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John Whitehouse

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  • What the Seth Rich conspiracy theory is, why it matters, and why Sean Hannity must be the one to pay the price

    Enough with the bullshit

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Media Matters

    Political operatives have dishonestly seized on a murder to undercut the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election -- and Sean Hannity has been the point person for that cynical campaign, a lead steer for the nonsense.

    Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer, was murdered July 10, 2016. Within days, initially at the behest of anonymous users on Reddit and 4chan, his murder would be used as the basis for a massive right-wing conspiracy theory, with the eventual purpose of undermining and discrediting the notion that Russia illicitly interfered in the 2016 presidential election in part by hacking DNC, DCCC, and John Podesta emails that WikiLeaks later published. And no one has done more to push this conspiracy theory than Fox News host Sean Hannity -- even after Fox News retracted a story about it that was published on its website.

    Hannity had long dabbled in conspiracy theories about Seth Rich’s murder, but he went into overdrive when, on May 15, Fox 5 DC and FoxNews.com ran stories linking Rich to WikiLeaks based largely on the statements of then-Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler. This was just days after former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to Congress about Russian interference.

    In the week after that story was published (and quickly fell apart), Hannity repeatedly pushed the conspiracy theory on his television show, his radio show, and his Twitter account. Rich was referenced numerous times on his Fox News television show, and the story was hinted at in countless others.

    Hannity’s coverage was so relentless that he was condemned by some of his coworkers, who reportedly told The Daily Beast that the host was “‘embarrassing’ the network, and the promotion of the Rich conspiracy theory is senselessly cruel to a grieving family.” Rich’s brother personally asked Hannity to stop pushing the conspiracy theories.

    During all this, Hannity repeatedly made clear that he was pushing the story because it undermined the Trump/Russian narrative. (In fact, Hannity went back to the story in June and made the same point.)

    After more than a week of flogging this nonsense, Hannity said on his television show that he would stop talking about Rich “for now.” Minutes later, he promised on Twitter to keep going:

    All this unfolded in the public sphere and proves Sean Hannity’s volatility. And look: Sean Hannity has long been a serial misinformer who has pushed lies and dishonest smears. He has been completely shameless in shilling for the far-right. Hannity has toyed around with basically every conspiracy theory that the far-right has proffered.

    But now we have evidence that the deceit goes even deeper. And while Hannity is not named as a defendant, his story is inseparable from the story at hand.

    We know that political operative Ed Butowsky played a key role in the retracted Fox story that set Hannity off on his conspiracy crusade in May. According to a lawsuit filed by Wheeler -- the Fox News contributor who served as a key source for the claims connecting Wikileaks to Rich in the May 15 Fox story -- that story was the product of a cynical attempt by Ed Butowsky, Fox News, and the White House “to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration's ties to the Russian government.” And once that story was published, Hannity was its chief promoter.

    We know that Butowsky coordinated for him and Wheeler to meet then-press secretary Sean Spicer in the White House. We know that Butowsky sent talking points to Fox News hosts and producers detailing how to talk about the conspiracy theory in a way that undermined the reporting from credible outlets about Russian interference in the election. We know that in the days after Butowsky sent that message, his words were repeated once on Fox & Friends and multiple times on Hannity.

    In short, we know that Hannity is not just a dishonest, volatile pro-Trump hack, but that he is a dangerous propagandist willing to do or say anything to shore up Trump support with his audience on a daily basis. Nothing Hannity says, to his audience or advertisers, can ever be trusted. He is both post-factual and post-ethical. There is nowhere that Sean Hannity will not go for political convenience. When Hannity takes to the air, there is nothing that he will not aid or abet to help Trump.

    Journalism, regardless of its political consequences, deserves extensive protection from financial retaliation. Propaganda does not. And Sean Hannity is a rank propagandist. As Angelo Carusone wrote, if Fox News executives choose to not do the right thing and fire Sean Hannity, the obligation is on sponsors and the people at large to force their hand.

    Enough is enough.

  • Bret Stephens and MSNBC’s hiring spree: The network keeps moving right

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Update: MSNBC and Greta Van Susteren have agreed to part ways.

    MSNBC is now a pasture for pseudo-intellectual conservatives. Climate denier and Iraq War booster Bret Stephens is just the latest right-wing hire at the network.

    In recent months NBC News Chairman Andy Lack has overseen a hiring spree of right-wing pundits and former Fox News personalities. The stable includes Hugh Hewitt, Megyn Kelly, Charlie Sykes, Greta Van Susteren, and George Will. They join other conservatives at the network: Elise Jordan, Steve Schmidt, Michael Steele, Rick Tyler, Nicolle Wallace, and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. This is to say nothing of NBC News contributor and Trump apologist Mark Halperin; and given their frequent appearances, it may be just a matter of time until David Frum, a speechwriter for then-President George W. Bush, former George W. Bush chief of staff Andy Card, and neocon Bill Kristol join the network as well.

    Compared to CNN’s boorish Trumpists or the state media apparatchiks at Fox News, the common thread among MSNBC conservatives is a certain pretentious shine. They’re frequently just arguing that President Donald Trump is the wrong type of conservative, when in fact Trump is the apotheosis of everything conservatism has been careening toward for some time. (The exception is Hugh Hewitt, who is now just a huge Trump booster after vacillating during the campaign.) 

    Many of these hires have direct, intimate connections to Bush, the most disastrous president in decades. Card, Frum, Jordan, and Wallace worked in the Bush administration, and Stephens, Kristol, Will, Scarborough, and Hewitt were all huge cheerleaders for the Iraq War. And that history matters. Two major media institutions, including a newspaper of record, are now paying Stephens essentially just to troll liberals with climate denial and to push America towards a war with Iran.

    You can separate Lack’s hiring spree into two buckets: pundits and brands. Neither offer much value in the long run. In this media environment, opinions are cheap (including mine!). Everyone has one and most of them stink. There’s no long-term return on opinions (and no lack of people wanting to get on TV to share theirs).

    Adding brands like Megyn Kelly or Greta Van Susteren is equally pointless. It’s no wonder that both of these shows have failed. There’s simply no audience for them outside the Fox News bubble. Particularly with Kelly, NBC News executives seem completely unaware that her entire show at Fox News was built around racial dog-whistling (with occasional moments of bucking the party line).

    Also, as Ryan Grim noted, it is the progressive shows that Lack hasn’t touched that are succeeding the most.

    Rather than spending all this money on right-wing pundits and big names, the true value-add for news networks now is reliable and aggressive journalism. That’s hard to do. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. But it’s ultimately what will define NBC News and MSNBC.

  • How the murder of a DNC staffer turned into a right-wing conspiracy

    The story goes through nearly everyone in right-wing media: Sean Hannity, Roger Stone, Louise Mensch, Megyn Kelly, Jim Hoft, Julian Assange, and more

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    It started with a late night walk on July 10, 2016. Seth Rich was talking with his girlfriend while walking through the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., when there was some sort of altercation. Rich was shot multiple times and died shortly thereafter.

    Nearly a year later, his death has become a cause célèbre among right-wing media and the fringiest elements of pro-Trump media, simply because he worked as a staffer for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

    The conspiracy theories started immediately. The day after Rich was killed, a Twitter user connected the murder with a lawsuit filed by Bernie Sanders supporters against the DNC. (This lawsuit would later be the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories after the death of a process server that the coroner would later conclude was caused by accidental polypharmacy, or a combination of drugs.)

    The first right-wing version of the conspiracy theory was about confirming right-wing allegations against the Clinton Foundation. On July 13, conspiracy theory website WhatDoesItMean.com (previously cited by pro-Trump media) ran a piece, sourced to the Kremlin, claiming that Rich thought he was on his way to meet with the FBI about the Clinton Foundation when a “hit team” put in place by the Clintons killed him. The article also linked the conspiracy theory with two Russian diplomats who were expelled by the United States two days before Rich’s murder, and it concluded by claiming the hit team was captured on July 12 in Washington, D.C. The actual police events of July 12 had nothing to do with any of this. On July 14, Snopes debunked this conspiracy theory.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On July 22, WikiLeaks released 20,000 emails that had been stolen from the DNC, and Redditors immediately started guessing that Rich was the source of those emails. Heat Street, a News Corp. publication then run by Louise Mensch, ran a roundup of these rumors. In the post, Heat Street simply went through the “r/The_Donald” subreddit, listing different conspiracy theories that users had come up with, even comparing one theory to the work of mathematician John Nash and the movie A Beautiful Mind. Heat Street had also mentioned the FBI rumor in the bottom of a previous post about Rich’s murder, noting that there was no evidence to substantiate it.

    The one entity that did claim to be the WikiLeaks source was Guccifer 2.0. As The New York Times explained on July 27, while American intelligence services believed Guccifer 2.0 to be a front for Russian spies, the hacker claimed to be Romanian. In the report, the Times detailed evidence linking the emails to Russia, including “metadata hidden in the early documents indicating that they were edited on a computer with Russian language settings.”


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Notorious dirty trickster Roger Stone, a contributor to Alex Jones' conspiracy theory website Infowars, and WikiLeaks began pushing the conspiracy theory in earnest in August. In an August 8 tweet, Stone included Rich in a group of four murdered people for whom he blamed the Clintons, referencing the FBI version of the conspiracy theory. A day later, WikiLeaks announced that it was offering $20,000 for information, and founder Julian Assange himself brought up Rich unprompted on a Dutch TV program, implying that Rich was a source. The host was taken aback by Assange’s suggestion and tried to push him on what he was implying, but Assange did not clarify his remark:

    Pro-Trump media jumped on the interview. Mike Cernovich immediately promoted the interview while stating point-blank that Rich was the source -- something that even Assange never said. On August 10, Hannity discussed the interview on his radio show, saying that it wasn’t the Russians who gave WikiLeaks the information. Later in the show, he discussed the matter with Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft and Townhall’s Rachel Alexander. Hoft was befuddled as to why the Rich family would not want the matter politicized, saying that it could only increase the information about the murder.

    Also on August 10, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson published a video about Assange’s implication, expressing concern that Assange could be assassinated:

    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also jumped on Assange’s interview on the same day, telling Mike Gallagher on August 10 that the conspiracy theory was “worth talking about.”

    WikiLeaks also issued a similarly vague statement on August 10.

    On August 11, WikiLeaks started sowing distrust in Rich’s family when it tweeted that the family’s spokesperson was a “professional Democrat” -- even though the same could be said for Rich himself.

    In the days that followed, Infowars ramped up its coverage. Watson cited a “source close to the Democratic party” who said his reporting was “on the money.” Infowars dutifully picked up Gingrich’s interview and used it to confirm its own assertions. The conspiracy theory site was particularly incensed that the Rich family would hire a spokesperson to quash conspiracy theories. And it went on to publish multiple pieces about Rich that included accounts of WikiLeaks’ assertions and implications about Rich.

    Assange would resurface and again hint that Rich was his source on the August 25 edition of The Kelly File, again declaring his interest in the case without actually saying anything about Rich himself. While Laura Ingraham and some others ran with what Assange said to Kelly File host Megyn Kelly, Fox host Greg Gutfeld hit Assange for pushing the conspiracy theory -- to the distaste of fellow Fox host Eric Bolling:

    The conspiracy theory machine would turn away from Rich for most of September and October, though during this time Hannity frequently talked with Assange on his radio show, eager for new leaks that could be damaging to Clinton. In September, Rich’s girlfriend and his family spoke with Chris Hansen of Crime Watch Daily about the case, condemning the claims. GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman also began working with the Rich family at this time, offering more than $100,000 in rewards for information. Burkman would later say that he could “rule out attempted robbery” based on his canvassing of the neighborhood.

    On October 7, The Daily Beast reported that “Russia’s senior-most officials” ordered the DNC hack. On November 2, fake news purveyor DC Gazette published a post saying that WikiLeaks’ source was neither Russia nor Seth Rich, but instead dissatisfied government staffers. On December 9, The Washington Post reported on a CIA assessment that Russia was behind leaks targetting the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.

    This Post story would touch off a new round of conspiracy theories about Rich, and once again they began with Louise Mensch’s Heat Street. On December 14, the site aggregated comments on Twitter saying that it was Seth Rich and not Russia that provided WikiLeaks with the emails. The piece offered no theory as to how Rich could have gotten access to DCCC or Podesta emails; indeed, it’s unclear from the story if the author even understood that there were multiple hacks, even though Mensch herself turned up in the hacked Podesta emails (which the piece did not disclose). Weeks after this post, it was announced that Mensch had left Heat Street in “mid-December.” There is no indication if Mensch was still at Heat Street when this post was published.

    On December 15, Craig Murray, a “close associate” of Julian Assange, told the Daily Mail that he was a middleman for the leaks and that the handoff took place in D.C. in September. People immediately began tying Rich to Murray, even though Murray’s supposed handoff date (of which there was no evidence) took place months after Rich was murdered.

    Later that day on the radio, Hannity would cite Murray’s account as evidence that Russians were not behind the hacking. Later in the program, Hannity brought up Fox contributor John Bolton’s conspiracy theory from December 12 that if something looked like it was the Russians hacking, it might actually be a false flag in which someone made it look like it was the Russians. Assange agreed with the theory on Hannity’s show: 

    Hannity also called Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) an “idiot” for saying that Russians were involved in hacking:

    Weeks later, on January 3, Hannity returned to Rich, again saying that Rich may have been the source for Wikileaks:

    On January 6, U.S. officials released a report saying that Russians were behind the hacking. Suddenly, Hannity admitted that Russians have been hacking Americans for years:

    On January 12, Guccifer 2.0 denied the report that Russia was behind the hacking.

    Once again, the conspiracy mill died down, with occasional posts on 4chan and Reddit keeping the conspiracy theory alive.

    On February 27, Jack Burkman, the GOP lobbyist who at one point was allied with the Rich family, told the Daily Mail that he had evidence that the Russians killed Rich because Rich had evidence that they were the ones behind the hacking. Burkman’s only source was a “former U.S. intelligence officer” -- “an older man, 65-70 years old, who claims to have been a contractor in Iraq in the 1970s.” None of Rich’s friends or family members have given any indication that Rich had such an explosive secret.

    In mid-March, Stone admitted contact with Guccifer 2.0, but he claimed it was innocuous.

    On March 23, Burkman talked to Sinclair station WJLA in Washington, D.C., about launching a new investigation. Claiming that the investigation would be launched out of “the Seth Rich Center for Investigations” in Arlington, VA, Burkman now claimed to have a team including “a forensic physiologist, a security specialist and George Washington grad students.” But the piece also noted that the Rich family had no part in this effort.

    On April 8, a new conspiracy theory emerged alleging that Guccifer 2.0 was the middleman between RIch and WikiLeaks. Model Robbin Young published screenshots on her website of a purported direct message conversation she had with Guccifer 2.0 from August 25. In it, Guccifer 2.0 claimed that the DNC leak came from someone named “Seth” and responded affirmatively when Young talked about Rich’s murder. WikiLeaks, the subreddit “r/The Donald,” Gateway Pundit, Heat Street, and others immediately ran with the claim.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The conspiracy theory came to its most public stage on May 15. That was a week after Obama intelligence chief James Clapper and former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified before the Senate partially on issues relating to Russian hacking, days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey as a result of the Russian investigation, and hours after The Washington Post reported that Trump gave highly classified information to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that compromised a valuable intelligence source.

    On that day, Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler told Fox 5 DC, a station owned and operated by Fox News’ parent company, that he had evidence that Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.

    Sean Hannity pushed the story on his Twitter account shortly after midnight, including by quote-tweeting a vague allegedly hacked email of Podesta’s:

    After retweeting a video of the Fox 5 segment, Hannity affirmatively quote-tweeted someone claiming that Assange had previously said that Rich was his source (which, again, Assange had never actually said).

    The story exploded as conservatives latched onto a tale that ostensibly showed that the focus on Russia was misplaced. Drudge put the story on the top of the site. The subreddit “r/The Donald” went crazy. Pro-Trump media pushed the story hard. Fox News joined in on Tuesday morning. By 10 a.m., Hannity was lashing out at CNN's Oliver Darcy for noticing the trend.

    Hannity then quote-tweeted Robbin Young, whose story about Seth Rich was different from the one Wheeler was pushing and that Hannity was touting. (Guccifer 2.0 claimed that they served as the middleman between Rich and Wikileaks; Assange had implied and Wheeler had stated that Rich was in touch with WikiLeaks directly.) At no point then or later did Hannity ever seem to notice the discrepancy.

    At one point, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson even claimed that the Washington Post story about Trump giving highly classified information to the Russians was a hoax intended to cover up the Rich story -- a claim based on Watson completely misreading time stamps on the stories (the Post’s went up before the Fox 5 piece did).

    But soon, the Rich story fell completely apart. The Fox station admitted on May 16 that D.C. police said that Wheeler’s claim was false. Wheeler’s contact with the Rich family turned out to be frequent Fox News guest and Breitbart author Ed Butowsky. Wheeler himself admitted to CNN that he actually had no evidence. Wheeler instead claimed that his comments were reflective of the FoxNews.com piece that ran. Fox News’ piece, by Malia Zimmerman, cited Wheeler as the source of the claim.

    And yet, the transparent bullshit was still enough for pro-Trump media. On May 16, echoing Benghazi conspiracy theories, Gateway Pundit claimed there was a “stand down” order given to police regarding the Rich investigation. An “alt-right” troll asked Trump himself about Rich in the White House, getting no response. Anonymous posts on 4chan linked Rich to Pizzagate, Antonin Scalia’s death, Michael Hastings’ death, and even Media Matters. An anonymous post on 8chan even suggested that Rich was illegally surveilled and then improperly unmasked by former national security adviser Susan Rice.

    Lou Dobbs on Fox Business picked up the line of attack on Rich’s family that had previously begun with WikiLeaks and Infowars, saying there was “a partisan shroud” on Rich’s family:

    Later on May 16, Hannity even declared that Rich’s murder “could become one of the biggest scandals in American history”:

    Later in the show, Hannity talked with American Center for Law and Justice’s Jay Sekulow and former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, focusing on the media being wrong about Russia. Hannity continually brought Rich into the conversation:

    Hannity then had Wheeler himself on the show. Wheeler continued pushing the conspiracy theory, even while admitting that he never had seen the evidence.

    The next day, even more claims collapsed. Newsweek reported that the FBI is not investigating Rich’s death, contra Wheeler’s claims, and a family spokesperson confirmed that D.C. police found no evidence of stolen emails ever being on Rich’s laptop. Fox 5 added an editor’s note that Wheeler had backtracked from claims that he made, but it did not retract the story. The story was in shambles. The Rich family demanded full retractions from Fox 5 and Fox News.

    Still, conservative media persisted.

    On May 18, after Mediaite published a post highlighting people mocking Hannity, Hannity again tweeted his belief in the conspiracy.

    Hannity then discussed the case at length on his show, re-airing Assange’s Dutch TV interview and previous radio interviews.

    On May 19, the Rich family sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rod Wheeler.

    The Russian Embassy in the U.K. trolled everyone when it stated as a fact that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source. Meanwhile, Infowars claimed that The Washington Post was reporting on the Comey memos only as a distraction from the Rich story.

    May 19 is also when Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom inserted himself into the story. Dotcom alleged that he had bombshell information on the case. As Dotcom, who lives in New Zealand, is fighting extradition to the United States to avoid trial for charges including conspiracy to commit racketeering, nearly everyone on the planet saw through the ruse, save for Sean Hannity.

    Hannity brought up the conspiracy theory again that night on his show with Jay Sekulow, apparently just for the purpose of saying that it is important because if true, it would clear Russia entirely.

    Over the weekend, it got even stranger.

    Stone escalated attacks on Rich’s parents, claiming on his radio show Stone Cold Truth they were engaging in “suspicious” behavior.

    Stone also told obvious lies. For instance, he claimed that Craig Murray said Rich was his source. First, Murray did not mention Rich in his comments about serving as a middleman for the emails. Second, Murray said he met his source in September, months after Rich had already been murdered. Third, nothing about what Murray actually did say is credible in the least -- there’s no evidence and nothing has been corroborated. There were other factual errors as well, though “Roger Stone says something factually incorrect” is the rule, not the exception.

    “Dumbest man on the internet” Jim Hoft jumped head-first into the Dotcom conspiracy, even one-upping Hannity by picking up an anonymous 4chan poster whose only claim to knowledge is “I work in D.C.” The post claimed there’s a “panic” in D.C. over the Rich conspiracy theory that right-wing media had been pressing.

    The following day, Hannity would echo this post:

    Hannity even admitted that it was about the Russia story:

    Also on Sunday, Newt Gingrich joined Fox & Friends Sunday and stated outright that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source for DNC emails, even though he had avoided that conclusion in August. Pro-Trump media jumped to promote the interview.

    Another Gateway Pundit post took a video that the Rich family did thanking donors to a GoFundMe campaign and stated that it was actually done to thank conservative media for pushing the conspiracy.

    Elsewhere, self-described “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone said that someone had edited Rich’s Reddit posts. Soon after, she added a “retraction” note to the post following a statement from the Pandas For Bernie Facebook group.

    Early on May 22, Assange was still playing coy about Rich and WikiLeaks

    But by this point, the story was getting attention in the mainstream media -- but only as a conspiracy theory run amok in right-wing media. As Hannity’s conspiracy-mongering had drawn attention, he became a focal point of criticism. The Daily Beast ran a story about Fox News personalities embarrassed by Hannity’s actions.

    Hannity was undeterred:

    On his radio show, Hannity said that he was right about Rich because he had been right about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot and killed while walking through a Florida neighborhood:

    (He wasn’t right about Trayvon Martin, by the way.)

    Geraldo Rivera, a perpetual gadfly when it comes to pushing terrible things, also jumped on the conspiracy.

    Elsewhere, the subreddit “r/The Donald” announced plans for a march on D.C. about Rich’s death on its anniversary, claiming 1.1 million people could show up.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On May 23, everything came to a head. Rich’s brother personally asked Hannity to stop pushing the conspiracy theories. Shortly thereafter, Fox News retracted its story about Rich, the one that Rod Wheeler originally cited as the basis for his story. A statement from Fox News said that the story did not meet the site’s editorial standards.

    And yet after all of this, Hannity continued to push the story on his radio show.

    On Twitter, Hannity ecstatically promoted Kim Dotcom’s “revelation,” which was a big nothingburger.

    The Rich family then published an op-ed in The Washington Post begging commentators to stop pushing conspiracy theories about their son.

    Hannity then tweeted about the op-ed as if it wasn’t just about him

    Shortly before his television show, Hannity tweeted that he still stood behind everything he had said on the topic, but also that he just was on a call with three of his attorneys:

    On his show, Hannity said that he was stopping talking about the matter “for now” at the request of the Rich family:

    And yet before his show was over, Hannity hinted on Twitter that he was still looking at the story.

    He even retweeted gratuitous praise from Kim Dotcom.

    Meanwhile, Oliver Darcy, who followed the story closely from the beginning, had a list of good unanswered questions for Fox News about Hannity’s despicable and ghoulish actions.

    Hannity then begged for fans to spread the conspiracy theory.

    By morning, a Republican congressman was echoing Hannity.

    Newt Gingrich, after pushing the conspiracy both in August and again on May 21, suddenly said that he didn’t know anything about it, telling The Washington Post, “I don’t know anything about it. … I know exactly what has been said on the various blog sites. ... I think it is worth looking at.”

    The retractions and hedging were much too little and far too late. In the bowels of pro-Trump media, Hannity had become a martyr and the Seth Rich conspiracy theory was gospel.

    The enduring tragedy of the episode is that the Rich family will likely have to live with this delusion bubbling up for a very long time. Even worse, pro-Trump media will say that they are part of it.

    No family deserves that.

    Research assistance provided by Bobby Lewis

  • Fox News shrugs while Sean Hannity has a meltdown over Seth Rich conspiracy

    Hannity is a loose cannon

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    After going to the wall for a week on the email hack conspiracy theory about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, Fox News' Sean Hannity suddenly said Tuesday night that he was going to stop pushing it “for now.”

    The hollowness of Hannity’s line was immediately apparent. Minutes after saying that he would stop "out of respect for the family's wishes,” indeed even before his show was over, Hannity returned to the conspiracy theory on Twitter.

    Hours later, Hannity retweeted praise from Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, who is furiously fighting extradition from his home in New Zealand to the United States, adding a #Justice4SethRich hashtag.

    (Earlier yesterday, Dotcom had posted an evidence-free document purporting that Rich was involved in the hacking of DNC emails.)

    Hannity then asked his followers to retweet his promise to stay on the story.

    In the morning, Hannity went on a Twitter tirade against Media Matters.

    He also promised again to stay on the Seth Rich story.

    Meanwhile, Fox News is letting Hannity go wild with no apparent repercussions for pushing the vile conspiracy theory, which has caused great pain for Rich’s family. NBC’s Thomas Roberts reported that one source at Fox News simply said, “Hannity beats to his own drum.”

    This statement from someone at Fox comports with previous reporting about Hannity’s status at Fox. Oliver Darcy reported for Business Insider in 2016 that Hannity was “living on an island of his own” at Fox News. Apparently that's so true that he can brazenly boast that he’ll keep entertaining his obsession with a stale 4chan conspiracy even though it undermines Fox’s public statements. The networks' attempts to walk back the Hannity-fueled mess has left his colleagues ashamed to work with him.  

    This isn’t the first time Hannity has put his own interests ahead of Fox News’. In 2016, Hannity appeared in a Trump campaign ad without permission from his employer. In 2014, Hannity used his Fox News show to promote a paid sponsor of his radio show, which is tantamount to theft in the media business.

  • Bill O’Reilly Once Called For Advertisers To Boycott Outlets That Called Out His Sexual Harassment

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE

    Over 80 advertisers issued public statements confirming that they removed ads from Bill O’Reilly’s show in the wake of revelations about multiple settlements for sexual harassment totalling over $13 million (with dozens more quietly taking the action or keeping them off in the first place). Even the CEO of Fox News’ parent company reportedly wants O’Reilly off the air permanently.

    A decade ago, O’Reilly himself pushed for advertisers to drop media outlets after they mentioned his 2004 sexual harassment settlement with former associate producer Andrea Mackris, calling them “smear merchants” and even accusing one of defending child predators.

    O’Reilly’s website still maintains a list of “Media Outlets that Traffic in Defamation,” and urges readers not to “patronize or advertise with” them. O’Reilly added several of the listed outlets after they referenced the 2004 settlement.

    In March of 2006, O’Reilly added the Dayton Daily News to his “don’t buy, don’t advertise list,” saying the "Dayton Daily News personally attacked" him. Editor Jeff Bruce responded, explaining that O’Reilly was furious that the paper referred to O’Reilly’s sexual harassment settlement, and had used that as a pretext to accuse the paper of “sympathy for child rapists”:

    "Mr. O'Reilly is upset with the newspaper because in an editorial we referred to his own recent legal history in which he was accused of sexual harassment. His producer threatened that unless we published an apology they would resort to their 'bully pulpit.' That's what they've done. This isn't about being 'soft' on child molesters. It's about Bill O'Reilly getting even.

    [...]

    His producer, in a conversation with me, acknowledged the logic of our editorial's argument. But they felt dragging O'Reilly's own legal problems into the article was gratuitous. While I expected O'Reilly to take a shot at us, I was shocked that he would suggest that this newspaper 'has sympathy for child rapists.' That is a deliberate distortion of what we said and what we stand for, and nothing could be further from the truth."

    A month later, O’Reilly added the Syracuse Post-Standard to his boycott list, after an editorial in the paper ran a quiz that referenced O’Reilly’s sexual harassment settlement.

    In December 2006, O’Reilly added The Roanoke Times to the list after editorial page editor Daniel Radmacher wrote a column ridiculing O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas” “nonsense” that was “manufactured in 2004 by that sanctimonious hypocrite Bill O'Reilly to bump up ratings -- and maybe distract attention from that whole unfortunate sexual harassment/phone sex episode."

    O’Reilly responded by lashing out at Radmacher both on his radio show and TV show, saying the Virginia paper “was the worst. It was extremely mean-spirited, personal attacks on me by a guy named Dan Radmacher, a left-wing loon. We did some research on him, and it's disgraceful. And they go on our ‘don't buy, don't advertise’ list, Roanoke Times. Because anybody would employ a guy like that -- and you know, and we did, we walked back and looked at what he did -- is irresponsible. It's just horrible.”

    O’Reilly has targeted other outlets that had previously mentioned his sexual harassment settlement, including the St. Petersburg Times, which he called “the nation’s worst newspaper” months after then-editorial board member Robert Friedman wrote in May of 2005 (via Nexis):

    I always assumed that if you'd heard one professional talker's phone sex tapes, you'd heard them all. Wrong. Sure, Pat O'Brien's and Bill O'Reilly's are comparably repellent. But the similarities end there.

    O'Reilly, the Fox News talk show host, prefers a more baroque technique, weaving elaborate fantasies involving various Mediterranean words he apparently doesn't understand.  "You would basically be in the shower and I would join you and . . . take that little loofah thing and kinda soap up your back. . . . So anyway I'd be (deleted dirty parts) . . . kissing your neck from behind and then I would take the other hand with the falafel thing and I'd put it on your (more deleted dirty parts). . ." (That's part of the transcript of a phone conversation included in the sexual harassment complaint filed against O'Reilly last year by former Fox News producer Andrea Mackris. The two later reached an out-of-court settlement.)

    Similar mentions of O’Reilly’s sexual harassment settlement with Mackris are found on Nexis in the archives of The New Yorker, U.S. News & World Report, Newsday, The Kansas City Star, and the Chicago Sun-Times, though it is not clear when O’Reilly designated them “don’t buy, don’t advertise.” The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus is not on Nexis.

    On occasion, O’Reilly also demanded that advertisers leave outlets that were negative to him for other reasons. In January of 2006, O’Reilly reiterated calls for advertisers to boycott The New York Daily News and added Newsday to his list for running negative “attacks” about his appearance on David Letterman’s show. Shortly thereafter, O’Reilly added the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to his “don’t buy, don’t advertise” list after accusing the paper of being “a far left publication that slants news coverage and deals in defamation.” A week later O’Reilly furiously attacked the paper and demanded that advertisers boycott the paper in response to an editorial praising the speeches of Rev. Joseph Lowery and former President Jimmy Carter at Coretta Scott King’s funeral.

    Jared Holt and Julie Millican contributed research to this post.

  • NBC’s Historic Trump/Celebrity Apprentice Catastrophe

    NBC Debased Itself And Got Nothing In Return

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE

    Actor/bodybuilder/politician Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Friday that he was leaving The Celebrity Apprentice, cementing the season as a total failure. And the roots for that failure are the ties to the toxic brand of President Donald Trump.

    When NBC announced in 2015 that Schwarzenegger would host the program, the network sold the move to the media as an effort to take the show in a completely different direction. CNN’s Brian Stelter and Frank Pallotta noted that the audience “has dropped considerably over the years.” NBC’s president of alternative and late night programming, Paul Telegdy, said that while Schwarzenegger would use the same format as Trump, he had a “fresh take on how to take it to new heights for today's audiences.”

    It is clear this 'moving in a different direction' act was a facade from the very beginning. In December of 2016, Variety broke the news that Trump would remain an executive producer on the show. In response to the ensuing firestorm, Schwarzenegger admitted that he knew about Trump’s continued role ever since he accepted the gig in 2015.

    If Schwarzenegger knew, there is every reason to presume that NBC was aware as well. This means that NBC put into production a show that Trump the candidate had a financial interest in -- the same show where, according to reports during the campaign, Trump had previously engaged in disgusting behavior on set, drawing allegations of sexism from more than 20 staffers. A former show staffer said that there were far worse tapes than the Access Hollywood clip of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals. At no point during the campaign did NBC seek to address any of these concerns. Schwarzenegger later said that no one was thinking about Trump’s potential presidency when the series was shot in February of 2016.

    While Schwarzenegger and NBC were busy not talking about Trump’s ongoing ties to the series, we did learn that while Trump bragged about personally handing out charitable donations, NBC actually paid for them -- and that was only revealed because of great reporting from David Fahrenthold and Alice Crites of The Washington Post. It got so bad that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow went on air and pled with her parent company and Mark Burnett Productions to release tapes of Trump from his time on the show to clear things up. This entreaty was prompted by the release of the Access Hollywood tape of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. Even though Access Hollywood, an NBC show, owned the tape, it wasn’t NBC that broke the story, but again, Fahrenthold at The Washington Post.

    The gravity of the conflict of interest between NBC and Trump crystallized once Trump’s executive producer credit was announced. A statement from Kellyanne Conway, now a counselor to Trump, implied that he would be involved in producing the show in his “spare time.” Trump himself then said he would "devote ZERO TIME" to it.

    Schwarzenegger began his rollout tour with an interview on the Today show that would be a harbinger for what was to come. Schwarzenegger and host Matt Lauer gushed over the new season (which, fine, as those things go), but it was when Trump’s involvement came up that things went completely off the rails. From Media Matters’ transcript of the show:

    MATT LAUER (HOST): You seem like a great pick. [Trump] has announced he's going to retain his executive producer credit. So after January 20 he's going to be president of the United States and executive producer of the Celebrity Apprentice. Does that sound right to you?

    ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: What was great about it was that he was part of the negotiation. So I mean I get millions of dollars for hosting the show but NBC doesn't have to pay for it. Trump makes Mexico pay for it. Isn't that great? That was the best deal that he's done. That's true.

    LAUER: I set you up for that. That was my fault. He says he’s going to spend zero time on the show, he’s going to focus obviously on the presidency. But would you be surprised if you got a call mid-season and it said, look, Arnold, I have a couple of tips for you?

    SCHWARZENEGGER: I always like to get advice but I don't think that he will have time. I think it is perfectly fine that he has the executive producer credit because he created the show with Mark Burnett together, so why should his credit go. I totally see it. But he made it very clear that he has no interest in being involved. It is now my show. I am the host. I am the new boss, and I am going to run this show. But any time he has advice -- or anyone has advice, if you call me one day and say, “Look I saw the show. If you would add so and so as a celebrity,” I would take your advice.

    It’s after the bizarre Mexico line from Schwarzenegger that things really go downhill. Both Lauer (the NBC newsman who hosted a presidential forum) and Schwarzenegger want to have it both ways: They state for the record that President Trump would not actually be involved, but they also tease potential involvement. What’s inescapable from this conversation is that the Celebrity Apprentice is still built around Donald Trump’s brand.

    And that was a major problem. How would NBC report on a potential scandal involving Trump? If Trump retained a percentage of the show’s profits, would advertisers rush to the show to curry favor with the president of the United States? NBC’s main tactic was to say that MGM was the company actually producing the show, but that hardly addresses the ethical concerns. And beyond the ethical concerns were the business concerns. Trump’s brand has become increasingly toxic as he has made more and more unhinged and bigoted statements in public.

    Nearly a year after the Schwarzenegger-Trump season of Celebrity Apprentice was shot, it premiered in January -- and ratings were abysmal. By February, Schwarzenegger and Trump were openly feuding over viewership numbers, with Trump bizarrely using his National Prayer Breakfast appearance to focus on the subject.

    On March 3, Schwarzenegger announced he was leaving the show, having suddenly become realistic about Trump’s involvement. He told Empire magazine that Trump’s toxic brand was to blame for the failure:

    "It's not about the show," [Schwarzenegger] explained. "because everyone I ran into came up to me and said 'I love the show... but I turned it off because as soon as I read Trump's name I'm outta there!'"

    ...

    "When people found out that Trump was still involved as executive producer and was still receiving money from the show, then half the people [started] boycotting it."

    Social media campaign #grabyourwallet appears to have been a factor, imploring consumers and sponsors alike to ditch Celebrity Apprentice in direct response to the US President's continued involvement. The boycott's success may well be reflected in the show's viewing figures and the hasty retreat of commercial backers.

    "Even if asked [to do it again] I would decline." Said (sic) Schwarzenegger. "With Trump being involved in the show people have a bad taste and don't want to participate as a spectator or as a sponsor or in any other way support the show. It's a very divisive period now and I think this show got caught up in all that division."

    Trump interrupted his tweets about a Watergate-level scandal that he personally uncovered while on vacation in Florida to again complain about Schwarzenegger.

    What Trump did not mention: The Celebrity Apprentice was also a financial disaster because of his own continued involvement. From TheWrap:

    NBC’s reboot ofCelebrity Apprentice, with new host Arnold Schwarzenegger, wasn’t exactly a ratings killer. But as the network decides whether to renew the show, it faces another problem: Half its sponsors from last season have bailed out after boycott threats.

    A campaign called #GrabYourWallet, which called on sponsors to abandon the show because of President Donald Trump’s involvement with it, said six of the show’s 12 corporate backers from last season have agreed not to return. None of the companies explicitly cited Trump as their reason, but campaign organizer Shannon Coulter says the gold-plated writing is on the wall.

    “I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the Trump brand name is toxic,” she told TheWrap.

    So, to recap: NBC sullied itself ethically, lost sponsors, tied its brand to a sexist bigot and white nationalist fave, stonewalled about Trump’s misogynistic and likely abusive history with the program, and made its news division cheerfully take part in a massive conflict of interest. And the entire endeavor failed miserably.

    NBC, next time save yourself the trouble and just take our advice.

  • NBC News Appoints An Iraq War Cheerleader As Its New President

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE & TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    As NBC News faces growing questions about moving to the right, the network’s chairman, Andrew Lack, announced that Noah Oppenheim, a Today show producer who was an outspoken supporter of the Iraq War and has a lengthy history with conservative media, will be the new president of NBC News.

    During 2003 and into 2004, Oppenheim was a pro-Iraq War pundit on MSNBC. On July 19, 2003, four months after the invasion, Oppenheim appeared on MSNBC Live to respond to a firestorm stemming from President George W. Bush’s false assertion in the 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapon capabilities. Oppenheim defended the Bush administration for misleading the public in order to make the case for war by saying that that intelligence business “is not an exact science” and you have to “make educated guesses.” Transcript via Nexis (emphasis added):

    LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: Noah Oppenheim, last week we talked about -- was that the worst week for the president after things have gotten so messy on the whole how did these 16 words get into the speech? Now, this week the story kept going. We've narrowed it down, to, you know, the suspects, of who got the words in there. It looks like it's the National Security Council people, which means it looks like it's Condi Rice. Is Condi Rice the next person to have to take the blame in this story?

    NOAH OPPENHEIM, MSNBC ANALYST: Well, I don't know if she's the next person to have to take the blame. But we are -- the whole country is getting a very useful lesson in how the intelligence business works. And it is not an exact science. It is a very inexact science. And we now all understand that when we are trying to predict what's going on in countries like Iraq, we make educated guesses, and that's exactly what happened here. The British made an educated guess about the way Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program. They actually stand by that educated guess. We now know that the line, how the line made it into the speech, we understand the consultations that go on between the National Security Council staff and the White House, the CIA. It seems like this line shouldn't have made it in. It's unfortunate that it did, but I have seen no evidence of any sort of egregious wrongdoing on anyone's parts, no malicious plotting, no conspiracy here to drag the country into war. You see the governing -- government functioning as it does, imperfectly at times.

    When asked, on the same program, about the plan for leaving Iraq, Oppenheim said that “no matter what happens,” Iraq “will be better than … before we came”:

    OPPENHEIM: I cannot give you an exact date. The exit plan is as we help the people of Iraq rebuild their country, like we help the people of Germany and Japan rebuild theirs after World War II. We put in place a government that represents the various groups in Iraq, and we hopefully nudge them toward a liberal democracy. But ultimately, we take off the training wheels and see what happens. And you know what? No matter what happens, it will be better than what they had before we came.

    MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell asked Oppenheim on the July 12, 2003, edition of MSNBC Live how many people would die in Iraq. Via Nexis:

    O'DONNELL: Noah, is it a decade, or is it less than a decade?

    OPPENHEIM: It is between one and five years, and I do not know how many people are going to die, but it may be in the hundreds, it may even be in the low thousands, but it will still be worth it.

    150,000 Iraqi civilians and over 4,600 members of coalition forces have died in Iraq as a result of the war.

    On August 23, 2003, Oppenheim told O’Donnell on MSNBC Live that the majority of Iraq was actually peaceful and predicted the country was “headed in a positive direction.” Via Nexis (emphasis added):

    O'DONNELL: Noah, what if he doesn't? What if Iraq continues along the path that's going now, with roughly the same number of disruptions and killings, and then what if the peace process in the Middle East stays off track where it is now? How do Bush's numbers look six months from now if everything keeps going the way it is in the Middle East?

    OPPENHEIM: Well, look, you've got to -- what direction is it going? If you read "The New York Times" today, which is not exactly President Bush's greatest cheerleader, they report about how the great majority of Iraq is actually quite peaceful and actually happy to have an American presence there. We have a problem in Baghdad. We have a problem in the predominantly Sunni areas in the center of the country and in parts of the northwest. But for the majority of the country, it is pretty calm and peaceful and actually headed in a positive direction.

    Now, with regard to the Mideast peace process, no president has ever been able to bring peace to the Israel and the Palestinians. If Bush is unsuccessful there, I don't think someone's going to say, you know what, John Kerry is going to be able to do it, but George Bush couldn't. I mean, that's outrageous.

    Oppenheim even admitted that he is a conservative, stating on MSNBC Live on June 26, 2003, that he agreed with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurrence in Lawrence v. Texas, stating, “Even as a conservative, I felt like it was a rightly decided case.” (via Nexis)

    Andrew Kirell, now of The Daily Beast, examined Oppenheim’s background when Today brought him back on board in 2015. As Kirell noted, Oppenheim’s stint as executive producer of the TV show Scarborough Country occurred when host Joe Scarborough was portraying a much more conservative figure than he has done recently.

    Oppenheim has also written multiple columns for the neoconservative outlet Weekly Standard. In an April 2001 column, he attacked civil rights activist Jesse Jackson’s activism as “shakedowns” and “an old-style protection racket,” complaining that “Jackson threatens boycotts and the stigma of being labeled racist by this country's most prominent black leader.” Five months after the 9/11 terror attacks, Oppenheim accused the American Muslim community of assuming a “see-no-evil posture” and lacking “resolve” to fight terrorism.

    Oppenheim’s most notable Weekly Standard column came in 2004, when he, as an outspoken “supporter” of the Iraq War, traveled to Baghdad and castigated war reporters in Iraq of not doing enough to cover the good stories. It is worth reading at length:

    Four weeks ago, MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" asked me to go to Baghdad in search of the story most of the mainstream media were missing. The network's vice president knew I was a supporter of the war, and suggested I find out if things had really gone as horribly wrong as the evening newscasts and major print dailies reported. What I found is that, in Iraq, the mounting body count is heartbreaking, but the failure of American journalism is tragic.

    […]

    Along with freedom, America has brought to Iraq the notorious Red State-Blue State divide. Most journalists are Blue State people in outlook, and most of those administering the occupation are Red. Many of those who work for the Coalition, including civilians, carry guns. This either amuses journalists or makes them uncomfortable. Most of those who work for the Coalition are deeply invested, emotionally, in the success of America's enterprise in Iraq. (How else to explain why someone leaves an apartment in Arlington to live in a trailer in Baghdad and endure mortar attacks?) Most journalists did not support this war to begin with, and feel vindicated whenever the effort stumbles.

    Journalists will point out that they, too, are braving significant risks and discomfort to do their jobs. This is true, but would carry more weight if it seemed they were doing their jobs well. Instead, their sense of peril fuels a certain self-aggrandizement and sometimes a selfish myopia.

    […]

    To be fair, the [Coalition Provisional Authority] is not likely to win any awards in the field of public relations. I arrived in Baghdad explicitly sympathetic to its message. And I found its press officers friendly and easy to deal with. But there are only so many schools and police stations you can visit before you almost start wishing for a bang. The CPA is understandably proud of Iraq's rebuilt infrastructure. The water I saw gushing through new irrigation ditches throughout the Sunni triangle roars accomplishment.

    […]

    The best metaphor I've heard about Iraq is that the country is like a child, and the American press is its parent. When you're around a child every day, you don't notice how dramatically he's growing and maturing. But a more distant relative who sees the child only once a year is astounded by how much taller he keeps getting. Iraq is getting taller and healthier every day, but those responsible for documenting the growth are not noticing--or if they are, they're not telling the people back home.

    Oppenheim would leave his position at MSNBC after Steve Capus (now the executive producer of CBS Evening News) and anchor Tom Brokaw complained that his column did a disservice to journalists covering a war zone. Oppenheim, in the meantime, worked as a producer on the Today show and would later return to MSNBC in 2008 to work on David Gregory’s MSNBC show Road to the White House. When Oppenheim returned to MSNBC, New York Observer columnist Felix Gillette wrote of the move:

    A former NBC News staffer compared Mr. Oppenheim’s return to MSNBC—only four and a half years after seemingly burning some important bridges on his way out—as typical of a business where institutional memory can be fleeting.

    “TV is like politics,” said the source. “You can rehabilitate yourself very quickly because the game is always changing and so are the people.”

    Oppenheim’s selection as NBC president comes as increasing questions are arising about NBC News and MSNBC moving to the right. Beyond hiring Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, Scarborough has been cheering on and defending President Donald Trump. Just last week, MSNBC host Chris Matthews had an on-air meltdown in defense of Trump’s Muslim ban. Appointing an Iraq War media lapdog as the head of the entire division does nothing to distance NBC News from these accusations.

    Oppenheim replaces Deborah Turness, who became president of NBC News International. Turness, the first woman to be named president of NBC News, hired Oppenheim to take over the Today show in early 2015.

  • After Breitbart Attacked An Author For Criticizing Trump, A Horde Of "Alt-Right" Trolls Harassed Her

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE

    A slew of online trolls attacked Rosa Brooks for an article she wrote in Foreign Policy discussing possible consequences of Donald Trump’s historically abnormal presidency.

    Before we get to the harassment, it is worth first briefly considering the important point she was making. Brooks, a professor at Georgetown Law who also has served as a senior adviser to the State Department, used the January 30 article to consider various ways Trump’s presidency could end. After discussing the 2020 election, impeachment, and the 25th Amendment, Brooks briefly considered the possibility of a coup in the event that Trump gives an order that is not just imprudent but actually illegal and wildly destructive:

    What would top U.S. military leaders do if given an order that struck them as not merely ill-advised, but dangerously unhinged? An order that wasn’t along the lines of “Prepare a plan to invade Iraq if Congress authorizes it based on questionable intelligence,” but “Prepare to invade Mexico tomorrow!” or “Start rounding up Muslim Americans and sending them to Guantánamo!” or “I’m going to teach China a lesson — with nukes!”

    It’s impossible to say, of course. The prospect of American military leaders responding to a presidential order with open defiance is frightening — but so, too, is the prospect of military obedience to an insane order. After all, military officers swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the president. For the first time in my life, I can imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: “No, sir. We’re not doing that,” to thunderous applause from the New York Times editorial board.

    These illegal-order scenarios Brooks mentions have been discussed in regard to Trump in the past year. Brooks chose these over-the-top examples because they involve patently unconstitutional, and thus illegal, orders. This topic is of interest to her: Brooks herself wrote a piece in The Washington Post a year ago discussing whether the military would follow illegal orders issued by a then-potential President Trump.

    Military leaders, pundits, and everyday Americans have not just a responsibility to ponder the possibility of Trump giving such an order, but a duty. Famously litigated at Nuremberg, the issue of how to handle illegal orders from leaders has also been an issue in the United States, going back to the first Adams administration; a Vietnam case reaffirmed that members of the military follow illegal orders on their own accord. Duke political science professor Peter Feaver explained this reality during the campaign in regard to Trump’s promises to bring back torture and also “take out” the families of terrorists:

    Both of these proposed policies are clear violations of the law. Civilian deaths that occur as collateral damage incidental to strikes aimed at legitimate targets are always avoided but sometimes an unfortunate part of lawful warfare; Trump is talking about deliberately targeting the family members as a matter of policy. I do not know of a single law expert who would say this is legal.

    ...

    Given that it would be illegal orders, General Hayden is absolutely correct: not only would the senior military leaders refuse to follow those orders, they would be legally and professionally bound to refuse those orders. Democratic civil-military relations theory further requires that they refuse these orders. Refusing these orders would not be a coup. It would be reinforcing the rule of law and healthy civil-military relations.

    Put more bluntly: Trump has promised to give illegal orders. Every member of the military is supposed to refuse to follow illegal orders. Trump has begun his presidency by doing the very things his apologists during the campaign assured us that he would not do.

    Which finally brings us back to Rosa Brooks and her thoughts about what the military should do should it be presented with illegal orders.

    When first released, Brooks’ column got the kind of reaction you would expect, with many praising it as an interesting read and a few criticizing it. It was also briefly mentioned near the end of a Breitbart column defending Trump adviser Stephen Bannon on January 31. But perhaps correctly assuming that its audience does not read past the headlines, on February 2, Breitbart wrote up Brooks’ column again, using the headline “Ex-Obama Officials Suggests ‘Military Coup’ Against Trump.” This time, the post spread quickly among right-wing fringe propaganda outlets and fake news purveyors: Infowars, Gateway Pundit, Pamela Geller, 8chan, Angry Patriot, Mad World News, Eagle Rising, Conservative 101, America’s Freedom Fighters, Natural News, Epoch Times, UFP News, ENH Live, The Washington Feed, Conservative Tribune, Mario Murillo Ministries (whose piece was shared by Trump ally Wayne Allyn Root), Infowars (again), Ammoland Shooting Sports News, Personal Liberty, PJ Media, Before It’s News, and The Political Insider. The story also spread to right-wing outlets like The Blaze and The Washington Times, which attacked her column but did not even bother to hyperlink to it. Neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer also joined in, saying that “the increasing insolence of American Jewry in their brazen calls to kill, overthrow and illegally undermine the election of President Trump must be crushed.” The story was also picked up by Russian state outlets RT and Sputnik.

    Brooks described what happened once these posts started:

    Within a few hours, the alt-right internet was on fire. The trickle of critical email messages turned into a gush, then a geyser, and the polite emails of the first few days were quickly displaced by obscenity-laced screeds, many in all capital letters. My Twitter feed filled up with trolls.

    ...

    By mid-afternoon, I was getting death threats. “I AM GOING TO CUT YOUR HEAD OFF………BITCH!” screamed one email. Other correspondents threatened to hang me, shoot me, deport me, imprison me, and/or get me fired (this last one seemed a bit anti-climactic). The dean of Georgetown Law, where I teach, got nasty emails about me. The Georgetown University president’s office received a voicemail from someone threatening to shoot me. New America, the think tank where I am a fellow, got a similar influx of nasty calls and messages. “You’re a fucking cunt! Piece of shit whore!” read a typical missive.

    My correspondents were united on the matter of my crimes (treason, sedition, inciting insurrection, etc.). The only issue that appeared to confound and divide them was the vexing question of just what kind of undesirable I was. Several decided, based presumably on my first name, that I was Latina and proposed that I be forcibly sent to the other side of the soon-to-be-built Trump border wall. Others, presumably conflating me with African-American civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, asserted that I would never have gotten hired if it weren’t for race-based affirmative action. The anti-Semitic rants flowed in, too: A website called the Daily Stormer noted darkly that I am “the daughter of the infamous communist Barbara Ehrenreich and the Jew John Ehrenreich,” and I got an anonymous phone call from someone who informed me, in a chillingly pleasant tone, that he supported a military coup “to kill all the Jews.”

    My experience is not unusual. Anyone who attracts the attention of the alt-right is in for a rough ride.

    As Brooks notes, this type of harassment by the “alt-right” is all too familiar. As I wrote in December:

    Harassment is a deeply entrenched aspect of the “alt-right” community. It came to prominence with Gamergate, and then there was a wretched, bigoted campaign against black actress Leslie Jones. “Alt-right” figure Milo Yiannopoulos has now taken his harassment tactics with him on a college tour. Another example is the recent smear campaign against satirist Vic Berger by “alt-right” figure Mike Cernovich. Cernovich is no stranger to such tactics, having bragged previously about his ability to game Google to get other outlets to pick up on his smears, spreading the lies to more false headlines and more viewers. Comedian and producer Tim Heidecker has also spoken out about abuse he has received, including death-threats, as a result of "alt-right" criticism.

    Since then, we’ve seen harassment campaigns launched against a journalist who tied a white supremacist to white supremacy, a college professor who sarcastically tweeted about “white genocide”, undocumented immigrants who use social media, and progressive author Lindy West.

    Now that Trump and former Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon are in the Oval Office, the “alt-right” sees its chance to break through to mainstream America. The movement’s adherents are huge fans of new Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson. Rape-promoting white nationalist Mike Cernovich was given a show on Right-Side Broadcasting Network, which has simulcast on Trump’s own Facebook page. Breitbart is starting to hire people from mainstream outlets.

    And yet, Breitbart is still situating itself at the center of these sorts of unconscionable attacks. Will it get away with that? If it does, it’s easy to see how: Since he was first appointed to lead Trump’s presidential campaign, mainstream figures have repeatedly shied away from tying Bannon to Breitbart’s enabling of white supremacy. Mike Allen, a former Politico reporter who recently founded a new media venture called Axios, lavished praise on Breitbart during an appearance on the latter’s radio show. As Breitbart now tries to move into continental Europe, these problems are more salient than ever.

    If Trump does give an illegal order to deport all Muslim-Americans, reinstate torture, invade Mexico, or even start a nuclear holocaust, the survival of humanity may come down to where the individuals in charge of executing it get their news.

    Image by Sarah Wasko

  • CNN Said A Decade-Old Video Was “Brand New” From Yemen Raid, Before Clarifying That It Was Years Old

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE

    BuzzFeed reported on February 3  that the Pentagon has taken down a video that it originally said was seized from a raid in Yemen last week after realizing that the video is actually a decade old:

    The US military on Friday took down the link to a video that it said it secured from a raid in Yemen last week just hours after posting it, having realized that far from showing off the intelligence gained from the raid, the videos were a decade old.

    The video, titled “Courses for Destroying The Cross,” was first released in 2007 and had been online for years, as it turns out. In the less than two-minute long video, which was widely circulated after it was pushed out on Friday morning, there are several clips showing a man in a white robe and black mask explaining how to make a bomb using chemicals.

    ....

    It was an embarrassing admission about the Jan. 29 raid, the first approved by President Donald Trump since his term began, which has been swirling in controversy since its existence was first revealed. There are reports that children were killed and that female fighters pinned down Seal Team 6 during an hour-long fire fight.

    Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed during the raid. The father of three was reportedly on his 12th deployment.

    CNN discussed this video in a segment Friday afternoon at approximately 1:23 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Wolf Blitzer called the video “slick propaganda” and asked if it was old or new. CNN’s Pentagon reporter, Ryan Browne, responded that “we believe” that the video was “brand new.” 

    WOLF BLITZER: In the initial statement that the Pentagon put out, Ryan, about this operation, they said the U.S. collected a lot of very importance intelligence about terror operations. How will these videos specifically help the U.S. military deal with this down the road?

    RYAN BROWNE: This video, in particular, not necessarily that advantageous. It does provide a little insight into what this terror group’s strategy is, that is trying to inspire these lone wolf attackers in the West. But I think this is one thing that the military has released, but we are told that there's volumes and volumes of additional information, intelligence on hard drives, that the military will not be releasing in hopes of exploiting that information to conduct additional strikes or additional raids against the terror group down the road.

    BLITZER: It looks like these videos were pretty slick propaganda. Were they intended to be posted on social media sites to promote this kind of homegrown terror, if you will? Have some of them already been posted or are these all brand new?

    BROWNE: That’s right, Wolf. We believe this one is brand new, but this is something that they have done in the past. In fact they produced an English language magazine called “Inspire” that was distributed digitally and has actually been traced to several terrorist attacks, including the Boston marathon bombings. This is something very much in the M.O. of this terror group, not necessarily bringing foreign fighters in like ISIS does, but actually reaching out to these lone wolves, to these disgruntled people in western countries and trying to kind of show them the knowhow on how to conduct terrorists attacks on their own.

    BLITZER: Pretty sophisticated propaganda.

    Later on in the segment, CNN’s military analyst, Cedric Leighton, told Blitzer that while the tactics in the video were not new,  “What’s new is the detail, … very slick graphics and the fact that they spent a lot of time discussing TATP, which is the exact explosive that was used in Paris, in Brussels -- by the shoe bomber -- and it is probably the most dangerous, the most volatile explosive that the AQAP group has used.”

    Less than two hours later, at 3:15 p.m., CNN revealed that the video was, in fact, a decade old. Browne called it a “mix up” and said that the video had been online for “years.”

    Browne concluded that while it was an “embarrassing moment” for the military, the military still believes that there was actionable intelligence obtained.

    Browne gave no reason why this assertion should be trusted and no reason for his earlier statement that the video was “brand new.” Host Brooke Baldwin immediately moved on.