Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • Donald Trump, Sean Spicer, And The George Costanza Rule Of Lying

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    In a seminal episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld turns to his mendacious friend George Costanza for advice on how to beat a lie detector test. After first comparing the request to asking famed Italian opera star Luciano Pavarotti how to sing like him, George replies, “Jerry, just remember. It's not a lie ... if you believe it.”

    Journalists have an understandable hesitance toward using the blunt word “lie” to describe the statements of politicians. But at some news outlets, this hesitance has drifted into acceptance of the George Costanza Rule of Lying: a statement cannot be termed a “lie” unless there is demonstrable evidence that the speaker truly believes it to be false. Since reporters can’t read minds, it is virtually impossible to meet this standard.

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to exploit this vulnerability in Monday’s press conference. After he offered a series of obviously false and easily disprovable statements on Saturday about the crowd size at President Trump’s inaugural festivities, many journalists abandoned their typical hesitance and branded his statements as “lies.”

    Spicer doesn't want reporters calling him a liar because that would make it impossible to do his job. And he definitely wants to ensure that they don't use that terminology to refer to President Trump. So he used his first press briefing to claim that his statements aren’t lies if he believes them.

    Asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl whether it is “your intention to always tell the truth from that podium, and will you pledge never to knowingly say something that is nonfactual,” Spicer responded that his “intention is never to lie,” but at times he will unknowingly pass along incomplete or inaccurate information. He explicitly compared this to the mistakes that journalists make, saying that while sometimes news outlets have to publish corrections, “that doesn't mean that you were intentionally trying to deceive readers and the American people” and thus it would be unfair to “turn around and say, ‘OK, you were intentionally lying.’”

    Spicer’s statement had two aims. First, he was trying to establish the circumstances under which it would be appropriate for journalists to accuse him and others in the Trump administration of lying. Rather than journalists making that assessment based on context -- whether the false statement has been repeated after being disproven, or whether it is so false on its face that it defies other explanations -- he wants them to reserve the term for cases where they can prove the speaker doesn’t believe their words. This is a standard so high as to be virtually impossible to meet.

    Second, he appealed to journalists’ sense of fairness by suggesting that his errors and those of journalists are similar, and thus it would be wrong to hold him to a different standard, since surely they wouldn’t want to be accused of “lying” every time they misreport a story.

    Neither prong of this argument stands up to scrutiny.

    Trump and his ilk make false statements with such frequency, brazenness, and repetition that the best way to characterize what's happening is to say they are lying. You don't need a mind-reading device to know that if someone is repeating a false statement over and over again after it's been pointed out that it's inaccurate, they are doing it deliberately and thus lying.

    The sheer volume of falsehoods that Spicer crammed into his Saturday statement -- at least four blatant ones and a fifth misrepresentation, all in service of his claim that “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration -- period -- both in person and around the globe” -- should convince journalists that he doesn’t deserve their trust.

    Likewise, Trump’s habitual lying, at a rate far beyond what is typical for politicians, suggests that journalists should not assume that he is acting in good faith, but rather that he is trying to deceive them. News outlets that refuse to suggest that the president is lying under those circumstances are doing their audiences a disservice.

    The good news is that some outlets have been willing to cross that bridge and acknowledge when the president is deliberately speaking falsehoods.

    Spicer today responded to a question about Trump’s lie that millions of illegal votes were cast during the election by saying, "The president does believe that.” This is consistent with Spicer’s message that it can’t be a lie if Trump believes it, regardless of how many times he’s been told it’s wrong or the evidence amassed against his position.

    Spicer also said on Monday that reporters should assume that when he says things that are not true, he is acting in good faith and making simple mistakes -- in the same way that reporters who misreport events should be considered to have erred rather than lied.

    But Trump and Spicer don’t actually adhere to that standard -- in fact, they constantly accuse their enemies (including the press) of lying.

    The impetus for this entire argument was Spicer’s Saturday night claim that the press had deliberately lied about the inaugural crowd size. He did not assume they had acted in good faith and made a mistake, but instead suggested they were lying and ascribed motive, saying that photographs of the inaugural proceedings had been “intentionally framed” to “minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall.”

    Likewise, on Saturday morning, Trump called the press liars. He said they were “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” and that they had deliberately undercounted the inaugural turnout. He added, “We caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they're going to pay a big price.” He also accused them of fabricating a rift between him and the CIA.

    This is not an anomaly. In addition to frequently portraying the press at large as “lying” or “dishonest,” Trump has singled out outlets like The New York Times, Politico, The Washington Post, CNN, the Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as journalists and pundits including the AP’s Jill Colvin and Jeff Horwitz, Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins, ABC News’ Tom Llamas, NBC News’ Katy Tur and Chuck Todd, CBS News’ Sopan Deb (now at the Times), syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, NY TimesJonathan Martin and Charles Blow, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and Politico’s Ben Schreckinger.

    In addition to journalists, Trump frequently accused President Obama and 2016 opponents Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio of lying. He even gave Ted Cruz the nickname “Lyin’ Ted.”

    The Trump administration wants impunity to spew falsehoods at an unprecedented rate, allowing the president and his team to shape the information ecosystem and push through their extremist agenda. But for that to happen, they also need journalists to give them the space to lie by refusing to call them out on their practices. At this late date, that's getting harder and harder to justify.

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

  • The White House Press Secretary Pivots From Attacking The Press To Gaslighting Them

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    On Saturday night, White House press secretary Sean Spicer unleashed a brutal thrashing of the press, repeatedly lying about the size of the crowd that attended President Trump’s January 20 inaugural festivities. His bizarre, reality-defying statement was widely disparaged by journalists across much of the political spectrum.

    Today, in the first official White House press briefing of the Trump administration, Spicer instead offered a gentler gaslighting. The effect was just as insidious -- he manipulated the press and tried to delegitimize criticism with falsehoods. But the method -- without Saturday’s yelling and direct attacks on the media -- went down much easier with his targets.

    Some journalists and pundits rushed to praise his effort and suggest it represented a “reboot” of the Trump administration's relationship with the media:

    In fact, Spicer peppered his press briefing with a series of comments that implicitly urged reporters and the public to defy their own memories of past events and set the stage for a new reality in which facts are malleable. Here are four such cases.

    “Sometimes We Can Disagree With The Facts”

    Roughly 20 minutes into the question and answer period, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl raised the issue of Saturday’s press statement, asking Spicer, “Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium, and will you pledge never to knowingly say something that is nonfactual?” Spicer responded, “It is” -- then went on to say that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” He explained that he might occasionally pass on information that is incomplete, but his “intention is never to lie to you,” adding that he would “tell you the facts as I know them, and if we make a mistake, I’ll do our best to correct it.”

    Spicer went on to call this a “two-way street,” comparing administration falsehoods to the media making mistakes and saying that it wouldn’t be appropriate in those cases to say the press was “intentionally lying.”

    Spicer’s remarks demand that reporters forget that he had, reading from a written statement, accused the press of deliberately lying on Saturday night. He said photographs of the inaugural proceedings had been “intentionally framed” to “minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall.”

    The latest comments also demand that reporters forget that President Trump, in a speech at CIA headquarters that day, also accused the press of deliberately lying. He called them “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” and accused them of deliberately undercounting the inaugural turnout, saying, “We caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they're going to pay a big price.” Again, this happened two days ago.

    Believing Spicer’s too-cute claim that he just happened to err, the way that journalists sometimes makes mistakes, also requires reporters to ignore the vast array of false statements that Spicer crammed into his brief statement Saturday, all of which, curiously, happened to aid his premise that the press had been lying and the Trump inauguration had a record turnout.

    "For Too Long It's Been About Stats"

    That’s a reporter spending three minutes trying to pin Spicer down on which unemployment statistic the administration considers official -- and thus on which it should be judged. Spicer refuses to provide a straight answer, saying that “for too long it’s been about stats, ... about what number we are looking at, as opposed to what face we are looking at.”

    Trump spent more than a year on the campaign trail using a variety of statistics to falsely claim that up to 42 percent of American people were unemployed. That stat was widely denounced for including all people “not in the workforce,” including retirees and stay-at-home parents. Spicer would like reporters to forget about that -- and create a reality in which unemployment statistics are irrelevant, and thus Trump cannot be held accountable for them.

    “I Don’t Know How You Can Interpret It Differently”

    You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me with this:

    REPORTER: So are you retracting your claim on Saturday that it was the largest crowd “in person” for an inauguration?

    SPICER: That’s not what I said.

    REPORTER: Well you said, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”

    SPICER: Right.

    REPORTER: Both in person –

    SPICER: To witness – and around the globe. Yes, in total audience it was.

    REPORTER: In total audience but not simply in person.

    SPICER: But that – right, but again, I didn’t say in person, both in person and around the globe. To witness it.

    REPORTER: You’re saying those together?

    SPICER: No, that’s actually what I said. It’s not – I don’t know how you can interpret it differently, that’s literally what I said. To witness it in person and around the globe. Total audience, yes.

    Literally everyone interpreted it differently because that’s what that collection of words -- words written ahead of time to be delivered publicly, not comments off the cuff -- actually mean when they are placed next to each other.

    “This Rift That So-Called Exists”

    Asked why Trump had chosen the CIA headquarters as the venue for a speech to discuss his crowd size, Spicer claimed that Trump “kept hearing about this rift that existed” with the CIA and wanted to go before their staff to tell them that “what you are hearing on television or in reports about this rift are” are incorrect. He added that Trump’s message to the CIA was, “You see and hear all this stuff on TV about this rift that so-called exists,” but “it doesn't matter.” According to Spicer, Trump also wanted the CIA to hear “how much he respects them -- how much he wanted to dispel the myth that there was a quote-unquote ‘rift.’”

    Where did the “myth” come from and why are there so many “reports” on it? As dictated by Spicer, it came out of nowhere, the result of the media. Trump himself attributed it to his “running war with the media,” composed of “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” who “sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community.”

    Here’s why journalists reported on the “rift that so-called exists”:

    After Spicer’s briefing today, Media Matters president Angelo Carusone broke down the impact of the last three days:

  • Newt Gingrich’s White House Press Briefing Plan: Ban Questions From Adversarial Journalists, Have A Live Audience

    Proposal Would Send Journalists Back To The Campaign Press Pen

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Newt Gingrich has a new proposal for the Trump administration’s efforts to delegitimize and weaken critical journalists: turn White House press briefings into a “town hall” format where presumably hand-picked citizens would join the “total left-wing propagandists” in the press corps, while banning the most critical reporters from asking questions.

    Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, Fox News contributor, and sometime adviser to President Donald Trump, has urged the new administration to use the power of the White House to shatter the credibility and influence of the press. He previously said the administration should respond to critical coverage from CNN by blackballing a reporter for months and including more “courteous,” less “adversarial” journalists from local outlets, in addition to “propaganda organizations” like CNN and The New York Times.

    During a January 23 interview on Fox & Friends, Gingrich suggested moving the briefings to a “larger auditorium” in order to allow “one-fourth or one-half of the people at the press conference to be citizens.” “Are you suggesting that it’s kind of like a town hall with some journalists in it?” responded co-host Steve Doocy. “Sure,” Gingrich replied.

    Gingrich also discussed the plan during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, where he asked, “Why pretend that your mortal enemies are the people who ought to ask you questions?” He added, “If you took the people who sit in the front two rows” at the press briefing and reviewed their Trump commentary, “you’d ask yourself why would any rational person allow these people to ask questions. You don’t have an obligation to be a masochist.”

    Presenting his briefing before a studio audience would allow White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to adopt the anti-press strategies Trump deployed on the campaign trail. The crowd could jeer critical questions from journalists and cheer Spicer’s attacks on the media.

    He would also have the option of taking presumably easier questions not only from sycophantic pro-Trump outlets, but from Trump supporters in the audience.

    This seems like an absurd plan. But it is entirely consistent with the Trump administration’s view of the press. It doesn’t see journalists as a valuable part of the democratic process, or even as a necessary evil. Instead, they are “hate objects,” an enemy to be crushed, publicly, for the enjoyment of their supporters.

    Trump’s fans don’t care if reporters can get their questions answered at press briefings. The right-wing media has primed them for decades to see the media as unacceptably liberal and dishonest. But to watch the White House press secretary -- or the president -- grind adversarial reporters into the dirt to the crowd’s applause? That is the WWE-style entertainment for which they yearn.

    Gingrich’s call for the White House to refuse to answer questions from critical reporters echoed Trump ally Sean Hannity’s post-election claim that "until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people."

    Gingrich presented his plan as retaliation for Time magazine reporter Zeke Miller falsely reporting via Twitter that the Martin Luther King Jr. bust had been removed from the Oval Office when Trump replaced Obama. Miller corrected his report, offered an apology to his colleagues, and deleted the tweet within an hour after learning that the bust had been “obscured by an agent and door.”

    Spicer criticized Miller’s report during a January 21 statement, and White House aide Kellyanne Conway renewed that criticism during a January 22 appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press.

    Asked about her interview with Chuck Todd, Gingrich commented, “We’ve got to start talking about mainstream propaganda. They're not news stories. They're not news outlets. Chuck’s not a newsman. All these people are propagandists for the left.” He went on to say that Miller’s report had been “a big deal because it was part of an underlying effort to say that Trump is a racist at a time when America has substantial racial tension. It was exactly false and exactly divisive.”

    Gingrich’s sudden concern with the “racial tension” stoked by criticism of the president is shocking coming from the man who accused President Obama of having a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview and called him the “food stamp president.”

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

  • The White House Press Secretary Just Declared War On Reality And The Press

    What's Next?

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    In a surreal turn, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tonight denied reality, lashed out at the press for its supposed “shameful and wrong” coverage of the size of the crowd that attended President Trump’s January 20 inaugural festivities, instructed the White House press corps on what they “should be writing and covering,” declared that the administration intended to “hold the press accountable,” and left the briefing room without taking questions.

    Spicer said that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period -- both in person and around the globe.” He is lying. Whether he’s doing it because Trump is making him or whether he actually believes it is immaterial. (In remarks to the CIA earlier in the day, Trump falsely claimed it “looked like a million, million and a half people” attended his inauguration. An estimated 1.8 million attended President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, while The Washington Post reports Trump's crowd was "somewhere closer to 600,000.")

    The official job of the White House press secretary now consists of blatantly lying to the press about matters great and small, and attacking them when they step out of line.

    This was a dominance display from a White House that clearly has no regard for the media’s role in the democratic process. Trump’s administration hates reporters who provide critical coverage and wants to crush them.

    The administration will seek to lift up openly sycophantic news organizations while crowding out and delegitimizing responsible ones. His media supporters’ calls to deny critical outlets “the privilege” of covering Trump seem to be in sight.

    Mother Jones’ David Corn has the question of the hour:

    Indeed. What’s next? The Trump White House just declared war on reality -- and on the press. How will they respond?

    This is exactly why Media Matters launched a petition calling on the White House Press Association to forcefully declare that they will “close ranks and stand up for journalism” against Trump’s attacks. It's time to stand up to the bullies.

  • How Years Of The Right-Wing Media’s Obama Hatred Paved The Way For Trump

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    At noon today, Donald Trump will swear the oath of office and become president of the United States. His ascent would not have been possible without the years of vitriol that the right-wing media directed at his predecessor.

    That hatred of President Obama, and the related scorched-earth efforts to smother his agenda, prepared the way for Trump. Many Republican voters became, in the words of one conservative writer, “just increasingly divorced from reality” after spending years in the right-wing echo chamber.

    In the first months after Obama’s election, as the president sought solutions for the most immense economic crisis in decades, conservative media became completely unhinged. Violent, doomsday rhetoric and overt appeals to feelings of anger and paranoia in their audience became regular features of commentary across the full spectrum of the right-wing press. While the level of demagoguery waxed and waned over the years, the hatred and fear that had been unleashed never dissipated.

    The GOP establishment was all too willing to go along with “the rage and unreason of radio talkers” as long as they could keep them pointed at liberals. Then Trump came along, a candidate who had repeatedly questioned whether Obama was eligible to be president in the first place, and stole the base right out from under them.

    And once Trump was a major party candidate, he had a pretty good shot of becoming president, especially after receiving a massive volume of coverage from a press that was unwilling or unable to properly contextualize his candidacy.

    “I Hope He Fails” And Fox As “The Alamo”

    Five days before Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the nation was in dire straights. A financial crisis had sent the economy into a tailspin, triggering massive job losses and a plummeting stock market. The banking system was still on the brink of failure. The auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Americans were rightly frightened of the immense economic insecurity, but broadly supportive of the new president who promised to right the ship.

    But on January 16, 2009, Rush Limbaugh -- one of the most powerful voices in Republican politics -- told his millions of listeners that his “hope for the Obama presidency” was “I hope he fails.” In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity the day after Obama was sworn in, Limbaugh doubled down, saying: "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president."

    Over the next few months, Limbaugh would continue to state that he wanted Obama to fail. When other prominent Republicans offered criticism of the radio host, he would blast them on his show; his audience would flood their offices with calls until they were forced to apologize. In a sign of things to come, even the chairman of the Republican National Committee had to grovel before the man with the microphone.

    That same month, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes sat down with another right-wing radio host, Glenn Beck. After spending two years at HLN, Beck was about to debut his new Fox show, and he was worried that Ailes might not be willing to give him the leeway to go after the incoming administration. “I see this as the Alamo,” Ailes reportedly told Beck. “If I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we'd be fine.” A partnership was struck.

    Fox executives later acknowledged that the network took “a hard right turn” after the election and become “the voice of opposition” to Obama.

    As a presidential candidate, Obama had frequently been subject to a hefty dose of conservative media vitriol. Given that Obama was the first black major party nominee and had the middle name “Hussein,” a lot of that vitriol was racist or aimed at falsely suggesting he was a Muslim. The fearmongering took off as the election approached, with conservatives baselessly warning that he would be a dictator.

    But in the first 100 days of his administration, following the lead of Limbaugh, Ailes, and Beck, the floodgates opened.

    One Hundred Days Of Hate

    As the Obama administration took control of the reins of government and began trying to halt the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the right-wing media reviews rolled in.

    The new president was a Marxist. And a fascist. And a Nazi. And a Maoist. And a Bolshevik. And a Trotskyite.

    “Is this where we’re headed?” asked Beck over a montage of photos of Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin.

    Obama’s aim was “destroying our economic system as we currently know it." His financial rescue plan was “Josef Stalin without the bloodshed.” It was also socialism. So was his economic recovery plan (unless that was really communism. Or fascism. It was definitely slavery). The auto industry rescue made him a mob boss. So did his labor proposal. His cabinet secretaries were Soviet commissars.

    According to one CNBC host, the big debate was over whether Obama was “the New Economic Policy Lenin or the initial storm-the-Winter-Palace Lenin.” Obama’s party was trying to create a “political dictatorship.” Possible prosecutions of Bush administration officials who had aided the use of torture were “show trials” that would turn the nation into a “banana republic.”  

    Obama was “enslaving” our children. His education plan was “Maoist.” He was striving to create “chaos and depression” among Americans. He was a vampire “going after the blood of our businesses.” His government was “a heroin pusher using smiley-faced fascism to grow the nanny state." He was “taking every tradition and institution that defined this country's greatness and trying to rip it to shreds.”

    He was “more sympathetic with the long-term goals of world communism, and … Muslim terrorists, than with any legitimate American goals." He was embracing “the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood” and preparing to “sell us out” to the Islamic world.

    He was trying to institute a one-world government by repealing the Declaration of Independence and taking the Constitution apart. “Those crazies in Montana who say, ‘We're going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.'s going to take over’” were “beginning to have a case.”

    Obama was an “existential threat.” He “hates” America and was “raping” it. It was time to talk about impeachment because the president was a “dictator.”

    After weeks of hearing that Obama was planning to destroy the country, right-wing media’s audience members were ready for action. They got their opportunity after CNBC contributor Rick Santelli’s denunciation of Obama’s housing plan from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade went viral on February 19, 2009; Santelli’s rant culminated in a call for viewers to join him to protest at a “Chicago Tea Party” on the shores of Lake Michigan.

    Within days, powerful national conservative organizations backed by corporate interests and wealthy right-wing donors started organizing a nationwide series of “Tax Day Tea Parties” to protest the Obama administration, leading up to and culminating on April 15.

    Fox News -- the “voice of opposition,” Ailes’ “Alamo” -- became the focal point, megaphone, and chief promoter of the nascent tea party movement.

    The network’s hosts and anchors championed the protests in dozens of segments and promos in the following weeks, hosting protest organizers for fawning interviews, providing their audience with protest dates, locations and website URLs, and encouraging viewers to join them at protests they were attending and covering. At times, these events were openly branded as “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties.” In turn, organizers used the scheduled appearance of Fox hosts to drum up more attendees.

    Fox’s abject support for the tea parties was a crucial element in their success. As we noted at the time, “Dozens of articles about tea parties in various cities reported that Fox News and its hosts helped influence, start, or turn out participants to local protests. In numerous cases, these reports quoted local participants or organizers stating they were motivated to join or start protests because of Fox News.”

    Again, this all happened in the first 100 days of Obama’s tenure.

    The years to come would see right-wing media flirt with a host of absurd Obama conspiracies; claim over and over again that he intended to create “death panels”; and try to bury Obama’s nominees under an avalanche of false smears. Fox News went all-in as the research and communications arm of the GOP. Glenn Beck called Obama a racist, used his paranoid anti-Obama rants to become a conservative grass-roots leader, attacked a liberal foundation with such heat that one of his heavily armed fans tried to storm its offices, lost all his major advertisers, and eventually left Fox. The “end of America as you know it” was always just around the corner.

    President Obama’s Marxist/communist/socialist/Leninist/Maoist/Trotskyite/Stalinist administration resulted in the longest streak of private sector job creation in our nation’s history, with more than 15 million private sector jobs created since the recession’s low point in 2010. Under his tenure, the stock market reached record highs, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than doubling since he was sworn into office.

    A Birther In The White House

    In the wake of Obama’s re-election, The Onion proposed that a “shrieking white-hot sphere of pure rage” would be the 2016 candidate “that would tap into Republicans' deep-seated, seething fury” after the GOP failed to oust Obama in 2012.

    It was a very funny joke and we all had a good laugh and then the Republicans nominated Donald Trump and he was elected president.

    Why Trump? Because, better than anyone else in the Republican field, he could appeal to the hatred of Obama that conservatives had spent years stoking.

    Who could do better than someone who had prominently, and repeatedly, questioned whether Obama had been born in the United States?

    Trump launched his recent political renaissance by hitching his wagon to the birther movement, a collection of fringe right-wing figures entranced by a racist conspiracy theory: Obama was not constitutionally eligible to be president because, in spite of all available evidence, he hadn’t really been born in this country. In this twisted worldview, Obama wasn’t just destroying the country -- he also had no right to its highest office in the first place.

    The birther movement would discredit itself again and again over the years, with adherents suggesting that they had uncovered Obama’s “real father,” claiming that the Certificate of Live Birth Obama produced during the 2008 presidential campaign was forged, releasing an obviously fake Kenyan birth certificate for Obama, and declaring that Obama was hiding his birth certificate because it revealed he was Muslim. But a big chunk of Republican voters, including a contingent of GOP members of Congress, still bought into the myth.

    Those conservatives were overjoyed when Trump came forward and became the leading voice of the birther movement, raising questions about Obama’s birth certificate in a series of 2011 interviews. Fox News promoted Trump’s claims in dozens of segments, and several of the network’s hosts joined in, suggesting that Obama’s birthplace was in doubt.

    Obama released his long-form birth certificate later that year. But Trump never backed down. He immediately suggested the document was fake, and he spent years promoting birther conspiracies in interviews and on Twitter.

    After years of listening to anti-Obama vitriol from right-wing talk radio and television hosts, conservatives wanted someone who could match that hate. They found him.

    And today, he’s the president.

  • Corporation For Public Broadcasting: Reported Trump Privatization Plan Would Be “Devastating” To Public Media

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is pushing back on reported efforts by the Trump administration to privatize it, saying the proposal would have a “devastating effect” and that “the entire public media service would be severely debilitated.”

    CPB is a private nonprofit corporation that receives almost all of its funding from the federal government and distributes those funds as grants to public television and radio stations and their programs. It is the “single largest source of funding for public television and radio programming.”

    “Staffers for the Trump transition team have been meeting with career staff at the White House ahead of Friday’s presidential inauguration to outline their plans for shrinking the federal bureaucracy,” The Hill reported this morning. CPB’s annual federal funding of roughly $445 million -- a minuscule fraction of the federal budget -- is one of the items reportedly on the chopping block.

    In a statement to Media Matters responding to the reports, CPB said that “This thinking and proposals like the one being reported in the mainstream media and elsewhere today have been circulating around Washington for years and have been soundly rejected on a bipartisan basis.”

    While many think only of National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) when they think of public media, it actually consists of “a system of independently owned and operated local public radio and television stations” that air a combination of commercial-free original programming and programming licensed from other stations through organizations like NPR and PBS. This programming includes broadcasts on local issues, children’s education, the arts, and public affairs.

    The stations derive funding from multiple sources, but that funding is often contingent on the federal grants CPB provides to more than 1,041 radio stations and 365 television stations.

    The George W. Bush administration tried to use its authority to swing public programming to the right. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, Bush’s appointee to chair CPB, used federal funds to examine alleged liberal bias on the PBS program NOW, formerly hosted by Bill Moyers. He also helped raise $5 million to produce a PBS show hosted by The Wall Street Journal’s right-wing editorial board.

    But under Obama, congressional Republicans pushed to eliminate funding for public broadcasting altogether. The found a ready cheering section from right-wing media, which frequently lashed out at “liberal” PBS and NPR. Critics typically say that public media should be able to easily make up the loss of the federal dollars.

    That’s not the case. According to CPB’s statement, “The federal investment in public media is vital seed money -- especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect.”

    Indeed, “the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting,” according to a 2012 report commissioned by CPB from Booz & Company.

    The study reviewed alternative funding mechanisms but determined that none could adequately replace federal funding without compromising the mission of public broadcasting. “A reduction or elimination of CPB funding will put 63% (251) of radio stations and 67% (114) of television stations in the public broadcasting system at risk,” according to the report. Many of the stations at greatest risk for shuttering altogether are in rural areas that have more limited programming options -- some are the only broadcast stations available to their audience.

    Booz’s report could not have been more explicit about the “inevitable consequences” of cutting off public funding:

    This report concludes that there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting, and with it the end of an extraordinarily useful national teaching tool, the loss of the most trusted source of news and public affairs programs in the nation, the erosion of our national memory and exceptional culture, the compromise of our civil defense and emergency alert system, and the demise of a federal investment that the American people consider a better use of tax dollars than any other except national defense.

    These are the inevitable consequences of a loss of federal funding for public broadcasting, as this report will demonstrate in detail.

    Booz’s conclusions are consistent with a 2007 report from the federal General Accountability Office, which found that “substantial growth of nonfederal support to offset a reduction or elimination of federal support appears unlikely.”

    Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to go after federal funding for public media. In 1969, President Nixon called for cutting funding for CPB in half. Thanks to the effort of a young Fred Rogers before a congressional committee, those efforts were defeated. Watch:

    You can read CPB’s full statement below:

    Public media is a public-private partnership in the best tradition of America’s free enterprise system. It is one of America’s best investments. It is not a large investment compared to most of what government does – just about $1.35 per citizen per year – but it pays huge dividends in education, public safety and civic leadership to millions of Americans and their families.

    By statute, the majority of the $445 million federal expenditure goes through the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private, nonprofit corporation, which is the steward of the federal appropriation, to more than 1,500 locally owned and operated public television and radio stations across the country.

    From time to time, some argue the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and funding for public media are no longer needed. This thinking and proposals like the one being reported in the mainstream media and elsewhere today have been circulating around Washington for years and have been soundly rejected on a bipartisan basis – most recently by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2015. Further, a national survey of 2,000 self-identified Trump voters confirmed that a majority of those voters support level or increased federal funding for public broadcasting.

    The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment. Moreover, the entire public media service would be severely debilitated. This is because CPB, in addition to direct payment to public media stations, pays for the system’s technical backbone, copyright and other fees, and makes major investments in national content from which all stations and the families they serve benefit. Most critically, public media reaches 68% of all kids age two to eight, providing educational media that’s proven to prepare kids for school, especially low-income and underserved children who do not attend pre-school.

    Indeed, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), as well as others, following comprehensive study, have concluded there is no viable private substitute for the federal funding that ensures universal access to public broadcasting' programming and services.

    We look forward to working with the new Administration and the new Congress in the continued pursuit of our public service missions of education, public safety and civic leadership, which the American people overwhelmingly support.

  • Donald Trump Wants An Army Of Jeff Gannon Shills In The White House Press Briefing Room

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The Trump administration’s reported proposal to move the White House press briefing to a large room that can accommodate pro-Trump sycophants and propagandists is brazen and destructive. But it’s also not entirely new -- the Bush administration adopted a similar strategy in 2004, granting press briefing access to a shill working for a right-wing outlet who they could rely on for softball questions.

    That shill’s name was Jeff Gannon. Actually, that shill’s name was James Guckert. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

    Gannon parlayed a two-day, $50 broadcast journalism workshop at the right-wing Leadership Institute into a job reporting from the White House briefing room for Talon News. Talon News was a shell organization run by a GOP political operative that used articles written by right-wing activists to drive traffic to another conservative website run by the operative.

    Thanks to the access the White House press office provided, Gannon had a platform to draw plaudits from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, get his work published by the American Enterprise Institute, and even attend White House Christmas parties.

    The White House got something in return: Gannon became the lifeline for Bush’s press secretary at the time, Scott McClellan.

    Here’s how it would work: Other journalists would be grilling McClellan over the Bush administration’s activities. McClellan would call on Gannon for a question. And Gannon would bail McClellan out, frequently with a leading question ladened with false assumptions.

    In August 2004, for example, after taking several questions from a reporter about whether American forces had killed any innocent people in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and another seeking President Bush’s opinion of the disgraced Ahmad Chalabi, McClellen turned to Gannon. And Gannon came through: He asked McClellan about a new “piece of evidence showing the direct terror ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda” and followed up by asking “how damaging” a New York Times story had been “to our war on terror.”

    In June 2004, McClellan escaped from a series of tough questions about Bush’s foreign policy record by calling on Gannon, who offered up the following question: “Why hasn't the administration made more of the U.N. inspectors' report that says Saddam Hussein was dismantling his missile and WMD [weapons of mass destruction] sites before and during the war? And doesn't that, combined with the now-proven Al Qaeda link between Iraq -- between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist organization -- unequivocally make the case for going to war in Iraq?”

    The list goes on and on.

    Gannon even got to ask a question at Bush’s January 26, 2005, White House press conference. He used that opportunity to inquire how the president would be able to “work with” Democratic leaders given that they had, in Gannon’s words, “divorced themselves from reality.”

    But that appearance was the beginning of the end for Gannon. He drew tremendous scrutiny from Media Matters and others, and with his schtick (and the fact that “Jeff Gannon” was a pseudonym) exposed, he was forced to resign within two weeks.

    Thirteen years later, the landscape has shifted. Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer is openly discussing moving the press briefings to a larger space in order to accommodate “talk radio, bloggers and others.” While the White House Correspondents Association currently determines who gets the 49 seats in the briefing room, the White House Press Office handles credentialing and distributes daily press passes, giving Spicer significant control over the composition of the press room.

    In practice, that means that Spicer could have a sea of Jeff Gannons on which to rely -- “reporters” from openly pro-Trump propaganda outlets who will side with the president over their colleagues in the press.

    If ABC News gives him trouble during the briefing, he could turn to the reporter from Breitbart.com. When The Washington Post tries to pin him down, he could retreat to the representative from Right Side Broadcasting Network. If The Associated Press and CNN and NBC News are all pressing him for answers, he could take questions from Laura Ingraham’s LifeZette or One America News Network or Infowars to stall.

    We could even see our first all-shill press briefing, with reporters from mainstream outlets entirely shut out while Spicer calls on the sycophants.

    Meanwhile, Trump is warning that there will be repercussions for the press if they fight back against the move, suggesting that his administration will use the limited space in the current briefing room as an excuse to deny access to credible news outlets and grant it to more supportive ones. “There’s too many people for this small room,” he said this morning during an interview on Fox & Friends. “We have so many people that want to go, so we'll have to just pick the people that go into the room.” He added that if that happens, the press will “be begging for a much larger room very soon. You watch.”

    Trump has already deployed the Gannon strategy as president-elect. During his press conference last week, he pivoted away from a series of questions about the intelligence community’s fears about his interactions with Russia to take one from Matt Boyle from Breitbart, the conservative website previously run by his chief strategist and that spent the election pushing his candidacy. Boyle’s softball sought Trump’s opinion of what “reforms” the media industry should undertake to avoid the “problems” of its election coverage. We should expect Trump to continue to use his platform to lift up such supportive outlets.

    It gets worse. Gannon was forced out because he and his outlet could not withstand the light of scrutiny, and because he was an outlier in a press corps that made his continued presence untenable. Once it became clear that he was acting as the press secretary’s safety net, it was no longer a plausible strategy for him to do so.

    Those inhibiting factors no longer hold true under a Trump administration. The sheer number of pro-Trump shilling operations means that the Gannon strategy will be extremely difficult to sequester and stop. And neither Trump nor those outlets have enough shame to care how obvious the practice will be.

    When the press is the enemy, taking briefing questions from propagandists makes perfect sense.

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

  • Trump Wants To Flood White House Press Briefings With Sycophants And Propagandists

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Donald Trump has a message for the White House press corps: The press briefing room the journalists have used since the 1970s belongs to him, and if he wants to take it away, he can.

    On Saturday, Esquire reported that the incoming Trump administration has discussed evicting the press from the briefing room and holding the daily briefings with the press secretary in a space outside of the White House. "They are the opposition party," a senior official told the magazine. "I want 'em out of the building. We are taking back the press room."

    But something is happening here that is more insidious than Trump and his administration lashing out at perceived enemies. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, the administration is interested in potentially “stacking press conferences with conservative columnists and staffers from pro-Trump outlets.”

    “The current briefing room only has 49 seats,” Trump press secretary Sean Spicer told Stelter, “so we have looked at rooms within the White House to conduct briefings that have additional capacity to accommodate members of media including talk radio, bloggers and others."

    I’m generally skeptical of the current structure of White House press briefings; while it’s important for a top White House aide to be answerable to the public on a daily basis, the fact that the briefings are televised live seems to encourage everyone involved to grandstand and limits the amount of actual news created by the practice. As former press secretaries have noted, this practice created a “theater of the absurd,” with journalists and staff alike subject to perverse incentives that prioritize optics over substance.

    But retaining the daily, televised briefings while opening them up to a panoply of Trump sycophants will make them much, much worse, taking time away from real journalists and giving it to pro-Trump propagandists.

    Urging the incoming Trump administration to adopt a similar plan in November, Newt Gingrich hinted at the effort’s real purpose: undermining the traditional press. “They should rethink from the ground up the whole concept of the White House press corps, come up with a totally new grass-roots model, and not allow the traditional media to dominate and define White House press coverage,” he told Sean Hannity

    In other words, in order to limit the number of potentially fraught questions from professional journalists, the Trump administration will open the doors to hacks and charlatans.

    Jeffrey Lord, one of CNN’s resident Trump supporters, previewed how this could work last night. He told Anderson Cooper, “I think a lot of members of the press are perceived as thinking, ‘This is ours.’ What happens, for instance, if Sean Spicer comes out one day and says not only is [Trump] going to Twitter, but we’re giving the first six seats in here to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, et cetera, et cetera. And then we’re giving the rest, the next five, to various bloggers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

    The White House press corps has and should remain welcoming to journalists of all political stripes. But White House press briefings will change dramatically if a vastly increased pool allows Spicer the opportunity to avoid damaging news revelations by directing questions to loyal outlets like Breitbart.com, Infowars, Right Side Broadcasting Network, One America News Network, Ingraham’s LifeZette, or the National Enquirer.

    We saw how this could work in practice at Trump’s press conference last week. Trump had rarely publicly interacted with the press since his election, so there were a wide variety of pressing issues worthy of reporters’ attention. But the president-elect was able to soak up some of the precious question time by pivoting to softball questions from Breitbart and OANN.

    Trump’s press conference behavior mirrored his general practice of using his platform to lift up outlets devoted to his success; for instance, over the past week, he has used his Twitter feed to promote LifeZette and OANN and to attack NBC News and CNN.

    Overseas precedents demonstrate how this method, taken to the extreme, can be used to discredit the media and damage their ability to provide oversight. Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist who has covered Vladimir Putin’s annual press conferences, noted in the wake of Trump’s press conference last week that the Russian dictator has been able to defang the media by alternating questions between “people from publications that exist for no other reason than heaping fawning praise on him and attacking his enemies” and “token critic[s].”

    As Gingrich’s November comments suggest, the floated plan to alter White House press briefings is based in a general denial of the media’s historical responsibility to inform the American public. We should expect Trump’s administration to do everything it can to do to hinder journalists’ efforts and reduce their credibility. He and his team treat the press as an enemy to be defeated and destroyed.

    “You don't have to think of The New York Times or CNN or any of these people as news organizations,” Gingrich explained last week. “They're mostly propaganda organizations. And they're going to be after Trump every single day of his presidency.”

    Sean Hannity took this line of argument to its logical extreme in the wake of the election, stating that until the traditional press admit that they were “colluding” with the Clinton campaign (this is laughable), “they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.”

    Trump’s potential plans for the White House press briefings should be seen as a part of that strategy of delegitimizing journalists. It is a tangible step he can take to damage the press corps. The White House Correspondents Association has spoken out against the proposed move, but the group can’t stop the move if the administration really wants to go through with it.

    The potential bright side is that journalists may respond to the Trump administration’s declaration of open war against the press by finding new ways to critically cover the new president without being so reliant on the access they have traditionally received from the White House. If they don’t take that opportunity, though, they’ll be following the rules of a game that no longer exists.

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

  • Tucker Carlson's Jim Acosta Analysis Is Brazenly Hypocritical

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Fox’s Tucker Carlson “thoroughly enjoyed” President-elect Donald Trump castigating CNN reporter Jim Acosta for being “rude” during a press conference, which is strange since Carlson previously held up one of his own reporters as God’s gift to journalism for interrupting a President Obama statement by shouting out a question.

    Back in 2012, Neil Munro, then a reporter for The Daily Caller, made a fool of himself when he interrupted an Obama Rose Garden statement on immigration policy by shouting out questions about the administration "employ[ing] foreigners." Munro’s breach of decorum was widely criticized, and both the reporter and the Caller’s publisher issued statements saying that he had attempted to time his question to coincide with the conclusion of the president’s remarks. This was transparently false, but at least they recognized Munro had done something bad.

    But for Carlson, then the website’s editor-in-chief, Munro hadn’t made a simple error -- instead, he was a journalistic hero. According to Carlson’s statement at the time:

    I don't remember Diane Sawyer scolding her colleague Sam Donaldson for heckling President Reagan. And she shouldn't have. A reporter's job is to ask questions and get answers. Our job is to find out what the federal government is up to. Politicians often don't want to tell us. A good reporter gets the story. We're proud of Neil Munro.

    Carlson’s comparison of Munro to Sam Donaldson and his claim that Munro “got the story” are bullshit. But the then-Caller editor had laid down a marker: Interruption in pursuit of reporting is no vice.

    Flash forward to this week’s Trump press conference. After the president-elect lashed out at CNN in response to a journalist’s question, the network’s reporter Jim Acosta yelled out, “Since you are attacking us, can you give us a question?” In an extended back and forth, Trump slammed Acosta’s “terrible” news outlet and rejected his request, calling the network “fake news.”

    Acosta’s interruptions, coming amid the scrum of an actual press conference, would seem like far less of a breach of decorum than Munro shouting out questions in the middle of President Obama’s speech. But for some reason, Carlson isn’t “proud” of the CNN reporter.

    Instead, during an “Ask Me Anything” thread on the pro-Donald Trump subreddit “/r/The_Donald,” Carlson answered a question about what he thought of the Trump/Acosta exchange by writing, “Acosta was rude. Trump rose to it. I thoroughly enjoyed the exchange.”

    “/r/The_Donald” has been described as an “authoritarian [subreddit] full of memes and in-jokes, far right talking points, coded racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia, and a hypocritical ‘free speech’ rallying point.” The forum is a hub of the “alt-right” movement, among which Carlson has cultivated a strong following.

    In directly criticizing Acosta, Carlson went further on Reddit than he had on his own show. During an interview with Sean Spicer on Wednesday, Carlson remained silent as the future White House press secretary described Acosta as “rude, inappropriate, and disrespectful” and called on the CNN reporter to apologize.

    Sam Donaldson’s legacy did not come up.

  • Newt Gingrich: Trump Should Use The CNN Confrontation As An Excuse To Break The Press

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Newt Gingrich, a prominent supporter of President-elect Donald Trump and a Fox News contributor, would like to shatter the influence of an “adversarial” press. And he thinks Trump’s press conference confrontation with CNN reporter Jim Acosta has given the incoming administration the opportunity to dramatically reshape White House press interactions to favor journalists who will treat the president-elect more favorably.

    During Trump’s January 11 presser, he lashed out at CNN  and demanded the network apologize for a recent report on his alleged ties to Russia, and Acosta repeatedly called out, seeking to ask a question in response. Trump replied by calling CNN “terrible,” castigating Acosta for being “rude,” and declaring, “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news!” Sean Spicer, who will serve as Trump’s White House press secretary, subsequently told Acosta that he would be removed if he continued to press for a question, and Spicer later demanded that the reporter apologize to the president-elect.

    Team Trump’s efforts seem intended to both damage the credibility of CNN and cow other networks into shying away from similarly critical journalism -- as Gingrich put it, to “shrink and isolate” the network. But the Fox News contributor wants the incoming administration to go even further and use the incident as an excuse to “close down the elite press.”

    Gingrich laid out this strategy during an interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, one of the most pro-Trump venues available. He urged Spicer to learn “a couple of big lessons” from the incident. First and foremost, he suggested that Acosta be banned from reporting on Trump events for 60 days “as a signal, frankly, to all the other reporters that there are going to be real limits” for proper behavior.

    But Gingrich’s recommendations went far beyond chastising Acosta. He urged Trump to stop prioritizing questions from major news outlets due to their tough coverage and confrontational attitude. Instead, he suggested that he “extend the privileges to reporters from out of town, folks that fly in from all over the country to be allowed to be at a briefing.” Those reporters, Gingrich suggested, would be “a lot more courteous” and “responsible” rather than being “adversarial.”

    Gingrich went on to explain his theory of the press under the Trump administration. “You don't have to think of The New York Times or CNN or any of these people as news organizations,” he explained. “They're mostly propaganda organizations. And they're going to be after Trump every single day of his presidency.”

    “And he needs to understand that that's the case, and so does Sean Spicer in speaking for him. And they simply need to go out there and understand they have it in their power to set the terms of this dialogue.” He added, “They can close down the elite press.”

    Trump has already started to take steps like those Gingrich describes. During the 2016 campaign, he reportedly made a deal with the right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns television stations across the country, to provide more access to its stations in exchange for a promise from Sinclair to broadcast his interviews without commentary.

    He took questions from sycophantic pro-Trump outlets Breitbart.com and One America News Network during this week’s press conference. Right Side Broadcasting Network, which has been described as “the unofficial version of Trump TV,” claims it will be in the White House press briefing room under the new president. Other right-wing outlets like Laura Ingraham’s LifeZette and Alex Jones’ conspiracy website Infowars could be next.

    Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist who has covered Vladimir Putin’s annual press conferences, warned of the use of such tactics in a searing “message to my doomed colleagues in the American media” that he authored following Trump’s press conference.

    “A mainstay of Putin’s press conferences is, of course, softball questions,” Kovalev wrote. These include both “hyperlocal issues that a president isn’t even supposed to be dealing with,” which nonetheless provide “a real opportunity for him to shine.” Putin also benefits from “people from publications that exist for no other reason than heaping fawning praise on him and attacking his enemies.”

    “But there will also be one token critic who will be allowed to ask a ‘sharp’ question,” Kovalev added, “only to be drowned in a copious amount of bullshit, and the man on the stage will always be the winner (‘See? I respect the media and free speech’).”

    Of course we are not there yet, but the precedent is unnerving. Gingrich wants nothing more than a cowed, broken press that exists solely to promote the Republican Party’s message. We’ll see soon enough how much of his advice Trump takes.

    UPDATE: Gingrich is not alone in urging Trump to freeze out the press. Following Trump's election, Hannity stated that "until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people." 

    "In other words, the mainstream press should not be allowed to cover Trump," New York University's Jay Rosen wrote in response to Hannity's comments. "A few years ago that was a bridge too far. Now it’s a plausible test of poisoned waters." It looks like we'll see more of those tests in the days to come.