Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • When violence against the press becomes acceptable

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On Wednesday night, as news broke that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs had been physically attacked by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte after Jacobs asked him his position on the Republican health care bill, the conservative movement’s pro-Trump voices rallied to Gianforte’s rescue. This moral cowardice has become commonplace for commentators who have spent so much time immersed in the battle to defend the president and vilify the press at all costs that they are apparently incapable of ethical seriousness.

    Faced with a conservative politician who had -- in full view of a Fox News camera crew -- grabbed a reporter and slammed him to the ground, then lied about the incident through a spokesperson, these pundits backed the politician. Their reactions ranged from efforts to undermine the stories of the reporter and the witnesses, to declarations that it looked bad but Jacobs probably deserved it, to outright cheers for the assault. In doing so, they showed there are few actions that they are unwilling to excuse as long as the victims are journalists and the perpetrator a Republican.

    In some ways, the responses mimicked the right wing’s scorn for HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly and The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery when they were arrested while reporting on protests in 2014. But the Gianforte affair represents not just the misguided use of the power of the state against journalists, but also a politician literally taking matters into his own hands because he didn't want to answer questions. If that behavior is worthy of defense, what isn’t? Where would Gianforte’s defenders draw the line?

    It comes as no surprise that these critics have sought to fend off what seems to be an obvious conclusion to draw from the events -- that they are the result of President Donald Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the press. For if journalists are, as the president says, the “enemy of the American people,” are they not worthy of violence as well as scorn? Or, at least, are those who do respond with violence not worthy of defense?

    Press freedom advocates warned of the dangers of a soft authoritarian like Trump becoming president. And indeed, the first months of the Trump administration have featured a wave of these cases. From an Alaska reporter who says he was slapped by a Republican legislator to a West Virginia reporter arrested while trying to ask questions of a member of the Trump cabinet to a CQ Roll Call scribe who was manhandled by security guards while trying to ask questions of FCC commissioners, government agents are becoming increasingly comfortable responding to the press with force.

    In this environment, as pro-Trump conservatives demonstrate their willingness to support anything and everything the president does without question, it becomes unsurprising that they might also be willing to look away when a politician physically attacks a reporter. This feeling is by no means universal -- many conservatives have been willing to criticize both the president and Gianforte for their attacks on the press. But the Trumpists are ascendant: They have the largest audiences and the most powerful media posts, and their man is in the White House.

    This support for the use of force against journalists is horrifying, but it is not new to the U.S. conservative movement. Trump-style invective against the press has been a staple of modern conservative commentary since at least former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ)’s 1964 run for the White House. But before conservative activists at the Republican National Convention jeered at journalists who they believed had taken sides in the struggle for civil rights, segregationist mobs assaulted and even murdered reporters covering integration efforts.

    The faces change, but the plan remains the same: delegitimization by dehumanization. By convincing themselves and their followers that journalists are something other than citizens who deserve the scrupulous protection of the law and human beings who deserve respect, conservative leaders seek to limit the impact of damaging stories and step in as information gatekeepers for their supporters.

    This is not a failure of “our politics,” as some mainstream journalists have claimed. When a Democratic president says that journalists are vital to the democratic process but could at times do better, and his Republican successor denounces individual reporters from his rally podium to the delight of his jeering audience, it is nonsense to throw up one’s hands and declare oneself under attack from both sides.

    The conservative movement is suffering from a unique and acute defect. And if physically attacking a reporter is now considered acceptable, where will this anti-press mania end?

  • What’s behind Sean Hannity's disgraceful Seth Rich conspiracy theories

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Fox News/Screenshot

    Successful Americans, experts say, confront the “Sunday night blues” by spending time with their loved ones, organizing themselves for the coming work week, and unplugging from the internet before bed. Fox News host Sean Hannity spent last night sending an increasingly frantic series of tweets about a deranged conspiracy theory.

    Hannity devoted several editions of his TV and radio shows last week to diving into the fever swamp with widely debunked speculation that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered last summer by Democrats in retribution for leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks. This evidence-free nonsense contradicts both the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that the emails were hacked and distributed by Russian intelligence services and law enforcement’s conclusion that Rich was likely the victim of a botched robbery.

    While Hannity was pushing new, quickly debunked developments in the story, Rich’s devastated, long-suffering family was demanding Fox retract its reporting on the murder and firing off a cease-and-desist letter to the “private investigator” behind the new wave of stories. But Hannity shows no signs of stopping -- over the weekend he invited on his show Kim Dotcom, a hacker “now fighting extradition to the United States on copyright infringement and wire fraud” who claims to have proof linking Rich and WikiLeaks (none of this makes sense).

    One of the conservative movement’s most powerful media figures is up to his neck in bullshit, with big implications for the future of his network. Here are a few potential theories for how Hannity got here:

    Hannity doesn’t realize what he’s doing. “Sean Hannity is actually a very nice guy,” Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz tweeted on Tuesday night, after Hannity started talking about the conspiracy theory. “If he realized how horrible this is to the grieving Rich family, I'd bet he'd stop. Think, Sean.” Under this explanation, Hannity simply got ahead of his own good judgment, failing to properly vet the story and consider both the facts and the impact on Rich’s devastated family.

    An extremely charitable observer might be willing to grant Hannity that interpretation on Tuesday. But it is impossible to grant him plausible deniability when he has continued to push the story, even as the family seeks retractions and Hannity himself is faced with harsh criticism of his behavior on Twitter.

    Indeed, as the Fox host’s behavior continued, Podhoretz denounced Hannity’s “monstrous” conduct.

    Hannity really believes in the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. Hannity has suggested that Vince Foster, a close friend of Hillary Clinton’s and a former White House aide who committed suicide in 1993, was actually murdered mysteriously. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he hyped National Enquirer reporting about a Clinton “fixer” who helped “set up illicit trysts for Hillary, with men AND women,” and suggested that she might have Parkinson’s disease or suffer from seizures. He frequently claimed that President Barack Obama hadn’t released his birth certificate. He’s asserted that climate change data and job reports have been manipulated for political gain.

    Is it so hard to accept that Hannity might be fully aware of all the evidence against his Seth Rich theory as well as the pain the family is going through, but nonetheless remain convinced that the Democrats employ assassins to conduct contract hits in retaliation for their employees’ misdeeds? Perhaps Hannity is simply gullible and stupid. It is certainly difficult to rule that out.

    This sort of motivated reasoning (where individuals come to conclusions they are already inclined to believe, rather than accepting contrary information) is not unusual when a political movement is out of power -- see the recent obsession of some progressives with the absurd conspiracy theories of Louise Mensch and her ilk. But Hannity is running with these stories while his party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. That speaks to a grave weakness for conservative media figures who remain more interested in attacking Democrats and smearing them with nonsense than they are with passing any positive agenda.

    Hannity is engaged in a cynical game for political and financial gain. Perhaps Hannity doesn’t really believe that the Democratic Party has John Wick on retainer and uses him only to eliminate low-level employees. Instead, he might simply be playing his audience to protect the president and boost ratings.

    Hannity, an unrepentant Trump toady, uses the Rich tale as a way to undermine the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was trying to help Trump win the election, in part by hacking Democratic party organizations and leaking the contents. “If it was true that Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails,” Hannity said on May 18, “wouldn't that blow the whole Russia collusion narrative that the media has been pushing out of the water?”

    (Incidentally, it wouldn’t -- as The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel points out, “Very stupid people keep saying this, ignoring” two other separate hacks of Democrats that the intelligence community has attributed to the Russians.)

    Hannity’s audience is currently built around his over-the-top shilling for Trump. But because the president’s first few months have been an unmitigated series of disasters, Hannity needs to find something else to talk about. Last week’s stream of devastating headlines made that need all the more important. A conspiracy theory that allows him to attack the “deep state” and the press for covering up the truth, while presenting himself as a likely martyr, would seem like just the ticket.

    Hannity also desperately needs a new storyline because his audience is flagging badly. The longest-tenured Fox host in the light of Bill O’Reilly’s recent firing, Hannity has lost hundreds of thousands of viewers in recent months. As Eric Boehlert notes, he is no longer dominating his time slot, frequently getting crushed by MSNBC’s The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell in the crucial 25-54 demographic.

    How better to shore up that flagging demographic of young viewers than by making a play for the “alt-right” conservatives who are extremely interested in Seth Rich conspiracy theories and whether the people who rebut them are Jewish?

    Whatever his reasons, Hannity’s promotion of this garbage and Fox’s apparent inability or unwillingness to rein him in speaks to the network’s larger problems in the Trump era.

    Under President Obama, Fox defined itself in opposition to the president -- everything he did, large and small, was a disastrous attack on the fabric of America. During the 2016 campaign, the network defined itself in opposition to Clinton, who took on Obama’s mantle, and in support of Trump, whose flaws were airbrushed by Fox commentators.

    With Trump in the White House, engaging in investigative reporting or providing harsh analyses of potential administration misdeeds are effectively off the table. But with the administration spending much of its time in a defensive crouch, the network also can’t champion great conservative victories -- or even rally behind sustained White House pushes for policy priorities.

    Instead, the network’s hosts have to join the president’s aides in their foxhole, doing their best to convince their audience that Trump’s failures are simply the result of vicious attacks from the press, or the “deep state,” or the Democrats. Desperate to go on offense, Trump’s media allies are left with promoting conspiracy theories.

    The risk for the network, however, is if that begins to get stale -- if viewers decide that they no longer believe in Trump and thus are uninterested in Fox’s defense. As those viewers peel off, little by little, the remainder will be an ever-smaller rump audience of core Trump supporters. This could lead to a self-reinforcing cycle, where Fox reacts to its diminished  audiences by doubling down on Trump support to retain that core audience, only to see an ever-larger group of viewers leave. Or it could lead to the network shifting against Trump to chase those viewers, only to be abandoned by the Trump core.

    With Fox’s audience already on the decline, that decision point may be swiftly approaching.

  • Roger Ailes’ Professional Legacy Is Creating A Propaganda Machine That’s Hurting America

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    As the news broke that longtime Fox News chief Roger Ailes had died this morning at age 77, the network’s on-air personalities immediately moved to secure his place in history.

    Ailes “changed television as we know it,” in the words of Bret Baier. He “founded one of the most important and successful media outlets in American history,” as Laura Ingraham put it. He “dramatically and forever changed the political and the media landscape singlehandedly for the better,” according to Sean Hannity. "Many people out there would say that he saved this country by starting the Fox News Channel," Ainsley Earhardt said on Fox & Friends.

    Fox’s efforts to use Ailes’ death to rehabilitate his reputation, and burnish the network’s, are ham-handed and self-serving. We can have empathy for the loved ones Ailes leaves behind without forgetting who he was and what he stood for.

    Ailes was a monster who was pushed out of the network he founded because dozens of women who had worked for him came forward and reported that he had sexually harassed them. And the legacy he leaves behind is a propaganda machine he created in his own image that has done incalculable damage to the country, slanting facts and information -- and sometimes completely inventing them -- in service of a vicious, right-wing agenda.

    “At Fox, Ailes has ushered in the era of post-truth politics,” Media Matters for America founder David Brock wrote in a 2012 book about the network. “The facts no longer matter, only what is politically expedient, sensationalistic, and designed to confirm the preexisting opinions of a large audience.” Now that focus on “alternative facts” is an overarching theme of the presidency of the man Ailes helped put in office.

    In Fox News, Ailes found a way to exacerbate and monetize the conservative movement’s paranoid opposition to the “liberal media,” turning millions of Americans into devoted followers who were inculcated to trust no other source of information. Mainstream outlets soon internalized his critique, forced by constant accusations of bias to elevate hackish conservative commentators and provide false balance.

    Under the slogan of “Fair and Balanced,” the former GOP operative built an unparalleled Republican communications apparatus that smeared progressives while openly campaigning for GOP candidates and causes and serving as a staging ground for the party’s politicians between runs.

    Ailes saw political opponents as enemies and created a network that demanded the same behavior of conservative politicians. Fox brought political vitriol to a new level. Chasing the approval of Fox’s hosts and its audience, Republican politicians became ever more partisan and intransigent, making congressional bipartisanship and even collegiality a thing of the past.

    He was a bigot, with well-documented prejudices against people of color, Muslims, women, and LGBTQ people. The network he created ran on division and hatred, consumed by an unslaked thirst to oppress the oppressed and comfort the comfortable.

    He was a conspiracy theorist, and so were the hosts he hired, channeling ridiculous accusations from fringe websites to the masses, creating for their audience an alternate reality in which dark liberal forces were ever ready to steal away their freedom.

    Over the last two years, his network has been devoted to propagandizing on behalf of Donald Trump, an Ailes friend who shared his bigotry, misogyny, and spite.

    For power and money, Ailes turned Americans against one another. He made the nation a meaner, less informed place. That is his legacy.

  • Sean Hannity, Seth Rich, And Fox News’ Ghoulish Attempt To Salvage Trump's Presidency

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The press is “running wild” with reports that President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian officials, Sean Hannity declared last night, decrying the “biased, abusively biased, so-called news -- it’s really fake news, coverage.”

    Just moments later, Hannity detailed a “massive breaking news story” -- “explosive developments” in last year’s “mysterious murder” of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. “If true, this could become one of the biggest scandals in American history,” the Fox host said of claims that Rich had been killed because he was the source of the stolen DNC documents acquired and released by Wikileaks.

    But the story was not true -- it was vile, it was transparently false, and it collapsed at the first hint of skepticism, as several media accounts had already revealed before Hannity’s show aired. The Fox host had done exactly what he had falsely accused the mainstream media of doing.

    This is Fox News at this moment in history -- desperate defenses of Trump that revolve around attacks on the rest of the press, interspersed with even more desperate efforts to change the subject and focus attention on some other liberal foe. Journalists for mainstream outlets continue to produce reports indicating that the nation stands on the precipice of a constitutional crisis. But Fox appears more committed than ever to convincing its viewers to voluntarily plug themselves back into the Matrix, where the Trump administration is actually going great, save for the vicious attacks by the president's enemies.

    Fox News’ already abysmal journalistic standards have dissolved altogether as the network’s hosts try to salvage the presidency.

    When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and later admitted that he did it because he didn’t like how Comey was handling the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, Fox’s hosts downplayed the events and claimed that the media was hysterical and the Democrats were melting down.

    On Monday night, as the other cable news networks devoted their programming to the revelations surrounding Trump’s meeting with the Russians, Fox was downplaying the claims, defending the president, and spending time covering “rompers for men” and the purported misdeeds of college progressives.

    And yesterday, after news broke that Trump had urged Comey to end his investigation of former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn in a potential obstruction of justice, the network’s commentators called the story “fake news,” attacked Comey, and devoted airtime to important stories like ABC canceling a television show that starred a conservative character and attacking a New York City Council member over a bill aimed at getting the president to release his tax returns.

    Hannity’s decision to devote multiple segments of last night’s broadcast to Rich’s murder is ghoulishly instructive. In July, Rich was killed while walking home in the early morning. While law enforcement have suggested that he was the victim of a botched robbery, conspiracy theorists instead have claimed -- absent anything remotely resembling evidence -- that he was murdered because he leaked the emails published by WikiLeaks later that month.

    Even as Rich’s family decried the conspiracy theorists and begged them to stop, Fox hosts brought the theory to a much larger audience, eager for nakedly partisan reasons to link Hillary Clinton to the murder and diffuse claims from intelligence officials that the emails had actually been stolen by hackers linked to the Russian government.

    The latest iteration of the story is so obviously flawed that you have to desperately want it to be true to believe it. On Monday, a reporter for D.C.’s Fox 5 claimed that Rod Wheeler -- a vocal Trump supporter, Fox News contributor, and private investigator who was once hired to assist the Rich family’s search for Rich’s killer -- had told them there was evidence Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks before his death, and that D.C. police were covering it up.

    Fringe right-wing media and conspiracy theory websites rushed to promote the story, and Fox & Friends picked it up the next morning. But the story quickly evaporated after reporters began scrutinizing it, and by yesterday afternoon law enforcement sources had debunked the story, Rich’s family had condemned Wheeler’s comments, and in an interview with CNN, Wheeler walked back his claims and said that he had actually “only learned about the possible existence of such evidence” linking Rich to Wikileaks from a Fox reporter.

    Before Hannity aired, a spokesperson for the Rich family issued a statement urging the network to be more careful because “using the legacy of a murder victim in such an overtly political way is morally reprehensible.”

    The story was false, and promoting it clearly causes Rich’s family profound pain. But Hannity apparently didn’t care -- it was red meat to throw his audience between segments about the perfidy of the “destroy Trump media’s” lies about the president.

    Fox’s executives don’t care either. Hannity pre-tapes his show. The network had to know by the time it aired that Hannity was reporting lies. Fox let it happen anyway.

    Fox isn’t a news network; it’s a pro-Trump propaganda machine catering to an audience of supporters who want enemies to hate and explanations that vindicate the president, however tendentious. And its hosts don’t care who knows that, or who gets hurt along the way.

  • Six Months Of Authoritarian Press Proposals From Trump Shill Sean Hannity

    Hannity and Co.'s eight-point plan to protect the Trump administration from reporters

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Fox News host Sean Hannity, one of President Donald Trump’s most loyal propagandists, has spent the months since the election railing about how the press won’t give Trump the same unyielding support he provides on a nightly basis.

    Soon after Trump’s election, Hannity declared that journalists should no longer be permitted to cover the new president because they supposedly sided with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. His rhetoric has only gotten more heated as the Trump administration has floundered over the past months. “The propaganda media is exactly that,” the Fox host said on Friday, after another brutal week for the president. “They're out to destroy Trump. That is their main purpose. They want to advance the interests of liberal Democrats and the left. ... They're not journalists.”

    Hannity has done more than rant about the press. Over the past six months, his show has regularly floated and vetted authoritarian ideas for bolstering the president by curtailing the access and influence of journalists. With Trump casting about for ways to reduce press access to help salvage his presidency, he may soon turn to the ideas generated by his friends at Fox.

    Hannity and his guests have recommended requiring reporters to submit press briefing questions in writing or eliminating the briefings altogether, dropping presidential press conferences and interviews with outlets that are not loyal to Trump, kicking the press corps out of the White House, and punishing journalists who are excessively confrontational.

    These proposals are dictatorial impulses married to a strategic hatred of the news media, meant to further undermine the press’s standing among Americans and limit journalists’ ability to provide an impartial narrative that rebuts the administration’s lies. On a more fundamental level, they reduce accountability and transparency, allowing the White House to answer only the questions the president’s aides choose.

    Hannity’s contempt for reporters is not new, and it’s in line with his decades of conservative commentary. But now he has a friend in the Oval Office -- one who watches his show, shares his belief that the press is unfair to conservatives, is willing to act on it.

    Here’s what Hannity and friends have called upon the president to do.

    Press Office Should Hand-Pick Briefing Topics And Require Reporters To Submit Questions In Advance

    “Week after week, we see the liberal media using White House press briefings to cause confusion and controversy and chaos,” Hannity declared last night. “I think it's time to restructure these daily briefings so that all members of the press corps end up serving you, the American people, and not themselves.” Hannity’s plan is to allow White House officials to choose a series of topics they consider appropriate for questions, demand the media submit their questions ahead of time, and answer the ones they deem worthy of responses.

    Since the briefings had become what Hannity termed a “dog-and-pony show,” the Fox host proposed the following: “The White House press team should regularly develop a list of the top and most important 15, 20, 25 issues of the day. Next, the media should be able to submit questions about these issues in writing, give the White House time to respond with clarity and specificity, and if Sean Spicer then wants to take a couple of questions from the briefing room podium, that's fine. But only on those specific topics.”

    In a follow-up segment, Fox contributor Laura Ingraham, whom Hannity floated to replace the White House communications director, agreed with the host’s plan, but said that the press office should allow questions on only three to five preselected topics per briefing. She added, “There's no need to do these every day. It should only be on an as-needed basis.”

    No More Presidential Press Conferences

    Responding to the media firestorm after Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had intended to fire Comey regardless of the recommendation from the Justice Department -- and that he did it in part because of the investigation Comey was leading into whether his campaign associates colluded with the Russian government -- Hannity said the administration should punish the press for its reporting.

    “As long as they keep reporting fake news, bizarre conspiracy theories and show this bizarre fascination and paranoia about Russia, how about no more press conferences for the Hillary Clinton-colluding media?” Hannity argued on May 12.

    Stop Giving Interviews To Hosts Who Are Not Sycophants

    Hannity also argued that Trump should “go directly to the American people” by communicating on social media “and don't do any more interviews with Lester Holt, which then is sent over their cable channel and CNN so they can rip it apart.”

    “Don't do interviews with the networks so they can spend hours and hours and hours tearing up every word this president says, something they'd never do to Obama,” Hannity added later in the broadcast. “End it. He doesn't need the press.”

    Trump has repeatedly gone to Fox for fluffy interviews provided by hosts who are clearly rooting for him, while occasionally sitting down with real journalists like Holt. Hannity would apparently prefer that Fox have a monopoly.

    Hold Briefings But Ban The Reporters

    During the same May 12 broadcast, Hannity guest Newt Gingrich, who has deep ties to the president and shares the host’s animosity for the press, suggested that the White House hold briefings in which the press secretary and other administration figures “take the country through all the positive things they're doing, and then leave, but not have the press corps there.”

    “It'll be on YouTube. It'll be on Facebook. It'll be -- may well be on C-SPAN every day -- and say to the press corps, ‘You take any part of this you want, but we're not answering your questions,’” Gingrich added.

    Kick Reporters Out Of The White House

    Gingrich urged the administration to “close down the press room, send the reporters off. They can sit over at the Hay-Adams. They can go to Starbucks across the street. I don't care where they go.”

    Instead, Gingrich suggested the Trump administration “create an entire new tradition of reporting directly to the American people” by answering questions submitted by non-journalists (who are presumably hand-picked by the press office).

    Hannity replied that he loved the idea because “the media will implode! They would not know how to deal with this.”

    Have A “Garbage Man” To Briefly Respond To “Nonsense” Stories Like Trump-Russia

    Before settling on banning reporters from the press briefing room altogether, Gingrich had argued in March that the White House should appoint someone to deal with what he termed “nonsense” stories like the Russia investigation. That “garbage man,” as Hannity put it, would “start Spicer's press briefing with a five or 10-minute list of that week's nonsense. Then they'd leave.” After that, the press would have to focus on “the kind of things that matter to the average American.”

    Suspend Aggressive Reporters And Pack The Press Room With Less Confrontational Ones

    During a January 11 press conference, Trump lashed out at CNN reporter Jim Acosta, who repeatedly sought to ask a question, declaring, “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news!”

    In response, Gingrich told Hannity that the White House should use the incident as an opportunity to “close down the elite press.” He suggested that Acosta be banned from reporting on Trump events for 60 days “as a signal, frankly, to all the other reporters that there are going to be real limits” for proper behavior. He also suggested that Trump “extend the privileges to reporters from out of town, folks that fly in from all over the country to be allowed to be at a briefing” because those reporters would be more “courteous” and less “adversarial.”

    Get Rid Of White House Press Briefings And Take Calls On Hannity’s Radio Show Instead

    Back in December, Hannity argued that Trump should eliminate press briefings because the media has an institutional bias against him. Instead, Hannity suggested, “I'd offer my 550 radio stations and my show, let him take calls from people around the country, right? And if the The New York Times gets through, God bless them.”

  • Why The “Alt-Right” Is Getting Scoops From The Trump White House

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The vicious “alt-right” provocateur Mike Cernovich spent the 2016 election cycle claiming that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease and that her associates were leading a child sex-trafficking ring from a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. Now he has the ear of enough sources close to President Donald Trump that, at times, he has published legitimate scoops that have later been verified by more credible sources.

    “Big scoops by personalities who rose to prominence online by crossing the line into trolldom have short-circuited a mainstream-media bullshit detector that once spotted fake news by bylines alone,” warned BuzzFeed News’ Charlie Warzel, who has detailed several cases in which trolls linked to the racist and misogynistic “alt-right” have turned out to be unnervingly well-sourced.

    By providing people like Cernovich with this information, the administration sources have created a new state of uncertainty for journalists and news consumers who might otherwise have been able to universally reject stories from “alt-right” sources. And that creates a dismal state of affairs given the willingness of those writers to troll the public by pushing flagrantly false reports and conspiracy theories.

    The wave of more credible stories doesn’t reflect a new commitment to investigative journalism on the part of these figures so much as it reflects terribly on the sort of people in Trump’s orbit, who are feeding information to the dregs of the internet for personal or strategic reasons.

    For Warzel, the rising power of the “pro-Trump media” makes sense because “its people are in the White House,” feeding information to simpatico media figures.

    That is surely the explanation in some cases. According to Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who frequently brags about his influence with the president and who recently gave Cernovich a regular hosting gig on his radio show, the troll’s sources are “not a secret, it’s [the president’s] sons, especially Donald Jr.”

    Trump Jr. repeatedly drew scrutiny during the 2016 election for his interactions with “alt-right” and white nationalist figures and memes. He follows Cernovich and several other “alt-right” figures on Twitter, and in April he declared that Cernovich deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize for one of his stories.

    Several other current and former members of the White House staff have similar ties to that movement.

    This seems like a plausible pathway for at least some of Cernovich’s stories. But White House staffers don’t need to be his buddy in order to use him -- they may see giving him information as a way to maintain Trump’s support with the “alt-right.”

    In short, there may be a White House strategy to feed the trolls.

    White House chief strategist Steve Bannon turned into “the platform for the alt-right” during his tenure running the website, seeing the value in gaining fans within that movement. Throughout the election, the Trump campaign could count on people like Cernovich to push conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton. There is certainly value in keeping such people on the White House’s good side and being able to deploy their skill at manipulating the broader discourse.

    In this scenario, sending tips to such figures is of a piece with the White House Press Office’s decision to grant press access to a rotating cast of fringe media figures. It’s a way to reward friendly outlets while keeping the press off balance.

    Finally, there’s the possibility that the end goal of some of these stories is to feed the King Troll: President Trump himself.

    Politico reported today that because the president lacks a structure for receiving information and is willing to believe anything put in front of him, “aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.” And that can have major consequences: “A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda. Current and former Trump officials say Trump can react volcanically to negative press clips, especially those with damaging leaks, becoming engrossed in finding out where they originated.”

    “That is what happened in late February,” Politico continued, “when someone mischievously gave the president a printed copy of an article from, the website of Internet provocateur Charles C. Johnson, which accused deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh of being ‘the source behind a bunch of leaks’ in the White House.”

    Johnson’s piece about Walsh was also cited in Warzel’s article about pro-Trump media figures who had received unusually well-sourced scoops. Johnson openly repudiates many conventions of journalistic ethics and has published numerous stories that were later disproved; he’s also been banned from Twitter. As his notoriety grew, he went from published stories at prominent conservative outlets like The Daily Caller to writing for his own website.

    But President Trump is uninterested in any of this, and so when Johnson’s story passed across his desk it apparently became a “topic of heated conversation in the West Wing, setting off mini internal investigations into who had backstabbed Walsh,” Politico reported.

    In this scenario, the “alt-right” commentariat becomes a way for White House aides to generate news clips that they can give the president, because he does not discern between their work and that of a mainstream newspaper. Unlike more credible reporters, writers for these outlets have no real standards; if you give them something juicy, they will publish it.

    Either senior White House aides and people close to the president share the values of the “alt-right” racists and misogynists, or they’re willing to work with them to achieve their ends. Either way, the “alt-right” isn’t going away -- it continues to grow and metastasize and now has allies at the highest level of government.

  • How Fox News Covered Trump Firing The FBI Director, In 51 Screen Shots

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    President Donald Trump has dramatically shifted his stated rationale for firing FBI Director James Comey. But Fox News hosts have not wavered in their defenses of the president, maintaining the same narratives all week: Trump did nothing wrong, the media is overreacting, Democrats are hypocrites for criticizing the president’s actions, and the real story is that a new FBI director will have the opportunity to put Hillary Clinton in jail.

    On Tuesday, Trump fired Comey, offering up the obvious lie that he had made the decision based on a recommendation from the deputy attorney general, who had criticized the manner in which the FBI director publicly discussed the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.

    Comey’s firing came as his agency was investigating whether the president’s campaign had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, and he’s not the first high-ranking government official to be fired while investigating the president’s associates. Reporting quickly indicated that it was Comey’s handling of that investigation -- and not his handling of the Clinton one -- that had led to his firing. But Trump’s surrogates and his media allies nonetheless hewed to the party line.

    On Thursday afternoon, however, NBC News released a clip of Nightly News anchor Lester Holt’s interview with Trump, in which the president himself admitted that he actually had planned to fire Comey anyway and that he was acting in response to the FBI director’s handling of the Russia probe. All statements from the White House and its allies had been definitively debunked by the president himself, to the point where Trump is now claiming that it is “not possible” for his surrogates to accurately reflect his positions.

    But even as the Trump White House’s story has completely reversed, Fox’s talking points defending the president have remained remarkably consistent.

    Here is how Fox covered Comey firing story, in 51 screenshots dating from when the story broke on the evening of May 9 through early in the afternoon of May 12.

    May 9: Fox Builds Its Pro-Trump Narratives

    Fox’s coverage of Trump firing Comey kicked off with an inauspicious start -- after news broke during the 5 p.m. hour, the network first reported that the FBI director had resigned.

    The network also quickly floated a potential Comey replacement: Vice President Mike Pence’s friend John Pistole, a former FBI deputy director:

    As the evening progressed, Fox’s conservative hosts began generating the narratives the network would continue to employ in the days to come. Trump’s actions had been legitimate because they were based on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general:

    The media was overreacting:

    Democrats were hypocrites because they had previously criticized Comey:

    And the appointment of a new FBI director brings with it the possibility of reopening the investigation into Clinton’s server.

    May 10: A Full-Throated Defense Of The President

    President Trump’s favorite morning news show, Fox & Friends, weaponized the narratives that had been building the previous night. The hosts defended the president’s decision and lashed out at the press for “pouncing” on Trump by reporting that the firing was linked to the Russia investigation and the Democrats for having a “double standard”:

    The program also floated conservative favorites like Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke as possible Comey replacements, while portraying Pence's friend Pistole as the purported “bipartisan possibility.”

    These narratives continued through the morning and into the afternoon:

    A combative press briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not shift the narratives:

    And by the evening, the talking points were consistent: The media and Democrats were in a “hysterical” “meltdown” over the events, which were really no big deal:

    May 11: A Dramatic Shift In The White House Story, But No Change In Talking Points From Fox

    Fox News spent the morning of May 11 pounding the same claims, saying that Democrats and journalists were overstating the story for political reasons:

    That afternoon, Trump dramatically changed his story in the Holt interview, clips of which were aired on Fox.

    But after fresh talking points from the briefing room:

    Fox continued to pillory the president’s critics ...

    … even to the point of downplaying the events by saying they weren’t as serious as the Civil War or Cuban Missile Crisis:

    The story the network’s hosts really wanted to talk about was whether Trump would have the opportunity to lock Clinton up:

    May 12: Mean Lester Holt Interrupted The President

    By this morning, Fox & Friends had returned to saying that Trump had done nothing wrong:

    The hosts, however, had identified a new enemy: Holt, who they claimed had been too quick to interrupt the president while Trump was trying to explain that he had fired the FBI director over his handling on an investigation into his associates. It had been, they said, an interrogation, nothing like the interview they had given Trump:

    By its noon hour, Fox was describing its competitors' coverage noting that Comey had been investigating Trump's associates as those outlets pushing a "conspiracy theory":

  • Trump’s Delegitimization Engine Has Now Claimed The White House Press Office

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    President Donald Trump’s communications strategy requires the White House to delegitimize all sources of information that provide unfavorable facts about the administration. The press, the bureaucracy, the Congressional Budget Office, and the judiciary have all been cited as unworthy of the public trust because they dared to contradict the White House line.

    Now Trump is claiming that his own spokespeople also can’t be trusted to provide the real story about his actions.

    This week has seen not only a near-constitutional crisis, but also a cataclysmic communications disaster after the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been investigating whether the president’s associates had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. First, prominent Trump administration figures -- including the vice president -- offered up the obvious lie that Trump fired Comey in response to a recommendation from the Justice Department because Comey had been unfair to Hillary Clinton during the presidential election. Then the president himself admitted that he actually had planned to fire Comey anyway and was acting in response to the FBI director’s handling of the Russia probe.

    With the White House taking heat for promoting what were obvious lies, the president this morning tweeted that it is “not possible” for his surrogates to accurately convey the facts, and that he is considering ending press briefings in favor of sending written statements.

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer proved that his office was unworthy of trust the day after the president was inaugurated, and he lies frequently from the podium. But it’s still remarkable to hear this coming from Trump himself. The comments are significant for several reasons.

    First, it’s an acknowledgment that the president believes that his own top aides can no longer be counted on to accurately convey information about his actions. He is establishing himself as the sole source of truth regarding his administration’s decisions. And given the president’s pattern of lying on a near-constant basis, and shifting his positions with the wind, his statements set up a scenario of perpetual gaslighting.

    Second, it suggests that he may shift the role of the White House Press Office to simply providing propaganda. Traditionally, there is an understanding that the White House has a responsibility to provide information on the administration's positions and responses to events, gained through press briefings where members of the media can ask questions. The fact that the press secretary and deputy press secretary have constantly lied from the podium doesn't mean that the briefings don't serve a purpose in allowing the media to publicly and regularly ask questions of the administration. A shift to a press-release-only model would allow the White House to provide only the answers it wants to the questions it deems worthy of a response, with no opportunity for reporters to ask follow-ups.

    Third, there is no reason to think that White House press releases would be more accurate than comments from the briefing podium. In fact, the official written statement from Spicer provided the same false claims about Comey’s firing that Trump has now renounced.

    Fourth, it's a confirmation that the president believes the real thing that went wrong was that the White House failed to adequately defend his actions, not that he did anything wrong by firing the FBI director because of the way the director was investigating his associates.

    These are dangerous steps that suggest the president is seeking drastic changes in order to better control and manipulate the press. Following Trump’s open admission that he fired the FBI director in part to bring an investigation to a favorable conclusion, reporters should be worried.

    UPDATE: In an interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro set to air Saturday, Donald Trump says he thinks “it’s a good idea” to eliminate press briefings, in part because his aides get "beat up.”

    Earlier today, White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason said that “doing away with briefing would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned.”

  • Fox & Friends’ Propagandistic Coverage Of Trump Firing The FBI Director, In 17 Captions

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    President Donald Trump was reportedly upset with the way cable news outlets were covering his unprecedented decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing an investigation into whether the president’s associates had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. This morning, his favorite morning news program, Fox & Friends, tried to make it up to him, with an utterly propagandistic show that championed the president’s actions.

    The Trump administration claims that the president made his decision based on recommendations from the Justice Department, which had criticized Comey’s deeply flawed handling of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. This argument does not remotely pass the smell test, and reporting suggests that the DOJ was ordered to come up with a pretext to fire Comey because the president was angry with his handling of the Russia investigation.

    But on Fox & Friends, which the president has frequently praised for its fawning coverage of his actions, the Trump administration’s arguments were taken at face value. Co-hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, and Ainsley Earhardt repeatedly laughed off concerns about the timing of Comey’s firing and savaged Democrats and the media for criticizing the president. The show booked a host of pro-Trump favorites, including former campaign aide David Bossie and close confidant Newt Gingrich, to provide the administration's line. Every single guest the show hosted to discuss the events agreed that Trump had made the right decision.

    Here is Fox & Friends’ propagandistic take on Trump firing Come, presented via the show’s captions.

    Claiming Comey cleared Trump

    According to Trump’s letter firing Comey, the FBI director had repeatedly told him that he was not the target of the FBI investigation. If true, that would be extremely irregular.

    Following the party line on Trump’s firing

    Trump’s claim that he fired Comey because the FBI director was too unfair to Clinton is an obvious lie, but the program backed him to the hilt and cheered on his actions.

    Attacks on Democrats and the press

    Among the program’s top priorities was delegitimizing all criticism of Trump’s actions. Fox & Friends repeatedly highlighted that Democrats had previously criticized Comey and pointed to what they termed media “hysteria.”

    Comey’s replacement

    The program pointed to conservative favorites including Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke as possible Comey replacements, while portraying John Pistole, a former deputy director of the bureau and close friend of Vice President Mike Pence’s, as the purported “bipartisan possibility.”

  • Trump Fired The FBI Director. No Journalist Should Believe Anything The White House Says About It.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The White House has announced that President Donald Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey. Reporters shouldn’t believe another public word they hear from White House officials on the subject.

    The president is lying about why he fired the FBI director. He lies constantly, on the smallest matters and, as in this case, on the largest ones. He is lying now. The press must call him out.

    Trump claims he made his decision based on recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Sessions claimed that a “fresh start” was needed for the bureau, while Rosenstein produced a two-page brief essentially arguing that Comey should be removed because of the manner in which he publicly discussed the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.

    Comey’s handling of the email server investigation was improper. It beggars belief to think that is the actual reason for his removal.

    Trump and Sessions both publicly praised Comey’s actions during the presidential campaign, and The New York Times is reporting based on administration sources that White House and DOJ officials have been building the case against Comey after Sessions was “charged with coming up with reasons to fire him.” Comey’s firing came as his agency was investigating whether the president’s associates had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, and he’s not the first high-ranking government official to be fired while investigating the president’s associates.

    Some conservative journalists are already casting aspersions at liberals who criticize the president’s actions, following the White House talking points by claiming that the president is just doing what they’ve wanted all along. In so doing those pundits expose themselves as shills for Trump who have sacrificed any shred of credibility. They should be shunned by mainstream outlets. On this subject, the cable news model of providing both sides to every issue will fail the audience of any outlet that attempts it.

    Dark times are ahead, and the American people are counting on the press to shine a light.