Right-wing media are baselessly connecting the Obama administration and the State Department to a local Israeli campaign against current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, American political consultants from both parties have been independently working in Israeli campaigns for decades -- including former Obama aides who have worked for Netanyahu.
Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote on February 2 that a former Obama campaign staffer went to Israel "to oust Netanyahu," suggesting the former staffer would not do this work "if he thought Obama opposed it" and implying the administration was "actively working to defeat Netanyahu":
Obama's 2012 national field director, Jeremy Bird, was headed to Tel Aviv to manage a grass-roots campaign to oust Netanyahu. Bird would not be working to defeat Netanyahu if he thought Obama opposed it. Can you imagine Karl Rove going to London while George W. Bush was in office to help conservatives oust Prime Minister Tony Blair? It further emerged that the group behind Bird's anti-Netanyahu effort has received State Department funding and lists the State Department as a "partner" on its Web site.
But before this false idea hit the Post, it bubbled up from the right-wing media echo chamber.
Two policy groups in Israel, OneVoice and Victory 15, are currently working together to promote platforms that reportedly "are not friendly" to Netanyahu ahead of the upcoming election.
The groups have also partnered with American consulting group 270 Strategies, which is headed by Jeremy Bird, a former Obama campaign staffer. OneVoice began working with 270 Strategies in 2013, long before the Israeli elections were announced.
There is a long history of U.S. political consultants from both parties working for Israeli political campaigns. As the New York Times reported, former Obama campaign strategist Bill Knapp worked as an adviser to Netanyahu in 2009. Josh Isay, whose firm worked on the Obama campaign, has also worked for Netanyahu. Bill Clinton campaign strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg worked for an Israeli Labor Party candidate in 1999; up until recently Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein worked for Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, conservatives have jumped on 270 Strategies' current work to falsely accuse the Obama administration -- and President Obama personally -- of attempting to influence Israeli politics.
In particular, the right-wing criticism revolves around the administration's response to Rep. John Boehner's (R-OH) recent announcement that Netanyahu was invited to speak before the U.S. Congress without President Obama's knowledge shortly before Israel's election, an unusual intervention in foreign policy and almost-unheard of action between heads of state. Conservatives claim that 270 Strategies' work with OneVoice proves Obama is either retaliating against Netanyahu or engaging in a similar effort to meddle in foreign politics; but again, 270's work on the ground in Israel began long before this most recent disagreement, and it is typical for American political consultants to engage in Israeli politics.
Fringe blogs Gateway Pundit and PJ Media led the charge, publishing the "report" on January 26 claiming "The Obama administration is backing the campaign to defeat Netanyahu." The Drudge Report hyped an inside look at the "HQ of ex-Obama staffers' anti-Bibi campaign," right below a story labeled "White House ratchets up criticism of Netanyahu." Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) even followed up with a blog on Breitbart.com to ask, "Has President Obama launched a political campaign against Prime Minister Netanyahu?"
Fox News also picked up the claim, with host Megyn Kelly suggesting that the administration sent an Obama "field general" to help Israel "elect Netanyahu's opponent":
[The Obama administration says] that they're fine, they are not going to interfere with the Israeli election, they don't want anything to do with that and yet, we have reports yesterday that this guy Jeremy Bird, who was the field general for Obama's re-election campaign is helping in Israel elect Netanyahu's opponent and to replace the current government there. Pure coincidence?
When Kelly's guest Joe Trippi then explained that former campaign staffers frequently work on international campaigns -- on either side of various issues -- National Review's Rich Lowry attempted to argue that "you cannot find anyone significant around President Obama who would ever go to work for Bibi Netanyahu, which, again, goes to the animosity they have to this man personally and for the point of view he represents."
Many of the media outlets took the smear further, by also claiming that tax-payer dollars were funding the campaign. OneVoice briefly received a one-time grant for about $200,000 from the State Department, which ended in November 2014. As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki noted in a briefing, the grant "ended before there was a declaration of an Israeli election."
Nevertheless, media outlets such as the Daily Caller insisted that OneVoice was currently "backed by the Department of State" and labeled it "Kerry's Diplomatic Protection Racket." Kelly even suggested that OneVoice "should be forced to return the $200,000 to the taxpayers."
Now, this right-wing distortion of the facts has made it all the way to the Post.
An investigation by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found no evidence that Sharyl Attkisson's personal computer was hacked. The former CBS reporter has claimed that her computers had been breached as part of a federal effort to monitor her because she did reporting critical of the Obama administration.
Attkisson, who left CBS News last year and now writes for the Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal, previously claimed that her personal Apple laptop, personal Apple desktop, and a CBS News-issued Toshiba laptop were hacked while she was reporting on the Benghazi terrorist attacks. In June 2013, CBS News confirmed that the CBS News computer was breached, using what the network said were "sophisticated" methods. They did not identify the party or parties behind the breach.
But according to her 2014 book Stonewalled, unnamed sources confirmed for Attkisson that an unnamed government agency was behind the attack. Attkisson reiterated her claims in January 29 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As part of that hearing, an abbreviated report of the Office of the Inspector General's review of her allegations was entered into public record and obtained by Media Matters. The investigation, based in part on the OIG's examination of her personal Apple computer, found that the OIG "was not able to substantiate the allegations that Attkisson's computers were subject to remote intrusion by the FBI, other government personnel, or otherwise." As Post opinion writer Erik Wemple first reported, the review found that "Attkisson is not and has not been under investigation by the FBI."
Attkisson had provided to the investigators a cellphone video she took of one apparent hack, which showed words typed into a Microsoft Word document on her personal laptop rapidly disappearing. Computer security experts told Media Matters when the video was first made public that it more likely showed her computer malfunctioning due to a stuck backspace key.
The OIG report seems to confirm that suspicion. "The video of text being deleted from a document appeared to be caused by the backspace key being stuck, rather than remote intrusion," the report states. The OIG found that a second video Attkisson provided of her CBS laptop showed "a standard error prompt."
Furthermore, the OIG report found that a "suspicious" cable Attkisson had described in the book and to the OIG as potential evidence of a "tap" was "a common cable" used by her internet provider that "could not be used to monitor or otherwise affect the phone or internet service at her residence."
An individual who examined Attkisson's computer prior to the OIG investigation, according to the report, used a "method of forensic examination" which "is not forensically sound nor is it in accordance with best practices." This individual's actions "could have obscured potential evidence of unauthorized access."
Attkisson claims that this individual was hired by CBS News and sent to her house to examine her personal computer, but CBS News told the OIG that they did not conduct any analysis on her personal computer.
Media Matters has previously noted that Attkisson reversed herself on whether various technological problems she experienced were tied to the intrusion on her system. In the book, she suggested her phone, television, personal laptop, and cable systems had all malfunctioned due to the hacking. But during a radio interview she said the "disruptions happening in my electrical systems at home may in the end have nothing to do with the intrusion."
Attkisson is currently suing the government for alleged "unauthorized and illegal surveillance of the Plaintiff's laptop computers and telephones from 2011-2013."
Right-wing media figures misleadingly attacked and dismissed the need for paid parental leave after President Obama's State of the Union speech advocated for expanding these programs to more Americans. In fact, economists have found that increasing paid leave would boost the economy, increase wages, and keep families out of poverty.
Right-wing media are using the Paris terrorist attack to falsely claim Hillary Clinton has encouraged empathizing with terrorists like the ones who carried out the attack. But conservatives' attacks on Clinton are badly distorting remarks she made during a December speech in which she emphasized the value of understanding one's enemy, and she has repeatedly stated her opposition to negotiating with violent ideological groups.
2014 was a year of eye-popping media numbers, from millions of dollars' worth of coverage devoted to a trumped-up scandal to mere seconds devoted to historic news. Here are some of the most important -- and most surprising -- figures from the year.
"[W]hen they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."
This single phrase has followed George Will for the last six months. The syndicated conservative columnist, considered by many a thoughtful intellectual rather than a bomb-thrower, severely damaged his brand when he wrote a June 2014 column dismissing efforts on college campuses to combat the epidemic of sexual assault and suggesting that women who say they were raped receive "privileges." The column has sparked hundreds to protest his public appearances, challenges from U.S. Senators and women's rights groups, and the dropping of his column from a major newspaper.
Will's 2014 misinformation was not limited to attacking and dismissing rape victims. Throughout the year, Will failed to disclose several major conflicts of interest in his columns, and his tangled relationship with political entities backed by Charles and David Koch was cited by the outgoing ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists as the kind of conflict journalists should disclose in their writing. His history as a prominent denier of climate change also helped further undermine his credibility, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition demanding the Washington Post stop printing the science misinformation he and others regularly push in its pages.
Will has written a column for the Post since 1974, which is syndicated in over 450 papers. He started his career as a Republican Senate staff member and speech writer before moving into the ranks of the conservative press, contributing to The American Spectator and working as the Washington editor for the National Review for a time. He has become a fixture in the right-wing think tank infrastructure, serving as a board member of the Bradley Foundation, which funds conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Federalist Society. But Will was always careful to keep one foot in the mainstream -- in addition to his Post column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977, he served as an ABC News commentator for three decades and was even a featured interview in several Ken Burns documentaries.
Yet late last year, he left ABC to join Fox News as a political contributor, cementing his increasingly conservative and counterfactual tendencies. Some of his politics -- such as his longstanding climate change denial -- seemed to fit in at the network. But at the time, Media Matters wondered if an association with Fox's more angry and crude fare would ruin the brand of the staid conservative pontificator, shifting his erudite elitism towards the hard-edged style of misinformation for which Fox is better known. Will's accomplishments in 2014 revealed our suspicions were well-founded.
Media Matters isn't the only organization to recognize the damage Will's commentary did to the discourse this year. When PolitiFact awarded its 2014 Lie of Year to "exaggerations about Ebola," they cited Will as a prime example. Will used his Fox News platform to spread lies about the disease, falsely claiming that it could be "spread through the air." As PolitiFact noted:
Will's claim that Ebola could spread through the air via a cough or sneeze shows how solid science got misconstrued. The conservative commentator suggested a thought shift about how the virus could spread. In reality, Will simply misunderstood scientists' consistent, albeit technical explanation.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. Coughing and sneezing are not symptoms.
Will has a long history of pushing misinformation, but it finally caught up with him in 2014, tarnishing the reputation as a public intellectual he had spent decades cultivating. He started the year one of the most respected members of the conservative media elite, and ended it with hundreds protesting his speeches. For this reason, Media Matters recognizes George Will as the 2014 Misinformer of the Year.
Past recipients include CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O'Reilly (2004).
Michigan State University is delaying publicly releasing its contract for George Will's speaking engagement until after his speech by giving themselves an extension in responding to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Will is scheduled to speak at the school's December 13 commencement ceremony and receive an honorary doctorate, despite his controversial comments arguing that efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." Graduate and undergraduate student government associations have passed resolutions denouncing this honor, and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) -- herself an alumna -- issued a statement expressing deep disappointment with the school.
Media Matters contacted MSU requesting information about how much Will would be paid for the speech on December 3. The university responded that per "usual protocol" they could not give out contract information directly, and instead instructed that we file a FOIA request, which we did that same day.
According to the state's law, the university had to respond within five business days. They responded six business days later, on December 11, and told Media Matters they required ten more days "to process" the request "thoroughly" (emphasis added):
A public body must respond to a Michigan Freedom of Information Act (MIFOIA) request within five (5) business days after it receives that request. However, the MIFOIA also permits the public body to obtain additional time to complete its response to an MIFOIA request by issuing a notice to the requester extending the response deadline by up to ten (10) additional business days. This communication serves as notice that in order to process your MIFOIA request thoroughly, additional time is required ... The University will respond to your request on or before 5:00 p.m., Monday, December 29, 2014.
A Rolling Stone article about campus rape and how universities respond to sexual assault has raised an important debate about what the proper standards for reporting on sexual assault should be -- but it's crucial that whatever standards are ultimately chosen, they don't make it impossible to tell these stories.
A University of Virginia student named Jackie told Rolling Stone that she was gang raped in 2012 by members of a campus fraternity, and that campus administrators failed to investigate her story when she reported it. Jackie was one of several students in the piece who criticized UVA's response to sexual assaults, and the school is currently under federal investigation for its handling of such cases.
The Rolling Stone article initially received widespread acclaim and triggered swift action from UVA. But it has since come under fire from critics who say that the magazine violated journalism best practices, particularly with regard to its handling of the alleged assailants. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article, and Rolling Stone, have since explained that they corroborated Jackie's story by talking to dozens of her friends, in part to ensure that she had consistently told the same story for years, but were unable to reach the accused rapists (one of whom is identified with the pseudonym "Drew" and others who are not identified at all) for comment -- a fact which was omitted in the article. (UPDATE: After the publication of this post NPR's David Folkenflik brought to our attention that in an interview with him, Erdely said she had not contacted the alleged assailant at the request of Jackie. Her editor Sean Woods made similar statements to The New Republic. These comments appear to contradict other statements Erdely gave to Slate and Woods gave to The Washington Post, on which the criticisms referenced in this post were based.)
A number of journalists have criticized Erdely for this omission. Slate's Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt wrote that the "basic rules of reporting a story like this" include doing everything possible to reach the alleged assailant, and, if one is unable to do so, including a sentence "explaining that you tried -- and explaining how you tried." They criticize Rolling Stone for failing to include such a sentence, writing that this is "absolutely necessary, because it tells readers you tried your best to get the other side of the story."
The Washington Post's Erik Wemple took this critique a step further, saying that Rolling Stone had "whiff[ed]" with the article and suggesting they should have held the piece until they were able to name the accused in print (Erdely says she had agreed to Jackie's request "not to name the individuals because she's so fearful of them"), or find some other "solid" evidence:
The publication says it didn't name the perpetrators because Jackie is "so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on," Erdely commented. That's a compelling reason -- to hold the story until Jackie felt comfortable naming them; or until she filed a complaint; or until something more solid on the case emerged.
In voicing these concerns about Erdely's journalistic practices, these reporters are proposing that there is a standard these types of stories should meet -- perhaps before they can even be published -- which includes a high bar for finding of proof, including doing everything in the reporter's power to identify and contact the accused, informing the reader of those attempts, and possibly going as far as to include their name and perspective in the piece.
Reporters may find such standards appropriate. Sexual assault, and particularly gang rape, is a terrible crime, and it is logical that journalists would want to tread carefully when assessing the validity of accusations. Rosin's and Benedikt's argument that it would at the very least have been simple for Erdely to include a sentence noting she had attempted to reach out seems reasonable.
However, previous reports on sexual assaults -- including from the Post and Slate -- have not met these standards, and have not come under similar scrutiny or criticism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson, who has said he was not involved in the editing of this particular piece, tweeted several examples of reporting on sexual assault in which publications did not include any mention of ever attempting to contact the accused for comment and did not name the alleged perpetrator.
In response to questions from Media Matters about whether the university had considered Will's comments on sexual assault before deciding to honor him, MSU spokesman Jason Cody said in a statement that Will was selected in recognition of his "long and distinguished career as a nationally recognized journalist" rather than "in reference to any individual viewpoint." He added: "In any diverse community there are sure to be differences of opinion and perspective; something we celebrate as a learning community. We appreciate all views, and we hope and expect the MSU community will give the speaker the same respect."
MSU's decision to honor Will is already drawing criticism from a prominent women's rights group. "George Will's continued attacks on campus rape survivors make him an unfit speaker for any University," said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet. "George Will may have a right to publicly speak out against survivors of sexual violence, but schools like Michigan State University should know better than to honor Will's dangerous views with honorary degrees and a speaking gig at commencement."
Conservative columnist George Will is scheduled to speak at Michigan State University this month during graduation ceremonies, despite ongoing controversy surrounding his past comments on campus sexual assault.
The Detroit News reported that Will is scheduled to be a commencement speaker at the December 13 ceremony, and will receive "an honorary doctorate of humanities."
Will's previous speaking engagements at universities have come under fire after he published a syndicated column in June disputing the evidence that 1 in 5 women on U.S college campuses experience sexual assault, while arguing that efforts to fight sexual assault have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." His remarks received widespread criticism from U.S. senators, media, and women's equality groups.
In October, Scripps College of Claremont, Ca. canceled an appearance by Will, with college president Lori Bettison-Varga explaining in a statement that because Will had questioned "the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students," they would not move forward with the speaking arrangement.
Hundreds protested another Will appearance, at Miami University of Ohio in October. Nearly 1,200 students, faculty, and staff signed a letter stating that hosting Will "sends the wrong message to current students, prospective students, and their families about the tolerance of rape culture and predatory sexual behavior at Miami University," according to the Miami University Women's Center. The speech also drew criticism from professors at the school's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies program and the national women's rights group UltraViolet.
At that speech, a student who identified herself as a sexual assault survivor told journalists that Will claimed treatment for victims was "worth it ... only for real survivors of real rape."
Michigan State University is currently under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault accusations. On December 1, MSU's president posted a note about the school's efforts to combat sexual assault on campus, including "frank conversations and open dialog" to build a "culture of respect" (emphasis added):
As I said in my September 2 letter to the campus community, sexual assault is a serious problem on American college campuses, and ours is no exception. It will take leadership from all quarters to create the change necessary. I commend our students for the way they have stepped forward. Featured below is a video created by Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) as part of the national It's On Us campaign. And earlier this year, a group of eight current and recently graduated students released a documentary film, "Every Two Minutes," with a powerful message about the impact of sexual assault. This kind of work encourages frank conversations and open dialog, while at the same time building a culture of respect and concern for one another.
I encourage all members of the Spartan community to watch these videos. But I ask you to do more. Take it upon yourself to address this issue in whatever way you can. Sexual assault is everyone's problem, and it's on all of us to take action, whether that means protecting a fellow Spartan from sexual violence, providing support to a survivor, or raising awareness on campus or in your home. Members of the MSU community must not be passive.
Image via Miami University's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies program.
White guests greatly outnumbered all other guests on Fox News Sunday's November 30 segments on civil rights protests in Ferguson, MO, and the resignation of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. CBS' Sunday morning political talk show had a small majority of white guests during similar segments, while ABC's and NBC's shows were more ethnically diverse.