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Parker Molloy

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  • Media Matters’ Parker Molloy at the Columbia Journalism Review: Caster Semenya coverage illustrates how public perception can shape policy

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    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    When the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the International Association of Athletics Federations’ recent rule about limits on testosterone for female athletes on May 1, it may have put an end to the career of one of this generation’s greatest mid-distance runners. For nearly a decade, world champion South African track and field star Caster Semenya has been dogged by rumors that she was not really a woman at all -- or at least not enough of a woman.

    Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, I looked back at how mainstream news outlets covered Semenya’s early wins. It was, at best, inartful. “South Africa to test gender of 800-meter runner,” read the headline of an Associated Press article published just before Semenya was set to compete in the world championships. “Champion's gender under investigation,” read another headline at The Toronto Star. “Semenya isn’t guilty of doping, but rumors are swirling that she may be guilty of being a man,” NBC reporter Stephanie Gosk inartfully said during the August 22, 2009, edition of NBC Nightly News.

    While other athletes were celebrated for whatever natural advantages genetics had gifted them, Semenya was being pilloried for hers. Ten years later, it’s worth asking how much of the controversy surrounding Semenya can be attributed to how early coverage of her wins was framed in the media. For more on this, please read my article at CJR.

  • Conservative outrage over Obama and Clinton “Easter worshippers” tweets is just the latest phony right-wing controversy

    It’s more important than ever to recognize bad-faith arguments on social media

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On Sunday morning, terrorists carried out a coordinated attack on churches, hotels, and other populated sites across Sri Lanka, killing nearly 300 people. Sri Lankan officials believe the attack was carried out by a radical Islamist group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, and police arrested 24 people in connection.

    Messages of sympathy rolled in as people around the world mourned this tragic event. But tweets from former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent right-wing journalists and commentators into a rage spiral.

    Conservatives took issue with Obama and Clinton saying “Easter worshippers” instead of “Christians.” Naturally, outrage ensued.

    Townhall’s Cortney O’Brien claimed that Clinton “ma[de] up a new term” (she didn’t). Breitbart’s Joel Pollak reminded readers that Obama “drew criticism for his reluctance to identify radical Islam as the source of many terror attacks.” At The Washington Times, Cheryl K. Chumley called the tweets “a political ploy designed to tamp down realities of radical Islamic terror targeting of Christians and Christianity,” adding, “This is how Muslim apologists roll.”

    There’s nothing wrong with saying “Easter worshippers” to refer to people attending an Easter worship service, and neither Obama nor Clinton coined the term.

    Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson, of all people, had one of the more reasonable conservative takes on the outrage. In a piece titled “‘Easter Worshippers’ Is Fine,” he wrote:

    A lot of people, including a few of the politicians who tweeted, only show up to church on Easter Sunday. And while the phrase “Easter worshipper” is not common, it is also not unheard of. Ironically, had Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama not tweeted to express concern for the dead and condemn the attacks, a great many of the people outraged now would have been outraged by their silence.

    This is a silly controversy. Conservatives exhaust themselves pointing out how frequently progressives get outraged over minor things on social media and now are doing it themselves. The only people who care already noticed and do not need others to scream about it. It makes conservative complaints about social justice warrior insanity seem cheap.

    Adding to the “silly controversy” is the fact that only a few people who were outraged over the tweets from Obama and Clinton seemed particularly upset that President Donald Trump’s tweet in reaction to the bombings referred to the victims simply as “people” and mistakenly claimed that there were 138 million deaths.

    In fact, even the official statement from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also failed to mention Christians.

    The United States condemns in the strongest terms the outrageous terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka that have claimed so many precious lives on this Easter Sunday. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families of the more than 200 killed and hundreds of others wounded. We stand with the Sri Lankan government and people as they bring to justice the perpetrators of these despicable and senseless acts.

    “Worshippers” is a fairly commonplace term to refer to people attending a worship service. While The Washington Times may see use of this term as “a political calculation” in 2019, it was fine using it when referring to an attack in 2014. (The article link in the Times' 2014 tweet no longer works.) 

    Some conservatives also pointed out that both Obama and Clinton referred to Muslims specifically when tweeting about the New Zealand mosque attacks, and several people on Twitter wondered why terms like “Ramadan worshippers” weren’t used then, but the answer is simple: The New Zealand attacks didn’t happen during a Ramadan service.

    Contrary to the below tweet, the phrase “Ramadan worshippers” is sometimes used, especially regarding terrorist attacks on Muslims.

    For instance:

    The outrage isn’t really about the attacks at all, though.

    Three of the bombings happened at churches holding Easter services, and four others occurred at hotels throughout the city of Colombo. Additionally, one suicide bomber detonated during police questioning, and a pipe bomb was found and defused near the Bandaranaike International Airport in Negombo. While the attacks certainly targeted Christians, they were almost certainly not the only victims in this act of terrorism, as the country’s population is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

    Over the years, conservative media have gotten extremely good at coordination, and the emergence of a social media-dominated news apparatus has allowed that skill to shine through. It’s commonplace to see something posted on social media get amplified in the conservative echo chamber and become big news in a matter of days if not hours. This is what happened when conservative media coalesced around the idea that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was downplaying the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, when they clutched pearls over Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) discussing the long-term sustainability of U.S. meat consumption, or countless other examples.

    The credulity with which mainstream news organizations take these claims of outrage only embolden the people making them, checking an important box in the conservative media ecosystem: their status as a persecuted minority unfairly picked on by politicians and a “liberal” media. Right-wing commentators have recently learned that by claiming that the Mueller report exonerates Trump (it does not), they can shape a reality in which people will perceive it actually does. Similarly, they know that if they repeat the claim that Obama and Clinton were showing their anti-Christian bonafides by saying “Easter worshippers,” they can build a conventional wisdom in which that is true.

    The answer, clearly, is to stop taking such people seriously by calling out their phony outrage where it exists and not letting them shape reality through repetitive propaganda.

  • Media trumpeted William Barr's spin on the Mueller report (again) -- will they ever learn?

    Context-free tweets continue to spread administration propaganda

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On Thursday morning, Attorney General William Barr held a press conference to discuss the then-impending release of special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report. The press conference -- like Barr's March letter about Mueller's report -- was a transparent attempt to spin Mueller's conclusions in advance of their public release. While many observers noted the absurdity of Barr holding a press conference to field questions about an as-yet-unreleased report, numerous media figures nonetheless trumpeted Barr's spin.

    In particular, reporters and outlets quoted this odd statement:

    Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims.

    Given what we know about President Donald Trump’s public behavior during the investigation, this claim is laughable (and was made more so once the report was released).

    While his lawyers submitted written answers to Mueller, the president was famously reluctant to actually sit for an interview. In November, Trump said that “we've wasted enough time on this witch hunt” when asked about agreeing to in-person questioning. During a December appearance on Fox News Sunday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was asked about whether Trump would agree to an interview, and he responded, “Over my dead body.” For months, Giuliani and Trump had expressed worry that an interview with Mueller would be a “perjury trap” and made clear it was to be avoided.

    In addition to Trump’s refusal to sit for an interview, the Mueller report itself makes clear the president took a series of actions to undermine the probe, many of which either happened in public or were reported on over the past two years. From the report:

    The President launched public attacks on the investigation and individuals involved in it who could possess evidence adverse to the President, while in private, the President engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation. For instance, the President attempted to remove the Special Counsel; he sought to have Attorney General Sessions unrecuse himself and limit the investigation; he sought to prevent public disclosure of information about the June 9, 2016 meeting between Russians and campaign officials; and he used public forums to attack potential witnesses who might offer adverse information and to praise witnesses who declined to cooperate with the government.  

    It’s simply bizarre and false to call this “unfettered access” to the administration and campaign.

    Yet as the Republican National Committee and Trump campaign latched onto Barr's claim, many journalists did the same.

    Tweets from the RNC and the Trump campaign called special attention to this line, seemingly as a defense against obstruction accusations. Right-wing media figures such as Katie Pavlich, The Daily Caller’s Amber Athey, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra, Fox Business’ Trish Regan, and Fox News’ Howard Kurtz followed suit.

    But numerous less-partisan outlets and other journalists also shared Barr's quote on Twitter without providing necessary context. 

    Naturally, as soon as the redacted report was released, the claim that the Trump administration “fully cooperated” was further demolished. “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” reads one part of the report. Another notes that Trump “engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.” And in yet another, explaining why Trump didn’t sit for an interview, Mueller acknowledges that investigators were forced to weigh whether it was worth issuing a subpoena given that “the President would not be interviewed voluntarily.”

    By now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that this administration isn’t particularly honest and cannot simply be given the benefit of the doubt in these situations. In fact, just last month, news organizations around the country took Barr’s word at face value only to look foolish for days to come.

    Why do journalists keep falling for this, and what will it take to convince them to stop?

    That’s a question that’s come up repeatedly since the 2016 election. It seems that there are many journalists unwilling to recognize that this presidency is unique in how untruthful it is. Yes, all politicians lie to some extent, but none have ever been so blatant as this administration. It’s not enough to simply echo someone’s words without clarifying the context in which they are said (or noting if they are blatant lies). At its core, journalism must be about holding the powerful accountable, not helping the powerful disseminate lies. There are many lessons that need to be learned going into the 2020 election, but few are as simple or as important as contextualizing the words of politicians.

  • Stuck on how to refer to trans people in the past? The answer is actually really simple.

    The overwhelming majority of the time, it's completely unnecessary to draw attention to former names or pronouns

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    It’s been more than five years since Chelsea Manning came out as transgender, but news organizations continue to struggle when it comes to reporting on her past. With her name in the news once again as a result of the April 11 arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, some reporters and commentators repeatedly referred to her by the incorrect name and pronouns.

    NBC News reporter Ken Dilanian referred to Manning as “he” and “him” during multiple MSNBC segments. Fox News reporter Greg Palkot emphasized Manning’s former first name, “Bradley,” during two Thursday Fox & Friends clips and again the following day on America’s Newsroom. On CNN, correspondent Nick Paton Walsh stumbled over both names and pronouns during a Friday report on New Day. Whether or not the names and pronouns were being deployed in any sort of deliberate manner, these reports are evidence of a lingering uncertainty when it comes to talking about trans people.

    The best way to refer to a trans person -- even when discussing their past -- is to use whatever name and pronouns that individual currently uses.

    In Manning’s specific case, she came out as trans in a written statement on August 22, 2013. In it, she wrote, “I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.” While this request would appear simple enough to follow, journalists have been twisting themselves into knots about it ever since.

    I reached out to a number of LGBTQ advocacy groups to ask when it’s appropriate to reference a trans person’s prior name and pronouns in news coverage, and why misgendering and deadnaming (using a trans person’s former name) should be avoided. Here’s what they had to say:

    Sarah McBride, national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign: “The misgendering of transgender people in the media can send a dangerous message to the public.”

    The misgendering of transgender people in the media can send a dangerous message to the public, reinforcing the very prejudice at the heart of the discrimination and violence transgender people face.

    Transgender people are their names and gender identities even before they come out publicly, and that fact should be reflected in coverage of transgender people in the news. While there has been significant progress in media coverage of transgender people, too often we see competent and respectful coverage fall away when the news revolves around transgender people who have been incarcerated. Every transgender person deserves to have their gender identity affirmed and it shouldn't be conditional.

    Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD: “After the person's new name becomes common knowledge, it is unnecessary and disrespectful to continue referring to their old name.”

    Media outlets should always use the current and accurate pronoun to refer to a transgender person, and should never reveal a trans person's birth name without their explicit permission. When a public figure transitions, there may be a brief period of time where journalists refer to their birth name in order to report on the transition. However, after the person's new name becomes common knowledge, it is unnecessary and disrespectful to continue referring to their old name.

    Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality: “Rarely is someone’s prior name relevant to your story, and including it only draws more attention to the individual’s status as a transgender person.”

    I strongly encourage reporters to use a subject’s current name and only their current name unless otherwise permitted by the person themselves. Rarely is someone’s prior name relevant to your story, and including it only draws more attention to the individual’s status as a transgender person when, as was the case in Manning’s story, it’s not relevant to the main narrative of the article. I would encourage reporters to ask themselves if they would do the same for someone who had changed their name after, say, a marriage or a divorce.

    There are transgender people who may be fine with someone noting or mentioning their prior name, and doing so in an article is fine with that expressed permission. But to ensure the privacy of all parties are protected, I encourage reporters to hedge on the side of courtesy and respect by using a person’s current name only.

    To add on to one of Branstetter’s points, you wouldn’t go out of your way to refer to a woman who changed her name from “Smith” to “Jones” after exiting a marriage as “Mrs. Smith” just because you happen to be describing an event that occurred when that was the name she went by. In fact, doing so would come off as rude. The same goes for referring to trans people’s pasts.

    The Associated Press and The New York Times both spell out these guidelines in their in-house style guides.

    For individuals who have changed their names, the AP Stylebook instructs journalists to “use the name by which a person currently lives or is widely known. Include a previous name or names only if relevant to story.”

    In the case of Manning’s most recent mentions in the news, her former name was almost certainly not relevant to the story. Barring the need to quote from a specific document using her former name, it’s unnecessary to note that she was known by something else at the time.

    In its entry for “gender,” the AP is unambiguous about which name journalists should use: “Use the name by which a transgender person now lives. … Refer to a previous name only if relevant to the story.” The guide even includes an example for how to refer to a trans person in the event that it is relevant to include a former name: “Caitlyn Jenner, who won a 1976 Olympic gold medal in decathlon as Bruce Jenner.”

    In Jenner’s case, a reference to her former name in a story about her Olympic victory might make sense, as the story becomes confusing if you somehow aren’t aware that she’s transgender. In Manning’s situation, unless a story is about legal battles undertaken to access hormone replacement therapy or her fight to legally update her name in April 2014, references to her trans status, former name, or former pronouns are unnecessary, as her gender was not central to the story.

    The 2015 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage guides journalists to “cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader.” Additionally, it reads: “Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.”

    Resistance to accurately referring to trans people by the names and pronouns requested sends a clear message about whose identities are considered legitimate and whose aren’t.

    When Chelsea Manning first came out as trans, CNN justified its decision to refer to her by masculine pronouns because she had “not yet taken any steps toward gender transition through surgery or hormone replacement therapy.” Of course, this was complicated by the fact that Manning wasn’t in a position where she could take those steps, having just been sentenced to 35 years in prison. Additionally, CNN’s stated policy at the time was to refer to Manning by her former name since she had not yet legally changed it. This would have made sense if the policy was consistently applied across the board, but it wasn’t. Some people, such as Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga), go by stage names. Others, such as Sens. Willard Romney and Rafael Cruz (Mitt and Ted), go by middle names or nicknames. CNN had no issue with referring to individuals by their chosen names in those cases. Refusing to honor Manning’s wish to be referred to by her chosen name was more than a simple matter of policy -- it was a passive-aggressive decision to delegitimize trans identities.

    Years after coming out as trans, Chelsea Manning and all trans people continue to be delegitimized, medicalized, and stigmatized by the media through gratuitous reminders of news subjects’ trans status. Accurate and unbiased reporting means journalists need to consistently afford trans people the same level of respect they’d offer anybody else.

  • Right-wing media amplify absurd interpretation of something Rep. Ilhan Omar said about 9/11

    A majority of criticisms against Omar are being made in bad faith

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On March 23, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) spoke at an event put on by the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Woodland Hills, CA. The roughly 20-minute speech, which centered on some of the challenges American Muslims face such as anti-Muslim rhetoric, is attracting new attention weeks later for a line mentioning 9/11.

    In context, what she said was clear: No matter how “good” American Muslims are, they’ll continue to be treated as second-class citizens because of anti-Muslim attitudes and government policies that intensified in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. American Muslims are still treated with suspicion and subjected to undue scrutiny by the government and public alike. The argument Omar was making in her speech was very clearly about how unfair it is to be lumped in with terrorists and constantly stereotyped on the basis of faith. While saying this, she referred to the 9/11 hijackers as “some people.” When put in context, that choice of words was clearly meant to differentiate between terrorists and American Muslims. The controversy surrounding this line (in bold below) is based on misinterpreting what she said as downplaying the 9/11 attacks -- something that she never did.  Below is a partial transcript:

    The truth is you can go to school and be a good student. You can listen to your dad and mom and become a doctor. You can have that beautiful wedding that makes mom and dad happy. You can buy that beautiful house. But none of that stuff matters if you one day show up to the hospital and your wife, or maybe yourself, is having a baby, and you can’t have the access that you need because someone doesn’t recognize you as fully human.

    It doesn’t matter how good you were if you can’t have your prayer mat and take your 15-minute break to go pray in a country that was founded on religious liberty. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you one day find yourself in a school where other religions are talked about, but when Islam is mentioned, we are only talking about terrorists. And if you say something, you are sent to the principal’s office. So to me, I say, raise hell; make people uncomfortable.

    Because here’s the truth -- here’s the truth: Far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange, that I am going to try to make myself look pleasant. You have to say, “This person is looking at me strange. I am not comfortable with it. I am going to go talk to them and ask them why.” Because that is a right you have.

    A bad-faith reading of Omar’s speech sparked the latest in an increasingly long line of attacks on the congresswoman.

    On April 8, Imam Mohamad Tawhidi tweeted a 19-second clip from the speech, falsely stating that Omar doesn’t consider 9/11 a terrorist attack. He also called CAIR a “terrorist organization.”

    By the afternoon of April 9, right-wing media were all over this story, perhaps nudged on by tweets from Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, the latter of whom accused Omar of being “anti-American.”

    Breitbart, The Washington Times, and the Christian Broadcasting Network published articles about the video. The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra, who called Omar an “idiot” earlier in the week, wrote that Omar “trivialized the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.” Conservative Review went so far as to baselessly suggest that Omar appeared “to be entertaining a conspiracy theory when she [said] that ‘some people did something.’” On the April 9 edition of The Glenn Beck Program, co-host Pat Gray commented on the clip, saying that Omar “makes American Muslims sound like the victims of 9/11. They weren’t.”

    During his April 9 Fox News show, Sean Hannity criticized Omar, referring to the “just unearthed” video. Describing the video as “unearthed” might give the impression that there was an attempt to hide it, but it was actually posted on YouTube, and Fox News even streamed it live on Facebook.

    On the April 10 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade questioned whether Omar was sufficiently American, saying, “Really? ‘Some people did something’? You have to wonder if she is an American first. ... Can you imagine if she was representing your community, and you were in her district, how embarrassed you must feel today.”

    Kilmeade continued: “This would’ve been an opportunity for a Muslim American to say, ‘Let me just tell you how Al Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabab, and others don’t represent our religion and that maybe we got lumped in together.’” He also said that the U.S. is “trying to contain this infection which is Muslim extremists. Why she wouldn't use herself and her leadership position to separate the American Muslim from that school of thought is beyond me.”

    Obviously, it wouldn’t have made much sense for Omar to explain to an audience of Muslims at a Muslim advocacy organization fundraiser something they very obviously already know -- that they’re not the same as the 9/11 terrorists. Kilmeade didn’t let that stop him, however.

    This is the latest example of right-wing media willfully offering obtuse and sinister interpretations of something a Democrat said.

    Recently, the RNC published an 18-second clip of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) saying, “We need comprehensive immigration reform. If you are in this country now, you must have the right to pay into Social Security, to pay your taxes, to pay into the local school system, and to have a pathway to citizenship.”

    A reasonable interpretation of what she said is that many undocumented immigrants pay into our systems as it is, and these productive members of society should have a right to pursue citizenship if they want to. The right-wing narrative, however, coalesced around an obviously false claim that she was suggesting giving Social Security money to undocumented immigrants.

    The same thing happened last year after a clip of former Attorney General Eric Holder was widely spread with the claim that he was calling for violence when he said “when they go low, we kick them,” even though he went on to very explicitly say what he meant by “kick.”

    In addition to being undercut by the context of the event, their argument against Omar’s speech is further demolished when you consider that President Donald Trump has a history of referring to terrorists as “losers” -- which Fox News defended at the time. The one real point they might have is that she misstated when CAIR was founded. The organization was founded in 1994, not after the 9/11 attacks.

    Update (4/11/19): Right-wing media continued their anti-Omar pile-on into the evening and morning after this piece was originally published. During the April 10 edition of Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs and guest Tammy Bruce laid into Omar for the “some people did something” line.

    “She sounds like she hates America, Tammy,” said Dobbs. “She sounds like she hates Jews; she hates Israelis. What is it she doesn’t hate?”

    Bruce then baselessly claimed that the line was intended to convey a belief that “we deserve, perhaps, what happened to us [on 9/11]. That those innocent victims deserve that in some fashion.”

    On April 11, the New York Post published a front page story based on the distorted comment accompanied by a photo of one of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the headline “Here’s your something.” This, again, doesn’t fairly reflect what she said.

    The message of her speech was specifically that American Muslims often get unfairly lumped in with terrorists. On March 1, NBC reported that the West Virginia Republican Party allegedly set up an anti-Muslim display in the state capitol building. Among the items was a picture of the World Trade Center being hit by a plane with the words “‘Never forget’ - you said..” Below that was a photo of Omar with the text “I am the proof - you have forgotten.”

    In February, a Coast Guard lieutenant named Christopher Paul Hasson was arrested on drug and gun charges, and prosecutors found that he had been creating a hit list of prominent Democrats and journalists to attack. Omar was among the names. In early April, a Trump supporter named Patrick W. Carlineo was arrested for threatening to assassinate Omar.

    Ramping up anti-Omar sentiment based on a willful misreading of something she said will only put her in more danger.

  • Flawed media coverage of Mueller’s findings underscores the importance of good headlines

    Headlines play a fundamental role in our understanding of the world around us, which is why journalists need to get it right the first time

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow - Media Matters

    What makes a good headline? And for that matter, how do we define what “good” even means in such a context? Is a good headline one that informs the reader what to expect -- a sort of one-sentence summary? Or is it one that piques a reader’s curiosity, enticing them to click and share an article across their social media accounts?

    There’s no single, agreed-upon answer, but every news organization must -- knowingly or not -- find a balance between the two that works for them. But what happens when the latter comes at the expense of the former? One recent event makes for an interesting case study on the topic.

    On March 24, Attorney General William Barr released a four-page letter on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. In it, Barr wrote that he thought it was “in the public interest to describe the report and to summarize” its main conclusions. Barr went on to state that Mueller’s team had determined that there were “two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election,” but that “despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” he wasn’t able to find that the Trump campaign accepted or acted on any of these offers. On the issue of whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr noted that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on the matter, and so Barr took it upon himself to decline to press charges.

    The letter was certainly favorable to Trump and his supporters, but it wasn’t as favorable as many stories' news headlines made it out to be.

    In their March 25 front page headlines, none of the five largest daily newspapers in the U.S. (USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Post, and Los Angeles Times) noted that the conclusion was coming from Barr and not Mueller himself. While I personally think that some sort of attribution to Barr belonged in the headline itself -- the Chicago Tribune got it right with a headline reading: “AG: NO RUSSIA CONSPIRACY” -- it’s maybe fair to chalk that up to nitpicking. In one of the few places Barr’s letter did quote directly from Mueller, he wrote, “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” While perhaps a bit oversimplified, the imprecise wording was not as damaging as some other mistakes outlets made in covering the end of Mueller's investigation.

    Other examples of misleading headlines were more troubling, thanks to their use of words like “no proof” or “no evidence.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s March 25 front page boldly states that there was “NO EVIDENCE OF CONSPIRACY.” This goes beyond anything Barr wrote in his letter. As CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, “One thing we know with certainty is that Mueller is not bringing a criminal case based on the collusion set of issues. But that doesn’t mean there’s no evidence of collusion. It only means there’s not a prosecutable case. There’s a world of difference between ‘no evidence’ and not enough evidence to bring an actual case.”

    The Inquirer wasn’t alone either, as similar narratives were being shared across social media and in online articles. CNN tweeted, “President Trump claims vindication after Mueller finds no evidence of collusion.” (CNN would later edit this headline to more accurately read, “Trump claims vindication after Mueller does not establish collusion.”) Politico reporter Darren Samuelsohn wrote, “Mueller finds no evidence of Trump-Russia conspiracy.” The Wrap, The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Bloomberg, ABC’s The View, and NBC’s Meet the Press shared similar messages. The claim was also included in articles by The Associated Press and The New York Times, among other news organizations.

    Both Toobin and Lawfare’s Ben Wittes pointed out the problems with this “no evidence” messaging in Wemple’s piece. Wittes noted that such framing “may turn out to be a lucky guess, but it is not supported by the current record.” Wemple also quoted guidance sent out to journalists on the Post’s national desk about the issue:

    It is not accurate to say that Mueller found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and Russia. Barr’s memo states that Mueller did not “find” or “establish” a criminal conspiracy — meaning whatever evidence the special counsel found, it did not rise to the level of that legal standard.

    On April 3, The New York Times reported that some members of Mueller’s team were pushing back on some of conclusions drawn from Barr’s letter, arguing that he glossed over portions of the report that painted Trump in a bad light. Just days earlier, on March 29, Barr clarified that his March 24 letter wasn’t actually intended to be a “summary” of Mueller’s report at all.

    While none of this is to suggest that Mueller’s findings differ from Barr’s in any sort of legal sense, the narrative published in the letter’s immediate aftermath was a bit simpler and more exculpatory than reality may dictate. (And this is to say nothing of the numerous outlets that amplified Trump's false claim that the Mueller report was a "complete and total exoneration” of him.) Unfortunately, correcting that narrative may be more difficult than simply publishing an updated article.

    Does subtle misinformation in headlines really matter? One study suggests it can have a big effect on a reader’s comprehension of articles themselves.

    Responding to the Times’ new reporting, BBC anchor Katty Kay tweeted that Democrats risk looking “like sore losers” if they continue to pursue investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Her tweet was widely panned, but she wasn’t entirely wrong.

    A 2014 report published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology explored the role headlines had on what readers take away from articles in both opinion and reported journalism. The researchers behind the report, titled “The effects of subtle misinformation in news headlines,” concluded that “misleading headlines affect readers’ memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions.”

    One of the study’s most interesting findings was just how resilient headline misinformation can be, even when explicitly corrected within the article itself:

    Correcting the misinformation conveyed by a misleading headline is a difficult task. Particularly in cases of non-obvious misdirection, readers may not be aware of an inconsistency, and may thus not initiate any corrective updating. By contrast, if a headline is perceived as inappropriate, people may be able to correct its influence on their understanding of the article, although this correctional effort itself may withdraw resources from mnemonic processing of the article and may thus impair memory. In sum, these effects further corroborate the notion that misinformation tends to influence people’s memory and reasoning continuously despite corrections.

    This is to say that even in the best case scenario, in which someone reads both the original and updated articles on a story all the way through, bits of the early narrative -- such as claims that there was “no evidence” -- will linger long after it’s been corrected. Kay was right to say that the public narrative around the Mueller report may, indeed, have already been formed. What Kay’s tweet ignored, however, is what role journalists like herself played in creating it.

    Responsible publications have an obligation to factor in the importance of a piece of news when calibrating the balance between accuracy and clickability.

    The more serious a story is, the more deliberative the headline-writing process should be. Condensing a four-page letter, itself the product of a nearly 400-page report, into a single sentence is an impossible task. Even so, it’s the responsibility of journalism to advance the public understanding of an issue, not muddy it. This lesson goes beyond Trump and Russia, speaking to a need to restore trust in the press. Gray areas -- such as whether it’s fair to say “no evidence,” in this case -- make for difficult editing decisions, but they’ll ultimately benefit both the public and press if made correctly.

  • Two anti-LGBTQ websites dropped a writer for being too homophobic. She's right to be surprised.

    What she tweeted would have looked perfectly at home on their sites

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Two right-wing websites won minor praise over the weekend when they parted ways with a freelancer after she went on a homophobic tirade against a gay journalist.

    On Saturday night, journalist Yashar Ali replied to a nearly day-old tweet by conservative writer Denise McAllister. Her tweet read, “Trying to talk to my husband while Carolina is playing. He looks at me and says, ‘Woman, you know better than this. The game is on.’ He’s right. I slipped. Commercial comes on. I fetch him a beer. He grabs me. Deep kisses. Patience and timing, ladies. That’s the lesson.”

    While there was no shortage of people making jokes about the tweet’s retrograde views on gender, Ali’s comment was one of genuine concern.

    “It made me genuinely sad,” Ali tells me, explaining that he was disappointed and frustrated by some of the jokes people were making at McAllister’s expense. “At that moment I thought to myself, ‘This makes me so sad that she thinks she slipped simply because she spoke,’ and I actually felt terrible that she was living in that kind of marriage. No one should be treated that way.”

    Likely interpreting Ali’s tweet as sarcasm or scorn, McAllister unloaded on him in a series of now-deleted tweets, writing, “A gay man commenting on a heterosexual relationship is just. Sad. Pathetic really,” “I think [Ali] has a crush on me. Maybe I’m making him doubt his love of penis,” and “Oh so sad. [Ali] is lost. He doesn’t know his purpose as a man. He doesn’t know his purpose as a human being. He doesn’t know his purpose as an Individual. So he wallows and tries to find himself in another man’s asshole. Sad.”

    Within hours, The Federalist and The Daily Wire cut ties with McAllister, who had previously written for both outlets. Federalist co-founder and publisher Ben Domenech tweeted that McAllister “will not be writing for us at The Federalist any more.” The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro confirmed to The Washington Post that he’d asked McAllister to take the reference to the site out of her Twitter profile, calling her tweets “gross” and “self-explanatorily beyond the boundaries of decency.”

    In all fairness to McAllister, it’s not exactly clear how her tweets were any more incendiary than what gets published on both of those sites regularly.

    When it comes to LGBTQ issues, both Domenech and Shapiro have abysmal track records.

    Early in his journalism career, following a plagiarism scandal that cost him a job writing for The Washington Post, Domenech made waves when he called Elena Kagan “openly gay” (she isn’t) in a blog post. Three years later, he launched The Federalist, and it quickly became a hub for anti-LGBTQ screeds in favor of discrimination and against marriage equality.

    Today, The Federalist is rife with articles arguing against allowing gay couples to adopt, some of which frame the issue as akin to child abuse. Articles such as “Dear Gay Community: Your Kids Are Hurting,” “What It’s Like To Face The LGBT Inquisition,” “Same-Sex Marriage Won’t Bring Us Peace,” and “The Kids Are Not Alright: A Lesbian’s Daughter Speaks Out” warn that “if people cease to take thinking seriously, the LGBT lobby wins,” that it’s “not natural” to grow up living with two women, and that “redefining marriage undermines freedom of speech and conscience, parent rights, and good home lives for children.”

    The Federalist is also home to a host of articles eager to blame gay people for the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, with articles bemoaning that the church isn’t putting a focus on “the link between sexual abuse and homosexuality among the clergy.” Similarly, Federalist writers have argued repeatedly that “Christianity that endorses sexual license isn’t Christianity” and that “there have been a disturbing number of people who claim the name of Christ who would like us to believe that God and the Bible are totally cool with homosexuality. They are not.” It also hosts op-eds extolling the virtues of “the traditional Christian teaching on sex and marriage” while denouncing “homosexual practice” and “sex-changes as an answer to gender dysphoria.”

    Most of all, The Federalist is regularly, virulently transphobic in a way that makes McAllister’s tweets seem downright polite by comparison.

    “Transgender identity is a symptom of mental illness,” writes Jon Del Arroz, an opinion shared by other writers at The Federalist who’ve warned of “the contagion of mass delusion” that is the acceptance of trans people and asserted that “transgenderism is a legal fiction.” Authors have compared being transgender to having anorexia on more than one occasion and labeled it “a war against reality.” They have advocated for pulling children out of school to avoid “trans indoctrination,” something they believe is rampant within the public school system. The end goal, one writer surmises, is “to groom children towards gender change.” Perhaps trans people are simply raging narcissists, one writer wonders. Another thinks that it’s perfectly fine to bully trans people because he’s pretty sure that there’s no link between the trans suicide attempt rate and discrimination (there is).

    Conservative commentator Bethany Mandel has tried to blackmail the broader LGBTQ community into turning its back on trans people by threatening to withdraw whatever support she was supposedly willing to offer. In one piece for the The Federalist, “How The Transgender Crusade Made Me Rethink My Support For Gay Marriage,” Mandel calls trans people’s fight for basic human rights and legal recognition “totalitarian,” writing:

    With every tweet aimed at publicizing and shaming my position on transgenderism, the progressive Left is solidifying my decision to call Bruce Jenner by his given name instead of the name he has chosen because of a condition that mental health professionals once took seriously. Playing along with delusions isn’t a kindness to those suffering from other psychological conditions, and it isn’t a kindness for those with gender dysphoria either.

    In another, “Man-splaining Is No Excuse For Invading Girls’ Locker Rooms,” she defends the bullying of a trans student, writing:

    While I’ve been told I should use a pronoun of one’s choosing out of respect and kindness, I decline to do so because I refuse to play along with the delusion. We don’t play along with the delusions of schizophrenics, and I won’t play along with the notion that someone with a penis is somehow a woman.

    Mandel remains in the good graces of both conservative and mainstream media (The New York Times published an op-ed she wrote as recently as March 2018), even though she once tweeted that trans people have “a mental illness and pair it with genital mutilation.”

    The Daily Wire is also chock-full of rampant homophobic and transphobic sentiments. Headlines serve as jabs of their own, with titles such as “CDC Finally Acknowledges: Homosexual Behavior Can Lead To More STDs. Duh,” “Homosexual Christians Doing Just What Jesus Wants By Waiting to Have Homosexual Sex Until After Homosexual Marriage,” “Trans Woman Demands TSA Ignore Biological Sex” (neither the headline nor the story accurately depicts what happened in that situation), and “FDA: Screw The Public, Let Gay Men Donate Blood.”

    Like The Federalist, The Daily Wire is also very concerned about “LGBT school indoctrination,” the potential negative effects of letting same-sex couples adopt children (even going so far as to claim that adoption agencies have a “right to deny children to homosexual couples”), and the rise in acceptance of “activity typically gauged as immoral” such as being gay. Columnists are quick to remind you that if you don’t accept that “the homosexual act is a grave sin and abortion is an abomination,” you are not a “real Christian.”

    You’ll also find a number of articles bemoaning the support of “same-sex ‘marriage’” from people “pushing homosexuality, ‘transgenderism’ and other pernicious perversions down everyone’s throat.” Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson has written a number of inflammatory anti-LGBTQ articles with lines such as “homosexuality is a perversion and sin” and California is “hellbent on forcing children into the latest religious craze: transgenderism.” Other Daily Wire writers warn that the United Nations is trying to “push homosexuality” on the rest of the world, that Pope Francis is wrong for saying that being gay isn’t a choice, and that people who disagreed with the intensely anti-LGBTQ “Nashville Statement” are basically heretics.

    Shapiro’s own writing is broadly anti-LGBTQ, but he is extremely hostile when it comes to trans people (a group he’s mocked relentlessly on Twitter). Shapiro has warned that “the gay marriage caucus” was “utilizing the law as a baton to club wrong-thinking religious people into acceptance of homosexuality,” calling for state-level resistance. He claimed that legal protections for gay and trans people would be “discrimination” as they would “override religious objections to homosexuality and business objection to hiring the mentally ill” (by which he means trans people), calling them “downright fascistic.”

    Based on what these outlets publish, McAllister was understandably surprised that she lost her freelance gigs.

    Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is the norm in articles published at both The Federalist and The Daily Wire, but when McAllister tweeted the same venom at a relatively high-profile, respected journalist, she was cut loose.

    “I was fired when I criticized a gay man who mocked my heterosexual relationship,” she tweeted. “Yet no one defended me when I stood for masculinity and God’s design for sexuality despite outlets saying they represent Judeo-Christian values about sexuality, identity and purpose. What is truth?”

    She’s got a point: This all seems extremely hypocritical. Maybe Domenech and Shapiro now realize how bad their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric sounds once it reaches an audience outside of the conservative media bubble. Maybe this will inspire real change. But more likely, Shapiro saw the negative attention coming and dropped McAllister at the first sign of trouble. Domenech was probably just looking for a reason to cut McAllister loose after she insulted his wife, Meghan McCain, last week (McCain’s response to that insult, “You were at my wedding, Denise,” became a meme).

    They should not get kudos for doing the bare minimum under the glare of the public spotlight while also regularly publishing content that is just as reprehensible. She wrote for your sites, Bens.

  • No, news outlets do not owe right-wing media an “apology” for their coverage of Mueller's Russia investigation

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    After Attorney General William Barr released the summary of the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, pro-Trump media, feeling vindicated, immediately launched into attacks on news organizations that credulously covered the developments over the past two-plus years. Right-wing media figures were angry, and many demanded apologies.

    Partisans within President Donald Trump’s inner circle took the narrative that Trump and American people were owed an apology and ran with it. During a March 25 appearance on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani went off on host Chris Cuomo, demanding apologies from CNN President Jeff Zucker, NBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

    “You guys on this network have tortured this man for two years with collusion, and nobody has apologized for it,” Giuliani said. “Apologize for the overreaction to collusion,” he demanded.

    In an interview that morning on NBC’s Today, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and they owe the American people an apology. They wasted two years and created a massive disruption and distraction.”

    During his March 25 radio show, Sean Hannity made a similar demand, asking, “Where is [the media’s] retraction, where are their apologies for all of their no-source, anonymous-source hysteria and insanity?” During that night’s edition of his Fox News show, Hannity continued his tirade against the media:

    Jeff Zucker, head of CNN, are you going to apologize for your network's constant stream of lies and hysteria? Phil Griffin, NBC, are you going to apologize for the conspiracy theories you allow to be spread every second of every day on NBC? What about Jeff Bezos, Marty Baron, you going to come clean over the front page deception every day in The Washington Post? Will you at least stop referring to far-left, collusion-obsessed hack Jennifer Rubin and others as conservatives? They're not. Is The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, is he going to give back the paper's Pulitzer Prize for collusion reporting given they were caught now reporting a hoax? They all lied to we the people day after day for two-plus years. In reality, we know there will never be a mea culpa from any of these major fake news outlets. They’ll just move on to the next group of lies. They'll never apologize. They'll never retract their lies, their anonymous sourcing, their endless speculation. They are hopeless. Journalism, I told you in 2007, it's dead; it's buried. And it's not something that I said lightly. They have earned their horrible reputations.

    During that night’s edition of Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum, guest and Trump defender Alan Dershowitz criticized CNN, saying that he was “banned” from the network for “being too fair” to Trump. “I have been right from day one and almost all the other pundits and professors have just been dead wrong. It’s time for them to fess up. It’s time for CNN to issue an apology.”

    Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight did the same, with host Dobbs calling for AT&T, CNN, Comcast, NBC, MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post to face “a reckoning” for covering the Mueller investigation. They have, in Dobbs’ words, “a responsibility to apologize to the American people.”

    But credible reporting on the Mueller investigation should not be confused with the exaggerated claims of pundits and commentators -- a point lost in right-wing media's bad-faith calls for news outlets to “apologize” for their coverage.

    “Fake news” has real consequences, as reputable news organizations have demonstrated throughout the Trump investigation.

    Hannity’s blistering monologue included cutaways to clips from CNN and MSNBC shows, and shots of headlines from outlets such as The Washington Post, HuffPost, and Vox. A quick glance at the examples shown and it becomes clear that it’s opinion, commentary, and analysis that Hannity is taking issue with. He’s not alone, either.

    In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Federalist co-founder Sean Davis railed against what he called “a catastrophic media failure,” writing, “America’s blue-chip journalists botched the entire story, from its birth during the presidential campaign to its final breath Sunday—and they never stopped congratulating themselves for it.”

    Davis’ examples of this “botched” story included unspecified issues with The New York Times and The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, a Time magazine cover illustration, an opinion piece by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, and a Twitter thread from New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman.

    In the instances where Davis did correctly pinpoint factual errors, the news organizations that first reported them had issued corrections. Davis took issue with a CNN report about an email to the Trump campaign regarding WikiLeaks’ hacked documents, but he failed to note that CNN had very publicly corrected the story. He hit CNN for speculating on what former FBI Director James Comey would say in his testimony before Congress but ignored that CNN had issued a correction and updated its story. He pointed to a disputed 2016 Slate article about servers in Trump Tower but didn’t note the author’s follow-up reporting on the subject providing additional analysis. He lambasted a Washington Post report for saying that Russia penetrated the U.S. electric grid but missed that the paper’s correction stated that Russia actually hacked a Vermont utility company and the overhyped headline had been updated.

    Outside of Davis’ examples, other notable instances of flawed reporting included a June 2017 CNN story about Anthony Scaramucci’s possible ties to the Russian Direct Investment Fund and ABC correspondent Brian Ross’ incorrect report that former national security adviser Michael Flynn would testify that Trump instructed him to contact Russia during the 2016 campaign. CNN pulled its story and the three journalists involved in its publication resigned (including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lichtblau, whom CNN had lured away from The New York Times months earlier). Similarly, ABC suspended Brian Ross over his report and unceremoniously parted ways with him months later, ending his 24-year run at the network.

    In short: At reputable news organizations, mistakes in reporting come with real consequences. This is all the more reason to ignore right-wing calls for some monolithic “media” to apologize.

    The nonspecific nature of these demands illustrates an important point -- just not one the people making those demands intended.

    It’s worth considering what role opinion journalism should play in our modern media ecosystem. Should the serious reporting conducted by reporters at a place like CNN be devalued because of an opinion expressed by a panelist during one of the network’s prime-time shows? And do viewers even know the difference?

    There’s a concerted effort to conflate fact and opinion, and it’s been going on for some time. Take, for example, the Republican National Committee’s publication of the results of Trump’s “Fake News Awards” in January 2018. The No. 1 item on the list was Paul Krugman’s prediction that a Trump presidency would be disastrous for the economy. No matter one’s opinion on Trump, the GOP, the economy, or Krugman himself, his prediction wasn’t “fake news” as predictions are, by their very nature, not hard news. Similarly, despite the rage directed at pollsters and analysts for not forecasting a Trump victory in 2016, their analysis was not “fake news” either.

    In 2018, the Pew Research Center published a sobering report based on a survey of 5,035 U.S. adults. Respondents were presented with 10 statements (five facts and five opinions) and asked to categorize them. Examples of factual statements included “President Barack Obama was born in the United States” and “ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017.” Opinion statements included “Democracy is the greatest form of government,” “Abortion should be legal in most cases,” and “Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country today.”

    Pew found that just 26 percent of respondents were able to correctly label the five factual statements as such, and only 35 percent could correctly categorize the opinion statements. Somewhat worryingly, those least likely to be able to discern fact from opinion were also those with low trust in national news organizations, illustrating a vicious cycle of ignorance and distrust.

    While distinguishing fact from opinion might seem simple to some of us, it’s clearly a problem for many Americans, as groups like Pew and the American Press Institute have identified. In calling for broad apologies, Trump-aligned media are exploiting this point of ignorance. In truth, very little fact-based reporting on the Mueller investigation was demonstrably wrong.

    Hannity, Dobbs, Dershowitz, Davis, and the many others pushing the “apologize” narrative in right-wing media are banking on the pressure of their audiences’ outrage to make a dent in mainstream media credibility. In turn, this will force CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other news organizations that have been critical of the administration to take some sort of action in response.

    Instead of caving to demands to apologize and soften coverage, these groups should take a different approach altogether.

    In an age of unprecedented distrust of the press, news organizations can put an emphasis on educating their audiences and emphasizing reported work.

    In April 2018, The New York Times announced a change to the way opinion pieces would appear both online and in print. The changes included a new and distinctive typeface exclusive to the opinion section, increase in the size of the “opinion” header, and mini-bios for authors at the top of each article. “These product improvements are the first in a series of iterative changes to increase the clarity and impact of the presentation of Times Opinion to match the scope and ambition of its journalism,” read the paper’s announcement.

    In a June 2017 op-ed for USA Today, Sally Kohn wrote about the challenge she faces as a CNN contributor:

    When I appear on CNN, where I’m a paid commentator, there’s no sign that flashes above my head informing viewers that I’m offering opinions — and that there’s an important difference between me and the conservative commentators I’m on arguing with compared to the CNN reporters who come before or after us on a show and describe the facts of the news as it’s unfolding. This difference may seem obvious to some people. It’s not obvious to everyone. And that’s a problem.

    Every single time I go on television, I get a tweet or an email calling me “the most biased reporter on CNN” or something to that effect. In fact, I get a lot of these comments. Often. Which suggests that we’ve done a bad job of explaining to the public that there is a difference between news and opinion and who on their screen is there for which purpose. When I get these confused criticisms, I try to always write back explaining that it is my job to be biased. I’m a commentator. I am literally paid to express my point of view. Bias is basically the job description.

    The cable news equivalent of the Times making tweaks to fonts and formatting would be to clearly label guests and contributors in a way that informs viewers that the perspectives being shared are opinions. While it would almost certainly make for a clunkier broadcast, it could serve as a gentle nudge in the direction of educating viewers.

    Maybe the best thing for the reputation of news media overall would be fewer opinion segments, fewer panels, and fewer op-eds in general. Yes, it is a very tough industry, and yes, it’s controversial op-eds and on-air shouting matches that drive attention and revenue. Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this model is good for the public’s overall understanding of what’s happening in the world. Perhaps the best response to bad-faith calls for apologies over justifiable coverage is simply to invest more in straight journalism.

  • Fox News’ Gillibrand distortion is a perfect example of how the propaganda machine works

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Meliss Joskow / Media Matters

    At her March 19 presidential campaign event in Davenport, IA, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) fielded a series of questions from potential voters on a wide range of topics. However, it was a very specific part of her answer to a broadly worded question about immigration that made news.

    That night, the Republican National Committee’s “GOP War Room” YouTube channel posted a link to an 18-second clip in which Gillibrand says, “We need comprehensive immigration reform. If you are in this country now, you must have the right to pay into Social Security, to pay your taxes, to pay into the local school system, and to have a pathway to citizenship.”

    Gillibrand was pretty clearly saying that she supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, noting that these are people who in many cases already make contributions into Social Security and local school districts via taxes. The YouTube clip was deceptively titled “Sen. Gillibrand: Expand Social Security To All Illegal Immigrants,” a distortion of what she said.

    The clip was posted to YouTube at 9:33 p.m. EDT. Less than 90 minutes later, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham played the clip for her audience, adopting the RNC’s misleading interpretation.

    “A 2020 Dem wants to give illegals, you kidding me, another benefit?” said Ingraham before throwing to a commercial. Upon returning, she played the clip and added, “Anything else, Kirsten? Well, there you have it. She wants to expand Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.”

    That, of course, is untrue and gives the impression that Gillibrand wants to start cutting checks to undocumented immigrants. In reality, what she’s proposing would result in more money being paid in to Social Security, with more people who are currently undocumented being able to do things aboveboard.

    On March 20, Hannity covered the story, inviting Trump supporters Mike Huckabee and Larry Elder on to thrash the nonexistent radical policy proposal. Huckabee took things even further when he said that this would be the equivalent of giving undocumented immigrants “grandma’s Social Security,” telling the audience that this policy would result in people currently on Social Security losing out on benefits because “we’re going to be giving it to people who broke into this country illegally.”

    SEAN HANNITY (HOST): Doesn't a sanctuary state or city, governor, aren't they aiding and abetting criminal activity? Isn't this a case of rewarding illegal activity? And if we only pay attention to the laws we want, can we have a system of laws?

    MIKE HUCKABEE (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): Sean, you are so outdated. You are going to have to get in the groove, man. Don't you know that if a person comes here illegally, not only should -- well, listen, Sean, let's not only give them grandma's Social Security, let's toss in a car and maybe rent for, you know, a nice home.

    I'm just amazed that people are applauding this kind of stuff. And I hope Kirsten Gillibrand has to go out and talk to people in their 70s who can barely afford food and tell them that they're going to get not their Social Security raised because we're going to be giving it to people who broke into this country illegally. I can't wait to see whether she gets applause in a roomful of retirees, living off of Social Security, when she makes that ridiculous proposal.

    Up to this point, Fox News had covered the story only on what it bills as its “opinion” shows. That changed when Fox News @ Night picked it up.

    Fox News @ Night is described as “a live hour of hard news and analysis of the most compelling stories from Washington and across the country.” In a 2017 interview with TVNewser, host Shannon Bream, who is scheduled to headline a conservative group’s fundraiser next month, was clear: “I’m in the news division, so it will be all straight news, not opinion.”

    During the March 20 show, Bream delivered the story while a series of chyrons appeared on the screen below her, each hyping the RNC-crafted distortion and with one even including a fabricated quote about Social Security being a right (Gillibrand said people should have the right to pay into Social Security, not that Social Security benefits were a right). The segment was barely distinguishable from the network’s “opinion” side commentary.  


    The following morning, the story appeared on “news” and “opinion” programs, doing away with the illusion that there’s a line between the two. This could be a big problem for Fox.

    Fox & Friends and America’s Newsroom both covered the story during their March 21 broadcasts (and Fox & Friends did again on March 22), both repeating the spin put on it by the RNC.

    In an effort to keep advertisers from walking out the door over the white nationalist rhetoric of the likes of Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, the anti-Muslim commentary of Jeanine Pirro, or the conspiracy-mongering of Sean Hannity, Fox has been trying to emphasize the work of its news division. But there’s only so much Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace can do for the channel’s credibility, as others who the network has put forward as able to handle tasks such as debate moderation -- namely Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum -- are either dangerously sloppy or overtly partisan. While the network’s No. 1 fan, who happens to be the president of the United States, would almost certainly love it if Fox were to run even more opinion programming, the news side serves a purpose as a smokescreen.

    The truth is that there’s no real distinction between what counts as news and opinion at Fox. The two sides feed into each other, and in this case, both were fed by the RNC. Fox News is a propaganda network, and it’s starting to reflect poorly on the skittish advertisers that remain.

  • Tucker Carlson's shock jock tapes are R-rated versions of what you'll find on his show

    Surprisingly little has changed between then and now

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Earlier this week, Media Matters for America published controversial comments Tucker Carlson made between 2006 and 2011 during interviews on shock jock radio program Bubba the Love Sponge. Sunday night’s post contained a roundup of misogynistic and perverted comments by the now-Fox News host, and Monday’s releases highlighted Carlson’s racist and homophobic statements. On Tuesday, NowThis published additional comments Carlson made about Miss Teen South Carolina in 2007.

    Carlson brushed off the initial post as Media Matters catching him “saying something naughty on a radio show more than a decade ago” and said he would forego “the usual ritual contrition.” He began Monday night’s episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight with a monologue about getting caught in the gears of “the great American outrage machine,” and how “bewildering” it can be when the quotes in question are more than a decade old.

    Others on the right suggested that these were just jokes, or that Media Matters was being hypocritical for dumping these recordings, highlighting how right-wing figures like Mike Cernovich were criticized for using old tweets to take down people like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. This theory -- that this is all meant as one big “gotcha" -- relies on an assumption that the recordings were just outdated jokes not relevant to Carlson’s views today.

    In truth, as regular viewers of Tucker Carlson Tonight can confirm, the unearthed clips are simply R-rated versions of the same messages his audience can expect to hear every weeknight.

    One of the more shocking moments in the recordings comes from a 2006 interview in which Carlson mounts a protracted defense of Warren Jeffs, then charged with two first-degree felony counts of being an accomplice to rape for facilitating a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

    He's not accused of touching anybody; he is accused of facilitating a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 27-year-old man. That's the accusation. That's what they're calling felony rape. [crosstalk] That's bullshit. I'm sorry. Now this guy may be [crosstalk], may be a child rapist. I'm just telling you that arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old and a 27-year-old is not the same as pulling a stranger off the street and raping her. That's bullshit.

    It’s easy to say that 2006 comment doesn’t represent who Carlson is or what he believes, but not much has changed in the years since. During the April 28, 2014, episode of Fox News’ Outnumbered, Carlson defended a teacher accused of giving one of her students a lap dance for his 15th birthday, saying, “There’s no victim here.” At one point, co-host Sandra Smith interjected, “She fondled an underage child in front of his entire classroom. You’re not embarrassed?”

    Viewers were similarly shocked, which is why he returned a week later to defend his position: “I’m not saying that all teachers should do lap dances at school. I’m merely saying when a teacher gets so enthusiastic she breaks out into a lap dance, don’t send her to prison. That’s all I’m saying.”

    On June 5, 2014, Carlson made another appearance on Outnumbered, in which he took the side of a 38-year-old teacher who allegedly raped one of her 16-year-old students, saying it was “ludicrous that we’re calling this a rape” and lamenting that the student "went and tattled to the police." The following year, the teacher would go on to plead guilty to rape and criminal sexual act charges. She was sentenced to 10 years of probation.

    Are you being serious? The kid is 16, he pursued her, and they’re calling it a rape? I’ll tell you, she was wrong to this extent -- he went and tattled to the police and destroyed her life. Are you joking? I mean, what a whiny country this is.

    In 2015, months after the teacher had pleaded guilty, Carlson appeared on Gavin McInnes’ Free Speech podcast, where he once again reiterated his thoughts on statutory rape:

    There are lots of things you have to play along with in life, and I understand society demands compromises. We all live together in close quarters. … But there is a limit beyond which I can’t pretend anymore. And calling -- in this case, it was a 17-year-old kid -- a “rape victim” because a teacher, who wasn’t even that old, or married, was kind enough to initiate him into the ways of adulthood. I’m not just going to sit there. … I’m not going to pretend that that’s rape because it’s just not. And it demeans and devalues real rape.

    None of this is to say that Carlson can’t change his views. We all make mistakes, and I believe that people should be encouraged to learn from those mistakes and grow. In fact, that’s why this piece isn’t dedicated to one-off flubs or the use of “naughty” language, to quote Carlson himself.

    The issue with Carlson has much more to do with the fact that it’s not clear his views on things like the age of consent or misogyny have shifted.

    Prior to the 2016 election, Carlson claimed that people were only “pretending” to be shocked -- trafficking in manufactured outrage -- over Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments. In another interview, Carlson belittled his guest, Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca, telling her to “stick to the thigh-high boots.” He also suggested that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) met with then-President-elect Donald Trump because “she’s the prettiest member of Congress.” In 2017, Carlson lamented rape shield laws that protect the name of accusers, something he also did on Bubba the Love Sponge in 2006.

    During a 2018 interview with New York Times reporter Amy Chozick, Carlson asked whether the fact that “the overwhelming majority of beat reporters covering Hillary were women” was akin to “stacking the deck” in her favor, implying that women wouldn’t objectively cover another woman. In another interview that year, he said that the belief that we live under a patriarchy is “a sign of mental illness” and “demented.” During a September 2018 episode of his show, Carlson said survivors of sexual assault have an “obligation” to report the attack immediately in part to “protect the rest of us from whomever you believe did it.” During another show, he took that argument even further, saying, “If there's a rapist on the loose, if you don't tell anybody ... you're part of the problem, are you not?” Yet, a week later, he compared sexual assault survivors speaking out against the confirmation of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to a scene from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play about the Salem witch trials. In December 2018, he agreed with one of his guests that “feminism has ambitions to take over civilization.”

    This doesn’t even take into account the entire month of March 2018, a banner Women’s History Month in which Carlson parroted the views of misogynists like Jordan Peterson, Stefan Molyneux, Gavin McInnes, Paul Joseph Watson, and Owen Shroyer.

    What these recordings tell us about the past is less important than what they tell us about the present.

    Taking the above examples at face value (and looking only at comments made on his show), there’s little to suggest that Carlson’s views on gender or the age of consent have changed. Even so, that’s not to say that the views he held then or the ones he currently holds will be the ones he holds next month or next year.

    “The reason we released this is precisely because the things you say on your Fox News show echo the misogyny displayed in those clips. We were actually helping people better understand just how vile your current Fox News show is by showing what that worldview really looks like,” Media Matters President Angelo Carusone wrote on Twitter in response to Carlson’s Sunday night statement.

    There’s nothing nefarious about ensuring that Carlson’s advertisers understand the long-standing beliefs still being echoed on his show. Carlson is one of the most powerful voices in media, with an average audience of 2.8 million viewers per episode in 2018. He is not some random blogger or a troll, and it's not as though these comments were meant to be private. These are all things he knowingly said on the air, whether it be on Fox News or Bubba the Love Sponge.

    Carlson is almost certainly a member of America’s ruling class, a group that he’s repeatedly argued should be held to account for what they say and what they do. To ignore the current narratives presented on his show and how they have been shaped by years of comments would be irresponsible. I believe Carlson should be judged on what he says today and not 10 years ago, and it's the overlap between the past and the present that makes those recordings relevant.