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The unusual origins behind the splashiest, newest political news site

The launch of the website Grid earlier this month represented the latest bet that the market for explainer journalism still exists in the digital space.

But unlike others in the field, Grid has a unique origin story, one that involves early ties to a global consulting firm best known for its crisis communications management and lobbying work on behalf of foreign governments, most notably the United Arab Emirates.

Months before Grid brought on board any writers or staff, the new digital media organization hired APCO Worldwide to help with its launch. The global marketing and consulting firm, which is headquartered in D.C. but is a registered lobbyist for various clients based in the UAE, confirmed to POLITICO that it “provided consulting services for Grid during the first half of 2021.”

A spokesperson said it has no continuing role with the digital news organization, which launched earlier this month. And Laura McGann, Grid’s top editor, said in a statement that APCO did not win a competitive bidding process for a PR contract for the site. The contract, instead, has gone to DKC News, which does public relations work for Grid.

But Grid maintains links to APCO, which represents a number of major UAE clients, including the company’s state-owned oil company.

Former CNN journalist John Defterios, who has been based in the UAE for a decade, is a senior adviser at APCO and represents International Media Investments, a UAE-based investment fund, on Grid’s board, of which he is one of five members. IMI was one of Grid’s two initial investors, at least partially responsible for the$10 million the site raised prior to its launch. It is unclear how much of that $10 million came from IMI and how much came from the other investor, tech executive Brian Edelman.

It’s also unclear what Defterios’ professional relationship is with IMI. Defterios did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, an APCO spokesperson said there was “no connection between APCO and Grid through John Defterios,” and that his work on the Grid board is separate from his advisory role with APCO. McGann said, “Defterios was appointed to our board by one of our investors, IMI, to advise on business matters only” and that he “has no say in editorial.”

“I am the executive editor of Grid,” said McGann. “Let me make this perfectly clear: APCO played no role in building or launching Grid. That accomplishment is on my shoulders and the team I hired. We are an independent news organization, free from the influence of investors, sponsors and advertisers.”

The Washington Free Beacon first reported Grid News’ ties to APCO earlier on Tuesday. Following the story’s publication, Grid’s leadership emailed staff saying that the article was “false,” and the organization had “no contact with the UAE royal family.”

Industry insiders say it is rare to see a major new media venture with links to a global firm that has prominent nation-state clients, and that it could raise questions as the news site covers the conduct of those clients in the context of U.S. politics.

Half a dozen media executives who have set up or helped finance media companies who were interviewed for this article said the role APCO played and presence of one of the firm’s senior advisers on the board of a news startup was unusual. One media executive, who would speak frankly about competition only on condition of anonymity, said it was “bizarre.”

Grid was founded by Mark Bauman, a former ABC News correspondent and National Geographic executive, and is headed up by McGann, a former editorial director at Vox. The site has brought on a number of well-respected journalists and contributors — including Matt Yglesias and Chris Geidner — and has focused broadly on politics and international news through an analytical lens.

APCO’s work in the news business has come under scrutiny in the past.

In 2011, the BBC and CNBC abruptly canceled several shows after it was discovered they were part of a secretive effort by the production company FactBased Communications to create pro-Malaysian content. FBC, it was revealed, had been paid millions of dollars by the Malaysian government and had hired APCO for the purpose of “raising awareness of the importance of policies in Malaysia that are pro-business and pro-investment.” APCO then proceededto pay several conservative bloggers— including Ben Domenech (who went on to found The Federalist) and Seth Mandel (now an editor at the Washington Examiner) — to write about U.S.-Malaysian relations, which attacked critics of the Malaysian regime.

Defterios faced questions about his role in the Malaysian influence-peddling story. When the scandal broke in 2011, he had just recently left his post as FBC’s president for a Middle East reporting role at CNN, and was criticized for asking then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak softball questions just a week after state police arrested hundreds of protesters demanding electoral reform. CNN backed Defterios, saying that he had not violated the network’s rules at the time. He left the network last year.

IMI’s investment in Grid is another instance of Persian Gulf-based institutions putting significant financial backing behind American media organizations.

The Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a Riyadh-based media company with close ties to the government, invested $200 million in Penske Media Group, which owns the Hollywood Reporter, Rolling Stone, Variety, Deadline, Billboard, and others. Vice has also partnered with the SRMG on projects in the region, leading some staff to grow concerned about the company’s work with the Saudis.

Qatar has also continued to back various U.S. media projects including Al Jazeera, AJ+, its successful social video service, and Rightly, its recently-shuttered conservative news spinoff. But AJ+ has run into headwinds from the U.S. government, which forced thedigital news network to register as a foreign agent under FARA in 2020.

While not an explicit state actor, IMI has its own ties to the government in its home country. IMI is reportedly a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, a private company owned by the half-brother of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. One of IMI’s top executives, Mann El Aydi, is also a senior executive at ADNOC, the UAE’s state-owned oil company (and also a APCO client).

Some political critics on the right have already used the Emirati funding of Grid to dismiss the publication’s work. Christina Pushaw, a former press secretary for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who became a social media darling on the right after being briefly suspended from Twitter for harassing an Associated Press reporter, mocked the site’s mission of diversity and inclusivity as being at odds with those of the country where one of its primary investors is based.

McGann emphatically denied that Grid’s investors have any say in the organization’s editorial content.

Hailey Fuchs contributed to this report.

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