Eric Boehlert

Author ››› Eric Boehlert
  • CPAC, Simon & Schuster Learn The Same Old Lesson: Breitbart Is A Sewer

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    With its former chief, Steve Bannon, now wielding power inside the Trump White House, Breitbart in recent days has been collecting a string of symbolic Beltway trophies.

    Last week, a reporter for the far-right site was seated in the front row, alongside Reuters and The Associated Press, for the White House press briefing with President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    Earlier this month, Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos bragged that he’d be attending a White House press briefing, although he never showed up.

    Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, invited Yiannopoulos on as a guest last Friday, and the two men “got along famously,” according to The Washington Post. That’s the same Yiannopoulos who has called transgender people “mentally ill” and “retarded,” announced that “there is only one place for lesbians: porn,” and claimed that “feminism is a bowel cancer.”

    Previously banned from Twitter for inciting a harassment campaign targeting black actress Leslie Jones, Yiannopoulos found a safe haven on Maher’s show. “There was little conflict or cross-examination,” noted The New York Times.

    The following day, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) jumped on Yiannopoulos’ hate rhetoric bandwagon, inviting him to speak at the annual gathering. The move seemed to further mainstream the “alt-right” movement and its white nationalist fan base within the Republican Party.

    Meanwhile, scroll back to last December, when publishing giant Simon & Schuster signed off on a Yiannopoulos book deal reportedly worth $250,000. (“They offered me a wheelbarrow full of money,” the Breitbart editor bragged.)

    The deal was widely denounced in the publishing world. “He’s a clickbait grifter who has made a name for himself spewing hate speech,” wrote Adam Morgan, editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books.

    But Simon & Schuster stood proudly by its new author and defended the generous book contract, even suggesting it was taking a noble stand in the name of free speech.

    That was before tapes resurfaced this weekend “in which Yiannopoulos appears to defend pedophilia.”

    Today, as controversy swarms around Yiannopoulos over his shocking comments, who now has the biggest regrets about reaching out to the Breitbart editor in an effort to normalize his dangerous crusade? Simon & Schuster, CPAC, or Maher?

    All of them are learning the same valuable lessons: 1) Intellectually, Breitbart is an infested sewer, and it always has been. And 2) Lots of journalists and mainstream organizations that try to embrace or legitimize the site and its rancid rhetoric inevitably come to regret it.

    They regret being associated with such purposefully offensive people and likely wish somebody had stopped them before they tried to brandish the Breitbart name for their own short-terms gains. Specifically, the regrets now revolve around “alt-right” mob leader Yiannopoulos, who appeals to rotten white nationalism.

    As Media Matters noted in the wake of the latest Milo comments, the obvious warning signs surrounding the Breitbart editor have been flashing for a very long time

    It’s not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the “alt-right” white nationalist movement Breitbart has supported that Yiannopoulos repeatedly frames targeted harassment campaigns of transgender individuals, black women, and undocumented students as some disgusting testament to his own conveniently warped understanding of the First Amendment.

    In terms of regrets, it’s now likely a toss-up between Simon & Schuster and CPAC, but I’m guessing it’s the leaders of the annual conservative conference who, at least privately, are most embarrassed by their harebrained idea to invite Yiannopoulos to be a featured speaker. The move instantly set off criticism from within the conservative movement as journalists expressed dismay at the idea of elevating a bully to the role of a public intellectual.

    Then, in the wake of the CPAC invite, when a conservative-run Twitter account distributed clips of the Yiannopoulos pedophilia comments, the criticism erupted into a deafening uproar of condemnation for the conservative organization, much of it voiced by conservatives themselves.   

    For its misguided attempts to normalize targeted bullying and to try to feed off the “alt-right” harassment movement for political and commercial gains, CPAC, at least temporarily, became synonymous with an apparent defense of pedophilia. (The leadership later pulled the invite.)

    Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster looks equally foolish for allowing its conservative imprint, Threshold Edition, to embrace Yiannopoulos in hopes of cashing in on his hate rhetoric. (Over the weekend, the publisher canceled the book deal.) Keep in mind that the Breitbart editor’s ugly history was hiding in plain sight prior to the six-figure book deal. Meaning, people in positions of power should have known better.

    From last December:

    On Monday night, pop right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos, who lost his Twitter access earlier this year after one too many online insults against women and minorities, was on the campus of Miami University in Ohio, scheduled to talk about “PIZZAGATE: The deep Dish on Liberalism and Pedophilia.” Half an hour before the speech, he abruptly changed his topic to “On Stabby Muslims, Campus Censors and Daddy’s Transition.”

    That’s who Simon & Schuster chose to publish. That’s who Maher invited on his HBO program for a televised Friday night “bromance.” That’s who the American Conservative Union decided to elevate as a new face of GOP politics in America at CPAC.

    The good news is that a lot of corporations don’t want their brands anywhere near Breitbart or Yiannopoulos.

    As BuzzFeed recently reported, Omnicom, one of the world’s largest ad-buying agencies, “has instructed its staff to pull advertising from pro-Trump website Breitbart on behalf of its biggest clients.” One internal Omicom email referred to Breitbart’s content as being “pretty unpalatable.”

    That’s a good rule of thumb.

  • Michael Flynn Scandal Shatters GOP Dream Of Protecting Trump In “Alternative Fact” Cocoon

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    With the White House facing perhaps the most serious political crisis of its young life, Kellyanne Conway was dispatched on Tuesday to spin as best she could the sudden forced resignation of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

    But the effort didn’t go well because Conway wasn’t really able to address even the most basic questions surrounding the Flynn controversy. And that inability came five days after The Washington Post first reported that Flynn "privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials," including past statements by Vice President Mike Pence, and possibly in violation of U.S. law. 

    On Monday came additional newspaper revelations that likely fueled Flynn’s ordered departure: The Department of Justice had warned the White House in January that Flynn may have exposed himself to Russian blackmailers because he misled the administration about the content of previous phone calls with Russia. Additionally, Army officials were investigating whether Flynn received payments from the Russian military when he appeared at a Moscow gala in 2015 and sat at the head table with Russian President Vladamir Putin. (The Department of Defense considers the receipt of payments from foreign governments by retired military officials without congressional consent a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Emoluments Clause.)

    And yet there was Conway appearing on the Today show and unable to address simple inquiries about Flynn’s behavior and why Trump stood by him when White House officials knew weeks earlier about discrepancies in Flynn’s Russia story.

    “That makes no sense,” Today show co-host Matt Lauer told Conway as he pressed her about the still-unraveling scandal.

    Conway’s glaring, televised failure wasn’t just a case of a presidential aide getting momentarily stumped. It’s part of a bubble-like culture inside a White House that desperately wants to operate within its own reality. It’s the same White House team that has been trying to shield Trump from having to face tough press questions about the Flynn controversy.

    Trump's team is so busy building its own parallel universe that it doesn’t know how to adjust when the front doors are swung open and officials have to venture out into the real world. That's especially true when they have to venture out into the reality of daily news, like Conway did when she appeared on the Today show.

    Led by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, as well as Conway and senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who lied and obfuscated his way through his recent Sunday morning talk show appearances, the Trump administration appears dedicated to the cause of unapologetic misinformation in a way we’ve never before seen in American politics.

    Officials are making a determined effort to abide by “alternative facts” while aggressively gaslighting the press and the public on myriad topics. It’s a campaign to withdraw from the fact-based world and instead rely on increasingly irresponsible right-wing media sources to protect and boost the president. 

    And sure enough, across the far-right media world where fake news percolates daily, players did their best to present a palatable version of the Flynn scandal. Before It’s News claimed of the resignation, “Globalists' Fake News Claims First Scalp,” while TruthFeed called it “sad” because Flynn “is a good man.” Online, neo-Nazis railed against “the Jews” for causing Flynn’s demise.

    The spin was laid on so thick that even the conservative site RedState mocked the absurd Flynn puffery offered by Trump’s alt-right media “Fanboi” Mike Cernovich. (He excitedly described Flynn’s resignation as an elaborate “coup.")

    Trump himself did his best on Twitter today, lashing out at television news for pushing “conspiracy theories and blind hatred” about him while insisting that The New York Times and The Washington Post were publishing illegal leaks. (In his screed against MSNBC and CNN he also added that lapdog morning show Fox & Friends "is great!") 

    Presidents from both parties have always enjoyed partisan cheerleaders in the press who will defend an administration from attacks and enthusiastically support its agenda. But what the Trump team is trying to assemble is something else entirely. It’s trying to build its own self-sustaining, hermetically sealed information bubble so that Trump, his aides, and his supporters don’t have to acknowledge everyday facts.

    The conservative movement in the last year has forcefully shifted gears, accelerating its longtime goal of counterbalancing what it claims to be the liberal media by striving to replace the news media with its own pleasing version of reality.

    In other words, the Trump team isn’t simply trying to raise doubts about the mainstream media; it’s trying to gut and replace the Fourth Estate. It wants to create a media environment where it can be immune to mainstream reporting and sustain itself -- and exist off of --"alternative facts. "

    Look at how the White House press briefings have dramatically changed this year in order to make room for Trump loyalists -- loyalists who play a key role in the administration’s push to undercut legitimate news outlets.

    The White House strategy of media avoidance isn’t new. “Trump raised doubt about his willingness to face difficult questions when he didn't hold a news conference until Jan. 11, weeks after his election as president,” The Associated Press reported this week.

    But what the Trump White House is learning this month is that loyalists and media sycophants have their limits. And those limits come in the form of reality, like Flynn being caught lying about his previous contacts with the Russian ambassador, contacts that reportedly date back to last year’s campaign. (Why would a top Trump surrogate be in contact with Russia’s ambassador during a U.S. election cycle where Russia was attempting to tilt the scales in Trump's favor?)

    In the end, the White House’s cat-and-mouse game with the press didn’t work because the facts of the Flynn crisis overcame the administration’s attempts to ignore or wish away the story.

    Today, the Trump team is left with a controversy that it still can’t explain away. And neither pushing fake news nor walling Trump off from reality will fix that.

  • The Problem Goes Way Beyond Kellyanne Conway: Trump’s Team Of TV Surrogates Constantly Lie

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Here are some of the blatant falsehoods White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller told on the Sunday shows this week: 

    • Fourteen percent of noncitizens in the United States “are registered to vote.”
    • Voter fraud is a “very serious” problem in New Hampshire.
    • The White House has provided “enormous evidence” to confirm widespread voter fraud in the U.S.
    • White House press secretary Sean Spicer, “as always, is 100 percent correct.”

    It was a stunning display of mendacity.

    So here’s my question: If President Donald Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway has a widely acknowledged “credibility” problem, given her long history of fabrication on behalf of her boss, how should the press describe the trouble now hovering over Miller, who became the latest Trump TV surrogate who forcefully wrestles the truth to the ground?

    Additionally, how should the press describe Spicer’s daily White House briefings, which are accentuated with bold fabrications?

    For anyone under the illusion that Conway was an outlier among Trump's TV surrogates, we now have overwhelming proof that she’s simply part of a team at war with reality. And that means the press needs to expand its circle of who is deemed to have potentially crippling “credibility” problems.

    It was Conway’s recent Bowling Green “massacre” fabrication that received lots of attention in the press, as did CNN’s decision to decline her as a State of the Union guest last week, in part because of questions about her trustworthiness. Days later, the news channel did invite Conway back for an interview, but questions about her veracity certainly linger and it continues to be a topic of intense media analysis inside the Beltway.

    And it should be.

    But the debate shouldn’t revolve around only Conway. She’s not the overarching problem. This current crisis of confidence is about an entire White House philosophy of dishonesty driven by Trump himself. And that certainly includes Trump TV surrogates such as Spicer and Miller, who are quickly amassing resumes built around pushing daily falsehoods. If news producers are avoiding Conway, they should also be pondering the worth of hosting Spicer and Miller.

    Have we ever had a modern-day press secretary who put some many substantial lies up on the board in just a few short weeks?

    From Media Matters’ running tally: 

    LIE 1: Spicer Doubled Down On The False Claim That Trump Had The Most-Watched Inaugural Of All Time

    LIE 2: Spicer Falsely Claimed That Trump’s Feud With The Intelligence Agency Was A Myth

    LIE 3: Spicer Hyped Trump’s False Claim That Millions Voted Illegally In The 2016 Election

    LIE 4: Spicer Claimed Trump Won “The Most” Electoral Votes “Since Any Republican Since Reagan”

    LIE 5: Spicer Claimed 2001 And 2017 National Security Council Principals Committee Makeups Are "100 Percent The Same"

    LIE 6: Spicer Claimed CNN Retracted Statements Questioning Kellyanne Conway’s Credibility

    LIE 7: Spicer Claimed There Wasn’t Concern With Obama’s Criticism Of The Supreme Court

    Additionally, Spicer has repeatedly defended as a “success” the U.S.-led military raid in Yemen last month -- which The New York Times described as a situation where "everything that could go wrong did."

    Spicer told reporters the raid was planned during the Obama administration, and that the goal was “intelligence-gathering.” But NPR reported that neither claim was true. (The plan was to nab high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders, which didn’t happen.)

    While Spicer has gotten criticism (and the SNL treatment) over his repeated lying, he’s still drawn some friendly coverage recently. "On the airwaves ... he is daytime television’s new big hit,” the Times reported, even though ratings have ticked up just 10 percent when Spicer’s briefings air live. The Times also downplayed Spicer’s dishonesty in a second, recent news article highlighting how Spicer is “shaking up” the briefings.

    And now we have the arrival of Miller as Trump’s favorite new TV surrogate. Pushing an array of previously debunked claims, assertions, and flat-out fabrications, Miller gave such a strange, detached-from-reality television performance that you have to wonder about the parallel universe that’s being assembled inside the White House these days.

    For the record, Kellyanne Conway isn’t the only one building it.

  • Trump’s TV Star Fades: He’s No Longer A Ratings Magnet

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    President Donald Trump might have been cheering the New England Patriots’ historic comeback on Super Bowl Sunday, but he couldn’t have been happy about his own contribution to the day. His sit-down interview with Bill O’Reilly, which aired during Fox’s pre-Super Bowl coverage, turned out to be something of a ratings dud. And for a president who obsesses over TV ratings and uses them to validate his own identity, the Sunday interview seemed to be the latest example of his fading personal appeal. 

    Trump’s Q&A with O’Reilly drew approximately 12 million viewers. That’s a respectable number, but when President Barack Obama sat down for the traditional pre-Super Bowl interview in 2009, his first year in office, almost 22 million people tuned in, nearly double Trump’s audience. (And it wasn't a matter of who was playing later; game viewership ratings in 2017 were substantially higher than those in 2009.) Even Obama’s pre-Super Bowl interviews during his second term in office easily outpaced the audience size for Trump’s recent sit-down. Obama drew 18 million viewers in 2014, 16 million in 2015, and 15 million last year.

    That’s been the pattern in recent weeks, as Trump, who spent 2016 chronically boasting about his ability to spike TV news ratings, clearly falls short of the ratings successes Obama posted early in his presidency. As the least popular new president in modern American history, Trump seems to having trouble connecting with the masses.

    For instance, on January 25, ABC News’ David Muir conducted the first prime-time interview with Trump following his inauguration. The show “didn’t set the Nielsen charts aflame,” drawing just 7.5 million viewers and weakly performing in the "advertiser-coveted" 18-49 demographic, as Variety reported. How many viewers watched Obama’s first prime-time interview as president? Seventeen million, or 10 million more than tuned in for Trump.

    At the end of last month, when Trump turned his announcement of a Supreme Court nominee into a prime-time production, 33 million people watched. In contrast, Obama’s first prime-time event was a press conference he held on the night of February 4, 2009, when nearly 50 million Americans watched.

    And then there was the size of Trump’s inauguration audience, which became a topic that drove the White House to distraction. After bragging that his swearing-in would perhaps draw the largest crowd in Washington, D.C., history, only to have a modest-sized audience show up, Trump began wildly inflating the estimates. The crowd “looked like a million, million and a half,” he announced at a speech the day after inauguration, while a crowd-science expert estimated that Trump's audience was about one-third the size of Obama's approximately 1.8 million-person crowd in 2009.

    Then -- after continuing to stew over crowd size numbers throughout the day -- Trump sent White House press secretary Sean Spicer to the White House press briefing room to angrily tell reporters that Trump’s swearing-in attracted “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the world."

    Trump himself tweeted about how large his inauguration TV audience was, bragging that more people watched his swearing-in than Obama's four years earlier.

    But Trump's citation of Obama's second inaugural was a red herring; here are the facts: Across 12 television networks, 31 million people watched Trump’s inauguration, which was 7 million fewer than watched Obama’s first inauguration. That represented a nearly 20 percent decline in viewership. (Trump also garnered fewer viewers than both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.)

    Some caveats: Trump’s Fox News interview with Sean Hannity last month was a big success. So we know that within the right-wing media bubble, Trump remains a star attraction.

    And the topic of Trump is still driving viewers to television news teams. The 2016 election cycle delivered a ratings bonanza for cable news, with all three networks enjoying robust audience gains: Fox was up 36 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, CNN, 77 percent, and MSNBC, 87 percent. (MSNBC posted its best year ever, and CNN its best since 1995.) And their ratings remain strong in 2017.

    Note also that as it rides a wave of Trump mockery, Saturday Night Live is posting its best numbers in 22 years.

    But the idea that Trump himself stands as some sort of cultural phenomenon and that Americans flock to their TVs every time he appears in front of a camera is simply not accurate. (Television news producers, please take note.)

    In television-speak, viewer fatigue seems to have set in and the plot line already appears to be running thin. Keep in mind that Trump just made history by losing the popular vote tally by nearly 3 million votes and remains the least popular new president since modern-day polling was invented. 

    Trump’s tepid Nielsen numbers are bad news for the president since he’s utterly obsessed with television ratings. Even before entering politics, he routinely took to Twitter to tout the numbers for his show Celebrity Apprentice. (“For Trump, Everything Is a Rating,” noted a recent New York Times headline.) For years, Trump has turned to ratings as a way to both validate himself and to undercut his foes.

    And yes, Trump has openly lied about ratings when they didn’t convey the storyline he preferred -- when they didn’t confirm his status as a winner.

    From Adweek:

    Former (and now deceased) Celebrity Apprentice publicist Jim Dowd told PBS' Frontline in 2015 that even as the show's ratings plummeted, Trump demanded he call the TV reporters at major publications and tell them, "'No. 1 show on television, won its time slot,' and I'm looking at the numbers and at that point, say Season 5, for example, we were No. 72."'

    Last year, Dowd told CNN that in his 20 years in the television business, he’d never seen anyone “who cared as deeply about ratings, positive or negative, as Donald Trump."

    On the eve of the inauguration, Bill Scher, writing in New Republic, suggested there was no better way to rattle a man “uniquely obsessed with being seen” than to tune out his swearing-in and deprive him of a big TV audience to brag about. “A mass refusal to watch Trump on TV will deprive him of big ratings, which he routinely uses to create a false impression of widespread popularity.”

    There hasn’t yet been a mass refusal to watch Trump in recent weeks, but the shoulder shrug does seem to be spreading.

  • Conway's Bowling Green Massacre Claim Wasn't An "Honest Mistake"; It's Part Of A Pattern

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    It turns out senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway didn’t misspeak only one time when she referenced a fictional “massacre” that unfolded in Bowling Green, KY, at the hands of two Iraqi-born men in 2011. She actually told that tall tale in at least three interviews in recent weeks, attempting to defend President Donald Trump’s ban on travel for visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. That, and to wrap the media’s knuckles for ignoring the alleged massacre.

    The latest revelation is troubling because it completely undermines Conway’s defense that when she mentioned the “massacre” on MSNBC last week, she simply made an "honest mistake" where she “misspoke one word,” and that instead of a “Bowling Green massacre” she meant to refer to the two Iraqi men as “Bowling Green terrorists.” In other words, “massacre” sprang out in a moment of on-air confusion, and then “haters” in the media blew the story out of proportion.

    If that were the case, it might be within bounds for Conway to push back on critics, even though she was reckless using “massacre.”

    But that’s not the case. Because if you look at the language Conway used on MSNBC, it’s obvious she didn’t employ “massacre” by mistake. (Her whole point was that the men were the “masterminds behind” the “massacre.”)

    We now know that Conway picked the same word more than once while peddling the Bowling Green narrative, which certainly suggests the storytelling was deliberate. (“Massacre” isn’t a word that often tumbles out of mouths of surrogates by mistake, let alone twice while telling the exact same story.)

    Why does Bowling Green matter, aside from the opportunity to mock Conway’s dishonest and dangerous fabrication? It matters because Bowling Green could offer a deeper glimpse into the alternate reality that may be developing within the White House regarding current events, and how that "reality" is being used to advance the White House's desire to demonize Muslims

    Bowling Green matters because it represents the swelling challenge the press faces in covering the Trump White House, based on its almost chronic attempts to fabricate information. And as that challenge swells, it becomes imperative that journalists not believe anything the White House tell them – ever -- before the claims are able to be independently verified.

    Writing about Conway and her Bowling Green adventure in The New York Times, media columnist Jim Rutenberg suggested her debacle represented good news for the media in their battle against Trump era fake news. Pointing to the speed and authority with which the “story fell apart so spectacularly,” Rutenberg hoped “the tale of the ‘massacre’ could be the start of something new.” (The episode certainly damaged her reputation at CNN, which reportedly declined to have her on Sunday’s State of the Union.)

    I also hope the Bowling Green debunking could be the start of something new. But I have grave doubts, simply because Trump and his advisers rarely seem chastened, even after caught telling flat out lies, or inventing news events, such as a fictional mass killing in the Bluegrass State.

    Meanwhile, look at the fabrication that sprang sprung up around Conway’s lie. Trump on Monday suggested the press purposefully ignores or downplays terror attacks. (“They have their reasons, and you understand that,” said Trump.) When pressed for examples, the White House released a list of large-scale attacks, including the December 2015 gun rampage in San Bernardino, CA, where 14 people were killed, and the November 2015 Paris terror attacks that left 130 dead and hundreds more wounded.

    But the idea that news organizations across the spectrum, both national and local, collectively choose to not cover terror attacks is nonsensical and easily refuted. The three television broadcast network evening newscasts devoted 237 minutes to the San Bernardino attack, making it the third most-covered news story of 2015, according to television news analyst Andrew Tyndall. The same analysis found the Paris attacks to be the fifth most-covered story. Overall, the rise of ISIS was the fourth most-covered story. 

    It was just more nonsense from Trump. In fact, Alex Jones’ conspiracy-loving Infowars website has been pushing the idea that the U.S. press, for political reasons, won’t report on terror attacks. (Jones has been a close media ally of Trump’s dating back to the campaign. In fact, Trump appeared on Jones' show to praise the conspiracy theorist's "amazing" reputation just hours before the San Bernardino attack.)

    In terms of the fictitious massacre, Bowling Green is emblematic of a White House that’s scooping up all kinds of dubious, unproven claims and presenting them as facts, particularly when the topic is hyping the threat of Islamic terror surrounding the travel ban. (Defending the initiative, Trump posted a fake news article on his Facebook page.)

    Meanwhile, the idea that Conway simply misspoke is categorically false. Providing additional details to the fictional massacre, here’s what she told Cosmopolitan during a January 29 interview:  

    "Why did [Obama] do that? He did that for exactly the same reasons. He did that because two Iraqi nationals came to this country, joined ISIS, traveled back to the Middle East to get trained and refine their terrorism skills, and come back here, and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre of taking innocent soldiers' lives away."

    In that telling, the two men “traveled back to the Middle East to get trained and refine their terrorism skills” and then returned to the U.S. to unleash their “massacre,” which took “innocent soldiers’ lives” in the U.S.

    As Cosmopolitan explained, none of that is accurate.

    The good news is Conway’s awkward “massacre” fabrication was quickly and aggressively debunked, and her reputation may have suffered a long-term hit.The disturbing downside: The Conway incident isn’t a random, dismissible incident. As the Trump White House has proven repeatedly, making things up is becoming the rule, not the exception.

  • Exciting The Right Wing, Trump Downplays Threat Of Right-Wing Terror

    Neo-Nazis Celebrate: "Donald Trump Is Setting Us Free"

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Just days after Canada suffered a deadly gun massacre at the hands of a homegrown, right-wing radical who opened fired on praying Muslims, the Trump administration is moving to downplay the threat of homegrown, right-wing radicals in the United States.

    Coming in the wake of Trump’s controversial decision to sign an executive order temporarily barring individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, Reuters this week reported that the Trump administration would direct a government-run program called Countering Violent Extremism to change its name to Countering Islamic Extremism or Countering Radical Islamic Extremism. In doing so, the program “would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.” (The FBI and the Justice Department will still track hate crimes and prosecute homegrown terrorists.)

    Downgrading the scrutiny given to right-wing radicals has long been a goal of conservative media in America. Now Trump is moving to turn that desire into policy.

    Back in 2015, Fox News’ Eric Bolling was part of a chorus of conservative media voices who denounced a Department of Homeland Security report that warned about violence from “right-wing sovereign citizen extremists." Bolling insisted there weren’t any examples of far-right attacks in the U.S., while his colleague Greg Gutfeld offered there had been just two in “over four decades.”

    But the DHS report, produced in conjunction with the FBI, clearly documented 24 violent, right-wing domestic attacks that took place between 2010 and 2014.

    “A survey last year of state and local law enforcement officers listed sovereign citizen terrorists, ahead of foreign Islamists, and domestic militia groups as the top domestic terror threat,” CNN reported at the time.

    Concurrently, a 2015 report from the New America Foundation found that of the 28 deadly homegrown terror attacks since 9/11, 18 were incidents inspired by right-wing extremism, while 10 were inspired by Islamic extremism. 

    Dr. John Horgan of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell told The New York Times that year, “There’s an acceptance now of the idea that the threat from jihadi terrorism in the United States has been overblown. And there’s a belief that the threat of right-wing, antigovernment violence has been underestimated.”

    But some on the “alt-right” were furious over the government’s 2015 report. "It really is the most egregious politicization of national security," Breitbart’s Sebastian Gorka insisted during a Fox News appearance. “We're going to be looking for right-wing extremists when ISIS prepares to attack us? It's outrageous."

    Gorka has since been hired by the Trump White House and serves as deputy assistant to the president. 

    Meanwhile, white supremacists continue to express their deep appreciation for President Trump and his administration's plan to radically change the CVE program. “My hands are shaking right now as I prepare this article – I’m just that unbelievably happy,” announced neo-Nazi website Infostormer. “This measure would be the first step to us going fully mainstream, and beginning the process of entering the government in full-force without the fear of being attacked, financially-assailed, and intimidated into silence by the nefarious Jews.”

    At neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, editor Andrew Anglin announced to readers, “Donald Trump is setting us free.” He continued, “This is absolutely a signal of favor to us. We are not a threat to America, we are American patriots trying to save this country. It is also a slap in the face to the kikes of the SPLC and the ADL who pushed for us to be classified along with actual Islamic terrorists as a way to legally justify outrageous abuses against us by the federal government.” (In the same article, Anglin called the actions of white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, who was recently sentenced to death for massacring African American worshipers at a church, "silly" but "perfectly understandable if you put it in context.") 

    This remains the hard truth: From neo-Nazi killers, to a string of women’s health clinic bombings and attacks, as well as assaults on law enforcement from anti-government radicals, acts of right-wing extreme violence led by self-described revolutionaries continue to unfold regularly in the United States.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a running tally of confirmed radical-right terror plots. Its most recent entry was from October 14, 2016:

    Three members of a southwest Kansas militia dubbed “The Crusaders” are arrested after an eight-month investigation on charges stemming from a plot to attack a housing complex in Garden City, Kansas, that houses a mosque... The attack was planned for the day after the 2016 general election. According to an affidavit filed in the case, the men had repeatedly referred to Somalis as “cockroaches.”

    That looming, present danger drives the conservative media, and the emerging alt-right media, to distraction. Simultaneously obsessed with pushing that idea that Islamic terrorists are pouring across America’s borders, while insisting domestic, far-right extremists pose no real danger, the right-wing media regularly attack the government for its interest (until now) in tracking homegrown terrorists of all ideologies.

    In 2009, they tried to sabotage a report released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis that warned law enforcement agencies how “right-wing extremist groups” might be out recruiting members in the wake of the first black president being elected.

    Then too, there was a coordinated, hysterical reaction from the conservative media, which wildly misconstrued a report about skinheads and white supremacist terror groups to claim the Obama administration was trying to criminalize conservatives who opposed the new president.

    In truth, CNN reported the study was actually “produced by staff members during the Bush administration,” and not released until early 2009. The report focused on "rightwing extremists," "domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups," "terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks," and "white supremacists," making it abundantly clear the government was not targeting mainstream political activists.

    Of note in that the 2009 report was the fact that right-wing recruitment in the U.S. had previously spiked during the 1990s, “but subsided after increased scrutiny by the government following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings,” which were masterminded by right-wing domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

    Today, with the threat of homegrown, radical-right extremists still looming, the Trump administration is doing the opposite and following the Fox News lead. Rather than increasing scrutiny, it’s proposing to scale it back.

  • Canada’s "Alt-Right" Mosque Shooter, And What He Means For Right-Wing Media

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    It’s not true that the accused gunman who entered the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City on Sunday night and opened fire on dozens of defenseless worshippers was “of Moroccan origin.” And it’s also not true that the gunman, who was later apprehended with two rifles in his Mitsubishi, was part of a “false flag” operation, connected to a larger, Muslim-led “insurrection” movement.

    Instead, the gunman who killed six Muslims and wounded many more over the weekend in an "unprecedented" (for Canada) attack on a place of worship is named Alexandre Bissonnette. He’s white. He’s 27 years old. He was born in Canada. And he’s a poster boy for today’s dangerous "alt-right" movement: a radicalized extremist whose hate apparently sparked a barbaric gun rampage.

    He’s been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an act of terror against Muslims.

    The accused killer’s connection to the far right is not a tangential one. Bissonnette is a white nationalist who, according to Canadian press accounts, has been described by friends and acquaintances as:

    And then there was this description, from a Canadian refugee activist (emphasis added):

    "He was someone who made frequent extreme comments in social media denigrating refugees and feminism. It wasn’t outright hate, rather part of this new nationalist conservative identity movement that is more intolerant than hateful.”

    In other words, he’s not a “lone wolf” gunman. He’s an "alt-right" assassin who seemingly became deeply immersed in a radical movement in search of cultural and ethnic purity. (One family member thinks Bissonnette “fell under the influence” of someone who radicalized him.)

    In the wake of the deadly attack, Fox News viewers were told virtually none of that about the gunman. In fact, they were fed misinformation about the identity of the shooter, thanks to the network's claim on Twitter that a second gunman on the scene was “of Moroccan origin.” (Though police initially arrested two suspects, including one who is of Moroccan descent, they quickly realized he was a witness to the attack and that there was only one shooter, the Canadian native Bissonnette. Fox did not correct its tweet for more than 24 hours, until a spokesperson for the Canadian prime minister called on the network to "either retract or update" its false claim.) "Alt-right" outlet Breitbart.com did the same thing, hyping the Morocco angle, and then limply updating the incorrect report.

    During all of Fox News’ prime-time coverage on Monday night, the Quebec massacre came up exactly twice, according to a transcript search via Nexis.

    One of those references came from Bill O’Reilly, who, rather than acknowledge the shooter’s "alt-right" roots, instead tried to portray the massacre as part the larger war on terror narrative: “Continuing now with our lead story, extreme vetting to prevent terrorism in the USA. As you know may know, six people are dead, 17 others hurt after a college student allegedly shot up a mosque in Quebec, Canada.”

    O’Reilly never explained how “extreme vetting” would have stopped a homegrown white nationalist gunman from killing Muslims.

    Fox News’ hands-off Quebec coverage fits the channel’s long-established pattern of downplaying acts of right-wing, white supremacist violence, and treating them as rogue, isolated events. This, while Fox News hypes beyond proportion and common sense attacks by Muslims in America.

    In terms of the timing of Quebec’s "alt-right" massacre, it’s difficult to separate the targeted, and likely political, killings from the hotbed of international controversy set off by President Donald Trump’s decision to sign an executive order temporarily barring individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

    Having been elected after running an openly Islamophobic campaign, Trump has repeatedly defended the ban as a way to protect American from “bad dudes” coming into the country and committing acts of terror in the name of radical Islam. It’s a deeply white nationalist message.

    Using that context, White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to politicize the Quebec massacre by weirdly suggesting it proves the need for the president’s get-tough-on-terror agenda (emphasis added):

    We condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant, and why the president is taking steps to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to our nation’s safety and security.

    To repeat, the arrested gunman is reportedly a white nationalist Trump supporter.

    Meanwhile, as Media Matters has noted, white nationalists in the press are “ecstatic” over Trump’s travel ban, and they are expressing their glee in openly hateful and bigoted ways: “These virulently racist writers are praising Trump for stopping 'these disgusting animals' and 'sneaky sand-people' from entering the country and are also calling on Trump to arrest or impeach federal judges who oppose the ban. A neo-Nazi writer even suggested killing those protesting the ban.”

    For the extreme "alt-right" movement, Trump has arrived as its Oval Office savior, as the two sides team join forces to wage war on jihadists supposedly pouring across America’s borders.

    Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity have also joined the on-air pep rallies to tout the anti-Muslim ban. This is the same Fox News that has advocated for bugging mosques and eliminating other constitutional rights, the same Fox News that once told its viewers, "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims."

    For years, Fox News and other conservative media have stoked dangerous Islamophic fires with runaway hate rhetoric. (See the mob they whipped into a frenzy during the so-called “9/11 mosquehysteria in 2010.)

    Trump is now trying to harness that hate to push his anti-Muslim agenda. What’s new and different is the emergence of the international "alt-right," white nationalist movement and the violence, or the threat of violence, that never seems to be far from the surface.

    Tragically, Quebec witnessed that violence this week. The pressing question going forward: How high can Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media dial up their Muslim disdain during the Trump era, without inspiring gun rampages?

  • The Press Shouldn’t Believe Anything The White House Tells Them -- Ever

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Sitting down for his first presidential phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart “vowed to repair relations between the countries,” during a “warm,” hour-long discussion, The New York Times reported.

    The two men promised “to join forces to fight terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, according to the White House and the Kremlin,” noted The Washington Post, and the confab was “positive,” according to a White House statement quoted by NBC News.

    Reuters agreed: “Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to try to rebuild U.S. Russia ties and to cooperate in Syria, the Kremlin said on Saturday.”

    Virtually all the coverage of the Putin-Trump phone call was identical and had the same feel-good vibe, because the information about the call all came from the same two sources: a statement released by the White House, and one put out by the Kremlin. (“The chat took place in a positive and business-like tone.”)

    Noticeably absent from the phone call? According to the White House, Putin and Trump did not talk about U.S. sanctions currently in place against Russia and whether Trump will lift them, even over objection from members of his own party. White House chief of staff Reince Priebus “refused to say whether” there was discussion during the call of U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia made a concerted effort to influence the November election in favor of Trump. The White House and Kremlin accounts suggest they never talked about news that two Russian intelligence officers who had worked on cyber-operations had been arrested on treason charges, in a move that some observers think may be related to Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. election. Or that there was any discussion of allegations that Russian operatives “claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”

    Instead, there wasn’t even a hint of discord between the two leaders, according to the press reports. And maybe there wasn't any. But again, journalists received all their call information from aides who crafted public statements, which reporters then typed up as fact.

    That in and of itself is not unusual. Reporters have routinely relied on the White House to release information about diplomatic calls and other commonplace events not witnessed by journalists. It represents a fairly routine interaction between the two sides.

    But we’re in a new, drastically more dishonest era now, and it’s time for reporters to question even the most customary communications released by the White House, or background information offered up by aides.

    As Dan Pfieffer, a former senior advisor to President Obama, suggested:

    This shift represents another way the press needs to rip up the old rules for covering the White House, simply because we’ve never had a White House staffed with so many dishonest people embracing “alternative facts”; dishonest people whose fabrications are easily and quickly disproven. (Even regarding statistics.)

    The problem isn’t just Trump. During his first week serving as White House press secretary, Sean Spicer became well known for the lies he told on behalf of his boss.

    The reporting on the Putin-Trump phone call might seem like a small matter, but the context looms large: Even the most pedestrian interactions between the White House and the press are now open to suspicion. And it’s time to retire the idea that just because a White House statement asserts a fact, that reporters ought to relay it as one.  

    For instance, here’s how NBC News reported on the phone Putin-Trump phone call:

    The approximately hour-long call was described as "positive" and "a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair," The White House said in a statement.

    A more accurate wording would have been this (emphasis added):

    The approximately hour-long call was described as "positive" and "a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair," The White House claimed in a statement.

    It may seem minor, but it represents an important signal for the press to send Trump and his team, that after less than two weeks in office they have done very little to prove that they can regularly tell the truth about much of anything. What we're seeing isn't the traditional dance between the White House and the press, where aides spin on behalf of their boss and reporters parse out the truth. Instead, we're seeing a non-stop attempt to steamroll -- to gaslight -- the press. 

    And here’s what was telling. The same day the Times relied on a White House statement to give the paper details about the Putin-Trump call, details that the Times then presented as fact to its readers, the paper ran a front-page story that basically detailed Trump's long-time habit of lying about everything, all the time:

    [T]he mystifying false statements about seemingly trivial details, the rewriting of history to airbrush unwanted facts, the branding as liars those who point out his untruths, the deft conversion of demonstrably false claims into a semantic mush of unverifiable “beliefs.”

    So if newsrooms understand that falsehoods are the currency that Trump and his White House aides trade in each day, then reporters should stop treating unconfirmed claims from the White House as fact. Even when the supposed facts revolve around everyday matters like diplomatic phone calls.

  • Trump’s Wall And The Missing Media Context: Undocumented Immigration Is On The Decline

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    In signing an executive order last week ordering the “immediate construction of a physical wall” along the United States’ border with Mexico, President Donald Trump generated exactly the news coverage he wanted: articles highlighting the president’s unprecedented action that could give the impression he’s addressing a surging problem of undocumented immigrants flooding into the United States.

    The New York Times reported that Trump had begun “a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration.” The paper stressed, “Taken together, the moves would turn the full weight of the federal government to fortifying the United States border,” and that Trump’s plan “called for a newly expanded force to sweep up immigrants who are in the country illegally.”

    According to The Washington Post, “President Trump on Wednesday began putting in place his plan to ratchet up immigration enforcement.”

    And The Associated Press stressed that, “President Donald Trump moved aggressively to tighten the nation's immigration controls Wednesday,” noting “Trump cast his actions as fulfillment of a campaign pledge to enact hard-line immigration measures.”

    The tone of these pieces about his planned wall very much reflected Trump’s get-tough rhetoric this week: He was taking aggressive action to stem a growing problem. “Beginning today, the United States gets control of its borders,” the president said this week. He told ABC's David Muir: “It’s going to be very hard to come in. Right now, it’s very easy to come in.”

    But here’s the crucial context much of the coverage glossed over as reporters rushed to document Trump’s wall initiative: Overall the total number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States has been slightly declining over the past decade. Apprehensions at the U.S. border have generally been in decline over the past 16 years. And specifically, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico who were stopped at the border has fallen in recent years, with the figure being cut in half since 2010. (There has been an increase in undocumented immigrants from Central America in recent years, but overall the total number of undocumented immigrants stopped at the border is a quarter of what it was in 2000.) 

    Like his attempts to spread lies about the U.S. unemployment rate (not to mention lies about the size of his inauguration crowd), Trump’s argument for building a wall is built on the fabrication that America is under siege from undocumented immigrants.

    It’s not.

    While some publications, like the Huffington Post and Politico, included this crucial context for Trump’s wall proposal, each of those articles cited above from the Times, the Post and Associated Press, failed to note that Trump was proposing a radical fix for a dilemma already in decline. And that seems to have been the press pattern, as news updates downplayed or ignored the slower rate of immigration across the Mexican border. This NBC report doesn’t mention it until the 16th paragraph; this CNN report made no mention of it at all.

    Clear-headed coverage that provides context for Trump’s colossal wall proposal should spell out that his multi billion-dollar construction projection is designed to address a problem that spiked 10 years ago when the total undocumented population hit an all-time high.The press shouldn’t allow Trump to paint a portrait of America being overrun when that simply is not true. 

    The failure is part of a larger problem where journalists allow Trump to create his own -- often dystopian -- realities about America. Like the way the president promised to fix the “carnage” of America during his inauguration address, and how he routinely insists the crime rate in this country is rocketing upward. 

    It’s not.

    The number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States peaked in 2007. There were 12.2 million undocumented immigrants in 2007 and 11.1 million in 2014, according to Pew Research Center estimates. (They are among the most recent figures available.) 

    Those Pew numbers were reinforced by a 2016 study by demographer Robert Warren, which found that the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S had dropped to 10.9 million in 2014.

    “One reason for the high and sustained level of interest in undocumented immigration is the widespread belief that the trend in the undocumented population is ever upward,” wrote Warren in his study for the Journal on Migration and Human Security. “This paper shows that this belief is mistaken and that, in fact, the undocumented population has been decreasing for more than a half a decade.”

    Trump’s signature policy initiative of building a concrete wall along a nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico is based on a falsehood about undocumented immigrants. The press needs to include that central context.

  • Trump’s Deep Character Flaws Will Define His Presidency; Media Should Focus Attention There

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Donald Trump continues to make history.

    We know of no other president in American history who has started out his tenure by unfurling two preposterous bookend lies, the way Trump did during his first days in office.

    He lied fantastically about the size of his inauguration crowd. And then, taking a sledgehammer to the premise of free and fair elections, he lied fantastically about millions of Americans having voted illegally on Election Day, supposedly costing him the popular vote victory.

    Pressed for details, White House press secretary Sean Spicer could point to no real evidence to back up Trump’s whimsically dangerous insistence about ballot box fraud. Spicer also sputtered trying to justify the unjustifiable claim about historic viewership for the Republican’s swearing-in.

    Both of those bold prevarications ignited media firestorms, and for good reason, as increasingly baffled journalists try to decode Trump’s daily crusade to gaslight them about simple facts and events. More and more, journalists are straining to make sense of Trump’s erratic ways; trying to figure out what his political motivation is for spreading such easily debunked falsehoods.

    Trump is “addicted to controversy,” and suffers “acute sensitivity to criticism,” reasoned The Washington Post. He just can’t “shake his erratic campaign habits,” Politico suggested, while The New York times pointed to Trump’s “anxiety” as a reason he needs to tell tall White House tales.

    Two key points: Trump has shown himself to be a relentless liar since he launched his political career in 2015. Anyone who thought he would discontinue that habit as president just hasn’t been paying attention.  

    Second, if journalists want to understand Trump’s unbalanced Oval Office behavior they need to focus on his character and his extremely troubling flaws. (They’re not merely “campaign habits,” as Politico called them.) Those character flaws will ultimately define his presidency because they’ve always fueled his erratic actions and weird fixations.

    Yes, Trump’s a dishonest conspiracy theorist. But he’s also much more than that. He’s a remorseless liar and a grievously insecure man who seems to feed off spite and revenge.

    And by the way, that description mirrors the one Tony Schwartz has given about the Republican billionaire. And Schwartz knows Trump well, having served as Trump’s ghostwriter on his 1987 breakthrough memoir, The Art of the Deal. (Trump is a “sociopath,” and “lying is second nature to him,” says Schwartz.)

    It’s true that some in the press have begun to do a better job at clearly labeling Trump’s lies for what they are. What’s been largely missing, though, is the why: Why does the president of United States act in such an erratic and dangerous way? What’s been missing post-election are regular and detailed examinations of Trump’s character as an explanation for his unprecedented actions.

    Understanding and recognizing the character blemishes at the center of Trump’s personality isn't superfluous, armchair analysis. It’s the key to gaining a crucial window into who the president is, as well as into the country’s precarious future.

    Instead, journalists keep searching for rational “explanations” to Trump’s presidential behavior, trying to make sense of his pattern of telling obvious lies. (Remember when we were told not to take Trump's outlandish claims "literally"?) But pathological liars like Trump don't discriminate between lying about big things and lying about small things or between obvious lies and subtle ones. (See here and here for 600-plus documented falsehoods he’s told.)

    Also, the press simply isn’t used to this level of naked dishonesty coming from the Oval Office. (Trump’s inauguration crowd totaled 1.5 million??) And journalists haven’t yet properly adjusted. They're still accustomed to dissecting political lies in the context of, "What’s the motivation behind the lie?" And, "What’s the political advantage of telling that lie?" But that linear approach doesn’t always apply to Trump. There’s no indication he plots out the falsehoods or even cares if he gets caught. Lying is who he is. He cannot not tell lies.

    In other words, it’s not a political strategy, it’s a character defect. Especially for someone like Trump who appears to have no deep ideological moorings.

    This isn’t the typical territory most political journalists tread when covering Beltway politics. But it now needs to be. Journalists need to familiarize themselves with what it means to have someone in the White House who is “obsessed with his popularity”; what it means to have a serial liar occupying the Oval Office. They need to understand how people like that think, how they function, and why they lash out.

    More analysis like this would be helpful, from MTV’s Jamil Smith (emphasis added):

    But the defects of his personality have become almost instantaneously institutionalized within the White House. Whatever his mental and emotional hangups are, they're now our problem, too. His fragility makes us all weaker, and his petulant outbursts can now shift world events. Sadly, it's clear from the first few days of the Trump administration that the trustworthiness of his office is not the president's foremost priority. His feelings are.

    We need more reporting in the vein of the Associated Press' recent examination of the extraordinary insecurity that seems to be driving the early days of the Trump presidency. And the Times’ Maggie Haberman's recent reporting that shed light on the intersection between Trump’s impulsive personality and his early, erratic actions in the White House.

    It may seem unusual for journalists to dissect the president’s character flaws in search of clues regarding his political agenda. But it's just another instance where the media need to rip up the old Beltway rule book and find a new way forward.