With George Zimmerman back in the news -- this time for facing charges stemming from allegedly pointing a shotgun at his girlfriend -- CNN and its sister network HLN are once again inviting a virulently racist convicted criminal on-air to defend Zimmerman.
In August, Mother Jones reported that Frank Taaffe, who had essentially served as Zimmerman's "de facto spokesman" during his trial for killing Trayvon Martin, was "a racist with a criminal past." Among Taaffe's lowlights: hosting a "white-power podcast"; posting racist tweets, including declaring that "the only time a black life is validated is when a white person kills them"; and having been repeatedly arrested (but not convicted) on stalking and domestic violence charges and once serving jail time for trespassing.
A Media Matters review at the time found that Taaffe's media presence was massive, having appeared on or been quoted by most major news networks, including making more than 60 (often combative) primetime appearances on HLN. As Mother Jones explained, Taaffe used his prominent media platform "to cast Martin as a drug-addled Hoodlum and Zimmerman as a community-minded do-gooder" and argue about technical details of the case in which he had no expertise.
But now that Zimmerman is back in the news, so is Taaffe. Mother Jones noted that Taaffe has appeared on both CNN and HLN this week to defend Zimmerman and argue with Nancy Grace about his friend supposedly "being oppressed by the press":
Most recently, Taaffe appeared on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight and argued that Zimmerman was suffering from post-traumatic stress. Morgan asked Taaffe what Zimmerman--who faces charges of aggravated assault with a weapon, domestic violence battery, and criminal mischief--was doing in a house full of guns. "Boys will have their toys," Taaffe replied. He also called Zimmerman's girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, and his ex-wife, Shellie (who has alleged that Zimmerman threatened her and her father with a gun, too) "opportunistic."
Taaffe also appeared on HLN's Nancy Grace and Dr. Drew On Call. "George is being oppressed by the press," he told an incredulous Grace, who asked: "So according to you, what is it? A conspiracy between the...the ATF officer, the girlfriend in 2006, the wife in September 2013, and me, I guess?"
"No," Taaffe said. "He's allying himself with these women that he shouldn't be with."
According to a search of the Nexis database, Taaffe also made a handful of appearances on HLN in September after Zimmerman's estranged wife "called 911 to say Zimmerman punched his father-in-law in the nose and threatened to shoot him and his wife." (Zimmerman was released without charges.)
From the October 31 edition of CNN's Piers Morgan Live:
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How out of whack, at times, was CNN's coverage of the GOP's radical move to shut down the government and to flirt with defaulting on American's debt? So puzzling that when news broke on October 16 that a deal would be struck to avoid a catastrophic default, CNN's Ashleigh Banfield turned to her guest, Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, and blamed him for the two-week shutdown [emphasis added]:
BANFIELD: Forgive me for not popping the champagne corks, because while we're celebrating this breaking news that there's a deal, it's just a temporary deal. We're still nowhere near a solution to the crisis that the United States of America finds itself in because of people like you and your other colleagues on the Hill.
It's well known that when confronted with political turmoil created by Republicans, the Beltway press prefers to blame both political parties. (i.e. "Congress" is dysfunctional!) That way journalists are not seen as taking sides, and they're inoculated from cries of liberal media bias. But if ever there were a test case for when it was plain both sides were not to blame, the shutdown was it.
Engineered entirely by Republicans, Democrats like Clyburn were forced to become spectators as they watched a civil war unfold within the Republican Party between its far-right Tea Party allies, who insisted on adopting a radical strategy, and the rest of the GOP. Or course, several prominent Republican politicians pinned blame squarely on their colleagues for the recent mess.
The shutdown was a crisis orchestrated by Republicans. Period.
Congressional Democrats played virtually no role in the procedural sabotage, except as shocked observers. Yet there was Ashleigh Banfield blaming a Democrat (as well as all Democrats and Republicans) for causing so much turmoil inside Washington, D.C. The skewed commentary fit in with the fact that CNN regularly suggested President Obama was a central cause of the tumultuous shutdown because he wasn't willing to just sit down and work out a deal with his political foes.
CNN occupies an important place within the media landscape. Priding itself on a down-the-middle approach to news and political commentary, the channel helps shape conventional wisdom and sets the common boundaries for news events. But by so effortlessly adopting the Republican spin that Obama and Democrats shouldered all kinds of blame for the shutdown, CNN became part of the media problem.
Veteran religion writers are offering harsh criticism of Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green for making author Reza Aslan's Muslim background the focus of a recent interview about his new book on Jesus. They say that her suggestion that Aslan's faith might preclude his ability to cover the topic fairly was insulting and illogical, and seemed aimed more at playing to her audience's biases than informing them.
"Fox News knows the zeitgeist of its readership and understands what stokes the Fox audience's anger. Fox News is excellent at providing the tinder needed to make that blaze burn," Debra L. Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, said in a statement to Media Matters. "I was not surprised so much by the interview because it seemed to fit the Fox formula perfectly. I would have been more surprised to see an interview that recognized what the vast majority of professional religion reporter specialists and the vast majority of scholars of religion believe: that one's personal faith generally has little bearing on the ability to be accurate in the study or reporting of religion."
She later added, "Reza Aslan as the author of a new book on Jesus should be judged on his credentials as a scholar, his experience with the topic, and on the soundness of his research, period."
That view was echoed by several religion writers and authors who reacted negatively to the recent interview in which Green repeatedly questioned why Aslan, as a Muslim, had authored the recently-released book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The first question Green asked during the FoxNews.com interview was, "You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" She would repeatedly return to that question throughout the interview, and accused him of having "never disclosed" his faith during appearances on other programs.
When Aslan pointed out he is a "scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject" and studies the topic for a living, Green continued to question his background more than the book.
At one point, Aslan stated, "I'm not sure what my faith happens to do with my 20 years of academic study of the New Testament."
Aslan has a Ph. D. in the sociology of religion, a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard University, and a bachelor's degree in religion from Santa Clara University, as well as a master's of fine arts in fiction. He previously authored books on the history of Islam.
"If the accusation is that you have to be of a particular faith to write about it, I don't see the logic in that," said Abe Levy, a religion writer for the San Antonio Express-News. "Anyone can scrutinize a particular faith if they have studied it, you don't have to be of that particular faith. In my line of work, you want to have a deep respect for a particular religion, even if it is not your own, but you don't have to be of a particular faith to cover it."
Indeed, Green herself, a committed Christian, has repeatedly reported on Islam.
A group named Donors Trust has been funneling far more money than ExxonMobil ever did to climate denial groups, but because the source of the funds remains largely hidden, the public has been unable to pressure the donations to stop as they did with Exxon. A small portion of Donors Trust's funding was recently revealed by the Center for Public Integrity, yet even that small portion has significant ties to the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests.
Between 2008 and 2011, Donors Trust doled out over $300 million in grants to what it describes as "conservative and libertarian causes," serving as "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement." Donors Trust enables donors to give anonymously, noting on its website that if you "wish to keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues," you can use it to direct your money.
One of the "controversial issues" that Donors Trust and its sister organization Donors Capital Fund have bankrolled is the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and delay any government action to reduce emissions.* The following chart created by The Guardian based on data from Greenpeace shows that as ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations have reduced traceable funding for these groups, donations from Donors Trust have surged:
Several of these organizations have sown confusion about the science demonstrating climate change. The Heartland Institute, which The Economist called the "world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change," received over $14 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, making up over a quarter of Heartland's budget. in 2010. In 2012, Heartland launched a billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate science to The Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro. Several corporate donors distanced themselves from the organization, but Donors Trust made no comment. Heartland removed the billboard soon afterward but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Meanwhile, The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) received over $4 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, accounting for over 45 percent of CFACT's budget in 2010. The highest-paid member of CFACT's staff is Marc Morano, who runs a website that pushes misleading attacks on climate science. Morano defended Heartland's billboard and said that climate scientists "deserve to be publicly flogged." Despite Morano's sordid background, CNN twice hosted him to "debate climate change and if it is really real" without disclosing that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization. CFACT lists the Forbes columns of Larry Bell, who calls global warming a "hoax," as "CFACT research and commentary." The organization is advised by several prominent climate misinformers, including Lord Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has revealed the sources of approximately $18.8 million of Donors Trust's funding from 2008 to 2011, culled from Internal Revenue Service filings. That leaves over $281 million in anonymous funds during that period, assuming that the organization gives out approximately as much as it takes in each year.
While the individuals and corporations funding Donors Trust remain largely hidden, we know that at least five separate foundations connected to Koch Industries have given over $3.8 million to Donors Trust in recent years. Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, is the largest privately owned company in the U.S. and controls several oil refineries and pipelines.
From the January 8 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
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Conservative media figures have long insisted that top marginal income tax rates effectively target small businesses. This "zombie lie" has sprung up throughout President Obama's first term as an argument against Democratic proposals to renew the Bush-era rates only for middle- and low-income Americans. Despite continual efforts by experts to debunk this claim, media figures continue to repeat these lies in the 2012 edition of the fight over high-income tax rates.
CNN anchor Piers Morgan hosted a "debate" on climate science between Bill Nye "The Science Guy" and professional climate misinformer Marc Morano. As Morano spewed myths about climate change, CNN failed to disclose that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization.
Offering two "viewpoints" about temperature data and suggesting that scientific facts are up for "debate" is misleading in and of itself. During the segment, Morano claimed that we "have gone 16 years without global warming according to UN data." Nye pushed back, saying "This will be the hottest two decades in history, in recorded history. So when you throw around a statement like the UN says it's not the hottest 20 years, I got to disagree with you." But the audience was left unaware that Morano was highlighting a short time period to obscure the overall warming trend, as illustrated by this chart from Skeptical Science:
In response to Mitt Romney's debate claim that the Navy's fleet "is smaller now than any time since 1917," President Obama noted that military also has fewer bayonets and horses because it has modernized. Rather than discuss President Obama's accurate point about military strength, members of the media are trying to figure out how many bayonets the military actually uses.
Media outlets largely focused on criticizing Vice President Joe Biden's demeanor during the October 11 vice presidential debate, ignoring the substantive arguments being addressed in the discussion. Meanwhile, fact-checkers were busy pointing out the inaccuracies in Congressman Paul Ryan's claims.
CNN anchor Piers Morgan has repeatedly claimed that "gas prices have doubled" under President Obama, echoing a Republican talking point that independent fact-checkers have called "awfully misleading" because the price of gasoline was unusually low when Obama took office in the midst of the recession. Morgan recently said that high gas prices are "damning" for Obama, even though experts say "there is very little a president can do" to lower gas prices.
In the past two weeks alone, Morgan has cited gas prices doubling six times to suggest that Obama is politically vulnerable. But Morgan's colleagues at CNN have explained why blaming the president for high gas prices is "silly":
In March, CNN business correspondent Christine Romans explained that a gallon of gas cost about $1.84 when Obama took office because we were "in the middle of a very terrible recession." The following chart from GasBuddy.com shows that gas prices plummeted in late 2008, just before Obama was inaugurated:
And CNN anchors have explained many times that no president can control gas prices, which are set on the global market. Conservative CNN contributor Will Cain has said that attacks on Obama over gas prices "really aren't legitimate," and that "there are so many factors that are in play, what is going on with the economy and with gas prices, it's just silly to think that we can blame or credit a president for all of this."
Fox News' Greta van Susteren last night became the sixth journalist to interview Mitt Romney without asking him about the conservative conspiracy theory alleging that the Muslim Brotherhood is using supposed ties to an aide for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to infiltrate the U.S. government. Two surrogates for Romney's campaign have defended that conspiracy during the past week, while Republican leaders like John Boehner and John McCain have condemned it.
In the wake of President Obama's declaration of support for marriage equality and the passage of North Carolina's anti-gay marriage amendment, CNN broadcast a variety of segments focusing on the historic implications of this week's events. Three of CNN's most recognizable faces hosted Tony Perkins, president of the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council (FRC), to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage.
Although Piers Morgan, Wolf Blitzer, and Soledad O'Brien failed to identify Perkins as a hate group leader, they did challenge him on several of his anti-gay talking points. O'Brien and Morgan were particularly assertive in challenging his failed logic.
Watch Perkins being interviewed by CNN's Morgan on Tuesday:
Watch Perkins being interviewed by CNN's Blitzer on Wednesday:
Watch Perkins being interviewed by CNN's O'Brien on Thursday:
Hernon Graddick, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), published a column Thursday criticizing CNN's decision to welcome the hate group leader, arguing that the media needs to do a better job of providing context for Perkins' appearances:
[W]ith a wealth of political thinkers, analysts and strategists to go to -- why has CNN turned to Tony Perkins three times in the last few days to represent the "other side?" He was on with Piers Morgan Tuesday night to talk about the vote in North Carolina. He appeared with Wolf Blitzer Wednesday evening to talk about the President's support for marriage equality, and then was interviewed by Soledad O'Brien Thursday morning on the same topic.
All of this is fine, as long as Perkins is put into the proper context. Which he sort-of was by Morgan and O'Brien, but Blitzer didn't even come close.
Here's the crux of the problem -- and the exact reason why GLAAD's Commentator Accountability Project was born. Tony Perkins and others of his ilk cannot be used to exemplify those who simply oppose marriage equality. CNN is more than welcome to interview him on the issue of marriage equality, of course. His is unquestionably one of the loudest voices in the nation speaking about the issue.
But when Perkins gets interviewed, a responsible journalist needs to tell the audience exactly who Perkins is speaking for. Based on his own statements -- Tony Perkins represents people who believe supporting LGBT equality is akin to being a terrorist. Who believe marriage equality is the same as bestiality. Who say that gay people are "vile," "hateful," "spiteful" "pawns of the enemy." Tony Perkins does not represent people who oppose marriage equality. Tony Perkins represents those who oppose LGBT people -- period.
If CNN wants that side represented in this discussion, then Perkins is absolutely the right man for the job. But they need to make it clear to the audience that that's what he's there for. And by not doing so, they have not told the whole story.
On Thursday, MSNBC's Chris Matthews demonstrated a good example of how cable news hosts should handle Perkins when he appears on their shows.
A network that employs one contributor who repeatedly threatened to pull a "gun" on government employees and another who praised U.S. Marines for apparently urinating on dead Afghans is now hosting discredited liar Andrew Breitbart to provide political commentary. CNN anchors previously said that Breitbart lacks credibility following his use of deceptively edited video to smear former Obama administration official Shirley Sherrod as a racist.
Breitbart has appeared on CNN four times this year, including interviews with the network's hosts Dr. Drew Pinsky and Piers Morgan in panel segments during their coverage of the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina and New Hampshire Republican primaries. Pinsky also hosted Breitbart on the January 20 edition of his show, Dr. Drew.
CNN is well aware of Breitbart's history of fabrications and his lack of credibility. After his infamous Sherrod smear unraveled, CNN's own Anderson Cooper calling his actions "a classic example of what is wrong with our national discourse." Cooper joined a wide array of media who criticized Breitbart's tactics and pointed to what Ben Smith called his "growing credibility problem."
As recently as last November, CNN's Don Lemon reported that a remark from President Obama had been "taken out of context" in an ad produced by Mitt Romney's campaign and commented, "for those on the right who are jumping on the lazy bandwagon, perhaps they should remember that context is everything. And there's always the videotape. Just ask Andrew Breitbart and Shirley Sherrod."
Even Morgan has said that it is "perfectly natural to be suspicious of Mr. Breitbart" and "understandable people might be at least skeptical" of his reporting "given his track record."
In 2010, ABC News drew widespread criticism, including from its own newsroom, after Breitbart's website reported -- and Media Matters confirmed -- that he would be providing analysis for the network during its election night coverage. ABC's George Stephanopoulos had previously called out Breitbart for pushing claims about Shirley Sherrod that were "clearly not true." The network subsequently announced that Breitbart would "not be a part of the ABC News broadcast coverage," but rather would be "participating in an online-only discussion and debate" for ABCNews.com. After many recriminations, with Breitbart saying he had been promised broadcast time and ABC responding that he had "exaggerated the role he would play," ABC dropped him from its elections coverage.
Surely CNN can also find a conservative to discuss elections who hasn't had his credibility rightfully criticized by the network's own anchors.