Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • Chris Cillizza Demonstrates Why "Optics" Punditry Is Fundamentally Useless

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Before, during, and after President Donald Trump’s speech last night to a joint session of Congress, political journalists and pundits shamelessly prioritized the speech’s optics over its content. Focusing on the president’s “tone,” they rushed to declare that Trump had finally “pivoted,” giving a “presidential” speech.

    That obsession with style over substance drew swift criticism from other commentators. And Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza isn’t happy that pundits are being called out for saying Trump did an awesome job:

    These are dumb questions. Of course Trump can be praised for “delivering a good speech.” In fact, you don’t need to be a savvy pundit or political journalist to watch the speech and decide whether the speech is good!

    And that’s the problem. As Greg Sargent suggests, the real question is whether journalists are actually giving their audience useful information when they obsess over the president’s tone instead of the content of his speech.

    Do readers and viewers learn anything, for example, when they see Cillizza praising Trump for giving the best speech of his political life and complaining on cable news that “the worst thing, I think, for our politics is this assumption, and you see it over and over again in a speech like this, is that Donald Trump can do nothing good and nothing can be accomplished while Donald Trump is president”? (Really, that’s the absolute worst thing Cillizza can think of that can happen to our politics?)

    Americans need journalists to dig into whether anything Trump said last night could possibly be converted to policy (nope). They need journalists to interrogate Trump’s claims and determine whether they were true (they weren’t). They need journalists to put Trump’s speech into the context of his actions and explain whether he’s needlessly fearmongering about immigrant communities (my god, yes).

    And it’s helpful to learn that even the White House is shocked at how eager the press has been to praise Trump’s speech:

    Endless discussion of the optics of Trump’s speech, on the other hand, is entirely useless. There is no value in providing the “winners and losers” from last night in a way that treats Trump’s mendacity as a throwaway line.

    Of course, Cillizza’s entire oeuvre is based on the concept that he is a savvy pundit who tells people what they really need to know about politics based on a surface-level, optics-first approach.

    While he’s certainly one of the worst examples of the genre, he’s not alone -- at times, cable news seems to exist solely so Mark Halperin and Joe Scarborough and Gloria Borger and David Gergen and their ilk can pontificate about nonsense. They present value judgments and opinion dressed up as koans of wisdom.

    At best, content like this is ephemeral garbage that lasts a news cycle and is forgotten, but provides traffic that supports the work of actual reporters.

    At worst, this sort of fact-free punditry creates false narratives that can alter the public’s perception of political figures (see: the press’s obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 election cycle, which paved the way for Trump’s election).

    President Trump’s first weeks have been a shitshow of incompetence and extremism. The American public needs more from the press than meaningless dreck.

  • Media Fall For Trump’s Shameless Act Regarding Failed Yemen Raid

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    President Donald Trump shamelessly and publicly deceived the widow of a fallen U.S. serviceman about her husband’s death in order to diffuse widespread concerns about the raid that resulted in his death, and journalists are rewarding him by praising his actions as “presidential.”

    During his February 28 speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump recognized the sacrifice of William "Ryan" Owens, a Navy SEAL who was killed during a botched January 29 raid on a terrorist camp in Yemen. Trump said that according to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Owens participated in a “highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy." Trump’s praise of Owens, with the SEAL’s wife in the audience, drew a nearly two-minute long standing ovation from the crowd.

    It was an incredibly moving moment, and a triumph for political optics. It was also a deeply deceptive political ploy aimed at pushing back against numerous criticisms of the Trump administration’s handling of the raid -- the first covert counterterrorism operation of Trump’s presidency. These include:

    • Due to insufficient intelligence and preparation, “the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.” This led to U.S. casualties and civilian deaths.
    • Trump was not in the White House situation room for the raid -- his Twitter account tweeted and deleted a promotion for an upcoming interview while the attack was ongoing. He approved the action over dinner at a meeting that included political staffers.
    • Contrary to Trump’s claim that the raid was a successful intelligence gathering mission, reports suggest part of its purpose was actually to kill a top leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who “either slipped away or was not at the location.” The raid reportedly produced “no significant intelligence” according to U.S. officials who contradicted Pentagon statements in comments to NBC News. The only intelligence from the raid the Pentagon has produced is a 10-year-old video.

    As these questions have mounted, Democrats on the Hill and Owens’ father have called for an investigation into the raid. And this morning, Trump drew new controversy when he passed the buck, claiming that it “was a mission that started before I got here” and blaming the military for Owens’ death, saying, “They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected we've had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

    All of that context has vanished for some journalists, who have instead rushed to praise Trump for his comments during his address to Congress.

    CNN’s panel was full of accolades for Trump following his speech.

    Anderson Cooper kicked things off by praising the “extraordinary moment.” Van Jones declared that Trump “became president of the United States in that moment. Period.” Gloria Borger credulously highlighted Trump’s claims that the raid had been successful. And of course, pro-Trump pundits Rick Santorum and Jeffrey Lord gushed over Trump’s “healing moment” and “soaring … inspirational” speech.

    CNN’s journalists weren’t alone in failing to put the moment in context.

    As Erick Erickson pointed out, this is the response Trump is looking for -- he is deliberately trying to use this speech to neutralize potential criticism of the raid.

    Reporters don’t need to fall into this trap. They can recognize the emotional moment in the Capitol, while still giving their audiences the facts.

  • Donald Trump Wants Total Subservience From Interviewers

    Breitbart and Fox & Friends Softballs Show How To Win Favor

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    President Donald Trump and his top aides have spent the first weeks of his tenure at war with the press, viciously lashing out at journalists and seeking to delegitimize outlets that produce critical reporting.

    But Trump doesn’t consider every reporter a dishonest member of the opposition party. As he has sought to make clear over the past few days, it is only the “fake news” outlets that he considers to be “the enemy of the people.”

    Such outlets include The New York Times, the broadcast networks, and CNN, among others -- in reality, Trump uses “fake news” as a broad term to cover any report that paints him in a negative light.

    But Trump has his favorites as well. And yesterday he rewarded Breitbart.com’s Matt Boyle and the hosts of Fox & Friends with exclusive Oval Office interviews prior to tonight’s speech before a joint session of Congress.

    It’s no secret why they would be granted such an honor -- Boyle and the hosts of Fox's morning show are known as major Trump fans, and they have provided him with overwhelmingly supportive commentary for years. It is that brand of fervent support and obsequious shilling that Trump appears to expect from journalists.

    Indeed, Trump made a point of praising them all during the interviews, to their obvious pleasure.

    Fox’s Steve Doocy began their interview by thanking Trump for “the shoutout you gave at your press conference” on February 17 (amid more than 30 attacks on the press, Trump called the Fox & Friends hosts “honorable people” who run “the most honest morning show”).

    Trump responded, “That’s true -- you have treated me very fairly,” and said that the other networks “know it’s true.”

    Breitbart’s transcript omits any introductory chitchat, but at one point Trump tells Boyle that “there are some great reporters like you,” citing him and one other journalist as “honorable reporters” who are not part of what he termed “the fake media, where they make up everything there is to make up.” The comment was prominently highlighted in Boyle’s write-up.

    When Trump singles out Boyle and the hosts of Fox & Friends for praise and access, he makes clear that work like theirs is what he expects from journalists. Those who do not fall in line and behave in the same way risk becoming the victim of one of the president’s attacks.

    Based on the interviews Breitbart and Fox produced, all journalists need to do to gain the respect of the White House is become propagandists for the administration. Here’s what that takes:

    Find Time To Praise Trump On Issues He Cares About

    Donald Trump is the world’s most powerful snowflake.

    Perhaps because he has spent his entire life in a wealth and power bubble that has shielded him from criticism, his ego requires careful attention and management.

    “The key to keeping Trump’s Twitter habit under control, according to six former campaign officials, is to ensure that his personal media consumption includes a steady stream of praise,” Politico reported last week. “And when no such praise was to be found, staff would turn to friendly outlets to drum some up — and make sure it made its way to Trump’s desk.”

    Interviewers who want to remain off of Trump’s “enemy of the American people” list can help their cause by piling on the praise.

    During the Fox & Friends interview, both Doocy and Brian Kilmeade sought to feed Trump’s ego by stressing his popular support. Kilmeade claimed that tonight’s speech will have the biggest audience of any “State of the Union-like address” ever. Doocy told Trump that there are “people who are counting on you all across the country and all around the world.” “The love is great,” Trump replied.

    Doocy even made a point of complimenting Trump’s “beautiful hotel.”

    Boyle avoided this sort of direct praise in the transcript. But given that he literally appeared at Trump’s election victory party in a “Make America Great Again” hat, he probably didn’t need to offer any more.

    Give Trump Space To Bash The Media -- And Join In If You Can

    If you want to avoid being one of the journalists Trump hates, you better not show solidarity with outlets he’s criticized.

    That means that when Trump starts ranting about the press during an interview, you cannot defend your colleagues. The hosts of Fox & Friends put on a clinic this morning on how to do nothing while the president is lashing out at the “dishonest media.”

    Boyle went even further during his interview, siding with Trump to attack the Times for what he called a “pretty embarrasing story,” and even raising the question of whether Trump should retaliate against “CNN’s pretty bad behavior” by opposing its parent company’s merger. Trump responded to this explicit call for authoritarian action by refusing to rule it out.

    BNN: “Right and that’s what I wanted to zone in on with you because I know you made that very clear in your CPAC speech. Can you kind of more clearly define what standards and quality we should expect from those who are doing reporting?”

    POTUS: “It’s intent. It’s also intent. If you read the New York Times, if you read the New York Times, it’s—the intent is so evil and so bad. The stories are wrong in many cases, but it’s the overall intent. Look at that paper over the last two years. In fact, they had to write a letter of essentially apology to their subscribers because they got the election so wrong. They did a front page article on women talking about me, and the women went absolutely wild because they said that was not what they said. It was a big front-page article, and the Times wouldn’t even apologize and yet they were wrong. You probably saw the women. They went on television shows and everything.”

    BNN: “Yes, it was pretty embarrassing for the Times.”

    POTUS: “[They said] ‘we really like Donald Trump and he [the Times reporter] totally misrepresented us. He said he was going to say good and it was absolutely bad.’ This was a front page article, almost the entire top half of the New York Times, and it was false. It was false. Did they apologize? No. I call them the failing New York Times and they write lies. They write lies. Nobody would know that. For instance, when people read the story on the women—first of all, the reporter who wrote the story has a website full of hatred of Donald Trump. So, he shouldn’t be allowed to be a reporter because he’s not objective. It’s not all, but it has many negative things about Donald Trump. But he shouldn’t be allowed to write on Donald Trump. And, he writes that story. But that’s one of many. So, when you read the Sunday New York Times, it’s just hit after hit after hit. And honestly, I think people are wise to it because if you look at the approval rating, you see it’s down. You know, it’s gone. There’s very little approval.”

    BNN: “Now, during the campaign, one of the things you and a lot of your campaign guys like Peter Navarro talked about was breaking up some of these oligopolies in the media. If you look at the media, part of the problem seems to be that a vast majority of the media companies are owned by just a handful of different companies. Obviously, there’s a looming merger between AT&T and Time Warner. I wanted to see what your thoughts are on that and if CNN’s pretty bad behavior over the course of—they really don’t seem to be making an effort to get it right—does that give you hesitation in terms of approval of the deal?”

    POTUS: “I don’t want to comment on any specific deal, but I do believe there has to be competition in the marketplace and maybe even more so with the media because it would be awfully bad after years if we ended up having one voice out there. You have to have competition in the marketplace and you have to have competition among the media. And I’m not commenting on any one deal, but you need competition generally and you certainly need it with media.”

    Provide An Open Platform For Trump To Lash Out At His Enemies

    Trump has a lot of perceived enemies outside of the press. He appreciates it when interviewers give him an open-ended chance to attack them, and don’t follow up.

    Here’s Brian Kilmeade doing that with regard to President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the protestors who are resisting Trump’s agenda.

    Boyle similarly asked Trump what his “thoughts are on the new Democratic chair.”

    Don’t Question Trump’s Facts

    Trump lies constantly, on matters great and small, for political reasons or for none. It’s nearly impossible for an interviewer to keep up with the sheer volume of falsehoods Trump spews.

    And if they want to stay on Trump’s good side, they won’t try.

    The Fox & Friends and Breitbart interviews were both characterized by a dearth of fact-checking -- or even follow-ups. The toughest question in either encounter was probably Doocy’s inquiry about how Trump intended to pay for additional defense spending -- and Doocy completely rolled over as Trump offered some pablum about how economic growth will fill in the gaps.

    Dubious statements from Trump on immigration policy, Obamacare, and a raid in Yemen that the president ordered were all treated with aplomb. Trump wants interviewers to give him a platform to get his message out without impediment, and these three provided that chance.

    Stay Away From Difficult Topics

    Trump-friendly interviewers know to skip pesky questions about topics the president would rather avoid.

    While both Breitbart and Fox & Friends made time to discuss the Oscars ceremony, neither mentioned mounting concerns about the new revelation that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to publicly rebut reports that Trump campaign officials had been in contact with Russian intelligence agents.

    There was no mention of retired Lieut. Gen. Michael Flynn, who stepped down as national security advisor when it was revealed that he had lied about a phone conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States late last year. Other Trump nominees who have stepped down amid controversy also didn’t come up.

    Neither interview featured discussion of Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest, or the floundering executive order targeting refugees and travelers from majority-Muslim countries, or the wave of anti-Semitic attacks that have occurred during the first weeks of Trump’s presidency.

    The best thing journalists can do to curry favor with Trump is to ask him only about topics he wants to be asked about.

    Or they can do their jobs.

  • The White House Correspondents' Association's Feckless Response To Trump

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    On Friday, President Donald Trump told a crowd of cheering supporters that major news outlets are “the enemy of the people” because they make up critical stories about his administration. Press secretary Sean Spicer followed up that rhetoric by barring credible journalists from a press gaggle while making room for pro-Trump reporters.

    While collective action remains in short supply, the moves drew quick denunciation from the press. "I find it deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable that the White House is actively running a campaign against a constitutionally enshrined free and independent press," National Press Club President Jeffrey Ballou wrote in a statement. "The action harkens back to the darkest chapters of US history and reeks of undemocratic, un-American and unconstitutional censorship.”

    But as criticism of the White House poured in, one party proved noticeably timid: the White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents the very White House press corps that remains constantly in the administration’s sights.

    After an initial statement in which he said the WHCA was “protesting strongly against how today's gaggle is being handled by the White House,” the organization’s president, Jeff Mason, embarked on a media tour in which he has seemingly run damage control for the White House press office. In several interviews, Mason has paired tepid criticism of the Trump administration’s actions with praise for the access the administration has granted reporters.

    “We’re not happy with how things went today,” Mason told The New York Times the same day. “But it’s important to keep in mind the context of how things have gone up until now.” Stressing that the White House continues to do daily press briefings, he added: “I don’t think that people should rush to judgment to suggest that this is the start of a big crackdown on media access.”

    “I think it’s worth noting that since Sean became press secretary, he`s been having regular briefings in the White House press room on television. I would -- I’m reluctant to draw conclusions from what happened today,” he said on MSNBC’s For the Record that night. “We don`t like what happened today, but I want to look at the full record and also say we’ve had pretty good access so far. We hope that that is the trend that continues and not a trend of excluding news organizations.”

    “It's important, I think, for viewers to know that despite that rhetoric, we have worked well with the Trump White House. We have had many opportunities for journalists to ask questions of the president and of his press team,” he added on today’s Morning Joe.

    He later added: “I want to put it in the larger context of what has happened during this first month. During the first month, Sean Spicer has been briefing regularly from the briefing room and on television and that is what we asked for. And so that is important not to forget. The fact that they did not include a bunch of organizations on Friday is certainly a concern. And, of course, it comes in the context of President Trump saying things like the fact that he believes the media is the enemy of the American people. We absolutely do not believe that.”

    Taking questions from journalists at daily press briefings is not some special privilege that Spicer has provided. It is literally the least that any journalist could expect from a press secretary. And the vitriol that Trump wields on a daily basis deserves more than mild disagreement.

    Either Mason is truly unconcerned with the attacks the Trump administration has heaped upon the press or he is desperately fighting to preserve the very basics of press access.

    As Poynter’s James Warren wrote of Mason’s comments to the Times:

    It was disappointing and suggested an underlying craving by some for peace and moderation and press-White House harmony. Intentional or not, it suggested how a bully can intimate his victims and make some of them cower.

    Friday's outrage over the gaggle in Spicer's office is a hint of things to come. It was a toe in the water. It's like, as a friend puts it, "The Trump administration is basically boiling the frog, and the frog is better off not being tepid when the water turns lukewarm."

    During an era in which the president and his officials have attacked the press in unprecedented fashion -- with Trump himself declaring that he is in “a running war with the media” -- Mason has repeatedly been called upon to respond. And again and again, he has seemed more concerned with preserving his relations with Spicer and the press office than with defending journalism in the age of Trump.

    At times, Mason’s interviewers have seemed shocked at Mason’s willingness to downplay the Trump administration’s efforts to delegitimize journalism.

    On January 22 -- the morning after Spicer used his first appearance before the press corps as White House press secretary to attack reporters for accurately reporting on the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration -- Mason appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources. While Mason acknowledged that Spicer’s comments had been “stunning,” he praised the White House for keeping the press briefings in their current location and allowing a pool to observe Trump signing an executive order (again, the bare-minimum expectations for what the White House should do).

    Watch host Brian Stelter try to get Mason to admit that the White House’s actions against the press have been extreme, and his response.

    BRIAN STELTER:There's clearly some anxiety here. What are you telling the White House correspondents about how to approach this?

    JEFF MASON: Well, for starters, I think it's important to reinforce the point that we've already made here at the panel, which is that there's always going be a level of tension between the White House and the press corps. That is normal, that is healthy, and that is something that we expect to continue here. That level of tension may have gone up a little bit --

    STELTER: May have?

    MASON: OK -- did.

    STELTER: He said there's a running war with the media. He's using war analogies. He's referencing combat.

    MASON: Yes, you're right. You're absolutely right. And we recognize that. And so, it puts some strain on the relationship. But it's in the interest of the White House Correspondents' Association to try to continue to be an honest broker and a good interlocutor between the press corps and the White House. And that's why it's important for me to keep meeting with Sean and our board to keep meeting with his team.

    In the weeks that followed, the Trump administration regularly attacked the press, with Trump himself repeatedly calling the media and various outlets “fake news,” “a disgrace,” “the opposition party,” “failing,” “dishonest,” and “the enemy of the American people.”

    But during a CNN International interview last week, Mason praised the access reporters have gotten to the White House, while saying only that “the tone set by the President has been a challenge.” That led to this exchange with host Hala Gorani (accessed via Nexis):

    HALA GORANI: But, Jeff, it's not every day the President of the United States calls reporters the enemy of the American people. This is the type of thing we expect to hear in the Middle East or in regimes, you know, that have not a great democratic sort of track record. I mean, did this send a chill in the White House press corp when you heard that?

    JEFF MASON: Well, it's not the type of tone that I would choose to set, but it's up to the President to decide what kind of tone he wants and to use the language that he wants. You know, I've said repeatedly, we don't influence the language --

    GORANI: It's not innocuous language, though. I mean, this is pretty serious, or actually it is --

    MASON: I agree.

    Mason is acting like he has no cards to play, as if the White House press corps exists by the sufferance of the administration. As long as the press corps engages in such open display of weakness, the White House will continue to see what it can get away with.

    Click here to tell the White House press corps to stand up to Trump’s media blacklist.

  • Why Conservatives Love Trump's Attacks On Journalists

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Over the past five days, the White House chief strategist called the press the “opposition party” and threatened to destroy it, the press secretary barred major news outlets from a press gaggle while opening the door to right-wing outlets, and the administration announced it would be giving a plum Oval Office interview to a Breitbart.com reporter considered among the administration’s most sycophantic media boosters.

    The Trump administration’s press strategy is clear: delegitimize mainstream news organizations, especially those that produce critical reporting that jeopardizes its efforts, while lifting up unabashed propaganda outlets.

    And his fans love it.

    “I want you all to know we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake!” President Donald Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.” His supporters responded to Trump’s six-minute attack on the press with laughter, cheers, and chants of “USA! USA!”

    While some conservative media figures are speaking out against the Trump administration’s efforts to manipulate coverage and damage the institution of the press, many more can’t get enough of the way he treats journalists with utter contempt and grinds them into the dirt.

    And those opinions are mimicked by their audiences. Seventy-three percent of Republican voters approve of the way he talks about the media, according to a recent poll. Nearly four out of five trust President Trump more than the press to tell the truth.

    But those views are wildly out of step with the rest of the American public, which overwhelmingly disapproves of Trump’s conduct and trusts him less than the media.

    This divide is the result of extremely successful efforts by Republican activists, politicians, and conservative media outlets to convince conservatives that the mainstream press is liberal and deceitful and that only avowed right-wing sources can be trusted to provide the facts.

    Those attacks first boiled over at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which followed weeks of vitriolic criticism against the press by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and his supporters. Goldwater had been widely castigated by columnists and commentators for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, generating a backlash from activists who believed (quite accurately) that reporters had taken sides against segregation over the previous decade.

    As conservatives triumphed over the moderates who had controlled the party for decades and installed the Arizona senator as the party’s nominee, activists raged at and even assaulted the purportedly liberal press. Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s exhortation from the podium to “scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” drew wild applause and jeers from the crowd.

    This anti-press animus would enter the White House with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. As Mark Feldstein detailed in June:

    Just a few months after [Nixon’s] election, he dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to launch a public assault on the “small and unelected elite” of journalists who held a “concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.” Nixon publicly said that he hadn’t heard Agnew’s speech. In fact, he had privately approved it word-for-word ahead of time, chortling that it “really flicks the scab off.”

    In addition, Nixon invited top broadcast executives to the White House and told them that “your reporters just can’t stand the fact that I am in this office.” Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler declared that all of the TV networks were “anti-Nixon” and would “pay for that, sooner or later, one way or another.” Another top adviser, Charles Colson, told the head of CBS News that Nixon’s administration would “bring you to your knees” and “break your network.”

    “The press is your enemy,” Nixon told Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a private meeting in February 1971. “Enemies. Understand that? . . . Now, never act that way . . . give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”

    Given his criminal activity, Nixon was right to fear the press. The dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward eventually forced his resignation -- giving conservatives a new data point in their grievance against the media.

    As conservative politicians lashed out, conservative activists tried to build their own outlets. A central premise of such outlets was that they were needed because, as Agnew claimed, the press was irreparably liberal.

    Two decades before Roger Ailes founded Fox News and began building it into a conservative media juggernaut, the former Nixon aide served as news director of the fledgling Television News Inc., a conservative news outlet that claimed nonpartisanship but was funded and led by right-wingers.

    But TVN was unable to find an audience, bled millions of dollars, and lasted only a couple years. And as Republican presidents racked up victories in the years to come, the impetus behind purely right-wing outlets -- outside of a handful of conservative magazines and journals that largely served elite audiences -- dissipated.

    But in 1992, Bill Clinton unseated President George H.W. Bush, whose campaign spent its final months urging supporters to “Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.” Clinton’s victory unleashed a new, grass-roots-focused wave of right-wing talk radio hosts, led by Rush Limbaugh.

    These radio hosts provided conservative news, opinion, and talking points to a broad audience, while simultaneously targeting individual Democratic lawmakers for defeat. They were an alternative news source that sought to delegitimize both the new administration and the press that covered it. The result was the “Limbaugh Congress” of 1994, which made the radio host an unofficial member of the House Republican caucus.

    Two years later, Fox News was founded. Its “fair and balanced” mantra implicitly suggested that the network’s competitors were not. And the hosts and anchors have spent the last two decades making that subtext text, attacking other journalists and media outlets on a regular basis and constantly suggesting, as Agnew insisted decades before, that the press consists of untrustworthy liberals.

    In Fox’s wake, new outlets like Breitbart have risen, all seeking to mimic Fox’s success in attracting conservative audiences by condemning the rest of the press. The result has been plummeting trust in the press among Republicans.

    Once that effort was complete, the stage was set for Trump’s ascendance.

    “The conservative alternative media, and I'm part of that, grew up and I was very proud of that and I assumed that what we were doing was informing people, making people smart, giving people factual information, telling them the other side of the story,” conservative radio host Charlie Sykes said last year. “And unfortunately what's happened is it has morphed into this alternative reality whereas Joan says, we live in these different silos. And having discredited the mainstream media, now what do we have? We have the InfoWars, we have the Breitbarts, we have the Drudges, in which information is passed, things that that bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever.”

    Trump and his advisers are trying to crystalize those changes. They want to convince as many of their supporters as possible that only Trump can be trusted. And after years of conditioning from this decades-long campaign, they have frighteningly little work to do.

    Click here to tell the White House press corps to stand up to Trump’s media blacklist.

  • Trump Just Blacklisted Media Outlets. We Warned You This Would Happen.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Hours after President Donald Trump denounced critical journalists as “the enemy of the people” before a cheering crowd of supporters, major news outlets were blacklisted from a White House press gaggle while the administration’s sycophants were ushered in.

    “CNN was not permitted to attend, along with the New York Times, Politico, Buzzfeed and much of the foreign press that regularly attends White House briefings,” CNN reported. Instead, White House press secretary Sean Spicer found room for the pro-Trump outlets Breitbart.com, The Washington Times, and One America News Network.

    The restrictions mark the return of the Trump campaign’s strategy of revoking reporters’ press credentials and denying them access to events following unfavorable coverage of the now-president.

    They also cap off a week of vitriolic attacks on the press from Trump’s administration. Last Friday, Trump tweeted that “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) ... is the enemy of the American People!” Spicer and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus have since defended Trump’s comments, blaming the media for failing to be fair to the president.

    Yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), White House chief strategist and former Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon referred (again) to the press as “the opposition party,” telling the audience that the administration’s feud with the “corporatist, globalist” media will only get worse because they are “adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda.”

    And at CPAC this morning, Trump devoted six minutes of his speech to an anti-media screed, characterizing outlets doing critical reporting as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” He described some reporters as “terrible, dishonest people” who “do a tremendous disservice to our country and to our people.”

    The good news is that The Associated Press and Time magazine reportedly stood up for their profession, showed solidarity with their colleagues, and boycotted the gaggle. The bad news is that NBC, ABC, Fox, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg News did not, leaving open the question of whether the administration will face consequences if officials continue to use such tactics to divide and conquer the press.

    The press had no qualms about acting collectively to defend Fox News when the Obama administration excluded the network from a round of interviews in 2009. The other television news networks staged a “revolt” and boycotted their scheduled interviews.

    Eight years later, Fox appeared to have no qualms about walking into a White House press gaggle when other outlets were banned. Reporters from mainstream publications joined the network in ignoring their blacklisted colleagues and attending the gaggle.

    Trump and his administration will happily trample all over the press while giving favorable treatment to outlets willing to play ball. They want propaganda partners, not an adversarial press.

    This is not going to stop until reporters make it stop. Unless they all stand together, things will continue to get much worse.

    Sign Media Matters’ petition urging the White House press corps to “close ranks and stand up for journalism” against Trump’s attacks.

    UPDATE: In a statement to Politico's Hadas Gold, The Wall Street Journal says it would not have participated in the gaggle if it knew others were banned and will not do so in the future.

    UPDATE 2: Politico reported that the BBC and Los Angeles Times were also blocked, Hearst Newspapers joined the gaggle as part of the press pool, and that McClatchy Newspapers also attended. The latter issued a similar statement to the Journal:

    Media Matters president Angelo Carusone issued the following statement on the events:

    "Media Matters sounded the alarm about the clear and present danger Donald Trump presented to a free press.We told White House correspondents that Trump’s blacklist was only going to to get worse over time if they didn’t act. And it wasn’t just us. More than 300,000 people signed a petition urging White House correspondents to stand up to Trump’s blacklist by refusing to participate if Trump banned one -- or more -- of their colleagues.

    "Today’s actions underscore the importance of White House correspondents standing up to Trump’s blacklist. It's no coincidence that the outlets that have been at the forefront in breaking stories about  Trump’s conflicts of interest and his associates’ ties to Russia were banned from today’s gaggle.  Trump is trying to delegitimize and punish news outlets for practicing rigorous journalism while simultaneously giving their spots to pro-Trump propagandists.

    Outlets like Time and The Associated Press did the right thing in standing up to Trump’s blacklist by refusing to participate in the gaggle in solidarity with their banned colleagues.

    “It’s unfortunate and damaging for the profession of journalism that ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, and Bloomberg chose to support Trump’s blacklist by attending the briefing. It may sound harsh to characterize their participation in the event as support, but that’s what it is. By participating, these outlets not only make it easier for Trump to continue blacklisting journalists, but they also lend legitimacy to a process that is fundamentally inconsistent with a free press."

  • CPAC Is Trying To Wash The “Alt-Right” Stench Off Breitbart

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The term “alt-right” is toxic. It should be. The loose confederation of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and misogynists have spent the last year spreading fear, hatred, and conspiracy theories.

    The problem for conservatives is that the movement is directly connected to the major right-wing news outlet Breitbart.com; its former executive chairman, Stephen Bannon; and Bannon’s new boss, President Donald Trump.

    “The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump Campaign represents a landmark achievement for the ‘Alt-Right,’” Hillary Clinton said last year after Bannon was hired by the Trump campaign, highlighting the website’s promotion of “race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman [ideas].” “A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party,” she added.

    That “fringe element” is now in the White House. But direct association with racists and misogynists isn’t great for the conservative movement’s brand -- or Breitbart’s bottom line. So the organizers of this week’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) are working hard to redefine the term “alt-right” in order to retroactively separate that movement from the White House and the website.

    In cable news interviews and speeches from the conference lectern, CPAC’s organizers have condemned the “alt-right” -- even having security very publicly remove from the premises Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who originally coined the term.

    But at the same time, they have vouched for Bannon, are hosting seven Breitbart staffers and accepting a sizable donation from the website, and they even claimed that the “alt-right” is really made up of liberals. Bannon’s “alt-right” ties went unmentioned this afternoon when he sat alongside White House chief of staff Reince Priebus for a fawning “conversation” with Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC.

    In a speech this morning titled “The Alt Right Ain’t Right at All,” the ACU’s Dan Schneider claimed that the term “alt-right,” which he claimed had previously “been used for a long time, in a very good and normal way,” had been “hijacked” by a “hate-filled, left-wing fascist group” that “stole the term specifically to confuse us.”

    The ACU is having trouble getting its story straight -- Schlapp claimed during an MSNBC interview this morning that he had never heard of the term before last year -- according to him, it is a “new term.”

    But Schlapp did want everyone to know that Bannon is definitely not associated with the “alt-right.” “Today, [Bannon] would repudiate what these people stand for,” he said. “He’s a good man, and he’s a tolerant man.”

    “I know Steve Bannon well. He's a good man; he is not a racist,” Schlapp added on CNN. “Yes, the conservative movement and voices in the conservative movement are changing. But I do not believe that he is associated with the ‘alt-right’ at all.”

    This is all bullshit. Bannon himself described Breitbart last year as “the platform for the alt-right,” and he led the website in an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, misogynistic, ethno-nationalist direction that appealed to that movement. He hired Milo Yiannopoulos and had no apparent problem with the despicable commentary and activism he wrought -- or the way he championed the “alt-right.”

    Notably, when Breitbart produced a list of “20 lies” in Clinton’s speech on the “alt-right,” it made no effort to distance itself from the movement or suggest that she erred in linking it to the website and its former leader.

    When Bannon was hired by Trump’s presidential campaign, white nationalists cheered. When his move to the White House was announced, they were ecstatic.

    Bannon was very happy to be associated with the movement when it was boosting Breitbart’s traffic, influence, and revenue. But now things have changed, as companies and ad vendors have pulled their advertising from the site in huge numbers due to its association with racism and misogyny.

    And so CPAC is helping the website out, repeatedly condemning the “alt-right” while very deliberately separating it from Bannon and Breitbart.

  • The Breitbartification Of CPAC

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    “My biggest fear is that later this week I will be among the legions at CPAC rearranging the furniture,” wrote Andrew Breitbart just days before the first Conservative Political Action Conference of President Barack Obama’s administration. “Instead, the conservative movement needs to think in revolutionary terms.”

    Eight years later, Breitbart has passed away, but the revolution he started is at its peak: the media company he founded is everywhere at CPAC, and his successor is in the White House working for Breitbart.com’s chosen candidate.

    Former editor Milo Yiannopoulos is no longer on the program, but seven Breitbart editors and reporters will participate in panels and or give speeches at the conference this week. (In an almost certainly related note, Breitbart is a “Partnering Sponsor” of the event, the highest level.)

    White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who took over the website following its founder’s death, will appear alongside White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp today for a “conversation” intended to show that the Republican Party establishment and the fringe outsiders who pushed President Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 presidential primaries are united.

    And of course, after he pulled out of speaking at last year’s conference following a backlash from conservative critics, Trump himself will loom over the conference, with an address scheduled for Friday morning.

    Andrew Breitbart himself dominated CPAC in the early years of the decade. He strode through the conference like a rock star, granting media interviews, greeting cheering supporters, confronting liberal provocateurs, and scouting for new talent. His annual speech-screeds drew large audiences far more interested in hearing his rants against journalists and other elites than they were a sober speech from a Republican politician or think-tanker.

    “I'm old, so I remember CPAC before Andrew Breitbart: Quiet,” wrote David Weigel in 2012. “Since 2010, the first CPAC after Breibart's Big Government released James O'Keefe's ACORN video investigations, Breitbart's appearances at the conference have begun with media interviews, continued with assorted people confronting him on video, and ended with his own speeches, full of nostalgia for the stuff that just happened.”

    Weeks after his 2012 CPAC appearance, at which he famously freaked out at liberal protestors, Breitbart suddenly passed away. Bannon took the reins, and began turning the website Andrew Breitbart founded into “the platform for the alt-right.”

    The following year, CPAC celebrated the first anniversary of Breitbart’s passing. Hundreds of CPAC attendees showed up for events intended to remember the right-wing media mogul. A standing-room-only showing of his final documentary was followed by a panel featuring his former colleagues and friends, followed by a cocktail party. In 2014, the paeans continued as CPAC rolled out the Andrew Breitbart First Amendment Award (radio host Mark Levin was the first recipient; Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson was the second).

    But even as CPAC showered love on Andrew Breitbart’s memory, under Bannon’s leadership, the website he founded was suggesting that the conference was too politically correct and overly dominated by the establishment. In 2013 and 2014, Breitbart.com hosted “The Uninvited” sessions during CPAC featuring anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, and fringe figures that were not welcome at the conference itself.

    Notably, The Uninvited sessions featured Frank Gaffney, the founder of the Center for Security Policy -- which the Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes as “a conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.”

    Andrew Breitbart once hired Gaffney to help run his national security website; he still contributes to Breitbart.com. And Bannon loves Gaffney, calling him “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” But Gaffney was persona non grata at CPAC for years because he is a paranoid conspiracy theorist who accused two members of CPAC’s board of being secret supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (he has returned in recent years and is on the 2017 agenda).

    The situation was bad enough that after he became chairman of the American Conservative Union, which oversees CPAC, Matt Schlapp invited Breitbart editor Matt Boyle to the ACU’s headquarters for a lengthy interview in February 2015. Schlapp and his staff, in fairly obsequious fashion, pitched Boyle on how that year’s CPAC would be more responsive to Breitbart.com’s concerns.

    CPAC had “drifted away from the core values of conservatism” but now, “concerted efforts by the ACU to listen to grassroots concerns about the direction of the landmark conference, the organization is now emerging as stronger, more conservative and more united,” Boyle concluded following the presentation.

    In the two years since, the Republican establishment has been routed by the Breitbart-led forces who pushed Trump to the front of the Republican presidential primary field and supported him at every step of the way. Bannon moved seamlessly from head of Breitbart, to head of Trump’s campaign, to Trump’s top White House aide.

    In addition to Trump and Bannon, attendees at this year’s CPAC will have the opportunity to see Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow interview a Republican congressman on tax reform. They can watch Breitbart UK chief Raheem Kassam introduce Nigel Farage, his former boss at the right-wing UK Independence Party. Breitbart’s Frances Martel and John Carney will be moderating panels on “China’s Expansion” and “Repealing Obama’s Banking Monstrosity,” while Joel Pollak and Sonnie Johnson are on panels discussing trade policy and how the left hates cops. James Delingpole will be leading “CPAC Conversations” on energy.

    Breitbart.com spent years shilling for Trump’s candidacy. Now Trump will swagger through the conference that Andrew Breitbart once owned, while the news site he created is a dominant force at CPAC. An ascendent Breitbart.com and President Trump are truly Andrew Breitbart’s greatest legacy.

  • Milo Yiannopoulos Resigns From Breitbart

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com editor Milo Yiannopoulos announced Tuesday that he has resigned from the right-wing website following the emergence of a video in which Yiannopoulos apparently justified sexual abuse of a minor by an adult.

    “I would be wrong to allow my poor choice of words to detract from my colleagues’ important reporting, so today I am resigning from Breitbart, effective immediately. This decision is mine alone,” he said in a statement.

    Yiannopoulos, who has a long and well-known history of making virulent attacks against women, people of color, Muslims, and the transgender community, and is a key enabler of the “alt-right,” was hired by Breitbart when the site was run by Stephen Bannon, now White House chief strategist.

    But it took the circulation of the video for him to finally become too toxic for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which rescinded its invitation for him to speak; Simon & Schuster, which pulled his book deal; and Breitbart, where employees were reportedly threatening to bolt if he was retained.

    As Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, suggested, Yiannopoulos’ past comments were simply “controversies and disagreements among conservatives,” while “there is no disagreement among our attendees on the evils of sexual abuse of children.”

    Yiannopoulos has fans at the very highest levels of the federal government. “Bannon believes in Milo,” the site’s editor-in-chief, Alexander Marlow, reportedly told The Washington Post earlier this month. “He dedicated time and resources – both personally and with his businesses – to expanding Milo’s brand.” Earlier this month, President Donald Trump attacked the University of California, Berkeley and threatened to withdraw federal funds from the university after it canceled an event featuring the Breitbart editor.

    Earlier today, Marlow called the comments in the video “very troubling and upsetting” and “not defensible” and said Yiannopoulos would address “his future with Breitbart” during a press conference this afternoon.

    Marlow also laid the groundwork for turning Yiannopoulos into a martyr, saying that there are “millions of examples of the left normalizing behavior similar to what Milo describes” and that Yiannopoulos is the victim of a “coordinated hit” by liberals and anti-Trump conservatives. During his press conference, Yiannopoulos likewise said that “this is a cynical media witchhunt from people who don’t care about children. They care about destroying me and my career.” He also promised to announce his own media venture and new college speaking tour dates in the coming months.

    As I noted this morning, given that Breitbart is a sewer with no standards, Yiannopoulos leaving would "suggest that the website, amid a major advertiser boycott, has finally found a limit to the bad press it is willing to tolerate from one of its biggest stars. No matter what, Marlow wants to keep Yiannopoulos’ audience from leaving the website. Keeping Yiannopoulos is the best way to do that, but if that’s no longer financially viable, turning him into a martyr is the next best strategy."

  • Breitbart Editor-In-Chief Prepares To Turn Milo Yiannopoulos Into A Martyr

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow is laying the groundwork to blame editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ critics following the emergence of a video in which Yiannopoulos apparently justified sexual abuse of a minor by an adult. According to Marlow, there are “millions of examples of the left normalizing behavior similar to what Milo describes,” and Yiannopoulos is the victim of a “coordinated hit” by liberals and anti-Trump conservatives.

    The Conservative Political Action Conference rescinded Yiannopoulos’ speaking invitation and Simon & Schuster canceled the publication of his book after video circulated of Yiannopoulos “condoning pedophilia.” Yiannopoulos’ long and well-known history of making virulent attacks against women, people of color, Muslims, and the transgender community, and his role as a key enabler of the “alt-right,” were not sufficient to stop him from receiving that invitation and book contract in the first place

    In an appearance this morning on the Breitbart News Daily show on SiriusXM, Marlow called the comments in the video “very troubling and upsetting” and “not defensible” and said Yiannopoulos would address “his future with Breitbart” during a press conference this afternoon. “You will get some answers today, just not right this second,” he promised his audience.

    Marlow described the video as “a total surprise to people in the Breitbart organization” and repeatedly condemned the comments, but also offered what he termed important “context” for Yiannopoulos’ remarks. This included assuring the Breitbart audience that Yiannopoulos says he himself has not sexually abused minors.

    Marlow, whose website supported Donald Trump during the presidential campaign even after audio emerged of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, then attacked liberals for “normalizing behavior similar to what Milo describes”:

    We have many examples on the left who have admitted to statutory rape. We have Lena Dunham had in her book talking about touching her sister’s private parts as a child. We have Roman Polanski, I mean, there are millions of examples of the left normalizing behavior similar to what Milo describes. There is no evidence that Milo has actually been a predator, and so I do think that that is also very important context.

    He went on to suggest that the real villains are the people who released audio of his employee apparently defending the sexual assault of minors, saying, “It does look like the forces of the left and some of the Republican establishment and of the sort of Never Trump movement, perhaps, seems to be growing evidence that this was all coordinated to wait for a peak moment when Milo was red-hot.” He added, “They sat on the story and they held it for maximum political damage, which is really sort of sickening, that they would keep this from the public if they had it, and instead try to wait until they could do the most damage to his career, and to Breitbart, and by proxy, people like Trump and [Stephen] Bannon.”

    It’s hard to parse Marlow’s comments. It is possible Yiannopoulos will use his press conference to resign from Breitbart. That would suggest that the website, amid a major advertiser boycott, has finally found a limit to the bad press it is willing to tolerate from one of its biggest stars.

    No matter what, Marlow wants to keep Yiannopoulos’ audience from leaving the website. Keeping Yiannopoulos is the best way to do that, but if that’s no longer financially viable, turning him into a martyr is the next best strategy.