U.S.-based investigative news site ProPublica recently revealed how television icon Larry King got suckered into starring in a fake־news video that went viral, and all in the service of the Chinese propaganda machine. Exposé: Who is Jacobi Niv, the young Israeli who dropped the legendary talk show host in hot water, and what role did former television reporter Itai Rapoport play in the affair?

The Israeli connection behind Larry King’s fake-news clip

U.S.-based investigative news site ProPublica recently revealed how television icon Larry King got suckered into starring in a fake־news video that went viral, and all in the service of the Chinese propaganda machine. Exposé: Who is Jacobi Niv, the young Israeli who dropped the legendary talk show host in hot water, and what role did former television reporter Itai Rapoport play in the affair?

U.S.-based investigative news site ProPublica recently revealed how television icon Larry King got suckered into starring in a fake־news video that went viral, and all in the service of the Chinese propaganda machine. Exposé: Who is Jacobi Niv, the young Israeli who dropped the legendary talk show host in hot water, and what role did former television reporter Itai Rapoport play in the affair?

Uri Blau, Washington

Photo: Wikimedia

August 2, 2020

Summary

H

e’s just 36 years old, yet his name has been popping up in the context of various business ventures for some 15 years by now. He claims to represent a mysterious Canadian millionaire, to serve as a partner in the publication of an Israeli magazine in the style of The New Yorker, to have staged an obsequious exhibition about Israeli business tycoons, and even to have founded a chamber of commerce in collaboration with the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. A fair number of initiatives, but no shortage either of bells and whistles too - not to mention a fertile imagination.

He was born in Rishon Letzion as Yaniv (Yitzhak) Yaakobi but began introducing himself later in life as Niv Yaakobi, before moving to the United States and becoming Jacobi Niv. And his name, in recent years, has appeared in the media primarily in one context - as the right־hand man of legendary television personality Larry King. Israel’s leading TV and showbiz magazine, Pnai Plus, even went as far as to crown him "Larry King’s Prince" in a feel־good article some two years ago. "If my mother hadn’t been so hardworking and dedicated to us, we wouldn’t have had a roof over our heads," Niv is quoted as saying in the piece. "My father took risks without taking us into account, and I remember as a kid being scared of losing everything. It made me want to aim high. My father left us at some point, and my mother worked all day, cleaning houses, too, if necessary, and I raised my younger sisters. It didn’t take me long at all to realize that if I don’t watch out for myself, no one else will."

Niv may have feared losing everything, as a child, but that doesn’t appear to have stopped him from taking risks, and just last month, the king and his prince found themselves starring in a multi־national affair entangling Israel, China, the United States and Russia.

Niv was conducting his affairs through a company (still registered as active) called Business Israel America. In 2005, for example, the company announced the completion of a $35 million fundraising drive for investment in Israeli hi־tech. The announcement of such a substantial investment, however, is inconsistent with the company’s rather slender portfolio, which appears to indicate very little activity at all.

An investigative report that appeared July 30 on the ProPublica news site (and in which this writer collaborated) reveals that Niv was involved in the production of a video starring King that went viral after being shared by Twitter and Facebook accounts in the service of the Chinese government’s propaganda machine. Among other things, the ProPublica report raises concerns that the two may have contravened a U.S. law that requires anyone representing the interests of a foreign country to notify the U.S. Justice Department. Failure to do so is a criminal offense that can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. The saga, in all likelihood, is also expected to bring an end to Niv’s romance with King. In an interview with ProPublica, the television giant said he felt "used" by Niv, adding that Niv had taken advantage of his reputation and their friendship, and that he had decided to end all cooperation with him. Shomrim was unable to obtain a response from Niv, but his comments, as reported by ProPublica, appear below.

A failed magazine and a mysterious millionaire

Niv’s name first appeared in the media when he was in his early twenties. In late 2004, he teamed up with Esther and Kfir Luzzatto, well known intellectual property attorneys, and the three entered into a partnership aimed at setting up an Israeli magazine inspired by The New Yorker. The name they chose for the magazine was Koteret (Headline in Hebrew), and veteran Israeli TV personality Dan Shilon and journalist Uriya Shavit were appointed as its editors.

Portrayed in media reports from the time as the representative in Israel of a Canadian businessman named Samuel Kimia, Niv was conducting his affairs through a company (still registered as active) called Business Israel America. In 2005, for example, the company announced the completion of a $35 million fundraising drive for investment in Israeli hi־tech. The announcement of such a substantial investment, however, is inconsistent with the company’s rather slender portfolio, which appears to indicate very little activity at all. In any event, the only name linked with the company is Niv’s. There’s no mention of an individual by the name of Kimia in the company papers or, insofar as is known, in any other listing of companies around the world.

The Luzzattos remember Niv mentioning Kimia but never met him. And Niv, as far as Kfir Luzzatto recalls, didn’t invest money in the magazine and only handled administrative and marketing affairs.

Ofri Ilany joined the new magazine as a young journalist. "Niv introduced himself as the representative of BIA, a company specializing in commercial real estate, biotechnology and hi־tech, and owned by a Jewish־Canadian businessman named Samuel Kimia," Ilany recalls. "Niv interviewed me for the position, and I left the job I was at to join Koteret. The salary was low, but there was a sense of promise that the magazine would evolve into the Israeli New Yorker."

That sense of promise came crashing to earth with a bang. "One day, in May 2005, we got to the office to work on the next issue, and much to our surprise, we found it practically empty," Ilany recounts. "The phones and computers had been taken, and we were told the magazine had shut down."

The sudden closure led to a lawsuit filed with the Labor Court by the laid־off workers, and eventually a settlement.

Some other of Niv’s ventures have included various exhibitions that he promoted. In 2012, for example, he staged a display about Israeli business tycoons at the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv. News reports described it as an initiative of, among others, the Jacobi Family Foundation. Note: No trace of any such legal entity has been found. Another of Niv’s exhibitions dealt with Israel’s Negev region, and according to a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Niv tried to promote the venture in collaboration with the Israeli Consulate in New York. The Foreign Ministry’s refusal to cooperate, the former official recalled, led to calls from Israel and pleas to reconsider - and Niv’s pleasant tone of voice changed too. Niv also asked the Foreign Ministry for thousands of dollars in funding for the two exhibitions.

"I did sign a few things [with Niv], but they went away because the business went out," King told ProPublica. "I said, sure I’ll help. And then suddenly 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."

Niv’s name reappeared in the media in 2014, and this time in reports telling of Larry King’s pending establishment of "the Israel־Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce together with his partner, Jacobi Niv, an Israeli־American businessman who manages some of King’s affairs, and in collaboration with the Technion." The initiative, the reports said, was designed to strengthen ties between the two strongholds of entrepreneurship and technology, Israel and California. The Technion itself issued a press release in which it named King and Technion President Prof. Peretz Lavie as presidents of the business bureau. Niv, according to the reports, would serve as chairman. The initiative, however, failed to get off the ground.

"The Technion is aware of King’s support for and loyalty towards the State of Israel," said Technion spokesperson Doron Shaham. "In 2014, the Technion and Mr. King's representatives did conduct preliminary talks concerning the establishment of a Chamber of Commerce to promote ties between companies in Israel and Silicon Valley. The discussions failed to bear fruit and we’ve had no dealings with his representatives since."

Media executives and producers interviewed by Shomrim for this report spoke of receiving various inquiries from Niv over the years, including proposals for joint television ventures with King, and other investment initiatives. In January this year, Israeli medical cannabis company Medivie Therapeutic announced a deal under which the public company is set to market its products on the digital commerce platform that King and Niv are developing. According to the report, the deal will cost Medivie some $3-5 million.

Larry King and Jacobi Niv (Photos: Wikimedia)

In a conversation with Shomrim, Medivie CEO Menachem Cohen said the venture had been put on hold due to the Coronavirus crisis, adding that the deal would also have to get the approval of the company's board of directors beforehand.

The wheeler-dealer with chutzpah

How did Niv arrive at this juncture in his life, the point at which he’s starring in such unflattering terms, on the homepage of one of the world’s leading investigative journalism websites? In his interview with Pnai Plus, and others, he claimed to have been introduced to King by former UN Secretary־General Ban Ki־moon. "With typical Israeli chutzpah, I approached him and told him I was an entrepreneur from Israel," Niv is quoted as saying. "We had a pleasant conversation and he asked me at the end what he could do for me. ‘Introduce me to Larry King,' I replied."

It appears, however, that a different diplomat was responsible for the matchmaking, as confirmed by the man himself, Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the United States who also served in the past as deputy foreign minister. Ayalon said he and Niv had met a few years earlier when Niv was promoting Koteret. In 2010 or thereabouts, Ayalon was on a visit to Los Angeles, and Niv, according to someone present at the time, showed up for the express purpose of developing a relationship with King. In an interview with an Israeli media outlet in 2017, the iconic talk show host himself said he had taken an immediate liking to Niv. "Then we forged this kind of partnership … I have a lot of confidence in him," King said at the time.

Niv’s timing, so it seems, was excellent. When King left CNN, he was still viewed as an unrivaled talk show host. Between 1985 and 2010, the two and a half decades in which he hosted Larry King Live, he got to interview, among others, all the U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon. In his final month at CNN alone, he sat down with - but not only - Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The latter subsequently became King's partner in Ora TV, on which King’s latest show, Larry King Now, ran for several years until February this year.

Of late, however, something appears to have come over the Larry King of his glory days. In parallel with his journalistic activities, and among other things, he’s been promoting various commercial and public interests by means of video "interviews" he conducts. In Israel, for example, the Walla! news website has aired a number of videos in which King interviews public figures such as Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog and the president of the Manufacturers Association of Israel, Shraga Brosh. The credits include the phrase, "In collaboration with Larry King Holdings," and some of the items open with the words: "Larry King and the Israeli president of his company, Jacobi Niv, bring you more of their special project to promote the image of the State of Israel abroad. And this time, and in collaboration with Walla! News, in a series of interviews with leading figures in the economy."

Guo Wengui (Photo: Wikimedia)

According to the ProPublica report, King received thousands of dollars from Niv for each interview, together with "lavish floral arrangements and other expensive gifts on Jewish holidays."

Niv, it appears, wasn’t very well־liked among King’s people. The projects in which he was involved forced King’s staff members to work overtime, and they didn’t appreciate Niv’s unfettered access to their boss. A few years ago, in the wake of an email in which Niv referred to Carlos Slim as "my partner" and King’s show as "my new show," King's manager sent Niv an email demanding that he stop misrepresenting his relationship with the King and the company. Niv blamed it on an error on the part of his assistant.

But this isn’t the only example of his habit of misrepresenting himself. Among other things, Niv has described himself in various publications and articles as president of the Larry King Foundation, Larry King Holding Company and KING Entertainment Group. Only, no such entities appear to exist. Niv told ProPublica he made up the names to "describe what we are doing."

"I did sign a few things [with Niv], but they went away because the business went out," King told ProPublica. "I said, sure I’ll help. And then suddenly 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."

Accidental foreign agents?

The video that prompted ProPublica’s investigative report was also conceived in Israel. Insofar as is known, production kicked off in the wake of an approach to Niv, and King in turn, from Israeli journalist Itai Rapoport. The former Channel One reporter now runs an entity known as The Private News Company, which produces video content for its clients on order. In other words, marketing content. "Experts in the production of journalistic־style, reliable and authentic video content," his website, www.rapoport-tv.com, proudly boasts. According to an investigative report that appeared earlier this year on the website of Shakuf - The Democratic Media Outlet, Rapoport charges around $9,000 per production. Purportedly, King paid a lot more for his video.

The video in question wasn’t shared directly through King, but via social media accounts linked to the Chinese government on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. At least 250 such accounts have shared more than 40 different links to the clip several hundred times. With around half of these accounts boasting at least ten thousand followers, the clip has subsequently been shared with hundreds of thousands more.

At the end of March 2019, Niv turned up at the studios near Los Angeles where King films his show and asked him to read the scripted monologues and questions to which answers were subsequently plugged in to make it look like an interview. Niv is also believed to have undertaken to promote the video via the television host’s social media accounts, fairly common practice in the marketing content world. Rapoport declined to answer questions from Shomrim on the subject.

In the video in question, released in April 2019, with the trade war between Washington and Beijing still reverberating in the background, King is seen speaking to a journalist by the name of Anastasia Dolgova, who reportedly works for Russian state־linked broadcaster REN TV. Ostensibly about U.S.־China relations, the interview deals primarily with the story of a wealthy Chinese dissident, Guo Wengui, a billionaire who in 2014 fled China for New York following the arrest of several of his business partners. Chinese authorities contend that Guo is a fugitive and is wanted in China for sex crimes and corruption offenses. The view from the United States is a little different: Not only does Guo live in a home worth tens of millions of dollars, but he’s also a close associate of President Donald Trump and has business ties with Trump’s former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

The content of King's clip and its agenda, meanwhile, clearly promote the Chinese narrative, with Dolgova talking about the severe damage that is being done to the economic relations between the two countries as a result of the U.S. decision to grant Guo asylum.

Using social networks to run campaigns that promote and disseminate disinformation and propaganda, while hiding their source, is nothing new. The Chinese authorities have made and continue to make use of such tools against those they perceive as enemies of the state - protesters in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese government, the United States, or Chinese exiles. Although Twitter is blocked for use in China itself, it still serves as a tool for the regime to disseminate propaganda, apparently in an effort to influence the Chinese diaspora around the world and also the West.

The video in question wasn’t shared directly through King, but via social media accounts linked to the Chinese government on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. At least 250 such accounts have shared more than 40 different links to the clip several hundred times. With around half of these accounts boasting at least ten thousand followers, the clip has subsequently been shared with hundreds of thousands more.

According to the ProPublica report, King's wife (his eighth, who is currently divorcing him) and others who work with the TV legend weren’t comfortable at all with the content of the video even during the filming. The storm intensified after the video - released with the title, "Larry King - U.S.־China Special Conference 2019" - went viral thanks to the aforementioned social media campaign. King’s close associates were concerned about the potential damage the clip could do to the veteran talk show host’s image; they furiously demanded that Niv take measures to remove the video from various platforms. Among other efforts, he sought the assistance of acquaintances at Hot, an Israeli telecommunications company with which he had business dealing in the past, and they managed to remove some of the clips from YouTube. Today, there are far fewer links to the video online, making it harder to stumble upon by accident.

But a sullied image is just one of the problems facing Niv and King. According to a U.S. attorney interviewed by ProPublica, the video raises questions about whether the two should have registered with the U.S. Justice Department as foreign agents acting for China, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Violation of this law can, as aforementioned, carry a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

In conversations and correspondence with ProPublica, Niv said he regretted his involvement in the video production. "Seriously, who needs this headache?" Niv said. "That 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 imagined that it would be so problematic."

King also expressed remorse for his part in the production, noting that he isn’t familiar with the exiled Chinese billionaire or Rapoport, and choosing primarily to point the finger of blame at Niv. "To me, it was just a small favor for a guy who I like," he said. "I have no idea what it was for … I never should have done it, obviously … I was stupid. I did what he asked me to do. But I felt sorry for him … Obviously, he used me."