Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • How The Press Normalized President Trump: The First 100 Days

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The 2016 presidential campaign broke political journalism, with too many reporters and pundits relentlessly feeding their audiences a dog’s breakfast of false equivalence seasoned with sensationalism. Then came the transition, which saw much of the press watching from the sidelines, parroting Donald Trump’s often-false tweets without sufficient context and failing to hold him accountable for his extreme Cabinet selections.

    There has been no dramatic improvement since Trump took office, with press coverage of the first hundred days of his presidency marred by excessive normalization of a distinctly abnormal chief executive. Far too many members of the political press in the Amtrak corridor -- the journalists and pundits with platforms at major print, digital, and TV outlets who set the tone for coverage of the president through their reporting and commentary on the news of the day -- have kept the same methods, mindsets, and frames of reference under a very different type of president.

    Some suggest that there is no need to change because Trump's election means his presidency is normal by definition. “The states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania ‘normalized’” Trump, New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush tweeted earlier this week. His colleagues in the political press cheered him on, scoffing at critics who have argued that papering over Trump’s violations of ethical norms and his history of racism and misogyny poses a threat to the health of our body politic by dramatically shifting our expectations for what is acceptable in public life.

    I have sympathy for reporters who are active on Twitter -- they must often feel like they are in a social media shooting gallery, their every word scrutinized by an ever-changing assembly of critics. I can see how being constantly exhorted not to normalize the president of the United States might quickly grow tiresome. But that does not make the argument against normalization any weaker, or excuse the ways that too many journalists have failed their audience.

    There are any number of explanations for why the political press has not changed in response to Trump. The siren call of access to a president who is willing to grant interviews on a whim is constant. Decades of favoring coverage of style over substance have left the press viewing everything through the lens of optics, rendering them less capable of zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. It is unpleasant and difficult to dwell on the breadth of the president’s apparent stupidity and corruption. Political journalists at major outlets are overwhelmingly white men -- a demographic group mostly not targeted by Trump’s extremism -- creating “a dominant point of view in the press that ... squeezes out other perspectives,” as Oliver Willis has noted. And Trump’s complete failure to pass legislation and his ineptitude in filling out his administration have rightfully consumed much media bandwidth.

    But here’s where Trump has succeeded: He’s shattered political norms and reshaped them in his own image. He’s used the power of the White House to enrich himself and his family in unprecedented ways, with no meaningful separation between the interests of his corporate empire and the country. He’s repeatedly sought to delegitimize any institution -- be it judges, or the press, or the bureaucracy -- that stands in his way. He’s operated amid a legitimacy crisis, constantly fending off new evidence that Russian government efforts to influence the election were tied to his campaign. And he’s demonstrated a palpable lack of concern for his ignorance of world affairs while spending hours live-tweeting cable news broadcasts.

    But faced with these unprecedented strikes at the heart of the democratic system, many reporters and pundits have frequently fallen back on a familiar trope from the campaign -- constantly looking for, and claiming they have found, the elusive Trump pivot to normalcy. In their efforts to normalize Trump, the depth of his extremism and corruption is too often swept aside, as major stories are abandoned while reporters follow the shiny object.

    To be sure, these conditions are not universal. There are bright spots throughout the major bastions of Beltway reporting. And investigative journalists have feasted on the wealth of conflicts of interest throughout the administration, and provided new and expanding insight into the investigations of Russian efforts to impact the 2016 election. I’ve also been impressed with the efforts by many journalists to correct, collate, and categorize the president’s many lies.

    But as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has pointed out, “For every great scoop, there’s been an embarrassing moment of declaring the president statesmanlike for giving a speech without a history-making gaffe.”

    Following the president’s February speech to a joint session of Congress, journalists rushed to proclaim that Trump had “hit the reset button” and, before their eyes, “became president of the United States,” in the infamous words of CNN’s Van Jones. Trump is still crowing about the praise he received from the press.

    Five weeks (and numerous mishaps) later, pundits found a new reason to declare that the page had turned and Trump had “truly” become president after he ordered airstrikes against the Syrian government. Those rave reviews so impressed the president that we warned they may actually increase the chances of future military action.

    And indeed, in mid-April the U.S. military dropped its most powerful conventional bomb on an Islamic State complex in Afghanistan, triggering a new round of obsessive, fawning coverage from the cable news networks.

    These periods of over-the-top praise for the president have come even as the Trump administration frequently lashes out at the press in unprecedented ways. Over the past 100 days, the president and his top aides have declared the media to be the “opposition party” and “enemy of the American people,” blacklisted critical news outlets in favor of sycophantic ones, publicly berated individual journalists, and engaged in unusual efforts to deny access to the press.

    News outlets -- led by a White House Correspondents Association that at times seemed most interested in whether Trump would attend its annual dinner -- have often proven unable to respond collectively.

    Press coverage of Trump’s supporters also deserves criticism, whether it be the seemingly endless stream of articles coddling the Trump fans who still like him, or the pieces on the “alt-right” that demonstrate an ignorance of the way white nationalism and misogyny are intrinsic to their worldview.

    NBC News has responded to Trump’s election by hiring and elevating conservative commentators who have accommodated him. CNN’s news hours are politics as sport, built around endless, fruitless debates between fawning professional Trump fans hired by the network to defend literally anything he does, and everyone else. Fox News is almost entirely on the Trump Train, with a lineup dominated by the president’s most fervent supporters, their cheering carefully calibrated to bring in praise from and access to the most powerful man in the country.

    The political press is still not rising to the challenge. They are still normalizing a fundamentally abnormal president. We deserve better.

    Images by Sarah Wasko

  • The Vindication Of Rachel Maddow

    Journalists Panned Her Report On Trump’s Tax Returns, But It Produced The Best Evidence Trump’s Tax Proposal Boosts His Own Bottom Line

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Under pressure to show some sign -- any sign -- that President Donald Trump’s administration hasn’t squandered its first 100 days in office, the White House yesterday released a one-page collection of bullet points billed as a tax plan.

    There are many unanswered questions relevant to the 200-word proposal -- among them whether the massive tax cuts it proposes, channeled mostly to corporations and the wealthy, would be temporary or permanent; whether the tax cuts would be paid for, and how; and how much the proposal would cost. Top administration officials making the rounds on the morning news shows say they don’t know how the plan would affect the budget deficit and can’t guarantee that it wouldn’t raise the taxes of the middle class.

    One thing seems clear, however: If this proposal becomes law, the Trump family will be the big winners.

    As The New York Times’ Neil Irwin noted after detailing the proposal:

    It is striking how many of the categories listed above affect the president and his family. He is a high-income earner. He receives income from 564 business entities, according to his financial disclosure form, and could take advantage of the low rate on ''pass-through'' companies. According to his leaked 2005 tax return, he paid an extra $31 million because of the alternative minimum tax that he seeks to eliminate. And his heirs could eventually enjoy his enormous assets tax-free.

    We don’t know precisely how much Trump will benefit from the policies he supports because he refuses to release his tax returns, breaking decades of precedent and taking a hammer to an important political norm that curbs political corruption. And so as Irwin demonstrates, Trump’s “leaked 2005 tax return” provides the best available evidence of the impact Trump’s proposal will have on his own wallet.

    For that, we have MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and The Daily Beast’s David Cay Johnston to thank. It is a vindication for Maddow in particular, who was widely criticized by political reporters for the way in which she revealed documents that none of them had been able to obtain.

    Six weeks ago, Maddow set the political world on fire with a single tweet issued fewer than 90 minutes before her show began:

    After journalists and political commentators spent nearly an hour burning up Twitter with theories about what precisely Maddow had uncovered, she revealed that her show was going to feature the president’s 1040 form from 2005, which Johnston had obtained.  

    When her show began, Maddow did not open with the contents of the document. Instead, she used her first segment to provide context, detailing the long saga of Trump’s unwillingness to reveal his tax returns and the evidence about his income that had been made public thus far. Only after returning from a commercial did she and Johnston reveal what they had learned: Trump had paid a mere $5.3 million in income taxes -- a rate of less than 4 percent on an income of more than $150 million -- but had to pay $31 million more under the alternative minimum tax, which he had proposed eliminating during the campaign.

    And the political press went wild. Not because they had learned new information about the president’s taxes that he had kept from the public in unprecedented fashion. Not because the tantalizing scraps that Maddow and Johnston had unveiled suggest that Trump’s interest in keeping his returns secret is at least in part because they reveal how much he would benefit from policies he supports.

    No, the press freaked out because reporters had to wait for 20 minutes on a weeknight and watch a cable news program to hear a scoop none of them had been able to get over the previous 20 months, and because the actual content of that scoop didn’t match whatever they were expecting.

    In real time, political media Twitter exploded with criticism for the MSNBC host. Afterward, the critique from journalists seemed to overwhelm the actual news the show had produced.

    Maddow had used “a windup that some fellow journalists, eager for any bombshells, found exceedingly lengthy,” according to the Times. She had “disappoint[ed] many in the political-media establishment with a report that was widely characterized as overhyped,” CNN reported. Her program was a “cynical, self-defeating spectacle.” She “bur[ied] the lede,” having “talked . . . and talked . . . and talked” for what “felt like an eternity.” She had made a “big-time blunder” and her “bombshell” had “fizzled.”

    Poynter.org chief media writer James Warren was one of Maddow’s few defenders on style, excoriating the press for its “mix of impatience and internet-fueled craving for instant gratification” in the face of a garden-variety effort by a media outlet to ensure the largest possible audience for its scoop. As to the revelation’s content, as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, “The president wants to abolish the part of the tax code that stings him the hardest. In what news world is that not a bombshell?”

    With the White House’s release of a tax proposal that eliminates that part of the tax code, Maddow’s bombshell is more important than ever. But don’t expect to see apologies any time soon -- even news reports that detail how the 2005 1040 shows how Trump would benefit from the proposal don’t give Maddow any credit for unveiling it.

    This post has been updated for clarity.

    Images by Sarah Wasko.

  • Why Neo-Nazis Are Kvelling Over Tucker Carlson

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    “If there’s any talking head you can safely classify in the spectrum of ‘alt-right,’ it’s Tucker Carlson.” -- Neo-Nazi Eric Striker, The Daily Stormer

    Tucker Carlson’s takeover of Fox News’ 8 p.m. time slot has been greeted with cheers by his fans in the neo-Nazi, white nationalist, and misogynistic corners of the Internet.

    As the news began to break last week that Bill O’Reilly would not be returning to Fox, “alt-right” figures began expressing their hope that Carlson, who has garnered a large audience at the network since his show launched late last year, would get the coveted hour.

    “Tucker Carlson taking O'Reilly's time slot would be huge win for America,” tweeted Mike Cernovich, an online personality with a history of making white nationalist and misogynistic commentary who helped push the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory.

    Jazzhands McFeels, the pseudonymous co-host of the popular “alt-right” podcast Fash the Nation for the anti-Semitic website The Right Stuff, similarly claimed that Fox had the “opportunity for an all-star lineup” led by Carlson.

    The dregs of the so-called “alt-right” championed Carlson’s promotion because they think he is actively working to mainstream their despicable beliefs.

    Like many Fox hosts, including the one he replaced, Carlson has a long record of offering virulent commentary about women and people of color, and he has served as a cheerleader for President Donald Trump, another white nationalist favorite. But it is the Fox host’s interview style -- in particular the way he demolishes perceived enemies of the “alt-right” on air for his audience’s amusement -- that has turned his show into must-see viewing for members of the misogynistic and racist movement.

    “The key to his success is that he destroys people everyone hates,” writes Eric Striker on the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which recently celebrated the 128th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth and has a section devoted to the “Jewish Problem.” “He mocks and berates an assembly line of Jewish liars, literally laughing at the absurdity of their canned talking points about everything from immigration to Russia to trannies,” Striker continued.

    In the post, which was devoted to congratulating the Fox host for his debut ratings in the 8 p.m. time slot and his forthcoming book, Striker claims that if there’s “any talking head you can safely classify in the spectrum of ‘alt-right,’ it’s Tucker Carlson.” He concludes that Carlson is “America’s voice and we need to draft him for President.”

    Other Daily Stormer headlines about Carlson’s show over the past week include “Tucker Carlson SUFFOCATES and SODOMIZES Illegal Spic Goldman Sachs Employee,” “Tucker Carlson BARBARICALLY MUTILATES Fat Black Woman Demanding Free College for Black Slaves,” and “Tucker Carlson GASSES Jew Mark Cuban with a DIESEL MOTOR Salvaged from a SOVIET SUBMARINE.”

    Several white nationalist and neo-Nazi figures were particularly pleased that Carlson would replace O’Reilly, whom they view as a “cuckservative” whose time had passed.

    The neo-Nazi website InfoStormer, whose mission is “Destroying Jewish Tyranny,” wrote of Carlson’s promotion: “Dumb move by these feminists. They pushed out Bill O’Reilly only to see Tucker Carlson installed in his place. Carlson is a one man gas chamber who gasses Jews and feminists on a nightly basis. He is literally and figuratively Hitler.” The website also commented that it was good that Carlson would replace O’Reilly because he is “a much better pundit than O’Reilly and has been regularly lampshading Jews on national television.”

    The anti-Semitic writer Kevin MacDonald, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the neo-Nazi movement's favorite academic,” says that Carlson is “far edgier & less cuckservative” than O’Reilly, adding, “Tucker is red-pilled but manages to stay mainstream.”

    And according to Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” Carlson “is a much better figure” who is “more intelligent” than O’Reilly and “is at least sympathetic towards the alt side of things” in a way his predecessor is not.

    A bigoted movement desperate for attention and implicit approval is now getting it from the biggest megaphone in cable news.

    Images by Sarah Wasko.

  • Congressional Credentialing Committee Deals Breitbart A Devastating Rebuke

    Website’s Bid For Congressional Credentials Was Just Rejected -- And Reporters Will Lose Their Temporary Passes

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The credentialing committee for congressional reporters has denied Breitbart.com’s bid for permanent press credentials and declined to extend its temporary passes, a dramatic rebuke for the website, which has sought in recent months to burnish its reputation as an independent, legitimate news source.

    Since late last year, Breitbart has been seeking permanent credentials from the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery, which would have allowed it to join the White House Correspondents’ Association and participate in the White House press pool. Obtaining the credentials would have represented a substantial step forward for a website that has recently sought to downplay its role as a platform for the white nationalist and misogynist “alt-right” movement.

    But Breitbart has been stymied by the Senate Press Gallery’s requirement that news outlets be editorially independent of other organizations; the committee turned down their bid last month, seeking more information. Breitbart is actually part of a web of self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and corruption, as Media Matters has documented, with top editors using the site to promote nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and personal clients who in turn pay them hefty salaries.

    Breitbart is inextricably linked to its former executive chairman, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon; the major right-wing donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who are part owners of the website; and the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a nonprofit funded by the Mercers and previously run by Bannon, which employed several top Breitbart staffers. For these reasons among others, Media Matters called on the standing committee to deny Breitbart’s application.

    At a hearing this morning, the committee again rejected Breitbart’s bid, and said they would not extend their temporary passes, which expire May 31:

    The committee expressed concern that Breitbart had repeatedly offered inconsistent information about its operations, specifically about the end dates of employment for Bannon and Wynton Hall, the Breitbart managing editor who had simultaneously served as GAI's communications specialist. According to Breitbart CEO Larry Solov, Hall resigned in February, but he was listed in a masthead Solov provided to the committee in late March. As Media Matters reported last week, Hall created a mammoth conflict of interest by frequently using his position at the website to promote his private and nonprofit communications clients.  

    UPDATE: CNN's Oliver Darcy reports that according to a source, Hall is still "very involved" at Breitbart and plays a role in assigning stories. 

    Images by Sarah Wasko.

  • Fox’s New Evening Lineup Is O’Reillyism Without O’Reilly

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Bill O’Reilly, the king of cable news, has fallen. He was a victim of his own monstrosity. The network that had willingly written large checks on his behalf to make the women he had sexually harassed go away withdrew its support after the payments were revealed and his show’s advertisers ran for cover.

    The O’Reilly Factor was the linchpin in an evening lineup that was once the most stable in the industry. But in less than a year, O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, and Megyn Kelly have all left or been shown the door, along with the man who hired them, former Fox chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. The only remaining host from the 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time block the network was rolling out a year ago is Sean Hannity.

    Removing O’Reilly gave the network’s top executives the opportunity to dramatically reshape their network’s programming. But the new evening lineup, which debuts tonight, presents as much of the status quo as possible -- O’Reillyism without O’Reilly. The result will test whether hosts actually matter at Fox, or whether the network’s audience will sit for any pro-Trump conservative put in front of them.

    Since Fox’s inception in 1996, O’Reilly has been the anchor of the network’s ratings and the keystone of its “fair and balanced” mantra with his so-called “No Spin Zone.” After an undistinguished career as a broadcast newsman, O’Reilly used his position at the newly launched Fox to reimagine himself (falsely) as a son of working-class Levittown, Long Island, who was looking out for “the folks.” His show became the platform for his “culture warrior” mentality, presenting the average American as under constant attack by never-ending waves of elitist secular progressives who hate Christianity and traditional American values and want to reshape the country in the image of Western Europe.

    O’Reilly became the incandescent exemplar of white male rage at the rising tide of diversity, feminism, and modernity. And the ratings -- and money -- rolled in, with his success breeding imitators.

    Fox’s executives were not ready to lose O’Reilly -- earlier this year, they signed him to a new deal through 2020 with a raise to an annual salary of $25 million, in full knowledge that The New York Times was investigating the network’s sexual harassment payouts. They were betting that his high ratings, which spill over to the benefit of the rest of the evening’s programming, would be difficult to retain with only the other personnel they had under contract.

    Tucker Carlson, Jesse Watters, and Eric Bolling, the three hosts who will benefit the most from the shakeup, built their careers at Fox by imitating the same “culture war” racism and misogyny O’Reilly helped weave into the network’s DNA. Like O’Reilly, each has gained attention during the presidential campaign and the early days of Donald Trump’s administration as stalwart supporters of the president.

    Where each rising Fox star's O’Reilly imitations fall short, however, is in their ability and skill in grounding their commentary as coming from a working-class “man of the people.”

    Carlson, who spent virtually his entire life living among the elite, is the son of a U.S. ambassador and former head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the stepson of a scion of the Swanson frozen foods empire. He has hosted shows at two other networks and remains known for the bow-tied prepster image he cultivated at CNN.

    While Bolling grew up without Carlson’s privileged background, he evinces an on-air contempt for the working class rooted in his previous career as a commodities trader on the New York Mercantile Exchange, where he eventually became a member of its board of directors. And Watters, who spent his career as an O’Reilly minion, conducting ambush interviews of the leading Fox host’s various perceived enemies, bills himself as a “political humorist,” not a commentator.

    None of the three has O’Reilly’s on-air presence or skill. But Fox’s hope is that aping O’Reilly is enough to keep his audience on board.

    Fox’s promotion of three white, male, grievance-mongering Trump sycophants is no accident. The network had other options available. Executives could have given a show to Dana Perino, a more substantive conservative who has been much more skeptical of Trump. They could have tried to pivot to airing more hard news by promoting one of the reporters who contribute to the flagship news program Special Report.

    They could have even tried to bring someone in from outside the network, though admittedly it’s hard to imagine that journalists are banging down the doors to join a network mired in a year-long series of sexual harassment reports.

    No, instead, Fox doubled down on pro-Trump racism, sexism, and xenophobia because that is what the network wants to put on its airwaves. Its executives are priming the resentment pump because they think O’Reillyism will keep their audience coming back for more.

    Without O’Reilly, we will now be able to see whether Fox’s audience is stable and willing to keep watching no matter who hosts the network’s programs, or whether O’Reilly’s talent was the key factor in retaining his viewers.

    If the network’s ratings stay the same, -- or even improve -- it should be cold comfort for Fox’s executives. They kept O’Reilly around, even though they knew about the many reports that he was sexually harassing his colleagues, because they thought he was essential for the network’s ratings. If that turns out not to be the case, they enabled a predator for no reason at all.

    Images by Sarah Wasko.

  • Breitbart’s Managing Editor Used The Site To Promote His PR Clients

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com managing editor Wynton Hall has frequently used the website to promote a nonprofit that employs him as a communications strategist, as well as at least one client for a separate communications firm he runs.

    Hall, a conservative writer and activist, began writing for Breitbart in 2011. He became the right-wing website’s managing editor in 2013 as part of an effort to help ensure “a 24/7 editorial team focused on the site.” He is second only to Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow, according to a masthead provided last month to the congressional credentialing committee.

    But while Hall’s title suggests that he plays a key role at Breitbart, that is not his only job. He also serves as the communications strategist for the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a conservative advocacy organization.

    Breitbart and GAI are inextricably linked: Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer serves as the nonprofit’s president, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon led both organizations from 2012 to 2016, and GAI’s main funders, hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, are partial owners of the website.

    Members of the Senate Press Gallery's Standing Committee of Correspondents have questioned whether Breitbart is editorially independent given these overlaps. The committee is currently reviewing Breitbart’s bid for permanent congressional credentials, but has to this point denied its application.

    At GAI, where Hall received a six-figure salary and worked 40 hours a week from 2012 to 2015, according to the group’s publicly available IRS filings. He is responsible for engineering public relations strategies that ensure that the organization’s dry research achieves maximum impact.

    Hall has capitalized on his role at Breitbart to boost GAI’s efforts. Hall wrote 151 Breitbart posts that promoted GAI or Schweizer, according to a Media Matters review of all 1,382 posts Hall authored between 2011 and 2015.

    In addition to his work at GAI, Hall also has private communications clients. He owns his own self-named celebrity ghostwriting and branding agency; he claims its client list features major figures in politics, business, sports, and the arts, presumably creating a wealth of conflicts of interest with his work at Breitbart. Hall is also senior strategist at Oval Office Writers, the communications agency that Schweizer co-owns.

    Hall has used his Breitbart platform to promote at least one of his clients: The website published several stories on one of the books he ghostwrote without mentioning his financial ties to the book. Because neither Hall or Oval Office Writers publishes a client list, it is impossible to tell how frequently this occurs.

    It’s unclear how Hall could work full time at a nonprofit while also serving in a senior editorial role at Breitbart, running a third business, and working for a fourth. Critics say this apparent inconsistency “raises serious questions of private inurement and excessive compensation.”

    Indeed, Hall’s malfeasance is only a small part of a massive web of self-dealing and interconnected conflicts of interest linking Mercer, Bannon, GAI, Breitbart, and for-profit companies.

    Hall Uses Breitbart To Weaponize Research For The Conservative Advocacy Organization That Employs Him

    Hall’s work at GAI is both lucrative and extensive; according to the group’s IRS filings, Hall worked 40 hours a week at GAI from 2012 to 2015 and received a total of $600,000.

    At GAI, Hall is the “creative mind through which all its research flows and is disseminated,” with a mandate to “transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas that can be unleashed on a set schedule, like summer blockbusters,” according to an October 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Bannon.

    His strategy, as he described it in an interview with the magazine, is to “anchor left” by placing the stories with reporters at mainstream publications, then “pivot right” by turning those stories into narratives at conservative outlets. “We don’t look at the mainstream media as enemies because we don’t want our work to be trapped in the conservative ecosystem,” Hall says.

    Trying to get reports written up by major news outlets is a typical communications strategy for a nonprofit. What’s unusual is that Hall, Bannon, and Schweizer have been able to implement the plans Hall designs in his role with GAI through their leadership positions at Breitbart. Hall typically plays a key role in producing content at Breitbart that promotes GAI’s research.

    In August 2012, Schweizer’s book Throw Them All Out, which alleges widespread financial corruption by members of Congress, hit the stands. Hall, who has worked with Schweizer since at least 2007, when they co-authored a book as fellows at the Hoover Institution, joined Breitbart to promote the work.

    In fact, Hall’s first 17 pieces at Breitbart, and 22 of his first 24, authored over the span of six weeks in late 2011, all promoted Schweizer’s book, a 60 Minutes segment on the book that “anchored” it in the traditional media, and the legislative fight its publication spurred, according to a Media Matters review.

    Hall’s posts were clearly geared toward building support and readership for the book on the right. His work included a series of press-release-style summaries of the book’s “bombshell revelation[s],” sometimes branded as “EXCLUSIVE”; criticism of media’s failure to report on the book’s claims; and reports on politicians and media outlets that praised the book or pushed for legislation in response to it. The constant stream of posts helped maintain a drumbeat on the right around its publication.

    Hall has continued to promote GAI’s work in his writing for Breitbart. He authored 1,382 posts between November 2011 and July 2015, at times writing three a day; a whopping 151 of them referenced Schweizer or a GAI product. In addition to 51 posts mentioning Throw Them All Out, Hall wrote 18 posts on Schweizer’s 2013 book, Extortion; 10 or more pieces on GAI’s reports on presidential daily briefs, food stamps, and presidential meetings; and multiple articles on GAI’s work on campaign finance violations, Justice Department decisions, and the growth of wealth in Washington, D.C.

    Here is a sampling of headlines from Hall’s pieces about Schweizer and GAI:

    Hall’s promotion of GAI reports typically followed the same pattern: a blitz of press-release-type pieces before or immediately after the report’s release, highlighting its premise, exclusive tidbits, and any “anchoring” press; write-ups of Schweizer appearances on TV or radio shows talking about the work; and a long tail of follow-up posts that use news hooks to reiterate the premises of the GAI report and remind the audience about it.

    After Hall became managing editor and gained additional responsibilities at Breitbart, other Breitbart writers who were not employed by GAI joined in his effort to promote the nonprofit’s work. In 2015, Schweizer authored Clinton Cash, a trainwreck of sloppy research alleging corruption by Bill and Hillary Clinton that received widespread media attention for its claims even though it contains numerous falsehoods and fabrications. Breitbart played a key role by pushing the book’s claims in more than 400 posts, none of which were authored by Hall.

    Hall Works At Private Communications Firms -- And There’s No Way To Know Who His Clients Are

    When Martin Greenfield, a Holocaust survivor who had tailored men’s clothing for more than 60 years out of a factory in Brooklyn, was looking for someone to help him tell his story, he turned to Hall. The result was Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor To Presidents’ Tailor, a memoir released November 10, 2014, with both of their names emblazoned on its cover.

    “Thank you, Wynton, for helping me gather my scattered thoughts and keeping me focused. This book could not have been assembled without your laser vision and talent,” Greenfield writes in the book’s acknowledgments. “He became me,” reads Greenfield’s testimonial on the website of Wynton Hall & Co., the celebrity ghostwriting firm that Hall has owned and operated since 2008.

    Hall’s client list consists of politicians, business leaders, and top figures in sports and the arts, according to his firm’s website. In addition to writing memoirs, Hall and his team of two offer comprehensive brand management, speechwriting, and media training services.

    But when Greenfield hired Hall, he didn’t just get someone who could help him organize his thoughts, or even just a talented ghostwriter who could also help him promote the book. Whether he knew it or not, Greenfield was also getting the full support of Hall’s other employer, Breitbart.

    The conservative website published at least six stories on the book in the three days following its publication, running two of them on the top of its front page for a total of 18 hours. The front page posting claimed that "Martin Greenfield has been hailed 'America’s greatest living tailor' and the 'most interesting man in the world.'"

    Five of the stories were published without bylines, including two excerpts from the book, aggregated stories from other outlets about it, and a post featuring audio of Mark Levin reading from the book during his radio show in what the piece claims was a “rhapsodic radio performance ... that was at times operatic in its tone.”

    The sixth, bylined by Hall, purports to be a written Q&A with Greenfield -- described as “America’s greatest living suit maker” and a “legend.” Hall's hard-hitting questions included, "Why did you write Measure of a Man?" and "Talk about some of the other men you’ve made suits for."

    Several of the pieces include Amazon links to Measure of a Man. None includes a disclosure that Breitbart’s managing editor had helped write the book -- even the post authored by Hall. In fact, every piece lists only Greenfield as the memoir’s author, even though Hall’s name appears on its cover. This practice has continued in the months and years since the book’s publication

    None of Breitbart’s competitors in the conservative media have provided anything close to that level of coverage of Greenfield’s book. Then again, none of them employ Greenfield’s co-author.

    It’s unclear how often Hall has used his top editorial position at Breitbart to promote his clients. The firm’s website provides testimonials from some of the subjects of “Wynton Hall’s books,” but it does not provide a comprehensive list. And Hall’s brand management clients are completely opaque -- he appears to offer an exclusive list of 12 clients services that include biweekly marketing strategy calls, speechwriting, talking points for media appearances, and ghostwritten books and articles.

    In addition to his personal communications firm, Hall is also a senior strategist at Oval Office Writers, the four-man group that was co-founded by Schweizer and former Bush White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Oval Office Writers does not list any of its clients, but its website’s list of services suggests that they are corporate leaders and politicians.

    Images by Sarah Wasko, Shelby Jamerson contributed research.

  • Smoking Gun: Breitbart Publicity Campaign Backed Obscure Bannon-Mercer Film

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com published nearly two dozen articles last year promoting a virtually unwatched documentary whose production company is owned by the website’s partial owners Robert and Rebekah Mercer and its then-executive chairman, Stephen Bannon.

    The website’s advocacy of the film is a case study in how Bannon and the Mercers use Breitbart to promote a web of nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies. The credentialing body for congressional reporters is currently investigating these ties as part of a review of whether the conservative website is sufficiently editorially independent to obtain official press credentials to cover Congress.

    Torchbearer is a Phil Robertson (of “Duck Dynasty” fame) vehicle whose thesis is that “God is the only meaningful anchor to a civilized society” and that purported efforts by progressives to cut God out of public life are destroying Western civilization. It received a limited October 7 release in 31 U.S. theaters.

    Stephen Bannon, the Breitbart chief and conservative filmmaker who took over Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last summer and is now a top White House advisor, wrote, directed, and produced the documentary.

    One of the film’s production companies was Glittering Steel LLC, which was founded and is owned by Bannon, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and his daughter Rebekah.

    Bannon says he left Glittering Steel and Breitbart when he moved to the Trump campaign, but there’s reason to doubt that this is true, as Breitbart’s CEO has contradicted his claim, and Bannon retains an ownership stake in Glittering Steel worth between $100,001 and $250,000 (which he currently intends to sell), according to federal filings.

    The Mercers are also partial owners of Breitbart, and Rebekah Mercer reportedly “often points out areas of coverage [to the website’s editors] that she thinks require more attention.”

    Torchbearer attracted little attention from the public and was ignored by film critics. Robertson is a conservative media darling, but apart from a few scattered articles, the movie failed to make a big splash with Breitbart’s right-wing media competitors. After its brief turn in theaters, it moved to streaming services, where it was promptly forgotten (the film has 154 reviews on Amazon Video, for example, roughly one tenth as many as right-wing productions like Joel Gilbert’s Dreams From My REAL Father and Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party).

    But at Breitbart, where the site’s leaders had a financial stake in the film’s success, promoting it was a priority worthy of mentioning in at least 22 stories.

    In the months leading up to its debut, Breitbart highlighted the film’s trailer, its screening at the Republican National Convention and at the Cannes Film Festival, and news of its theatrical release. Robertson plugged the film in numerous interviews on Breitbart’s Sirius XM radio show that were then promoted on the website, sitting down with host Bannon -- or “Mr. Director,” as Robertson called him -- to discuss the “overwhelming feeling” of making the documentary and his support for Trump.

    Breitbart’s promotion of the film culminated with a pair of glowing reviews published shortly before the theatrical release.

    According to Breitbart’s Thomas D. Williams, the documentary was “groundbreaking” and “visually riveting,” with its Duck Dynasty star serving as “an unapologetic witness to the Christian faith as the cornerstone of Western Civilization” with such skill that “even his critics will be forced to reckon with a man whose simple, rough-hewn appearance masks a subtle intellect and a keen grasp of perennial truths.”

    For Ken Klukowski, the website’s senior legal editor, the “epic” film was “a clarion call for Christians” that “gives the viewer a whirlwind tour of world history with a focus on the Christian experience from apostolic times to the present, showcasing the pattern of how godless humanity descends into depravity, in stark contrast to the sublime virtues with which God’s people adorn their lives in the face of adversity—all narrated in the iconic voice of the Duck Commander.”

    Breitbart’s outlier coverage was not a typical editorial judgment, but rather the result of a conflict of interest in which figures with heavy influence over the website also stood to reap financial benefits from the film’s success through their ownership of Glittering Steel.

    And it’s not the only time Breitbart has been called upon to promote a Glittering Steel production. The company also produced the documentary Clinton Cash, based on a book authored by Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer and a screenplay by Bannon (Schweizer, Bannon, and Rebekah Mercer all received executive producer or producer credits).

    Breitbart writers authored at least 103 stories referencing the film, according to a Media Matters review of the website’s “Clinton Cash” tag. This includes articles alerting their audience to broadcasts of the documentary by the website and on the conservative One America News Network; endorsements of the film by conservatives like Fred Barnes, John Stossel, and Matt Drudge; and pieces hyping how many times the film had been viewed online.

    This web of financial interests playing out in the website’s editorial decisions should concern the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery, the credentialing committee reviewing Breitbart’s bid for permanent congressional access.

    The body has to this point denied the website permanent credentials because it has failed to prove that it is fully independent of Bannon, the Mercers, and a nonprofit group that employs several top Breitbart editors.

    The committee is seeking more information from the website and will next convene on April 25.

    Glittering Steel has also drawn attention from campaign finance watchdogs that say it may have been used to subsidize Bannon’s salary on the Trump campaign. The payments in question originate with Make America Number 1, a super PAC led by Rebekah Mercer and heavily funded by her father.

    Images by Sarah Wasko, Shelby Jamerson contributed research.

  • Breitbart Is Not Independent, It's The Communications Arm Of The Mercers' Empire

    Top Editors Use Their Roles At Breitbart To Flack For Other Mercer Ventures They Also Work For

    ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Media Matters investigates the web of self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and corruption surrounding Breitbart.com. Its top editors have used the site to promote nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and personal clients who in turn pay them hefty salaries.​

  • Fox News Rewards O’Reilly Minion Jesse Watters With Prime-Time Slot On The Five

    ››› ››› MATT GERTZ, ZACHARY PLEAT & CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    Fox News is rewarding Jesse Watters with a prime-time slot on the panel show The Five as part of the shakeup caused by Bill O’Reilly’s ouster. Watters, a former O’Reilly producer and longtime protégé, was widely condemned last year for a racist segment set in New York City’s Chinatown. His ambush interviews have disparaged immigrants, women, African-Americans, the homeless, and members of the LGBTQ community, and he earned notoriety for an incident in which he “followed, harassed, and ambushed” a female journalist on camera.

  • The FCC’s Big Giveaway To Pro-Trump Television Broadcasting Groups

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    UPDATE: The FCC has voted to reinstate the "UHF discount," which will "clear the way for Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc. to purchase Tribune Media Co.," according to the Los Angeles Times

    ORIGINAL POST:

    The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote tomorrow to ease a media ownership rule that prevents greater consolidation of broadcast television stations. Two of the biggest expected beneficiaries of that decision will be Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Television Stations and the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, both key media allies of President Donald Trump.

    To prevent the consolidation of too much power in too few hands, current rules prohibit “a single entity from owning commercial broadcast television stations that collectively reach more than 39 percent of the total television households in the nation.”

    For more than 30 years, the FCC allowed station owners to count only 50 percent of the potential viewers in the markets where they owned stations that broadcast ultrahigh frequency (UHF) transmissions, rather than their entire potential audience. This “UHF discount” was granted because such transmissions had a more limited range at the time, but the transition to digital transmission eliminated this discrepancy, and in September 2016, the Obama-era FCC repealed that rule.

    But the FCC has new leadership under President Donald Trump -- the president promoted to chairman FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a fierce opponent of media regulations who opposed eliminating the “UHF discount" -- and today the commission will reportedly act to benefit the media moguls who supported Trump’s election. According to Variety:

    That action, along with the prospect of deregulatory moves by the Republican-controlled FCC, have Wall Street analysts expecting consolidation among major station groups. Sinclair Broadcasting is reportedly eyeing Tribune Media, and other stations groups, like Nexstar, CBS Corp. and Fox Television Stations, seem to have found a sympathetic ear at the agency to their argument that the current regulations diminish investment.

    After Murdoch’s television and newspaper properties gave Trump overwhelmingly positive coverage during the presidential campaign, Trump reportedly asked Murdoch to submit a list of potential FCC chairman nominees during the transition. Murdoch’s media entities have been the president’s biggest cheerleaders over the first months of his administration, and garnered praise and access from Trump in return. Now that cheerleading is getting paid back with dollar signs.

    Through 21st Century Fox, Murdoch currently owns 28 television stations in 17 markets, including in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Orlando and Charlotte. His stations reach roughly 37 percent of U.S. television households, just under the FCC’s cap.

    The reinstatement of the “UHF discount” -- which 21st Century Fox has fought for in court -- will give the company more flexibility to purchase additional stations, increasing Murdoch’s grip on the media landscape. That will have a real impact for viewers, as Fox’s broadcast stations often adopt the same conservative talking points and story selection as Fox News.

    Sinclair Broadcasting Group would also benefit from the rule change. Sinclair has drawn scrutiny in the past for its conservative bent, and the company reportedly made a deal with Trump’s campaign in which its journalists received access to Trump in exchange for broadcasting interviews with him without commentary. Earlier this week, Sinclair announced it had hired former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn as its “chief political analyst.”

    As Variety noted, Sinclair is interested in purchasing television stations owned by Tribune Media. But such a deal would “would hinge on existing regulations being relaxed” because Sinclair is near the FCC ownership cap, according to Reuters.

    Trump’s FCC is acting to put the control of the media in the hands of ever-fewer corporate giants. And Pai is just getting started.

    Image by Sarah Wasko.