- Business Insider
- Yashar Ali has broken some of the biggest stories in media, entertainment, and politics in the past year. He also has a decade-long history in Democratic politics in California. His start in national politics came on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Kathy Griffin hasn’t gotten work documents for her trip to Singapore yet, but she has a backup plan that includes the freelance journalist Yashar Ali.
The comedian, who jokes that she’s in self-imposed exile from the US, said she had run into problems with border officials since she posed for a picture earlier this year that showed her holding a fake mold depicting President Donald Trump’s decapitated head. She ended up being investigated by the Secret Service.
And with a trip to Singapore in two weeks and travel documents yet to be approved, she told Business Insider that her lawyer helped her devise a plan for if she were to run into any trouble or even be detained.
“I would call Yashar, and say I’m in a f—— jail in Singapore,” Griffin said.
Griffin is one several prominent public figures who, over the past year, have developed close relationships with Yashar, a reporter with bylines in New York magazine, HuffPost, The Daily Beast, and Mother Jones.
And while it’s not uncommon for celebrities, politicians, or television personalities to develop relationships with journalists, Yashar, who prefers to be referred to by his first name, isn’t a traditional reporter.
Over the past year, Yashar – a former Democratic fundraiser and operative – has become a ubiquitous presence on Twitter, growing his following from 6,600 in October 2016 to 183,000 as of this writing by incessantly sharing moments from cable news, interesting nuggets from news stories, and pictures of elephants.
He has also broken some of the biggest stories in politics, media, and entertainment, scooping reporters who have years of experience on their beat.
Along with HuffPost’s editor-in-chief, Lydia Polgreen, he uncovered NBC News’ stringent opposition to Ronan Farrow’s Harvey Weinstein exposé, which ultimately ran in The New Yorker. He reported that former President George W. Bush said President Donald Trump’s inauguration was “some weird s—,” a description Hillary Clinton has taken on her book tour.
Yashar’s rise has surprised, impressed, and perplexed many observers in media.
Before the 2016 US election cycle, Yashar was virtually unknown in national media circles, save some reporters who covered California politics and the 2008 election.
He deliberately avoids the spotlight, keeping photos of himself off the internet, and largely avoiding television interviews and parties frequented by New York media types. (He told Business Insider he doesn’t like parties.)
In a profile of Yashar published Wednesday, BuzzFeed asked the simple question: “Who Is Yashar?”
In his opinion, the question isn’t pertinent.
In a discussion with Business Insider about the difficulty describing the various twists and turns of his life and professional career, Yashar remembered a pertinent piece by Lena Dunham describing her relationship with the late writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron.
In the piece, Dunham painted a portrait of Ephron as an all-encompassing force, various parts mentor, lifestyle coach, inquisitor, and confidante, with opinions on various topics, and connections everywhere.
‘He wanted to be Newsom’s Huma’
The 37-year-old son of a wealthy Iranian family from Chicago, Yashar spent the first decade of his professional career as a fundraiser, bundler, and opposition researcher in California. After a stint as a production assistant in Hollywood, Yashar spent a few years working with former California State Controller Steve Westly’s statewide campaigns. (Yashar said he skipped his high-school graduation ceremony and did not attend college.)
But his career in politics didn’t really take off until he met Terry McAuliffe, then the soon-to-be cochair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Yashar said McAuliffe, at that time a notorious Democratic fundraiser and bundler, taught him everything about politics and fundraising.
The two quickly took a liking to each other – according to several people familiar with their relationship, when Yashar would visit Washington, DC, he’d sometimes work in McAuliffe’s office and occasionally drank cocktails and played cards with McAuliffe and other friends in the evening.
At the time, Yashar was a registered lobbyist and Democratic consultant, and also served as an LGBT liaison for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Democrats who knew Yashar described him as rumpled and odd, yet dogged and loyal – one California Democrat said after his car broke down before a vacation, Yashar lent him his. Shawnda Westly, who liaisonned with Yashar when she worked as the party’s state executive director, said he helped her apply for treatment at the Mayo Clinic after she had a stroke – she described the move as “one of the best decisions of my life.”
But mostly former colleagues remember that he had one immediately valuable skill.
“He has a predilection for talking to rich, fancy people,” said one California political operative who worked closely with Yashar. “He’s really good at connecting with people like that.”
That skill served him well when he volunteered to help bolster Clinton’s 2008 bid on the West Coast, where the then-senator’s campaign was hoping to win over Hollywood types and major LGBT donors.
According to multiple California Democrats, he forged a memorable relationship with the Clintons and members of their inner circle, such as the longtime confidante Huma Abedin, at fundraisers and campaign events (Yashar described her as a “friend” in an Instagram photo viewed by Business Insider that has since been made private).
Though he said he was never paid by the Clinton campaign, Yashar was appointed to Clinton’s LGBT steering committee and was leaned on by the campaign to help foster relationships with rich gay donors.
“I’ve never been a fundraiser by trade,” Yashar said. “It just comes about from what I’m doing anyway. It’s like I’m having a conversation with somebody.”
When Clinton failed to secure the nomination, he joined the California gubernatorial campaign of Gavin Newsom, then the San Francisco mayor, on a whim as a volunteer. He had been approached by Newsom’s campaign manager and political adviser, who was hoping to tap into Yashar’s connections among Los Angeles’ industry types, including talent agents and music-industry figures.
Having been enchanted by Newsom during a meeting at Steven Spielberg’s office, he picked up and moved essentially overnight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he quickly became what Newsom called his “Swiss army knife,” an assistant who attended strategy sessions and took over major fundraising donors.
“Gavin Newsom has always been able to attract hyper-talented people into his gravitational field who are both smart and creative – with a healthy dollop of disruptiveness,” Jason Kinney, a close Newsom adviser, said in an email. “Yashar is kind of a poster child for that.”
“He wanted to be Newsom’s Huma,” another former operative said.
Garry South, Newsom’s political adviser in his 2009 bid for the California governorship, told Business Insider that he was surprised and pleased when Yashar single-handedly secured former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Newsom.
Though Newsom eventually dropped out of the race, the move endeared Yashar to his boss, who just a few months later tapped him to run his campaign for lieutenant governor.
Despite his loyalty to Newsom, Yashar had chafed in his official capacities at city hall (“I hated it,” he told Business Insider of the bureaucratic work) and passed on an opportunity to work in the lieutenant governor’s office, which in California traditionally isn’t the most glamorous post.
Instead, he bounced between politics and whatever seemed to suit his fancy – Yashar emphasized to Business Insider that politics was only a small part of his life, a claim that others in his network said they believed.
“I never saw him as total a political operative,” one California Democrat said. “I always just thought he really cared about Gavin and Hillary.”
Yashar dabbled in gender politics and relationship blogging, writing a viral post in 2011 about the ways in which men “gaslight” women by making them feel crazy, which helped land him a book deal.
But he has also continued to nurture his deep relationship with the Clintons.
While serving as secretary of state, Clinton complimented him on his blogging in an email, and he helped relieve her 2008 campaign debt, raised money during the 2013 fundraising drive for the Clinton Foundation, and was a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.
“She’s very fond of him,” a person familiar with Clinton’s relationship with Yashar told Business Insider.
He also continued to foster a deep decade-long friendship with Susie Tompkins Buell, who co-founded the Esprit brand and has been one of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends and outside political benefactors.
People close to Yashar described him as a “virtual member of her family,” helping out on various tasks like managing her art collection on an unpaid basis.
“You kind of put it all together, and he helped me understand actually why I was involved with that photography,” said Buell, who described Yashar as a “truffle-dog.” “So he has an ability to really see into things. It’s a curiosity about psychology.”
According to several people close to Yashar, it was Buell who encouraged him to pursue writing, which he began doing in earnest after moving to New York from California last summer.
He spent months simultaneously tweeting news tidbits he saw on cable and in real life and contacting reporters at various outlets, offering himself up as a source for different stories in political media, which some reporters found helpful and others found bizarre.
“I knew I wanted to do straight reporting, I knew I had to earn my way into it,” Yashar said.
As he gained more followers and began breaking news, some in media questioned his trajectory.
Some in both politics and media have expressed concern that Yashar has made the transition too quickly. As recently as 2015, he accompanied Newsom to several fundraisers for Clinton in California, and he worked toward Newsom’s gubernatorial election before resigning from the campaign in February of last year.
Though he developed fans among some on the right, like the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro and far-right provocateur Mike Cernovich, his past as a Democratic operative has rankled grassroots conservatives online, as has his reporting.
In early September, Yashar reported that the Fox News host Eric Bolling had sent unsolicited lewd text messages to colleagues, an action that eventually resulted in Bolling’s departure from the network.
Bolling’s son was found dead just days later in what Bolling said authorities described as an accident.
Yashar, however, said he was immediately inundated with threats from supporters of Bolling who blamed him for the death, and he said people showed up at his parents’ house in suburban Chicago looking for him. Bolling did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Yashar’s coziness to sources has also raised eyebrows. In the profile of Yashar published Wednesday, BuzzFeed questioned the ethics of reporting on Griffin despite their friendship as well as the lack of disclosure of his relationship with Clinton in several news posts he wrote about the former secretary of state.
For his part, Yashar pointed out that his reporting had made things difficult in his personal life.
Ali pointed out that after he wrote a critical story about how Harvey Weinstein and Kenneth Cole may have covered up a shady deal while when both supported the American Foundation for AIDS Research, a friend on the board of amFAR made their displeasure with Yashar clear.
“The NBC stories didn’t make me many friends,” he added.
‘The world really hates me, so maybe he can humanize me’
Despite the shroud of mystery his ascendance has stoked, Yashar may be looking to go a bit more public.
He said that while he had turned down job overtures by nine publications – saying he didn’t want to take jobs with organizations he was planning on reporting on – he was “going to go somewhere” soon.
And despite the criticism, Yashar has undeniably created a relationship of trust with sources in a short time.
“It comes down to trust,” said Tamara Holder, who told Yashar about her experience being discouraged by her talent agency to report sexual-harassment allegations at Fox News. “He wasn’t going to exploit what I had to say.”
For her part, Griffin told Business Insider that while she was getting calls daily from NBC hosts like Matt Lauer and Megyn Kelly, she decided to give Yashar the first interview after the severed-Trump-head controversy.
She’d become a passive fan of his Twitter account months earlier and had begun calling him with inquires about current events and local political stories she could work into her stand-up routine at events like fundraisers.
Griffin said that Yashar was one of the first people she talked to after the photo was posted and that he helped her realize she was about to become part of an outrage cycle; Yashar stayed at her house for five days in the fallout of the scandal.
Contemplating the interview, she said, while she was sick of his tweets clogging up her timeline with Fox News quotes and clips, she admired Yashar’s ability to report on the network fairly.
“I don’t know how he even watches those psychos,” Griffin said. “But he’s kind of able to humanize them. Then I thought, ‘The world really hates me, so maybe he can humanize me.'”