggregated highlights from three Nunberg interviews.
An unbylined piece advanced the story with a quote Nunberg gave the AP, illustrated with a screenshot of Nunberg on CNN.

Nunberg was a key Trump aide at a critical time in Trump’s political career

Axios dismisses Nunberg as someone with no meaningful connection to Trump. But Nunberg served as a top aide to Trump for an extended period of time in 2014 and 2015, including the launch of his presidential campaign. He was one of the few people who would be familiar with Trump’s thinking and private activities at that time.

Even after Nunberg was fired from the campaign for his racist Facebook posts, he remained in contact with Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant, and Steve Bannon, who held top leadership positions in the campaign and the White House.

Nunberg’s friends may say he has nothing to offer Mueller, but Mueller disagrees

Axios’ assessment seems to be based on conversations with Nunberg’s friends, a group that likely includes Trump loyalists. “One of Nunberg’s friends was furious, telling Axios that the anchors were knowingly taking advantage of an obviously fragile man,”  Allen and VandeHei write.

They also quote their colleague, Jonathan Swann, who tweeted that “[n]obody who knows Sam thinks he has anything interesting to offer Mueller.”

Bob Mueller himself appears to disagree.

Mueller spent time interviewing Nunberg and, after the interview, issued a subpoena requesting documents from Nunberg. Mueller wouldn’t waste his time with someone who he was certain has no valuable information to offer. According to Mueller’s indictment of Russian operatives, the Russian influence campaign began when Nunberg’s influence on Trump was at its nadir.

Nunberg offers rare insight into Mueller’s strategy

Nunberg is perhaps the only person questioned by Mueller and his team who is openly talking about it. In his interviews Monday, he discussed the nature of the questions asked by the special counsel’s office. There is much speculation about Mueller’s intentions. Nunberg is one of the few people with actual information about Mueller’s approach.

Axios criticized the coverage of Nunberg as an example of why “America hates the media.” But is being “liked” something the media should concern itself with?

This gets to the core of the problem with Axios’ brand of media. It’s is a relatively new outlet that quickly rose to prominence through an impressive series of scoops from the White House. These kind of scoops, however, rely on people at the White House liking Axios and its reporters. In criticizing the Nunberg coverage, Axios is ingratiating itself more with the White House, increasing their chances of receiving more scoops.

It seems that Nunberg himself learned something from his media circuit. In an interview Tuesday with the Daily Caller, Nunberg said that he would comply with the subpoena — citing advice he received during an appearance this week on MSNBC.

Nunberg told TheDC he is now undergoing the process of complying with Mueller’s subpoena by sifting through and copying his emails. He credited his decision to comply to the counsel of Professor Maya Wiley, whom he spoke with live on air during a Monday appearance on Ari Melber’s MSNBC show. Nunberg stressed he still “doesn’t know” if he will appear Friday before investigators as requested.

These comments suggest this interview, which was one of the appearances Axios derided as “exploitative,” may help keep Nunberg out of jail.