Jacobi Niv had paid Larry King a few thousand dollars apiece to narrate half a dozen videos for companies or projects in Israel, where King is still a big name. But what Niv wanted King to tape on March 27, 2019, wasn't the usual infomercial. It was more like a disinfomercial.
An Israeli with designer clothes, a buzz cut and a long history of failed businesses and inflated credentials, Niv had known King for nearly a decade. King sometimes taped Niv's promotional videos at the same Glendale, California, studio where the longtime television host filmed "Larry King Now" and "PoliticKING" for Ora Media, the digital TV network he started with his wife, Shawn. The crew resented the way Niv would stride into their homey, basic studio, bringing extra work for them. But he had ingratiated himself with King, in part by sending him lavish floral arrangements and other expensive gifts on Jewish holidays, King and others said.
That morning, Niv emailed a script to King's executive producer, Jason Rovou, who recognized that it wasn't Niv's typical fare. It was about China, not Israel, and the content appeared to be news-related.
After a 300-word preamble on the U.S. trade deficit with China, King was to introduce a guest, Russian journalist Anastasia Dolgova. The first of King's scripted questions for her was open-ended: "How can we strengthen the relationship between the 2 countries?"
It soon got more pointed. "Dolgova, you wanted to present us with a case that you mentioned on your show as well," the script read. "There were several Chinese people who worked in China and allegedly committed crimes there who then fled to the United States and Europe, continuing on with their normal lives while leaving many angry people behind."
Dolgova's answers were not in the script. They were plugged in separately. King was expected to tape his questions without speaking to her. His skill at the give-and-take of interviewing, of sensing the moment and asking the right question that draws a revealing response, would not be of any use.
How Larry King unwittingly starred in Chinese propaganda
Rovou sensed trouble. The idea of lending the set — and his boss's reputation — to a potentially controversial video that Ora couldn't control disturbed him, according to three people familiar with the incident. Rovou worried that King could be helping a foreign government spread false information, reminiscent of Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — a topic King routinely discussed with guests on "PoliticKING."
When Niv showed up at the studio, intent on making the video, the usually laid-back Rovou confronted him. "It annoyed the holy hell out of Jason, like I've never seen him," said Ian Smith, then a director at Ora. "Jason, to his face, told him how annoyed he was with him. Everyone knew he didn't like what Larry was being asked to do."
Niv took Rovou's outburst in stride. "Jason didn't want to do this video, not this video, any video," Niv recalled. "He would say, 'Why do you come here without telling me in advance?' So I told him, 'Look Jason, I set it up with Larry.'"
Rovou implored King not to do the video. King waved away his concerns. The then-85-year-old host, who was in poor health, also made it clear that shooting elsewhere — he occasionally taped Niv's videos at a Beverly Hills hotel — would be a burden.
Defeated, the crew gathered around the chestnut-colored wood-paneled set of "Larry King Now," an Emmy-nominated interview show that has featured more than 1,000 guests from Oprah Winfrey to Harrison Ford. Staff loaded the teleprompter and started filming. In the same white shirt, blue floral tie and black suspenders that he wore for an episode of "PoliticKING" taped that day, King ran through the monologue and the string of questions, the last being, "I'm amazed, are you sure that the story you are telling here is real and authentic?" He concluded, "We will continue to bring you interesting stories."
Early that afternoon, Rovou emailed a link of the raw footage to Niv.
"Ora can't do favor tapings," Rovou wrote. "I just can't have this dropped on me again."
* * *
Rovou's fears were well-founded. In the twilight of a remarkable radio and television career spanning more than six decades, battling health problems but determined to stay in the public eye, King was ensnared in an international disinformation scheme. Based on social media analysis and the retracing of a trail that wound through two Israeli entrepreneurs to Ora's California studio, it appears that the Chinese government, possibly in concert with Russia, manipulated an American broadcasting icon.
"It's unfortunate that Larry found himself unwittingly being exploited," said Ora's CEO, John Dickey. "I've seen it over the years. He'll talk to anybody. He'll give access to anybody, to a fault. He loves to mentor. He loves to be available. With a star that shines as bright as his, you're going to have some people come into your orbit who are not positive. … This was obviously not right, and in hindsight, I wish it never would have happened. Larry didn't know, and Jason could only protest so much."
Posted on YouTube under the title "Larry King US China Special Conference 2019," and quickly spread by social media accounts linked to Chinese government influence operations, the fake interview went viral across Chinese-language social media, likely reaching hundreds of thousands of users on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
As diplomatic tensions escalate between the U.S. and China, the video demonstrates how foreign disinformation campaigns are growing increasingly aggressive even as they conceal their origins to boost credibility. Social media is only one element of China's far-ranging propaganda efforts. China also disseminates its message on university campuses, where its Confucius Institutes convey a whitewashed view of Chinese history and politics, and its Thousand Talents program aggressively woos top scientists.
The video has other implications as well. By conveying Chinese disinformation through a journalist for Russian media, it may exemplify the increasing media cooperation between the two countries. In addition, it raises questions about whether Niv — and King himself — should have registered as foreign agents on behalf of China.
"This is something that the Department of Justice would certainly be interested in, particularly given the department's emphasis on combating Chinese influence within the United States," said Matthew Sanderson, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in the Foreign Agents Registration Act. "Who was calling the shots and who is behind the interview?"
In the video, King appears to conduct a live interview with Dolgova, who according to her LinkedIn profile is the head of the International Department at Russian state-linked broadcaster REN TV, and used to be an editor and news analyst for the state-owned Russia-24 channel. The topic is Guo Wengui, a wealthy Chinese dissident who lives in Manhattan. Chinese authorities contend that Guo committed crimes in China, including rape and kidnapping, and they have unsuccessfully sought his deportation from the U.S.
Dolgova, who appears to be reading from a script in a home office, hits the key points of the Chinese government's position, warning the U.S. against granting Guo political asylum: "The U.S. has really gambled with someone like him," she says. "He's actually fled his country from criminal felonies, such as corruption, bribery, money laundering and even sexual harassment." Guo's case, she adds, sends a "dangerous message. ... If you are wealthy, bring your millions to America and all will be forgiven."
When King asks, "Could such events affect the relationship between the countries, and how?" Dolgova responds, "This is all happening in the middle of a trade war truce, so peace between Washington and Beijing. We have got days to go before the truce is over and a deal is set to be struck. … Now, we have this criminal that the U.S. is protecting because he's a poster boy for free speech even with his long criminal track record." She sums up: "It isn't even about U.S.-China relations anymore. It's about doing the right thing."
* * *
In two emails to ProPublica and two phone interviews, Niv initially maintained that the video was nothing out of the ordinary. He said that Itai Rapoport, an Israeli former journalist who runs a production company, had approached him and "asked to sign a deal where Larry was to host an online conference" about U.S.-China relations, covering the economy, immigration and history. "We started with one episode about Chinese people with influence who moved to the U.S."
The 36-year-old Niv said he had "no idea" who Guo was. He said that Rapoport provided the script and offered Dolgova as an expert because she had researched the topic. "Larry asked her questions, like he would do in any other conference," Niv said. "...It was a very simple conference hosting work."
However, Niv later acknowledged having had increasing qualms about the video as it continued to circulate on social media despite his efforts, at the urging of King's wife, to take it down. "The only time that I got suspicious that something is not right is when I kept looking at the video again and again and again," he said. "When I removed it, it kept coming back to YouTube."
Dolgova and Rapoport declined to comment. "Unfortunately now is not the good time," Dolgova wrote in a Facebook message.
"Unfortunately I cannot talk about my clients," Rapoport said. "It's very private."
In a telephone interview, King expressed remorse and bewilderment. He said he is not familiar with Guo or Rapoport and hasn't watched the video. "To me, it was just a small favor for a guy who I like," he said. "I have no idea what it was for."
Niv, he said, "gave me some cockamamie reason" for doing the video. "It sounded like I was helping someone in need," King said. "I never should have done it, obviously."
He added, "I was stupid. I did what he asked me to do. But I felt sorry for him. I regret having done it, but I had no idea it got international scale. … Obviously, he used me."
King said he occasionally tapes questions for infomercials or convention videos in advance, without conducting a live interview. While he recalls little of the circumstances of the Dolgova video, he said, Niv would have encouraged him to participate by saying that it was connected to Israel. Whenever Niv pitched him on an infomercial, King said, "it was never without Israel being mentioned, because that would appeal to my instinct as a Jew. He would say, 'It's going to be very helpful for us.'"
"That's all I know. It came and went."
* * *
ProPublica found that the Chinese government was involved in distributing the video. Our analysis of data released by Twitter showed that nearly 250 fake accounts linked to China's government shared nearly 40 different links to the video a total of more than 500 times. Around half of those fake accounts had more than 10,000 followers.
One Facebook account sharing the video purportedly belonged to "Gabrielle Mcdowell," but the account's profile photo was lifted from a photoshoot for a Chinese model named Xu Yanxin. The account owner, whose posts were in Chinese, shared no personal details.
Such tactics are characteristic of China's growing manipulation of social media to attack its perceived enemies, including dissidents like Guo, Hong Kong protesters, Taiwan and the U.S. Although Twitter is blocked in mainland China, officials there in recent years have increasingly used it to spread disinformation aimed at influencing the Chinese diaspora, Westerners and others globally. Foreign Ministry officials have signed up for Twitter accounts en masse, with officials overtly spreading conspiracy theories, including one that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan. The Chinese embassy didn't respond to emailed questions for this article.
A Guo supporter, in a Chinese-language tweet to more than 20,000 followers, wondered about Dolgova's role. "There are so many Sino-U.S. relations experts in China and the United States. Why did the big-name host decide to interview a Russian journalist with broken English?"
But borrowing foreign media like Dolgova is part of the Chinese state media playbook. "They procure a Russian journalist to act as the mouthpiece for the content they want to put out there," said Roman Sannikov, a cybersecurity researcher who has looked into the spread of disinformation from Russia. "It's too obvious to have a Chinese person."
* * *
As his career has wound down, King has maintained a presence on American screens thanks in part to Russian state media.
At his peak from 1985 to 2010, as host of CNN's "Larry King Live," King was arguably America's foremost television interviewer of politicians and celebrities. Guests included Nelson Mandela and every U.S. president since Richard Nixon; O.J. Simpson called into the show the day after he was acquitted of double murder in 1995. A Brooklyn native with a mellow, rumbling voice, King was an American original, known not only for his affable manner and easy banter, but also for his trademark suspenders, support for Israel and eight marriages. A member of both the national Radio and Broadcasting halls of fame, he's twice won the Peabody Award, and he has also hosted the awards ceremony.
In his last month on CNN, December 2010, King interviewed Barbra Streisand, Angelina Jolie and Al Pacino, and two people who would influence the next stage of his career: Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim and then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Without an immediate landing spot, King taped infomercials and other paid interviews. But he still yearned for his own show.
In March 2012, King and Slim announced the creation of Ora, funded by Slim's América Móvil, the Latin American telecom giant. Ora, which means "now" in Italian and is Shawn King's middle name, made several deals in 2013 with the Russian-controlled international news network RT to license and air its shows. The second Ora show that King hosted, "PoliticKING," launched on RT America that June. "PoliticKING" is "a terrific fit for RT's viewers around the world who want to see Larry engage leading lights on the critical issues of the day," Margarita Simonyan, RT's editor-in-chief, said.
RT has been criticized for censoring reporters and spouting the Russian government line. A January 2017 report by U.S. intelligence agencies called RT the Kremlin's "principal international propaganda outlet."
On several "PoliticKING" episodes, King interviewed members of Putin's cabinet. He chatted with Russia's then science and education minister, Dmitry Livanov, about growing tension between the U.S. and Russia in 2015. King also spoke with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in July 2018, an interview touted by RT.
RT has "never interfered" in his programs, King said. "I have a wonderful working agreement with them, they never bother me at all." Ora's Dickey and Anna Belkina, RT's deputy editor in chief, concurred. "Everything we produce and license is unfettered, unbiased, uninfluenced," Dickey said. King's shows, including exclusive content for RT, are Ora's "fully independent productions," Belkina said.
* * *
In September 2018, six months before King taped the Dolgova video, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a ceremony in Vladivostok, Russia. There, the Russian state-controlled Rossiya Segodnya news agency and Chinese state-controlled China Media Group signed an agreement to cooperate in news exchange, joint reporting and distribution, and promotion of each other's reports, especially on social media.
Simonyan, the RT editor in chief who had praised the Ora deal as a "terrific fit," also serves as editor in chief of Rossiya Segodnya. RT hailed the pact as "Russia & Asia working together to create new media language." China Media Group head Shen Haixiong told RT there must be a "framework for strategic media cooperation, especially between Russia and China." (China Media Group was established in 2018 to consolidate China's largest state television and radio companies.) Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Rossiya Segodnya, added that the new partners "need to fully understand how much Russia and Asia complement each other."
The Russia-China partnership reflects the alignment of the two countries' political messaging, as both promote alternatives to liberal democracy in a post-Cold War world. To achieve that goal, the Kremlin is building a "global media conglomerate," said Nataliya Bugayova, a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Russian media outlets have signed more than 50 cooperation agreements with foreign media since 2015, she said. Including the Vladivostok pact, Russian and Chinese state-run news agencies have agreed at least six times since 2017 to share content and technology, according to a study by Bugayova and George Barros.
China has initiated its own partnerships with foreign media organizations, said Louisa Lim, a journalist and senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. About one-half of the journalism unions she recently surveyed in 58 countries had journalists participate in exchanges or training programs sponsored by Chinese organizations. More than one-third reported that their countries had entered into content-sharing agreements with Chinese outlets. Through these partnerships, China is "offering another model of journalism that is ... designed to counter the Western media narrative," she said.
The media relationship with Russia appears to have benefited China. On several occasions, outlets linked to Russia's government have supported Chinese propaganda. In December 2019, for instance, RT aired a documentary that accused the U.S. of colluding with the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
When Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, tweeted that reports of mass detention camps for China's Uighur Muslim minority were the "LIE of the CENTURY," she cited an article in the Grayzone, a website founded by Max Blumenthal, a frequent contributor to RT and the Russian-controlled Sputnik news agency. Similarly, Chinese government spokesperson Zhao Lijian's tweet that the coronavirus originated in the U.S. cited a website previously found by NATO to spread Russian propaganda.
China and Israel are also drawing closer. China has become Israel's second-largest trading partner, behind the U.S., and a Shanghai-based company has a 25-year contract to manage the container terminal of Haifa's seaport. On a May visit to Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that letting China invest in such critical infrastructure was a security risk and would jeopardize "the capacity for America to work alongside Israel on important projects."
* * *
Guo, the subject of the King video, is among the earliest and most frequent targets of China's covert Twitter influence operations, according to an analysis of Twitter-released data by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. ProPublica's own analysis found that more than half of the nearly 30,000 accounts that Twitter has linked to the Chinese government and suspended had targeted Guo in at least one tweet. The tweets call him a liar, a cheat and rapist who should be repatriated — paralleling Dolgova's accusations in the video.
Guo rejected those accusations through his attorney, Daniel Podhaskie. "The fact that Guo is the most targeted individual by the Chinese Communist Party's fake social media arsenal reflects the CCP's fruitless efforts to discredit Guo and silence his campaign to bring freedom to the Chinese people," Podhaskie said.
A real estate developer and investor, Guo fled China in 2014 as the government began to arrest his business associates. The next year, Chinese media began accusing him of wielding political connections for personal gain: most luridly, of gaining control of a luxury hotel development in Beijing by leaking a sex tape — obtained from a top Chinese intelligence official — of an uncooperative city bureaucrat. Chinese authorities have sought his arrest on corruption allegations, which he has denied.
In January 2017, Guo resurfaced in New York. He accused Chinese officials of corruption and called for regime change in live-streamed videos broadcast from his $67.5 million penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. China responded with the Twitter campaign, which began in April 2017.
Guo has made powerful allies in the U.S. He is a member of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, and his associates include former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who has a $1 million contract with Guo's media company for promotional services. On a recent podcast with Bannon, Guo accused China of releasing the novel coronavirus from a Wuhan research lab and covering up the true death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dolgova says in the video that Guo and Bannon "tried to create a fund ... to fight Communism and yet no one has heard of that fund or heard anything from Bannon." In a statement, Bannon said, "This is a war to the knife with the Chinese Communist Party — I'm honored they consider me public enemy #1 against their totalitarian regime."
* * *
Everyone has a different story about how Niv and King first met. Niv told an Israeli magazine that former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent King a letter of introduction. King said he had "no memory of that at all," adding that a former Beverly Hills mayor introduced them. Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told ProPublica that he introduced them at Niv's request around 2011.
Regardless, "I liked him right away," King said in a 2017 interview with an Israeli outlet. "Then we forged this kind of partnership and investment firm. I have a lot of confidence in him, and I think he's a terrific thinker and a futurist — he looks ahead."
King's wife, Shawn, was less enamored of Niv, especially after their experience with businessman Mykalai Kontilai. In the mid-2010s, Kontilai asked the Kings to host a television show called "Collectors Cafe," promoting a collectibles auction website Kontilai planned to launch. The Kings also attended Kontilai's dinners with investors, and Larry introduced him to Slim. Kontilai "for sure" used Larry's credibility to attract and retain investors, King said. Larry taped segments with celebrities including actor Dick Van Dyke, designer Betsey Johnson and rapper Joseph Simmons of Run DMC. The show was never broadcast and the site never launched. In May 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil complaint in federal district court against Kontilai, alleging he misappropriated more than $6.1 million of investors' money to "fund his lavish lifestyle." The case is pending.
Shawn had expressed her distrust of Niv to Larry, but he had shrugged her off, he and others said. In a 2014 letter to the director of a hotel in the Alpine resort of St. Moritz, Switzerland, where Niv was seeking to stay, Niv had referred to "Larry King Now" as "my new show" and to Slim as "my partner." (Niv told ProPublica that his assistant mistakenly used the wrong template.) Such instances led King's manager — Shawn's father, Karl Engemann — and Ora's attorney to send letters in 2014 and 2015 to Niv warning him to stop misrepresenting his relationships with Larry and the company.
Niv is variously described in Israeli news articles and on his Facebook page as president of "Larry King Foundation"; "KING Entertainment Group"; and "Larry King Holding Company." ProPublica could find no such entities, and King said they don't exist. Niv said he made up the names "to describe what we are doing."
"He was obviously playing off my name," King said. "I did sign a few things [with Niv], but they went away because the business went out. ... I said, sure I'll help. And then suddenly it was gone. Then he'd have another thing, and it was gone. He's a wheeler-dealer, but I felt sorry for him. I never envisioned him hurting anyone. But I certainly don't like him using my name without my authority. It's dangerous, what he's doing."
In 2014, Israeli media reported on Niv's launching of the "Israel Silicon Valley Chambers of Commerce" with King and Technion Israel Institute of Technology. ProPublica found no evidence of the organization's existence. Technion spokeswoman Doron Shaham said that "preliminary discussions … did not bear fruit. There has been no interaction with Mr. King or his representatives since then."
Niv's actual businesses mostly failed. In 2004, when Niv was 21, he co-founded Koteret, or Headline in Hebrew, a magazine that attracted well-known Israeli journalists, including Ofri Ilani. When Niv recruited him, "I left my previous job and moved on to Koteret," Ilani recalled. "The wage was low but there was a promise that the magazine would develop and become the Israeli New Yorker." The magazine folded after several issues.
* * *
In 2012, Niv and Larry co-foundedLCI-LifeChanging Internet LLC in California, according to archived versions of its website. It aimed to develop digital platforms and content, and is no longer active. "He is an amateur bad businessperson with an ambition to gain notoriety just through the networking but not necessarily understanding how to launch products," said Calvin Mays, the group's former head of marketing. Niv also formed LK Eyewear LLC, which never got off the ground.
Niv dismissed criticism of his business acumen. "Overall, I'm very happy and proud with my initiatives," he said in an email.
Niv recently established an online store for adult incontinence products. "Our co-founder Larry King is a senior himself," the website says. "...During his own quarantine, he noticed the lack of specialized services for the elderly, many of whom have existing issues with mobility and other forms of accessibility."
In November 2018, an Israeli magazine ran a cover story, "Larry King's Prince," about the friendship between Niv and King, with five photos of them together: King in his suspenders and blue tie, Niv sporting a Burberry shirt in one shot, a Hermes belt in another. Niv boasted of moving in A-list circles: meals with Tina Turner and Rihanna, a trip to a spa with Naomi Campbell.
"Did you know that the legendary interviewer Larry King's right-hand man is Israeli?" the article asked rhetorically.
The article intrigued Rapoport, who had founded his production company in 2007. After reading it, he called Niv, reaching him at a mall in California, Niv said. Rapoport told him that he was impressed by Niv's other videos featuring King and pitched the idea of an online conference about U.S-China relations, Niv said.
"He told me: 'The first video we want to do is about people that went out from China to the U.S. And I have a reporter, she made a study on it, she's very knowledgeable about the case, and Larry can interview her,'" Niv said.
Niv said he recognized Rapoport's name as a former news reporter on an Israeli television channel. Rapoport's firm, which has a number of major Israeli companies as clients, prides itself on making promotional videos that resemble actual news. Its website highlights the effectiveness of this approach with viewers: "84% accept private news as real news!"
Recently, Rapoport's company has done other work related to China. In September 2019, his company shot footage for a video for an Israeli builders' group about the Haifa port, where Shanghai International Port Group won the 25-year deal to operate the container terminal. "The Israelis are running the business here, the Chinese are [putting] in the hard physical work,'" he wrote on his Facebook page at the time. His post included a photo of the flags of Israel, China and SIPG — the Shanghai port operator — flying side by side.
Rapoport's proposal delighted Niv. "I went to Larry, and I told him, 'Larry, look, it's the first time that someone approached me because he knows that I know you,'" Niv said. "'This is what he wants to do, what do you think about it?' He looked at it, he told me, 'Let's do it.'"
One month before the taping at Ora, Rapoport sent Niv a message on WhatsApp, giving him a choice of Dolgova or an Italian journalist as King's video guest. Niv said he picked Dolgova because "she looks better in front of the camera."
Rapoport sent Niv several videos of Dolgova and told him she is "a star" on Russian television, Niv said. "I thought OK, it's someone good to talk with, and that's it."
Niv didn't independently verify Rapoport's information about either Dolgova or Guo. "I didn't need to do due diligence about the guy that she's speaking about," he said. Rapoport "told me that he is a very, very, very, very bad guy. … I said OK." Niv also didn't ask Rapoport about the identity of the client who was sponsoring the conference, he said.
After receiving a transcript of Dolgova's answers from Rapoport, Niv said, he showed it to King over breakfast at a Beverly Hills coffee shop. "Larry told me, 'Look Jacobi, it doesn't really matter because she's the one who made the research, I'm only interviewing her,'" Niv said.
King said he doesn't recall seeing Dolgova's responses. "I have no idea who that lady was or what she said. All I know is, I got a list of questions and I asked them."
Initially, Niv said, Rapoport wanted King to interview Dolgova on one of the Ora programs, but Niv replied that it wouldn't be possible. Niv had King pre-tape the questions to "save Larry's time," he said. "We do it often."
On March 28, 2019, the day after the taping at the studio, Niv sent the completed video to King's assistant. As he and Rapoport had arranged, he asked for it to be posted to King's official social media. Rovou, King's executive producer, dug in.
"It is offensive to me as a journalist and a producer and I think it should be so for Larry, too," Rovou wrote to the assistants to Larry and Shawn King. "It's one thing if he's paid to do this for a conference video to be seen somewhere internally but it should not see the light of day or be bounced around on his social media."
Five days later, it still wasn't posted, so Niv sent a follow-up text to King's assistant.
"I really don't want to bother you but it's not on yet," he wrote. "Larry said it will be posted today. … I'm really concerned about the timetable with the conference. They are on the edge with that."
* * *
Niv had a backup plan. He created a channel for King on YouTube, posted the video there and sent a link to King's assistant. On April 5, the assistant sent it to Rovou, who was furious. He hadn't known that the video would be available on social media. "I thought this was dropped?" he replied, adding Shawn King and her father to the email thread.
Watching the video, Shawn King was baffled; she had never heard of Guo. She was also upset by Larry's uncharacteristic mistakes. Less than an hour after receiving Rovou's email, she called Niv and demanded that he remove the video from YouTube. She yelled into the phone that he should have run the deal past her or her father.
"That woman that you say is a journalist, there is nothing, nothing on the internet that says anything," she told Niv. "She has no credentials. ... Larry didn't even interview her. She was dropped in with the questions. It's a script. It wasn't in an interview."
"You are ruining his brand," she continued. "You were told many years ago: Do not go directly to Larry. … And when you saw him, you didn't say, 'Oh wow, he doesn't look so good, let's just kill this thing.' Don't ever go to Larry again."
Niv took it down, he said, but it was already out of his hands. Suddenly, on April 9, King's video rampaged through social media. That day, a Twitter account with more than 300,000 followers posted the link. The account's first seven years of posts had been deleted, indicating that it had been hijacked and repurposed.
"While discussing China-US trade negotiations on his show, Mr. Larry King ended up talking only about Guo Wengui's rape case," the account tweeted. Guo's "reputation in the U.S. already stinks." Twitter later determined that the account was related to a Chinese government influence operation.
There were other signs of a carefully orchestrated campaign. The video had been posted on dozens of unrelated YouTube channels. It also appeared within a short time across social media accounts with limited discussion and engagement between them. In quick succession, some Facebook accounts shared inaccurate English and Chinese transcripts of King's exchange with Dolgova, suggesting that the script had been circulated in advance.
* * *
Alarmed at the video's sweep across social media, Rovou reached out again to Shawn King. She was driving to watch the older of her and Larry's two sons play baseball when Rovou called. She pulled her car over and looked on her phone at the links Rovou was sending her.
She called Niv and berated him. When she arrived at the baseball game, he called back, telling her that he did the video as a favor to Larry and that "they" had fooled him, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
Niv didn't tell Shawn King who "they" were. But he vowed to call them immediately to insist they remove the video from YouTube.
Over a series of emails, Shawn King pressed Niv. "I'm beyond disappointed and furious," she wrote. "Why on earth is that video back up? You have no right to post it. Take it down immediately."
Niv replied that the video "was not posted by me or my people. … The only one who has it is us and the conference people, which probably did it WITH NO PERMISSION!" he wrote. "We will request YouTube to remove it immediately."
Aside from the China video, the other videos Larry King participated in were "small beautiful projects supporting Israel," Niv assured Shawn. The videos were "not a business for us," he wrote. "I did it from time to time mainly for Larry if he needed, and to support Israel." He added that Larry earned a $7,000 "down payment" followed by an additional $3,000 in cash for participating in the video. (In a phone interview, he said that Larry's share may have been $7,000, and that Niv got the remainder, an amount he didn't specify.)
Niv told ProPublica that, as a result of concerns about how King looked in the video, "we decided to remove it and redo the conference at a different time. No one ever stated anything about the content of this one chapter of the overall conference."
If Niv "had any intent or interest" in disparaging Guo, he added, "I would obviously leave the video there and wouldn't take tremendous effort to remove it immediately."
As the video continued to pop up, Niv said, he called Rapoport. "I told him: 'Itai, something here is driving me crazy. What is happening here? I don't understand.' He gave me all kinds of excuses." Niv then enlisted a friend at an Israeli television company to help him take down the video, he said. (Rovou also asked YouTube to remove it.)
In the meantime, King's health was deteriorating. That month, he had a stroke. "I was out of it for most of April," he said. "I woke up in intensive care. … They thought I was going to die."
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Niv is not registered as a foreign agent. Given the circumstances of the video, it is "likely" that he should be, and possibly King as well, said Sanderson, the Foreign Agents Registration Act attorney. The act would apply if the request, direction or funding for the video came from a foreign source, he said. The maximum penalty for a willful violation is five years in prison, or a $250,000 fine, or both.
Since U.S. media are exempt from registering, King's exposure to FARA might rest on whether he was "acting in his capacity as a member of the news media, or is he doing an infomercial where he's paid specifically to do the interview," Sanderson said. "The substance of some of his questions and the structure of the interview itself could undercut his claim to be exempt." Given his age, King could also argue he was "doing something at the behest of a longtime business partner who he regularly knows and trusts … and that he didn't know about the origins of any money or request."
That excuse might not help Niv, Sanderson said. "If you're an international businessman, to say that you accepted money in an outside-the-norm type of transaction or message, and you didn't do any investigative work to determine what the actual purpose of the task was — just accepting money, sight unseen — typically the (Justice) Department hasn't accepted that type of argument," Sanderson said. "…Ignorance and naivete are not free passes here."
Foreign agents are required to file with the Justice Department the message they're distributing — in this case, the transcript and video link — at the time it is distributed. The video itself should include a disclaimer identifying it as informational material distributed on behalf of a foreign principal.
"One of the issues here is should people have been on notice that this was distributed on behalf of the foreign government," Sanderson said.
King said that, as an interviewer, he shouldn't need to register.
"Would I register as a foreign agent? That's crazy. I'm not a foreign agent."
Niv denied working for China. "I never got approached by anyone that was related to China," he said. "No one Chinese." Rapoport "told me we are doing a video for him."
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The King video is harder to find online than it once was. YouTube has taken many copies down. By May of this year, aiming to combat Chinese disinformation, Twitter suspended and released data on nearly 30,000 Chinese government influence accounts, many of which had spread the video.
ProPublica found only 14 Facebook accounts still online that had posted the video or its transcript. Seven other accounts that we identified as making similar posts in 2019 are no longer online. Facebook declined to comment on whether it had taken down those accounts; their owners could also have removed them. We couldn't trace any of the 21 accounts to their actual owners, suggesting that they had been fake.
Guo's supporters were appalled by the video — and couldn't believe King was involved. Most of their discussions on Twitter came to the same conclusion: It was a sophisticated political deep fake that used machine learning to imitate King's voice and likeness. Guo himself took that view. On April 10, the day after the video began to circulate, he live-streamed a message to his followers.
"When we looked up the videos, virtually all of them were posted by wumao on YouTube," Guo said, using a common term for Chinese government-funded internet trolls. "The transcript of the fake interview was released at the same time."
Echoing the same false assumption, Guo's lawyer asked Ora on April 18 to join in "legal action" to take down the video. "The creator of the Video clearly doctored Larry King footage," Podhaskie wrote. "Not only does the Video make false claims about my client, it impersonates Larry King and appears to signify Mr. King's endorsement of the defamatory remarks."
This year, Ora laid off many staffers and moved out of the Glendale studio. The pandemic has delayed plans to tape some Ora programs at RT's Los Angeles studio. "Larry King Now" had its final episode in February. Its replacement is a show hosted by comedian Dennis Miller.
King recently renewed his contract for "PoliticKING" through 2021-2022. He'd like to keep working for the rest of his life and "collapse on the set asking a question," he said.
Ora no longer allows King to tape infomercials on the set, Dickey said. "What was an accommodation to his schedule and his age, … we just can't put ourselves in that position any more, and we don't."
Niv's incontinence business has changed its mission. It will now have "free online courses" to help the elderly, he said. Rapoport asked him for more videos featuring King, but Niv wasn't interested, he said. He told Rapoport that he didn't want anything more to do with him.
"Seriously, who needs this headache?" Niv said. The China video "really put me in a very bad position, and I really hate it, and I feel like I don't deserve it. I never, ever thought that there is something not right."
"I felt like someone took advantage of me," he continued. "I wish that I knew (about the connection to China), and I wish that I knew it on time. … Today I am more intelligent, I am more knowledgeable."
In a Facebook post on Feb. 4, Rapoport displayed a photo of himself behind interlocking table-top flags of Israel and China. "Preparing super interesting lecturers for an economic conference that will be held tomorrow," he wrote.
After almost 22 years of marriage, Larry King filed for divorce from Shawn in August 2019. (The divorce is pending.) They remain close and talk regularly by phone, he said.
Based on the revelations about the video, King said he is "breaking off relations" with Niv, including "bowing out" of the incontinence venture. He now believes, he said, that Niv took advantage of his friendship, and that the gifts on Jewish holidays were "part of the con."
On July 20, four days after receiving emailed questions from ProPublica, Niv called King. He arranged to come over the next day "to bring me a cake and take a picture with me," King said. On Shawn's advice, King canceled the date.
Shawn King and Rovou "turned out to be right," King said. "Shawn has always said I'm easily taken advantage of."
Investigative journalist Uri Blau contributed reporting and translation. Priyanjana Bengani, senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, and Mia Shuang Li, research associate at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, contributed reporting.
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