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Media figures from across the political spectrum are criticizing FBI Director James Comey for defying Justice Department rules and precedent to issue a short and vague letter informing Congress that the Bureau had obtained and was seeking to review emails “that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” regarding Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. The journalists and pundits called the timing of Comey’s letter “unfortunate, given its potential to affect a democratic process in which millions of people are already voting,” with some going so far as to say Comey’s letter “both disgraces and politicizes the FBI.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has called out the “dark money machine” that is attacking him through the media over his investigation into whether ExxonMobil committed fraud by deceiving its shareholders and the public about climate change.
Schneiderman launched his probe into ExxonMobil in November 2015 after investigations by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times found that Exxon officials knew about the science of climate change decades ago but continued to fund climate denial groups for many years. California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey have since followed suit and also launched investigations of Exxon.
During an October 19 forum on public integrity, Schneiderman explained that fossil fuel front groups are “directing a disinformation campaign aimed at bolstering Exxon’s case,” Politico reported. Schneiderman specifically called out Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Heritage Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), all of which are conservative organizations that have been heavily funded by fossil fuel industry interests, including Exxon. He also identified how these and other front groups pursue a media strategy, stating that they seemed to have “pulled a lever on the dark money machine,” and “60 or 70 op-ed columns or editorials” appeared attacking Schneiderman’s investigation. He added: “The challenge is, in most media markets in the country, all people have heard is the other side of the argument because [the conservative groups’] infrastructure is so remarkable.”
Indeed, several of the nation's most widely read newspapers have provided a platform for fossil fuel front groups to deceptively defend Exxon. As of September 1, The Wall Street Journal had published 21 opinion pieces in less than a year criticizing government entities for investigating Exxon, including an op-ed written by CEI lawyers and a column that falsely claimed AFP has “never received a dime from Exxon.” The Washington Post also published an op-ed by officials from CEI, syndicated columns by George Will and Robert Samuelson, and a letter by the Heritage Foundation’s Hans A. von Spakovsky, all of which falsely claimed that the attorneys generals’ investigations violate Exxon’s First Amendment rights. And contributors at USA Today and Bloomberg View also peddled the false claim that the attorneys general are threatening Exxon’s right to free speech. (As Schneiderman noted, “The First Amendment is not designed to protect three-card monte dealers. … You can’t commit fraud and argue, ‘Oh, I’m exercising my First Amendment rights.'”)
Other conservative media outlets have also provided space for CEI and the Heritage Foundation to defend Exxon and other oil companies that may have purposely misled the public on climate change to protect their profits, including the National Review, Townhall, and The Washington Times (on many occasions).
Image at the top from Flickr user Azi Paybarah with a Creative Commons license.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s refusal to say whether he will accept the election results during the October 19 presidential debate is proof that right-wing media’s effort to push the myth of widespread voter fraud is backfiring terribly on the Republican Party.
Since August, Trump has claimed that the election is “rigged,” making the false claim that “People are going to walk in, they’re going to vote ten times,” and saying that there were “illegal immigrants voting all over the country,” including “people that died 10 years ago.” He ramped up the rhetoric at the final presidential debate when he refused to answer moderator Chris Wallace’s question on whether he would accept the election results, saying, “I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time.” Trump added “millions of people … are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote.”
These charges -- that people will be able to vote multiple times, that undocumented citizens can vote, that dead people can vote -- come straight from myths that right-wing media have pushed for years. Conservative media have repeatedly claimed that voter fraud is a rampant problem in elections, and similar to Trump’s charges, have often pointed the finger at immigrants and dead people.
In truth, voter fraud is extremely rare. One 2012 study concluded that the rate of fraud is “infinitesimal” and that “in-person voter impersonation … is virtually non-existent.” Another found only 31 cases of potential voter fraud anywhere in the country between 2000 and 2014. Experts have also debunked the claim.
Despite there being no actual evidence of widespread voter fraud, Republican state legislatures in recent years have seized on these claims to pass strict voter ID laws all over the country. Conservative media have defended these laws, claiming they are attempts to “fight voter fraud,” and baselessly insisting “the IDs are free and … no voter is turned away.”
Now Trump has aimed that myth back at his own party. By claiming the elections are “rigged,” he is in effect claiming Republicans officials who oversee “the balloting in many of the hardest-fought states” would rig the election against him, as The New York Times noted. Many Republicans have condemned Trump’s allegation, such as Republican campaign lawyer Chris Ashby, who called Trump’s charge “unfounded” and “dangerous,” and Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, who said the claim was “irresponsible.” Trump’s debate comments were condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Right-wing media, however, have stood by Trump’s rigged election claims. Fox anchors agreed with Trump that dead people potentially could vote, and radio host Rush Limbaugh proclaimed, “What do you mean elections aren’t rigged? Of course they are!” Even Fox contributor George Will, an outspoken critic of Trump, gave credence to Trump’s accusations of a rigged election, saying “Mr. Trump has a point if he would just make it more clearly.” Some in right-wing media have even attacked Republicans criticizing Trump. CNN’s Scottie Nell Hughes, in response to Republican officials like Husted, said, “They are secretary of states, establishment politicians. They have not been for us since the very beginning.” Radio host Mike Gallagher, while interviewing Trump, said he was “baffled at certain Republicans who are pushing back” at Trump’s “suggestion that we better be careful about a rigged election” because Republicans “have always had concerns about voter fraud.”
In fact, it is possible that Trump’s rigged election claim could lower turnout among his own Republican base. According to The Wall Street Journal, research shows that “[Trump’s] rhetoric could also have the impact of hurting his own campaign” by “lowering turnout among his own supporters.”
It is not clear if Trump will accept the election results. What is clear, however, is that a myth pushed by right-wing media -- which has led to laws that Republicans have admitted help them politically -- is now boomeranging back on them. Because by running with right-wing media’s voter fraud myth to claim that the election could be rigged, Trump and his media supporters have not only called into question Republican officials' ability to oversee the election, but have also potentially hurt GOP voter turnout. And if conservative media continues to stand by Trump’s rigged election claims, the results could potentially be disastrous for both the country and the Republican Party on November 8.
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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.
The Wall Street Journal has published 21 opinion pieces since October opposing state or federal investigations into whether ExxonMobil violated the law by deceiving its shareholders and the public about climate change, a new Media Matters analysis finds, far more than The New York Times, The Washington Post, or USA Today published on either side of the issue. The Journal has yet to publish a single editorial, column, or op-ed in support of investigating Exxon’s behavior, and many of its pro-Exxon opinion pieces contain blatant falsehoods about the nature and scope of the ongoing investigations being conducted by state attorneys general.
The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Washington Post all published climate science denial and other scientifically inaccurate statements about climate change on their opinion pages over the last year and a half, while The New York Times avoided doing so, according to a new Media Matters analysis of those four newspapers. The Journal published by far the most opinion pieces misrepresenting climate science, while all three instances of climate science denial in the Post came from columns written by George Will. The Journal and USA Today also published numerous climate-related op-eds without disclosing the authors’ fossil fuel ties, while USA Today, the Post, and particularly the Journal frequently published some of the least credible voices on climate and energy issues.
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Donald and Eric Trump’s victim-blaming responses to questions about sexual harassment were condemned in the media, but they echoed right-wing media’s long history of putting the onus on the victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Right-wing media figures have suggested that being a sexual assault survivor is a “coveted status,” that victims should “make better decisions,” and that “women need to take some responsibility.”
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After Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reiterated his plan not to release his tax returns prior to the election due to an IRS audit -- despite the IRS saying he is not precluded from doing so -- media figures questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s excuse, arguing instead that it could be due to his possible business dealings with Russia, paying little to no taxes, and not giving to charity, among other reasons.
Conservatives have just lost their excuse to question the results of the investigation relating to Hillary Clinton’s email server, which legal experts say lacks a “legitimate basis” to charge Clinton with crimes. Right-wing media figures have ignored those experts to suggest that if the investigation does not result in a Clinton indictment, it must be politically tainted. But Attorney General Loretta Lynch affirmed that she will “be accepting the recommendations” made by “career agents and investigators” and FBI Director James Comey in the case, and conservative media have spent months lauding Comey’s “impeccable integrity” and ability to impartially conduct the investigation.
Yale Law School Dean Robert Post took to The Washington Post to completely dismantle the bogus claim that the attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil for fraud are trampling the company’s First Amendment rights. And in doing so, he pointed to one of several opinion writers who have misinformed the Post’s readers by advancing this “free speech” defense of Exxon's alleged deception on climate change.
Writing in The Washington Post on June 24, Robert Post criticized “ExxonMobil and its supporters” in the media for deceptively “[r]aising the revered flag of the First Amendment” to condemn attorneys general who are investigating Exxon. The attorneys general are looking into whether the oil company committed fraud by deliberating withholding truthful information about climate change from shareholders and the public in order to protect its profits. As Post explained, Exxon and its allies are “eliding the essential difference between fraud and public debate,” and if Exxon has indeed committed fraud, “its speech would not merit First Amendment protection.” He added: “Fraud is especially egregious because it is committed when a seller does not himself believe the hokum he foists on an unwitting public.”
One of the conservative media figures that Post called out for distorting the Exxon investigations was The Washington Post’s own George Will, who penned an April 22 column peddling the false claim that the attorneys general pursuing Exxon are seeking to “criminalize skepticism” about climate change. And that wasn’t the only basic fact that Will butchered, as the Climate Denier Roundup explained at the time:
George Will used his column in the Washington Post to offer a lesson on how this campaign [against Exxon] is part of a larger progressive strategy to shut down debate. But apparently it’s Will that needs a history lesson, as he uses as evidence a story about a 2013 IRS investigation accusing the agency of targeting conservatives. But that investigation “found no evidence” that the IRS actions were politically motivated.
Unfortunately, Will is not the only voice on the Post’s opinion pages who has misrepresented the facts to defend Exxon.
As the Climate Denier Roundup noted, the same day that Will’s column ran, the Post also published an op-ed by two officials at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a think tank that peddled climate science denial while receiving funding from Exxon. The CEI op-ed repeated the falsehood that the attorneys general are seeking to “run roughshod” over Exxon’s First Amendment protections and prosecute “dissent.” It also engaged in carefully crafted legalese about CEI’s relationship with Exxon, as the Climate Denier Roundup observed:
Worth noting CEI’s careful phrasing about its relationship with Exxon, which CEI says “publicly ended its support for us after 2005.” With Donors Trust and others making it possible to anonymize giving, the key word is “publicly.”
Flashback to November 2015, and the story at the Post is much the same. Like Will, the Post’s Robert Samuelson claimed in a November 8 column that investigations of Exxon are an “assault” on free speech, and that the “advocates of a probe into ExxonMobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions.” Samuelson also repeated Exxon’s bogus talking point that a 1989 Exxon document proves that groundbreaking reports about Exxon by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times "'cherry-pick[ed]' their evidence."
Then there’s the Post editorial board itself, which prematurely concluded in a November 15 editorial that Exxon “didn’t commit a crime.” Perhaps the Post will reconsider after hearing from Robert Post on that matter.
From Robert Post’s June 24 op-ed in The Washington Post:
If large oil companies have deliberately misinformed investors about their knowledge of global warming, they may have committed serious commercial fraud.
ExxonMobil and its supporters are now eliding the essential difference between fraud and public debate. Raising the revered flag of the First Amendment, they loudly object to investigations recently announced by attorneys general of several states into whether ExxonMobil has publicly misrepresented what it knew about global warming.
The National Review has accused the attorneys general of “trampling the First Amendment.” Post columnist George F. Will has written that the investigations illustrate the “authoritarianism” implicit in progressivism, which seeks “to criminalize debate about science.” And Hans A. von Spakovsky, speaking for the Heritage Foundation, compared the attorneys general to the Spanish Inquisition.
Despite their vitriol, these denunciations are wide of the mark. If your pharmacist sells you patent medicine on the basis of his “scientific theory” that it will cure your cancer, the government does not act like the Spanish Inquisition when it holds the pharmacist accountable for fraud.
The obvious point, which remarkably bears repeating, is that there are circumstances when scientific theories must remain open and subject to challenge, and there are circumstances when the government must act to protect the integrity of the market, even if it requires determining the truth or falsity of those theories. Public debate must be protected, but fraud must also be suppressed. Fraud is especially egregious because it is committed when a seller does not himself believe the hokum he foists on an unwitting public.
If ExxonMobil has committed fraud, its speech would not merit First Amendment protection. But the company nevertheless invokes the First Amendment to suppress a subpoena designed to produce the information necessary to determine whether ExxonMobil has committed fraud. It thus seeks to foreclose the very process by which our legal system acquires the evidence necessary to determine whether fraud has been committed. In effect, the company seeks to use the First Amendment to prevent any informed lawsuit for fraud.