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Simon Maloy

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  • CNN’s new political editor championed Jeff Sessions’ war on leaks

    At DOJ, Sarah Isgur defended the seizure of a reporter’s communications

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    CNN’s decision to hire former Trump official, longtime Republican operative, and journalism neophyte Sarah Isgur as its new political editor is shaping up as quite a public relations disaster for the network. CNN executives are busily trying to explain to their staff why no one should be concerned that Isgur -- who has no journalism experience but reportedly did personally tell the sitting president that “she was on board with his agenda and would be honored to serve him” -- will occupy an editorial post where she will “play a coordinating role in our daily political coverage.” The network is facing internal criticism from staffers, and it had to mollify the Democratic National Committee by promising that Isgur won’t be involved with the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates that CNN will host.

    Another problematic aspect of Isgur’s move to CNN is the fact that she was the chief spokesperson for the Department of Justice at a time when her boss, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was implementing a harsh crackdown on leakers who fed information to journalists -- a campaign that was launched, at least in part, to shore up Sessions’ standing with President Donald Trump. In her role as a DOJ flack, Isgur defended the seizure of a journalist’s electronic records and cheered the department’s hunt for leakers.

    In June 2018, the Justice Department charged former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe with lying to the FBI as part of an investigation into whether he’d leaked classified information to journalists. As part of the investigation, the Justice Department obtained the phone and email records of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, who was in a relationship with Wolfe, and informed Watkins that her data had been seized only after the fact. The Times and free press advocates slammed the Justice Department for its tactics. Isgur, who was then a DOJ spokesperson, defended the action, saying: “We fully complied with the department’s regulations.”

    Those regulations state that journalists “shall be given reasonable and timely notice of the Attorney General's determination before the use of the subpoena, court order, or warrant, unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.” DOJ sources later told The Washington Post that the department leaders opted not to inform Watkins before the seizure because they worried “she might tip off [Wolfe] … or take other steps that would upend the investigation.”

    In July 2017, short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci stirred a minor controversy after he obliquely accused former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus of leaking his financial disclosure information. In a since-deleted tweet, Scaramucci said he would contact the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate the leak. He then went on Fox News’ Hannity and praised Sessions for “going after the leaks” and accused “senior people” of “doing the leaking.”

    Scaramucci’s remarks drew a response from DOJ -- specifically, from Isgur, who chimed in to give Scaramucci an attaboy. “We agree with Anthony that these staggering number of leaks are undermining the ability of our government to function and to protect this country,” Isgur told Politico. “Like the Attorney General has said, 'whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail,' and we will aggressively pursue leak cases wherever they may lead.”

    This same DOJ flack who cheered on the prosecution of leakers and defended the seizure of a reporter’s communications data will soon be “coordinating” the political coverage of a cable news network. The reporters and journalists who work with Isgur and who have confidential sources within the administration will have to reckon with the fact that their incoming political editor played a key public role in the Trump administration’s war on leakers.

  • CNN’s baffling, self-sabotaging hire of Sarah Isgur

    The network’s new political editor is a former Trump official who has never worked in journalism

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Early on in the Trump administration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ran into a staffing problem as he took over the Department of Justice. According to The Washington Post, Sessions very much wanted to hire longtime Republican political operative Sarah Isgur as his chief spokeswoman, but she had “criticized [President Donald] Trump, repeatedly, during the 2016 Republican primaries,” and thus her “prospects for a Justice Department job stalled.” To break the logjam, the Post reported, Isgur paid Trump “a cordial visit during which she told the president she was on board with his agenda and would be honored to serve him.”

    The incident was noteworthy when the Post reported it last April because it demonstrated both the president’s overriding need for loyalty and the willingness of Republican operatives to kiss Trump’s ring as a means of career advancement. The story has taken on new relevance now that the same Sarah Isgur who personally expressed her loyalty to the sitting president has reportedly been hired as a political editor at CNN.

    In certain respects, this is a baffling move by CNN. According to Politico, which first broke the news, Isgur will assume her editorial role at the network in March and “will coordinate political coverage for the 2020 campaign.” Isgur is a career political operative -- she’s worked for Sessions, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the Republican National Committee, and Carly Fiorina’s failed 2016 presidential campaign -- but there is no indication that she has ever worked in any capacity as a journalist (unless you count appearing as a pundit on cable news, which you should not). CNN has hired a person with zero experience producing news to oversee the production of news.

    Not only that, but the network has turned over its 2020 political coverage to a person who is more or less a walking conflict of interest. Politico notes that Isgur, because of her employment history, “will not play a role in covering the Department of Justice.” How on earth can a cable news channel have a political editor who can’t cover DOJ? The workings of the Justice Department are at the heart of some of the most critically important political stories of the Trump era. The Russia investigation and the special counsel’s office are going to be hugely important topics for the 2020 campaign, and Democratic candidates are likely going to spend considerable energy attacking DOJ policies that Isgur defended, such as Sessions’ legal assault on sanctuary laws for undocumented immigrants.

    It doesn’t make much sense to have a political editor who has never worked in journalism, and it doesn’t make any sense to have a political editor who is walled off from important stories that will be central to the very coverage she is supposed to be coordinating. And those problems rest uneasily atop issues that arise from Isgur’s partisan leanings and her loyalties to current and former high-ranking Trump officials. Isgur’s presence will lead to persistent, difficult-to-answer questions about how her politics and conflicts of interest are shaping the network’s 2020 coverage.

    CNN’s choice of a Trump administration veteran does, however, fit in with the network’s fantastically self-defeating strategy of hiring pro-Trump mercenaries who shill on behalf of a president and administration that delight in demonizing CNN. The journalism industry does not lack for talented, experienced professionals who are desperate for work, but CNN opted to give this important job to a Jeff Sessions acolyte who has never worked as a journalist. That sure feels like the network sabotaging its own interests in order to send a conciliatory message to a political movement that will always view it as an “enemy of the people.”

  • Howard Schultz’s cable news fantasy campaign

    The billionaire “centrist” has a powerful constituency in America’s green rooms

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Howard Schultz might be running for president and nobody knows why. No one asked him to run for president, and there was no existing political movement to recruit the billionaire former Starbucks CEO into a presidential campaign. The Schultz 2020 experiment just materialized out of nothingness, and in its short, cursed existence it has commanded outsized media attention despite the fact that pretty much everyone seems to hate it.

    Since he teased his potential candidacy, Schultz has been interviewed on 60 Minutes, Morning Joe, The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and various other high-wattage news programs. Though he hasn’t articulated a single policy, big-name columnists have bestowed their imprimatur upon the would-be candidate and he’s being credited by political analysts with “driv[ing] a sustained debate on both policy and politics.” Meanwhile, Fox News is having a love affair with Schultz and the prospect that he’d assist Donald Trump’s re-election by splitting the Democratic vote.

    There are two factors sustaining Schultz’s media blitz. The first and most obvious is that he’s a rich guy, and when a rich guy makes a splashy announcement -- no matter how misguided and self-serving it is -- the unwritten rules stipulate that he must be given credulous media attention.

    The second factor is Schultz’s embrace of the “centrist independent” mantle. The idea of a presidential candidate who floats serenely above the interparty squabbling of D.C. while uniting the country with an ideologically neutral platform is a fantasy, but it is a fantasy that holds deep influence among cable news pundits and other media figures. To the extent that Howard Schultz has a constituency, it exists largely in America’s green rooms.

    Schultz’s 2020 trial balloon is just the most recent misguided attempt by intensely deluded wealthy people to manufacture a centrist political movement out of nothing. Back in 2006, the Unity08 movement sprang up with the goal of nominating a bipartisan presidential ticket that would run on a platform chosen by online delegates. It couldn’t attract any real support and fizzled out after its founders joined a campaign to draft former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the presidential race (that campaign also failed).

    2010 saw the creation of No Labels, a well-funded but determinedly useless “centrist” organization that promises to end “fighting” but also practices clandestine partisan warfare. The 2012 election cycle bore witness to the Americans Elect catastrophe, in which $35 million of hedge-fund money was spent on a cockamamie scheme to break up the two-party system with an online presidential primary (no candidate reached the minimum threshold of support).

    The consistent failure of these third-party centrist movements doesn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm for third-party centrism among political pundits. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman gave his full-throated endorsement to Americans Elect. In 2016, Axios co-founder Jim VandeHei wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed proposing the creation of a new political party -- The Innovation Party -- that would “disrupt” American politics by making Mark Zuckerberg president. After Donald Trump was elected president, David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that “the most important caucus formation” in Trump’s Washington “will be in the ideological center” as envisioned by No Labels.

    Pundit enthusiasm for third-party centrism persists despite the fact that “centrism” has no appeal and no natural constituency. The fatal mistake all these centrist wishcasters make is in assuming that public frustration with left-right political gridlock will automatically translate into enthusiasm for someone who stands up and says, “That’s not me!” The centrist ethos is consistently defined by what it isn’t; groups like No Labels go to absurd lengths to show everyone that they’re neither “left” nor “right,” and in the process they reveal that they don’t actually stand for anything.

    And the centrist “agenda,” to the extent that it exists, is divorced from practical concerns that motivate voters. Schultz hasn’t proposed any detailed policies of his own, but he is singularly concerned about the national debt and has attacked Democratic proposals for health care and education as unaffordable. (Democratic candidates have also said they’ll increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for their programs, but Schultz opposes that, too.) Schultz’s whole pseudo-campaign has thus far consisted primarily of telling voters that Democrats are too extreme while mouthing vague slogans about unity.

    This drivel plays well with the pundit class, which will extend to Schultz the presumption of viability for no reason beyond his wealth and self-identification as a centrist. Asked about the left-wing backlash to Schultz’s potential candidacy, CNN’s Michael Smerconish declared himself “dumbfounded” and said: “Here’s a guy who tweets and then says, ‘I love America and I want to run for president -- I think -- as a centrist independent.’ Why aren’t we thanking him?” Schultz has been publicly exploring a candidacy for a handful of days and in that time hasn’t actually done anything to warrant gratitude from anybody, but that’s immaterial to pundits who see in him the independent centrist of their many-times-unrealized dreams.

  • Chris Cuomo’s extremely bad birther-coddling tweet

    Update: Cuomo deleted the tweet

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Early this morning a famously thick-witted right-wing troll authored an inflammatory and ignorant tweet arguing that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is not a natural-born citizen and is thus ineligible to run for the presidency. Harris was born in Oakland in 1961, which means she’s been a citizen since birth, which means she’s a natural-born citizen of the United States as defined by legal and historical precedent, which means she doesn’t have to call off her just-announced candidacy for president. There is no credible argument to the contrary, and there is no evidence to the contrary -- there’s just a deceitful tweet from a known fraudster.

    But the accusation was provocative enough for CNN anchor Chris Cuomo to (in a since-deleted tweet) exhort both parties of this nonexistent argument -- the idiot troll and the California senator -- to get all the facts out there and resolve the issue:

    “The longer there is no proof either way, the deeper the effect.” There is proof! Harris was born in California. She’s a citizen. That’s the proof. The way a nonsense allegation like this builds “effect” is if it’s treated with any degree of seriousness by the press.

    After the prolonged and ridiculous farce that was the Obama birther movement, only the most credulous and determinedly obtuse media figures would see the same exact allegations inflicted on another politician of color and extend any presumption of good faith to the malicious cretins behind it. Cuomo has done exactly that, and he went a step further by nudging Harris to lay out her “proof” to the contrary, wrongly suggesting that there’s anything that needs disproving.

    Cuomo’s tweet got slammed by Twitter users, so he backpedaled and angrily insisted that he was only demanding that Harris’ accusers back up their allegation. Even if you were to grant Cuomo this explanation, he still presumed that there could be anything more to this story than a famously disreputable troll hurling racist nonsense at a Democratic presidential candidate. After absorbing enough criticism, Cuomo deleted the tweet, explaining: “The tweet was meant to put onus on accuser. Not Harris. That is the lesson of birtherism.”

    That is not the lesson of birtherism. The Obama-era birthers never came anywhere close to proving their accusation, and it didn’t matter one bit. The only thing they cared about was getting people to treat their obvious bullshit with a modicum of seriousness. The country’s most famous birther was challenged repeatedly to back up his outlandish allegations about President Barack Obama; he never did, but flogging the racist conspiracy theory made him a hero to the political movement that eventually elected him president.

    The larger problem here is that there are influential figures in the press who bafflingly, incomprehensibly still don’t understand that there is a right-wing propaganda machine that exists solely to extrude disinformation in the hope that it will filter up through the media. Cuomo likely believes his treatment of this new-wave birtherism is high-minded and fair; it never occurs to him that he’s giving the trolls exactly what they want.

    This post has been updated for clarity.

  • Chris Christie and the new Trump mythology

    Trump cannot fail; he can only be failed

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Chris Christie, the scandal-plagued former governor of New Jersey who left office with historic disapproval ratings, has a new book coming out later this month detailing his life in politics. The book’s title, Let Me Finish, is a nod to the disgraced governor’s self-styled reputation as a combative brute who theatrically berated his constituents, and it accurately presumes that the only person who wants to hear Chris Christie speak at this point is Chris Christie.

    Christie, who is now a contributor for ABC News, wrote this book mainly to settle some old scores. Early excerpts obtained by Axios and The Guardian detail Christie’s lengthy broadsides against Jared Kushner, son-in-law and top adviser to President Donald Trump. Christie was once considered a top candidate for a senior position in the Trump White House, but he writes that Kushner interceded and blocked his ascent as retaliation for Christie’s prosecution of Kushner’s father for tax evasion and witness tampering.

    Christie’s beef with Kushner is sordid but generally uninteresting. His treatment of the president and his administration, however, is worth highlighting. Per Axios, Christie heaps invective on pretty much everyone in Trump’s immediate orbit, describing a “revolving door of deeply flawed individuals — amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons — who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for.” According to The Guardian, however, “one central character escapes relatively unscathed: Trump himself. The president is utterly fearless and a unique communicator Christie writes – and his main flaw is that he speaks on impulse and surrounds himself with people he should not trust.”

    This servile treatment of Trump previews a mythology we’re likely to see from right-wing figures seeking to rationalize an increasingly chaotic and disastrous presidency: Trump did not fail; he was failed by those around him.

    It’s an appealing and useful fiction for figures like Christie who once adamantly opposed Trump before publicly debasing themselves to hop on the Trump bandwagon. When Christie endorsed Trump for the presidency in February 2016, his political future looked bleak: His own presidential campaign had foundered, his top aides were under indictment in the Bridgegate scandal, his approval rating at home was in the low thirties (on its way to bottoming out in the mid-teens), and the pundit class (once his most reliable constituency) was no longer marveling at the size of his shoulders. Getting behind Trump early was Christie’s longshot bid at staying politically relevant, and according to Christie, it would have paid off had Jared Kushner not sabotaged him.

    Ever the striver and ingratiator, Christie’s response to the chaos of the Trump administration is to praise Trump’s vision while pushing responsibility for his failures a couple of rungs down the ladder. That way, Trump remains largely blameless and Christie gets to sidestep prickly questions about his own judgment. Trump, for his part, is a big fan of this blame-diffusing mentality.

    The scenario Christie sketches is at war with itself. On the one hand, Trump is a bold and determined leader of unparalleled vision. On the other, he’s more or less a bystander to his own administration’s inner workings. The turmoil, grifting, and incompetence Christie describes at the highest levels of the administration can be corrected by precisely one person: the president. The decision to fill a White House with incompetent, untrustworthy senior staffers who violate the law can be made by precisely one person: the president. Trump’s responsibility for these failures is clear, but Christie is too much of a self-interested coward to say as much.

    As the Trump presidency sinks deeper into scandal and corruption, we’re likely going to see more of this mythmaking take hold. The conservative movement and the Republican Party sold the Trump presidency as both a curative to establishment corruption and a needed exercise in bold, singular leadership -- “I alone can fix it,” as Trump himself put it during his speech accepting the Republican nomination. Both claims were ludicrous; Donald Trump’s legacy to that point was defined by corruption and failure, and his reputation for business savvy was a concoction of reality TV.

    But the right aligned itself behind Trump and built up these fictions as the core of Republican Party politics. Conservatives can’t abandon Trump, and they can’t acknowledge that the central promise of Trumpism was a massive scam. The only way to maintain the myth of Trump’s leadership as it crumbles under the weight of investigation and incompetence will be to slap together still more fictions. As Chris Christie’s example shows us, that means divorcing all responsibility from the president who boasted that he was the only person capable of fixing the country.

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and our warped discourse on taxation

    Media coverage of tax policy privileges GOP extremism while marginalizing progressives

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    It’s been several days since CBS News tweeted out a clip of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) floating a 70 percent marginal tax rate on income over $10 million to finance a Green New Deal program, and her comments are still generating news stories, commentary, and bluntly dishonest attacks from the right. It’s unusual to see such a media frenzy surrounding a proposal from a newly elected member of the House. But the glut of coverage has provided a needed lesson in how media discourse on taxes is heavily distorted by conservative policy priorities and right-wing political messaging.

    For decades, we’ve been told that tax cuts of any stripe are good, popular, and a political winner. Tax hikes, on the other hand, are presumed to be a political non-starter and something to tiptoe around. The Republican Party obviously bears primary responsibility for this: Anti-tax extremism is a mainstream Republican position, and most GOP politicians will eagerly sign a pledge to never vote to raise taxes. The United States is a low-tax country both by historical and international standards, and yet we’re constantly told that taxes are too high and that economic prosperity can be realized only with still another round of tax cuts.

    One consequence of this dynamic is a persistent double standard that treats Republican tax extremism as de rigueur while Democratic proposals to hike taxes on the rich are met with shock, incredulity, and the knee-jerk assumption of political radioactivity. Anderson Cooper’s immediate reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks was to call them “a radical agenda compared to the way politics is done right now.” Political analysts like CNN’s David Gregory said Ocasio-Cortez wants to “really soak the rich with the idea that that’s ultimately going to help the economy” and that “it’s out of sync with a lot of Americans.”

    The assumption that any public discussion of tax increases is politically toxic for Democrats is baked in even though polling shows that strong majorities of Americans believe that the wealthy don’t pay enough in taxes. (The Republican position of slashing taxes for the rich and businesses, meanwhile, is deeply unpopular.) Jacked-up rates on the super wealthy is a historically moderate policy that would help reduce income inequality, which has ballooned since the Reagan era. In spite of all this, pundits and reporters default to treating tax rhetoric like Ocasio-Cortez’s as extreme and unpopular.

    This mode of thinking is helped along in part by the fact that Democrats in general don’t aggressively make the case for sharply increasing taxes on America’s ultrarich. But mainly it is perpetuated by bad-faith conservatives who lie and deliberately misunderstand tax policy.

    Ocasio-Cortez’s explanation of her thinking on tax policy included a breakdown of the basics of progressive taxation. “Your tax rate, you know, let's say, from zero to $75,000 may be 10 percent or 15 percent, et cetera,” she said. “But once you get to, like, the tippy tops -- on your 10 millionth dollar -- sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60 or 70 percent. That doesn't mean all $10 million are taxed at an extremely high rate, but it means that as you climb up this ladder you should be contributing more.”

    My guess is that she included this explanation as a means of inoculating herself against scurrilous accusations that she was proposing a 70 percent rate on all income. Either way, that’s exactly what happened.

    Grover Norquist, anti-tax propagandist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, posted a deliberately obtuse tweet arguing that “slavery is when your owner takes 100% of your production” and “Ocasio-Cortez wants 70%.” Sean Hannity (who is very concerned that rich people be able to buy their luxury seacraft of choice) complained that Ocasio-Cortez “wants a 70 percent federal tax rate for the rich” and warned that “would mean no businesses, no wealthy individual would ever invest, spend money, create jobs in a place where they are taking $0.70 or $0.80 of every dollar.”

    A top-ranking House Republican got in on the disinformation as well:

    It feels safe to assume that all these people know how progressive taxation works and understand what a marginal tax rate is. Even if they don’t, the person they attacked spelled it out for them in basic terms. They’re all just pretending to be ignorant in order to whip up anti-tax sentiment.

    The critical thing to understand about this poisonous dynamic is that it will persist so long as figures like Hannity and Norquist remain the loudest voices in the room and are given the space to dishonestly frame any talk of tax increases as extreme and politically damaging for the left. These cretins aren’t going to stop lying, which means if progressives want to change the media discourse on taxation then they'll have to set ambitious policy goals and make unflinching, affirmative cases for them.

  • Bret Stephens’ 2018 midterm analysis is quietly getting worse

    The NY Times updates Stephens’ bad post-election column to make it even wronger

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In the aftermath of election night 2018, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a column arguing that the Democrats had kind of blown it. Under the headline “The Midterm Results Are a Warning to the Democrats,” Stephens argued that the Democrats’ electoral haul was “meh” and evidence that “while ‘the Resistance’ is good at generating lots of votes, it hasn’t figured out how to turn the votes into seats.”

    It was, on its face, a curious argument, given that the Democrats had wrested control of the House of Representatives, snagged a healthy number of governorships, flipped hundreds of state legislative seats, and triggered a down-ballot political “earthquake” in Texas.

    But Stephens brought numbers to back up his assertion. Here’s how his column read the day it was published (via Internet Archive):

    The 28-seat swing that gave Democrats control of the House wasn’t even half the 63 seats Republicans won in 2010. Yet even that shellacking (to use Barack Obama’s word) did nothing to help Mitt Romney’s chances two years later. The Republican gain in the Senate (the result in Arizona isn’t clear at this writing) was more predictable in a year when so many red-state Democrats were up for re-election. But it underscores what a non-wave election this was.

    There are many problems with that analysis, but the most significant among them is the number 28. At the time Stephens wrote this column, votes were still being tallied and many close races remained uncalled. That 28 was the lower boundary of the Democratic gains. Now we know that the Democrats have actually picked up 40 seats -- a tally that is about 43 percent higher than the number Stephens based his insta-analysis on.

    Since then, the Times has quietly updated Stephens’ column to reflect the growing number of Democratic pickups, but the analysis on which it’s based remains glaringly static. Here’s how the updated version reads, as of this moment:

    A 37-seat swing gave Democrats control of the House—a definite gain, but still less than the 63 seats Republicans won in 2011. Yet even that shellacking (to use Barack Obama’s word) did nothing to help Mitt Romney’s chances two years later. The Republican gain in the Senate (the result in Arizona isn’t clear at this writing) was more predictable in a year when so many red-state Democrats were up for re-election. But it underscores what a non-wave election this was.

    The 28 jumped up to a (still low) 37, and the “wasn’t even half” has been disappeared. But the “non-wave election” diagnosis remains preserved in amber. With each update to the number of flipped seats, Stephens’ already bad analysis just gets worse.

    What we see here are two distinct flavors of bad punditry.

    The first is an issue of confirmation bias. Prior to the election, Stephens had already concluded that the Democrats had squandered their opportunity. In his October 12 column “Democrats Are Blowing It, Again,” Stephens wrote that House Republicans “now have at least a fighting chance of holding on to a majority despite the widely anticipated blue wave,” hanging his argument on a 10-day window of not-terrible polling for GOP candidates in battleground districts. A few days before the election, Stephens wrote that “Democrats should be walking away with the midterms. That they are not is because they have consistently underestimated the president’s political gifts, while missing the deeper threat his presidency represents.”

    When the actual voting results badly undermined Stephens’ preformed conclusion, he tortured that inconvenient reality into a shape that roughly conformed to what he had already decided was true.

    The second is the temptation and perceived need to provide instant, authoritative analysis of still-uncertain outcomes. Stephens was hardly alone in this failing -- early on election night, cable news was awash in dour, speculative takes about how the Democrats were going to come up short, causing attendant panic and depression among liberals on Twitter. By the time Stephens’ column was published, Democrats had taken the House but several races (including many toss-ups in California that would end up going to the Democrats) had yet to be called. The Democrats’ 40th pickup was called just two days ago.

    The still more serious problem that flows from both of these issues is that pundits who fail in these ways are hardly ever held to account, and thus self-serving, half-baked analyses keep showing up in op-ed pages and on cable news. For Bret Stephens, “accountability” takes the form of quiet changes to his column that leave its conclusions intact even as it gets more wrong with each update.

  • Investigating Trump is not “harassment”

    Don’t fall into the trap of conflating Democratic oversight with retribution

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    This morning, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell made a point of warning House Democrats not to use the powers of executive oversight and investigation they won in yesterday’s midterm elections. He said the incoming House Democratic majority’s plans for investigating Donald Trump’s corruption are tantamount to “presidential harassment,” and he warned that the strategy will backfire on the party in the same way it stung congressional Republicans during the Bill Clinton years. “I’m not so sure it will work for them,” McConnell said.

    Obviously this advice was not offered in good faith, but McConnell’s words weren’t meant for Democratic ears to begin with. McConnell was speaking to conservative media and mainstream pundits, and he wanted to lay down the marker that all Democratic investigation of the White House will be illegitimate, punitive, and politically motivated.

    McConnell has a receptive audience. On Fox News, former Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz -- who spent years leading endless Republican fishing expeditions into the 2012 Benghazi attacks -- complained that Democrats are going to be “insatiable” in their investigations because “they can't believe that Donald Trump's the president. They're going to go after everything from impeachment, to pharmaceuticals, to how is the president profiting from his hotel.” Meanwhile, pundits on other networks are already preemptively scolding Democrats for overreaching with investigations and helping Trump:

    This is an easy trap to fall into -- the mainstream press has an unshakeable affinity for both-sideism that wrongly conflates actual malfeasance (like, say, having your golf-club cronies secretly set veterans policy) with lesser offenses (like, say, being “too aggressive” in investigating the president). Republicans and the conservative media are laying this trap because they understand the threat posed by real, sustained oversight of the Trump administration.

    The past two years of government have been marked by two separate, linked dynamics: sprawling and flagrant corruption by the president, his family, and senior members of his government; and the complicity of a Republican-controlled Congress that thwarted all investigation into Trump’s graft and determinedly shirked its oversight duties to shield the president politically.

    Now Republicans have lost their ability to protect their corrupt president, and they’re scared that the bill is coming due. And they know full well just how bad it could get: Prior to the election, House Republicans compiled and shared a handy spreadsheet of the Trump administration’s corrupt acts and abuses of power they were worried Democrats would dig into if they won subpoena power. The House GOP’s spreadsheet is remarkable both for the large number of discrete scandals it contained, and the fact that it still doesn’t come anywhere close to a full accounting of the president’s corruption.

    What McConnell, Fox News, and other conservatives are banking on now is that the media will assist them in framing all investigations of the president’s actions as nothing more than partisan squabbling and score-settling. They’re going to try and turn the president -- who has so far enjoyed a free hand to abuse his power and enrich himself -- into a victim of “harassment” by a Democratic coalition that is motivated solely by lingering outrage over the 2016 election. It’s a transparently cynical and self-serving ploy to shield Trump from the grossly overdue investigation he deserves.

  • The perfectly incoherent Trumpism of Charlie Kirk's Campus Battlefield

    Does Charlie Kirk hate safe spaces or love them? Depends.

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    It's ridiculous that I even have to write this review. Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can Win the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters, by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk: Why does anyone have to know anything about this book, or about Charlie Kirk? What hideously twisted nightmare reality are we inhabiting in which Kirk -- one of countless opportunistic grifters parasitically leeching money from the conservative movement’s diseased, distended pre-corpse -- is a figure of relevance?

    The answer to these questions can be found in the foreword to Campus Battlefield, which was provided by Donald Trump Jr. “The more time I spent with Charlie Kirk and the more I learned about Turning Point USA, the more I realized there was something unique that we were missing,” Trump Jr. writes of his time on the 2016 campaign trail with the author before exhorting readers to “support Turning Point USA.” Kirk is a friend of the first family and an ally of the president, which gets him on TV and grants him access to dark-money billionaires.

    And so here I am, stuck with the grim task of reading and reviewing Campus Battlefield, which isn’t so much a “book” as it is an advertisement for Kirk’s organization and an artless distillation of the aggressive grievance politics that define Trumpism.

    Much like the president Kirk glorifies, Campus Battlefield is a sloppy and incoherent mess. It valorizes a gauzy ideal of academia -- “colleges are supposed to be a place (sic) of discourse, characterized by thoughtful debate, a search for knowledge, and civility” -- while also casting lazy, haphazard, and atrociously written allegations of academic perfidy. “The Classics, which have survived for centuries because of their enduring relevance, have been pushed aside by the proposition that they are little more than the narrow-minded, racist, misogynist, homophobic ramblings of old white men,” Kirk complains, citing nothing in evidence. “A smug liberal elite has trashed them, arrogantly presuming to know better and smart enough (sic) to create an entirely new explanation of everything.”

    Campus Battlefield is also very difficult to read, given that the text is broken up in random places by quotes of Charlie Kirk’s tweets. Chapter 4 features a self-serving appropriation of counterculture activist Mario Savio’s legacy, which is inexplicably interrupted by an April 2018 Kirk tweet about how “Affirmative action is a racist program.” At one point Kirk quotes himself quoting George Orwell:

    Jamming these tweets into the text is one of several strategies Kirk uses to pad out the book without producing any original content; it also features extensive block quotes of sources and copy-and-pasted material from websites Kirk’s organization operates.

    The general thrust of Campus Battlefield is that the university system is overrun by liberal professors and activists who persecute conservative students. This argument is based on the eager conflation of “professors are liberal” and “professors are indoctrinating students with liberalism.” For Kirk, it’s sufficient to point an accusatory finger at a select group of college professors and denounce them as radicals. The reader is then supposed to arrive on their own steam at the conclusion that professors who espouse leftist viewpoints are propagandizing in the service of Marxism, enforcing rigid conformity of thought, and punishing conservative students for thoughtcrimes. (A conservative academic whose research Kirk cites in the book wrote in 2012 that while “the Right faces special challenges in higher education, our research offers little evidence that conservative students or faculty are the victims of widespread ideological persecution.”)

    Kirk argues that rampant leftism has perverted colleges and universities, which he says should be “safe places for the teaching and expression of all ideas, not just those endorsed by the liberal curia.”

    That’s a lofty ideal, and Kirk’s aspiration to it is outright bullshit. On the one hand, Kirk demands completely open debate of all ideas. On the other, Kirk and his group maintain the Professor Watchlist -- a website that functions as a sort of blacklist for left-wing professors whose ideas Kirk (and his donors) have deemed too “radical.” The statement of purpose for the Professor Watchlist embodies these two warring ideas and makes no effort to reconcile them:

    TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish; however students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.

    Much of Chapter 3 is devoted to naming and shaming these “radical” professors with copy-and-pasted entries from the Professor Watchlist website. The criteria for inclusion is comically low; one Michigan State professor qualified as radical because she “taught students how to argue with conservatives about issues such as illegal immigration, refugees, and the Dakota Access pipeline when they go home for Thanksgiving.” Professors on the list have reportedly faced harassment and death threats.

    A similarly dissonant take on “safe spaces” drives much of Kirk’s griping. He spends considerable energy mocking liberal students for their “desperate need for campus safe spaces” and derides the idea that words can cause hurt. “Words have become sticks and stones,” he writes. “Colleges have morphed from places of higher learning into playgrounds where name-calling sends children home crying.”

    However, for conservative students, the safeguarding of feelings and protection against name-calling are of paramount importance. Liberals can “call conservatives anything they want. Without criticism. Without penalty. Without rebuke, official or otherwise,” Kirk complains. “Fascist! Bigot! Homophobe! Racist! Birther! Misogynist! Wingnut! Oh, and let’s not forget: Deplorable!” In one paragraph he’ll chide overly sensitive liberals, and in the next he’ll solemnly relive the martyrdom of insulted conservative students.

    “Conservatives don’t live in a liberal fantasy world where they are taken care of by cadres of compassionate folks who feel their hurt,” he writes. Feeling the “hurt” of conservatives students, however, is the reason for Turning Point USA’s existence, and Kirk wants readers to know that he feels that hurt. “Are you a closet conservative? When you walk into the first day of class, do you wonder if the teacher will ridicule you in front of the class if you express your conservative views?” he writes. “This is beyond unfair. It is dangerous.”

    This is why the Trump family loves Kirk; he and his book are pure expressions of Trumpist politics. He leans intensely on white grievance while mocking the plights of minorities (one chapter is titled “Black Victimization Bunco”); he demands the in-group (conservative students) receive protection and status (“safe spaces,” unchallenged expression of any idea) while also demanding that protection and status be denied to out-groups (liberals, minorities); and he makes zero effort to reconcile these contradictions while substituting aggressive combativeness for substantive heft. It’s a simple trick: posture as an alpha tough guy, but when the slightest offense arises, performatively howl like a whipped dog.

    In that spirit of bad-faith victimhood, I am obligated to close my review of this tome on the dangers of suffocating the free exchange of ideas by highlighting the plight of someone whose lust for lively debate has been cruelly quashed by Charlie Kirk: me.

    Earlier this year, Kirk tweeted that a California school has a “graphic mural depicting the President being killed by an Aztec warrior” and warned: “The left no longer just hates Trump. They want him dead.” I was incredulous both at the suggestion that a school mural represented “the left” and at Kirk’s affected outrage, so in the spirit of debate I tweeted back that he’d “strap[ped] on a metaphorical diaper.”

    For this, I was blocked by Kirk.

    How ironic that Kirk, who loves idea-based discourse so much, was scared to debate whether his tweet cowering before the menace of some wall art in California was the figurative equivalent of shitting his own pants. My argument was rooted in fact: One of Turning Point USA’s more famous stunts involved its activists protesting “safe spaces” by wearing adult diapers. How can it be beyond the bounds of discourse to impute this diaper-centric mode of thinking to Kirk when he held up one school’s mural painting as representative of “the left?”

    Maybe Kirk silenced me because the organization reportedly believes the diaper fiasco is “not funny” and is frustrated that “every time Charlie [Kirk] tweets they tweet back pictures of him in a diaper.”

    They are wrong. It is very funny.

    And guess what? Free discourse is supposed to be difficult. How can Charlie Kirk expect to function in the Hobbesian carnage of the marketplace of ideas if he can’t handle it when I confront him with the mainstream viewpoint that he is -- metaphorically, at least -- a diaper lad? Alas, Kirk was triggered by my ideas and swaddled himself in a safe space where he wouldn’t be exposed to new, uncomfortable truths.

  • Bret Stephens' despicable Kavanaugh apologia

    The NY Times columnist is “grateful” for Trump’s bullying of Christine Blasey Ford

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The first sentence of Bret Stephens’ New York Times column this morning is a lie. “For the first time since Donald Trump entered the political fray, I find myself grateful that he’s in it,” Stephens wrote, explaining that he is “grateful because Trump has not backed down in the face of the slipperiness, hypocrisy and dangerous standard-setting deployed by opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.”

    The idea here is that Stephens, ostensibly an implacable and principled #NeverTrump conservative, has been forced by the liberal response to credible allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh to do the unthinkable and rally behind Donald Trump. This is the “first time” this has happened, Stephens writes, which is supposed to give you an idea of just how perfidious the left’s conduct has been.

    This is a lie, and it’s an important lie because it exposes the dishonesty at the core of the tiny yet bafflingly influential cadre of #NeverTrump pundits. Back in May, after Trump announced the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Stephens praised the president for standing up to Iran “apologists” and lauded his “courageous decision.” After Trump fired missiles into Syria as retribution for chemical attacks on civilians, Stephens saluted Trump and pressed the president (who he believes is mentally compromised) to unleash a full-scale war on the Assad regime.

    Stephens, like most #NeverTrump conservatives, makes a grand show of opposition to the president but the split second he sees Trump pursuing his preferred policies, the hand-wringing and monocle-dropping outrage are quickly supplanted by cheerleading.

    In today’s column, Stephens argues the left has forced him to support a president who mocks survivors of sexual assault, even though that mockery was “ugly and gratuitous.” Stephens is grateful for Trump’s response to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Kavanaugh’s alleged assault because he’s “a big fat hammer fending off a razor-sharp dagger” of false sexual assault allegations.

    The first moment was a remark by a friend. “I’d rather be accused of murder,” he said, “than of sexual assault.” I feel the same way. One can think of excuses for killing a man; none for assaulting a woman. But if that’s true, so is this: Falsely accusing a person of sexual assault is nearly as despicable as sexual assault itself. It inflicts psychic, familial, reputational and professional harms that can last a lifetime. This is nothing to sneer at.

    The second moment, connected to the first: “Boo hoo hoo. Brett Kavanaugh is not a victim.” That’s the title of a column in the Los Angeles Times, which suggests that the possibility of Kavanaugh’s innocence is “infinitesimal.” Yet false allegations of rape, while relatively rare, are at least five times as common as false accusations of other types of crime, according to academic literature.

    This is some artless statistics-mangling on Stephens’ part. Saying false accusations of rape are “at least five times as common” as false accusations of other types of crimes deliberately elides the findings of the same study that the rate of false rape accusations is 5 percent. Calling this “relatively rare,” as Stephens does, vastly undersells the rarity. On top of that, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center cautions that “research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault.”

    Stephens’ statistical gymnastics isn’t responsive to Ford’s testimony anyway, nor does it justify the president’s dark and vicious mockery of Ford. The whole column makes clear that Stephens cares far less about Ford’s words than he does the behavior of Democrats. All Stephens has to say about Ford’s testimony is that it was “not preposterous but is also largely uncorroborated.”

    Largely! Stephens betrays no interest in the 40-plus people claiming information about the allegations against Kavanaugh who’ve been rebuffed by the FBI. And he’s not at all concerned about the many former classmates and friends of Kavanaugh who’ve come forward to say the judge has been lying about his conduct in high school and college. Stephens wants to believe Kavanaugh, and he wants Kavanaugh confirmed. The main purpose of citing false rape statistics is to help him feel better about throwing his support behind Trump’s abominable conduct.

    And I’m guessing that Stephens needs that psychological coddling because what he’s doing now is precisely what he acidly critiqued other conservatives for doing prior to the 2016 election. “Mr. Trump’s unrelenting and apparently irrepressible bigotry, misogyny, bullying and conspiracy-mongering won’t keep Republican leaders from supporting him,” Stephens wrote in The Wall Street Journal the day before Trump’s election, “provided he mouth pieties about appointing more Scalias to the court or cutting corporate tax rates.” Stephens has come around to Trump’s irrepressible bullying and misogyny just as he is on the cusp of appointing another Scalia to the court.

    He’s still a good #NeverTrump conservative, though, because the liberals made him do that.