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Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • The Trump-Fox feedback loop could cause a war with Iran

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump tweeted about a Fox News segment Monday morning that urged a U.S. military strike against Iran, a worrisome development as experts warn that rising tensions between the two nations could quickly spiral out of control.

    Fox both serves as Trump’s personal propaganda outlet and shapes his worldview. The president regularly watches hours of Fox coverage and often tweets about segments that catch his eye. He has stocked his administration with former Fox personalities, the network’s most prominent figures serve as his outside advisers, and guests openly appeal to him during their on-air appearances. Fox segments have an immense influence over this White House, with the president acting based on what he sees on the network on everything from political strategy to pardons.

    On Monday morning at 11:49 a.m. ET, Trump tweeted, “Iran to defy Uranium Stockpile Limits.”

    That text matched the chyron of a Fox segment that aired just a few minutes earlier. The segment focused on Iran’s warning that it will soon exceed the limit on its stockpiling of uranium -- set by the 2015 nuclear deal the Trump administration withdrew from last year -- if it doesn’t receive additional aid from Europe to counteract the effect of U.S. sanctions.

    Trump’s tweet comes during a period of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, during which “an escalating tit-for-tat has pushed the two sides closer to a military confrontation,” as Politico put it on Friday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that “a full range of options” -- including a military strike -- are currently under discussion. If undertaken, a military response might prove disastrous; experts have warned that even a limited U.S. military strike could trigger an Iranian escalation, leading to a wider conflagration.

    “You could see the administration going down a path of limited military action against Iranian targets, … but the risk of miscalculation is much higher,” Ilan Goldenberg, who served in the Pentagon and the State Department during the Obama administration and is now at the Center for a New American Security, told Politico. “If President Trump is able to be convinced that he can do that without Iranian retaliation, he would be playing with fire.”

    The Fox segment Trump tweeted about hammered home that very message Goldenberg warned Trump might be influenced by, encouraging U.S. military action against Iran while arguing that such action would not lead to a broader war.

    “History will tell you Iran only responds to strength,” anchor Julie Banderas said during the segment, which Trump apparently watched. “Strength in numbers, strength in military action, is needed, according to Mike Pompeo, who says that the president would back that.”

    “Do you believe that military action is needed?” Banderas asked former CIA officer and Fox contributor Daniel Hoffman. “I agree with the secretary,” Hoffman replied.

    Banderas went on to air a clip of Jack Keane, a retired general and Fox senior strategic analyst, pushing back against claims from critics by arguing that military action would not result in a war and that the U.S. has “got to have enough resolve to stand up to” Iran “much as Ronald Reagan did in the late 1980s” when the U.S. attacked Iranian navy ships and oil platforms.

    Keane regularly advises Trump and has twice turned him down when asked to serve as secretary of defense, making his voice particularly important.

    Fox pushed the same message over the weekend, repeatedly informing the president that a military strike is necessary and will come without costs.

    On Sunday morning, for instance, Trump tweeted about two segments from roughly the first half hour of Fox & Friends Weekend.

    In between those segments, Fox hosted notorious anti-Muslim hawk Jim Hanson to respond to statements from the U.S. that Iran was responsible for attacks on two Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. Hanson argued that the U.S. should retaliate against Iran, saying, “It's time to go ahead and turn some of the fast boats they are using to do this into oil slicks in the Gulf.”

    Hanson was also quick to push back against critics who argue that such a response could have dire repercussions, saying, “No serious person is calling for war with Iran, which is what the Iran apologists are [saying].”

    “So you’re suggesting, perhaps, not a full-scale war, perhaps an attack that gets Iran’s attention, retribution down the road, and gets them to the table and we deal from a position of strength,” co-host Ed Henry replied.

    If Trump tuned in on Saturday night to Fox’s Justice with Jeanine Pirro, as he typically does, he heard several of his hawkish political allies praise his actions, denounce Iran, and urge him to keep the pressure on.

    “Thank God for President Trump,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said when Pirro asked him about the situation with Iran. “They are feeling the pressure and pushing back. We got them in a corner. They are a wounded cage animal.” He went on to direct the following advice to Trump: “Do not let them take over the Strait of Hormuz, keep the pressure on, and if they continue to do this, sink their navy like Ronald Reagan did back in the 80s.”

    Iranians “only understand strength,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) similarly argued. “Iran is the individuals that fund the terrorism around the world, the attacks going into Israel, the attacks going into Saudi Arabia, the problems anywhere else around the world, nine times out of ten it's Iran that’s using it and a part of it.”

    And Anthony Scaramucci, the hedge funder who very briefly served as White House communications director, argued that Iran’s leaders “are expecting the president like other presidents to back down. They don't really know the guy, OK. So, the signal to those guys should be ‘OK, we are not backing down, you don’t understand this president, he’s very different from these other presidents.’” He added, “Ultimately, the theocracy of Iran will die and there will be a systemic change there for the better.”

    It remains unclear how the conflict between the U.S. and Iran will play out. But with the stakes this high, it’s unnerving that the president is wallowing in Fox’s spin.

  • Sarah Sanders’ successor

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’ imminent departure, announced via tweet last week by President Donald Trump, will inspire few laments from the nation’s journalists. Inhabitants of Sanders’ office are supposed to balance their political service defending the president with their public service keeping the nation informed through the press. But Sanders has rejected the latter role, shamelessly spreading misinformation and lies while accusing journalists of doing the same, viciously belittling members of the press and stripping them of access as she effectively eliminated White House press briefings.

    There’s no official word yet on who Sanders’ successor will be. The lists of possible picks circulating in the press include current administration officials, current Fox News personalities, and current and former administration officials who were previously Fox News personalities, underscoring the propaganda network’s unique role under the Trump presidency.

    What seems likely is that Sanders’ replacement will either be as bad as she was or will have a remarkably short tenure in the position. Her dishonesty and antagonism toward the press may be personal character flaws. But under the Trump administration, they are also all-but-official job requirements for the post.

    No politician’s record of honesty is entirely unmarred, putting their spokespersons in the difficult position of trying to spin their words to skeptical journalists. But Trump lies constantly, at a rate and scale far beyond that of a typical politician, and demands his aides show fidelity to him when he tells untruths. These shameless and brazen lies are a core function of the Trump presidency, a way for him to bind together his coalition by regularly spreading disinformation. Any press secretary will face constant questions about the president’s relentless falsehoods, and it is difficult to imagine them lasting in the job if they fail to provide Trump with a vigorous defense.

    Anti-media invective has long been a staple of conservative commentary. But because Trump has sought to assert himself as the final arbiter of reality, he has needed to make delegitimizing the press a central plank of his political platform. His use of authoritarian language about the press has continued even as his supporters have threatened and enacted plots to murder journalists. This Saturday, for example, he accused The New York Times of committing a “virtual act of Treason” for publishing a story Trump claimed was “bad for our Country”; the next day, he claimed that both the Times and The Washington Post are “a disgrace to our Country, the Enemy of the People.” The next press secretary will be asked to reckon with Trump’s rhetoric and will likely not have the option of simply saying that he or she disagrees with the president.

    Sanders’ replacement may offer some stylistic differences and could lack some of the sheer glee she seems to take in the worst aspects of her work. But her successor will be a liar and an antagonist of journalists. The position requires it.

  • Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn’s new attorney, is an anti-Mueller conspiracy theorist and Fox regular

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump praised former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s decision to replace his legal team with Sidney Powell, a conservative attorney, conspiracy theorist, and harsh critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe who has made dozens of appearances on Fox News and Fox Business in recent years.

    “General Michael Flynn, the 33 year war hero who has served with distinction, has not retained a good lawyer, he has retained a GREAT LAWYER, Sidney Powell,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “Best Wishes and Good Luck to them both!”

    After pleading guilty to charges of lying to the FBI in December 2017, Flynn began cooperating with Mueller’s team. Last week, he fired his legal team, a move that “triggered speculation in legal and political circles that he’s considering backing out of his plea deal with the government in a play for a presidential pardon,” according to Politico.

    Powell’s hiring should bolster that conjecture. She is a former federal prosecutor who specializes in federal appeals in commercial litigation, but has carved out a sideline as a Fox pundit. According to her website, “Sidney the Media Figure is highly sought to comment on current legal issues and government investigations—especially the special investigation lead by Robert Mueller and his chief lieutenant Andrew Weissmann,” who the site describes as the “true villain” of her 2014 book, Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice.

    Indeed, Powell is one of a handful of lawyers that Fox’s pro-Trump hosts have relied upon to put a legal gloss on their alternative narrative that Mueller’s investigation was the result of an illegal anti-Trump conspiracy by the “deep state.” She has used Fox’s platform to claim the probe “was set up, basically, to impugn this presidency and to make it as hard as possible for Mr. Trump to carry out his duties” and to describe investigators as “creeps on a mission to destabilize and destroy this president.”

    While Powell has a lower profile than more regular legal commentators like Alan Dershowitz or Victoria Toensing, the former federal prosecutor has still made more than two dozen appearances on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business show, and at least nine additional weekday interviews on Fox News, since January 2018.

    Powell has an extremely active presence on Twitter, where she has argued that Flynn’s prosecution is a “horrific injustice” and that Mueller’s team engaged in “obstruction” by “hiding evidence that exonerates him.” As part of a pattern of frequently amplifying conspiratorial rants about the Mueller probe, Powell has also repeatedly retweeted major accounts that promote the QAnon conspiracy theory and shared articles from Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory website, Infowars (in October 2017, Powell was also interviewed by then-Infowars Washington bureau chief Jerome Corsi.).

    Powell’s conspiratorial Twitter musings are not limited to the Mueller probe. She has repeatedly tweeted about George Soros, the Jewish billionaire philanthropist who is regularly targeted with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In December, she accused the Federal Reserve of deliberately trying to “#crash the market” as part of a deliberate plot to destroy Trump “and enrich #Soros & themselves. #Soros has done it before.”

    She has also tweeted that “#Islam is only ‘religion’ of which I am aware that seeks to destroy others & would disenfranchise > 1/2 world population.”

    Powell’s website sells T-shirts describing Mueller and six other key law enforcement figures in the case as “Creeps on a Mission.” The shirt is “a great gift for those who know the Mueller investigation of the President is its own crime,” according to the website.

    One of Powell’s “other websites” is CreepsOnAMission.com, which breaks down the iconography of the shirt and provides capsule descriptions of the purported malfeasance of the people it depicts. It also embeds clips on that theme from the Fox shows of Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, claims “Mueller and his Hillary favored henchmen” are trying “to ensnare anyone he can reach within the circle of President Trump,” and urges readers to “Support President Trump & Our Mission” by wearing the shirt “to show your support for President Trump & The Rule of Law!”

    Hannity frequently cites Powell’s book for its harsh criticism of Weissmann, a veteran federal prosecutor and former general counsel at the FBI who became a key member of Mueller’s team.

    On Wednesday, Hannity praised Flynn’s hiring of Powell, arguing that a “change of course certainly looks imminent” for Flynn because “Powell said 16 months ago he should withdraw” his guilty plea.

    Indeed, in a February 2018 op-ed for The Daily Caller, Powell wrote that Flynn should withdraw his plea because the newly appointed judge in his case, Emmet G. Sullivan, was likely to dismiss the charges against him. (Powell was one of a series of Flynn defenders who misinterpreted one of Sullivan’s orders to speculate that the judge believed Flynn might have been the victim of prosecutorial misconduct.)

    In another op-ed published shortly before Flynn’s sentencing hearing in December, Powell claimed that Mueller had obstructed justice by supposedly destroying or suppressing evidence he was required to provide to Flynn’s legal team. On Fox, she speculated that because of this, Sullivan would “throw the entire prosecution of Gen. Flynn out for egregious prosecutorial misconduct.”

    Instead, at the hearing, the judge rejected the notion that Flynn had been mistreated by investigators, blasted Flynn himself, and convinced him to delay sentencing and continue working with Mueller’s team rather than risk jail time.

    After signing on as Flynn’s lawyer, Powell said in a statement that Flynn “will continue to cooperate with the government in all matters.” But Fox commentator Sara Carter, whose slanted reporting from pro-Trump sources helps fuel the Fox counternarrative on Mueller, said on Hannity’s program that Powell also stressed to her in an interview that “it would take about 90 days to get through [Flynn’s] file,” which could delay any sentencing and leave open the possibility that he could withdraw his plea.

    Fox’s pro-Trump commentators have been urging Flynn to withdraw his plea since he pleaded guilty in the first place. They have also been calling on the president to pardon Flynn and other purported “victims” of Mueller’s investigation -- a notion Trump’s team has reportedly entertained.  

    If Trump does ultimately pardon Flynn, the former national security adviser would be only the latest recipient in a series of clemency decisions influenced by the network.

  • Fox rewards Laura Ingraham’s unethical, immoral behavior with a presidential interview

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump capped off this week’s European trip by sitting for an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham Thursday morning, just before participating in a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day -- when the Allies invaded Western Europe --  in Normandy, France. The appearance again demonstrates both the manner in which Fox’s propagandists have been integrated into the White House’s operations and how the network’s hosts operate without ethical and moral standards.

    Fox’s fusion with the Trump administration has upended the way international presidential trips are covered, with the network’s stars regularly accompanying Trump on his trips abroad and often getting the president’s only interview of the voyage with a U.S. television network. That exchange is mutually beneficial: Fox gets an exclusive sit-down with the president for its audience, while the fawning coverage from its pro-Trump hosts ensures that the “first snapshot of history gets filtered through a sympathetic lens” for the president, as Politico put it in chronicling the phenomenon in February.

    These exclusive interviews during international forays are part of a broader pattern in which the network’s pro-Trump commentators are rewarded for their support. Fox News, Fox Business, and Fox Broadcasting combined have done 54 Trump interviews since his inauguration by our count (not including Ingraham’s latest one), amounting to more than 70 percent of all of his national TV interviews. In 2019, the White House has been putting Trump almost exclusively on Fox, rewarding the networks with 12 of his 13 nationally televised interviews.

    As usual, the president has little to fear from a Fox interview. Ingraham has spent the week hosting her show live from London and Normandy, bashing anti-Trump protesters because they supposedly “didn’t seem British” and getting quoted in a presidential tweet after praising his “incredibly successful visit.” Her behavior tracks with the incredibly positive way her colleague Sean Hannity has reported from previous international trips with the president.

    Ingraham’s participation in the president’s international trips, however, is somehow even more ethically fraught than Hannity’s. That’s no small feat, since Hannity advises the president regularly and last year spoke at one of his campaign rallies. But Ingraham has done him one better by becoming a direct financial beneficiary of Trump’s re-election campaign, a staggering conflict of interest for the host of a national cable news program.

    Last Tuesday, Ingraham announced that her podcast was sponsored by the Make America Great Committee, a joint fundraising effort by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee to support his re-election.

    A Fox spokesperson made clear that the network is not concerned with the president’s campaign putting money directly into its host’s pocket, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Laura Ingraham’s podcast is run independently of Fox News and we have nothing to do with its sponsorships.” And just days after that news broke, Fox sent its host, who is effectively on the president’s payroll, to cover his overseas trip and interview him.

    Something else happened between the revelation that Ingraham was taking money from Trump’s campaign and her interview with the president before a D-Day celebration: She defended a white supremacist who is obsessed with the “Jewish Question.” Her inclusion of Paul Nehlen on a graphic of “prominent voices censored on social media” and her description of the group as simply “people who believe in border enforcement, people who believe in national sovereignty” during last Thursday’s show triggered a media firestorm.  

    Fox did not respond to the controversy with an apology or an explanation -- network founder and Chairman Rupert Murdoch reportedly views apologies as egregious signs of weakness, and any effort to distance Ingraham from Nehlen would raise more questions about the other “voices” she defended during the segment, as well as her own history of bigoted commentary. Instead, the network issued a gaslighting statement that attacked its critics and pretended Ingraham hadn’t actually defended Nehlen.

    Fox likely hoped that the statement would confuse the situation long enough for the story to lose momentum and fade away, a bet that appears to have paid off. Meanwhile, Ingraham packed her bags to accompany the president to Europe.

    We’re beyond the point where Fox is simply allowing its star hosts the impunity to defy ethical standards and promote bigotry. In granting Ingraham the opportunity to travel abroad with the president and interview him after the week she just had, the network is now openly rewarding this behavior.

  • Joe Biden, Ukraine, and the NY Times’ desperate need for a public editor

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The New York Times may be the so-called paper of record. But a series of recent controversies over its political reporting have made the paper itself the story, and not in a good way. The Times has relied on a dual strategy of issuing canned statements and letting individual reporters defend the paper more vigorously on social media. And instead of quieting the criticism, that strategy has highlighted the Times’ biggest self-inflicted wound of all: its decision to eliminate the public editor.

    The Times is similar to plenty of large corporations, in that management doesn’t like to be questioned. But unlike its peers in the business world, the Times has an opportunity to turn its missteps into proof of its journalistic courage and integrity. It’s baffling that the paper would eliminate this obvious line of self-defense. And the cost of that decision has never been more obvious.

    The Times’ latest dilemma stems from the news that Iuliia Mendel, a Ukrainian freelancer who contributed to dozens of stories about that country's politics for the paper, had been hired as spokesperson for its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

    Those sorts of transitions always draw scrutiny, not all of it warranted. But Mendel’s new job was announced shortly after she co-authored a widely criticized May 1 Times story suggesting that then-Vice President Joe Biden had pushed the notoriously corrupt Ukrainian government to dismiss its top prosecutor in part to aid Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of an energy company that was under investigation.

    The story waited until its 19th paragraph to acknowledge there was “no evidence” Biden “intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.” And Bloomberg later reported that the probe into the energy company had been “dormant” for years before Biden interceded to force the prosecutor’s removal. Most damning of all might have been the story’s very frame: though it was positioned as an investigation into Republican attempts to peddle the story to damage Biden, the paper allowed itself to be manipulated into peddling the very disinformation it was trying to cover.

    The article’s co-author, Times reporter Ken Vogel, weighed in on Twitter to defend the piece during the ensuing social media firestorm, cherry-picking a few criticisms to address and ignoring others. Meanwhile, the Times issued a bland statement standing by its reporting, and some of Vogel’s colleagues rallied around him.

    The Times story drew new criticism after Mendel’s hiring by the Ukrainian government inevitably led some observers to question whether Mendel influenced the story in an attempt to land her latest gig.

    In response, the paper issued another flat statement offering as a defense that she did not apply for the job until two days after the story was published, and an assertion that Times “editors are confident” that “her reporting -- including her work on our recent Hunter Biden story -- was fair and accurate.” (Vogel has not mentioned Mendel’s new job on Twitter.)

    It’s entirely possible that the Times’ explanation is correct, especially because, as Nina Jankowicz, a foreign policy analyst with expertise in Ukraine, points out, Zelensky’s political standing was actually harmed by the Times article, making it a less-than-ideal audition for Mendel if she was trying to use it to facilitate a career transition.

    But the Times would never accept this sort of “we did nothing wrong” assurance from any other powerful institution. The paper’s reporters would insist that their readers needed more than a blanket declaration -- and if they didn’t get it, the resulting story would make clear what that denial was worth.

    Like Times reporters on other beats, a Times public editor would play an essential role in getting readers those answers about the Times itself. Before the paper eliminated the position in 2017, its public editor (known as an ombudsman at other outlets) was responsible for reviewing reader criticism about the paper’s reporting, ethics, and standards, reporting out whether there was a basis for those complaints, adjudicating the merits of those critiques, and delivering verdicts in regular columns.

    The best public editors both give readers a voice that the newsroom has to heed and explain to the general public the complexities that govern the practice of journalism that might not be obvious to outside observers. Public editors operate independently from the newsroom’s editorial structure. They are typically hired on term contracts, rather than as regular employees, and their limited tenure frees them from concerns about currying the long-term favor of their colleagues. But because they are employed by the paper, they are better equipped than media reporters from other outlets to compel managers to answer questions.

    In this case, a Times public editor could review Mendel’s past work, including the Biden story, with a detachment not available to her assigning editors; determine whether her critics are describing those stories accurately and weigh their complaints accordingly; and question her co-author, Ken Vogel, and his editors about the role Mendel played in the story. Critics, the newsroom, or both might not be pleased with the result. But the paper would operate more transparently, which would be good for its readers.

    Every major news outlet could use an ombudsman. But that internal check is particularly important at the Times.

    “What the Times does really matters, affecting the whole media and political ecosystem,” former Times public editor and current Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, explaining why the paper receives so much criticism. “When it exerts its muscle, it can change the course of history. And when it errs -- in fact or in judgment -- the consequences can be monumental. And err it does.”

    Without a public editor, the public’s recourse is to use social media to complain about stories directly to the reporters who wrote them. Indeed, that was what then-Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger said he wanted when he eliminated the position, arguing that “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”

    That’s a lovely sentiment in theory. In practice, it forces every Times reporter to field the questions that might once have gone to the public editor, while giving none of them the authority to question their colleagues or offer definitive judgements about Times stories. The result has been a cacophony of criticism, and little public introspection by the Times, certainly none of it particularly useful.

    This cycle keeps repeating. The month of May alone featured not only the debate over the Biden piece, but also a skirmish over an article chronicling the insults Trump has levied at his possible 2020 opponents; criticism of the paper’s reporting around the Mueller report; and an uproar over a piece about Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director who is a focus of congressional investigations into the Trump administration. In each case, the paper’s work drew vigorous criticism followed by an official defense from the Times of its reporting, sometimes bolstered by responses from individual Times journalists.

    The harsh reaction to the Hicks article, by political reporter Maggie Haberman, drew a particularly furious backlash from her colleagues. They praised her “indispensable” journalism while publicly condemning the “insane rants” from her critics and ignoring altogether the specific critiques of her story, as if it were impossible that Haberman could simultaneously be a great journalist and write a flawed article.

    There’s a critique that Times reporters -- and Haberman in particular --  are unusually thin-skinned. But by making every Times reporter responsible for fielding complaints about every story the paper runs, the Times has made this bunker mentality -- and the reader impatience with it -- inevitable.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    The public editor isn’t a panacea. Having the position did not prevent the paper’s deeply flawed treatment of the 2016 election, and bringing it back won’t break the Times’ political reporting from its adherence to a model of journalism that seems insufficient to the moment. And there is no cure for the cultural phenomenon that encourages people to harangue public figures, including journalists, on social media.

    But the paper’s experiment with letting social media take the place of the public editor has obviously failed. It’s not too late to reverse that decision and bring more transparency to a crucial organization. Both New York Times readers and New York Times journalists deserve better than this.

  • Sean Hannity's "Deep State" special is a harbinger of Trump and Barr's coming propaganda

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox News host Sean Hannity is a conspiracy theorist and a shill. But he also seems to have more access to President Donald Trump -- his personal friend and political lodestar -- than virtually anyone else in the press. Hannity is so enmeshed in White House operations as an outside presidential adviser that aides refer to him as the shadow chief of staff. Trump, in turn, frequently watches Hannity’s show and provides the Fox host with feedback about how to shape his broadcasts during their near-nightly conversations. The result is that Hannity’s show plays a unique role in the media ecosystem because the president is effectively its uncredited co-producer.

    That means Hannity can function in any of three distinct modes: as an "indicator" of the president’s current thinking, as a “fucked-up feedback loop” driving Trump to exercise his most destructive impulses, or as a harbinger of things to come. Friday’s broadcast, a special edition devoted to what Hannity termed “Act 2, ‘The Deep State’s Day of Reckoning,’” may have served as all three.

    Trump certainly interpreted the broadcast as a milestone. Hours before it aired, the president tweeted to his tens of millions of followers that the program would be “a must see.”

    During Friday’s special -- impenetrable to viewers not deeply versed in Hannity’s oeuvre -- the host and his “all-star ensemble cast” of frequent guests laid out the narrative they have developed over the last two years to counter special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. On Hannity’s show, Mueller’s probe was fruitless and the real story is that it originated with a sinister conspiracy by treasonous, politically motivated law enforcement officials, who are members of what Hannity terms the "deep state." Those officials, the story goes, let Hillary Clinton off the hook while persecuting Trump, and they should themselves be investigated and prosecuted for their purported crimes.

    “The Mueller report is over, it is dead, it is buried,” Hannity explained at the top of Friday’s broadcast. “It's now boomeranging right on to those who did abuse power, did try to influence the outcome of an election and then overturn a duly elected president.”

    “Act 1 is over,” he continued. “The curtain is beginning to rise. Act 2 begins.”


    Screengrab showing Hannity’s “all-star ensemble cast” (most of whom are described here) for his May 31 special. Back row, from left: American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp; former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera; Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton; Fox contributor and “Democratic” pollster Doug Schoen. Front row, from left: Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett; Fox contributor Sara Carter; The Hill Executive Vice President John Solomon; Republican attorneys Victoria Toensing and Joseph DiGenova.

    The program seems to be both an accurate indicator of Trump’s current state of mind -- fixated on using the power of the federal law enforcement apparatus against his perceived enemies -- and a feedback loop intended to keep him there. Throughout the program, Hannity and his guests warned that if there is no investigation of the investigators, “we lose the country” and the public will be “rent asunder,” apocalyptic language likely intended to steel the president’s resolve.  

    And it may also be a harbinger of future events. “We are only days away from the release,” Hannity claimed, of newly declassified “major documents that will all expose the real election scandal,” supposedly revealing “the real efforts to spy on the Trump campaign, FISA applications, 302s, Gang of Eight intel material, exculpatory material.” While Hannity’s summary of the contents of any such documents should not be taken at face value, his direct line to the president and cozy relationships with top congressional Republicans give credibility to his prediction of a forthcoming document “avalanche.”

    Over the last two years, Hannity, his guests, and other members of Fox’s pro-Trump propaganda machine have successfully convinced both the president and the network’s audience that the president was the victim of “sabotage” by the “deep state.” As of last year, however, their demands for criminal investigations of Trump’s investigators were going nowhere.

    But as Hannity and his guests explained on Friday, something changed that has brought their dreams closer to fruition: William Barr’s confirmation as attorney general in January.

    “There is a new sheriff in town and his name is Bill Barr,” Hannity explained at the top of the show.

    “The president of the United States picked the perfect man at this great inflection point in history, Bill Barr,” offered Joseph DiGenova, a lawyer with deep ties to the Republican Party who was briefly announced as a member of Trump’s legal team. “He will not be stopped. He's going to get to the bottom of this.”

    “Wouldn't history have been so profoundly different if William Barr had been the initial pick to be the attorney general of the United States by Donald Trump?” asked Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera.

    The commentators were drawing a distinction between Barr and his predecessor, Jeff Sessions. Trump and his Fox propagandists seem to think that a good attorney general is someone who uses the Justice Department to protect the president’s personal interests and punish his enemies. But Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from investigations related to the 2016 election led to Mueller’s appointment, and he was largely unwilling to bend to calls to investigate Trump’s perceived foes. That led to relentless criticism from the president and frequent calls from Hannity and his allies for Sessions’ firing, which eventually culminated in Trump pushing him out in November.

    With Barr, Hannity and the rest got exactly what they were looking for. As head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, Barr favored an expansive interpretation of presidential power, pushed back hard against congressional oversight efforts, and advised Bush to pardon six Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. During the Trump administration and before his nomination, Barr said a federal investigation into one of Fox’s conspiracy theories would be appropriate, criticized the Mueller probe, wrote an op-ed defending Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, and sent a memo to the Justice Department officials -- which he also shared with Trump’s personal lawyers -- calling the notion that Trump’s interactions with Comey constituted obstruction of justice “fatally misconceived."

    Fox commentators cheered Barr’s nomination, calling him “an absolutely brilliant choice” of  “great integrity.” But as Hannity made clear on the day he was confirmed, the network’s propagandists were hoping that Barr would carry out their agenda of protecting Trump while opening politically motivated prosecutions.

    So far, he has vindicated their praise. Barr’s smokescreen of a memo purportedly relating Mueller’s findings successfully hoodwinked news outlets into reporting that the president had been exonerated. He pushed Fox’s talking points and fueled conspiracy theories by accusing the Justice Department of “spying” on the Trump campaign in congressional testimony. And last month, he selected John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate the early stages of the investigation into Russian interference (despite being unable to identify any actual investigative irregularities) and received unprecedented authority from Trump to unilaterally declassify any information he chooses to in support of his own review of that probe.

    Several commentators have noted the parallels between Barr’s actions and Fox’s unhinged coverage, saying that he “talks like Sean Hannity” and sounds like he “watches too much Fox,” while the network’s hosts have lavished him with praise.

    The presence of a Fox News attorney general at the Justice Department poses a unique test for the press, particularly given Hannity’s prediction that Barr will soon release documents intended to undermine the origins of the Mueller probe. Barr’s handling of the Mueller report shows his willingness to mislead the public in support of Trump. The media’s response to his actions shows how vulnerable they are to such disinformation campaigns, and it raises questions about how they will deal with any future materials Barr sends out.

    Meanwhile, Hannity and his associates will continue their drumbeat, issuing dire warnings about the treasonous coup effort against Trump. And the president will be watching.

  • Don’t let Fox gaslight you over Laura Ingraham’s defense of Paul Nehlen

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox News has again found itself in a firestorm over the abhorrent conduct of its prime-time hosts, this time over Laura Ingraham’s defense of Paul Nehlen, a prominent white nationalist and anti-Semite. The network is trying to bully, bluster, and gaslight its way out of potential fallout from advertisers with the ridiculous claim that Ingraham wasn’t actually defending Nehlen.

    For years, right-wing commentators have levied bad-faith claims of anti-conservative bias against social media companies in an effort to work the refs. In the latest such salvo, Ingraham devoted a segment on Thursday’s show to what she termed progressives' efforts to “silence conservative voices ahead of the 2020 election,” featuring conservative commentator Candace Owens, who made headlines earlier this year by suggesting that Adolf Hitler’s nationalism would have been “OK” if it had been confined to Germany.

    During the segment, Owens said that efforts at “silencing and banning conservatives” would be counterproductive and would lead to Trump’s reelection. Ingraham agreed, saying people “know when they are being silenced, they know when they are being lied to, I think. Most people are onto this game.”

    Ingraham then aired a graphic featuring eight people, including Nehlen, who have been suspended or claim to have had their activity impeded by social media companies (it also included the arch conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the disgraced white supremacist ally Milo Yiannopoulous). The graphic described the group as “Prominent Voices Censored On Social Media.” Ingraham went on to defend the group.

    “Facebook, now, what do they monitor, quote, ‘hate’?” Ingraham said. “That sounds good until you realize hate -- and these are some of the people they've shunned,” she added, referring to the graphic. After Ingraham and Owens shared a laugh over Owens being included on the graphic -- indicating that they saw it -- the Fox host characterized the “censored” voices as “people who believe in border enforcement, people who believe in national sovereignty.”

    “Candace, I think this is going to be a moment, though, for us to stand up to these censors,” Ingraham concluded.

    The segment went viral after Media Matters drew attention to the fact that Nehlen, a white nationalist and virulent anti-Semite, was among the “prominent voices” Ingraham defended.

    Fox responds to the uproar with gaslighting

    Fox ignored requests for comment as the story swept across the media before finally issuing an unsigned statement Friday afternoon.

    “It is obscene to suggest that Laura Ingraham was defending Paul Nehlen’s despicable actions. Some of the names on the graphic were pulled from an Associated Press report on best known political extremists banned from Facebook,” the network said. “Anyone who watches Laura’s show knows that she is a fierce protector of freedom of speech and the intent of the segment was to highlight the growing trend of unilateral censorship in America.”

    This is nonsense. Ingraham was clearly defending Nehlen -- the point of the segment was to suggest that actions social media companies have taken against “prominent voices” like him were attacks on conservatives in general.

    The list of eight “voices” was curated by Fox. The Associated Press article Fox was seemingly referencing lists six commentators Facebook banned. Someone at Fox selected four of those individuals for inclusion in the graphic (Nehlen, Yiannopoulos, Jones, and Laura Loomer), leaving out two (Paul Joseph Watson and Louis Farrakhan), and adding four other commentators who were not mentioned in the article (Michelle Malkin, Dan Scavino, James Woods, and Owens).

    And neither Ingraham nor her graphic identified Nehlen or the other voices as “extremists,” as did the AP report. Instead, she mocked the notion that Facebook had been restricting people due to their hateful commentary, instead suggesting that they simply had garden-variety conservative views.

    For her part, Ingraham offered up a ludicrous condemnation of people who had criticized her for defending Nehlen, suggesting that they had made him “very happy” by highlighting his bigoted comments.

    Fox’s statement is intended to cause confusion and pacify advertisers

    The purpose of issuing a statement like this is to cloud the issue.

    When its personalities get into trouble, Fox is often willing to simply remain silent and wait for the attention to fade away. But numerous Ingraham advertisers have fled over the last year due to her bigoted commentary, and the show remains vulnerable. Indeed, the Nehlen segment is already having an impact -- the photo-finishing company Fracture said in a statement this afternoon it would pull its advertisement from her show rather than continuing to “support hate speech with our advertising dollars.”

    If the network had remained silent, more advertisers could have dropped under pressure from activists. But if the network acknowledged what had actually happened, it would be admitting guilt and causing additional conflict with Ingraham and other network stars who hate to back down in the face of widespread backlash to their extremism.

    So instead, Fox is throwing up some chaff and hoping to change the story. The network’s personalities, and perhaps some of its allies, can rally around the faulty notion that Ingraham has been wronged. The network’s critics will point out that Fox is bullshitting. But the result will be an argument, a cloud of dust that leaves people who are only marginally paying attention confused about what to believe.

    Fox is hoping that the puzzled include its advertisers, and that that will be enough to keep them from dropping Ingraham’s show.

  • How disinformation works: News outlets are filtering Mueller's statement through Trump's lies

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Wednesday statement served as an indictment of the press for its failure to effectively convey the damning conclusions of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the public and its willingness to accept the dishonest spin of President Donald Trump and the members of his administration. But the behavior of many major news outlets since Mueller stepped down from the Justice Department’s lectern suggests that few lessons have been learned, and journalists continue their business-as-usual practice of filtering their coverage through the lens of Trump’s deceptive critiques.

    New York Times reporter Peter Baker’s analysis is a key example of journalists reporting on Mueller’s statement as a good faith disagreement between Democrats and the president. The story appeared online on Wednesday under the headline “Mueller Delivered a Message. Washington Couldn’t Agree on What It Was,” and it was splashed across the paper’s front page the next day. “At long last, the sphinx of Washington spoke on Wednesday,” Baker wrote, “and here is what President Trump heard: ‘Case closed.’ Here is what the president’s adversaries heard: ‘Time to impeach.’”

    These are statements that can be assessed for their accuracy, with the reporter concluding that one party’s interpretation is correct. Instead, Baker chose to examine the remarks from both sides and then all but throw up his hands in dismay, framing his story as a case of Washington partisans simply failing to agree on the facts. But the Times scribe’s own reporting in the piece showed that Trump is not credible when he discusses Mueller’s probe. As Baker noted, Mueller’s statement “effectively refuted Mr. Trump’s no-collusion, no-obstruction mantra,” demonstrating the president’s mendacity. He also wrote that the special counsel “implied that Congress could pursue impeachment without directly recommending it,” thus supporting the opinion he ascribed to “the president’s adversaries.”

    Baker’s piece rewarded what Washington Post opinion writer Greg Sargent has called the Trump administration’s “full-saturation propaganda casting the investigation itself as the real crime — disinformation designed to blot out shared agreement on the most basic facts about what just happened before all of our very eyes.”

    This style of political journalism -- setting out the claims of both the Trump administration and its critics and leaving it to the reader to decide which interpretation is correct -- simply doesn’t work in the face of Trump’s systemic disinformation.

    Trump and his allies know that they can take advantage of this media vulnerability by offering arguments in bad faith on every last detail. This pushes reporters to cover stories with an “on the one hand, but on the other hand” frame, leaving the public confused about basic facts.

    This vulnerability is particularly acute when it comes to headlines -- the only part of a story that most people actually read. Since journalists tend to treat a politician’s statements as intrinsically newsworthy, Trump’s comments are often quoted without context in headlines. That pattern held true yesterday, as several major news outlets produced headlines quoting Trump’s “case is closed” reaction to Mueller’s statement without any context:

     

     

     

     

     

    This pattern of amplifying the president’s claims continued the next day. Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, Trump laid into Mueller with a fact-free screed, calling him a “true never-Trumper” who “should have never been chosen” as special counsel because he is “totally conflicted.” While the president’s allies have been pushing Mueller’s purported conflicts for years as a way of delegitimizing his investigation, those claims have long been debunked. But that didn’t stop a flurry of tweets from major media outlets promoting his claims in tweets:

    And their on-air chyrons:

    Meanwhile, the president’s right-wing media allies continued hammering the message of Mueller’s malfeasance to their huge audiences, depicting the special counsel as a “sleazy and dishonest”Trump-hating partisan” who participated in a Democratic plot to “steal” the 2018 midterm elections.

    The propaganda machine marches on, and credible news outlets aren’t doing nearly enough to hold back its disinformation.

  • Mueller’s statement was an indictment of the press

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday morning gave his first public statement on his office’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. His most newsworthy comments during the nine minutes of remarks at the Justice Department included that his team would have publicly cleared President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice if they had been confident he did not commit a crime, that he was prohibited by Justice Department policy from charging the president with a crime, and that the Constitution provides for a different remedy for crimes committed by a sitting president (namely impeachment). All these points can be found -- with little variation -- within his 400-plus page report, which the department released last month.

    But Mueller’s words nonetheless carry grave significance. His statement followed a sustained disinformation effort by Trump, Attorney General William Barr, and the president’s propagandists at Fox News and elsewhere meant to mislead the public about Mueller’s conclusions. Too often, mainstream journalists bought into that dishonest spin, thereby promoting an inaccurate narrative that seemingly spurred Mueller to speak out publicly.

    By the time Mueller submitted his report to the Justice Department in March, Trump and his allies in the right-wing media had spent nearly two years working hand in hand to shape the communications battlefield. With declarations of “NO COLLUSION” and “WITCH HUNT” from the president and invocations of the “Mueller Crime Family” and the special counsel’s purported corruption from Fox host Sean Hannity and his coterie, this sinister effort undermined the legitimacy of the investigation among Trump’s base.

    Fox's reaction was unsurprising: The network has long served as the communications arm of the Republican Party, and it has spent the last few years fusing with the Trump administration and becoming an instrument of state propaganda. But it has been more unnerving to watch the mainstream press grapple unsuccessfully with Mueller's actual conclusions and let the Trump administration's spin set the narrative.

    Recall how major newspapers handled the letter Barr sent to Congress on March 24 summarizing what the attorney general termed the “principal conclusions” of the report Mueller submitted a few days earlier.

    There was no reason for journalists to accept Barr's rosy assessment at face value -- Trump had long publicly griped that his previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had failed to act in his personal interest, making it likely that Barr had been selected at least in part because he was willing to do so. His letter was a transparent attempt to spin the report in Trump’s favor while it was still hidden from the public.

    And yet, the next morning some of the nation’s biggest newspapers had splashed Barr’s statements across their front pages as evidence that Mueller had exonerated Trump and his associates:

    “For President Trump, it may have been the best day of his tenure so far,” The New York Times’ Peter Baker reported. “The darkest, most ominous cloud hanging over his presidency was all but lifted on Sunday with the release of the special counsel’s conclusions, which undercut the threat of impeachment and provided him with a powerful boost for the final 22 months of his term.”

    Over the next few weeks, that phony narrative circulated, bolstered by Trump’s own false statements, the willingness of major news outlets to parrot those falsehoods, and Fox’s vicious attacks on the rest of the press for their prior reports on Russia.

    On the morning of April 18, Barr held a press conference to discuss Mueller’s report, which was scheduled for release later that day. This was, again, a clear effort to spin the press. And again, many in the press fell for it, echoing his obvious false claims.

    Then the report came out and the Trump-Barr story collapsed. The report diverged from Barr’s description in several key ways that made it much more damning for the president than the attorney general had let on. But by the time reporters had access to Mueller’s actual conclusions, the damage had already been done.

    “What Barr did shaped the debate for the half of the country that mattered,” The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake concluded after reviewing the discrepancies between Mueller’s report and Barr’s statements. “It gave Trump’s supporters a built-in narrative that, though misleading, has taken hold.”

    Mueller himself was reportedly disturbed by Barr’s letter and the way it was subsequently interpreted by the press. In a March 27 letter to Barr, he wrote that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation. In a subsequent phone call, he reportedly told the attorney general “he was concerned that media coverage of the obstruction probe was misguided and creating public misunderstandings about the office’s work.”

    The weeks since have done little to assuage such concerns, as major media outlets continue to view Mueller’s report in large part through the false statements of the president and his allies.

    That’s the context in which Mueller stepped up to the lectern this morning. Minutes after he stepped down, Trump and his allies started lying, and the media spin cycle began again.

  • How one company used a Fox-centric PR strategy to try to get Trump to give it a lucrative federal contract

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox News has unprecedented influence over President Donald Trump’s decision-making. Trump’s worldview is shaped by the hours of propagandistic and sycophantic programming he often watches in a day, as well as his private consultations with many of the network’s stars on a wide variety of topics. As a result, Fox’s commentators have at times dictated the president’s policy agenda and political strategy, harnessed the news cycle by directing his attention to their particular obsessions, provided staffers for his administration, and hand-picked the recipients of his pardons.

    And now, the network is emerging as a platform that can determine who could receive hefty federal contracts.

    The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump has “alarmed” military commanders and Department of Homeland Security officials by aggressively lobbying them to grant a border wall contract to Fisher Industries, a North Dakota-based construction company whose CEO, Tommy Fisher, has regularly appeared on Fox and other conservative outlets to promote his company’s bid.

    Fisher claims that his company can build a border wall both faster and cheaper than his competitors thanks to a patent-pending installation system, but the Army Corps of Engineers determined that Fisher’s design “did not meet its requirements and lacked regulatory approvals” and that the firm’s previous work on a barrier project “came in late and over budget,” the Post reported. Rejected through the procurement process, Fisher is trying to go around it through the right-wing media, a method that has allowed him to reach the president. Trump is now trying to sidestep the contracting process because, as Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) explained to the Post, he “had seen [Fisher] on television” -- specifically on Fox -- “advocating for his version of the barrier.”

    Fisher has used a Fox-centric PR strategy to directly pitch the president in hopes of obtaining a federal contract, making at least 10 appearances on Fox News and its sister network, Fox Business, since January 2018, according to a Media Matters review. Programs the president regularly watches, including Fox & Friends and The Ingraham Angle, have repeatedly granted Fisher an uncritical platform to shill for his company.

    Fisher’s strategy mimics that of K Street lobbyists who pay off TV pundits to promote their messages during on-air appearances and lawyers who put their clients and their relatives on Fox to ask the president for pardons.

    The CEO has honed his pitch to appeal to the president in particular, as demonstrated by his March 5 appearance on Fox & Friends, during which co-host Ainsley Earhardt asked him to explain “why should the president, or why should his administration, choose your company?”

    Fisher first appealed to the president as a businessman, saying Trump should know that his company would do the work for less money than other companies, get it completed faster, and throw in access roads and other additions.

    He went on to describe his company as “the first responder” of the industry, appealing to Trump’s well-known obsession with police officers and firefighters.

    And he also tried to link the bid to one of Trump’s notable construction successes, the renovation of the Wollman Rink in Central Park in the 1980s. “I think he’ll understand,” Fisher argued, “just like the Central Park deal with the ice skating rink, if you need it done now, nothing against government bureaucracy, but it takes time, so you need an expert to come in there and do it now and do it right.”

    Earhardt ended the interview by giving Trump another reason to prefer Fisher: “You might be able to build it just in time for that election, too.”  

    And Fox’s promotion of Fisher’s bid has not been limited to the network’s supposed “opinion” shows. On April 19, the network’s flagship “news” broadcast, Special Report, ran a packaged report that essentially served as an infomercial for Fisher’s proposal. Introduced by anchor Bret Baier and reported by national correspondent William La Jeunesse, the segment featured an interview with Fisher and credulously repeated his claims that he could construct the wall “faster, better, and cheaper.”

    All of this laudatory coverage has had Fisher’s desired effect, with the president reportedly promoting the company’s bid in meetings with senior military and DHS officials and forcing them to explain “that the president could not just pick a company” to get the contract in defiance of the federal procurement process.

    Fisher harnessed the incredible power of Fox’s hold on the president to get much closer than he should have to taxpayer dollars. He won’t be the last to try to do so.