Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • New MSNBC host Hugh Hewitt is Sean Hannity in glasses

    The Trump supporter puts an intellectual shine on partisan hackery

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    “It is hard work to read widely and broadly, and on both sides of the political aisle,” conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt wrote in a July 2014 explanation of why he had decided to, in his words, “embarrass” a young Huffington Post journalist during an interview on his radio show by quizzing him about what books he had read about the war on terror. “Time consuming. Not very fun actually. But necessary. If you intend to be taken seriously. More importantly, if you intend the country to endure.”

    Since then, NBC hired Hewitt as a political analyst, The Washington Post brought him on as a contributing columnist, and MSNBC has now announced that it is handing Hewitt a weekly show airing on Saturday mornings. These media outlets fell for the idea that he is a different type of conservative talker, the “antidote” to “bombastic personalities” like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. In reality, his actions during the 2016 presidential election campaign and the early months of the Trump administration have showed that he simply puts an intellectual gloss on their same brand of partisan hackery.

    In recent weeks, while pundits who share Hewitt's reputation for erudition have castigated the president as dangerously unlearned and incurious, Hewitt has instead stood alongside the president's media sycophants, laying down cover fire for Trump. Hewitt supported Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating his campaign's connections to the Russian government; he downplayed reports that Trump had revealed highly classified information in a meeting with Russian officials; after numerous outlets reported that Comey had kept notes of a meeting with Trump in which the president suggested he halt an investigation into a Trump aide, Hewitt's focus was on whether Comey, not Trump, had behaved appropriately. 

    A breakout media star of the campaign, Hewitt garnered numerous glowing profiles stressing his intellectual heft and curiosity: the “necessary bookshelf” of national security tomes he promotes on this website; how he opens interviews by asking his guests if they know who Alger Hiss is and have read Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower*; his friends on all sides of the political debate; his regular interviews of prominent mainstream journalists; his experience in politics, law, and academia; and in particular the way those features make him distinct from other conservative radio and cable news hosts.

    But Hewitt set aside his concern for the life of the mind and voted for Donald Trump for president, a man of manifest ignorance and intellectual laziness who is unaware of basic historical facts and legal principles, uninterested in policy nuance or detail. As Hewitt had noted in demolishing a 31-year-old journalist, it is “hard work to read widely,” and Trump never bothered to try -- it seems plausible he has read fewer books as an adult than he is credited with writing. Asked to name the last book he had read in an interview last May, Trump commented, “I read passages. I read -- I read areas, I read chapters. I just -- I don't have the time."

    For Hewitt, reading widely was necessary to credibly comment on foreign policy, but not to make it.

    Hewitt, who remained neutral during the Republican presidential primary, frequently provided Trump with friendly access to his audience; he was “the very best interview in America,” according to the host. In none of those interviews with a man who was seeking to be the potential next leader of the free world was Hewitt nearly as aggressive as he had been in his interview with a young Huffington Post reporter.**

    In their first interview, in February 2015, Trump acknowledged that he hadn’t read The Looming Tower, couldn’t name any works of fiction that he’d read, and admitted that he could not speak about nuclear submarines in any real detail (“I just know this. Military is very important to me.”). None of this seemed to strike Hewitt as a problem.

    Hewitt could perhaps be forgiven for not going after Trump with guns blazing at that time, before Trump had announced he was running for president, when many commentators thought that his potential run was a joke. But as the months passed and Trump became and remained the Republican front-runner, Hewitt never pivoted to consistently scrutinizing Trump’s intellectual stature.

    Hewitt drew attention and praise for their seventh interview in September 2015. Saying that he was finally going to give the Republican front-runner “commander in chief questions,” the radio host quizzed Trump about major terrorist leaders and international events. “I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?” Hewitt asks at one point. “No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone,” Trump replied.

    Commentators praised Hewitt for having “stumped” and “tripped up” Trump. Hewitt himself takes issue with those characterizations, and indeed, if you review the interview transcript, you’ll find Hewitt repeatedly bringing Trump back from the ledge that the candidate’s ignorance put him on.

    Hewitt let Trump get away with saying it was appropriate for him not to learn about foreign policy issues until he’s elected and claiming that he wasn’t willing to talk about hypotheticals because he didn’t “want the other side to know” what he would do. At one point Trump openly rejected the entire premise of Hewitt’s purported worldview, saying that because he’s a “delegator” who hires “great people” it’s “ridiculous” to ask him specific questions about prominent figures and world events.

    Following the interview, as pundits criticized Trump for his performance, the candidate lashed out at Hewitt as a “third-rate radio announcer.” After initially defending his own performance, Hewitt said that it was his fault that Trump had "misunderstood" his question.

    Trump's criticism got results, as the host adjusted his interview style to get back on Trump’s good side. Hewitt interviewed Trump eight more times over the course of the presidential campaign. He never again asked Trump a question intended to demonstrate whether the candidate had specific knowledge, instead focusing on open-ended foreign policy hypotheticals, process questions, and softballs about Clinton’s alleged misdeeds.

    In the end, the erudite Hewitt, who cast aspersions at a reporter for commenting on foreign policy without first reading the right books, ended up supporting Trump just as Limbaugh and Hannity did, and for much the same reasons. In the end, Hewitt was a partisan, towing the Republican line and supporting the party’s nominee in spite of Trump’s manifest ignorance.

    “Of course I am voting for Donald Trump. You should be too if you are a conservative,” Hewitt wrote in July. His case was a raw appeal to the need to ensure that Republicans gained access to the levers of power. Conservative dominance of the U.S. Supreme Court outweighed all other factors, according to Hewitt; his other arguments included the claim that “Hillary Clinton is thoroughly compromised by the Russians,” that Trump will appoint conservatives to positions of power, and that he definitely really “isn’t a racist, or a dangerous demagogue, a Mussolini-in-waiting, a Caesar off-stage.”

    When Hewitt did speak out against Trump -- at times even calling for the Republican National Committee to take action to prevent him from being nominated and urging the nominee to drop out -- his argument was again partisan: that Trump should be replaced because he could not win. Trump was on the ticket on Election Day, and so Hewitt voted for him.

    This sort of naked partisanship -- the belief that one’s party is better for the country than the alternative, and thus should be supported as long as its candidate can meet some bare minimum standard (“isn’t a racist, or a dangerous demagogue”) -- is a defensible position. But it’s certainly not the position one would expect from someone with Hewitt’s exalted reputation, especially with that bare minimum very much in question.

    Trump’s rise was a revelatory moment that separated out the conservative commentators who had a political principle beyond ensuring the Republican Party gained power from those who did not. Several of Hewitt’s colleagues who are similarly regarded as intellectuals distinguished themselves by condemning Trump, saying that they could not in good conscience support someone with his history of ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, and demagoguery. Hewitt failed this test, in a manner that clashes with the story Hewitt tells about himself, and the one that others tell about him.

    Since Trump clinched the Republican nomination, some in the conservative press have blamed right-wing commentators like Limbaugh and Hannity for being willing to set aside principles and carry water for the candidate. But that behavior was completely in character for the right-wing talk radio hosts, who have long served as standard bearers of the Republican Party.

    While his megaphone is much smaller than those of Limbaugh and Hannity, Hewitt presents a bigger problem for the conservative movement. He was one of the few with a reputation as an intellectual force who was willing to sacrifice his principles to back the GOP nominee -- and was rewarded with new posts at The Washington Post and MSNBC as an in-house Trump supporter.

    Like other pro-Trump pundits, Hewitt is regularly called upon to defend the indefensible, and he frequently rises to the challenge. His recent missives at the Post include columns headlined "It's time to relax about Trump," "Stop the Trump hysteria," and "Trump’s first 100 days give conservatives a lot to celebrate."

    But unlike the Jeffrey Lords and Kayleigh McEnanys, and perhaps because of his strong relationships with mainstream journalists and pundits, Hewitt has largely managed to keep his reputation intact. He doesn’t deserve to.

    “I would not go through life ignorant of key facts, especially important facts. So many of the people writing under bylines are willing to do just the opposite today,” Hewitt concluded in his essay about why he embarrasses journalists. “It cannot end well when a free people are choosing leaders based upon the reporting of a class of people both biased and blind as well as wholly unaware of both or if aware, unwilling to work at getting smart enough to do their jobs well.”

    Fair enough. But surely it also “cannot end well” when the leaders we choose are also “unwilling to work at getting smart.” That is, perhaps, a key fact of which Hewitt remains ignorant.

    Hewitt got his Supreme Court justice. All it cost him was his dignity.

    Shelby Jamerson provided additional research. Images by Sarah Wasko.

    *Hewitt says he asks about Hiss “because the answer provides a baseline as to the journalist’s grasp of both modern American political history and to a crucial fault-line through it,” and about The Looming Tower because “It is almost journalistic malpractice to opine on any aspect of the West’s conflict with Islamist radicalism without having read Wright’s work, which won the Pulitzer Prize and which is the standard text.” For the record, the author knows who Hiss is, believes the evidentiary record supports the conclusion that he was a Soviet spy, and has read The Looming Tower.

    ** Hewitt has interviewed Trump 15 times during the campaign, for the following editions of his radio show: February 25, 2015; June 22, 2015; August 3, 2015; August 12, 2015; August 26, 2015; August 29, 2015; September 3, 2015; September 21, 2015; October 22, 2015; November 5, 2015; December 1, 2015; February 4, 2016; February 22, 2016; June 23, 2016; and August 11, 2016.

  • Reporters fall into the “alt-right” trap with Julius Caesar stunt

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Ever since President Donald Trump hired then-Breitbart.com chief executive Stephen Bannon to run his presidential campaign, the press has been struggling to comprehend the “alt-right” movement that his website helped promote. While many journalists have done yeoman’s work catching up on the assortment of white nationalists, misogynists, and conspiracy theorists behind this new wave of fringe media outlets, they’ve been less effective in learning about the tactics those figures use to manipulate the press. That failing was evident over the weekend, as major news outlets reported on Friday night’s “alt-right” interruption of a performance of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

    That controversy, which triggered stories by The Associated Press, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications, demonstrated that the news judgment of mainstream news outlets has yet to adjust to the new reality. And it is a sad reminder that the “alt-right’s” greatest strength is its ability to exploit the media for its own ends.

    Conservative criticism of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park, which debuted in late May and concluded Sunday night, hit the public consciousness on June 11 after it came under attack from Fox News. In an appearance on the weekend edition of the network’s Fox & Friends morning show, TownHall.com Political Editor Guy Benson denounced the play for placing a Trump look-alike in the titular role of the Roman leader who is assassinated onstage.

    As other conservative media figures and Trump’s own sons joined the chorus, Delta and Bank of America ended their corporate sponsorship of the production. And after a gunman targeted Republican members of Congress practicing on a baseball field last week, wounding Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), right-wing commentators linked the attack to the play.

    These arguments are foolish and made in bad faith. Caesar’s assassination is not glamorized in the production -- indeed, the message of the play is that misguided political violence will inevitably breed disastrous consequences. “Likening Shakespeare’s monarchs and politicians to real-life figures is a long-standing performance practice, seized by directors with sometimes illuminating, sometimes boneheaded results,” Slate’s Issac Butler noted after the initial complaints, pointing out that performances of Julius Caesar have featured then-President Barack Obama in the titular role without incident.

    The controversy culminated in a "protest" at Friday night’s performance, when the production was interrupted for roughly a minute when the “alt-right” online outlet Rebel Media’s Laura Loomer stormed the stage, shouting, “Do you want Trump to be assassinated?” She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. Jack Posobiec, another “alt-right” figure, also interrupted the performance, yelling, “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands” and comparing the audience to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels before being removed from the theater. Posobiec taped the disturbance and posted it on Twitter, where it quickly circulated.

    Why did they do it? The incident has the hallmarks of a grift: The disturbances came after “alt-right” personality Mike Cernovich offered a $1,000 bounty to anyone who successfully interrupted the performance, and Loomer is seeking to crowdfund $25,000, supposedly for her legal defense.

    It’s not unusual for protesters to use civil disobedience to garner media attention for their cause. But this "protest" had no real aim other than the aggrandizement of its participants. It had all the moral force of a pair of drunken assholes running onto the field to halt a baseball game, and deserved a similar degree of attention from the media. Instead, mainstream reporters have been transfixed by the story, generating reams of coverage that bolster the profiles of Posobiec and Loomer. For the cost of a ticket, they were able to troll the public with their nonsense claims, with mainstream outlets regurgitating their trolling at the top of their stories and burying the reasons not to believe them.

    This manipulation of the mainstream press by subversive elements who don’t play by the traditional rules of journalism should be an ongoing concern. We’ve seen the press fall for these efforts time and time again -- indeed, NBC News spent most of last week getting outmaneuvered at every turn by Infowars chief Alex Jones.

    Mainstream reporters rightfully feel compelled to cover the rising tide of fringe-right outlets because of their close ties to the president, and the manner in which their seemingly-absurd conspiracy theories have translated into harassment. Their claims about a pedophile ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor led to gunfire at the restaurant; Seth Rich’s family was hassled following their allegations that the murdered Democratic staffer was actually bumped off by Hillary Clinton’s campaign; their lies that the Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax turn the lives of the victims’ parents into waking nightmares.

    But the pro-Trump fringe has become adept at taking advantage of those inclinations to increase its own influence. As they come under more scrutiny, these “alt-right” figures are learning how to gin up grievances, manufacture new controversies, and troll the press to garner attention and make money.

    Reporters need to show better news judgment when they engage with the “alt-right.” When the movement’s media personalities are stirring controversies that have a real impact on people’s lives, they have earned national attention.

    But when the “alt-right” personalities are deliberately screwing with journalists to bolster their own profiles, the best thing journalists can do for their readers is refuse to play their game.

  • Megyn Kelly's Alex Jones segment shows how public pressure works

    It could have gone worse, but a competent report won't undo the damage done

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A well-deserved firestorm of denunciations from the families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting and other critics forced Megyn Kelly to turn a report that was originally billed as a self-promotional head-to-head showdown with Alex Jones into a well-edited investigation of the dangers posed by an unstable megalomaniac with millions of loyal fans, including one in the Oval Office.

    But Kelly deserves little credit -- she acted in response to overwhelming public pressure, and the network’s impotent reaction to Jones’ own grabs for media attention may allow the nation's biggest producer of conspiracy theory media to come out the winner of tonight’s program.

    At no point since Kelly teased her interview with Jones at the end of last week’s show has she or NBC been able to control the narrative spinning out of her own show. It’s a shocking failure for one of the media’s savviest manipulators of her own image, and the network that hired her.

    Immediately after last week’s Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, Sandy Hook family members began speaking out. They said they had suffered years of torment and harassment due to Jones’ claims that the shooting was a “hoax,” and denounced Kelly for granting him a platform. Desperate to salvage the situation as brutal headlines rolled in, NBC all but promised its critics that the segment would be edited to portray Jones as negatively as possible.

    That’s exactly what happened. The segment benefited from devoting very little time to Kelly’s interview with Jones, minimizing his opportunity to appeal to her audience. Instead, through strong voiceover, clips from Jones’ program featuring the host spouting conspiracies, and interviews with a conservative commentator who opposes Jones’ influence and the father of a child who died at Sandy Hook, Kelly explained how Jones operates, the harassment his targets experience, and his close ties to President Donald Trump.

    The segment reportedly went through drastic changes following the spate of condemnation, with NBC adding an interview with a Sandy Hook family member and slicing and dicing the footage of Kelly’s sit-down with Jones to make it more damaging to him. It’s not unusual for networks to edit stories right up until airtime. But last week’s public relations nightmare clearly played a role in the segment NBC ended up running.

    NBC deserved that nightmare. Kelly was hired to be a new face of the network and given a program aimed to challenge CBS’ 60 Minutes for newsmagazine primacy. But after the first episodes of her newsmagazine show suffered from poor ratings and reviews criticizing her interviewing skill, NBC took a chance with a Jones sit-down, which offered Kelly the opportunity to reset the show’s reputation with a viral moment.

    That the network’s executives apparently didn’t realize that news of the segment would trigger a backlash from Jones’ victims shows a tremendous lack of foresight and ignorance of the subject matter. NBC paid for that failure with a series of awful news cycles pitting their new star against traumatized families who had lost their children who castigated Kelly for giving Jones a platform.

    I believe Jones is a newsworthy subject for national news outlets. It is important for the American people to learn how the nation's most prominent conspiracy theorist has garnered a large audience and gained the ear of Trump (the circumstances were different earlier in the decade, when Media Matters criticized several networks for giving him a platform). But as I argued last week, interviewing Jones’ victims would be more likely to shed light on his character than Kelly’s initial approach of focusing on a head-to-head showdown. The week of controversy drastically changed NBC’s calculus, producing a significantly better segment than suggested by last Sunday’s preview.

    It’s too early to tell whether the Sandy Hook families who criticized the decision to interview Jones will be satisfied with the result, or if they will deal another blow to Kelly’s stature. But while Jones isn't having a meltdown, he can't feel good about the segment's clear implication that he is a dangerous extremist. And given how badly the radio host beat the network’s PR team this week, they may have something to fear from him as well.

    Kelly and her network were caught flat-footed, unable to either anticipate or successfully react as Jones repeatedly outmaneuvered them, taking control of the narrative and successfully framing the story for the national media through the propagandistic manipulations that make him such a dangerous force.

    Jones “has learned how to program the mainstream news by inciting outrage online that is then discussed and covered by mainstream media,” BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel reported after Jones released embarrassing audio of phone calls in which Kelly tries to talk him into doing the interview. “But Kelly and NBC were ill-equipped to deal with the pro-Trump media apparatus. Instead, they adhered to the traditional rules of a big television interview that assume a good-faith relationship between interviewer and interviewee.”

    Jones escalated his public relations offensive as the interview approached, releasing a Father’s Day video in which he offered “sincere condolences” to the Sandy Hook families, lied about his previous comments about the attack, and lashed out at NBC. Jones was live on the air before Kelly’s show aired, spreading rumors about Kelly and threatening to release his own recording of their interview if he was displeased with the result. After it aired, seeking to bolster the image that he won the night, he and his cronies drank a champagne toast on camera. As Jones again tried to take over the story online, the NBC News and Megyn Kelly twitter feeds went dark, ceding him the social space.

    The radio host wanted more attention, and he got it, seeking to build his audience by portraying himself as the mainstream media’s victim. Thanks to Kelly’s failure to control her own narrative, he may well succeed.

    Kelly’s segment demonstrates that, with enough pressure, broadcast outlets can produce adequate reports on the pro-Trump fringe. But the last week shows they still haven’t learned enough to effectively defend their work against an alternative media assault. And it remains to be seen whether NBC’s failure to control the narrative around Jones’ interview helped him more than an otherwise competent segment hurt him.

  • CNN’s chief is criticizing the president's war on the media. Last year, he hired Trump’s top press abuser.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    CNN President Jeff Zucker criticized President Donald Trump’s administration for its strategy of trying to delegitimize the press for political purposes, warning that his network’s reporters now regularly receive threats. But CNN itself has played a key role in that effort, rewarding key figures in the Trump team’s anti-press campaign with jobs at the network.

    Zucker told HuffPo that the “shameful” effort “does disservice to this country and its position in the world and ... allows for a heightened sense of rhetoric against journalists and media organizations. And it is unconscionable and dangerous and they should know better.”

    CNN's chief is absolutely right. The attacks on the free press from the Trump administration and its media allies are unprecedented in their vitriol. Reporters covering Trump rallies often feared for their physical safety as Trump would whip his crowds into an anti-press frenzy. A Republican congressman’s assault last month on a reporter who sought to ask him a question represented a frightening new turn, with anti-press rhetoric turning swiftly to violence.

    But Zucker’s concern for the journalists he employs and their colleagues around the country would be more compelling if he had not previously decided that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who oversaw many of the campaign’s most despicable attacks on journalists, was a great fit for the network.

    Lewandowski earned notoriety for his open hostility toward -- and physical altercations with -- journalists trying to cover the campaign. He reportedly pushed a CNN reporter who was trying to ask a question and threatened to pull the credentials of another. He was said to have propositioned female journalists who sought to cover Trump. And most infamously, he was charged with misdemeanor battery after he forcibly grabbed reporter Michelle Fields for the crime of trying to ask Trump a question (the state declined to prosecute).

    After all that -- and in spite of a nondisclosure agreement that likely prevented him from criticizing Trump -- Zucker’s CNN hired Lewandowski in June 2016 to represent his former boss on the network. Journalists inside CNN and out promptly savaged the network for its “inexcusable” action.

    But Zucker repeatedly defended Lewandowski’s hiring on the grounds that the network needed to have a supporter of the Republican nominee on the payroll. This argument did not meet the smell test: The network already employed several Trump supporters and had no trouble finding others to appear on their airwaves, none of whom had records of physical altercations with journalists.

    The reality is that time and time again during the presidential campaign, Zucker was willing to do what it took to curry favor with the Trump campaign, providing the Republican front-runner with an ocean of coverage because he thought Trump gave the network great ratings. Now that Trump is president, he’s stuck in the unenviable position of having to deal with the result: A president willing to publicly declare his network “fake news.”

    Meanwhile, the pro-Trump pundits Zucker’s network employs play a key role in the administration’s effort to delegitimize the press by defending that strategy on the network’s own airwaves. CNN’s Jeffrey Lord laughed off Trump’s unhinged February press conference, during which the president launched dozens of attacks on reporters and media outlets, as the “launch of a new reality television show called ‘Beat the Press.’” In October, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Trump campaign aide Jason Miller if he was comfortable with the way Trump lashed out at the press and threatened to sue journalists. Miller responded by blaming the “biased” media. In March, CNN hired him as a political commentator.

    It’s great that Zucker now wants to stick up for his reporters when the president’s supporters chant “CNN sucks” at Trump rallies. But the administration's attacks on journalists did not come out of nowhere; they were completely predictable. Instead of punishing the Trump campaign for its actions “against something that is guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States” when it could have made a real difference, Zucker rewarded its anti-press lackeys.

  • Trump’s media allies use attack on GOP baseball practice to delegitimize the press

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump’s most loyal conservative and “alt-right” media allies are blaming the mainstream press's Trump coverage for Wednesday’s attack on a Republican congressional baseball practice, with one close ally to the president even calling for banning some critical journalists from the airwaves in response. This cynical campaign is the next step in their ongoing effort to delegitimize any source of unfavorable information about the president.

    The shooter has been identified as James T. Hodgkinson, a home inspector and critic of the president with a history of domestic violence.

    Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at Alex Jones’ Infowars site, was among the first to blame media coverage for the gunman’s attack, writing on Twitter just minutes after news broke that the culprit was “Trump derangement syndrome, radicalised by mainstream media hysterics.” He later added of journalists and the left, “The blood is on their hands.”

    This cynical effort to curtail critical journalism spread from the “alt-right” fringe, through the right-wing press, to Trump’s chief propagandist at Fox News. Several of the theory’s proponents specifically pointed to the media’s coverage of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

    “The fake news media finally got what it wanted,” Mike Cernovich said on Periscope. “They’re getting their mass murderers. They’re getting the mass shooters. This is what they’ve attempted to incite for the past 18 months.” Cernovich, an “alt-right” provocateur and noted misogynist, spent the 2016 election cycle promoting “Pizzagate” smears, and now he has close ties to Trump’s White House and family.

    “I have foreseen this coming,” Rush Limbaugh told his millions-strong radio audience soon after the shooting. “You can’t continue to enrage people the way the left and predominantly the mainstream media has been doing.”

    Michael Savage, a right-wing radio host with a close relationship with Trump who regularly hosts the administration’s top officials, not only blamed the media for the shooting but also suggested that in response, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and other critical journalists should be removed from the airwaves by the federal government due to their “constant drumbeat of their hatred against Trump and Republicans.” Maddow’s program is notable for its intense focus on the Trump-Russia story.

    At Fox, Sean Hannity declared that “the biggest issue we need to address as a country is what is a record level of vicious left-wing hate that is being spewed day after day, hour after hour, by a left-wing news media that wants to destroy the president.”

    Notably, the critique these pro-Trump media figures are pushing is largely bereft of concrete examples of journalists using extreme or inciting rhetoric about the president. After making his broad indictment against the press, for example, Hannity highlighted the actions of artists and celebrities, not reporters. In other instances, the claims are simply fabricated, as with Alex Jones’ declaration that a host of newspapers have called for Trump’s death.

    Instead, the president’s allies are claiming that negative coverage in general -- and negative coverage about the Russia investigation in particular -- led to violence. This is a patently cynical ploy aimed at bolstering a political strategy that the pro-Trump media have pushed for months.

    Trump has been castigating the press and seeking to delegitimize journalists since the presidential campaign. He’s declared the media the “enemy of the American people.” His allies have been bolstering that effort every step of the way.

    And now they’re using an attack on U.S. members of Congress as a new way to promote that argument.

  • Megyn Kelly turned to Alex Jones because her struggling show needs a viral moment

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Just a week after mocking the breakdown in civility on cable news shows and in the White House during the premiere episode of her new NBC newsmagazine program, last night Megyn Kelly teased an upcoming interview with Infowars’ Alex Jones, the megalomaniacal radio host known for his wide range of conspiracy theories.

    The first episode of Kelly’s Sunday Night was panned by critics and lost in the ratings war against a rerun of its direct competitor, CBS’ 60 Minutes. Her Jones interview, scheduled to air June 18, is an attempt to overcome this poor start by manufacturing a “Megyn moment” -- one of those unexpected instances where Kelly calls out her right-wing guest’s nonsense. These often-viral interview segments do little to inform Kelly’s audience. But they helped her gain an undeserved reputation in the mainstream press as an impartial truth-teller -- in part by distracting observers from the extreme, race-inflected rhetoric that made her a creature of the cable news culture that she now claims to deplore.

    Kelly certainly isn’t the first television host for whom high-minded rhetoric about creating a different type of program quickly yields to the raw desire to build on the show’s audience by any possible means. But the bar is high for Kelly’s Sunday Night, a program which aspires to compete with the storied 60 Minutes brand as a source of agenda-setting interviews and investigations. To do so, the show needs to not only entertain viewers -- or build Kelly’s brand -- but actually inform them about crucial events happening in the world around them.

    As such, the clips of Kelly’s interview with Jones that were previewed last night do not inspire confidence. Kelly asked Jones questions that could not possibly yield honest or accurate responses (“They call you the most paranoid man in America. Is that true?”) and sparred with him over his claims that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks and faked the Sandy Hook mass shooting.

    It is extremely difficult to successfully interview a conspiracy theorist who is willing to lie about what he has previously alleged. The subject can often run circles around the interviewer both because he is inevitably more familiar with the nuances of the theory and because he is willing to engage in rhetorical strategies for which the interviewer just isn’t ready. After the interview is over, the conspiracy theorist can retreat to his own media platforms to provide his own spin on what happened to an audience predisposed to believe him, not the mainstream press.

    This phenomenon was on display in March, when 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley interviewed the pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel explained, “Pelley, like other legacy journalists who are unfamiliar or only lightly acquainted with the meme-wielding arm of the right, confronted the pro-Trump Upside Down media without an understanding of its cardinal rule: The New Right media isn’t just an opposition force to the mainstream media — it’s a parallel institution armed with its own set of facts that insists on its own reality.”

    At worst, if Kelly is similarly unprepared, she will have given a platform and the NBC imprimatur of credibility to one of the more despicable figures in that parallel press, helping him gain access to a new audience. That’s what happened back in 2011, when MSNBC, NBC, and ABC all hosted Jones to discuss actor Charlie Sheen’s bizarre interview on his show. At the time, Jones acknowledged what should have been obvious -- that he was using those opportunities to “inject Infowars.com into the discussion” in the hope that “people will come here and find the larger picture." Jones is hoping history will repeat itself, having been counseled by Infowars cohort Roger Stone to do the interview in order to “break through to the mainstream.”

    At best, Kelly will joust with Jones over his past conspiracy theories, perhaps trapping him once or twice in a way that creates a “Megyn moment,” bolstering her brand and allowing her show to recover from a rough opening. (After sitting for the interview last week, Jones linked Kelly with the “new world order” and announced to viewers that he wasn't even attracted to her, suggesting that he is not happy with the result.) But the NBC audience probably won’t learn much from an interview segment in which two people operate from contrary views of reality. And Jones will still have had the opportunity to pitch his show to her viewers, and he will be able to manipulate the result in order to build his credibility with his own audience.

    That opportunity is angering the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. On Facebook and Twitter, they have called out Kelly, describing how Jones’ conspiracy theories have spurred years of emotionally brutal harassment from his fans and warning that giving him a platform can only encourage that campaign of abuse.

    Jones is a newsworthy subject, and it’s important for the American people to know about his relationship with the president. But given the difficulty in pinning down Jones on the facts, the best way to inform a radio or television audience about Jones isn’t to build a segment around a high-profile interview with him -- it’s to interview his victims.

    Don’t ask Jones how he feels about the people who “get very angry” about him saying that the Sandy Hook parents faked their children’s death. Sit down with those family members and ask them how their lives have been changed by Jones making those claims to an audience of millions, as the BBC’s Mike Wendling did earlier this year.

    Without giving Jones the opportunity to spread his lies to a new audience, you can lay out his conspiracy theories, why they are wrong, their impact, and what it means that he has fans in the White House.

    A segment like that will educate your audience about one of the worst people in public life. It might even be riveting television. It just won’t give you a “Megyn moment.”

  • After Comey’s “extremely damning” testimony, Fox & Friends focuses on distractions

    How Trump's favorite morning show is deploying a "shiny objects" strategy, in 19 screenshots

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Yesterday, in damning testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, former FBI director James Comey alleged that President Donald Trump had grossly abused his power. According to Comey, the president tried to get him to declare himself loyal, pushed him to end an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and then fired him after the director refused to comply in an effort to terminate the FBI’s investigation into whether Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election. After each of his seven one-on-one meetings and phone calls with the president, Comey said, he detailed the interaction in a memo because he believed that Trump might lie about what had happened.

    But if you turned on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning news program, this morning, these crucial issues of whether Trump is undermining the rule of law were all but unmentioned. Instead, the program’s hosts dedicated their efforts to undermining Comey’s reputation by directing their audience’s attention toward a series of shiny objects of limited relevance. For their efforts, they were praised and thanked by Trump himself.

    The president is in trouble, and Fox knows it. Immediately following Comey’s testimony, several network personalities expressed concern about the political damage the former FBI director had done to the president and raised questions about whether he would still be able to rally the Republican Party to accomplish his legislative goals. Andrew Napolitano, the network’s senior judicial analyst, warned that it is now all but certain that special counsel Bob Mueller would be interrogating Trump under oath and that Trump’s actions could rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

    “The most damning thing was when Jim Comey suggested a quid pro quo,” Napolitano said at one point. “He suggested that the president basically gave him the impression, ‘Here’s the quid pro quo, Jim: You want to keep your job as director of FBI? Lay off Flynn.’ That to me was new and was extremely damning and quite frankly was not addressed by Marc Kasowitz, the president’s lawyer.”

    But Comey’s “extremely damning” allegations were absent from Fox’s coverage this morning. And Napolitano, who regularly appears on the program to discuss legal issues, was not invited to join the hosts on the show’s curvy couch.

    Instead, a series of Trump lackeys rotated through the program to focus attention on two issues of only tangential relevance: whether Comey had behaved properly in sharing his memos with a college professor and asking him to share them with the media, and a conversation Comey detailed in which then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked him to describe the FBI’s review of Hillary Clinton’s email server as a “matter” rather than an “investigation.”

    For the president -- and for Fox & Friends -- Comey’s disclosures around the memos are incredibly damaging to his credibility because they show that he is a “leaker.” In reality, as Politico Magazine Editor-in-Chief Blake Hounshell noted, “It's not a ‘leak’ if you are a private citizen sharing unclassified recollections,” and legal experts -- including Napolitano -- quickly shot down the notion that Comey had behaved improperly. Nonetheless, Fox & Friends was captivated by the statement to Fox from an anonymous “source close to the president” that “they are considering their options and whether Comey’s leak to the media violated his FBI employment agreement.”

    The Lynch incident is similarly being portrayed as critical. But Lynch reportedly wanted “matter” used “to neither confirm nor deny that the investigation existed — as was standard Justice Department and F.B.I. practice,” and she ultimately said she would accept the FBI’s recommendations for the case, leaving Comey to make his own decision to close the investigation without pressing charges.

    Ultimately, these issues are distractions when weighed against the central question in play: Is the president of the United States abusing his power? The president’s media allies are making a conscious decision to avoid engaging with this question. Instead, they are using these sideshows to again bolster a parallel narrative for their audience in which the president is beset on all sides by lying enemies. Only by ignoring what is actually happening can they hope to stem the president’s sinking poll numbers. But the bubble is starting to collapse.

    Here are some screenshots from this morning’s Fox & Friends detailing what the program focused on -- and what it did not:

  • Is Breitbart doomed?

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Media Matters / Sarah Wasko

    I guess you either die an edgelord, or you live long enough to see yourself become the cuckservative. That’s the takeaway from the last six months at Breitbart.com, the right-wing website previously led by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Breitbart became a conservative media juggernaut by riding the rising tide of the racist, misogynistic “alt-right” and Donald Trump’s bigoted presidential campaign. But amid a massive advertiser boycott and faltering website traffic, the site has been forced to backpedal -- at least somewhat -- from the reputation that was responsible for its popularity in the first place.

    And that’s placed the website in an untenable position between its dwindling fringe-right audience and the advertisers it needs to survive.

    Signs that Breitbart’s editors had become nervous with their public status as “alt-right” champions began appearing as far back as November, when one of the site’s most virulent commentators left, saying the site had become “more controlled.” But the pace of cosmetic change quickened after progressive activists began destroying the site’s business model by urging advertisers to abandon it.

    The Washington Post outlines four such changes: the removal of Breitbart staffers Milo Yiannopoulos and Katie McHugh, who departed amid media firestorms over their commentary; the elimination of the website’s regular spotlight on purported instances of “black crime”; and the delay of a planned expansion to France and Germany.

    Putting aside the European expansion, which is less about addressing vulnerabilities than simply struggling to move forward, these efforts fall into two categories -- staffing and content. In each case, Breitbart’s interests in attracting traffic and retaining advertisers are at cross purposes, leaving the website vulnerable to its competitors.

    Breitbart was happy to attract traffic from bigots with articles such as “Five Devastating Facts About Black-On-Black Crime” and “Black-On-Black Crime: Blame It On The System And Ignore The Evidence.” But this sort of content is racist on its face, and as Breitbart’s profile rose, being associated with naked bigotry became untenable for the site’s advertisers. Breitbart likely pulled the plug on this sort of content to assuage the advertisers, but at the cost of opening the site up to the critique that it had knelt at the altar of “political correctness.”

    Likewise, when media attention settled on Yiannopoulos and McHugh, their histories of bigoted commentary made them radioactive to advertisers. But each had a strong individual fan base and close ties to the “alt-right” network because of that very virulence, which had previously made them valuable assets to Breitbart by building the website’s audience.

    As the site has sought to downplay its relationship with the “alt-right” and the fringe, commentators from those movements saw weakness and began attacking Breitbart for turning its back on its fans and supposedly becoming mainstream. In recent months, this far-right alternative media echo chamber has gained an increasingly large audience by presenting its adherents as completely dedicated to President Donald Trump and as savage foes of “political correctness” and “SJWs” -- in other words, by trying to out-Breitbart Breitbart.

    This dynamic came to a head on Monday when Breitbart fired McHugh after she responded to the London Bridge terror attack by tweeting that "there would be no deadly terror attacks in the U.K. if Muslims didn't live there” and attacked a critic’s perceived ethnicity. The far-right immediately rallied around McHugh and lashed out at her former employer, with leading fringe figures declaring that the website had given in to “political correctness,” castigating the site for supposedly seeking “to try to pivot to the mainstream,” and declaring that “Breitbart is over.”

    None of this is to say that Breitbart has suddenly become a beacon of moderation. Yiannopoulos spent years promoting bigotry with the site’s full approval before he apparently crossed the line. McHugh didn’t suddenly start tweeting racist things over the weekend -- she first drew attention for this behavior in September 2015. Asked about her racist tweets in March 2016, current Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow replied, “We’re considering giving Katie a weekly column.”

    And while “black crime” reporting seems to have died away, Breitbart still regularly publishes the same type of anti-Muslim commentary that got McHugh fired, and continues to employ white nationalist reporters with long records of racism who have yet to experience a media flashpoint.

    If the site’s leaders were cleaning house, they would clean house. Instead, they’re taking steps to minimize advertiser blowback when public attention is focused on their staffers’ awful behavior. The day after McHugh was fired, Digiday reported that Breitbart had lost nearly 90 percent of its advertisers over the previous three months, along with seeing a steep decline in traffic.

    Those simultaneous crises have put the website in a precarious position. If its editors can’t demonstrate a drastic change in behavior, there’s no chance their advertisers will return. But if they do try to become more mainstream, the site will come under fire from other members of the alternative media echo chamber who want to carve off some of Breitbart’s audience.  

    This dynamic has been a part of the right-wing media for years. There is constant pressure for commentators to push the envelope and become ever more extreme, accusing liberals of dire behavior to indulge the worst pathologies of their audience. During the Obama administration, right-wing media figures faced a series of decision points where they could either choose to enable the conservative movement's increasingly destructive behavior, or speak out and put their standing with that movement in jeopardy. Trump’s campaign, with all its bigotry and authoritarianism, held a mirror up to that system. Some of its members were horrified and decried what they had built, while others stood by the future president and attacked those “NeverTrumpers,” in part to steal their audiences.

    Indeed, Breitbart itself used these tactics against Fox News during the 2016 election, building up its own massive audience in part by lashing out at the network for being insufficiently loyal to Trump. Fox responded to that pressure, and its commentators have largely avoided attacks from the right during the Trump administration by emerging as the president’s most devoted propagandists.

    Now Breitbart is under the same pressure, and there’s nowhere for it to go without risking its financial security.

  • Republican strategists say they will run against the media in 2018. Here’s why that could work.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Media Matters / Daya Ramesh

    Amid a heated atmosphere of anti-media Republican rhetoric that has at times turned into violence against journalists, McClatchy is reporting that Republican plans for the 2018 elections will feature a “deliberate strategy to help GOP candidates win elections fueled by public hatred of reporters.”

    An open campaign against an institutional pillar of a democratic state would be a frightening thing to watch. There’s also every reason to believe it could work.

    After all, President Donald Trump was elected last November after a campaign that regularly featured scathing personal insults against individual journalists and the institution writ large. His speeches were built in part on jeering at the press to the delight of his audience, including disgustingly ridiculing the physical disability of a reporter who had debunked one of his falsehoods. He threatened to change the laws to make it easier to sue reporters and to use the power of the state to retaliate against news outlets whose coverage he disliked. His campaign manager manhandled a reporter during a campaign event.

    Trump’s attacks on the press regularly resulted in oceans of unfavorable coverage (but little collective action of the sort that might have brought a change in the candidate’s behavior). Commentators warned that he was setting the stage for authoritarianism. His mockery of the reporter’s disability was turned into negative campaign advertisements that were in heavy rotation in swing states.

    He won.

    In an election decided by so few votes, it is extremely difficult to determine the cause of victory. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he won because of his attacks on the press. But they were self-evidently not disqualifying.

    Targeting the press might not move swing voters in the 2018 midterms -- indeed, polls show that voters broadly disapprove of such attacks. But that wouldn’t be the purpose of such an effort. As McClatchy explains, this is a base mobilization strategy aimed at getting “Trump die-hards” to the polls on Election Day.

    Those voters are primed for such an effort. Conservatives have inculcated their voters for decades with claims that journalists are biased liberals who cannot be trusted. When Trump took that argument to its natural conclusion, lashing out at reporters at his rallies as a candidate and then as president, those voters cheered him on. Since his election, the president has sought to delegitimize the press and other sources of critical information about his administration, condemning their reports as deliberate efforts to push “fake news.”

    Voters take their cues from their party’s leaders, and the available polling data show that the GOP base has followed the president as he has increasingly wallowed in these anti-media conspiracy theories. Polls show that four out of five Republicans agree with Trump’s statement that certain news organizations are the “enemy of the American people,” like the way he talks about the press, and believe the mainstream press frequently publishes fake news. Trust in the press has fallen throughout the public at large in recent years, but the numbers among the Republicans the reported strategy seeks to target are truly catastrophic.

    The hermetically sealed media bubble that conservatives have built in recent decades serves both as a cause of this plummeting support for journalists and a key weapon for Republican strategists seeking to utilize this anti-press strategy. In order to build their audiences, outlets like Fox News and Breitbart.com regularly tell their viewers and readers that the mainstream press cannot be trusted. This has led to the creation of a parallel right-wing media apparatus that ensures conservatives can detach from reality in favor of a steady news diet of alternative facts. Those outlets are eager to assist the White House by delegitimizing any negative information reported about the president as more evidence of a biased press, and they will surely assist Republicans in their efforts to win votes by slamming the media.

    It is dangerous to weaponize criticism of institutions at the heart of the democratic process for partisan gain. Such an effort echoes ones we’ve seen before in countries that used to be free. The consequences of this strategy could be dire for our political system.

    Republican politicians should refuse to engage in these tactics. Republican leaders should disavow this strategy immediately. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)* and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have an outsized influence on the political strategies their candidates use by virtue of the huge war chests they help assemble. If they want to stop it, they can.

    Unfortunately, there is little evidence so far that they will. To this point, GOP leaders have responded to the president’s attacks on the press with polite statements of disagreement and disdain for the idea that they should have to respond to his statements. Since the campaign, they have put their desire for political victories over any worries about the disastrous downsides of Trump’s presidency. Meanwhile, rank-and-file members have started parroting Trump’s framing of negatives stories as “fake news.”

    With Trump's agenda stalled and few legislative accomplishments to point to, conservatives have seized on a breathtakingly cynical strategy to maintain power. The most frightening part is that it might work.

    *CORRECTION: This post originally identified Ryan as representing Ohio -- he is the representative for Wisconsin's 1st District.

  • The Bret Stephens climate saga reaches its logical conclusion

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, whose climate skepticism has been widely criticized by journalists and progressives but defended by the paper, has now been cited from the White House briefing room in defense of the president’s decision to pull out of an international climate accord.

    It’s a disaster for a paper that sold itself to readers as a bulwark against the new president, then turned around and hired a prominent climate change skeptic.

    As I’ve noted, the Times sold subscriptions in the days following President Donald Trump’s election by marketing the paper as an antidote to Trumpian “alternative facts.”

    But the paper took that money from new subscribers seeking critical reporting on Trump and his policies and announced on April 12 that it had hired Stephens, a Wall Street Journal columnist who had, among other things, called the scientific consensus around global warming a “sick-souled religion” whose adherents share the methods of “closet Stalinists.”

    The paper’s editors and some of its journalists sneered at progressives who complained that the Times has sold them a bill of goods by bringing on board someone with views that tarnish the Timesotherwise stellar record on climate change.

    Two weeks later, Stephen authored his first piece for the Times. Titled “Climate of Complete Certainty,” it  compares those who believe action should be taken to halt the consequences of climate change to Cold War-era Polish authoritarians. The piece included a single “fact” about climate change in service of the notion that while “modest” warming “is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.”

    Stephens’ analysis was shredded by embarrassed Times journalists, reporters outside the paper, climate scientists, and angry subscribers. The paper’s top editors stood up for him, with Times editorial page editor James Bennet defending the column as necessary to “promoting the free exchange of ideas.”

    Within a handful of days, the paper issued a correction regarding that sole “fact” included in the piece.

    Which brings us to today, when, at a White House press briefing the day after Trump announced that he was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, read from Stephens’ “very important” piece. According to Pruitt, it served as evidence supporting Trump’s decision in the face of criticism from “climate exaggerators.”

    Notably, Pruitt excised the portion of the quote in which Stephens writes that “human influence on that warming” is “indisputable.”

    What an embarrassment for the Times. It’s too bad that the paper lacks a competent public editor to examine whether the “free exchange of ideas” was worth it.