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Parker Molloy

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  • Conservative media are testing attacks on 2020 Democratic candidates to see what sticks

    A coherent theme won’t emerge for a while, but here’s what’s in the works

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    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As the first Democratic presidential hopefuls declare their candidacy, right-wing media outlets are launching a campaign of their own. The goal? Planting seeds of doubt about each of the potential nominees so that by the time the Democratic National Convention in July 2020 rolls around, voters will harbor negative feelings toward whoever comes out on top.

    The message in the 2016 presidential campaign was that Hillary Clinton was an extraordinarily corrupt, pay-to-play politician who felt she was above the law. It was specific enough to be an effective message but vague enough that its exact interpretation remained subjective. After all, terms like “corrupt” and “crooked” can mean pretty much whatever the person interpreting wants them to. In June 2016, Gallup asked people, “What comes to your mind when you think about Hillary Clinton?” Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they “don’t trust her” or found her “dishonest” or “unethical,” 13 percent said they “dislike /or “don’t care for her,” and 8 percent described her as a “crook,” a “criminal,” “corrupt,” or said she “should be in jail.”

    When it comes to 2020 candidates, it’s clear that conservative media are simply throwing narratives around to see what sticks.

    The early stages of a smear campaign can seem a bit absurd. Headlines will overpromise and underdeliver, messages won’t be consistent, and the purported scandals and gaffes will underwhelm.

    Elizabeth Warren’s first week on the stump filled with missteps” reads the headline of a recent article by The Daily Caller. Among the supposed flubs criticized in the piece:

    • She said, “I’m gonna get me, um, a beer,” during an Instagram livestream.
    • She lost her voice after one day of campaigning.
    • Her excuse for losing her voice was “too much time with little people,” referring to her grandchildren. The article says this was “poorly-worded.”
    • She “awkwardly ‘admitted’ to purchasing things on Amazon.”

    “If her first campaign week is any indication, Warren could be in for a long and bumpy road ahead for 2020,” the article concludes.

    It’s not really clear what the “missteps” mentioned in the headline were. Does “I’m gonna get me, um, a beer” come off like forced folksiness? Could her temporarily lost voice be used to paint her as “low stamina”? Will her saying “little people” be cited as insensitive toward people who have dwarfism or be divorced from context to seem like she’s smugly referring to people she met during her campaign stop as “little people”? Will her Amazon Prime Day purchases cost her regulatory credibility?

    At this point in a smear campaign, the objective really is quantity over quality. Quality -- which is to say what message will stick with voters and sour their opinion of the candidates -- comes much later. The beer bit seemed to have legs. Fox News’ Outnumbered offered baffled criticism like, “Somebody tell me, why beer? Why that beverage? Is that to appeal to, like, male voters? I'm just wondering, because she's playing the gender card.” Also on Fox News, during an episode of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said, “It's just obvious that she's inauthentic in everything she does.”

    One of the first major policy positions Warren laid out at the beginning of her campaign was a 2 percent annual tax on wealth over $50 million. One can argue the pros and cons of any policy, but with a sprinkle of hyperbole and a dash of bad faith, anything can be turned into a smear narrative. For example, while reporting on Warren’s wealth-tax proposal, CNBC’s Joe Kernan claimed that Warren “wants billionaires to stop being freeloaders, stop creating jobs, stop creating wealth, stop succeeding.”

    This narrative almost writes itself: Elizabeth Warren wants you to fail, America. While that’s a completely ridiculous reading of what she’s proposed, it certainly won't stop conservatives from running with it.

    Similar smears and distortions are already being tested on Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

    Other candidates found themselves at the center of outright lies and willful ignorance.

    In early February, Booker gave an interview to VegNews, a news site aimed at vegetarians and vegans. Booker, who is a vegan, touched on the environmental sustainability of a world in which people get so much of their food in the form of meat. Booker discussed his own decision to go vegan, adding, “This is the United States of America, and I, for one, believe in our freedom to choose. So, I don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets; that’s just not how I live.”

    Naturally, Booker’s words were twisted by right-wing media. He explicitly stated that he wasn’t advocating for the abolition of animal farming, but that didn’t stop Fox’s Lisa Kennedy Montgomery from claiming that Booker “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson made the odd claim that Booker was trying to carry out the supposed agenda of Pope Francis “to coerce farmers into abandoning animal populations in favor of vegetarian farming.” National Review claimed that “Cory Booker wants only the rich to eat meat,” another evidence-deficient claim.

    Another line of attack right-wing media figures level against Booker includes accusations of religious bigotry. “Cory Booker is an anti-religious bigot and a disgrace to the Judiciary Committee,” tweeted The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro after Booker asked judicial nominee Neomi Rao if she thinks gay relationships are sinful. The Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams made a similar charge, accusing Booker of engaging in “gotcha” questions during Rao’s hearing. Booker is actually fairly well-known for his Christian beliefs and is a member of a National Baptist Convention church in Newark, NJ.

    As for Harris, after an appearance on the radio show The Breakfast Club, she got slammed for, supposedly, lying about what music she listened to while she got high in college (seriously). A smile on his face, co-host Steve Doocy held her to account during Fox & Friends:

    STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): She was listening to Snoop and Tupac when she was in college. We took a look at the record, and take a look at this. That was the appearance on the so-called world's most dangerous morning show, The Breakfast Club, here in New York. She graduated from college at Howard in 1986. She finished law school in 1989. She was admitted to the state bar of California in 1990 and then in 1991, Tupac's first album came out and in 1993, Snoop Dogg's first album was released. So there's a problem with the timeline.

    Unfortunately for Doocy and others eager to rip Harris for being inauthentic and untruthful over this trivial matter, this isn’t exactly how it happened. The Breakfast Club published a clip calling out Breitbart, Fox News, and The View’s Meghan McCain for taking Harris’ comments out of context. The question about whether she smoked marijuana in college was separate from the question of what music she likes. Even if the likes of Fox and Breitbart had offered a fair interpretation of events, this is hardly the scandal they were trying to make it out to be.

    Harris was also the subject of a smear steeped in sexism. After former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote a short op-ed to say that he and Harris briefly dated “more than 20 years ago,” and that he had appointed Harris to two state commissions when he was speaker of the California State Assembly, conservative media jumped at the chance to baselessly accuse Harris of sleeping her way to the top and being some sort of #MeToo-era hypocrite. The story faded after a day or so; there wasn’t anything to suggest Harris did anything improper.

    In Gillibrand’s case, one of the early narratives being used against her is centered on her decision to call for former Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) resignation after multiple women reported that he had touched them inappropriately. This isn’t a new attack on Gillibrand, but it does seem to be getting a bit more traction since she began hinting at a run. It’s most often used to paint her as opportunistic and power-hungry. Her evolving views on issues like immigration and guns have been cast in that same light. Like Warren, Gillibrand is framed as though her every action has been focus-grouped. The Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry asked whether she dyes her hair. Conservative radio host Mark Simone flipped out over news that Gillibrand seemed unsure whether to eat fried chicken with her hands or with silverware, tweeting, “Another example of phony, pay for play, politician Kirsten Gillibrand proving every move she makes is pandering and contrived.”

    This collection offers just a small sampling of an untold number of attacks that conservative media will filter and refine for maximum political damage between now and Election Day. For the moment, these look more like hastily sketched prototypes of pointed political commentary than the works of rhetorical art they will most certainly become. One question worth asking -- for people inside and out of the media world -- is what makes a smear successful, and why do people believe things that are clearly untrue or exaggerated? Luckily, there is some insight to be had here.

    Smear campaigns aren’t an exact science, but there are a few principles worth following if you want to understand them.  

    Not every smear is an all-out lie. Some, as mentioned above, are built around exaggerations or bad-faith interpretations of candidate actions. Both types can be effective, even if the claim is especially brazen.

    A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology General examined two of the more omnipresent smears of the 2008 presidential campaign in an attempt to better understand why people believe even the most blatantly false accusations against some candidates. One part of the research looked at claims that Barack Obama was secretly Muslim and that John McCain was senile and unfit to lead the country. Another portion addressed a less blatant but just as ubiquitous smear post-election about whether Obama was a socialist. The authors explain their motivation behind these studies:

    During election seasons, media bombardments by political propagandists are pervasive and difficult to avoid. Such extensive exposure might have the unsavory consequence of instilling implicit cognitive associations consistent with smear attacks in the minds of citizens. ... One measure of the success of smear campaigns might thus be the extent to which individuals exhibit strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label.

    What researchers ultimately found was that there’s a link between whether someone believes a harmful rumor and whether they’re politically aligned with the candidate beforehand. That is, a Democrat is more likely to believe a negative rumor about a Republican than Republicans are -- and vice versa. This conclusion may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s helpful in understanding why otherwise intelligent people might genuinely believe Obama was born in Kenya or that Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. It’s a case study in confirmation bias.

    The idea of creating “strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label” gets at why it’s important for successful attack campaigns to keep a singular focus. For the many attacks Hillary Clinton faced during the 2016 election, the common theme was clear: She was “crooked.” In Donald Trump’s case, his scandals included financial corruption and reports of sexual assault, racism, and sexism. There was no single coherent association to be made here, and it’s entirely possible that that worked to his advantage with voters. (This isn’t to say that those scandals were part of a smear campaign, just that his opposition maybe didn’t utilize those stories to their maximum political potential.)

    “At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” says Mark Whitmore, an assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University in a press release from the American Psychological Association about “why we’re susceptible to fake news.” “In fact, one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”

    Whitmore notes that thanks to the ever-expanding list of places people go to get their news -- whether that’s somewhere online or on cable TV --  “the receiver is often faced with paradoxical and seemingly absurd messages. It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”

    Trump Derangement Syndrome” is a popular phrase within conservative media to describe people who reflexively disagree with anything Trump does. The term originated in a 2003 Charles Krauthammer column as “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” which some reappropriated as “Obama Derangement Syndrome” to describe anti-Obama mindsets. Aside from the irony in Krauthammer using this newly created term to roll his eyes at people opposed to the invasion of Iraq -- a decision that only looks worse with passing time -- he was also essentially making reference to confirmation bias.

    As news consumers, we need to be aware of how personal biases guide our judgment when it comes to determining the validity of both praise and attacks on various candidates. Now is the perfect time to be on the lookout for these narratives, while they’re still sloppy and unrefined.

  • In their ongoing effort to smear the Green New Deal, right-wing media misrepresent Sen. Mazie Hirono’s joke about air travel to Hawaii

    Hirono said that it’d be “pretty hard for Hawaii” to abandon air travel. Luckily, no one is asking the state to.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Political news media is a lot like the game “telephone” in which people stand in a circle, whispering a word or phrase to the next person in line. One person mishearing something will throw the rest of the circle off course, and by the end, the message might seem totally foreign to the person who originated it.

    After making a joke about how far Hawaii is from the U.S. mainland, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) finds herself trapped in this very same game. Except in her version, the other players are right-wing media figures, who are using her quip -- which came in response to a question about the Green New Deal -- as a serious condemnation of the proposal, which, in fact, she supports.

    On February 7, Fox News congressional reporter Chad Pergram asked Hirono for her thoughts on the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to reshape the U.S. economy, infrastructure, and health care sector, all as part of a larger effort to address climate change. Specifically, Pergram wanted to know what Hirono thought of claims that the plan would try to eliminate air travel.

    Hirono jokingly responded, “That would be pretty hard for Hawaii.”

    Pergram’s tweet could be easily misinterpreted as sharing a serious and overarching response from Hirono, but the video of the exchange makes it clear that she was joking -- and that she actually supports the Green New Deal. It’s also worth noting that nothing about planes is actually mentioned in the text of the nonbinding resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). That language came from an FAQ document, which was “clearly unfinished,” according to Ocasio-Cortez chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti. Chakrabarti said it was erroneously posted to the congresswoman’s website.

    All of that aside, it is very clear that Hirono was joking. After all, she’s one of 11 original co-sponsors of the resolution in the Senate, so her support for it isn’t actually in question. In fact, the day after her comment to Pergram, Hirono’s office posted a press release detailing her support for the initiative:

    “From committing to 100 percent renewable energy, to embracing a carbon neutral economy, Hawaii has taken aggressive action to combat climate change because of the threat it poses to our way of life,” said Senator Hirono. Confronting the challenge of climate change requires a comprehensive approach to transforming our country in a way that prioritizes environmental health and wellness, while also expanding opportunity and creating good-paying jobs as we transition to a low carbon economy. I welcome this bold national framework that tracks so closely to what Hawaii is already doing and what many of us have long advocated to enable communities, families, and individuals to thrive.”

    Just as in the game of telephone, it doesn’t actually matter what Hirono said to begin the conversation, because it got distorted somewhere in the middle.

    Conservative media have been leading the fight against the Green New Deal, and as usual, their primary weapons are fear and ridicule. Some right-wing personalities would have you believe that the Green New Deal would abolish everything from steaks to ice cream sundaes. It wouldn't. There are certainly substantive critiques that could be levied against the resolution, but many right-wing commentators keep making weak arguments that rely on misrepresenting Hirono’s out-of-context quote.

    “Even the senator from Hawaii, who is quite left, laughed at the idea of the Green New Deal and the stance on air travel,” said Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk during the February 13 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends.

    “On a serious note, getting rid of planes? Even the senator from Hawaii was questioning this," Fox News contributor Lawrence Jones said later on the same show.

    On Twitter, The Daily Wire made fun of  the idea of a “water train,” though, again, this isn’t something anyone has actually suggested.

    “If you can’t sell Mazie Hirono..,” Fox News host Rob Schmitt wrote as he retweeted Pergram’s tweet about Hirono’s comment. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar also retweeted Pergram’s tweet with similar commentary: “When you’ve lost Mazie Hirono…”  

    “Now a senator from Hawaii notes it's not gonna work,” tweeted Townhall.com, sharing an article titled “Another Democrat Just Made Fun of Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal.”

    Most people misrepresenting Hirono’s joke almost certainly know better. So why do they do it? Because it’s effective.

    This isn’t some new phenomenon in American politics. Opponents of any given proposal will seek out something that confirms their suspicions, especially if it’s something that comes from “the other side,” and then use it as ammunition. The idea is to get the proposal labeled as too extreme for even people you’d ordinarily expect to support it. In this case, it’s Hirono on the Green New Deal. Going back nearly a decade, it’s the approach used to strip House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) infamous “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” line about health care from its fuller context about the effects disinformation campaigns had on the public. To this day, people regularly tweet some variation of that quote.

    Disinformation is effective. Years from now, there will almost certainly be people musing about Hirono’s joke as a serious condemnation of the resolution. With a complicated undertaking like the Green New Deal, it’s a near certainty that this is just the first in what will be a long line of cherry-picked quotes and misrepresentation from right-wing media.

  • The Associated Press risks its reputation when it plays fast and loose with facts on Twitter

    The AP implemented a policy for addressing mistakes in 2016, but it has more work to do

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
     

    If you’re looking for accurate and unbiased news, there are few organizations the American people trust as much as The Associated Press. In the most recent iteration of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s annual Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy, 45 percent of Americans rated the news cooperative as either “not biased at all” or “not very biased.” To put that in perspective, The New York Times, CNN, and Fox News scored just 28 percent, 23 percent, and 16 percent, respectively.

    If you follow the AP on Twitter, however, you’ve probably noticed that it deletes a lot of tweets, announcing each one as it goes along.

    Oftentimes, the AP deletes tweets because of small mistakes that most social media users can relate to. Maybe it attached the wrong link or photo to the tweet, misspelled a word, vaguely worded some news, or needed to update the information in a now-out-of-date tweet.

    The AP's delection policy emerged as the result of a tweet written during the 2016 presidential campaign, and it’s actually an example of good journalism.

    On August 23, 2016, the AP posted a tweet alleging that “more than half” of the people then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton met with during her time as secretary of state were Clinton Foundation donors. What the tweet didn’t say was that the number addressed only her meetings with people outside of government. When accounting for the actual entirety of her meetings, the percent of those held with donors was less than 5. Then-AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll appeared on the August 28 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources to defend the tweet. While she called it “sloppy,” she pointed out that the actual news article that went along with the tweet was accurate and straightforward.

    Unfortunately, people rarely actually click through to articles, meaning that a misleading headline or tweet is likely to lead to a misinformed public. Yet there’s no universally accepted approach journalists and news organizations take when correcting out-of-date or incorrect tweets, and that has contributed to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

    Prior to the tweet about Clinton, the AP left the decisions about updates and deletions on Twitter to individual news managers. But on September 8, 2016, AP Vice President of Standards John Daniszewski published a blog post announcing that the organization had deleted the inaccurate tweet and would be implementing a new policy going forward:

    In the earlier days of Twitter, there had been a belief that removing tweets was akin to retroactively editing a conversation; it wasn’t transparent. Additionally, tweets were seen more as providing paths to in-depth content and less as content in themselves that would remain in the public discussion for an extended period. Industry thinking on this topic has been changing. And the controversy over the AP tweet has led us to an extensive reflection on this evolution.

    Under the revisions now in effect, whenever AP deletes content from Twitter, AP will send out a separate tweet giving the reason for the removal, which provides clarity to the public. In most cases, AP will then transmit a replacement tweet.

    By this time, however, whatever damage that tweet would cause had already been done: The Trump campaign helped spread the unfounded claim that Clinton engaged in “pay-to-play” politics, and the misleading tweet helped make this case.

    Nonetheless, the new AP policy of deleting incorrect or misleading tweets and posting an update explaining why is exactly the type of transparency we should expect from news organizations.

    While the new Twitter policy was a big win for transparency, it highlighted just how bad the AP actually is on the social network.

    If its goal is to present stories on Twitter in a fair, factual, nonpartisan manner, the AP has repeatedly failed to meet this standard.

    When it comes to value-neutral language, the organization seems to struggle, sometimes gravitating toward the more offensive of all possible options. In September 2018, when a U.S. Border Patrol agent was arrested for the murder of four women in Texas, the AP reported the news on Twitter, referring to the victims as “prostitutes,” a disrespectful move that some viewed as an attempt to dehumanize them. AP deleted the tweet.

    On October 21, the AP shared a photo gallery of asylum seekers traveling through Mexico, comparing them to a “ragtag army of the poor.” The tweet was roundly criticized for its biased language. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists condemned the tweet, saying its language “invalidates the plight of these migrants.” The following day, the AP deleted the tweet.

    Just over a week later, the organization's AP Politics account earned the wrath of an exasperated many on Twitter when it echoed Trump’s lie that the United States is the only country in the world with birthright citizenship. The AP eventually deleted that tweet as well, and that’s for the best, but the overall goal should be to avoid making mistakes in the first place, and it’s becoming difficult to gauge how much effort it’s putting into ensuring such accuracy:

    Sloppiness and a conservative slant have remained staples of the AP’s tweets. For instance, while covering Christine Blasey Ford’s congressional testimony about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her and Kavanaugh’s response to Congress, the AP described Blasey Ford as “quiet” and called Kavanaugh “fiery.” In truth, Kavanaugh came off as utterly unhinged during his response to Ford’s testimony as he alternated between anger and tears while discussing conspiracy theories involving Hillary Clinton. To call him “fiery” is about the most generous interpretation of his rant possible, and “quiet” tragically downplays Blasey Ford’s stoicism.

    The recent government shutdown also resulted in a number of misleading AP tweets. On January 19, the AP shared news that Trump was prepared to include temporary protection for the young immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in exchange for border wall funding, not noting that this offer was simply giving back something he had taken away in the first place.

    And when the U.S. Senate voted down two proposals to reopen the government -- one bill by Democrats and one by Republicans -- the AP reported that “Senate Democrats” blocked it. In reality, not only did the Republican bill fail because senators from both parties voted against it, but the Democratic bill actually received more votes, with six Republicans voting for it. But the AP tweet reads as if the blame for the then-ongoing shutdown should be placed on Democrats.

    These examples just scratch the surface of the AP’s Twitter failures, which also include a flawed “fact check” about who was responsible for the government shutdown, the deletion of a tweet because it correctly stated that George H.W. Bush lost his re-election campaign, and a deleted tweet about Trump referring to immigrants as “animals” -- a bow to conservatives claiming that he was clearly referring to gang members.

    If the AP wants to remain a respected source of news, it needs to double down on the commitment outlined in the 2016 policy change, and maybe even expand it.

    “Prior to this guideline change, whether to delete or update tweets had been left to AP news managers to decide on a case-by-case basis,” wrote Daniszewski in 2016. “The new guidance is mandatory, subjecting tweets to the same internal review and response process as other AP content.”

    It’s one thing to subject tweets to a review and response process after they’ve been published, but the number of factual flubs and poorly worded messages suggests that the AP would benefit from additional standards to catch these mistakes before they go out into the world. The 2016 policy change is a good, transparent way to own up to mistakes. Moving forward, let’s all hope those mistakes become less frequent.

  • Are conservative media egging on potential presidential candidate Howard Schultz just to help Trump? Possibly.

    It says a lot that Schultz’s biggest fans this early on are people on the right.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Over the past week or so, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has become nearly as ubiquitous as the coffee chain itself. As part of the press blitz for his new book, “From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America,” the 65-year-old billionaire and self-described “lifelong Democrat” has been toying with the idea of running for president in 2020 as a “centrist independent.” Many progressives -- and even a number of anti-Trump moderates and conservatives -- worry that Schultz would play the role of spoiler by peeling off enough Democratic votes to re-elect Trump. He’s also been using these press stops to bash proposals like “Medicare-for-all” and free public college, earning him a reception as ice-cold as a Frappuccino from the political left.

    Thankfully for Schultz, there’s one group in media shamelessly encouraging him to take the presidential plunge: the far right.

    It’s hard to say what Schultz supports, as he hasn’t actually come out in favor of a single detailed policy. That hasn’t stopped conservative media from giving him a whole bunch of attention.

    Fox News, in particular, has been a major hub for Schultz fans. He’s been described as “realistic,” as the type of candidate who can get Wall Street’s backing, as someone who is “very cognizant” of what Americans want in terms of health care reform, and as a champion for “people who don’t want to play fantastical economics anymore.” The network has also repeatedly stood up against criticism of his background and billionaire status.

    On his new podcast, former Trump administration communications director Anthony Scaramucci said Schultz and fellow billionaire businessman-turned-politico Michael Bloomberg would both make “phenomenal presidents,” listing them as “the two people who could possibly beat Trump.” Steve Schmidt, a former adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, took a job with Schultz last year. And in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe brushed off Democratic criticism that a third-party challenge would aid Trump’s re-election, writing, “If Democrats want to kneecap Schultz's run, they need to offer better than whatever dregs of desperation they're currently putting on the table.”

    Schultz himself has directly boosted right-wing media figures who are encouraging him to run against Democrats. On January 30, Schultz tweeted (and later deleted) a link to a PJ Media editorial by Roger L. Simon. Schultz thanked Simon for what he called “a thoughtful analysis of what's possible.” A quick glance at the article, however, reveals a number of cringeworthy lines attacking Democratic candidates, including referring to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as a “shrill … quasi-socialist promising pie in the sky” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Fauxcahontas.”

    Schultz later tweeted a link from the notoriously conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board, which described Democrats’ response to a possible Schultz candidacy as “shrieking like teenagers at a horror movie.” The editorial went on to play up the virtues of having a serious adult in the room to encourage a policy debate, contrasting the 65-year-old billionaire with young progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), “whose claim to fame is winning one election, looking cool on Instagram, and proposing ways to spend other people’s money.”

    It’s extremely unlikely that any of these outspoken conservatives actually want Schultz to win -- and if we’re all being completely honest with ourselves, few likely think he can win.

    You may be asking yourself why people on the far right would promote Schultz’s candidacy if what they really want is Trump’s re-election. Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but I’m pretty sure the answer is already right there in the question: because they want Trump to win re-election. Right-wing commentators are trying to downplay this possibility in their effusive praise of Schultz.

    To get one thing out of the way: There’s virtually no chance of Howard Schultz actually winning in 2020 -- though it would be interesting to see if critics would give him a pass on a “latte salute” or two. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar bemoaned the “failure of imagination” of pundits saying that Schultz doesn’t have a viable path to 270 electoral votes. The truth is that the Electoral College makes it extraordinarily hard for a candidate outside of the two main parties to win any electoral votes, let alone a majority of them. In 1992, Ross Perot received 19.7 million votes (18.9 percent of the total), but ended up with zero electoral votes as he didn’t carry a single state. In fact, the last time a third-party candidate won any electoral votes was in 1968, when George Wallace took 46.

    It’s not a “lack of imagination” that says Schultz has an espresso bean’s chance in a grinder to win; it’s just reality. Come January 20, 2021, it will almost certainly be Donald Trump being sworn into a second term in office or whomever the Democrats nominate taking over. Sorry, Schultz superfans of the world -- if you exist.

    Democratic megadonor Haim Saban thinks a Schultz campaign “guarantees Trump a second term.” Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at centrist think tank Third Way -- the exact type of person a Schultz campaign would appeal to, if anyone at all -- told NPR that a centrist independent entry into the race could “splinter” opposition to Trump, leading to his re-election. Even Trump thinks Schultz running would help his own chances, per one report.

    The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake recently dissected a Washington Post-ABC poll showing that 56 percent of registered voters will “definitely” not vote for Trump in 2020, lending some credence to the idea that Trump’s re-election odds might hinge on a wild card:

    Trump may not need those 56 percent of voters. He won the presidency, after all, with just 46 percent of the popular vote — about two points higher than the 44 percent who are at least open to supporting his reelection. He could win with even less of the vote if a third-party/independent candidate, like former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, splits the vote three ways.

    There’s also the possibility that Schultz himself doesn’t even think he can win, but just wants to incentivize the Democrats to avoid nominating the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or some other candidates with tax hikes for the rich in exchange for an expanded social safety net.

    In an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin, Schultz explained, “I respect the Democratic Party. I no longer feel affiliated because I don’t know their views represent the majority of Americans. I don’t think we want a 70 percent income tax in America.” (He was referencing Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent on income more than $10 million per year.)

    He later added, “If I decide to run for president as an independent, I will believe and have the conviction and the courage to believe I can win. I can’t answer that question today. But I certainly am not going to do anything to put Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.”

    If conservative journalists truly believe that a Schultz campaign will throw the 2020 election to Trump, it’s in their best interests to convince him to run. By his own words, the only way to do that is to tell him that he has a legitimate shot. Schultz has been citing the stat that “about 42 percent of the electorate affiliate themselves as an independent.” That figure has been key in Schultz’s argument that he has a real chance at winning. Unfortunately, this confidence seems to be based on a misreading of what that data actually says.

    In an article for FiveThirtyEight, Geoffrey Skelley breaks down just how misleading that figure is:

    Gallup shows that roughly 39 percent of Americans say they’re independents — it also signals a fundamental misunderstanding of how the electorate really feels. And that’s because once you subtract independents who lean more toward one party, the number of true independents shrinks to around 10 percent. Using this metric, Gallup finds that roughly 88 percent of Americans identify with one of the two major parties, and Pew Research puts that figure even higher, at 92 percent.

    It’s also worth noting that “independent” is not synonymous with “centrist” or “moderate.” Some self-described independents may be further to the left than the Democratic Party, or further to the right than the Republican Party. It would seem that Schultz’s calculation in all of this is totally wrong, or maybe, as my cynicism-poisoned mind might suggest to me: This is all just a game of chicken between him and the Democratic Party to try to shift its economic priorities to the right.

    Whether or not Schultz runs for president, and no matter what his intentions actually are in making that run, it’s good to take partisan media figures contemplating his potential candidacy with a grain of salt.

  • How a myth about journalists telling miners to “learn to code” helped people justify harassment

    Hundreds of journalists lost their jobs, and the darkest corners of the internet were ready to pounce.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Tucker Carlson Tonight / Fox News

    Journalism took a hit last week when BuzzFeed and HuffPost both announced a steep reduction in staff, cutting hundreds of jobs over the course of just a few days. For many journalists, the layoffs meant the end of a job they’ve had for years and, in the case of many BuzzFeed staffers, the separation from a company they had effectively helped build. Jobs in media, especially digital media, are tough to come by and even tougher to keep. And the people who lost their jobs know that they will be joining an already oversaturated talent pool of unemployed industry vets.

    Needless to say, it was a rough few days for those involved. Thanks to a 4chan campaign, it got even worse.

    If you were to scroll through the Twitter mentions of some of the laid-off journalists, there’s one phrase you probably saw more than a handful of times: “Learn to code.” On its own, “learn to code” is a perfectly innocuous suggestion, and few would deny that coding is a strong skill to have in the modern economy. The reason this phrase was being tweeted in such large volumes, however, was not out of a genuine concern for the newly unemployed but as a way to taunt them.

    The “learn to code” narrative sprung out of an impression among some on the right that journalists, whom conservatives have long tried to paint as elitists, had been flippant about layoffs that hit working-class Americans, particularly coal miners, over the last few years. By tweeting “learn to code” -- a reference to government and tech initiatives aimed at promoting STEM education -- at these journalists, Twitter users were trying to give them a taste of their own medicine.

    Talia Lavin, who had a steady freelance gig writing for HuffPost’s now-shuttered opinion section, was one of the first to pinpoint the origin of the “learn to code” campaign: 4chan.

    “Oh the sweet, sweet taste of victory and justice. These vile, soulless pieces of shit are going to have to find actual work now,” wrote one anonymous user on the message board, referring to news of the layoffs.

    “They should learn to code,” wrote another. Others said they were going to create so-called sockpuppet accounts (fake, deceptive, or throwaway accounts) for the specific purpose of tweeting at laid-off reporters.

    “Making them an hero is the goal,” wrote one person, referencing 4chan slang for committing suicide.

    The following day, NBC’s Ben Collins published a story about some of the tweets laid-off journalists received, which included a meme about the “Day of the Rope” (a reference to the day of mass execution in The Turner Diaries, a novel with heavy neo-Nazi themes) and a photo of an ISIS member about to execute journalist James Foley with the text “Shut the fuck up journalist.” These messages were mixed in as part of the larger “learn to code” campaign.

    Then a mangled message from Twitter set off a firestorm among conservative Twitter commentators.

    On Monday morning, The Wrap’s Jon Levine reported that a source inside Twitter told him that “tweeting ‘learn to code’ at any recently laid off journalist will be treated as ‘abusive behavior,’ and is a violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service.”

    Just over two hours later, the company issued a public statement contradicting this report, saying that “just Tweeting ‘learn to code’ is not a violation,” but tweeting the phrase “at an account coupled with targeted harassment, violent threats, intimidation, and/or as part of a coordinated campaign is considered a violation of our abusive behaviour policy.” Given that at least one person on 4chan explicitly stated that the goal of their tweets was to encourage journalists to commit suicide, it made sense that Twitter would view tweets resulting from that thread with at least a little caution. Essentially, Twitter’s official statement clarified that people tweeting “learn to code” weren’t somehow exempt from its rules.

    Levine also tweeted an update to his original post. In a direct message to me, he wrote, “Twitter told me something on background and then backed away from it publicly after they began to take heat. The whole affair suggests that even their own staff are unsure of how to enforce the nuts and bolts of their [terms of service].”

    In fairness, Twitter has what can only be described as an abysmal track record when it comes to enforcing its rules. Moderators routinely ignore posts that clearly violate the site’s terms of service, while marking harmless posts as violations all the time. Conservative media outlets and politicians often argue these inconsistencies are proof of anti-conservative bias at tech companies, but there’s little evidence to back up this claim. Twitter has wrongly taken down tweets from both right-wing and left-wing users, and it has ignored harassment campaigns against people on both sides of the political divide.

    Unfortunately, the confusion arising from Levine’s initial report and then Twitter’s official statement provided a misleading narrative for conservatives in the media to latch onto, even after it had been corrected, making journalists on the receiving end of this brigade look fragile and thin-skinned.

    There’s scant evidence that journalists told laid-off miners to “learn to code.” This has led the campaign’s defenders to engage in a bit of revisionist history.

    The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson wrote that in 2016, “millennial reporters at various online outlets suggested that blue collar coal miners ‘learn to code’ as the Obama Administration hatched plans to close coal mines. More than one outlet suggested as much with the New York Times even going so far as to profile one group that taught unemployed rust belt workers to code.”

    “Well, what’s good for the goose … isn’t working so well for the gander,” he continued. “The internet trolls at 4Chan have encouraged people to tweet out ‘learn to code’ to some of the very same millennial reporters who were suggesting blue collar workers do that.”

    Erickson doesn’t give any example of a single laid-off journalist mocking the plight of coal miners, and there’s a good reason to believe it didn’t happen.

    The 2016 New York Times profile Erickson mentioned wasn’t published as some sort of smug suggestion that miners just suck it up and “learn to code,” but as an empathetic look at the struggles faced by families in Appalachian coal country suddenly finding themselves without a source of income as once-reliable mining jobs vanished for good.

    In September 2018, the Times published an op-ed titled “The Coders of Kentucky,” highlighting bipartisan efforts to revitalize some of the more economically challenged segments of the country. It was, much like the 2016 piece, extraordinarily empathetic to the plight of workers who saw these once-steady careers evaporate.

    Neither article was authored by a millennial. The 2016 piece was written by a baby boomer, born in the 1960s, and the 2018 article was authored by a member of the silent generation, born in 1940. The closest thing to a smug “learn to code” response to miners losing jobs came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who actually dismissed out-of-work miners as being unable or unwilling to code. Bloomberg, born in 1942, is definitely not a millennial.

    This isn’t to say that there haven’t been articles urging various groups to learn how to code. A 2013 post published on Forbes’ community page suggested that women should learn the skill. People have made a case for including coding classes in K-12 public education, for businesspeople to give it a shot, and for designers to get in on the action. A 2014 interactive BuzzFeed piece by Katie Notopoulos listed various articles handing out this bit of advice broadly. Interestingly enough, none of them were in the oh, you just got laid off -- deal with it and learn to code vein.

    Erickson’s “what’s good for the goose” statement doesn’t apply here. Instead, it simply functions as a release valve for people who might feel a tinge of guilt over targeting those who were laid off or who felt a sense of glee at the news.

    The “learn to code” portion of this campaign is something of a red herring. NBC’s Ben Collins walked me through it.

    According to Ben Collins, the author of NBC’s report on the harassment campaign, smugly suggesting coal miners “learn to code” wasn’t the approach newspapers took when covering those  who lost their jobs. He noted that reports on news about coding programs and statements from politicians aren’t anywhere near the type of arrogant sneer conservatives are making them out to be.

    And Collins has a theory about why some conservatives build on these sorts of myths. “It ... feeds into this larger narrative that ‘the news’ is one homogeneous organism that is all writing the same thing, that we're all one sentient blob,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message.

    The goal of these types of campaigns is to launder actual hate and threats across social media to convince outsiders that the people being harassed are just weak, overdramatic, or perhaps even deserving of whatever they receive. Collins elaborates:

    The learn to code stuff is not the point for [people on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board] /pol/. They understand when they brigade specific tweets/journalists telling them to do something benign, in this case tweet "learn to code," people on /pol/ will obviously take it too far and send a picture of ISIS executing a journalist instead. Subversion, and the subversion of that subversion, is the very point of /pol/.

    That's why [the recent campaign] was a perfect storm. Center-right blogs could claim plausible deniability, while writing journalists are soft for not being able to take thousands of "learn to code" messages on the day they were fired. But they understand what /pol/ is. They understand trolling culture and harassment campaigns. They are willfully ignoring the admittedly smaller subset of (but real) threats that are baked into the cake when a campaign like this gets started on the most notorious part of the internet that was built on hate.

    On Twitter, Talia Lavin shared examples of the hateful messages she received mixed in with those  telling her to “learn to code.”

    In response to Ben Shapiro’s dismissal of the campaign, she tweeted, “A lot of the people telling me learn to code were also telling me to jump in an oven, talking about gassing all the kikes and celebrating race war. No matter how much cover you run for fascists, they still hate you, Ben.”

    The generally incredulous response to these recent claims of harassment illustrates just how unwilling and out-of-touch social platforms and a sizable chunk of the media world is when it comes to understanding the way information and harassment travels on the internet.

  • With one terrible tweet, Greta Van Susteren helped fuel a conspiracy theory that made its way to the president, who repeated it within hours

    There’s no reason to believe CNN was “tipped off” about Roger Stone’s arrest.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On Friday morning, the FBI raided the Florida home of Roger Stone, a longtime associate and informal adviser of President Donald Trump. Stone was arrested on seven counts of obstructing justice, witness tampering, and making false statements to Congress. The raid comes one day after a rare Thursday meeting between the special counsel’s office and the grand jury. In fact, Washington Post legal reporter Spencer Hsu noted that the January 24 convening of the grand jury was the first non-Friday meeting since July 12, 2018, the day before Robert Mueller’s office announced the indictment of 12 Russian agents. When Stone was arrested, CNN cameras were recording outside his home. 

    On Twitter, former Fox News and MSNBC host Greta Van Susteren tweeted that the “FBI obviously tipped off CNN,” adding that “even if you don’t like Stone, it is curious why Mueller’s office tipped off CNN.”

    There’s one major problem with Van Susteren’s assessment: She’s wrong. It’s not obvious that anybody “tipped off CNN.” In fact, based on the above information -- how rare it is for the grand jury to be called to meet on a Thursday, what happened the day after the last Thursday meeting, and the fact that Stone has spent months publicly worrying about the possibility of getting indicted -- it makes complete sense that a news organization like CNN would send someone to stake out Stone’s home to see if there were any arrests today.

    Nevertheless, Van Susteren repeatedly insisted that CNN had been tipped off.

    In an extraordinary display of Van Susteren’s lack of self-awareness, she added, “Before you get more information, facts, I would suggest you don’t jump to conclusions or take sides. Facts make a difference.” This, just seven minutes after she falsely asserted that CNN had been given a heads-up on the raid.

    Nearly three hours later, Van Susteren conceded that she might be wrong about CNN acting on a tip. Even so, the original tweet, which had accumulated thousands of retweets, remained up and continued to be shared. The new tweet, correcting her mistake, had just 95 retweets at the time of this writing.

    Posting a separate tweet “correcting” misinformation does not stop the continued spread of misinformation. As a journalist and someone who apparently considers herself knowledgeable enough about social media to write a book on the topic, Van Susteren should know better. This is a widely recognized problem that newsrooms have tried to address in various ways. She misled the public and, so long as her original tweet remains up, is continuing to mislead the public.

    Naturally, right-wing media picked up on the conspiracy theory almost instantly.

    “Coincidence? Comey's Former Assistant Went to Work for CNN -- And CNN is Only News Org to Get Tip on Roger Stone Raid,” tweeted Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, linking to a piece on the site.

    “How did CNN get this video exclusively of Stone’s arrest? Did somone (sic) at the FBI or Team Mueller tip them off? Just curious,” wrote right-wing pundit Harlan Hill.

    CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted that articles had already popped up on far-right sites Infowars, Newsmax, and Drudge Report.

    Darcy also linked to a video from the January 24 edition of CNN Tonight, in which CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz explained that there was reason to believe indictments could be coming on Friday morning and that they could be related to Roger Stone.

    That evidence aside, conservative media used the situation as their latest attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation by suggesting there was some sort of untoward relationship between his team and CNN. The story, in their world, was no longer about Roger Stone being indicted; the story was about a likely nonexistent leak within the Mueller team.

    Of course, this all got capped off with a tweet from Trump, demanding to know “Who alerted CNN to be there?”

  • What The Daily Wire gets wrong (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets right) about algorithms and racism

    “If you don’t fix the bias, then you’re automating the bias.”

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has become something of a pastime for conservative media since the rising Democratic star landed on their radar following her primary victory in late June 2018. Since then, they’ve rarely passed up an opportunity to pounce on gaffes -- real or imagined, big or small. A new attempt by The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra to catch the 29-year-old representative in an embarrassing situation has left him the subject of ridicule.  

    On January 21, Ocasio-Cortez sat with author Ta-Nehisi Coates for a wide-ranging conversation. During the talk, the freshman representative brought up the idea of bias being effectively built in to algorithms, specifically referring to facial recognition software.

    “They always have these racial inequities that get translated because algorithms are still made by human beings. And those algorithms are still pegged to those -- to basic human assumptions,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re just automated. … If you don’t fix the bias, then you’re automating the bias.”

    Saavedra posted a video of this comment to Twitter, snarking that the congresswoman (whom he once called “dumb-dumb”) was wrong about algorithms being biased as they are “driven by math.”

    Ocasio-Cortez was right, Saavedra was wrong, and Twitter was quick to let him know. Naturally, he doubled down.

    When Parker Higgins, director of special projects at Freedom of the Press, pushed back on Saavedra’s initial claim, Saavedra called him a “moron,” pointing to a study about facial recognition software that happened to have the word “mathematical” in its title but didn’t mention bias.

    Saavedra came back to this point later that day in an article titled “AOC Snaps: World Could End In 12 Years, Algorithms Are Racist, Hyper-Success Is Bad.” The article plays on a number of anti-Ocasio-Cortez talking points -- increasingly embraced by conservative media -- that are aimed at painting her as uninformed and unqualified. Right-wing media have mocked her argument about the urgency of acting on climate change, and her comment about the world ending in 12 years was clearly exaggeration, but the most recent report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stressed that the next 12 years will play a pivotal role in determining whether we’ll be able to avert global climate disaster  

    As for her point about algorithms, the criticism against Saavedra wasn’t over the idea that math is involved in algorithms. Math is involved in much of what we do, from baking a pie to making change for a $20 bill. The criticism was that Saavedra seemed to incorrectly believe that because algorithms involve math, they can’t be racist or biased in some way. Yet just a few months ago, he was accusing social media companies of using algorithms that are biased against conservatives, a popular conspiracy theory on the right that is not supported by data.

    Racial bias in algorithms is a well-documented reality.

    Bias in algorithms should absolutely be taken seriously by policymakers -- especially as more of our economy becomes automated or relies on artificial intelligence.

    In July 2018, the ACLU published the results of a test it ran using Rekognition, Amazon’s facial-recognition technology, which has law enforcement applications. The ACLU ran photos of all members of Congress through the software, matching them up against a database of 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. The results wrongly matched 28 members with photos from the database and showed a disproportionately high percentage of false matches for people of color. While they make up just 20 percent of Congress, people of color accounted for 39 percent of false matches. The stats confirmed the findings of a study that these technologies are simply less accurate on darker-skinned individuals.

    Here, the ACLU explains some of the real-life consequences algorithms-gone-wrong can have on people’s lives:

    If law enforcement is using Amazon Rekognition, it’s not hard to imagine a police officer getting a “match” indicating that a person has a previous concealed-weapon arrest, biasing the officer before an encounter even begins. Or an individual getting a knock on the door from law enforcement, and being questioned or having their home searched, based on a false identification.

    An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives. People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how Rekognition could exacerbate that. A recent incident in San Francisco provides a disturbing illustration of that risk. Police stopped a car, handcuffed an elderly Black woman and forced her to kneel at gunpoint — all because an automatic license plate reader improperly identified her car as a stolen vehicle.

    Safiya U. Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, explained to Media Matters in an email that Saavedra’s misconceptions about algorithms were actually pretty common. She wrote:

    Many people have been taught that math, computer science, and engineering are value-free, neutral, and objective; but the truth is that all kinds of values are imbued into the products and projects that are made by people who work in industries that use these disciplines. We now have decades of empirical research that show the many ways that technologies can be designed and deployed to discriminate, whether intentionally or not. It’s factually incorrect to assert that the technologies designed by people are value-free when we have so much evidence to the contrary. My own research reveals the ways that racism and sexism are reinforced in digital technologies, and what’s at stake when we are ignorant about these projects. I think [Ocasio-Cortez] is challenging us to understand that we need more public policy interventions, and she’s right.

    Technology is only as good as the people who create it. Each person has biases, both implicit and explicit. As Ocasio-Cortez noted during her conversation with Coates, if bias isn’t addressed at the development level, all algorithms will do is automate that bias, potentially making existing problems even worse.

  • The social science explaining why Fox News wants you to believe masculinity is under threat

    It’s not just good TV -- it’s also good politics.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Gillette was probably hoping for a little bit of buzz when it released its Super Bowl ad a few weeks early. What it got was wall-to-wall coverage -- at least on Fox News.

    Titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” Gillette’s video begins with a play on its long-time slogan, asking, “Is this the best a man can get? Is it?” The video then cuts to scenes touching on bullying, the #MeToo movement, and behavior that people often justify by saying “Boys will be boys.” It’s provocative, and deliberately so. The core message is that men should be their best selves and set a good example for future generations because, as the ad concludes, “the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

    Fox News, as expected, didn’t take kindly to it, and the network put its outrage machine to work in response.

    During the January 15 edition of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said the ad “bashed men, men who fought wars, who built bridges -- they just bashed them.” Fox host Brian Kilmeade appeared on Fox Business’ Varney & Co. to say that, sure, there may be times boys will “show an aggression,” but “that’s just the way men are made up to be.” Even so, he continued, he doesn’t need a razor company telling him how to live his life.

    On that morning’s episode of Fox & Friends, guest Darrin Porcher said the ad represented “an atrocity,” adding, “We should be seen as equal to women, not as beneath.” Overall, the show devoted 12 minutes of discussion time to the Gillette ad while providing just 30 seconds for the House of Representatives’ decision the night before to strip Rep. Steve King (R-IA) of his committee assignments after he made comments in support of white supremacy. That’s 24 times more coverage for the razor ad than for an objectively huge story within the world of politics.

    The next day, The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh appeared on Fox & Friends to denounce the ad as “clearly insulting,” saying, “I didn't learn anything from the #MeToo movement.” The last bit is not so surprising, as he’s already written articles and published videos on why the movement has “overstayed its welcome.”

    But the furor over facial hair is just a small part of it. Fox News frequently puts an odd focus on supposed threats to masculinity.

    While segments about a war on masculinity do appear to have increased in frequency in recent years, at least at first glance, the theme is not exactly new. It’s a catch-all designed to give a sense of urgency and create a personal investment between viewers and issues they otherwise might not feel motivated to act on. And there’s actually a fair amount of social science explaining why this sort of laser-focus on masculinity is a politically savvy move for a politically motivated media outlet.

    “Men have been emasculated, they have been feminized by the left that has pushed us on a culture, and they do see Donald Trump as someone who speaks for them,” said then-Fox host Andrea Tantaros during the December 22, 2015, edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. A year earlier on the same program, she claimed that “young men … have been completely feminized,” leading to educated women “having the government subsidize their sex lives.” Months before that, she warned that the left “would love to feminize” the NFL, adding, “The White House has been weighing in on the NFL on concussions and other issues.”

    In October 2015, when Playboy made the decision to no longer publish nude photos, T.J. McCormack penned for FoxNews.com something of a requiem for the magazine and America’s collective masculinity:

    A Playboy magazine was a last refuge where a man could be a man, read some great political pieces, get some good fitness advice, hear the straight scoop in incisive interviews, and yes, indulge and behold the overwhelming perfection that is woman. Men were certainly men well before Playboy. Hugh Hefner only ushered in an era of enhanced masculinity. Now, as that masculinity is under attack, we’re doomed to become a watered-down gender. A bunch of boobs.

    In response to a May 2017 article in Vox about the U.S. Marine Corps’ inaction over a revenge porn scandal among its ranks, Fox host Todd Starnes took a jab at “the emasculated pajama boys” who “seem to want our Marines to prance into battle wearing high heels and camouflage rompers.”

    More recently, just days before the outrage over the Gillette ad, Fox took aim at a new report from the American Psychological Association (APA) about the destructive potential of “traditional masculinity.”

    The report came as a set of guidelines designed to help psychologists work more effectively with men and boys. Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce appeared on the January 10 edition of Fox & Friends to decry the APA’s findings and recommendations, mounting a defense of masculinity as a force for good:

    If we didn't have men's courage, and aggressiveness, and focus, and determination, we'd still be living -- we would be living in caves right now. So, you have -- the modern world is the result of the male framework of wanting to move forward and create things, and it is, I think, obscene, and everyone should complain that those attributes of men are being determined to be negative and something that is either a sickness, or a mental illness, or wrong, or even artificial. This is the liberal political ideology of arguing about gender fluidity, and we can have that argument, but it's not a zero-sum game. You don't -- in order to liberate men who don't fit within, let's say, a cultural norm, you don't need to obliterate every other man in that process.

    The way Bruce and others on Fox described the guidelines, you’d think the APA had republished Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and was calling for elimination of the male sex. The guidelines weren’t created to blame men or masculinity, but to help men and boys by giving psychologists the same kind of specialized tools for working with them that APA provided for working with women and girls in 2007. The guidelines aren’t anti-masculinity, either. In fact, just a quick look shows that their aim is to help men embrace their masculine traits in healthy and appropriate ways and develop a deeper understanding of themselves.

    In fact, during the January 3 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson pointed to the male suicide rate in America as a problem that must be specifically addressed. Carlson suggested that the one solution is to promote marriage, while his guest, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald, stressed the “need to valorize males,” citing the “uniquely male” characteristics of “valor, courage, chivalry, heroism in war.”

    Male suicide is one of the primary issues the APA’s guidelines aims to address (emphasis added):

    Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims. They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s. Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls, and they face harsher punishments in school—especially boys of color.

    On the January 8 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson and guest Christina Hoff Sommers discussed the APA guidelines, with Carlson lamenting that the report concluded that “the problem with men is their maleness,” adding, “Newly issued guidelines argue that ‘traditional masculinity’ is harmful and that psychologists should somehow undermine it.” It should be noted that this isn’t what the guidelines actually suggest.

    So Fox News is upset that nobody wants to address challenges that disproportionately affect men, but when a professional organization invests 13 years in developing guidelines designed to address those issues, that is also … bad. It’s almost as though commentators like Carlson and Bruce are more interested in using these problems as talking points than in actually finding solutions.

    It’s important to the Fox News narrative that men are regularly reminded that their masculinity is under attack -- and Tucker Carlson is the man to deliver that message.

    Throughout March 2018 -- Women’s History Month -- Carlson used his massive platform at Fox to shine a light on the supposed plight of American men. In many of these shows, he could be found parroting the talking points of YouTube misogynists such as Gavin McInnes, Paul Joseph Watson, and Stefan Molyneux, and playing host to the likes of Jordan Peterson.

    “The patriarchy is gone: Women are winning; men are failing,” he said during a March 28 episode. Two weeks earlier, he had argued that undocumented immigrants cause lower wages, which in turn reduce “the attractiveness of men as potential spouses, thus reducing fertility and especially marriage rates.” A week before that, he delivered a monologue about how “something ominous is happening to men in America. Everyone who pays attention knows that.”

    The theme has carried on to more recent months, as well. During the October 11 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson warned that Democrats were waging war on the very concept of fatherhood:

    To [Democratic] party leaders, fathers in the home are at best irrelevant. At worst, they're an impediment to political power. Married women tend to vote Republican and they know that. When prominent Democrats attack the patriarchy, what they're attacking is fathers. When they wage war on toxic masculinity, what they're trying to suppress is masculinity itself. Everybody knows this. Few are brave enough to say it out loud.

    During the show’s August 23 episode, Carlson defended a video from conservative commentator Allie Stuckey that Facebook had temporarily removed and which stoked fears that “the current trend is to feminize young men in the hopes of achieving some Utopia notion of equality and peace. It's not masculinity that is toxic. It is the lack of it.”

    Whether or not these perceived attacks on masculinity have any basis in reality, these stories make sense from a political and psychological stance.

    Why is Fox News so obsessed with the idea that masculinity is under attack? The concept may have its roots in beliefs about what it means to be a man. There’s a theory in psychology -- the precarious manhood theory -- that our society views men’s status as something to be earned -- and something that can be easily lost. To oversimplify it a bit, it’s the theory that men view their maleness as though a “man card” were a real thing that could be revoked for not meeting social expectations of masculinity. In turn, the fear of losing status prompts men to make public displays of masculinity and rejection of what they perceive as feminine.

    A 2015 study published in the journal Social Psychology explored what happens when men feel their masculinity is under threat.  The article looked at threats to masculinity as political motivators, theorizing that perceived threats would inspire “men's efforts to reestablish their power over women via the promotion of ideologies that implicitly subordinate women.”

    The authors found that “men’s power over women is a key aspect of men’s masculinity” and that threats to masculinity “led to greater public discomfort, anger, and ideological dominance” among those studied. That anger “predicted greater endorsement of ideologies that implicitly promote men’s power over women.”

    Something called social dominance theory offers an explanation for how people justify hierarchies and inequality within a society. For much of history, men held virtually all power in government and business -- a patriarchy. In just the past hundred years or so, women emerged from their position as second-class citizens and demanded equal rights and treatment. While most men likely understand that there’s no good excuse to oppose equality between men and women, social dominance theory gets at how those with the most to lose -- men, in this instance -- might subconsciously try to preserve the status quo while convincing themselves that they treat all people equally.

    Through what are called “legitimizing myths,” people in positions of power can convince themselves that there aren’t any structural barriers to success, that the playing field is already level. For instance, some could justify the dearth of women in positions of power in government and business by saying that maybe women are simply too emotional to lead, that perhaps men just happen to be the ones best suited for a specific position.

    To point out that a playing field isn’t already level or promote institutional change is to threaten the existing hierarchies of society. Some people respond to these threats by gravitating to political ideologies associated with the preservation of existing social norms. In other words: conservatism. Fear and anger are a powerful political motivators, and Fox News knows how to bring those emotions out: by creating the appearance of a threat.

    It’s not a huge stretch to see how the success of women in comparison to men can function as a threat to masculinity in itself. If, for instance, a media outlet wanted to sway voters toward candidates who embody certain identities -- white, male, and Christian, for example -- one of the most obvious things it could do is bombard the public with the idea that those very identities are under attack. If an outlet wanted to sway people from voting for a woman, or for a candidate running on pledges to upend the current system of male social dominance, it would regularly promote stories that evoke a type of existential threat to manhood. This is what Fox News does.

    Candidates themselves might try to adopt a more masculine public image -- Donald Trump did this often, once donning a hard hat to promote his support for coal miners, bragging about the size of his hands (and, indirectly, his penis) during a debate, and making frequent claims that his female opponent simply didn’t have the “stamina” to be president. But it is the news media that shapes the underlying narrative. It’s for exactly this reason that things aimed at helping men and promoting healthy masculinity -- such as the APA guidelines or the Gillette ad -- are twisted into attacks on male identity.

  • With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the right-wing media playbook doesn't work

    Right-wing media are obsessed with insulting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she's playing them like a fiddle

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated House Democratic Caucus Chair and 10-term Rep. Joseph Crowley in a June 2018 primary, The Associated Press didn’t even bother to include her name in its tweet calling the race in her favor, referring to her as just “young challenger.”

    The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan pointed to the lack of Ocasio-Cortez coverage during the primary race as proof that “Big Media” hasn’t kept pace with American politics. Her win shocked political journalists and left publications such as The New York Times scrambling to cobble together explainer articles asking, “Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

    It would be a massive understatement to say that newly sworn-in Rep. Ocasio-Cortez no longer suffers from a dearth of media attention -- and, in a sense, she has conservative media to thank for that.

    Within days of her primary win, right-wing news organizations and commentators latched on to Ocasio-Cortez as a target. As an unabashed democratic socialist who ran on the type of ambitious platform representative of virtually everything that conservatives oppose -- such as Medicare for All, housing as a human right, gun safety, a federal jobs guarantee, the abolition of private prisons, free public college education, and climate change action -- Ocasio-Cortez was fodder for Fox News segments declaring her the future of the Democratic Party.

    On July 3, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt warned viewers that “socialism is surging in America,” and insisted that this was “the new battle cry of the left.” Her evidence: Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory. That same day on Fox Business Network’s Varney & Co., guest Peter Morici called Ocasio-Cortez “the modern-day Saul Alinsky,” a favorite bogeyman for conservatives.

    Later that month, The Daily Caller published associate editor Virginia Kruta’s account of seeing Ocasio-Cortez speak at a campaign rally. In the piece, Kruta describes the experience as “truly terrifying. I saw just how easy it would be, were I less involved and less certain of our nation’s founding and its history, to fall for the populist lines they were shouting from that stage.” What kind of populist lines? Kruta continues: “I saw how easy it would be, as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education. I saw how easy it would be, as someone who has struggled to make ends meet, to accept the idea that a ‘living wage’ was a human right.” Everybody being paid enough to live, to not starve, to be able to go to the doctor without worrying that it will bankrupt your family? Oh, the absolute horror! Naturally, Fox interviewed the author soon after.

    Fox News was taking a chance in elevating Ocasio-Cortez’s visibility, banking on its viewers to grimace at the merest mention of socialism like a child being forced to eat broccoli. However, the outsized coverage relative to her actual level of influence within the Democratic Party -- remember, at this point she hadn’t even been elected to Congress -- had the effect of actually increasing her power and popularity.

    On June 25, Ocasio-Cortez had roughly 48,800 Twitter followers. By the end of July, after a month of laser-focused conservative media attention, she had more than 770,000. Today, that number sits at more than 2 million.

    Right-wing criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez can be divided into a few categories with some overlap between them. Let’s explore those for a moment.

    A huge chunk of the conservative criticisms being made against Ocasio-Cortez can be summed up in two words: “She’s stupid.” From claiming that she “represents the need for an intelligence test before somebody is ever allowed to run and hold public office” to simply calling her “Dumb-dumb,” taking jabs at her intelligence has become something of a favorite pastime for a number of conservative journalists and commentators. Here are a few examples:

    • Washington Times Opinion Editor Charles Hurt: “[Ocasio-Cortez] went to school, apparently, went to college, but didn’t learn anything, didn’t learn five seconds of history about anything. They have no concept of the dangers of socialism.” [Varney & Co., 7/18/18]

    • CRTV’s Curt Schilling: “You are being scrutinized and treated with suspicion because every time you speak you say something more stupid than the last time you spoke. You are a college graduate and likely the most unintelligent person, man or woman, in our government.” [Twitter, 12/11/18]

    • Fox Business host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery: “Her brain is as empty as the promises of unfettered statism.” [Kennedy, 12/6/18]

    • The Daily Wire’s Andrew Klavan: “This woman is a dangerous ignoramus.” [The Andrew Klavan Show, 1/3/19]

    • Fox Business senior correspondent Charles Gasparino: “This is a freshman rep that barely knows where the Capitol building is. … She has no idea about economics. Just go back and listen to her musings, which are idiotic.” [Cavuto Coast to Coast, 1/4/19]

    • Former Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes: “[Ocasio-Cortez] is not exactly the brightest star in the sky. That’s for sure.” [Varney & Co., 7/20/18]

    There are also the conspiracy theories that she’s secretly rich or that she somehow “lied” about being from the Bronx. Additionally, the fact that she used to go by the nickname “Sandy” (a common nickname for people named Alexandria) is a scandal of epic proportions for some reason. Oh, and she once borrowed expensive clothes for a photoshoot -- emphasis on borrowed.

    A June 27 New York Times profile explains her upbringing:

    Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s mother was born in Puerto Rico. Her late father, Sergio Ocasio, an architect, was born in the Bronx. The family lived in Parkchester, a planned community of mid-rise buildings, in the same apartment where Ms. Ocasio-Cortez now lives, until Alexandria was about 5, when they moved an hour north to a modest two-bedroom house on a quiet street in Yorktown Heights, a suburb in Westchester County, in search of better schools.

    How modest was that two-bedroom house in Yorktown Heights? Newsmax host John Cardillo decided to post a picture of it, seemingly to write her off as a rich elitist or something of the sort.

    Following her November election, Ocasio-Cortez gave an interview to The New York Times which discussed some of the steps she had to take to prepare for her transition to Congress:

    Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said the transition period will be “very unusual, because I can’t really take a salary. I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real.” She said she saved money before leaving her job at the restaurant, and planned accordingly with her partner. “We’re kind of just dealing with the logistics of it day by day, but I’ve really been just kind of squirreling away and then hoping that gets me to January.”

    This led to yet another right-wing media freakout and a lot of misleading headlines. “Ocasio-Cortez claims she can't afford DC apartment, but records show she has at least $15,000 in savings,” read the headline of a post at FoxNews.com, noting that “records show she has more than enough to plunk down on an apartment in the U.S. capital.” At no point did she say she couldn’t afford an apartment; she did suggest that it would be hard to pay for one with a three-month gap in salary. She noted that she and her partner had saved, but her comments highlighted the broader point that it can be a major challenge for anyone other than the affluent to run for office. In any case, CNBC did a follow-up and found that Ocasio-Cortez actually had less than half of that in her account.

    True or not, a narrative had been created and now she was going to be slimed for it.

    • Sean Hannity: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually said she can't afford an apartment in D.C. There's one little itsy bitsy problem: She actually can. She apparently has $15,000 in the bank.” [The Sean Hannity Show, 11/13/18]

    • Ed Henry of Fox News: “It turns out when you read deeper, she had a lot more formative years in Westchester County, New York, which is a little ritzier than the Bronx. … Her resume doesn’t always match up, and some of those [photo] shoots during the campaign, she had these multithousand-dollar outfits that could pay a month’s rent in Washington, D.C.” [America’s Newsroom, 11/9/18]

    • Michael Knowles of The Daily Caller: “She is a liar; she lied about her upbringing. She pretended to be from a poor part of the Bronx and grow up there. In reality, she grew up in a ritzy part of one of the ritziest counties in the country.” [Fox & Friends, 7/17/18]

    • Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pretends to be a champion of the people & believes the unemployment went down because [people] were taking two jobs, just posed in a photoshoot with a $3,500 outfit, $625 shoes all while saying the rich have too much power and that socialism hasn’t been tried.” [Twitter, 9/13/18]

    • Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit: “Yorktown Elitist and Bronx Hoaxer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Went by ‘Sandy’ Well into College at Boston U” [Twitter, 1/6/19]

    And did you know that Ocasio-Cortez wants to turn America into Venezuela?! She doesn’t, actually, but that hasn’t stopped conservative media from invoking the troubled South American country to slam socialism in the same way they name-drop Chicago to dismiss gun safety measures. Pointing to Venezuela to explain why socialism doesn’t work is much like pointing to the 2008 global financial collapse to explain why capitalism is ineffective; while both examples can certainly be used as part of an argument, invoking them as the entire argument is a faulty generalization.

    In truth, the policies Ocasio-Cortez supports tend to either be things that the U.S. has successfully used in the past (such as a higher marginal tax rate), or they’re policies that other countries have widely implemented (single-payer health care is used around the world). But to hear some of her loudest critics, she aspires to be an American incarnation of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. On the plus side, this critique is actually related to her policy positions, so that’s a nice change of pace!

    • Republican National Committee (RNC): “Meet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Mini-Maduro Foreboding The Future Of Democrats.” [email, 8/16/18]

    • RNC Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon: “You have the lunatic left, the Ocasio-Cortez wing, that are going full Venezuela on politics.” [Lou Dobbs Tonight, 7/25/18]

    • Fox News guest Morgan Ortagus (now a Fox contributor): “Just to the south of us, we have a picture of what this woman running for Congress wants to see happen, in Venezuela, versus in Colombia. It’s the most stark picture we could draw for our audience, and it is quite scary what is happening in Venezuela.“ [America’s Newsroom, 7/24/18]

    • Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire: “If Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk are elected to office then the U.S. will turn into Venezuela, where people are literally hungry and are fighting for food.” [Twitter, 10/16/18]

    • The Reagan Battalion: “Dear [Ocasio-Cortez], your dancing is absolutely superb and it is fantastic that you are bringing youthful energy to the halls of Congress. But let’s not forget the plight of the young women in Venezuela who would love to have the ability to dance, but are way too hungry & weak to do that.” [Twitter, 1/4/19]

    Of course, to the great shock of absolutely no one, there’s also a fair amount of garden-variety sexism thrown into a lot of the criticism for good measure.​

    • Fox Business’ Dagen McDowell: “I would argue that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets all of the support that she does because she's a woman.” [Mornings with Maria Bartiromo, 10/30/18]

    • Fox News guest Ed Rollins called Ocasio-Cortez “the little girl.” [Lou Dobbs Tonight, 1/4/19]

    • Rush Limbaugh called Ocasio-Cortez “some young uppity.” [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 1/8/19]

    • Bill Mitchell: “This Ocasio-Cortez woman has perhaps the most annoying, squeaky voice since Mini (sic) Mouse.” [Twitter, 11/18/18]

    • Candace Owens of Turning Point USA: “Similar to Christine Blasey Ford, [Ocasio-Cortez] constantly infantilizes her voice to sound like a toddler so that journalists don’t critique her dangerous ideas. This is creepy. She is a 30 yr old adult woman trying to pass as a naive, threatened little girl.” [Twitter, 1/6/19]

    • Jesse Kelly of The Federalist: “She’s kind of cute, though. … There is nothing wrong with a little bit of crazy, man. A little bit of crazy can be fun. I’m not talking about marrying her; I'm just talking about a date or two. She looks kind of cute.” [Stinchfield, 1/4/19]

    • After Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that House Democrats would soon have subpoena power in response to a meme attacking her that was shared by Donald Trump Jr., Michael Moates of The DC Chronicle tweeted: “There is a new standard in Congress. Bitches will subpoena you if you troll them.” [Twitter, 12/7/18]

    • Eddie Scarry of the Washington Examiner tweeted a candid photo of Ocasio-Cortez designed to both promote the idea that she’s secretly rich and function as a bit of a sexist jab. Its caption read: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” [Twitter, 11/15/18]

    • The Daily Caller published a previously debunked photo with the headline: “Here’s The Photo Some People Described As A Nude Selfie Of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” [Twitter, 1/9/19] (Newsworthiness of the story aside, the photo had had already been determined not to be her, and that information absolutely should have been noted in the tweet and headline.)

    • Conservative writer D.C. McAllister tweeted: “AOC. The latest THOT.” (Twitter, 1/4/19) (“THOT” is a slang for “That ho over there,” usually used in a disparaging way.)

    It’s hard to explain exactly why right-wing media are so obsessed with her, but there are a few plausible theories.

    Before even taking office, Ocasio-Cortez was being scrutinized and held to a standard more fit for a presidential candidate than a freshman member of Congress. Like all politicians, she will occasionally misspeak, misstate a fact or a figure from memory, or inartfully articulate her message. For instance, Ocasio-Cortez once accidentally referred to the presidency and the two chambers of Congress as the “three chambers of government” during a video chat. Conservative news organizations pounced on the error, treating it as somehow newsworthy and running headlines like “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Flubs Basic Government 101 Facts” (The Daily Caller), “Ocasio-Cortez Has No Idea What The 3 Branches Of Government Are” (The Daily Wire), and “Ocasio-Cortez Fails to Name Three Branches of Government” (Breitbart).

    Rhetorical slip-ups are common and politicians certainly understand that anything they say or do can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion. What’s unusual is how focused the spotlight seems to be on Ocasio-Cortez so early in her career. When it comes to politicians who scare them -- that is to say, politicians who exude charisma and can cut through the news cycle’s noise to argue in favor of policies that may resonate with large swaths of the country -- right-wing media will obsess over these gaffes for years to come. A great example occurred in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama slipped up and said that he had visited “57 states” instead of 47. While we all know that he knew how many states there were, this was instantly treated as a giant story by right-wing media. A conservative blog mocked him by selling 57-star lapel pins, and it was widely covered at the time (and still gets mentioned every so often).

    So are right-wing media scared of Ocasio-Cortez and what she represents? Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief at The Intercept and one of the small number of journalists who covered the Ocasio-Cortez campaign well before her primary win, thinks there’s a simpler explanation.

    “I’ve noticed the alt-right has some admiration for her, which I think is sympathy for her anti-establishment bent,” Grim wrote in an email before offering an explanation for why journalists not explicitly part of the “alt-right” (such as The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro or The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft) are so focused on her. “I also think she’s great for traffic, which explains some of the right wing fixation.”

    “They’re entertainers and nothing more,” he continued. “Understood through that lens, their approach makes financial sense for them. They’re exploiting her for clicks and contributions from right wing readers the same way some grifters on the left have done with Trump.”

    Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has her own thoughts about why we’re seeing so much Ocasio-Cortez press so early in her career.

    “Some media and political figures apparently are deeply uncomfortable with her and what she represents: youth, diversity, grassroots authenticity, social-media savvy and a willingness to break with the pack,” Sullivan writes in an email. “So the outsize attention is partly a sort of panicked, semi-aware effort to grapple with all that, and maybe put her in what some see as her place. Some of the media attention, too, simply arises from her being of significant interest to readers and viewers because of the qualities I mention, not from antipathy.”

    A handful of conservatives are starting to realize what’s happening after early attempts to target her have only given her views more sway over American politics.

    If you hold a microphone up to a speaker, the unpleasant noise you hear is a result of feedback. The longer you leave the microphone in place, the more that noise will be amplified. In running those early segments following Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win, right-wing media placed the proverbial microphone in front of the speaker with the goal of creating a loud distraction ahead of 2018’s midterm elections -- but now they don’t know how to make it stop.

    Conservative radio host Wayne Dupree asked his followers whether they thought Ocasio-Cortez would be the rising star she is without the relentless right-wing attacks, correctly noting that the Democratic establishment was actually not very pleased with her primary victory.

    Right-wing writer Matt Walsh wrote that Ocasio-Cortez “is a star today in part because of the Right’s weird fixation on her.”

    We have seen this scenario play out before in the way  liberals elevate conservative figures they disagree with and mock. Tomi Lahren, for instance, was hosting a web show at TheBlaze just a couple short years ago. Sure, her videos had a wide reach, but she was hardly a household name until The Daily Show began making jokes about her show and eventually invited her on for the interview that set the rest of her career in motion. Soon after, she appeared on The View and made controversial comments about abortion that ended her career at TheBlaze, at which point she appeared on ABC’s World News Tonight to complain that she was being “silenced.” Lahren was quickly picked up by Fox News and is now one of the network’s stars.

    There’s little doubt that the attacks against Ocasio-Cortez will continue, and there’s even less worry that she won’t be up for the task for fighting back. But she almost certainly wouldn’t be sitting down for a widely watched interview on 60 Minutes had she not been intentionally elevated early on by conservative media. Instead, a socialist star was born, leaving right-wing news outlets with a tough decision to make about how they cover her going forward -- one they may soon regret.

  • NY Times and AP botched their Trump fact checks with logical leaps.

    Punditry doesn’t have a place in fact-checking.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    “Fact-checkers prepare for their version of the Super Bowl,” said Jake Tapper, hours before President Donald Trump would take over network airwaves around the country for a speech urging Congress to approve funding for a border wall, one of his core campaign promises.

    The short speech, read from a teleprompter in the Oval Office, showed a different side of Trump. Straying from his tactic of peppering his words with wild exaggerations, ad-libs, and lies, he spoke like a more conventional politician. That is to say that yes, he still lied -- a lot -- but he incorporated some facts into those lies, referencing semirelated data to support his argument. If it was fact-checkers’ Super Bowl, it wasn’t a terribly exciting game. There were a few highlights, however.

    Toronto Star Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Dale is known for his quick and thorough fact checks of Trump’s rally speeches, tweets, and other public statements. In a recap of the address posted Tuesday night, Dale laid out a few of the immediate factual issues spotted within the speech:

    Among other things, Trump falsely claimed Democrats had asked him to build a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall (an alternative he came up with himself), falsely claimed a wall would be “indirectly” funded through his revised NAFTA deal (which has not been approved by Congress and could not fund a wall), falsely said Democrats would not pony up for “border security” (they have offered to pay for various security measures, just not a wall), and misleadingly suggested a wall would be a significant obstacle to smuggled heroin (most of which comes through legal ports of entry).

    Trump used a series of figures to make his argument that the country is facing a “humanitarian crisis” that can be solved only by building, among other things, a wall along the southern border of the U.S. The issue was that those numbers didn’t actually support the argument being made.

    For instance, he claimed, “Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border.” That’s true, but according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the majority of those drugs are being trafficked through existing ports of entry and not areas that would be affected by the creation of a wall. Fact-checking that statement requires nuance, and for the most part, the fact-checkers at news organizations like the The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others did the claim justice in not rating it outright true or false.

    Other statements, however, were more clear-cut, like when Trump claimed, “The wall will also be paid for, indirectly, by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.” The trade deal hasn’t yet been ratified by Congress, and there’s no wall-repayment fund or mechanism in place. The claim is false, as was his statement that the wall will be made out of steel and not concrete “at the request of Democrats.” The party’s opposition to the structure has nothing to do with building materials, but with its existence itself. Once again, fact-checkers were, generally speaking, straightforward in the response to these claims.

    In fact-checking the response from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, journalists took liberties in determining what can be checked.

    At 10:20 p.m.  Eastern Standard Time, the New York Times Twitter account posted a “fact check” of one of Schumer’s statements. Schumer said, “No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or else the government shuts down, hurting millions of Americans who are treated as leverage.”

    On its face, this statement, offering Schumer’s opinion on what a president should or should not do, isn’t exactly something one can verify. The Times seemingly took issue with the claim that “millions” of Americans would be hurt by the shutdown, but that is very clearly an accurate statement. There are roughly 800,000 federal employees affected by the shutdown, but when you factor in their families, as well as local economies and people who rely on government services that could be disrupted during an extended shutdown period, the number very easily reaches into the millions -- much of which the paper acknowledges in its "fact check." Even so, the Times rated the claim as “This needs context.”

    Roughly an hour later, the Associated Press Politics account tweeted that Democratic lawmakers blaming Trump for the shutdown aren’t being entirely truthful because the shutdown could come to an end if they would cave to his demands.

    During a December 11 meeting with Schumer and Pelosi, Trump took full responsibility for a potential shutdown, saying that he was “proud to shut down the government for border security,” and adding, “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down — I’m not going to blame you for it.” Even at the time, the Democratic leaders had been clear on their position: They would not put forward a package that included funding for Trump’s wall. To say “it takes two to tango” without acknowledging that Trump had already taken full responsibility (which he later tried to walk back) for the shutdown, or noting that both chambers of Congress were in Republican control when the government shut down, is factually wrong. More than that, it’s an editorialization, something that really doesn’t have a place in fact checks.

    In a statement to Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple, an Associated Press spokesperson clarified that the tweet was meant to highlight that "Democrats have refused to accede to President Trump's demands." It's not really clear whether that's any better.

    Editorialization and fact-checking’s unclear mission pose threats to the genre of fact-checking.

    In an ideal world, fact checks would probably simply be part of standard journalism and not a subgenre unto themselves. Fact checks can have benefit as standalone works, but too often they stray from the dry, straightforward approach that makes a good fact check easy to digest in a few quick glances. “It takes two to tango” probably doesn’t have a place in the fact-checking lexicon, if we’re all being honest with ourselves.

    “The fact-checking genre is fine and useful in certain circumstances but it is *woefully* under-theorized as an undertaking, which leads it into all kinds of weird, shoddy, and dubious territory,” tweeted MSNBC host Chris Hayes following the speech.

    Dale responded, suggesting that things like the AP and Times “checks” may be fine if published under a different label:

    I think this particular issue could be addressed with better labeling - calling these ones something else. Like, it’s useful for the AP or others to explain the facts of this dispute, helping people understand the blame game. But that’s just not a “fact check.”

    Fact-check people should ask, “is this a strict assertion of fact?” And then fact-check the Yes ones, and then if they still want to delve into the No ones, it should be under a different heading. I agree it’s bad when they try to “fact-check” subjective claims.

    In a 2013 column in the Columbia Journalism Review, Brendan Nyhan warned of fact-checkers whose personal political ideologies turn their work from a demonstration of proof into outright punditry. Nyhan’s article highlighted the messiness of the process and the importance of being able to separate the semantic from the factual and of eschewing unnecessary adjectives. “Factchecking is an inherently subjective enterprise; the divide between fact and opinion is often messy and difficult to parse,” he writes.