Lucian Wintrich, the newly minted White House correspondent for the right-wing website Gateway Pundit, is explicitly attending press briefings to ask fawning questions that support President Donald Trump and troll the other reporters.
The administration is dedicated to a strategy of delegitimizing all independent sources of information that don’t reinforce the message emanating from the White House. As part of that plan, it’s been encouraging pro-Trump propaganda outlets to join the press corps.
Wintrich, a conservative activist with no experience in journalism, is part of that movement. In January he was named Gateway Pundit’s man in the White House by Jim Hoft, the site’s founder, who is known in these parts as the “dumbest man on the Internet” for his frequent posting of hoaxes and fabrications.
In an interview last month with NBC News, Wintrich said that while he supports Trump, his job is to ask about “relevant issues [that] are being ignored by the media” in order to “to keep the public informed.” But The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz tore away that wave at credibility this week in a devastating piece about Wintrich and White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s handling of the press corps. Marantz got extensive access to Wintrich and Hoft last month as they prepared for and attended Trump’s February 13 joint presser with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The article captures Hoft urging Wintrich to ask questions that attack the press and explicitly acknowledging that Wintrich is attending briefings not to ask questions that inform the public, but to troll other journalists. From Marantz’s profile (emphasis original):
Over dinner at a nearby steakhouse, Hoft and Wintrich brainstormed about what they might ask the next day. “Just make sure it has ‘fake news’ in it, Lucian,” Hoft said, passing him a notepad. “Every question you ask with the words ‘fake news,’ you get a ten-dollar bonus. We’ll add that to your contract.”
Wintrich, sipping a Martini, jotted a few notes. “Sean! Over here, Sean!” he said, pretending to raise his hand. “In the past month alone, there have been at least twenty fake-news stories in the failing New York Times. Does fake news like this get in the way of the President’s ability to proceed on policy?”
Andrew Marcus, [a filmmaker documenting their arrival in Washington] , said, “The big decision you have to make is how much of a troll you’re willing to be.”
“He’s there to troll,” Hoft said.
For a moment, Wintrich seemed to get cold feet. “Should we have a couple of backup questions that are specifically about policy?” he asked, tentatively.
“Policy schmolicy,” Hoft said.
Throughout the article, Wintrich comes across as a dilettante with no interest in reporting who is clearly in over his head. Hoft is the hapless mastermind who has stumbled into the management of a widely trafficked website by being too stupid or too careless to realize when stories he reads on the internet aren’t true.
It’s unclear whether the White House considers Gateway Pundit’s complete lack of standards a feature or a bug, but the website is clearly on the press office radar. “Hoft told me that, shortly after the election, he e-mailed ‘Trump’s people, and they encouraged us to apply’ for press credentials,” Marantz reported. He was also on the scene when “Wintrich e-mailed Hope Hicks, Trump’s director of strategic communications, and got a response within three minutes,” and when White House aide Julia Hahn called Hoft “just to say she’s a fan,” according to the blogger.
Hoft’s comments about Wintrich’s role give away the Trump administration’s game.
It has been obvious since before Trump took office that the White House press strategy would involve trying to discredit mainstream news outlets while granting new access and privileges to right-wing outlets that eschew traditional standards in favor of cheerleading for the president.
In press briefings and press conferences, Trump and Spicer regularly rely on this host of pro-Trump propagandists. Trump dodged critical questions at two press conferences last month by calling only on correspondents from conservative outlets. Spicer regularly opens briefings by taking questions from one of the numerous right-wing reporters in the room, and provides access for conservative radio hosts to ask softballs via Skype. Both have regularly lashed out at journalists as dishonest, with the president describing mainstream outlets as “fake news” providers who act as the “opposition party.”
Wintrich is apparently there to take this strategy to a new level. His explicit orders are to ignore policy and attack other journalists, rather than asking questions to inform the public. Instead of having to do the dirty work himself, Spicer will be able to call on Wintrich, knowing that the Gateway Pundit correspondent will ask a question that explicitly bashes his colleagues. Then the press secretary can step out the way and smile as members of the press corps start openly feuding.
Wintrich’s presence in the White House briefing room was already extremely controversial. Now that his boss has announced that he is there to turn the briefing room into the newest battlefield in the conservative media’s war on mainstream journalism, we can hope that the press corps will respond by standing up against the Trump administration’s games.