Houston looks set to become ground zero for the country's next major LGBT civil rights battle. How national and local media cover that fight could help determine how the rest of the country thinks about the next stage of the struggle for full LGBT equality.
For the past 15 months, the city of Houston has been embroiled in a drawn-out battle over its non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, military status, marital status, religion, disability, national origin, age, familial status, genetic information, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
The Houston City Council adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in May 2014, in the face of fierce opposition from anti-LGBT groups who immediately launched a signature-collection effort to put the ordinance on the ballot for possible repeal. Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman disqualified their effort after determining that many of the signatures collected were invalid. The result was a protracted and messy legal battle that has drawn the attention of Fox News and national conservative figures.
On July 24, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a district court decision and ordered the city to either repeal HERO or put the measure up for a public vote in the November 2015 election.
That decision has set the stage for an even more heated and expensive battle over the fate of the ordinance - one that will likely serve as a test case for how the media, and Americans at large, talk about LGBT equality in the new era of marriage equality.
HERO has been the target of conservative misinformation since it was unveiled in April of 2014. Local and national anti-LGBT groups, including the Houston Area Pastor Council, Texas Values, and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), rallied against the ordinance.
Opponents attacked HERO by lying about the ordinance; claiming it would undermine religious liberty, trigger costly and frivolous lawsuits, and allow sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by pretending to be transgender - predictions that have proven false in other Texas cities with similar laws in place. Horror stories about public restrooms became a central sticking point in the city council's debate over HERO, with opponents even labeling the ordinance the "Sexual Predator Protection Act."
The "sexual predator" talking point has been thoroughly debunked by law enforcement experts, government officials, and advocates for sexual assault victims in states and cities that have had laws like HERO on their books for years. Non-discrimination laws don't make sexual assault legal, and sexual predators don't decide to act based on whether a local non-discrimination ordinance exists.
But that didn't stop local media outlets in Houston from uncritically repeating the "bathroom" myth in their reporting on HERO. Opponents' talking points permeated local news coverage of the ordinance, resulting in a public debate that focused on conservative fearmongering rather than anti-LGBT discrimination:
That kind of irresponsible coverage continued after HERO's passage, as the push to put the ordinance on the ballot gave way to an intense legal battle. Houston's Fox affiliate continued to uncritically repeat the bogus "bathroom" myth, and before long, Fox News' national network took notice. Led by Mike Huckabee, the network turned the fight in Houston into a national conservative rallying cry, peddling myths about HERO and misrepresenting legal proceedings to stoke outrage. Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) joined Huckabee in using the controversy to establish his social conservative bona fides. By November of 2014, thousands of activists were descending on Houston to rally against HERO and demand a public vote.
Following the Texas Supreme Court's decision last week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker expressed confidence that voters will approve HERO if it's put up for a vote. If that happens, Houston voters will almost certainly be bombarded with ads and mailers peddling the same misinformation that has defined conservatives' opposition to the ordinance thus far. Scare tactics that invoke bathroom attacks and religious freedom are incredibly effective in getting people to vote against legal protections for LGBT people. And if local media outlets don't do the vital work of separating fact from fiction, HERO could become the first major LGBT defeat in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark marriage equality ruling.
The fight over Houston's non-discrimination ordinance foreshadows the emerging national LGBT civil rights battle in America: the push for comprehensive non-discrimination protections. On July 23, Democrats in Congress introduced the "Equality Act," which would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other areas. Major national LGBT groups have thrown their support behind the bill, signaling their shift in priorities now that the marriage fight has largely ended. Opponents have already begun attacking the Equality Act with the same talking points they used in their fight against HERO: horror stories about religious freedom, special rights, and bathroom predators.
It remains to be seen how effective conservatives will be at influencing the media narrative around non-discrimination protections. Since losing their fight against marriage equality, anti-LGBT activists have made controlling media depictions of non-discrimination efforts a central part of their fight against LGBT equality. By characterizing non-discrimination laws as a threat to religious freedom and personal safety, conservatives are hoping to hijack the conversation about even the most basic legal protections for LGBT people.
As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston could be a test case for how successful anti-LGBT conservatives will be at injecting their bogus talking points into media coverage of major non-discrimination fights. If anti-gay conservatives there can use misinformation and fearmongering to defeat HERO, it will set a powerful example for national anti-LGBT groups looking to shape the broader debate around laws like the federal Equality Act. If, on the other hand, local media outlets debunk and correct misinformation about the measure, they'll be setting a positive precedent for national media outlets and helping set the tone for how Americans view the continuing struggle for LGBT equality.
Conservative media defended Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's recent claim -- that President Obama's negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program will take Israelis "to the door of the oven" -- by praising the Holocaust comparison as "absolutely true" and "an accurate description."
From the July 27 edition of CNN's CNN Newsroom With Carol Costello:
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From the June 28 edition of HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:
Fox News largely ignored the controversy surrounding Josh Duggar following his recent admission that, as a teenager, he molested young girls, including several of his sisters. The revelations are particularly stunning given that, under the guise of protecting children, the Duggar family has played an active role in the fight against LGBT equality.
On May 21, In Touch magazine revealed that in 2006, Jim Bob Duggar - patriarch of TLC's hit show 19 Kids and Counting - had waited more than a year before telling police that his son, Josh, had confessed to molesting several female minors, including his sisters, when he was a teenager. TLC has since pulled episodes of 19 Kids from its schedule.
The revelations drew widespread criticism in the media, with many outlets pointing out the Duggar family's reputation as a torch-bearer for conservative values and strong involvement in Republican politics and anti-LGBT activism. The revelations look to many like hypocrisy from a family that's become a political powerhouse in socially conservative circles in recent years by wielding its reality show influence to stump for "family values," Republican politicians, and the repeal of legal protections for LGBT people.
But while MSNBC and CNN have reported heavily on the Duggar scandal, Fox News has largely ignored the story. According to a Media Matters analysis, Fox News spent less than two minutes covering the story between May 21 and May 25, compared to almost an hour of coverage from the other cable news networks.
During the May 24 broadcast of Media Buzz, Fox News' media critic Howard Kurtz even criticized other media outlets for "piling on" by highlighting the Duggar family's ties to prominent Republican politicians:
Mike Huckabee fans who signed up for Huckabee updates after watching his Fox News program are now on his campaign email list.
Huckabee hosted a weekly Fox News program that ended in January as he explored a run for president. A regular announcement on the program told viewers, "if you'd like to comment on tonight's show and share with me your thoughts, I welcome your response. Go to my website, MikeHuckabee.com. You can connect with me on Facebook, sign up to follow my regular messages on Twitter, or leave comments on the feedback section at MikeHuckabee.com."
Viewers who visited the website were greeted by a message asking them to sign up by giving their email address and zip code -- two key pieces of data for political campaigns.
On his final episode, Huckabee told viewers to keep updated "on my whereabouts and plans on my website, MikeHuckabee.com."
Huckabee's Fox program undoubtedly helped grow his website's list. A 2012 advertising rate card by Newsmax.com, which had managed his list, stated that MikeHuckabee.com has a list size of 625,000. The Huckabee image above, which was retrieved from his site in March 2014, claims the list has "1,000,000+ subscribers."
Media Matters created a Gmail account that signed up for Huckabee's email list on November 19. For months, the email address received normal Huckabee-authored emails and sketchy third party advertising sent by Huckabee ("#1 Item You Should be Hoarding!"). After Huckabee officially announced his campaign on May 5, the list converted to emails that solicited campaign donations and carried the disclaimer, "Paid for by Huckabee for President."
It is unclear if Huckabee's previously for-profit email list was contributed or rented to his campaign.
Huckabee's Fox News-promoted email list gives him a leg up on candidates who didn't have a weekly forum in which they could promote their websites. The Washington Post wrote in February that "a great e-mail list still trumps a buzzy social media account. And it's not close." The Post quoted strategists stating that email "is still the largest driver of fundraising and a volunteer program" and "is still the killer app."
Politico's Ken Vogel wrote in 2009 that "email addresses and zip codes have become increasingly valuable, not only for their unrivaled ability to solicit millions in contributions in explosive bursts, but also as commodities in and of themselves."
Huckabee has previously acknowledged how his Fox News platform has helped his candidacy, telling RealClearPolitics last year that he's more well-known among primary voters in Iowa because "I've been in these people's homes every week."
While Huckabee's email list is now used for campaign purposes, he previously used it as a moneymaking venture and rented it out to a wide range of shady characters, including sketchy medical cures; a for-sale stock pundit that was fired from Fox; a financial firm that was fined by the government for engaging in "deliberate fraud"; and a survival food company that profits off of readers' fears of being "herded into FEMA camps."
Fox News dismissed criticism of 2016 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee's sham product endorsements, suggesting he was merely following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, who appeared in product advertisements during his acting days.
Huckabee, a former Fox News host, has a history of peddling sham-medical cures, conspiracy theories, and financial fraudsters in rented space on his Fox-promoted email list. The GOP contender even promoted a "kitchen-cabinet cure" for diabetes in a recent online ad, a shady product The New York Times described as a "dubious diabetes treatment."
Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade jumped to defend Huckabee's product endorsements on May 11, one day after CBS' Bob Schieffer confronted the candidate about his "diabetes cure" hucksterism. Kilmeade compared Huckabee to former President Reagan, arguing that like Huckabee, Reagan "advertised for a few products in between becoming governor and president and when he was an actor":
KILMEADE: I like to add to this, just to give you color on the Huckabee situation. He was asked a question about some of the products he endorsed, including one for diabetes when he was in between being governor, when he was at Fox, and when he was in between running for president, which is now. I thought he gave a pretty good answer for that. He says I'm not embarrassed to say if something could help you with diabetes, I'm going to support it. Plus you're in the free market. I believe there's guys like Ronald Reagan who advertised for a few products in between becoming governor and president and when he was an actor.
While a Fox News employee, Huckabee profited from renting his MikeHuckabee.com email list to a wide range of shady characters, including a medical quack claiming he knew Alzheimer's disease cures; a for-sale stock pundit that was fired from Fox; a financial firm that was fined by the government for engaging in "deliberate fraud"; and a survival food company that profits off of readers' fears of being "herded into FEMA camps." Fox News helped grow his email list, and in turn, Huckabee used his eponymous program to bolster his own political ambitions, even announcing he was considering a presidential run on his final broadcast.
From the May 10 edition of CBS' Face The Nation:
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Iowa radio host Steve Deace, who supported recently-announced presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (R) during his 2008 White House bid, expressed grave disappointment over the fact that the former Arkansas governor supports certain entitlement programs, which Huckabee outlined in his May 4 candidacy announcement. Deace's rejection of Huckabee comes in the wake of his praise and early support for one of Huckabee's challengers for the GOP nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
During the May 6 episode of the Steve Deace Show, Deace played former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's presidential candidacy announcement speech but frequently interrupted it so that he and his producer, Rebekah Maxwell, could offer critical commentary. Deace attacked Huckabee's positions on Medicare and Social Security, calling the programs "not safety nets" but "the basis for a permanent welfare state." Deace also compared Huckabee to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, saying his speech could have been delivered by Clinton "and gotten the same amount of applause."
Huckabee's seemingly softer stance on social programs isn't a sign that he is reinventing himself as a populist, given his track record on taxes and other economic issues. Yet while Deace and Huckabee still agree on certain conservative ideological issues, such as the need to oppose marriage equality and speak out against Islam, Deace was adamant on his show that much of Huckabee's 2016 announcement speech failed to connect with the GOP's primary audience because it didn't embrace the core principals of conservatism, which Deace identified as cutting taxes, fighting terrorism, and opposing abortion and gay marriage.
Deace, who wields heavy influence among Iowa's conservative Christians and has been called one of the "most influential Republicans you've never heard of" by Bloomberg Politics, supported Huckabee in his 2008 bid for the presidency. As ABC News reported, during the 2008 primary season, "Deace gave Huckabee plenty of valuable air time," and "urged his supporters to get tickets and rides to the influential straw poll in Ames." Deace's vocal support of Huckabee is cited as a major reason why Huckbee beat Mitt Romney (R) in the Iowa Caucus that year.
This time around, Deace is criticizing Huckabee and offering frequent support and praise for the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz. In addition, as the Des Moines Register reported, "Deace has served as an informal, unpaid consultant" to Cruz, which gives the Iowa-based radio host an even bigger platform from which to support and advocate for the Texas senator.
From the May 5 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show:
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From the May 5 edition of Fox News's Outnumbered:
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Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee joined Fox News in 2008 after an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in that year's presidential election, launching the weekly Saturday night show Huckabee that ran for more than six years.
As Huckabee took several steps towards running -- including hiring staff, courting potential donors, and repeatedly hinting at a run -- he kept his Fox News show.
Huckabee openly acknowledged the balancing act required to stoke interest in his potential run while not crossing the line and losing his valuable Fox News perch. He told Fox News Radio host John Gibson last November that he needed to be "very, very careful with sort of the obligations that I have doing the show, doing the radio commentaries, to make sure that I stay on the right side of that threshold and not cross it and do something that would compromise, you know, the network, compromise me."
After The Washington Post laid out the many concrete ways Huckabee was seriously prepping for a presidential run last November, Fox News announced it was "evaluating his current status" as a contributor. He ended up sticking around at the network until January, making several appearances in the intervening weeks that confirmed his glaring conflict of interest.
From the February 2 edition of Comedy Central's The Daily Show:
Former Fox News host Mike Huckabee criticized his former female co-workers at Fox for using profanity and language he called "trashy."
Politico reported on Huckabee's January 23 radio interview on Iowa's Mickelson in the Morning, with host Jan Mickelson in which Huckabee complained that he experienced "culture shock" working with people at Fox News who used profanity. Huckabee specifically lamented the use of foul language by women at the network calling it, "just trashy." Listen:
Over the weekend, Mike Huckabee kicked off the 43-city tour for his latest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, which attempts to reintroduce the former Arkansas governor and Fox News host to the Republican primary electorate as he ponders a run for president in 2016. The "folksy" tome is reportedly filled with "references to mama, good ol' boys and Bibles" and other culture war staples, but light on "policy specifics."
Huckabee was hired by Fox after failing to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He frequently used his eponymous program to bolster his own political ambitions, announcing his own possible presidential run on his final broadcast.
Media Matters looks back at how Huckabee rented his Fox-promoted email list out to an assortment of scamsters and conspiracy theorists (originally published here).
Mike Huckabee, who is parting ways with Fox News, has profited from renting his Fox-promoted MikeHuckabee.com email list to a wide range of shady characters, including a medical quack claiming Alzheimer's disease cures; a for-sale stock pundit that was fired from Fox; a financial firm that was fined by the government for engaging in "deliberate fraud"; and a survival food company that profits off of readers' fears of being "herded into FEMA camps."
Huckabee has previously denied responsibility for his shady sponsored emails, telling Media Matters: "You are supposed to read the disclosure and the disclaimer that is a part of the messages. You know, we are simply the conduit to send messages, these are sponsored and I can't always vouch for the veracity."
Fox News helped grow Huckabee's email list, as Fox and the former Republican governor regularly promoted MikeHuckabee.com on his weekly program Huckabee. When visitors reach Huckabee's website, they're asked to sign-up for his email list.