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President-elect Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel is banning reporters from its premises during inauguration week, according to Politico’s Daniel Lippman. The move underscores the incoming president’s personal hostility toward the press and raises First Amendment issues, as the hotel space is leased by the president-elect from the federal government.
Throughout the 2016 campaign and into the transition, Trump has made his hostility to the press a centerpiece of his political strategy. Trump declared war on the press, which included mocking specific reporters as “neurotic,” “dumb,” and a “waste of time.” He retreated to softball interviews during the final weeks of the campaign with largely friendly interviewers, Fox News, and fringe media. Since the election, Trump has lashed out at The New York Times several times for its “BAD coverage.” Trump’s own incoming press secretary also admitted that he threatened to remove a journalist who was trying to ask the president-elect a question, and prominent Trump supporter and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich applauded the threat, calling it “a signal, frankly, to all the other reporters that there are going to be real limits” for proper behavior.
Moreover, as Politico notes, Trump’s D.C. hotel is under “a 60-year lease with the federal General Services Administration, which owns the property.” Given that arrangement, a blanket ban on the press raises First Amendment concerns. Trump’s D.C. hotel has also been an ethical sticking point during Trump’s transition, as some in Congress have raised concerns about a conflict of interest between the president-elect’s business interests and his administration’s influence over the General Services Administration. From Politico’s January 18 article:
The Trump International Hotel in Washington is banning the media from its premises during inauguration week.
“Media is not allowed in this week in respect of the privacy of our guests,” Patricia Tang, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing wrote in an email.
A POLITICO reporter attempted to enter the hotel Wednesday morning for a previously scheduled breakfast meeting but was stopped at the door. He then identified himself as a journalist and was told “media” was not allowed.
President-elect Donald Trump and his three adult children own the project after winning a 2012 bid to redevelop D.C.’s Old Post Office. They have a 60-year lease with the federal General Services Administration, which owns the property.
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?”
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.
Sign Media Matters’ petition urging the White House press corps to “close ranks and stand up for journalism” against Trump’s attacks.
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.
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Republicans are pushing forward with a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and Florida is one of the states that stands to lose the most if health care reform is rolled back. Yet over the past two months, the top Florida newspapers -- the Miami Herald, the Sun Sentinel, the Tampa Bay Times, and the Orlando Sentinel -- have largely failed to convey the impact of repeal on many of the state’s vulnerable residents. While there were coverage flaws across the board, the Miami Herald outshone the other major newspapers.
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The German government announced it will use "all possible means" to investigate the spread of fake news online following Russian hacks and a dubious Breitbart news story that falsely claimed Muslim immigrants attacked a church.
Reuters reported that German officials announced the government’s plan to investigate the “unprecedented proliferation” of fake news online amid growing concerns within German intelligence that Russia may attempt to interfere in the 2017 German parliamentary election.
The announcement came following the backlash of a fake news story published by Breitbart.com that falsely claimed a “mob” of 1,000 Muslims attacked police and attempted to set a church on fire during New Year's Eve celebrations. German police immediately quashed the false story, and German newspaper editorial boards called out Breitbart for using “exaggerations and factual errors” to create “an image of chaotic civil war-like conditions in Germany, caused by Islamist aggressors.”
In November, Breitbart announced it would open new bureaus in France and Germany to “help elect right-wing politicians” in the countries facing upcoming elections in environments where “anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise." Since that time, Breitbart has published a number of stories attacking Angela Merkel and German immigration policies.
German officials also expressed concerns about Russian use of fake news in the country. The New York Times reported that Russia was behind the hacking into the German Parliament’s computer network in 2015 that left nearly 1 million Germans without internet access and increased fears that Russia will use fake news to “corrupt public debate and democratic processes.”
Republicans are pushing forward with a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) leading the charge. The top Wisconsin newspapers have largely failed to convey the impact of repeal on Wisconsin residents on a variety of crucial metrics, with little to no mention of the impact on women and minority communities and insufficient contextualization of the potentially devastating changes to Medicare and Medicaid.
On November 25, 2015, during a speech before thousands of supporters in South Carolina, Donald Trump mocked the disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski.
This is not a controversial statement, or one up for debate. It is a reflection of reality.
Here’s the video. The despicable attack came as Trump was attempting to rebut Kovaleski’s work debunking Trump’s false claim that he saw “thousands” of Americans cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center. You can see Trump holding his right hand at an angle while flailing about in cruel mimicry of Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, which limits the functioning of his joints.
Following criticism of his vicious attack on Kovaleski, Trump claimed he had not been mocking the reporter’s disability. He lied. Part of his defense was that he had never met Kovaleski and didn’t know what he looked like. That was false. Here’s PolitiFact’s ruling that his denials were false. Here’s The Washington Post FactChecker’s.
This is not in question. So why is The New York Times itself helping Trump redefine reality?
During a speech at The Golden Globes on Sunday, Meryl Streep criticized the “instinct to humiliate” on display during Trump’s attack on Kovaleski. The Times’ Patrick Healy called Trump up for his reaction, then authored an article depicting the exchange as a she said/he said: Streep had called attention to a speech in which Trump was “seeming to mock” its reporter and Trump had “flatly denied” the claim.
The Times knows better. When Trump first attacked Kovaleski in July 2015, the paper responded, “We’re outraged that he would ridicule the physical appearance of one of our reporters.”
This is what Trump and his allies do. When Trump says something that exposes a real vulnerability, they outright lie about what he said and why. Trump lies habitually, so unwinding the rationale behind any particular falsehood is difficult. But the result is a news environment in which facts become unstable, reality is constantly under attack, and both journalists and news consumers are unable to process new information within a coherent collective framework.
If the paper of record won’t stand up for the truth about an attack on one of its own reporters, I have to question whether the Times will be able to do so regarding key issues of policy and politics. And that’s a real concern as the next administration unfolds.
The Wall Street Journal reported Donald Trump plans to “restructure and pare back” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence due to his belief it has become “bloated and politicized.” Trump’s belief that the DNI has become politicized echoes right-wing media conspiracies attempting to delegitimize intelligence reports that found Russian government directed compromises of emails during the 2016 election cycle.
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During his 2016 campaign for president, Donald Trump launched an unprecedented war on the press. Since his election, Media Matters has tracked his and his team’s continuing attacks on the media and their abandonment of presidential norms regarding press access, which poses a dangerous threat to our First Amendment freedoms. Following is a list of attacks President-elect Donald Trump made against the media -- and instances in which he demonstrated disregard for the press -- during the month of December 2016.
When Donald Trump is inaugurated later this month, the presidency will officially be held by an inveterate liar. And the way the press has covered Trump in the two months since his November election victory suggests that many journalists need to adjust their approach to address that reality before Trump takes office.
On New Year’s Eve, Trump cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian government-backed hackers intervened in the presidential election, suggesting that he would release evidence to the contrary early this week.
“I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove,” Trump told the press pool outside his Florida golf club. “So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.” Asked what precisely he knew that others didn’t, Trump responded, “You’ll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Trump’s comments promptly rocketed through the news cycle, with outlets reprinting his claims without skepticism or context. In a representative example, The New York Times’ report was headlined “Trump Promises a Revelation on Hacking.” But by Monday morning, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer was walking back the suggestion that Trump would release any new information this week.
The president-elect's claim to have new information about Russian hacking was certainly startling. But why did journalists initially treat it as news and assume it must be true?
Journalists typically treat presidential statements as both newsworthy and generally trustworthy until proven otherwise. Trump is hardly the first president to dissimulate. But unlike his predecessors, Trump does not lie strategically or rarely. He lies habitually, on matters great and small. By following their typical practice and reporting the president-elect’s comments as both factual and significant, reporters are doing a disservice to their audience, which is left with the impression that what Trump has said is both true and substantive.
Sometimes, Trump is simply misstating the facts, as he did in touting a jobs “deal” with Carrier that won’t actually save the jobs he promised and one with Sprint that he had nothing to do with. Sometimes, he is promoting false conspiracy theories, as he did when he claimed that “millions of people” illegally voted in the election. Sometimes, he continues repeating the same claims after they have been proved false -- as he did with regard to President Obama’s birth certificate -- making it clear that he is lying deliberately. And when pressed by the media to explain dubious claims, he often promises explosive new information that never materializes in attempts to delay difficult confrontations, as he has done with his refusal to release his tax returns after originally saying he would, his response to questions about his business conflicts, and his comments about hacking.
Trump is exploiting a vulnerability in journalism. The pace of reporting has accelerated to the point where it is standard practice for journalists to write up a prominent politician’s comments immediately, and assess what those comments mean in later pieces. That doesn’t work with Trump.
When Trump offers a statement, the press writes up his comments with headlines and stories favorable to the president-elect only to, almost inevitably, discover after additional reporting that Trump’s initial claims were false. Readers and viewers are misled by the initial coverage and are left unable to accurately judge the policy implications of Trump’s remarks. Millions of Americans end up supporting Trump’s jobs “deals” following misleading early reports, or believing his lies about illegal voters.
Or Trump will respond to a burgeoning controversy by promising to release documents or give press conferences that support his positions. Reporters will treat that declaration of forthcoming news as itself newsworthy, but the promise is ultimately unfulfilled. Trump succeeds in muddying the waters and shifting the news cycle.
Journalists are aware that Trump’s statements are less trustworthy than those of other politicians. Major news outlets and fact-checkers that reviewed Trump’s campaign statements have stated in the strongest terms that Trump spews falsehoods at an unprecedented rate for American politics.
The New York Times even took the unusual step of declaring in a front-page headline that Trump’s statements about President Obama’s birth certificate were a “lie.” Times Editor-in-Chief Dean Baquet explained that Trump’s behavior had required the paper to change its approach and accurately describe Trump’s “demonstrably false” statements as lies.
He was right. But Trump’s behavior has not changed since his election, so journalists cannot allow themselves to return to their usual approach to presidential coverage; rather, they must develop new methods to avoid privileging his lies.
Since Trump frequently lies, journalists should be extremely wary of headlines and social media posts that simply restate his comments. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent suggests two smart rules of thumb: “If the headline does not convey the fact that Trump’s claim is in question or open to doubt, based on the known facts, then it is insufficiently informative,” and, “If the known facts show that his claims are false or outright lies, the headline should clearly indicate that, too.”
Given the need to vet Trump’s comments, Poynter’s Kelly McBride urges reporters to slow down and prioritize providing context for his statements over publishing Trump’s remarks quickly. That seems especially worthwhile when Trump is promising to provide information about a controversy some time in the future.
Journalists must also be willing to call Trump’s statements lies where appropriate. If they don’t, as Sargent warns, “we risk enabling Trump’s apparent efforts to obliterate the possibility of agreement on shared reality.”
Moreover, in cases where Trump is clearly lying, reporters should not privilege the lie by adopting the false claim as the basis of their report and framing it as a question of whether his statement was accurate. That approach helps Trump spread the false claim and leaves readers and viewers with the takeaway that there is a controversy around his comments. They should instead frame their stories -- including their headlines -- around the reality that the president-elect is not telling the truth, explaining that this latest claim is part of a pattern. That method punishes the falsehood and provides the best chance of leaving the audience with the truth.
Some journalists will oppose the need for such shifts in approach because they are worried about the optics of seeming overly critical of the president.
Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker championed this position in a Sunday appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. Asked if his paper would be willing to refer to some inaccurate Trump statements as lies, Baker said it would not use that word because “I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective.”
As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted, this approach suggests that Baker believes it is not “objectivity that matters, but the *appearance* of objectivity.” Dan Rather wrote of the “deeply disturbing” comments: “It is not the proper role of journalists to meet lies -- especially from someone of Mr. Trump’s stature and power -- by hiding behind semantics and euphemisms. Our role is to call it as we see it, based on solid reporting. When something is, in fact, a demonstrable lie, it is our responsibility to say so.”
Baker isn’t alone. There is an ongoing debate in newsrooms about whether to accurately call Trump a liar -- even at the Times, which did so back in September. At the time, public editor Liz Spayd agreed that the paper was justified in using such language to refer to Trump’s birther lies, but warned that “The Times should use this term rarely” because “its power in political warfare has so freighted the word that its mere appearance on news pages, however factually accurate, feels partisan.” Again, that’s an argument that optics outweigh accurate information.
Spayd appears to have won the argument. While the paper’s editorial board and columnists still regularly refer to Trump as a liar and call his statements lies, the Times’ news section has done so only twice since Spayd’s piece came out -- both times in articles that referenced Trump’s birther lies, which were published the same week.
Trump didn’t stop lying in September. But if the press doesn’t incorporate the lessons of the campaign and refuses to treat his statements with skepticism and call them out as lies when appropriate, its audience will pay the price.