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The Wall Street Journal reported Donald Trump plans to “restructure and pare back” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence due to his belief it has become “bloated and politicized.” Trump’s belief that the DNI has become politicized echoes right-wing media conspiracies attempting to delegitimize intelligence reports that found Russian government directed compromises of emails during the 2016 election cycle.
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After a presidential campaign season that seemed unprecedented in its length and ferocity, on Election Day 2016 there were two contenders vying to become the most powerful person in the world.
One was a conventional politician who had spent decades in public service. Her positions, philosophy, and actions were well within the norm for an American presidential candidate.
The other was a racist misogynist who ran a campaign based on hatred and vitriol and was described by leading conservatives as a proto-fascist whose rise was “perilous to the republic.” He openly undermined press freedoms, threatened the nation’s decades-long alliances, lifted up white nationalist elements to new prominence, lied constantly and brazenly, mocked the disability of a reporter, attacked a Gold Star family, was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and was accused of doing so by several, showed a frightening lack of familiarity with public policy, promised to imprison his opponent, and drew support from Russian intelligence services. He represented a fundamental break with virtually every norm in American public life.
The press plays an essential agenda-setting role in American politics. Every day of the campaign, news executives, editors, TV newscasters and bookers, reporters, and pundits made thousands of independent decisions which, collectively, determined both the stories included in the nation’s papers, websites, and broadcasts, and how those stories were covered. Those journalists could, through the volume and tone of coverage, turn a story into a major scandal for a politician, treat it as a witch hunt against that politician, or let it languish and be forgotten as new stories replace it in the public consciousness. Over and over during the 2016 campaign, the political press chose wrong.
The campaign broke political journalism. Despite the vast differences between the two candidates, the message media consumers heard from journalists was that to an equal extent, both candidates were flawed.
In fact, according to Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, which reviewed an analysis of news reports in major newspapers and cable and broadcast networks from January 1, 2015, through November 7, 2016, the conventional candidate actually received a higher proportion of negative coverage over the course of the campaign.
The study also reveals that during the general election, “on topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone” -- 87 percent negative for both. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump?” asks the study’s author, Professor Thomas Patterson. “It’s a question that political reporters made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.”
Yes, Clinton had personal flaws and ran an imperfect campaign. No, it was not the press’s responsibility to deliver Clinton a victory. But in such a close race, where it is impossible to disaggregate one ultimate “cause” of the results, it seems likely that the choices news outlets made over the course of the election played a role in her defeat.
In a prescient July 2015 essay, reporter and Clinton biographer Jonathan Allen explained that over the course of her career, “coverage of Hillary Clinton differs from coverage of other candidates for the presidency,” and warned that the “difference encourages distortions that will ultimately affect the presidential race.” He pointed out the reason public perception of Clinton is distorted: because “the media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith unless there’s hard evidence otherwise” and outlets are willing to serve as a vector for unhinged, unfair, or false attacks on her character.
Allen’s warning played out over the course of the 2016 election, as the press’s discussion of Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly focused on three stories that news outlets consistently depicted as major scandals for her campaign. And all related to emails: the private email server she used as secretary of state; emails regarding the Clinton Foundation’s operations that were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and dribbled out by conservative organizations; and emails that hackers reportedly linked to Russian intelligence agencies stole from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which were released through third parties.
Each story was worthy of press coverage -- measured coverage that put the facts in proper context. But context was washed away in a sea of often-inaccurate reporting that turned the stories into scandals. The evening network news broadcasts, for example, spent three times as much time on the Clinton email server story as on all in-depth campaign policy coverage combined. As the Gallup Working Group noted in reviewing polling data from July 11 through the election, what Americans reported they had read, seen, or heard about Hillary Clinton was “focused almost entirely on a single theme, email.” From its report:
Coverage of Clinton’s server frequently confused basic legal and factual issues regarding both the server’s creation and the information that flowed through it. Clinton Foundation stories, driven by deceptive presentation from partisan operatives, downplayed the organization’s effectiveness and the millions of lives it has saved in favor of concocting evidence of purported ethical conflicts. The gossipy tidbits journalists reported from the Podesta and DNC emails overshadowed the real concern the emails suggested -- that foreign actors were trying to sway the election.
In each case, as Allen had warned, journalists operated under the assumption that Clinton was acting in bad faith and had behaved unethically unless the allegations could be “proven completely and utterly false.”
As Gallup’s data show, the email coverage reached a crescendo when Comey announced on October 29 that the bureau planned to review additional emails that “appear to be pertinent to the investigation” of Clinton’s use of a private email server. Reporters rushed to trumpet Republican spin that the letter was a major development indicating that Comey had “reopened” his investigation, and they flooded newspaper front pages and broadcast and cable news programming with endless discussion that was frequently obsessed with optics and devoid of substance.
Two days before the election, Comey announced what had been obvious from the moment the story had broken -- that the review of additional emails would not change his conclusion that Clinton’s server had not violated the law (the emails reportedly turned out to be almost entirely duplicates of previously reviewed emails). But the damage was done: The email story garnered substantial negative media coverage over the last 10 days of the election while crowding out potential negative coverage of Trump.
“Did journalists create Trump? Of course not — they don’t have that kind of power,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan in her election postmortem. “But they helped him tremendously, with huge amounts of early, unfiltered exposure in the months leading up to the Republican primary season. With ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton’s email practices, including the waffling of FBI Director James B. Comey.”
As Sullivan suggests, the overwhelming, carnival-like coverage Trump received in the early days of the election gave him a huge advantage that played a key role in his rise to the Republican nomination. Trump received nearly $2 billion in media coverage through February, almost three times as much as Clinton and roughly six times as much as that of his closest Republican opponent.
“The media greatly enabled Trump, embracing the spectacle to give him vast swaths of real estate on air, online and in print,” NPR’s David Folkenflik wrote at the conclusion of the primary season.
While Trump dominated news coverage across the board, the problem was particularly apparent on the cable news channels. “Producers at several networks said they initially treated his candidacy as a joke, albeit a highly entertaining one,” BuzzFeed reported in March. “Trump's rallies became must-see daytime and primetime television on cable, pre-empting regularly scheduled newscasts and driving day-to-day news cycle.”
In a particularly noxious example, CNN ran a live shot of Trump’s empty podium for 30 minutes when the candidate was late for a March event. This “illustrated the vacuity of the celebrity-driven frenzy that defined Trump’s early campaign,” according to Politico’s Glenn Thrush. Trump “was so much more important than any of his rivals that even his absence was more newsworthy than their presence, and the networks did nothing to dispel that view, airing his speeches in their entirety when no other candidate or even President Obama was afforded that privilege.”
Trump’s dominance on cable and broadcast news shows also came about because those programs allowed him to make regular appearances by phone, rather than appearing in person or by satellite. Media ethicists panned this unprecedented practice because it granted Trump a number of unusual benefits -- he could steamroll through tough questions while tightly controlling his own image, and doing the interviews by phone allowed him to easily flood the airwaves in the morning and thus dictate what reporters covered for the rest of the day.
It’s no secret why cable and broadcast networks were so eager to highlight every aspect of Trump’s campaign, newsworthy or not: An unfiltered Trump provided great ratings and, subsequently, ad revenue. As CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves put it, Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
“The money's rolling in and this is fun," he said in February. "I've never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
Too often, these incentives resulted in softer interviews and coverage than was justified. Frequent false statements were allowed to sail by. At CNN, executives hired a series of Trump surrogates -- including the candidate’s just-fired campaign manager, who was likely under a nondisparagement agreement and remained on Trump’s payroll for months -- to derail campaign segments with wild, implausible, and offensive spin. Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin fawned over the candidate on Trump’s plane and helicopter and even on a Zamboni. At MSNBC, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s cozy sitdowns with the candidate drew criticism from aghast media critics. And Fox News gorged itself on softball Trump interviews from its opinion hosts, including a soft-focus sitdown with Megyn Kelly.
Rather than deeming him a unique threat to democracy who was engaged in racist demagoguery, for much of the campaign, journalists all too frequently simply termed Trump “controversial.”
As Harvard’s study shows, the tone of Trump’s coverage grew increasingly negative during the general election. But at the same time, political reporters and pundits were frequently giving Trump outs, holding him to the low bar his campaign preferred and repeatedly imagining potential “pivots” and moves to campaign “discipline” in spite of the outrageous, extreme, and false things he was saying on a daily basis. Trump surrogates ran wild, distorting and outright lying about the candidate’s commentary in often-absurd ways that undermined the possibility of a reasoned debate. Reporters returned again and again to Trump advisers with long records of bigotry, giving them space to explain what the candidate really meant without calling them on their histories of misogyny and racism.
Many of the best investigative reports into Trump never got the attention they deserved, even as reporters mulled over, at length, every possible news hook about purported Clinton scandals. Political journalists can’t say enough about the brilliance of Washington Post reporter David Farenthold’s deep dives into Trump’s foundation, but his stories frequently failed to get the sort of full-spectrum attention granted to what seemed like every possible suggestion of an ethical scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation. If reporters had provided fairer reporting on the Clinton Foundation, the contrast with the corruption of the Trump Foundation -- which actually was a slush fund for Trump’s personal interests and really did break the law -- would have been more clear to the public. And it was only after Trump was already elected that the press followed his lead and finally turned its attention to the billionaire’s business empire in depth; at that point, reporters discovered endless conflicts of interest that the president-elect shows little interest in trying to resolve.
Election coverage was not all dark. Many reporters did provide diligent and hard-hitting reviews of Trump’s extremism, shady business dealings, bigotry, and lies. In addition to Fahrenthold, Media Matters praised NBC News reporter Katy Tur for her brave and insightful reporting from the Trump campaign trail; BuzzFeed/CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski for his decimation of Trump’s repeated lie that he had opposed the Iraq War since its inception; and Guardian columnist Lucia Graves for her early, prescient, and careful stories on Jill Harth, who was one of several women to accuse Trump of sexual harassment.
Overall, however, editors and executives at major media outlets failed in their responsibility to present to their audience the full picture of the election in proper context, instead providing disproportionate scrutiny to relatively minor Clinton “scandals” in a way that ultimately resulted in a skewed picture of the election.
And that's because the political press was unable to adapt its methods and practices to a dramatically different election season. In typical elections, news outlets often treat both major presidential candidates as relatively similar -- comparing their flaws, scrutinizing their respective scandals, and framing the vote as a choice between two comparable options.
But this was not a normal election between two comparable choices. That sort of equivalency could not hope to provide viewers and readers with an accurate picture of this unusual race. And on balance, the press did not rise to this unique challenge.
Even after 16 months on the campaign trail, political journalists never figured out how to accurately depict the unprecedented nature of Trump's candidacy. Now they must find a way to reckon with and report on a president who has no regard for the freedom of the press or the norms of his office.
President-elect Donald Trump spread numerous falsehoods, myths, and outright lies about the state of the American economy in 2016. As the year comes to a close, Media Matters offers eight examples of journalists and media outlets debunking Trump’s outrageously misleading statements.
Unaccountable so-called “citizen journalism” is on the rise, with vigilantes peddling private citizens’ personal information and engaging in illegal recording and harassment in an effort to practice what they call undercover reporting. And these tactics are actively endorsed by President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric and behavior, and his allies in the media, fueled virulent conservative distrust of established media outlets -- regardless of their individual successes and failures -- leaving a patchwork of fragmented, and often disreputable, news sources to fill that void.
Anonymous internet vigilantes and so-called “citizen journalists” like discredited video artist James O’Keefe are capitalizing on this moment of distrust to push their dangerous “reporting” tactics. O'Keefe is getting help from his supporters, such as Trump allies and media conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Roger Stone, and the anonymous internet users O’Keefe and others have tried to incite as “agents of truth.” And these self-styled journalists have been directly validated -- and even funded -- by our next president.
Trump specifically cited distortions from O’Keefe’s latest round of heavily edited videos on the campaign trail, and his charitable foundation gave at least $20,000 to O’Keefe’s nonprofit, Project Veritas, in 2015. Trump also personally validated and encouraged “new media” to combat “the total dishonesty of the press” on Reddit. In July, Trump hosted an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) forum in July in the popular “r/The_Donald” pro-Trump subreddit, a community that combs through hacked personal emails, pushes hateful memes, and promotes conspiracy theories under the guise of “journalism.” Shortly before the election, Trump posted a brief missive to the subreddit declaring that “MAINSTREAM MEDIA is rigged!” and encouraging followers to “stop the RIGGED mainstream media” by watching a presidential debate on his website instead of on any news channel.
Throughout the election season, Trump and his allies tweeted unvetted nuggets of misinformation from anonymous social media users, sometimes originating from the Trump subreddit. In the final weeks before Election Day, the Trump campaign seized on context-less soundbites from discredited video artist O’Keefe to push conspiracy theories at rallies and on air, stoking fear and further distrust of the government among his supporters.
GOP presidential candidates like Carly Fiorina and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) also elevated the work of another wannabe journalist: Media Matters’ 2015 misinformer of the year, David Daleiden, who created a series of deceptively edited “investigative journalism” videos smearing Planned Parenthood. In a September CNN debate, Fiorina infamously delivered an impassioned -- and completely factually inaccurate -- speech describing a “video” in which she claimed to have seen a “fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” No such video exists, but media praised Fiorina for her “fiery” remarks.
The danger lies in the stakes: Partisan activists who pose as “citizen journalists” have no stake in getting it right. They are not beholden to editors or to upholding any publication’s reputation for accuracy. With minimal name recognition and a clearly political agenda, though, these operatives do have an incentive to get media and public attention by any means.
These operators willfully misrepresent their findings with deceptive editing and refuse to release full footage. They follow trails of misinformation -- without the benefit of a fact-checker to guide the way -- to private citizens’ doorsteps and church vans transporting people to the polls. They produce extreme headlines that don’t reflect reality but do confirm polarized beliefs -- enough for lawmakers and presidential candidates to cite them, at least. They delight in collecting “scalps” -- people who have lost their jobs because of deceptively edited undercover footage -- even as the truth later vindicates many of these individuals.
They also call to action anonymous internet users who have even less to lose and the time to pore through obscure data or tail random members of the public, looking to find and publicize the personal information of individuals they perceive as unethical. In December, this danger culminated in a man shooting a rifle at a D.C. pizzeria as he attempted to “self-investigate” a conspiracy-laden fake news story propped up by anonymous, self-styled citizen journalists who accused the restaurant of operating a child sex-trafficking ring. The early stages of this collective internet investigation, too, were encouraged by conspiracy-loving Trump allies like 9/11 truther Alex Jones, and Michael Flynn Jr., a former Trump transition team member whose father is Trump's pick for national security adviser.
Responsible, independent journalism is a hallmark of the American free press, and it’s a critical tool for holding leaders accountable for the decisions they make. It makes sense that some of the bright spots of 2016 stemmed from quality investigative reporting, but it also makes sense that a twisted view of the journalism field has elevated the worst in people this year.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, right-wing activists styling themselves as “citizen journalists” are growing bolder. Since Election Day, they’ve been fearmongering and fundraising among their new supporters, congratulating each other on their journalistic chops, and touting “serious journalism being done onFacebook (sic) and YouTube.”
O’Keefe’s post-election fundraising email included categorical threats of surveillance aimed at Attorney General Loretta Lynch, interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer, and President Barack Obama. “The tide has turned,” the email stated, “and we have them on the run.”
Additionally, O’Keefe uploaded a video to YouTube the day after the election titled “Main Stream (sic) Media Is Now Powerless,” in which he described receiving “thousands of tips about fraud” and encountering “hundreds of people who seek to become undercover journalists.” O’Keefe also thanked “truth-seekers and Internet sleuths” who “crowd-sourced the investigative journalism” on Reddit and promised viewers they would hear more from him soon.
When we do, let’s be prepared.
President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly trying to sell The New York Observer, the media outlet which he used during the presidential campaign to give Trump positive coverage throughout the 2016 election.
Reuters reported that Kushner, who owned The Observer while simultaneously advising Trump during his presidential bid, is hoping to sell the news site “so that he can focus on his budding political career.”
Although The Observer did not officially endorse Trump during the presidential campaign, the editorial board did endorse him during the primary campaign. The Observer staff was involved in advising and even writing speeches for candidate Trump, while the outlet itself pedaled pro-Trump content. This only confirmed the outlet’s cozy relationship with the Republican candidate, which led one staffer to resign.
While Kushner’s role in the Trump campaign has raised concerns, this is another signal that Kushner is using his father-in-law’s election for financial gain and to gain political clout. From the December 21 Reuters report:
President-elect Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is looking to sell his newspaper, The New York Observer, the trade newspaper Women's Wear Daily reported on Wednesday.
Kushner may be selling the Observer to focus on his political career, according to the report. His wife, Ivanka Trump, is the president-elect's eldest daughter. Both he and his wife advised Trump during his successful presidential campaign.
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Trump’s Son-In-Law Admits Trump Team “Struck A Deal With Sinclair Broadcast Group”
Donald Trump’s campaign made a deal with Sinclair Broadcasting Group for more favorable media coverage during the election, adding to the growing lists of conflicts between Trump and the media.
President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a key member of his transition team, “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage” for Trump in exchange for “more access to Trump and the campaign,” according to Politico.
On December 16 Politico reported Sinclair Broadcast Group promised Kushner they “would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary” using their “television stations across the country in many swing states.” Scott Livingston, vice president of news at Sinclair, claimed the deal was aimed at “hear[ing] more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric”:
Donald Trump's campaign struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage, his son-in-law Jared Kushner told business executives Friday in Manhattan.
Kushner said the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.
In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Kushner said. Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000.
“Our promise was to give all candidates an opportunity to voice their position share their position with our viewers. Certainly we presented an opportunity so that Mr. Trump could clearly state his position on the key issues,” Livingston said. “Our commitment to our viewers is to go beyond podium, beyond the rhetoric. We’re all about tracking the truth and telling the truth and that’s typically missing in most political coverage.”
A Trump spokesman said the deal included the interviews running across every affiliate but that no money was exchanged between the network and the campaign. The spokesman said the campaign also worked with other media outlets that had affiliates, like Hearst, to try and spread their message.
“It was a standard package, but an extended package, extended story where you’d hear more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric,” Livingston said.
Sinclair, a Maryland based company, has been labeled in some reports as a conservative leaning local news network. Local stations in the past have been directed to air “must run” stories produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau that were generally critical of the Barack Obama administration and offered perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks, the Washington Post reported in 2014.
During the campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign treated the press with unprecedented hostility. As president-elect, he is using media allies like Fox’s Sean Hannity to build support for keeping the mainstream press out of Trump’s way.
Kushner’s deal with Sinclair Broadcasting Group, an organization with proven right-wing leanings, reveals yet another way the Trump campaign manipulated national and local media to stem the tide of disastrous coverage from Trump’s myriad scandals.
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Catherine Herridge: “These Operations Were Sanctioned By The Highest Levels Of The Russian Government”
Fox News’ chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge reported that Fox News has independently verified Russian-backed cyber militias targeted US systems in “an effort to interfere in the US election.” Herridge’s report comes after weeks of Fox News denying the Russian government could have anything to do with the election hack.
After 17 intelligence agencies reported that the Russian government was involved with hacking political organizations’ emails, Fox News repeatedly attempted to cast doubt on the reports by calling the agencies political. Fox host Sean Hannity derided the CIA’s conclusions as “politically motivated” “fake news,” and his colleague Tucker Carlson has repeatedly downplayed the possibility of Russia influencing the election and attacked anybody supporting the thesis. And Fox News contributor John Bolton even claimed that the “ridiculous” allegations of Russian interference could be a “false flag.”
Despite Fox’s campaign to cast doubt on the possibility of the Russian government seeking to undermine American elections, a December 15 report from chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge said that “Fox News has independently confirmed that Russian backed cyber-militias were targeting US systems and influential US persons in the summer of 2015,” an operation which “evolved into an effort to interfere in the US election … sanctioned by the highest levels of the Russian government.” From the December 15 edition of Fox News’ The Kelly File:
CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Fox News has independently confirmed that Russian-backed cyber militias were targeting US systems and influential US persons in the summer of 2015, and the operation evolved into an effort to interfere in the US election. These operations were sanctioned by the highest levels of the Russian government.
After the FBI director’s July statement about the Clinton email investigation, a government source says there was a reluctance to further insert government institutions and their assessments into an already deeply politicized election cycle. A leading cybersecurity expert says the intelligence community reviewed the techniques, tactics, and procedures leveraged in the attacks and made the link to Russia. In October, the agencies and Homeland Security, or DHS, went on the record, though Putin was not mentioned by name.