March 8, 2022

Last week, The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood wrote about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in “Absolute Power.” Wood even talked to Salman for the story about a variety of topics with, apparently, no subject off limits.

In the story, Wood asked if he had ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. (A year ago, the Biden administration determined that the crown prince had “approved” the murder.)

Salman told Wood that it was “obvious” that he did not order Khashoggi’s murder, adding, “It hurt me a lot. It hurt me and it hurt Saudi Arabia, from a feelings perspective. … I understand the anger, especially among journalists. I respect their feelings. But we also have feelings here, pain here.”

Then Salman said, “I never read a Khashoggi article in my life.” Then, incredibly, he said that if he did order death for those who wrote about him critically, “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.”

There, of course, was much more to Wood’s story.

But Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah heavily criticized Wood’s piece in her column: “The Atlantic’s elevation of MBS is an insult to journalism.”

Attiah wrote, “Most sickeningly, The Atlantic gave MBS a platform to not only continue his absurd denials of having anything to do with Jamal’s murder (even though it was carried out by figures in his close circle and the CIA concluded he gave the order to capture or kill), but also to present himself as the real victim.”

Attiah also wrote, “It would have been one thing for the Atlantic to drill MBS on his role in Jamal’s assassination. Instead, MBS was allowed to denigrate Jamal, saying he wasn’t important enough to kill.”

Attiah closed by writing, “‘Absolute Power’ is an insult to Jamal’s memory and to journalism. When history looks back at this period, this Atlantic piece will shine as an example of how the path to the resurgence of brutal, global authoritarianism is paved in no small part by the worst aspects of access journalism in the United States.”

The Atlantic, in a statement, told Attiah, “We encourage people to read Graeme Wood’s story for themselves. The 12,000-word piece addresses issues about Saudi governance, religion, and society, and also addresses various manifestations of MBS’s autocratic and repressive rule.”

Even before The Post column, others had criticized Wood’s piece for making Salman look sympathetic.

So Wood wrote another piece for The Atlantic: “Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats.”

Wood wrote, “Any publication bragging that it is too sanctimonious to accept an invitation to interview the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is admitting it cannot cover Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic is not in the business of sanctimony, and it expects its readers to understand, without being told, that someone who dwells on his own indignities as the result of a murder, rather than on the suffering of the victim, might not be the perfect steward of absolute power.”

Wood pushed back on those who criticized him for writing that Salman was “charming” and “intelligent,” writing, “… if you think charm and intelligence are incompatible with being a sociopath, then your years in Washington, D.C., have taught you less than nothing.”

The argument some made against interviewing the crown prince is that it’s like giving him a platform to spew his ideas and lies.

But Wood wrote, “‘Giving a platform’ — to use the cliche that imprisons the minds of those who don’t know how journalism is done, or what its purpose is — is not a favor bestowed on important people. It is an invitation to walk the boards and fall through trap doors. And that is exactly what Saudi officials themselves, whose past two days have been spent desperately fluffing pillows for a soft landing below, seem to think their ruler did.”

There still isn’t a consensus on this. Some believe that The Atlantic handed Salman a megaphone and didn’t do enough to tamp down his lies. Others believe that The Atlantic story showed Salman for what he is, which is quite possibly a sociopath.

This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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