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Matt Gertz

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  • The campaign for the next White House chief of staff is playing out on Fox News

    Some at the network are promoting contributor David Bossie for the gig

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox News is emerging as a key venue for selecting the next White House chief of staff, with potential candidates like Fox contributor and former Trump aide David Bossie and their supporters pitching directly to President Donald Trump through the network’s programming, which he frequently watches.

    Bossie appeared on Tuesday’s edition of Fox & Friends to discuss reports that he is in the running for the position, talking up his chemistry with the president and drawing an endorsement from co-host Brian Kilmeade.

    Bossie is a right-wing operative with a history of employing dirty tricks and smears against Democrats. His “filthy” tactics drew condemnations from the late President George H.W. Bush and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and led to his forced resignation as top investigator for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee after he was caught doctoring transcripts. After spending years running the right-wing political advocacy group Citizens United, Bossie worked as Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016.

    He joined Fox News as a contributor in February 2017, using that platform to offer boilerplate defenses of Trump that were indistinguishable from official White House statements. This past summer, Fox apologized and reportedly suspended Bossie for two weeks after he made a racist comment on air.

    Trump has been floundering since he announced on Saturday that chief of staff John Kelly would be leaving the White House at the end of the month, only to have his presumed replacement, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers, turn down the role. Several other reported candidates have also said they are not interested, helping to put Bossie on the shortlist.

    Bossie’s Fox tenure makes him a natural fit for the position given the network’s entwinement with the Trump administration, which is stocked with Fox alums; just last week, Trump selected former Fox & Friends newsreader Heather Nauert to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

    His Fox colleagues are also giving his bid a boost. Kilmeade described Bossie on Monday as “perfect” for the job, saying that “he understands politics, understands the president, he understands investigations, because he was on the offensive side against Hillary Clinton with great success.”

    On Tuesday, Kilmeade teased an interview with Bossie by saying he “would be my choice” for chief of staff. Later in the program, Bossie made his own case for taking on the role, emphasizing that he is “totally committed to the future of what this next two years of his presidency is about.”

    These Fox & Friends interactions are especially significant because Trump himself regularly watches the program and at times seems to take advice from commentators who appear on the show. On Tuesday, he praised former White House aide Michael Anton for a Fox & Friends appearance in the same episode featuring Bossie’s job interview.

    Kilmeade is not the only Fox personality promoting Bossie’s candidacy. Also on Tuesday, Fox contributor Byron York tweeted that Bossie “might be [the] clear choice” for the role, citing his work investigating the Clinton White House in the 1990s.

    Meanwhile, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) pitched Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) for the position during a Monday appearance on Fox, later telling Politico, “I lobbied the president the best way I know how. I made the Meadows case on Fox News.”

  • Fox is going to love Trump attorney general pick William Barr

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Update (12/7/18): Trump has announced that he will nominate Barr to be attorney general. 

    Fox News' leading propagandists have been begging for President Donald Trump to install an attorney general who will turn their conspiracy theories into federal investigations. With William P. Barr, the reported front-runner to fill the position, they may finally get their wish.

    In a November 2017 meeting with Trump, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro reportedly savaged then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his failure to conduct a federal investigation into a deal approved while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state that gave Russia control over some U.S. uranium mines. Conservatives latched on to that deal during the 2016 presidential election, pushing a bogus conspiracy theory that Clinton approved Russia’s effort to buy Uranium One, a Canadian firm with licenses to extract uranium in the U.S., because she had benefited from Russian government bribes. Fox tried to divert attention from reporting about Trump’s Russia ties by devoting hours of airtime to the pseudoscandal in the weeks before Pirro’s White House meeting. Now, the Fox host was using direct access to the president to undermine the attorney general, calling for him to appoint a special counsel to scrutinize Clinton and trying to make a federal case out of right-wing bullshit.

    Pirro’s rant reportedly agitated Trump, who became angry that Sessions was failing to act in his interests -- as if the attorney general were his personal lawyer. But Sessions largely weathered the harsh public criticism from the president and his Fox propagandists over the Uranium One case. He pointedly refused to appoint a special counsel, instead directing prosecutors to examine the issue to little effect.

    But now Sessions is gone, canned by Trump after a drumbeat of attacks from Fox for that very unwillingness to use the Justice Department to punish the president’s enemies and his refusal to interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. And his reported likely replacement is already on the record supporting a Uranium One investigation.

    Barr, who served as attorney general to President George H.W. Bush, is Trump’s “leading candidate” to return to that office, The Washington Post reported Thursday. In public statements made since Trump’s election, Barr has repeatedly suggested that he is much more willing than Sessions was to use law enforcement as a tool to enforce the president's will. That includes moving forward with a federal probe into the Uranium One deal.

    In November 2017, after Sessions publicly declined to appoint a Uranium One special counsel, The New York Times reported that Barr “sees more basis for investigating the uranium deal than any supposed collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia.” He also defended Trump’s public calls for investigating his former political rival, complaining, “To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility.”

    In a separate November interview with The Washington Post, Barr said, “I don't think all this stuff about throwing [Clinton] in jail or jumping to the conclusion that she should be prosecuted is appropriate, but I do think that there are things that should be investigated that haven't been investigated."

    Barr has also echoed the effort by Trump and his Fox allies to delegitimize Mueller’s probe because some of his team members had Democratic ties. “In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” he told the Post in July 2017. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”

    And in a May 12, 2017, op-ed for the Post, he defended Trump’s decision to terminate James Comey as FBI director. Barr agreed with the White House’s initial explanation for Comey’s removal -- that the firing was justified because Comey had usurped the authority of the attorney general by unilaterally announcing that Clinton should not be charged over her use of a private email server. He did not address Trump’s statement, offered on NBC the night before, that he actually fired Comey over his handling of the Russia probe.

    If nominated and confirmed, Barr would replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who had publicly mused about curtailing the Mueller probe.

    Trump and his Fox supporters want an attorney general who shares their authoritarian view of the law as a constraint on the president’s enemies but not his allies. It seems unlikely that the president’s eventual pick won’t fit that bill -- and Barr's recent comments suggest he would.

  • God help me, I’ve watched 10 hours of Fox Nation. Here's what I learned.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    I think it was the cake that broke me.

    Roughly eight hours into my quest to watch as much programming as possible from Fox Nation, the right-wing cable network’s new streaming service, the debut episode of D-list conservative commentator David Webb’s Reality Check was interrupted when a gentleman with a magnificent beard walked onto the set unannounced and sat next to the host. It was, we learned after some baffled hemming and hawing from Webb, the executive pastry chef and sometime Food Network competitor Robert Teddy. Apparently scheduled to talk to the host about a charity that sends pastries to the troops, he had instead shown up with a cake shaped like a hot air balloon featuring a miniature model of Webb himself as a passenger, which was soon plopped on the table.

    “You’ve thrown me all off here -- I’ve got my papers here everywhere,” Webb said, waving his pages of notes and desperately trying to transition to the next segment of a show that had quickly gone off the rails.

    Fox Nation’s first day was a shit show. The execution was terrible, with shows frequently failing to load on the website, mishaps on the set, and a collection of on-air talent that is in no way ready for prime time (which is, perhaps, why their shows are running online in the first place).

    But what Fox seems to be building -- shorn of the cable network’s pretenses of journalism, out of sight of mainstream audiences, and without fear of advertiser boycotts since the service currently features no commercials -- is a safe space to try out commentators and ideas that might otherwise be shunned. Fox is charging $5.99 a month for access to the service, and its executives clearly think that the audience wants angry far-right opinion programming.

    Take Tomi Lahren, the former host on One America News Network and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze whom Fox has made the face of Fox Nation. Her Tuesday shows bookending the streaming service’s live programming were rants unhinged even by Fox News’ standards. She began the day by denouncing the “invasion” by migrants attempting to seek asylum in the U.S. and mocking the “ungrateful” people because “apparently tortillas and refried beans aren't good enough for these so-called asylum seekers, imagine that.” She also said, “Here’s some advice: If you don’t want to be tear-gassed when you rush the border, don’t rush the border.” Lahren ended the day by denouncing singer Barbra Streisand for her recent comments about the 2016 election, shouting through a litany of reasons she had supported Trump, arguing that “President Trump isn’t assaulting democracy or institutions; he’s saving them from the socialist utopia people like you dream of” … and attacking Streisand’s dog.

    Throughout the day, Fox Nation’s commentators pushed this sort of virulent commentary, hitting all the usual sweet spots for Fox viewers -- denunciations of immigrants, Democrats, college students, and the media, and hosannas for Trump -- with little indication that the service is trying to put in place any sort of guardrails. The sorts of factors that typically cause the network to at least pretend to hit the brakes -- unnerved staffers from the network’s “news” side and advertisers wary of being tarred with the network’s bigotry -- don’t really apply.

    Beyond political red meat, Fox Nation provides a home for the soft-focus passion projects of Fox News’ higher-profile personalities: Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy has a cooking show, his co-host Brian Kilmeade travels the country visiting sites relevant to the nation’s history on What Made America Great, The Five’s Dana Perino hosts an interview series featuring prominent authors, and Rachel Campos Duffy has a show about motherhood.

    The service pads out the original offerings with a large assortment of old Fox News specials that have aired over the years, which fall neatly within the ideological contours of the network’s hosts and audience. If you have an urgent need to re-watch Fox News host Bret Baier’s 2006 hagiography of Bush administration Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, his 2014 documentary purportedly showing the “smoking gun of Benghazi,” or his 2015 look at “The Tangled Clinton Web,” you can call them up on demand. You also have access to 95 episodes of National Rifle Association President Oliver North’s Fox show War Stories.

    In its initial offerings, Fox Nation is leaning heavily on its close ties to the Trump administration and family. One of the service’s premiere shows is The First Family: Donald J. Trump, which promises an “exclusive look” at how the president’s children are “balancing their own home lives, yet also dealing with the spotlight of their father being the President of the United States.” The first episode features Fox Business host and Trump cheerleader Maria Bartiromo’s softball interview with Eric Trump and footage of him at home with his wife, son, and dog, at the Trump Organization headquarters in New York City and at the Trump Winery in Charlottesville, VA. Likewise, Kilmeade’s show features him getting a tour of the Naval Observatory with Vice President Mike Pence’s wife Karen and climbing Mount Rushmore with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

    There are a few flaws in the Fox Nation plan thus far, beyond the shoddy production values.

    The talent level of the service’s newly branded hosts may prove a problem. Fox founder Roger Ailes was a monster who created a propaganda machine that has been terrible for the country. But he was also a shrewd judge of talent. In his absence, Fox appears to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what will stick, lifting up people like Lahren -- a grifting Trump sycophant with no real principles whose first Fox Nation offerings suggest that she recently discovered sarcasm and air quotes. Fox is rounding out the service’s programming by giving shows to decidedly third-tier talents like Webb and Todd Starnes.

    Then again, Fox News has managed to retain viewers while rather drastically shifting its lineup since Ailes’ 2016 downfall, suggesting that perhaps the audience is willing to sit through whatever right-wing commentator the network serves up.

    There’s also a question of who the service is for. Fox is billing it as a product for the network’s “superfans,” the “folks who watch Fox News every night for hours at a time, the dedicated audience that really wants more of what we have to offer,” as Fox executive John Finley told The New York Times in February.

    But Fox News is a 24/7 news network, and its superfans also have access to the network’s B team on Fox Business, so when are they supposed to be tuning in to Fox Nation? The network’s schedule gives a strong hint -- daily streaming shows are almost entirely running during daytime hours, when the network is purportedly devoted to “news” programming as opposed to its morning and evening “opinion” shows. The bet is presumably that there's an audience that would watch C-team opinion programming or old Fox documentaries but isn’t interested in the network's news hours -- and the risk is that Fox Nation ends up cannibalizing Fox News’ daytime ratings.

    The truth, of course, may be more cynical than that. Maybe, given the advanced age of the network’s typical viewer, the audience for Fox Nation is actually people who have trouble unsubscribing after signing up for services. Perhaps the hope is if the network promotes this schlock enough on Fox News, enough of its fans will sign up and then forget that they did so, making it a lucrative revenue stream, even if its audience is low.

    Either way, here’s what that audience is getting, based on the 10 hours or so I spent pursuing the programming on Tuesday:

    Prime-time Highlights

    Rob Schmitt and Carley Shimkus do brief intros for segments from Fox News’ prime-time programs -- one each for Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle. Think of it as the worst possible version of the Academy Awards, complete with one host finishing the other’s sentences.

    The First Family: Donald J. Trump

    I was ready for a Bartiromo interview with Eric Trump to feature questions like “Tell me about, like, growing up with this bigger-than-life father” (answer: “He’s so unconventional, but also incredible”) and “Who’s your mentor?” (“My father”). I wasn’t expecting the show to turn into an extensive infomercial for the Trump Winery and the adjacent hotel in Virginia (according to Trump, “the Mar-a-Lago of the South,” which is strange since Virginia is north of Florida), complete with a tour of the Jefferson Suite. What an incredible grift.

    Fox Nation Patriot’s Almanac

    “This day in U.S. history” as presented by Fox’s Bill Bennett, who served in President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Tuesday’s offering was about the U.S. Senate voting to confirm Gerald Ford as vice president. The segment did touch on President Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation, though curiously did not discuss the reason behind it.

    Fox & Friends After the Show Show

    This program airs immediately after Fox & Friends, apparently with a cast wholly unprepared to host the show. Tuesday’s version included Janice Dean discussing her neck pain, Steve Doocy mixing up the names of two members of the crew, and Jillian Mele declaring, “Fox Nation, I swear we’re better than this.” They are not.

    The Liberty File

    This is a mini-cable news program featuring Fox’s Andrew Napolitano interviewing former independent counsel Kenneth Starr and then doing a “news I like and news I hate” lightning round. This was by far the most professionally done program on Fox Nation. Who knows how long it will last, though -- the “news I like and news I hate” segment included the sole criticisms of Trump I saw, with Napolitano denouncing Trump’s recent comments about special counsel Robert Mueller, General Motors, and the need for a state TV network.

    What Made America Great

    Brian Kilmeade is traveling the country visiting historic sites. One episode featured his visit to President Andrew Jackson’s Nashville, TN, home, The Hermitage. In the second, he visited Mount Rushmore, climbing to the top with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Kilmeade had no questions for the interior secretary about the series of scandals he’s overseen, but he did give Zinke the opportunity to declare that “the president is a builder; it’s time to rebuild our parks.” In the third episode, Kilmeade received from Karen Pence what he called “a tour of One Observatory Circle that no member of an administration has ever given before.” As he played fetch with the Pences’ dog, he declared, “Not only is your husband a really good legislator, a great politician, and the second most powerful person in the country -- he also can train a great dog.”

    Deep Dive

    In the first episode, four people who agree with each other talked about whether American college students can “still exercise free speech and free minds.” These people were: The Wall Street Journal editorial page’s James Freeman (who is also the host), his colleague at the Journal Jillian Melchior, CampusReform.org Editor-in-Chief Lawrence Jones, and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz. The segment began with Freeman warning his viewers that “Deep Dive is not a safe space and ... microaggressions against the dominant campus culture will be not only tolerated, but even encouraged.” Somehow, it got worse from there.

    My Take w/ Stuart Varney

    Somehow, Fox Business’ Stuart Varney also arranged to do his Fox Nation show about how “free speech is being silenced” and also booked a CampusReform.org staffer to discuss it with him. Varney broke new ground in stopping the interview to complain that some of his own staffers had suggested it might be inappropriate to use the word kowtow, adding, “Can you imagine this? You can’t even -- you have to think about using the word” -- and here he attempted a Chinese accent -- “do the kowtow.”

    Halftime Report w/ Chris Stirewalt

    Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt and producer Brianna McClelland sit in front of his desk and discuss which stories will run in Stirewalt’s daily newsletter. This is exactly as boring as it sounds.

    Dana Perino’s Book Club

    Dana Perino’s second episode features Joseph Ellis, the eminent historian of the founding fathers who won a National Book Award for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

    The first episode features Fox colleague Greg Gutfeld, whose books include The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage.

    Reality Check with David Webb

    This is a pretty traditional cable news-style show, with an opening monologue and guests. Webb also managed to book an actual congressman, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), who offered this rambling promise: “You and I are on the same page. We’re going to come after it, we’re going to be strong, we’re going to stay together, and we’re going to prove to America that in 2020, we’re coming back into power and we’re going to continue to make America great again every single way.”

    Starnes Country

    In another traditional cable news-style show, Fox Radio host and noted bigot Todd Starnes is extremely angry that “an invading army of illegal aliens tried to storm our border,” which he termed “an act of war” in which border patrol agents “were forced to use tear gas and defend themselves and the American people from hundreds of invaders.” In case you weren’t clear that Starnes is a bigot, later in his opening monologue, Starnes vigorously name-checks “Barack Hussein Obama, BH Obama.” Starnes also slams the press as “the state-run media and ... the propaganda arm of the Democrats” -- during an interview with Mike Huckabee, a Fox commentator whose daughter is Trump’s press secretary. There’s also a “Heartland Headlines” segment featuring culture war controversies from around the country, like a school administrator who had recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, that Starnes yells about.

    The Quiz Show

    Stand-up comedian and Fox contributor Tom Shillue has a show in which he quizzes people. This happened:

  • Trump’s Fox propagandists are trying to scuttle the bill to protect Mueller

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox hosts with close ties to President Donald Trump are denouncing Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) legislative effort to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, blasting the senator for insufficient loyalty to the president and claiming his bill is unnecessary because Trump has said he does not plan to curtail the probe.

    Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions last Wednesday, replacing him with Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist who had frequently criticized the Mueller investigation before joining the Justice Department. In response, a bipartisan group of senators tried to pass legislation to protect the probe yesterday, but they were blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who argued that the bill was unnecessary because Trump has said he does not intend to fire Mueller.

    Flake, a co-sponsor of the bill, has said that he will not vote to advance judicial nominations in the closely divided Judiciary Committee or support them on the floor until the legislation receives a floor vote.

    The president’s Fox propagandists responded with fury last night.

    Trump confidant and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs argued that the “great president deserves the support of all Republican officeholders” and those pushing the Mueller bill are “separating themselves from his agenda and making, really, some rather silly and preposterous noises rather than standing tall and shoulder-to-shoulder with the president.”

    Sean Hannity, a close adviser to the president who appeared at a Trump election rally last week, smeared “Sen. Jeff Snowflake” for having “again today exposed himself, well, not as a conservative.” The Fox News host condemned Flake for “threatening the president” in support of a bill that “supposedly protects Mueller from being fired by the president, which isn't happening,” and said that the senator “should be ashamed” for “blocking conservative judges, breaking a promise to the people you represent in Arizona.”

    And Laura Ingraham, who was once considered for the post of White House press secretary, told her Fox News audience Flake was “trying to further harm his party before he leaves.” She asked Fox News contributor Andrew McCarthy about whether the bill is unconstitutional and discussed with former independent counsel Ken Starr the “young lawyers” whose confirmations will be put on hold due to Flake’s move. All three agreed that there is no real threat to the Mueller probe.

    Since Mueller’s appointment in May 2017, Fox hosts including Dobbs, Hannity, and Ingraham have told their audiences night after night that his work is illegitimate and intended to damage the president and that it should be halted as soon as possible. Now that the president is taking steps to curtail the probe, they are doing everything they can to prevent any action to stop him.

  • STUDY: NY Times, Wash. Post coverage of caravan plummets after midterms

    News stories referencing the caravan drop by more than half post-elections, front-page ones by more than two-thirds

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    In the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, The New York Times and The Washington Post filled their news pages with reporting about a caravan of migrants moving through Central America and Mexico toward the United States. The caravan was more than 1,000 miles from the U.S. border -- a journey of several weeks on foot -- and shrinking. But President Donald Trump, in a series of demagogic statements aimed at bolstering GOP chances in the elections, warned that the caravan constituted an “invasion” and a national emergency, and the Times and Post allowed him to set their news agendas.

    After the election, Trump largely stopped talking about the caravan, and the coverage of the subject in those papers plunged.

    In the eight days before the election, the Times and Post ran a total of 84 news stories in their print editions mentioning the caravan, putting 25 on the front page. In the eight days since, they ran 39 such stories, only eight of which ran on A1. That’s a decline of roughly 54 percent in news stories and 68 percent in front-page news stories.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    I wrote about this coverage the Friday before Election Day, noting that many of the articles were laudable on their merits -- they told the migrants' stories, debunked presidential lies and conspiracy theories, and highlighted facts that undermined Trump’s demagoguery. But taken together, their sheer volume couldn’t help but to fuel his fearmongering and make it impossible for other important pre-midterm stories to break through.

    The papers are still producing valuable reporting on the topic -- about the migrants’ journey, the administration’s response of deploying U.S. soldiers on the border and taking executive action to limit asylum, and Trump’s own slackening interest in the caravan, among other angles. But with the elections over and in the absence of regular comments from the president, they are publishing much less of it, and they’re giving the stories they do publish less prominent placement.

    Newspaper resources, column inches, and front-page real estate are all limited -- the amount of each that a paper devotes to particular stories reveals its editors’ priorities and signals to the public which issues are important. The Times and Post appear to have given the caravan outsized coverage when Trump was fixated on it, and now that he isn’t, the papers are providing the issue with substantially less attention.

    The Post has published a total of 109 articles in its print A section mentioning the caravan since it formed, putting 24 of those articles on the front page. The paper ran 48 such articles, during the eight days before the election, 13 of them on the front page; those numbers dropped to 20 and three in the eight days after the election, a decline of 58 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Before the election, the paper published five or more articles referencing the caravan on 10 different days. Since the election, it has done so twice.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The Times has published a total of 88 articles mentioning the caravan in its print A section, putting 24 of those articles on the front page. During the eight days before the election, the paper ran 36 such articles, putting 12 on the front page; those numbers dropped to 19 and five in the eight days after the election, a decline of 47 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Before the election, the paper published five or more articles referencing the caravan on six different days. Since the election, it has done so once.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The massive print coverage of the caravan story leading up to the election echoed the story’s dominance on cable news.

    Fox led the way, providing more than 33 hours of coverage through Election Day, with the network’s hosts spurring and echoing the president with apocalyptic, conspiracy theory-minded rants about the coming “invasion.” But the day after the election featured no discussions whatsoever focused on the caravan, while the network spent four minutes and 57 seconds covering the story the day after that.

    After Trump took Fox's advice and tried to turn the caravan into an election issue, CNN and MSNBC also devoted hours and hours of programming to the story. As with the papers, these cable networks produced far more critical coverage of the story, but they nonetheless focused their attention on the subject Trump wanted to discuss. And in the same manner as the Post and the Times, the volume of their reporting has dropped substantially since the election.

    As I wrote before the election, the facts about the caravan neither matched Trump’s crisis narrative nor justified the saturated coverage the story received. Since then, the “first wave” of the caravan has reached the U.S. border (most of the migrants are still 1,000 miles away), while the administration has imposed radical new asylum restrictions in response. But while those factors suggest that the caravan has become increasingly newsworthy on its merits, the Post and Times have produced fewer articles mentioning it and put fewer on their front pages.

    These results strongly suggest that for these newspapers and cable networks, the newsworthiness of particular issues is strongly tethered to whether Trump is publicly commenting on them. Whatever he’s talking about quickly becomes the most important story in U.S. political journalism. And once he stops commenting on it, the story falls out of the headlines.

    Reporters might respond to this criticism by saying that the president’s comments are always newsworthy. But that sentiment is not reflected in actual news coverage -- the closing days of the 2014 and 2016 election cycles were both dominated by Republican attacks on Democrats, not by President Barack Obama’s commentary.

    Moreover, under the current president, that argument cedes substantial power over the public debate to a notorious liar and conspiracy theorist. Journalists should carefully consider what that means. By allowing Trump to serve as their assignment editor, decision-makers at newspapers and cable news channels are ignoring critical issues in favor of covering what the president wants to talk about.

    This is an ongoing crisis in political journalism, and it won’t end unless journalists heed the lessons of the last few years and learn how to respond when conservative leaders try to manipulate them in bad faith in order to focus the public’s attention where they want it. That will require them to make independent calls on what deserves coverage and how much, rather than following the whims of Trump and his ilk.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched the Nexis database for New York Times and Washington Post articles mentioning the caravan between October 12 and November 14. We included articles from only the print editions of each paper, and we limited the results to articles from the news (A) sections; articles from editorial, opinion, op-ed, business, sports, and other sections were excluded. For the November 7 edition of the Post, which was not available in the Nexis database as of publication, two Media Matters researchers independently reviewed a hard copy of the paper’s A section.

    Shelby Jamerson contributed research

  • Leading members of Trump’s Fox cabinet support Jim Jordan’s House GOP leader bid

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the leader of the far-right House Freedom Caucus and a loyal ally of President Donald Trump, announced Wednesday that he will challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to lead the party’s caucus as House minority leader. McCarthy’s current position as the party’s number two, behind retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), makes him the consensus front-runner. But Jordan will be able to draw on the support of some of the most powerful figures in Republican politics -- the Fox hosts who helped power Trump to the Republican nomination and have privately advised him in the White House.

    Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs are two of Jordan’s biggest boosters. Like other right-wing leaders who have endorsed his bid, they like his politics -- Jordan’s House Freedom Caucus contains the House GOP’s most extreme members. But their support is driven by the trio’s shared obsession with defending Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

    Dobbs and Hannity use their nightly shows to denounce Mueller and his colleagues and defend the president, who they claim is the victim of a “witch hunt” by the media and the “deep state.” Their diatribes are often fueled in part by Jordan, who has used congressional hearings and regular appearances on their shows and others at Fox to denounce the efforts of Mueller and his colleagues at the Justice Department and FBI. Since Trump’s inauguration, the pair have interviewed him a combined 45 times, according to a search of the Nexis database.

    Hannity first endorsed Jordan to lead the House Republican caucus in the spring. “Frankly, I would like to see you be the next speaker,” Hannity told him during an April 22 interview on his Fox show to discuss “deep state corruption.” “For the record, I'm supporting Jim Jordan. I just endorsed him,” he added later in the program. On July 27, the day after Jordan announced that he planned to seek the top GOP slot after the election, Hannity gave him a lengthy interview to talk up his bid.

    Dobbs took longer to get behind Jordan. But after several of Jordan’s House Republican colleagues told Dobbs that they were supporting the bid, Dobbs said in September that he was also endorsing the Ohio congressman.

    Jordan took his campaign to Dobbs’ show on Thursday night, where the host showered him with accolades, calling him “one of the more prominent Republican leaders in the country.” He closed the interview by saying, “I have to say that the right person is in the Oval Office and we hope that the right person will be leading the minority in the House along with Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell. It would be -- it's still not a fair fight for the Dems but there it is. Congressman, good to have you with us, we wish you all the luck.”

    Several other Fox personalities and guests on the network have also praised Jordan and his efforts to hamstring the Mueller probe:

    In addition to shilling for his leadership bid, Dobbs and Hannity both did yeoman’s work defending Jordan after several former Ohio State University wrestlers said over the summer that they believed Jordan knew about alleged sexual misconduct by an athletic doctor when he was the team’s assistant coach from 1987 to 1995. Soon after the story broke, Dobbs said Jordan had been “dishonorably attacked by the left,” and questioned why Ryan was “so classless as not to stand up for the right of this man.” Hannity hosted Jordan for one of his patented softball interviews, which he began by saying, “Welcome to the club. If you support Donald Trump, you had to know the lies, the smears against you are obviously a political attack. I'm sorry you are going through that.”

    Video by Miles Le

  • After the midterms, Trump leans hard on his alternate reality

    And the president needs a weakened press to pull off his cons

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Democrats won the House of Representatives on Tuesday, gaining control of key levers of power they say they will use to hold President Donald Trump and his administration accountable. Anyone who thought such a crushing defeat might lead to a change in presidential behavior was quickly disabused of that notion.

    Instead, Trump made clear that his plan for the next two years revolves around maintaining an alternate reality. He will continue to depend on the support of compliant members of the right-wing media, while using the traditional press as a foil in order to diminish their ability to spotlight his lies.

    Trump offered up his own twisted interpretation of “bipartisanship” at a threat-laden press conference Wednesday morning, telling Democrats that if they sacrifice their constitutional duty to conduct investigations into his deeply corrupt administration, he would be willing to consider their policy ideas. If they don’t, he said, the deal is off, “government comes to a halt,” and he will blame them.

    Trump lashed out at journalists throughout the press conference. After one such combative exchange with CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, a White House intern tried to take the microphone from Acosta, who refused to relinquish it. He came into contact with her, then apologized. The president castigated Acosta as “a rude, terrible person,” later adding that he is “the enemy of the people” because CNN reports “fake news.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders subsequently pulled Acosta’s press credentials, circulating a video clip of the incident to falsely accuse him of “placing his hands on” the intern. (There’s an ongoing debate over what sort of edits were made to the video, generated by a staffer with the conspiracy theory website InfoWars, but either way, the charge is nonsense).

    Soon after the conference ended, Trump finally took the advice from his Fox News cabinet and forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. He announced as the new acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff and a Trump loyalist whom the president reportedly considered “his eyes and ears” at the Justice Department. Whitaker has the background you’d expect given that Trump believes the job of the attorney general is to protect the president and persecute his enemies. Before joining the administration, he led a right-wing nonprofit group that called for federal investigations into various Democrats, particularly Hillary Clinton, and was a frequent critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which the administration now says he will oversee.

    Trump’s worst traits -- thuggish, vindictive, authoritarian, mendacious, nakedly transactional -- were all on stark display yesterday. And pulled from the disparate realms of legislative affairs, media relations, and presidential appointments, these three cases share a common element: They put on display the White House’s constant smoke screen of brazen lies and bottomless bad faith.

    Every other president has managed to simultaneously negotiate with Congress while submitting to its oversight authority, and Trump’s lack of interest in policy coupled with the intransigence of Senate Republicans makes his offer of cooperation an obvious ploy. Punishing a reporter based on bogus claims that defy clear video evidence is an abuse of power. And the new acting attorney general has been hand-picked to obstruct Mueller’s probe and, perhaps, usher in the political prosecutions the president so desperately wants -- and Whitaker may not even have the legal authority to exercise those powers at all.

    Trump and his ilk depend on a right-wing propaganda apparatus that is willing to support their alternative reality narratives. They are sustained by the unwillingness or inability of reporters at traditional news outlets to explain to their audiences just how radical and deceptive the administration really is.

    On the first day of the Trump administration, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer effectively announced that the president was at war with the truth. In a bitter harangue, Spicer declared that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period -- both in person and around the globe,” and blasted journalists for reporting otherwise.

    Spicer’s rant was a signal that the unending lies that characterized Trump’s campaign would continue -- and with them, the attacks on the press that those lies require in order to undermine a key source of contrary information.

    The daily criticism of journalists emanating from the White House is not a sideshow, but a key facet of Trumpism, one necessary for its success -- while it may distract, it is far more than a mere distraction. The combination of unending lies and delegitimization of the press result in a Republican base convinced that Trump is the best source of information on himself and a broader public confused about whom to believe. From there his power flows.

    Trump needs a weakened press to pull off his cons. He would like nothing better than to spend the next few years battering House Democrats for daring to provide oversight of his grifter administration, offering up lies about the great things they could have done together for the American people. He would love to prop up Whitaker as an independent pick. If journalists don’t vigorously scrutinize his lies, he wins; if they do, he will cry “fake news.” Meanwhile, the right-wing partisans at Fox News and elsewhere will have his back.

    The spiral is continuing, and it’s only going to get more dangerous in the days to come.

  • Fox News was made for this moment

    With Jeff Sessions forced out, Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is in jeopardy

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday afternoon. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which under the auspices of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has marched ever-closer to Trump’s inner circle, is now in jeopardy, threatened by a president who wishes for the Justice Department to defend him like his personal lawyers would.

    “At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions wrote in an undated letter to the president released today, making clear that he was not leaving by choice. Sessions had angered Trump by recusing himself from the federal investigation into Russia’s interference into the 2016 presidential election. That probe grew into Mueller’s investigation, which has led to dozens of indictments and plea deals, including for Trump’s former campaign chair and former national security adviser. While the probe went dark in the weeks before the election, Mueller was expected to take additional steps now that the midterms had passed, including possibly indicting Donald Trump, Jr.

    With Sessions recused, the path to stopping Mueller went through Rosenstein. But with Sessions out, his replacement will oversee the probe. Trump announced on Twitter that he has named Justice Department official Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, presumably giving him the power to curtail Mueller’s investigation or remove the special counsel entirely.

    Whitaker’s opinion of the probe is no secret. In an August 2017 piece for CNN.com before he joined the administration, he called for Rosenstein to “limit the scope” of the investigation and prevent Mueller from looking into Trump’s finances. Appearing on CNN the previous month, he mused about a scenario in which Sessions was replaced by someone who “doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” Now he will have the opportunity to do that himself.

    The ultimate cause for Trump ousting Sessions is the president’s authoritarian view of law enforcement as a tool to enforce his own will, wedded to a Fox News propaganda apparatus that encourages that twisted perspective.

    As I wrote in April:

    Since the Mueller investigation began, … Fox’s audience has been tuning in daily to an alternative narrative in which Trump and his associates are being unfairly pursued for crimes that never occurred, the victims of a vast conspiracy by Justice Department and FBI officials, Democrats, and the mainstream press. The entire network is responsible for turning its audience against the rule of law, and nearly every program has to some degree engaged in this activity. But a relative handful of players has been the dominating force in the effort, employing apocalyptic rhetoric that constantly finds new heights.

    Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Jeanine Pirro have led Fox’s effort to lay the groundwork for the president to finally follow through on an authoritarian solution to the Mueller problem. All are vocal propagandists with close ties to Trump who regularly call for purges of the Justice Department and FBI in order to remove elements they view as insufficiently loyal to him.

    Night after night, the hosts have been telling the same unified story of the Mueller probe’s illegitimacy, enlisting a small circle of discredited journalists, Trumpist lawmakers, and hack lawyers to bellow about the smear of the day.

    Meanwhile, the president has been paying attention. He has watched their shows, tweeted about segments he enjoyed, sought their private counsel, and sometimes taken their advice on the probe, creating a durable feedback loop that drives Fox’s anti-Mueller conspiracy theories into the rest of the news cycle.

    Every high-level law enforcement official involved in the Russia investigation has come under Fox figures’ scrutiny at one time or another. But Sessions has been a special focus for their invective. A replacement who is more willing to comply with Trump’s wishes could strangle the probe, ensuring that it doesn’t get closer to the Oval Office.

    And so the members of the president’s Fox cabinet have been slamming Sessions and accusing him of “betray[ing] the president.” Pirro, Dobbs, and Gregg Jarrett have all called for his removal.

    Trump, at long last, has taken their advice. Now, he’s counting on them to help him get away with what he’s done.

    Bill Shine former top Fox executive and current White House deputy chief of staff for communications, is the perfect fit to lead a disinformation campaign aimed at weaponizing the right-wing echo chamber to defend the president.

    And in Fox, Shine will have an eager network willing to carry water for this administration because that's what Fox was designed to do.

    When President Richard Nixon resigned from office in disgrace, his acolytes blamed the media.

    Roger Ailes, who served as an advisor on Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign and helped sell him to the American people, founded Fox almost three decades later with the slogan “fair and balanced,” a not-so-subtle jab at the “liberal" press that had hounded his boss from the White House.

    As the years passed, Fox grew in power and influence, becoming the communications arm of the Republican Party and a dominant force in the party’s internal debates.

    The network has been an incubator for GOP talking points, a steady paycheck for former and current party officials, a launching pad for right-wing movements, and the battleground for the party’s presidential primaries.

    And now, with Trump in complete control of the GOP and shaping it in his own image, Fox has become a powerful propaganda tool, ready and willing to protect the president at all costs.

    “Nixon didn’t have Fox News in his corner,” The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote in April. “President Trump does — and that might make all the difference if he were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein or even special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The pro-Trump media, led by Fox, would give cover, and huge swaths of Americans would be encouraged to believe that the action was not only justified but absolutely necessary.” The same is true for Sessions’ removal, which puts Mueller’s probe in similar jeopardy.

    The president is betting that Fox’s support will be enough to help him survive a move that likely ends with the crippling of Mueller’s investigation. We’re about to find out if he’s right.

  • Sean Hannity and the end of the Fox News standards charade

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox News said Sean Hannity wasn’t going to campaign for President Donald Trump at Monday night’s rally. Sean Hannity said he wasn’t going to campaign for Trump.

    Hannity proved them both liars last night.

    While Trump’s campaign had described Hannity as a “special guest” at the Missouri rally -- Trump’s last before the midterm elections -- both the Fox star and his network insisted he was just there to interview the president. But after the interview, Trump summoned his loyal propagandist to the stage, and Hannity went. He mugged with Trump for the cheering crowd, praised the administration for keeping its promises, and slammed journalists covering the event as “fake news.” Fellow Fox host Jeanine Pirro followed him on to the stage, basking in Trump’s praise before urging the crowd to vote for Republican candidates.  

    In April, after Hannity brazenly disregarded a basic tenet of media ethics, journalists at credible news outlets questioned whether Fox would censure, suspend, or even fire the host. “Going to find out what kind of org Fox is today,” NBC News’ Chuck Todd tweeted the morning after that news broke.

    Few seem to be bothering this time around. There’s a shared understanding that there aren’t really any rules that Fox is willing or able to enforce against him. In 2010, the network reined him in when he tried to use his show to raise money for a tea party group; in 2016, a Fox spokesperson issued a statement after he appeared in a Trump ad, promising that it wouldn’t happen again. These were modest steps at best -- Fox executives never formally reprimanded Hannity for his actions, much less suspended him -- but they at least signaled that the network had some lines he couldn’t cross.

    But since Trump’s election, Hannity’s ties to the White House and role as a Trump confidant have apparently rendered him untouchable by the network. Hannity has spent multiple days on his show pushing a despicable conspiracy theory, defended the president’s lawyer without noting that he’s also Hannity’s lawyer, and now campaigned with the president after he and his network both swore he wouldn’t, without apparent consequences. In the unlikely event Fox News finally decides to take action, it would be long overdue -- and also completely out of character.

    Hannity isn’t the only one Fox treats with kid gloves. Pirro also appeared on stage with Trump last night. Lou Dobbs laughed off Fox banning one of his guests over anti-Semitic rhetoric last week. Laura Ingraham knows that no matter how depraved her commentary, Fox will have her back. And Tucker Carlson has effectively turned the network’s 8 p.m. hour into Stormfront TV.

    There are some at Fox who operate within standards that, if you squint hard enough, resemble those of a traditional media outlet. They may complain about the behavior of the network’s stars, either to other reporters or more publicly. But Fox’s business model is built on hard-right propaganda garnished with a fig leaf of “real” reporters whom network executives like Lachlan Murdoch can point to defray criticism. That has been the play for years, and the Fox “straight news” people have been happy to keep cashing their checks. They are complicit in the worst failings of their colleagues.

    As I noted after Hannity’s ethical disaster in April, “because Fox does not hold its stars to the most basic codes of ethical behavior, let alone the standard principles of journalistic conduct, critics hoping for accountability have little recourse but to appeal directly to the network’s advertisers.”

    Things have only gotten worse. The network and Trump have fully merged, with Fox operating as a literal arm of his campaign. Sean Hannity owns Fox, but Donald Trump owns Sean Hannity.

    UPDATE:

    Fox and Hannity have both responded to the controversy by neither admitting fault nor promising that this won’t happen again. Both farcical statements suggest that the network’s real concern is that Hannity impugned the Fox employees present among the press throng when he went onstage and said of the media at the rally, “all those people in the back are fake news.”

    An anonymous Fox spokesperson released the following statement: “FOX News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events. We have an extraordinary team of journalists helming our coverage tonight and we are extremely proud of their work. This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”

    The statement is notable for its brazen lie: Regardless of what the network says it does or “does not condone,” more than a dozen Fox hosts and contributors raised funds for Republican Party organizations in the first year of Trump’s administration -- continuing a yearslong pattern.

    The statement is also notable for what it is missing: Any direct criticism of Hannity or Pirro by name, or any consequences for what they did.

    At the same time the network’s statement went out, Hannity tweeted that his appearance on stage “was NOT planned,” and that he “was not referring to” his Fox colleagues when he described the assembled journalists covering the event as “fake news.” Absent was an apology, an acknowledgement that what he did was wrong, or a statement that he would not do it again.

    He probably will.

  • On eve of midterms, Fox and Trump are one

    Hannity is a "special guest" at Trump's closing rally, because of course he is 

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In September 2016, Fox News publicly chastised Sean Hannity for getting too close to Donald Trump. “We were not aware of Sean Hannity participating in a promotional video,” a network spokesperson said after being informed that the conservative host had endorsed Trump in a campaign ad, “and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election season.” Some questioned whether Hannity might face disciplinary action for committing what would be a damning ethics breach at any other media outlet, and wondered where his truly loyalties lay. “Who Does Sean Hannity Even Work for Now: Fox News or Donald Trump?” asked The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng.

    Two years later, that question has been answered: Both, because it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. That’s the takeaway from Hannity’s appearance tonight as a “special guest” for Trump’s final campaign rally before the midterms.

    Trump’s ascension to the presidency triggered a merger with the right-wing network. Fox is now functionally a propaganda arm of his administration, despite quibbles to the contrary from its executives.

    And Hannity, on the one hand a Trump friend and adviser, on the other the network’s biggest name, is the keystone of that alliance, an untouchable star in Fox’s firmament.

    That status was on display when the Trump campaign announced yesterday that Hannity would be appearing at Monday night’s rally, along with conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. The pair, according to the campaign’s press release, “are longtime friends of President Trump” and “strong advocates for the President’s America First agenda.”

    This is a bit too on the nose for Fox, which has responded by telling reporters that Hannity will be attending the rally to interview Trump, not to campaign for him. But of course, this is a distinction without a difference -- Hannity’s Trump “interviews,” like the rest of his program, are indistinguishable from White House promotional material.

    In September, when the president and his loyal supporter’s on-air conversation served as the warm-up act for a Trump rally, CNN’s Brian Stelter noted that they looked “like co-hosts.”

    That’s what we should expect to see tonight -- a mutually beneficial performance in which Trump gets access to Fox’s Trump-loving audience and Hannity enjoys the reflected glory of being a trusted White House confederate.

    Hannity will serve up softballs, leading the president through his talking points, bolstering his denunciations of his enemies, and helping him fearmonger about immigrants. The crowd will cheer Trump and boo his enemies on cue.

    Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine the president floundering. And indeed, hours before it begins, Fox is already promoting Trump’s “powerful interview”:

    Trump’s campaign couldn’t have put it better itself.