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Media critics say CNN’s use of paid pro-Trump surrogates has undercut the network’s journalism and the “goal of informing its audience.”
After the third and final presidential debate, Trump surrogates scrambled to spin Donald Trump’s statement that he may not accept the results of the election, putting forward a litany of absurd claims. On CNN, that role was filled by the network’s roster of paid contributors who were specifically hired for their willingness to defend Trump.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen criticized the “candidate surrogate” system CNN invested in during this campaign cycle, explaining that CNN’s “Surrogates are unwilling to defend Trump, so they change him into a man more defensible.” He added that because CNN’s Trump surrogates frequently attempt to mislead the network’s audience, CNN has “wasted our time, undermined the work of their journalists, and made the election-year discussion more opaque [than] it would have been if they had never invited these people on set.”
The Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti similarly wrote that having the Trump surrogates on-air to spin the widely condemned remarks made by Trump during the debate “overstepped CNN’s reporting and undercut its purported goal of informing its audience”:
The consensus headline from the third and final presidential debate was Republican candidate Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the 2016 election results. It was a stunning rebuke of American political norms from the nominee of a major political party, and it quickly dominated coverage online Wednesday night and in major print newspapers Thursday morning.The Associated Press’ lede said Trump is “threatening to upend a fundamental pillar of American democracy.”
At CNN, however, confusion initially reigned. The network’s journalists expressed shock at Trump’s comments within seconds of the debate’s conclusion. “One of the most stunning things I’ve ever heard in a presidential debate, ever,” said Jake Tapper, the network’s chief Washington correspondent.
But pro-Trump contributors attempted to muddle this point during a panel discussion after the debate, when viewership was likely highest. Their baseless speculation that the election might somehow be rigged overstepped CNN’s reporting and undercut its purported goal of informing its audience. The comments, which drew stern rebuttals from other CNN on-air talent, highlight how the network’s pursuit of the appearance of objectivity in 2016 has distorted its final product on television. It also provides a clear example of how the channel’s model puts CNN journalists in the awkward position of fact-checking CNN contributors in real time.
Uberti concluded: “CNN pays pro-Trump contributors to provide it with a shinier veneer of objectivity. But it’s become all too clear in recent months that this mission actively harms its journalists’ pursuit of the truth. The news organization must clarify where its real priorities lie.”
CNN’s reliance on Trump surrogates to provide defense for a “candidate who doesn’t exist” has come under increased scrutiny over recent weeks, with their decision to hire former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was still receiving payment from the Trump campaign, as a paid political analyst.
Media Matters’ Carlos Maza highlighted CNN’s Trump surrogate problem, noting how surrogates refuse to answer legitimate questions about Trump’s positions and controversies and instead point unrelated discussions that devolve into personal attacks.
Though the presidential election is barreling toward its end, the “axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose,” writes The Washington Post’s Robert Costa. According to Costa, conservative media figures like Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon, InfoWars’ Alex Jones, and Fox News’ Sean Hannity have spawned a “grievance movement” seeking “to claim the [GOP’s] future as its own,” whose likely “first post-election target” will be House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).
Trump and far-right media have been in lockstep throughout his presidential campaign: Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, is Trump’s campaign chairman; Jones, a 9/11 truther who leads the conspiracy website InfoWars, feeds Trump conspiracy theories for campaign speeches; and Hannity, the far-right prime-time pundit on Fox, has gone to all lengths possible to defend and praise Trump. Trump’s engagement with hard-right, conspiratorial media figures has elevated and mainstreamed them, offering them a platform that has long been out of reach.
On October 20, Costa reported in the Post that “the fringes of the GOP [are] now managing the Republican nominee” and that the party’s “Donald Trump-driven divisions will not cease on election night.” Costa wrote that the conservative media network -- which has seen “high-minded journals and Fox News … supplanted by a galaxy of websites such as Infowars” -- “stands ready to claim the party’s future as its own,” setting the stage for an intra-party showdown “that will haunt Republicans for months and years to come.” From the October 20 Washington Post article:
The axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose.
The first post-election target for the grievance movement is likely to be House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has drawn Trump’s wrath for not supporting him more fully. Trump’s backers, both inside the House Republican caucus and out, are already talking about a takedown.
Fox News host and Trump ally Sean Hannity said in an interview after the debate that Ryan was a “saboteur” and “needed to be called out and replaced.” Hannity said he would actively urge hard-line conservatives to launch bids against Ryan.
At the fore of this conglomeration is Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart who has become Trump’s most influential confidant. Bannon encouraged the candidate’s claims of voter fraud and references to a deeply corrupt global conspiracy of international banks and corporate-friendly politicians.
Bannon has been a prominent backer of political assaults against Ryan and other Republican leaders over the past decade from the party’s fringes — boosting primary challengers against Ryan and others, and warning against compromise on hot-button issues such as immigration. But with the fringes of the GOP now managing the Republican nominee, a retreat is far from likely.
Bannon’s friends say that he has become emboldened during his time with Trump, and that they expect him to work with his network of allies, super PACs and websites to battle Ryan and the Republican establishment throughout 2017 as that wing of the party tries to rebuild the GOP brand.
It is not just Breitbart that stands ready to claim the party’s future as its own. The conservative media, once dominated by high-minded journals and Fox News, has been supplanted by a galaxy of websites such as Infowars, which is led by Alex Jones, who calls the 9/11 terrorists attacks an inside job.
Articles on those outlets have found their way into Trump’s speeches and been spread widely across platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, often building into a frenzy that leaves traditional GOP messengers unable to shape the consensus within their own party.
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is claiming that the media is “rigging the election” in response to increased scrutiny and an influx of investigative reporting on Trump’s business dealings, his taxes, his rhetoric about sexual assault, and accusations of sexual assault against the nominee. But the media scrutiny of Trump is a drastic change from the overwhelming and positive coverage Trump received throughout the primaries, and his claims ignore the way the press, particularly television news, has often ignored -- or downplayed reporting on -- Trump’s improprieties. Veteran reporters have called this lack of initial vetting “bad journalism.”
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A cloud of “gloom” and “dismay” hangs over The Wall Street Journal’s newsroom, where journalists are reportedly disappointed with the paper’s superficial election coverage and “‘flattering’” treatment of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Reporters at the Journal, whose parent company News Corp. is chaired by Rupert Murdoch, told Politico’s Joe Pompeo that the paper’s Trump coverage has been “‘galling’” and “‘absurd.’”
Pompeo wrote in Politico’s October 14 Morning Media newsletter that there is “seasonally appropriate gloom in the air” at the Journal’s newsroom over the paper’s “‘galling,’” “‘flattering’” pro-Trump “stories on the front [page]” and the “‘false balance in treating him just like another nominee.’” Pompeo’s Journal sources decried the paper’s superficial “‘process stories about the race, who’s up and down,’” and lamented the Journal’s Trump coverage as “‘neutral to the point of being absurd.’”
Pompeo also noted that the “sense of disappointment” in the Journal’s newsroom is especially underscored by the performance of the paper’s rivals, The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have published “earth-shattering news-breaks” about Trump.
“Of course,” Pompeo wrote, the staff “probably saw it coming,” given both that the Journal’s editor-in-chief demanded that his reporters be “‘fair’” to Trump back in May and that the Journal is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch -- who also has played a hands-on role in leading his unabashedly pro-Trump Fox News Channel -- signaled months ago that “he plans to fully back Trump in the general election,” according to New York magazine.
The report of the newsroom’s “dismay” at its Trump boosting coincides with a Journal article elevating Trump’s defensive claim that a global media conspiracy is working to generate negative coverage of him. The October 13 article notes that Trump is planning to claim that “Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim,” a top New York Times shareholder and Clinton Foundation donor, “is part of a biased coalition working in collusion with the Clinton campaign and its supporters to generate news reports of decades-old allegations from several women.”
Irony abounds, as the Times’ Alex Burns notes that the Murdoch-owned pro-Trump Journal is helping carry Trump’s water over an alleged media conspiracy of pro-Clinton boosting:
Politically connected billionaire media investor alleged to seek influence over elections, the Wall Street Journal reports unironically https://t.co/wVWQEro6ti
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) October 14, 2016
The Carlos Slim conspiracy article may be precisely the type of “‘galling’” story that Journal reporters are reportedly upset about. Burns needled the Journal about the piece, tweeting, “Can’t fathom writing this as a hard news lede.” Perhaps the article’s author feels the same way.
Trump’s Use Of “Sock Puppet Websites” And Constant Spread Of Disinformation Echoes “Russian Information Warfare”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s public flirtation with Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the 2016 campaign has been met with extensive public interest, skepticism, and criticism. Whether definitive ties exist between Trump and the Kremlin remains to be seen, but the degree to which Trump has seemingly co-opted the Kremlin’s propaganda playbook, and the extent to which conservative media has helped Trump execute a Russian-style media strategy built upon the spread of disinformation, is unnerving and portends trouble for the state of objective truth in American democracy.
Red flags have been raised about Trump’s alleged relationship with Russia and Putin: Trump has effusively praised Putin; publicly invited the Russian government to hack Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails; deliberately lied that Russia was not involved in hacking attempts aimed at interfering with the U.S. election; recited Russian state-sponsored misinformation; and allegedly has Russian investments in his businesses.
Further, Trump has managed to exploit the fragmented state of American media to seemingly execute the Russian model of “information warfare,” as outlined by NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence’s Keir Giles. The parallels between the Kremlin’s strategy for planting and spreading disinformation -- with the ultimate goal of “undermining the notion of objective truth” -- and Trump’s use of conservative media to spread lies and delegitimize traditional news sources are striking and play out in these ways:
Russian disinformation strategy, which rests on “‘undermin[ing] the very fundamentals of information and credibility that informed debate are supposed to rest upon,’” begins by “placing disinformation” on “sock puppet websites which appear to provide or aggregate news” and “can achieve substantial reach and penetration,” according to Giles.
The primary “sock puppet website” at the heart of Trump’s Kremlin-style media campaign is The Drudge Report, the conservative media news aggregator that traffics in conspiracy theories, lies, and anti-Clinton smears. The Drudge Report has been a stalwart Trump cheerleader and a launching pad for a series of smear campaigns and conspiratorial claims meant to undermine Clinton, including long-running conspiracies about her health.
Drudge frequently aggregates stories from notoriously right-wing fringe and conspiratorial websites including WorldNetDaily (WND), Zero Hedge, and Gateway Pundit. At its height in July, Drudge had 1.47 billion page views.
As The Washington Post notes:
Drudge is an ideal landing place for hard-hitting opposition research on one of your political opponents. He's more likely to simply take it and post it rather than looking for where the holes are — as a more mainstream site would do. And, because of Drudge's traffic, which isn't just big but also influential (think reporters, cable TV bookers and other campaigns), everyone you want or need to see it will see it.
To underscore The Drudge Report’s jolting parity to Russian “sock puppet websites,” the website has openly embraced Putin himself and has linked to Russian propaganda sites at least 91 times thus far in 2016.
InfoWars, a fringe conspiracy website led by 9/11 truther Alex Jones, has also been the birthplace of nonsense claims and anti-Clinton attacks.
Trump has praised Drudge and InfoWars and repeated their conspiracy theories on the campaign trail, effectively mainstreaming the reputation of otherwise unsound sources and giving widespread credence to a variety of baseless claims. Jones himself once announced on his radio show that it has been “surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear [Donald] Trump say it two days later. It is amazing.”
In his report, Giles notes that “pro-Russian trolls and bots” also “exploit specific features of the relationship between traditional and social media in order to both plant, disseminate and lend credibility to disinformation.” They utilize “a range of fora including online discussion boards, Twitter and more” to “act as a force multiplier for driving home the Russian message.”
New and non-traditional online forums like Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter have served as effective tools for Trump supporters to coalesce and subsequently blast out conspiracy theories and anti-Clinton attacks in unison.
As The New York Times highlighted:
[I]f major social media platforms are where Mr. Trump amplifies his pronouncements, sites like Reddit and 4chan have become a sort of proving ground, where an extreme, Internet-amped version of Mr. Trump’s message is shared and refined.
[Reddit] users promote favorable stories, feud with foes and rally support through phone-banking or “Facebanking” — campaigning to Facebook friends. On The Donald, the message is relentless — as are the insults. Opponents are referred to as “cucks,” which is short for “cuckservative,” as in “cuckold” — now used as a derisive term for liberals and moderate Republicans recently popularized by far-right online commentators and white nationalists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group shares content and tone with parts of 4chan, the infamous and anonymous message board that traffics in shock, and where Mr. Trump — who regularly scorns “political correctness” — has found substantial, if oblique, support.
Bogus anti-Clinton attacks, like the claim that the Clintons did “the same thing” with their taxes as Trump -- who “used a $916 million loss that he reported on his 1995 income tax returns to avoid paying personal federal income taxes for years” -- by claiming a “$700,000 loss” on their 2015 tax return, originated on the pro-Trump reddit page “The_Donald” and subsequently rocketed through right-wing media.
After Russian propaganda is placed on aggregate sites and gains traction among these "pro-Russian trolls and bots," writes Giles, the disinformation is then “fed into the mainstream news flow” and “picked up and reported by reputable traditional media.”
Similarly, disinformation in the American media track often jumps from fringe websites like Drudge and InfoWars (frequently after and precisely because Trump cites them) to Fox News, the unabashedly pro-Trump cable network that nonetheless brands itself as “fair and balanced,” and other right-wing media outlets.
Seemingly attempting to stay in sync with Trump, Fox has mainstreamed fringe right-wing conspiracies and elevated anti-Clinton smears about Clinton’s health (which Trump has promoted), character, and leadership style (which Trump has echoed) -- while also promoting fringe claims of a “rigged” election (which Trump is hyping), “garbage” online polls that favor Trump (which he loves to cite), allegations that Clinton has her foes murdered (which Trump nodded to), and claims regarding the Clintons’ personal marriage (which Trump has floated), all sourced from the fever-swamps of conservative fringe websites.
As Trump’s own campaign manager Kellyanne Conway once said, “You can draw a straight line from a Drudge link to what gets covered on cable that night.”
Once disinformation pierces the mainstream news flow “at one or more points,” “others will follow,” Giles notes. “Even in the new climate of awareness, major news media do not wish to be left behind on a story which has made it to the news agenda.”
Credible mainstream American outlets and journalists, perhaps concerned “they will be labeled ‘biased,’” as claims John A. Tures, adopt stories that often are cultivated in the right-wing echo chamber and given life by Trump. After Clinton’s September pneumonia diagnoses, several mainstream outlets went all-in on hyping how “talk of Clinton's health [is] no longer just the stuff of conspiracy theorists.” Media outlets have time and time and time again parroted right-wing pseudo-scandals about Clinton’s use of a private email server and about the Clinton Foundation (stories that were also hyped by right-wing outlets like Drudge and Fox News).
Conservative shaming of the “liberal media” also is often intended to induce mainstream coverage of an otherwise fringe or unsubstantiated story. Speaking about hacked emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, Fox host Ainsley Earhardt exclaimed, "Do you think the mainstream media will talk about it?" Co-host Steve Doocy added, "Or at least Donald Trump?" Guest Steve Hilton replied, "I don't think so, so that's why [Trump] needs to talk about it. Because otherwise, it's just going to disappear into the ether."
In his assessment of “Russian objectives” behind the Kremlin’s “information warfare” strategy, Giles writes, “it has as one aim undermining the notion of objective truth and reporting being possible at all,” which ultimately “‘undermines the very fundamentals of information and credibility that informed debate are supposed to rest upon.’”
In executing a similar media strategy, Trump and the conservative media have worked to discredit historically legitimate sources of truth. Both by planting, cultivating, and bolstering disinformation and through an unprecedented war on the press, Trump and right-wing media have ushered in an era of post-truth politics where voters have “been successfully persuaded that everything is a lie, so the only political choice you have is to select the fiction that most fits your self-conception,” as explained by journalist Ned Resnikoff.*
Just as how “credibility is not always a metric of success for Russian information warfare campaigns” and that Russian disinformation thrives despite its “lack of plausibility,” as Giles writes, Trump’s promotion of lies and conspiracies are not depressed by the overwhelming number of fact-checks he receives, precisely because truth may not be the measure of success he is seeking.
Indeed, as CNN’s Brian Stelter warned, “Trump and his supporters ... are delegitimizing institutions the United States holds dear” -- which, frighteningly, is exactly what Giles notes was the goal of Soviet propaganda campaigns that the current Kremlin “information warfare strategy” is emulating.
* Resnikoff is a former employee of Media Matters. Image by Sarah Wasko.
The Hill: Former Staffer Said Bannon “Has Alex Jones-Level Paranoia About Paul Ryan”
Newly released internal emails provided to The Hill show that Stephen Bannon, CEO of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign and former Breitbart News executive chairman, had directed Breitbart staff to attack Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), declaring that the “long game is [ Ryan] gone by spring” in a preview of the Trump campaign’s current war with the congressman.
The Hill reported that although “Bannon’s disregard for Ryan has been recorded in other reports, this is the first time emails have emerged that showed [Bannon] setting a timeframe for trying to get rid of the Speaker.” With Bannon now “giving Trump advice as his campaign CEO,” the nominee “on Tuesday unleashed a series of tweets directing scorn at the Speaker, who on Monday said he would no longer defend Trump.”
The Hill also reported that a former Breitbart staffer claimed “Bannon has Alex Jones-level paranoia about Paul Ryan,” referring to the Trump ally and conspiracy theorist radio host, and that he “thinks Paul Ryan is part of a conspiracy with [billionaires] George Soros and Paul Singer, in which elitists want to bring one world government”:
Steve Bannon, the chairman of the right-wing news outlet Breitbart who became CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, gave explicit orders to his staff to destroy Speaker Paul Ryan(R-Wis.).
On editorial conference calls, the Breitbart chairman would often say “Paul Ryan is the enemy,” according to a source who worked with Bannon at the news organization.
In December 2015, weeks after Ryan became Speaker, Bannon wrote in an internal Breitbart email obtained by The Hill that the “long game” for his news site was for Ryan to be “gone” by the spring.
Bannon: “Long game is him gone by spring.”
Bannon’s disregard for Ryan has been recorded in other reports, but this is the first time emails have emerged that showed him setting a timeframe for trying to get rid of the Speaker. Bannon is now giving Trump advice as his campaign CEO.
Trump on Tuesday unleashed a series of tweets directing scorn at the Speaker, who on Monday said he would no longer defend Trump and would instead focus on electing Republicans to the House.
A former Breitbart staffer said Bannon used to rage against Ryan all the time.
Bannon views Ryan as a leader of an elite globalist cabal determined to sell out America by opening its borders on immigration and trade.
“Bannon has Alex Jones-level paranoia about Paul Ryan,” the source said, referring to the right-wing radio host and conspiracy theorist who runs the pro-Trump website Infowars.Z
“He goes on these amazing rants,” the source added of Bannon. “He thinks Paul Ryan is part of a conspiracy with George Soros and Paul Singer, in which elitists want to bring one world government.”
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has an extensive history of attacking the media, and his campaign and supporters have joined in the fight throughout the election. The nominee, his surrogates, and his supporters have called media outlets and reporters across the spectrum “dishonest,” “neurotic,” “dumb,” and a “waste of time,” and until recently, the campaign had a media blacklist of outlets that weren’t allowed into campaign events.
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