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Joe Strupp

Author ››› Joe Strupp
  • Top legal scholar: Trump Twitter attack on Comey could be "witness intimidation"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    A top constitutional law scholar says President Donald Trump’s Twitter attack against former FBI director James Comey for sharing a memo recounting his meetings with Trump could be seen as "witness intimidation," while also noting that there is no legal rationale for the president's claims.

    This morning, following Comey's June 8 testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, Trump wrote on Twitter: "WOW, Comey is a leaker!"

    “I think the claim is utterly frivolous and indeed could be characterized as a form of witness intimidation,” Laurence Tribe, a highly cited constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, said via email. “The memo in which Comey recorded his recollection of the meeting contemporaneously was not classified. And nothing in the DOJ’s rules or the FBI’s rules barred disclosing that information inasmuch as the conversation wasn’t subject to executive privilege or attorney-client privilege or any other privilege."

    At issue is Comey’s revelation during Thursday’s Senate intelligence committee hearing that he had passed on contents of a memo outlining meetings with Trump to a friend, who later gave it to a reporter.

    Several conservative media outlets have claimed that such information sharing is illegal, even treasonous or a form of espionage. Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said he planned to file a formal complaint against Comey with the Justice Department, while Trump himself adopted the right-wing talking point today in his Twitter attack.

    But Tribe and other legal experts balked at claims that Comey acted illegally.

    "Nothing in it was classified,” Tribe said. “That decision plainly and strongly served the public interest and harmed no legitimate interest of any individual or government institution.”

    Other legal experts agreed.

    “There was nothing classified in any of the memos or the testimony given and there is no crime that rises from potentially revealing privileged material,” said Lisa Kern Griffin, a professor at Duke University Law School. “If someone wants to voluntarily reveal information, there is no criminal liability.”

    Professor James B. Jacobs of New York University School of Law added, “I cannot see any [illegality] in Mr. Comey's making public his own notes on his conversations with President Trump. There was no secret or classified information revealed.”

    Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, agreed: “As I understand the situation, there was nothing unlawful or inappropriate in that action. There was no classified information involved.”

    Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, also noted that the claims by some that it was privileged information are unfounded.

    “Strictly speaking, that is a misnomer,” he said in an interview. “If this was privileged information, which seems unlikely to me, then the president would have the right to assert that privilege to prevent Comey from discussing that information. But he didn’t, his lawyer didn’t, nobody did. It strikes me that the statements that are being made have no basis in law.”

  • Legal experts: Comey's testimony described serious misconduct by Trump including "abuse of power"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    While President Donald Trump’s conservative media allies have spent the day claiming former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony vindicated the president, legal experts who watched the hearing say it revealed Trump’s alleged behavior was “inappropriate” and a clear “abuse of power,” potentially amounting to obstruction of justice.

    Following written testimony released on Wednesday, Comey appeared before the Senate intelligence committee today to offer testimony about what he described as Trump’s “inappropriate” and “very concerning” interactions with him prior to his May 9 firing.  

    In the wake of the explosive testimony -- in which Comey branded the president a liar and said Trump ordered him to back off an investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn -- Trump’s loyal propagandists in conservative media have suggested the hearing essentially put to bed any questions about Trump’s actions.

    But legal experts interviewed by Media Matters disagree and say Comey's testimony alleges serious misconduct by Trump, including actions that could constitute abuse of power or obstruction of justice.

    “It’s clear that with [Trump's] firing of Comey, he shows the combination of trying to influence the investigation lined up with what else Trump knew at the time and what Trump himself said: that he fired Comey related to the Russian investigation,” said Fordham University Law School legal historian and law professor Jed Shugerman when asked to react to Comey's testimony. “All of that together is very clear proof of Trump’s intent.”

    “You have to look at the entirety of the testimony, the timelines and especially that it ended with the firing [of Comey],” Shugerman explained. “It is not clear that all the events just in the written testimony constitutes obstruction. The case for obstruction turns on the end result: the firing. When you take that all together, focused on a background to the firing, that’s the obstruction case.”

    Cristina Rodríguez, a professor of constitutional law at Yale Law School, agreed.

    “I definitely think it’s abuse of power. I don’t know whether it is an obstruction of justice,” she said. “This episode is the latest example of his assault on the norms that keep presidential power in check. Whether it’s impeachable is whether you would call it a high crime or misdemeanor.”

    Rodríguez explained that regardless of whether Trump’s actions constitute the typical legal definition of obstruction of justice, a case for impeachment can still be made on the basis of the president's conduct. 

    “If you couple it with other aspects of his behavior since he took office, you can begin to build a case for impeachment,” she said. “I don’t think the Republicans would impeach him, but it doesn’t mean the Democrats couldn’t heighten congressional scrutiny on the president and push the Republicans into a stature where they are forced to ask questions.”

    Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at University of North Carolina School of Law, called Trump’s actions with Comey “unusual and inappropriate.”

    “It is unusual for a president to be talking that way, and I think it is hard to say whether this rises to a level of obstruction of justice, but it is unusual and it is inappropriate,” he said. “It has certainly been the norm for presidents not to be inquiring about and expressing opinions about ongoing investigations. The president is usually arm’s length from -- some distance from it -- not to be opining about ongoing investigations and bringing it up not once or twice, but a few times. I think most people would find it unusual and inappropriate. If this were President Hillary Clinton and inquiring about an investigation of someone she knew, I would expect Republicans would be outraged.”

    He later said Trump was “degrading the rule of law. The president is supposed to enforce the law faithfully, and that means uniformly that people don’t get special favors.”

    Louis Michael Seidman, a Georgetown University Law Center law professor, compared Trump’s attempted intervention, as described by Comey, to actions taken by former President Richard Nixon.

    “If what Comey testified to is accurate, it is very serious,” Seidman said in an interview. “So it appears that the president gave what amounts to an order to stop an investigation and when Comey didn’t follow the order he was fired. That is not that far removed from the kind of things that got Richard Nixon into trouble.”

    Republican senators during the hearing seized on the phrasing of how Trump allegedly pressured Comey to defend the president. According to the president’s defenders, the fact that the president used the phrase “I hope” when allegedly exerting pressure over Comey proves he was not acting inappropriately. (According to Comey's testimony, Trump told him, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.")

    Legal experts say this defense doesn’t hold water.

    “The Republican pushback is a strategy of isolating individual moments, but you have to put all of that in with the firing. In context and in tone, it felt like a directive from his boss,” said Shugerman.

    Rodríguez echoed that view, stating, “Comey himself said he understood what he was saying as an order because of the context, and the context matters. It is very easy to see why he thought that was an order.”

    Another emerging defense of Trump is that he shouldn’t be faulted for his interactions with Comey because he is a political neophyte who didn’t realize he may have been crossing any lines.

    “That’s not true,” said Seidman, adding, “Whether he has a guilty conscience or not is not relevant either to the legal or the political question.”

    Gerhardt agreed: “If that were true than we could see if this demonstrates a lack of competence, which may or may not rise to a level of an impeachable offense. It sounds like some people are saying this is just incompetence, which is not heartening.”

  • Did the NY Times forget the “long trail of deception” that spurred hiring a public editor in the first place?

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    It’s nearly impossible to consider The New York Times’ decision this week to eliminate its public editor after more than a decade without remembering the man who made the position happen in the first place: Jayson Blair.

    Blair was no high-level editor or publishing executive at the Times in 2003 when he caused the biggest scandal in the paper’s history, which eventually forced the Grey Lady to create the ombudsman-like position.

    He was just a reporter.

    But the way he manipulated people and facts with a combination of distortions, plagiarism, and outright lies boosted his ability to affect the paper’s credibility and image as much as any top editor or publisher.

    In the words of the Times’ own unprecedented 7,300-word investigative report about Blair's "long trail of deception," which ran on page one and spanned four full inside pages of the Mother’s Day, 2003, edition:

    He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.

    And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq.

    The Times’ report warranted the bylines of five reporters and additional help from two other researchers to detail how Blair had spent years making up sources, quotes, and facts -- and even lying about being in locations where he had purported to covered news.

    In the end, Blair caused the departure of the paper’s top two editors, sparked a massive internal investigation and mea culpa, and left the paper’s image so broken that it desperately sought to repair it by hiring an independent ombudsman.

    But he did not wreak all of the havoc on his own. As the internal investigation found, Blair was aided by editors who ignored warnings of poor reporting and questionable actions, as well as colleagues who found his charm and flattery endearing:

    The Times inquiry also establishes that various editors and reporters expressed misgivings about Mr. Blair's reporting skills, maturity and behavior during his five-year journey from raw intern to reporter on national news events. Their warnings centered mostly on the errors in his articles.

    His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: ''We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.''

    The lengthy article went on to detail how Blair had been given chance after chance despite his poor record of credibility and reporting. And he did not just make mistakes of carelessness or laziness; there was outright deception.

    One of the most notable examples was coverage of the 2002 sniper case in suburban Washington, D.C., which terrorized the area for months. Blair wrote two stories cited in the Times review about the two men arrested in the case that were later found to include inaccurate information attributed to unnamed sources.

    As a reporter at newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher at the time, I was one of many media scribes who covered the historic scandal.

    For anyone in the news business then, the Blair bombshell threw the Times’ then-152-year history of respectable journalism and reporting into a tailspin.

    While the paper received credit for revealing so much of its scandal so openly, critics also took hold of the massive pile of lies that Blair had orchestrated and wondered if the paper’s image could ever recover.

    And other news outlets felt the shock waves from the Times’ ethical earthquake as news in general came under scrutiny and new questions about how newsrooms reviewed sources and stories were raised. Many argued that if the Times could be taken in such a major way, what’s happening at other, smaller news outlets?

    Eventually the Times made several moves to pick up the pieces of its shattered credibility.

    Less than a month after the lengthy May 2003 report, the paper fired then-executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. Raines, a former editorial page editor, had been hailed just a year earlier when the paper swept half of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, many of them related to coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

    Editor & Publisher had even named Raines editor of the year.

    Soon after, the Times appointed a 25-person committee led by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal and including a number of staff as well as several distinguished leaders in journalism to review the paper’s practices and recommend changes to prevent future Jayson Blairs.

    Among the recommendations in the eventual 58-page committee report was the hiring of a public editor who would have complete autonomous power to review complaints and issues related to the paper’s work. The editor would serve for a fixed term to allow even more independent review.

    In the 14 years since the Blair scandal and the follow-up recommendations it spurred, six people have served in the public editor role. And on Wednesday, just hours after the announcement of the position’s demise, four of those past public editors told me the decision to end the position was a mistake.

    In all, more than 900 public editor columns have been written and remain on the Times website, weighing in on issues ranging from poor coverage of pre-war weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to reporting on sexual assaults and sexual harassment.

    And according to Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, the most discussed issue through all of those years has been the use of “unattributed sources.” It’s a problem he says the public editor role was able to seriously investigate, but one that still needs continued review -- and it’s now fueling public debate.  

    Times editors apparently think that enough time and criticism have tamed the problems that allowed the Blair scandal to occur 14 years ago. However, as the journalism world fights new battles every day, the need for the strong, independent voice of a public editor may be greater than even in Blair’s time.

  • Former NY Times public editors criticize “unseemly” decision to cut the “essential” position

    Two former ombudsmen at other outlets join in the criticism

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Several past New York Times public editors, along with two former ombudsmen at other media outlets, are criticizing today’s announcement that the newspaper plans to cut the ombudsman-type position after more than 14 years.

    The former public editors said the independent position is a necessary tool in making sure the paper follows its ethical guidelines and sticks to factual reporting.

    “It’s a shame,” said Daniel Okrent, the first Times public editor, who began in December 2003 and served 18 months in the job. “It’s hard for me to gauge the wisdom of doing this. The public editor rightly or wrongly has more authority and credibility than the random critic you’d find anywhere else.”

    The Times announced the elimination of the post currently held by Liz Spayd in a letter to staff today. She was expected to serve until at least 2018. In a story, the paper also announced a buyout offer to employees in an effort to cut back on "layers of editing."

    The letter, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., stated that a new “Reader Center” would be created in place of the public editor and stressed that the paper would seek to respond more to reader comments.

    “I think it's unseemly,” Arthur Brisbane, who served as the Times' public editor from June 2010 to September 2012, said about the decision to cut the job. “I think it’s unfortunate because I do think the public editor remains an essential role. I think that a lot of readers look to the public editor as a place where the Times offers some accountability on what it does. And the public editor, because it is a dedicated individual, can really dive deeply into some of the important issues that arise.”

    Clark Hoyt, who served as the Times' public editor from May 2007 to June 2010, agreed.

    “Creating a new Reader Center to expand the ways The Times interacts with readers is a great idea. But it lacks one essential quality: independence,” Hoyt said via email. “No organization – whether it’s an arm of government, a business or a news outlet – likes to be second-guessed. And it’s true that there are already plenty of critics of The Times and the news media in general. There always have been. But the public editor played a unique role as an experienced journalist, within the newsroom but independent of the executive structure, who could investigate complaints and render measured judgment."

    He later added, “In my experience, readers who believed they couldn’t get a fair hearing from a newsroom invested in a particular decision, looked upon the public editor as an essential avenue of appeal. I hope The Times, one of the world’s most respected news organizations, doesn’t come to regret this decision.”

    Byron Calame, the second Times public editor, serving from May 2005 to May 2007, said expanding reader response is good, but not enough.

    “The other piece is more difficult, the crunch time stuff, when the executive editor or another top editor has made a decision that is simply wrong,” he said in an interview. “And will this process find a way to deal with that when the top guy makes a wrong decision?”

    He cited a 2006 story in The New York Times Magazine that claimed an El Salvador woman had been jailed for having an abortion. When it turned out the story was wrong, and that the woman had most likely killed a newborn, Calame revealed the truth in a column months later that prompted the paper to publish an editor’s note correcting the story.

    “I wrote a column and they had to do an editor’s note fessing up to this,” he said. “I think you need a public editor to deal with that. You can question very powerful people and keep questioning them.”

    Okrent said his “biggest concern" is that the move "will be unfairly used by the paper’s enemies [to say] that they can’t take the criticism. To say, ‘See, they don’t care about criticism.’”

    Alicia Shepard, a former National Public Radio ombudsman, said responding to reader comments is good, but it lacks the direct approach the public editor had been allowed to take.

    "While a news organization can respond to readers, no one else can really push management to be accountable and ask tough questions that can't be ignored,” she said via email. “If the new Times' Reader Center can do that, then great. At this point in journalism, we desperately need more accountability and transparency - not less."

    Robert Lipsyte, a former ESPN ombudsman and previously a longtime New York Times sports writer, called the public editor elimination a “big mistake.”

    He wrote in an email that it's "a big mistake to move from independent oversight (as ESPN has) to what is basically a customer complaint and service department. An internal check is particularly important as the paper makes business moves that may affect its journalism," he continued. "The editorial consensus at ESPN was why should we pay for an Ombudsman when we get so much criticism for free. The answer of course is that a good public editor loves the report and wants to make it better within its own terms.”

    Bill Keller, a former New York Times executive editor and the first to work with a public editor, said he did not always like what the public editors did, but he appreciated the need.

    “I've described it as the most thankless job in journalism, squeezed between critics of The Times who see you as an apologist and defenders who see you as an interloper,” he said via email, noting that today’s increased reader comments and responses can make up for some of the public editor’s job.

    “At their best, though, the public editors had two things the reading rank-and-file did not: access and authority," he added. "At their best, they knew the habits, good and bad, of newsrooms, they brought reporting skills to bear, and they sometimes spoke wisdom to power. (Of course, when not at their best they could be a royal pain in the ass.)”

  • Journalism advocates are "horrified" by GOP candidate’s assault on reporter

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    A Montana Republican congressional candidate’s alleged body-slamming assault on a reporter for The Guardian the day before today’s special election is drawing harsh criticism from journalism advocates and reporters, while also causing three local newspapers to pull their endorsements of the politician.

    Greg Gianforte, the GOP candidate in the race for Montana’s lone House seat, was charged with assault Wednesday after allegedly attacking reporter Ben Jacobs of The Guardian.

    Audio of the incident indicates Jacobs was asking the candidate his view of the recent Congressional Budget Office report, released Wednesday, on the latest House Republican health care bill. The long-awaited report indicated that the plan would leave up to 14 million more people without health insurance next year and as many as 23 million uninsured by 2026.

    Apparently without provocation, Gianforte reportedly assaulted Jacobs so badly that he broke the reporter’s glasses.

    The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is among several groups that condemned the incident.

    "Public figures in Montana and throughout the U.S. should condemn the violent assault of a reporter by a congressional candidate," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's program director and senior program coordinator for the Americas. "The role of reporters is even more important on the eve of elections. Gallatin County authorities should show that politicians will be held accountable for attacks against journalists who are merely trying to keep the public informed."

    Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement that said, in part:

    While Mr. Gianforte’s campaign seemed to excuse his violent behavior by belittling Mr. Jacobs as a “liberal journalist,” his fellow reporters at Fox News who were on the scene have supported his account by stating that “at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”

    The journalists are united, and the country should be united, behind the belief that these kinds of attacks on reporters are an assault on the very core of democratic life and require the swiftest condemnation by public officials everywhere.

    Lynn Walsh, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and the investigative executive producer at NBC 7 San Diego, called it an “attack against the rights this country was founded on.”

    “Ben was practicing his rights guaranteed in this country, freedom of the press,” she said in an interview. “To be physically harmed for doing this, the public should be outraged. Is this the direction we want to be going in? We condemn any sort of attacks, physical harm or arrests of journalists when they are doing their jobs. This was a journalist doing his job to get information to share with the public.”

    Kelly McBride, vice president at The Poynter Institute, said Jacobs was only doing his job.

    Jacobs “was politely trying to do his job,” McBride told Media Matters. “Getting a comment from this guy’s important, and this guy didn’t want to give a comment, and this is what we do as reporters -- nail public officials down on their beliefs in public policy.”

    Several of the journalism advocates also pointed to the latest incident as part of a trend of recent unacceptable violent actions against reporters, adding that President Donald Trump’s ongoing anti-press rhetoric may have been a cause.

    The CPJ statement also included this view:

    The attack on Jacobs comes less than a week after security forces at the Federal Communications Commission allegedly pinned CQ reporter John Donnelly against a wall while he tried to ask a question of the departing commissioners at the agency's headquarters in D.C., according to press reports. In a separate event, a West Virginia reporter was arrested this month as he tried to ask a question of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price in the West Virginia state capitol.

    Bernie Lunzer, president of the News Guild-CWA, which represents Jacobs and other Guardian staffers through Local 3122, said the union is “horrified” at what appears to be a growing trend.

    “This is not an isolated incident,” Lunzer said in an interview Thursday. “We had the situation in West Virginia, the FCC incident. I think a climate has been created where people, rather than argue and debate facts, we’ve now got a situation where they target the messenger. … It is a climate where Trump has made it OK to attack reporters.”

    McBride agreed, adding that “it’s rare that it escalates to some sort of physical assault, but not surprising in the general level of disdain for reporters to do their job. Trump has definitely made it OK and popular.”

    Walsh echoed that view: “When you look at it and make an educated assumption, you tend to see these sorts of things, they do tend to come from the top down, follow what the top of their party might be doing. I think the assumption that because of the things President Trump said during the campaign and has continued to say as president I think can be contributing to some of this. We have to make sure this doesn’t become the new norm.”

    In a related move, three of Montana’s largest daily newspapers that had endorsed Gianforte pulled their support Thursday morning.

    Among them was the Billings Gazette, the state’s largest paper in terms of circulation. Its editorial board stated, in part:

    While there are still questions left unanswered about GOP House hopeful Greg Gianforte's altercation with Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, eyewitness accounts, law enforcement investigations and records are all shocking, disturbing and without precedent.

    That's why The Billings Gazette editorial board is also doing something without precedent: We're rescinding our editorial endorsement of Greg Gianforte.

    Although we're greatly troubled by this action against a member of the media who was just doing his job, to make this an issue of media intrusion or even a passionate defense of the role of a free press during an election would be to miss the point.

    If what was heard on tape and described by eye-witnesses is accurate, the incident in Bozeman is nothing short of assault. We wouldn't condone it if it happened on the street. We wouldn't condone it if it happened in a home or even a late-night bar fight. And we couldn't accept it from a man who is running to become Montana's lone Congressional representative.

    The other two papers included the Missoulian of Missoula and the Independent Record of Helena, the state capital.

    The Independent Record stated, in part:

    Democracy cannot exist without a free press, and both concepts are under attack by Republican U.S. House Candidate Greg Gianforte.

    A reporter for the Guardian newspaper called Bozeman police Wednesday night to report that Gianforte had assaulted him at a barbecue for campaign volunteers. The reporter said he was “body slammed,” and a Fox News reporter said she saw the candidate grab him by the neck, slam him to the ground and punch him.

    We cannot condone that kind of violence.

    The reporter went to the hospital, and Gianforte has been cited for misdemeanor assault. And while we may not know all of the specifics of the incident until the investigation has concluded, we know that we can no longer support Gianforte’s candidacy.

    The Missoulian’s withdrawal added:

    Greg Gianforte should not represent Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Republican candidate for Congress not only lost the endorsement of this newspaper Wednesday night when, according to witnesses, he put his hands around the throat of a reporter asking him about his health care stance, threw him to the ground and punched him — he should lose the confidence of all Montanans.

  • Journalists and experts slam Trump's budget plan to eliminate HUD program that mostly benefits "low-income groups"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    While many conservative media voices have been cheering President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that would cut billions in vital programs for the impoverished and disadvantaged, experts and reporters who focus on one of the most far-reaching programs -- Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) -- say its proposed elimination would impact more citizens than most.

    Trump initially proposed eliminating the CDBG funds earlier this year when his budget blueprint was first announced. His full budget, released Tuesday, still includes a total CDBG elimination.

    The 42-year-old program, enacted by the Ford administration as a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), provides some $3 billion for local communities to use for everything from senior centers to housing and road construction to drug treatment, say experts.

    And when the cuts were first proposed in March, reporters who cover such programs contended that claims of waste and corruption in the funding are misleading.

    “They just think it's government waste, that these are slush funds of local officials and particularly that they were funneled to special projects,” Liz Farmer, public finance writer for Governing magazine in Washington, D.C., said of critics. “But the block grants hit everybody, particularly needy populations because that is what local governments tend to want to spend the money on.”

    Since Trump’s budget blueprint was revealed on March 16, many conservative commentators have cheered the spending plan for its efforts to cut programs from climate research to public broadcasting.

    Several have also taken on the CDBG program specifically. Among them is Reason magazine’s Scott Shackford, who wrote, “The CDBG program is chock full of cronyism and corruption and should be eliminated. Much like the corrupt city redevelopment agencies, what actually ends up happening is that this money gets funneled by politicians to friends with connections for various projects that aren't really about helping the poor at all.”

    Similar anti-CDBG pieces have been published at Breitbart.comWashington Examiner and The Washington Times.

    But those who rely on the funding, and others who report on it, say such claims are unfounded and the program actually helps more people in more places than many other federal funding sources do.

    “In Philly, they help residents who are facing foreclosure to keep their houses, foreclosure assistance, and for homeowners who are low-income and own their houses, they help with repairs of those houses,” Aubrey Whelan, a local government and community services reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, said when the cuts were initially revealed. “It is a lot for commercial development, aid to small businesses.”

    She said Philadelphia alone receives about $39 million in CDBG funds, with much of it going to affordable housing and providing assistance to small businesses in hard-hit low-income neighborhoods.

    “City officials said it would wholesale eliminate programs, not just have them operating at a limited capacity,” said Whelan. “It’s something that people are pretty concerned about here. It affects a lot of different people.”

    Whelan, Farmer, and other journalists we spoke with when the CDBG elimination was first proposed said they find little to no problems in CDBG management, contrary to claims found in conservative media.

    Most said the real story is how the cutbacks would hurt the most needy in many of their communities.

    “Palm Beach County has been using this funding to address underserved areas, to tackle homelessness and for vulnerable groups,” said Skyler Swisher of the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “If those funds are going to be cut, you are going to have some local officials who are not going to be very happy.”

    Swisher, who covers the county that is home to Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club, said the county receives about $5.8 million in CDBG funds each year, which has helped with abandoned building demolition, code enforcement, water and sewer improvements, and a homeless shelter's operation. It has also supported transitional housing for those impacted by domestic violence. 

    He also pointed out that the proposed cuts would come while Trump costs the county $60,000 per day in overtime for police officers every time he visits, according to the county sheriff’s office.

    “The biggest beneficiaries are some of the most low-income communities of Palm Beach County,” Swisher said of the grants.

    Another place that would feel the pain is El Paso, TX, which receives about $6 million in CDBG funds, according to Veronica Soto, the city’s director of community and human development.

    “We use the bulk of the money to do investments, reinvestments into low-income neighborhoods,” Soto said earlier this year. “We have funded improvements to parks in lower and moderate income areas, we have senior centers, we have done curb cuts, sidewalk gaps. It would mean those projects would not move forward. Because a lot of our money goes to parks, the kids would be impacted.”

    She said the Trump budget cuts would also mean cutting 33 city jobs, nine in her department.

    “I would have to lay myself off,” Soto said. “Seventy-five percent of my salary is from grants.”

    Kevin Howard, manager of the community development division for Little Rock, AR, said the cuts would affect about 10,000 people in his community.

    “The citizens benefit from this in different ways,” he said. “We do a lot of homeowner-occupied rehabs and public service grants for health services, meals on wheels, and private wheelchair ramps for senior citizens.”

    Asked about claims by some in the media that these programs are wasteful or mismanaged, he replied: “These are not handouts; these are people who cannot do it themselves. I have never seen any corruption or mismanagement.”

    Roland Garton, president of The Grant Helpers of Champagne, IL, a grant writing consulting firm that aids local communities in filing for such grants, said CDBG cuts would hurt the neediest.

    “Since they tend to target low-income groups, those would be the hardest hit,” Garton said. “This is money that big cities and small cities both have access to. There are a lot of programs that focus on one or the other. But these have broad applications to all cities. The hits would be broad. States that are weak economically would be hardest hit.”

    The proposed cuts have also been criticized by the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Republican Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. He issued a statement in March condemning the proposed cuts: 

    “Community Development Block Grants are the only federal funding source that gives city leaders some discretion in how the money is spent, and mayors have used them to leverage private investment, create affordable housing, spur economic development, rebuild infrastructure and provide services that strengthen metro areas. America’s mayors will continue to work with our many champions in both the House and Senate to ensure that critically-needed tools like CDBG funds and the HOME Investment Partnership are fully funded.”

  • Experts and Tribune Media unions raise concerns about Sinclair’s history of pushing conservative “propaganda”

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Sarah Wasko/Media Matters

    Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s recent purchase of Tribune Media is drawing serious concern from Tribune employees and their union leadership, as well as broadcasting experts who fear the company will continue its long history of aggressively slanting local news coverage to the right.

    Sinclair, now the nation’s largest owner of local television stations, announced earlier this month it will acquire more than 42 stations from Tribune Media, which will make the company more politically powerful than ever.

    The purchase includes stations in numerous markets in key swing states, and also includes three of the biggest independent news stations in the country in the three largest markets: WPIX in New York City, WGN in Chicago, and KTLA in Los Angeles. All three have strong news operations, while WGN also includes WGN America, a super cable station that serves many markets. (Some observers have speculated that Sinclair could try to turn WGN America into a Fox News competitor.)

    Sinclair's well-established pattern of using its stations to boost Republicans politically was on display during the 2016 election, when the company reportedly cut a deal with the Trump campaign for increased access in exchange for more Trump-friendly coverage. (The recent Tribune purchase was made possible thanks to Trump’s FCC commissioner rolling back a regulation designed to prevent excessive media consolidation.)

    Bob Daraio, a local representative for the NewsGuild of New York CWA Local 31003 -- which represents most WPIX writers and producers -- told Media Matters that Sinclair’s pattern of influencing coverage is worrisome to many of the union’s members.

    “Sinclair is a very right-wing, conservative, almost alt-right in their political beliefs,” Daraio said. “This brings a concern about objectivity. The fewer companies that own media outlets, the less diversity in the point of view that viewers get to see.”

    “Sinclair’s business model is going into a market, buying multiple stations, moving them all to one facility, and firing three quarters of the staff to get as much work with the fewest employees,” he added. “The concern about this media consolidation is it limits diversity. It also creates a barrier to entry into the business for smaller minority- and women-owned companies.”

    David Twedell is a business representative in charge of broadcast for International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, which represents two Tribune Media stations slated for Sinclair takeovers: KTLA in Los Angeles and WJW in Cleveland.

    He said members are concerned about Sinclair’s past actions and how that might affect their work environment.

    “Our employees are very nervous about the situation,” he said. “It is a combination of political influence and that Sinclair is extremely anti-union in dealing with its employees. What is it going to mean? It’s a concern and we will be scheduling a membership meeting to talk about it.”

    Twedell knows Sinclair’s approach well as a representative for two current Sinclair stations, KATU in Portland and KOMO in Seattle.

    Twedell has previously flagged concerns from union members about Sinclair’s practice of creating “must-run” videos with messages that the local stations are required to broadcast. As The Washington Post reported, in a “must-run” video from this March, Sinclair vice president for news Scott Livingston railed against members of the “national media” who “push their own personal bias,” and echoed Trump’s complaints about the mainstream media pushing “fake news stories.” (The New York Times did a larger look at Sinclair's use of conservative "must-run" commentaries last week, including a 2016 video "that suggested in part that voters should not support Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was historically pro-slavery.")

    “It is a matter of supreme frustration amongst everyone in the newsroom,” Twedell told Media Matters. “When they have these must-runs dropped into the programming, it definitely affects the credibility of the product, and that is something our people are nervous about.”

    Eric W. Chaudron, executive director of Chicago’s SAG-AFTRA local, which represents most WGN on-air employees, expressed concerns over excessive consolidation. 

    “We are watching the Sinclair/Tribune deal very closely. WGN TV is the flagship station of the Tribune Media Company, and it has always prided itself on locally focused news content. We are especially concerned that WGN TV continues to maintain its reputation as ‘Chicago’s Own’ station,” he said via email. “We have consistently expressed deep concern over the impact of deregulation and media consolidation on those who work in the industry. Moreover, we believe that professional broadcasters must always serve the public interest of maintaining a diversity of opinion and voices in the media.” Chaudron added, “We are encouraged by Sinclair’s statement that it plans to use the acquisition ‘to strengthen [its] commitment to serving local communities.’”

    Broadcasting experts and veterans, meanwhile, offered their own concerns given Sinclair’s history and political agenda.

    “They have an ideological position with news and they promote that in their local stations,” said Mark Effron, a clinical specialist in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University and a former WPIX vice president of news.                                                   

    He cited Sinclair’s hiring of Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign adviser, as an analyst last month.

    “During the campaign they ran stories that decidedly had a pro-Trump bent to them,” Effron said. “Some of the stations they are taking over have a proud history of reporting. Not only will they be the largest chain in America, but there is a focus and an ideological bent to what they are doing locally. That gives me great concern.”

    Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a former TV Guide editor and BuzzMachine creator, called some of Sinclair’s past actions “overtly propaganda.”

    “Yes, I worry about that,” he said in an interview. “In this case, when it is consolidated under a blatant or subtle ideological bent, I’m worried. It is influencing the world view of local reporting, how national agendas seep into local coverage; immigration, abortion, guns.”

    Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member for broadcast and online at The Poynter Institute, pointed to Sinclair’s decision in 2004 not to air an episode of Nightline that included images and names of Americans who died in the Iraq War on its seven ABC affiliates. The move drew a harsh rebuke from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

    “The Nightline episode was the flag in the ground, a really big shot that they are different. That’s a pretty big deal,” Tompkins said, later adding, “They do have some right-wing leanings, that’s for sure. … One of the telltale signs is if [Sinclair's conservative slant] shows up in the mid-term elections, that may be a chance for them to differentiate themselves.”                                               

    One veteran television reporter at a Tribune Media station who requested anonymity said, “Anytime you’re bought by somebody, you wonder, you worry about what’s coming. You’d rather have the devil you know versus the one you don’t. I’ve read the press clippings about their style, their bent in some markets.”

    A journalist at a separate Tribune Media station said the company's conservative history is a "concern." "You know about them,” the person added.

  • Press Advocates Appalled By Trump’s Reported Call To Jail Journalists

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Media law experts and journalism advocates are sounding the alarm about President Donald Trump's reported call to jail journalists for publishing classified information, saying the move amounts to “threatening to take away the right of free speech.”

    The New York Times reported that former FBI Director James Comey said Trump told him that he “should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The request reportedly happened during the now-infamous February meeting where Comey also claims he was asked to shut down the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump's alleged call to jail journalists is just the latest in his administration's ongoing and vicious war on the press.

    Several journalism veterans and legal experts expressed alarm over Trump’s reported comments, which they say go against decades of legal practice.

    “We never like to hear words like that coming out of the mouth of the leader of our country. It is an attack against the freedoms that are guaranteed in our country,” said Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “By saying you want to lock up journalists, you are threatening to take away the right of free speech, which is guaranteed in this country.”

    George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center and former vice president and assistant general counsel for The New York Times, said such an action would be unprecedented.

    “That would be a game changer because that has never happened before,” Freeman said. “That would change the whole balance between the government and the press in incalculable ways. It would be criminalizing behavior that goes on every day.”

    Lucy Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and current dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, said most prosecution of reporters has related to their refusal to reveal sources rather than the content of what they publish.

    “The government has never actually charged a journalist for publishing secrets, publishing national security information. They have always gone the route of charging the leaker, not the reporter,” Dalglish said. “It would have a dramatic and instant stifling effect on the flow of information about what is going on in that administration to the public. It would be almost instantaneous.”

    Freeman cited two historic examples of previous administrations seeking to stop the publication of information in The New York Times over what they considered to be classified or protected, the 1971 Pentagon Papers and the 2005 warrantless wiretapping story.

    “Bush and Cheney publicly said the Times should be prosecuted, but it never happened,” Freeman recalled of the 2005 issue. “It was so unprecedented.”

    He also pointed out that in the case of the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that publishing the secret report on the Vietnam War was not a violation of law.

    “The Supreme Court has said you can’t be punished for publishing something that’s truthful, that’s newsworthy, and that you did nothing illegal to obtain,” Freeman said.

    Freeman and other journalism veterans said that distinction, between prosecuting reporters for what they publish and not just their failure to reveal sources, is a key element of journalistic protection that Trump’s suggestion would destroy.

    “The uncertainty and the context in which these threats are made or attempted makes it a little more uncomfortable for journalists,” said Phil Bronstein, executive chair of The Center for Investigative Reporting and former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. “We ought to pay close attention to anyone who threatens the ability of reporters to do their job.”

    Bronstein recalled when two of his former Chronicle reporters, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, faced jail time in 2006 for failing to reveal sources in their exposé of BALCO, a Bay Area firm that was illegally distributing performance-enhancing drugs.

    The duo had reported on leaked testimony from the secret grand jury testimony of former San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds in which he admitted using banned substances. They were held in contempt of court and faced 18 months in prison for refusing to reveal the source of the leak. But the order was removed when the source came forward.

    Bronstein stressed that even in that case, the paper faced no punishment for reporting the leaked information, a standard Trump’s request would change drastically.

    “I think we have to be prepared for those things to happen,” Bronstein said. “Have good lawyers. Have great lawyers.”

    Bill Church, president of the Associated Press Media Editors, said Trump’s approach would actually hurt the public good: "Protecting the First Amendment shouldn't be a felony. Jailing journalists for looking after the public's interests makes as much sense as requiring Superman to get FAA clearance before saving the world."

    Trump’s suggestion also brought condemnation from Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who issued this statement:

    "The comments attributed to President Trump cross a dangerous line. But no president gets to jail journalists. Reporters are protected by judges and juries, by a congress that relies on them to stay informed, and by a Justice Department that for decades has honored the role of a free press by spurning prosecutions of journalists for publishing leaks of classified information. 

    "Comments such as these, emerging in the way they did, only remind us that every day public servants are reaching out to reporters to ensure the public is aware of the risks today to rule of law in this country. The president’s remarks should not intimidate the press but inspire it."

    Two of the top newspaper editors in the U.S. also spoke out against Trump’s idea.

    Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron told the Times, “Suggesting that the government should prosecute journalists for the publication of classified information is very menacing, and I think that’s exactly what they intend. … It’s an act of intimidation.”

    Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, meanwhile, told the Post that Trump “doesn’t understand our role. He wants ‘Fox & Friends’ coverage instead.”

  • Law School Dean: Trump's Comey Actions “Are Evidence Of Obstruction Of Justice”

    Legal Experts See A Potentially Impeachable Offense In Trump's Comey Conduct


    Congress could consider actions taken by President Donald Trump regarding former FBI Director James Comey to constitute obstruction of justice warranting impeachment, legal experts tell Media Matters.

    Trump has been embroiled in controversy over his firing of Comey, who was leading an FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin.

    On May 16, The New York Times published a bombshell report stating that “President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.”

    The memo purports that Trump said to Comey, “I hope you can let this go.”

    Last week, Trump himself admitted to NBC’s Lester Holt that when he was deciding whether to fire Comey, he was thinking about “this Russia thing,” which he declared a “made-up story.”

    Trump’s conservative media allies -- especially those on Fox News -- have been defending and excusing the president’s actions, arguing that Trump did nothing wrong and ridiculing journalists for supposedly overreacting.

    While right-wing media are trying to convince people that what Trump did is no big deal, experts disagree.

    Legal scholars who spoke to Media Matters explained that impeachment of a president is a political matter. While a federal statute exists defining obstruction of justice, it would be up to Congress to decide whether Trump’s alleged obstruction of the Russia investigation warrants impeachment as a “high crime or misdemeanor,” of which there is “no settled definition.” (Both Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were charged by Congress with obstruction of justice during impeachment proceedings.)

    Legal experts told Media Matters that Trump’s conduct could be seen by Congress as obstruction of justice, and Congress could impeach Trump on those grounds.

    Erwin Chemerinsky, the newly named dean of Berkeley Law, told Media Matters via email that Trump’s actions “are evidence of obstruction of justice” and that the current situation is “very comparable to what caused Nixon to resign.”

    “Obstruction of justice occurs when one ‘obstructs, influences or impedes any official proceeding.’ I think that this warrants a thorough investigation. Certainly a felony is a basis for impeachment. Whether the majority of the House will vote articles of impeachment is a different question,” Chemerinsky added.

    Victoria Nourse, a Georgetown University Law Center (GULC) professor and former Obama nominee to the Seventh Circuit, said via email that both actions taken by Trump vis-a-vis Comey could be seen by Congress as obstruction of justice and that those actions could serve as grounds for impeachment.

    Regarding Trump’s reported request for Comey to “let it go” concerning the investigation of Flynn, Nourse said, “Of course, in a criminal case, you would have to show POTUS had the ‘intent’ to obstruct, but his own words are making that easier every day.”

    “The opposition will deny it, but it’s hard to understand what he meant by ‘letting’ the investigation ‘go’ ... if he did not mean to end it. Perhaps the Comey memo will reveal more.”

    John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, explained that recent comments by Trump could be seen as obstruction of justice because Trump “explained his state of mind with Lester Holt when he fired [Comey], that this was a phony investigation.”

    Asked whether this conduct could be impeachable, Dean responded, “It is, historically. You can make the case that Nixon was impeached for impeding the FBI inquiry into Watergate.” He added, “It is kind of a direct parallel, having the CIA go to the FBI and tell them to shut down is just a little more indirect than Trump saying can you not investigate Flynn, which is the import of that message when he and Comey are speaking.”

    David Pozen, a professor of law at Columbia Law School, told Media Matters that if the “serious charges” against Trump “are correct, they look like plausible violations of the president’s Constitutional oath and therefore impeachable offenses.” He added, “But it depends on the facts and, realistically, it depends on the politics.”

    Stressing that “impeachment is not a matter decided by judges, it is a political matter decided by representatives,” constitutional law professor Louis Michael Seidman at GULC told Media Matters, “It seems entirely possible that [Trump] made the advance to Comey and fired him because he wanted to stop the investigation because he was afraid of what it would turn up.”

    “If that were true, then it would be obstruction of justice,” he concluded.

  • Experts: Trump's New Voter Fraud Commission Could Be Used To Suppress Legal Votes

    "We should be focusing on ways to make it easier, not harder, to vote"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    President Donald Trump’s new commission on “election integrity” is drawing complaints from experts who continue to point out that no evidence exists for Trump’s ongoing claims of widespread voter fraud. 

    For years, conservative media have been overhyping evidence-free allegations of systemic voter fraud in the U.S., often as a pretense to argue for restrictive voter ID laws and other policies that inevitably suppress voting.

    Following his surprising Electoral College win, Trump sought to explain away his popular vote loss by claiming he would have gotten the majority of votes had “millions” of illegal votes not been tallied for Clinton, a conspiracy theory that had been popularized by Alex Jones’ Infowars website.

    This week, Trump signed an executive order forming a “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity,” in part to examine "improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting,” as well as voter suppression. The vice chair of the commission is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has repeatedly been criticized for his crusade over the issue.

    While the move was predictably cheered by the usual suspects in conservative media outlets, experts on the issue are sounding the alarm, saying the commission is a solution in search of a problem and that it could be used to suppress legal votes.  

    “In general I think the commission is unnecessary,” University of Kentucky College of Law professor Joshua Douglas said via email. “We already know there is not much fraud in the system, and certainly not to the level that Trump has suggested. And having Mike Pence and Kris Kobach lead it means it will have no credibility whatsoever.”

    He added, “Trump will no doubt try to use this commission to support further voter suppression measures. Instead we should be focusing on ways to make it easier, not harder, to vote.”

    Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers University professor and author of the 2010 book The Myth of Voter Fraud, said, “I think they want to try to create whatever kind of record they think they can create for a justification to propose amendments to tighten up and require nationwide what Kansas requires with proof of citizenship. And who knows what else they would dream up to make it hard to vote.”

    She continued, “It is a pattern we have seen more flagrantly over the past 15 years to promote the idea that voter fraud is rampant in America. There are always some problems with a federal election, but there is just no evidence that voter fraud is rampant.”

    Bill Schneider, a former CNN senior political analyst and current professor of public policy at George Mason University, said there “is just no evidence” to support claims of widespread voter fraud.

    “What’s happening here is that Trump has an obsession,” Schneider said. “He can’t get over the fact that Hillary Clinton won a plurality. He wants to destroy that notion and establish the fact that he is the legitimate winner. He is taking every step he can to try to demonstrate that notion.”

    Michael McDonald, director of the U.S. Election Project at the University of Florida -- who has been involved in the ACLU’s legal action against Kobach – offered skepticism of the commission’s work.

    “I’m skeptical given Trump’s recent statements, his firing of Comey,” McDonald said. “The integrity of this commission itself will be suspect because it likely won’t have the ability to look independently, or to look at Trump’s claims that there were 3 to 5 million illegal votes.”

    The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed several legal challenges in Kansas targeting Kobach’s efforts to limit voting rights and prosecute alleged fraudulent voters, said it has filed a Freedom of Information Act request "seeking information that the Trump administration is using as the basis for its voter fraud claims."

    “President Trump is attempting to spread his own fake news about election integrity,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement about the commission. “Such claims have been widely debunked, but he is still trying to push his false reality on the American public. It is telling that the president’s choice to co-lead the commission is none other than Kris Kobach, one of the worst offenders of voter suppression in the nation today. If the Trump administration really cares about election integrity, it will divulge its supposed evidence before embarking on this commission boondoggle.”