The firing of Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon is the rare media story with potential real-world consequences. As the Associated Press reported this week, one of Solomon’s sources, an Iranian-American businessman (and sometimes-CIA gun-runner) named Farhad Azima, had offered the journalist a 10 percent stake in an inevitably-failed defense and intelligence-related business venture. The AP found incriminating text messages and emails in the course of reporting out an investigative profile of Azima, who had a hand in the Iran-Contra scandal and who is now being investigated in multiple countries for a hotel kickback scheme allegedly involving Iranian nationals who were under U.S. sanctions. WSJ promptly fired Solomon on Wednesday.
It’s ironic that Solomon’s career was derailed over a possible business deal with someone who was himself allegedly in business with sanctions-busting Iranians. Among straight-news reporters, the Iranian government had fewer obstacles bigger than Solomon, who had a hand in breaking nearly every major Iran-related story of recent years. Last year, he broke news of the Obama administration’s secret $400 million cash transfer to Iran, part of a quid-pro-quo that freed four American prisoners that the regime had been holding. Solomon was deeply sourced in Asia, Washington, and the Middle East, and reported extensively on the relationship between North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and Iran’s. His 2016 book, The Iran Wars, is one of the definitive accounts of Obama-era U.S. policy toward the country and was widely read as being critical of the former president’s approach.
Solomon told the AP he “never entered into any business with [Azima], nor did I intend to.” The AP’s story never accuses Solomon of receiving any money from Azima, either. Text messages suggest that Solomon agreed to convey a $725 million arms-deal proposal to a government representative of the United Arab Emirates, with Azima texting him “the best of luck” on “his first defense sale.” That isn’t quite as illuminating as it seems: The AP does not report what, if anything, Solomon actually did to advance the proposed transaction. It’s possible that Solomon did nothing and was going to unusual lengths to keep Azima as a close source. That’s the theory of one longtime Washington, D.C., Iran player: “Jay is the most influential and insider-y reporter investigating Iran. … To anyone who understands how journalism actually gets produced, these emails produced by the AP look ultimately innocent, because they’re just a journalist schmoozing a source.” The source noted that the AP didn’t find any documents with Solomon’s signature on them.
Still, at a minimum, whatever source maintenance Solomon performed with Azima looks ethically compromising: The UAE is essentially an enemy state of Iran, the country Solomon is now best known for covering. And even as a reporting tactic, exploring business partnerships with a source is a major conflict of interest, including in instances where that source doesn’t have a 30-year history of unsavory activities. Good reporters often have to be tolerant of scoundrels—after all, useful and important information isn’t solely the possession of laudable or law-abiding people. Comfort with sleaze can be a crucial journalistic qualification, and because sleaze is endlessly fascinating, proximity to human nature’s grayer, darker regions is part of what draws certain people to the reporting profession in the first place. This might have been the case with Solomon. A Washington, D.C.-based Middle East analyst who knows Solomon rejects the notion that the reporter was out for a big payday in his relationship with Azima, saying that Solomon “loves to banter, basically.” As a journalist, he was “meticulous about sourcing, and that was his blessing and his curse.”
The result is that Solomon entered into an unethical relationship with Azima regardless of what, if anything, was exchanged between them. Solomon’s career now becomes a cautionary tale for journalists whose work takes them into moral gray zones—and removes a hard-hitting reporter on the Iranian regime’s actions from the scene at a time when relations between Washington and Tehran threaten to get messier.