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  • Republicans can't quit fake news

    The Republican Party has increasingly created and used political microsites designed to look like local news sites as a political tactic. Here’s why that’s bad for democracy.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Last fall, Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward touted an endorsement from the Arizona Monitor on her Facebook page. Ward’s campaign must have really liked the endorsement because it reprinted it in full on her campaign website. But what is the Arizona Monitor? Is it a local news site? A blog covering local politics in Arizona? Or is it something else entirely?

    A Politico investigation found that the Arizona Monitor “launched just a few weeks before publishing the endorsement, and its domain registration is hidden, masking the identity of its owner. On its Facebook page, it is classified as a news site, but scant other information is offered.” Inquiries to Arizona politicos didn’t turn up anything either, with some telling the outlet that “they could only scratch their heads” and were befuddled by the site’s background.

    There’s nothing wrong with a local political blog supporting Ward’s campaign, or Ward’s team touting a friendly endorsement on her campaign website and social media. But political campaigns are notoriously overcautious about what they post on social media. Campaigns don’t normally highlight an endorsement from entities no one has heard of, especially when it launched just a few weeks prior. Politico noted that Ward denied any knowledge about the site on Facebook. Given that, there are two obvious questions: Is Arizona Monitor a phony news site meant to fool voters on Kelli Ward’s behalf? If so, who exactly is paying for it?

    We may never know who was behind the Arizona Monitor, as the site crumbled quickly after coming under scrutiny. Initially, it posted an article defending itself, but as I was writing this the website was deleted, as well as the site’s Twitter and Facebook pages. Local political blogs don’t generally operate this way; they relish being attacked by larger media outlets (the posture Arizona Monitor initially took) and do not disappear suddenly when attacked. Given its hasty exit from the internet, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Arizona Monitor was some kind of front.

    Republican campaigns and entities creating campaign microsites designed to look like local news sites to support their candidates is nothing new. In 2014, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) created a series of phony news sites meant to mimic local news sites. The sites included a disclaimer at the bottom but otherwise made no indication that they were the product of a Republican campaign committee. An NRCC spokesperson at the time called it a “new and effective way to disseminate information to voters.” And last year, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) tried its hand at running its own microsite disguised as news site. As Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz noted at the time:

    FreeTelegraph.com resembles any of a host of hyperpartisan conservative websites that purport to share news. The website’s home page and articles emphasize social media sharing buttons and large photos; the pieces are brief and feature block quotes from other sources instead of original reporting or commentary. But while most right-wing hyperpartisan sites feature pieces supporting President Donald Trump and savaging his foes, FreeTelegraph.com employs a single-minded focus, with every article aiming to praise a Republican governor or gubernatorial candidate or criticize a Democratic one, with a particular focus on GOP targets in Virginia (24 articles), Connecticut (13), and Rhode Island (11).

    The website is still active.

    In Maine, the state Democratic Party recently filed a complaint with the state’s ethics agency alleging that the Maine Examiner, an anonymously owned news site covering Maine politics, made illegal expenditures in a local mayor’s race and that they might have coordinated with the Maine Republican Party as well.

    More recently, Politico reported that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), apparently not content to let the NRCC handle his fake news needs, has a phony news site entirely paid for by his campaign committee. The website CARepublican.com, which Nunes refused to discuss with Politico, has a proper, if tiny, disclaimer but no other indication that it is a campaign website rather than an actual local news site or blog.

    But my personal favorite political phony news proprietor is GOP political consultant Dan Backer, who’s turned fake news into a money maker for his pro-Trump super PACs by using them to drive email sign ups and donations. A BuzzFeed investigation last summer found:

    Along with AAN [American Action News], Backer or his company, DB Capitol Strategies, is listed as the owner of conservative news domains AmericanUpdate.com, TrumpTrainNews.com, and GOPPresidential.com. Two other news sites — Truedaily.news and ICYMInews.com — link out heavily to the Backer-connected web properties, and use the same Google AdSense and Analytics codes as AAN and the three other sites. Truedaily.news and ICYMInews.com are also hosted on the same server as GOPPresidential.com — yet another piece of evidence to suggest they too are part of the network of sites connected to Backer. (The server in question hosts only those three websites.)

    Backer’s political fake news game is a whole new level, combining grassroots digital engagement with clickbait to build lists of supporters his super PACs can message and activate.

    Last week, I wrote about how Trump supporters share the most “junk news” online. Given that, it would seem predictable that Republicans would skip the middleman and just create the content themselves. Even better if they can use said content to raise funds for their political activities.

    But what might work for the Republican Party in the short term is terrible for democracy. A recent Knight News/Gallup survey found trust in media and views on what is or isn’t fake news was increasingly viewed through a partisan lens. Whereas liberals and Democrats get their news from more mainstream media outlets, conservatives increasingly rely on only right and far-right sources in their news consumption. News sites -- run by the GOP about the GOP -- risk shrinking that filter bubble even further. If this trend continues, and phony GOP news sites increase in popularity, conservatives could reach a point where much of the political news they consume would come directly from the Republican Party and associated campaign committees.

  • The right-wing roots of Trump’s "Blue Apron" SNAP attack

    The outrageous SNAP proposal in President Trump’s new budget is built upon decades of conservative lies about welfare

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The Trump White House’s newly proposed budget is (like all White House budget proposals) more of a political document than anything else. It has no actual bearing on how the government will spend its money, and Congress will almost certainly ignore it. But that’s not to say it is entirely devoid of value -- the White House uses the annual budget proposal to act out its fantasies and give us a little glimpse at the ideologies motivating the administration’s policy preferences.

    One of those ideologies, as conveyed by the White House’s vision for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, expresses insane and horrifying contempt for low-income Americans. And while the policy the administration has proposed is extreme, it fits in squarely with longstanding conservative efforts to stigmatize and shame recipients of government assistance.

    One of the administration’s supposed cost-saving measures is “a bold new approach to administering SNAP.” The way the program currently works, SNAP-eligible households are provided a monthly benefit based on income level in the form of a debit card, which can be used to purchase grocery items. Some restrictions apply (no alcohol, tobacco, or pet food, for example), but SNAP recipients have wide latitude in what foods they can purchase and where they can shop.

    The Trump administration wants to change all of this by forcing most SNAP recipients to receive half their monthly benefit in the form of “a USDA Foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.” The Republican White House wants to choose which foods SNAP recipients eat, and it wants to control how they receive their food each month -- so much for “small government” conservatism abolishing the “nanny state.” Through means left utterly unexplained, the Trump administration argues that this new system (which will require massive bureaucratic build-up alongside the establishment of food-delivery infrastructure) will somehow be cheaper and more efficient than simply transferring money to a debit card. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney laughably spun this proposal to send low-income Americans a monthly box of canned goods and peanut butter as "a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash."

    This idea is so absurd, impractical, and wildly paternalistic that people can’t really believe that the White House is actually proposing it. Politico reports this morning that “the idea that USDA would provide millions of low-income people packages of food on a national scale has not been floated by conservative think tanks, promoted by industry, or sought by previous administrations.” It was “so out of left field,” Politico notes, “that some anti-hunger advocates initially thought it was a joke.”

    The proposal didn’t come out of nowhere, though. It’s an escalation of existing right-wing efforts to use SNAP as a means to control the behavior of its recipients. These efforts are rooted in a mythology -- eagerly promoted and disseminated by conservative media -- that SNAP is rife with fraud and that SNAP beneficiaries, by virtue of their status as welfare recipients, lack the moral character to make good decisions on their own.

    Right-wing demonization of welfare recipients stretches back decades, from Newt Gingrich’s high-profile efforts in the 1990s to shame low-income teen mothers to Ronald Reagan popularizing the “welfare queen” slur back in 1976. The running theme of these attacks on the poor is that there exists an epidemic of undeserving welfare recipients who abuse their benefits. That’s a myth, but it carries a potent political message that blends racial and economic resentment with small-government agitation.

    When it comes to SNAP, the most common complaint made by conservatives is that recipients are using their benefit to purchase inappropriate foods: “luxury” comestibles like seafood and steak, or junk food like candy bars and energy drinks. This line of attack got a huge boost in 2013 when Fox News put together a special news report called “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” The program -- hosted by Special Report anchor Bret Baier -- spotlighted an unemployed surfer in California who proudly used his SNAP benefit to buy sushi and lobster. Baier dubbed him “the new face of food stamps,” and the program pointedly asked why there isn’t “at least some stigma” attached to SNAP recipients, who used to be called “losers.”

    It was a farcical piece of propaganda that actively shunned any sort of data or reporting in order to create a caricature of SNAP recipients as lazy, undeserving parasites on the public. SNAP actually has extremely low rates of fraud and abuse, and “the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

    The news program was wildly popular with Republicans. Fox News distributed tapes of the “The Great Food Stamp Binge” on Capitol Hill, and the SNAP-abusing unemployed surfer became the mascot for the congressional GOP’s efforts to gut funding for nutritional assistance programs. Since then, various state governments have taken up measures intended to restrict which foods SNAP recipients can purchase.

    In 2015, Wisconsin Republicans passed a bill banning SNAP recipients from purchasing crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish, citing “anecdotal and perceived abuses.” A Republican state senator from New York proposed legislation to cut off SNAP users from “luxury food items” like lobster and steak, while the Missouri GOP sought to ban “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.” The reality that all of these proposals ignore is that SNAP recipients are not blowing their benefits on “luxury” foods.

    The Trump administration’s proposal derives from the same idea that SNAP recipients can’t be trusted and will necessarily misuse their benefit. Rather than banning certain foods, the White House is proposing to force SNAP beneficiaries to eat an approved list of low-cost foods while simultaneously limiting the amount of benefit they have to spend. It’s gross paternalism lightly disguised with absurd promises about efficiency and cost-savings. And it fits right in with the broader right-wing argument that receipt of government assistance is morally suspect and recipients should be penalized through stigma and controlled through loss of choice.

  • Fox News downplays report that White House knew about domestic abuse allegations against top Trump aide Rob Porter

    Fox news mentioned the report hours after other cable networks

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Fox News waited eight hours on February 9 before mentioning a new report that the Trump White House first learned a year ago that “staff secretary Rob Porter’s ex-wives were prepared to make damaging accusations about him that could threaten his security clearance.” In contrast, CNN and MSNBC reported on the development multiple times, beginning with their early morning shows.

    Porter resigned from his position in the White House on February 7 as media organizations began detailing reports of years of domestic abuse, including physical violence, from his two ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, and a former girlfriend. After the Daily Mail first reported the story earlier this week, CNN interviewed both Holderness and Willoughby, who described years of physical and emotional abuse in their respective marriages over a 10-year period, including Porter punching and choking them and throwing fits of rage.

    The Trump White House initially defended Porter. Chief of staff John Kelly told the Daily Mail, “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.” Press secretary Sarah Sanders likewise told the Daily Mail, "I have worked directly with Rob Porter nearly every day for the last year and the person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character." As CBS News’ timeline showed, the administration only began backing away from Porter after the Daily Mail posted an article on February 7 containing an image of one of Porter’s wives with a black eye. On the night of February 8, The Washington Post reported new information about when the White House first learned about Porter’s abusive pattern:

    White House Counsel Donald McGahn knew one year ago that staff secretary Rob Porter’s ex-wives were prepared to make damaging accusations about him that could threaten his security clearance but allowed him to serve as an influential gatekeeper and aide to President Trump without investigating the accusations, according to people familiar with the matter.

    [...]

    In January 2017, when McGahn learned of the allegations, he wanted Porter to stay put because he saw the Harvard Law-trained Capitol Hill veteran as a steadying, professional voice in the White House, according to people familiar with the matter. His view didn’t change in June when the FBI flagged some of its findings to the White House. Nor did he act in September when he learned that the domestic violence claims were delaying Porter’s security clearance, or in November when Porter’s former girlfriend contacted him about the allegations, according to these people.

    A White House spokesman said that McGahn — who had access to the FBI’s background investigation file conducted for Porter’s security clearance — and Kelly feel misled by Porter, saying he downplayed his ex-wives’ accusations in conversations with them.

    In a late phone call Thursday, McGahn said Porter did not tell him one year ago that his ex-wives accused him of domestic violence.

    A White House official said McGahn was only aware that ex-wives were prepared to make damaging accusations about him but did not ask what the accusations were because Porter said they were not true.

    A Media Matters search of the SnapStream video database found that Fox News ignored this new development all morning, instead replaying the White House’s defense from yesterday of the way the administration handled the initial reporting about Porter. In a desperate attempt to defend the Trump administration, Fox even turned to former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski -- who himself was charged with battery of a female reporter during the 2016 election cycle -- for comment. In contrast, CNN and MSNBC both reported the new information from the Post multiple times, beginning during the 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. hours, respectively, and continuing through the morning. Fox’s Outnumbered finally mentioned the Post story during the 12 p.m. hour.

    When the media started reporting on the story and Porter’s subsequent resignation on February 7, Fox was late in covering the news and “discussed [it] a handful of times on-air.” Its prime-time shows that evening failed to mention Porter, and the next morning Fox & Friends also completely ignored the story.

    Fox has demonstrated a persistent pattern of delaying stories that reflect poorly on the Trump administration and going easy on Trump officials when the coverage finally happens. The network was similarly late to cover the Trump administration’s refusal to enact election-related sanctions against Russia, and when the channel finally did report that news, it devoted a paltry nine minutes and change to the story over a nine-day period while CNN and MSNBC covered it for a combined total of more than three hours.

  • Cable and broadcast news ignored a huge story about FEMA malpractice in Puerto Rico

    This is just the latest in the media’s neglectful coverage of Puerto Rico’s recovery

    Blog ››› ››› GRACE BENNETT


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A New York Times report on February 6 revealed that a FEMA contract that called for 30 million meals to be sent to Puerto Rico resulted in only 50,000 meals actually delivered. The contract was awarded to a company with no history in large-scale disaster relief, the latest in a string of poor contracting decisions in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. Despite this, cable and broadcast news networks almost completely ignored the story, with only MSNBC and CBS even mentioning it, albeit briefly.

    According to the Timesreport, FEMA awarded an $156 million contract to a company called Tribute Contracting to provide 30 million meals to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Tiffany Brown, the owner and only employee of the company, had “no experience in large-scale disaster relief,” and had “at least five canceled government contracts in her past.” The Times notes that “by the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000,” and the ones that were delivered were packaged incorrectly. FEMA eventually terminated the contract with Tribute.

    Months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September, Puerto Rico remains in desperate need of assistance. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans still lacked electricity as of January 29, 20 percent of the island is still without running water, and there are countless infrastructural problems that have yet to be fixed. Puerto Rico’s recovery has been hampered by governmental incompetence, as well as several contracts with ill-equipped companies, one of which was also made by FEMA.

    Cable and broadcast news shows failed to adequately cover the latest setback for Puerto Rico. According to a Media Matters analysis, only MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CBS This Morning mentioned FEMA’s botched meals contract. CBS This Morning spent less than 30 seconds on the story, simply doing a quick headline read about the Times’ article. Morning Joe mentioned the story three times during its February 7 edition, devoting 3 minutes and 14 seconds to the topic. There was no coverage of the story on CNN, ABC, NBC, or Fox News.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    News networks’ failure to highlight FEMA’s ill-informed contract and the resulting loss in supplies for Puerto Ricans is unfortunately part of a larger pattern of networks ignoring the devastation and neglect of Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall.

    Methodology: Media Matters searched SnapStream for mentions of “Puerto Rico” on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NBC, ABC, and CBS from February 6, when the Times story was published, until 1 p.m. on February 7.

  • The Nunes memo perfectly lined up with what Hannity has been hyping for weeks prior to its release

    Hannity in early January: “All this information about” alleged FISA abuses “will finally now see the light of day”

    ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    Almost a month before Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) chose to publicly release what was a classified and partisan memo written by intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) alleging Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) abuses by the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ), Fox host Sean Hannity appeared to have advanced knowledge of some of the claims laid out in the Nunes memo. Almost a month prior to the memo’s public release, Hannity was hyping “shocking information … that will show systemic FISA abuse” and bragged that the media will “be forced to cover this story.”

  • The big #ReleaseTheMemo flop

    The same people who loudly demanded the Nunes memo be released won’t be bothered by its underwhelming “revelations”

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    After far more drama and tension than should have been necessary, the infamous House intelligence committee memo on alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI against President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was released. And it was, predictably, a hilarious and self-defeating flop, but that fact won’t discourage Trump’s most slavish acolytes from claiming the Russia “hoax” has been exposed.

    This was actually a bit sad for me. I was holding out an irrational hope that House intelligence chair Rep. Devin Nunes, in the course of his day-to-day duties of abusing the committee’s oversight role to shield the president from political damage, might have accidentally stumbled into some real FBI malfeasance. After all, the government has granted itself vast surveillance powers and shielded itself from public accountability through secrecy and classification, making it extraordinarily difficult to know if and when abuses of those powers occur.

    But, alas, the memo was a bust. It didn’t really tell us anything that hadn’t already been leaked or guessed, and it actually undermined a critical point Donald Trump and his defenders hoped the memo would bolster.

    Nunes’ document alleges that FBI investigators relied in part on a dossier compiled by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele to obtain a FISA warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, and that the government failed to “accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts” about the dossier when applying for and reauthorizing the warrant. Those “relevant facts” do not have anything to do with the accuracy of the information contained within the dossier, which Nunes’ memo doesn’t address.

    Rather, the memo complains that the government did not disclose the “political origins” of the dossier -- specifically the fact that Democratic groups helped fund it and that Steele himself showed “clear evidence” of bias against Trump -- when presenting its case before a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge. The memo doesn’t actually make any allegations, but it strongly implies that Justice Department officials deliberately withheld this information to illicitly obtain and reauthorize surveillance of Page.

    None of us have any way of knowing how legally significant these claims of bias would have been, however, because Nunes’ memo doesn’t lay out the government’s case against Page in any detail. Nor does it provide the name of the FISC judge who heard the evidence. In fact, it doesn’t provide any information one would need to gauge the validity of its implications. Instead, the memo strongly suggests that the Steele dossier was the critical component to the case against Page (while it conveniently omits the fact that he was on the radar of counterintelligence officials as far back as 2013).

    This is important because Trump and his defenders are heavily invested in the notion that the whole Russia investigation originated from the Steele dossier, which they loudly insist is discredited and total bunk. The memo, however, accidentally disproves that allegation. In a sloppy attempt to gild what is already an unimpressive lily, Nunes’ memo vaguely alleges bias by noting that investigators mentioned a different Trump associate, George Papadopoulos, in its warrant application for Page. “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016,” the memo notes, thus corroborating a New York Times report that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts began with Papadopoulos, not the Steele dossier.

    But all of this is immaterial to the people who had already decided what the memo would say before they even saw it. Nunes, with allies in the conservative media, mounted an effective PR campaign around this document while it was still under wraps and advertised it as an earth-shaking and world-historic revelation of anti-Trump corruption and bias at the highest levels of government. Sean Hannity (who is denying reports that he advised Trump to approve the memo’s release) hyped the memo earlier this week by saying “this makes Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar from a drug store.” Former Trump White House official Sebastian Gorka grandiloquently declared that the memo’s revelations would be “100 times bigger” than the abuses that precipitated the American Revolution.

    The memo, of course, comes nowhere close to matching that absurd hyperbole; it’s impossible to assert that the memo even points to a minor scandal at this point. So, now, these same Trump lackeys will set about to loudly exaggerating or flat-out lying about the memo’s contents so that it fits their pre-formed conclusion. It's already happening: right-wing pundits are saying the "devastating" memo undermines special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump. The same people who spent weeks loudly demanding that the memo be released won’t be bothered by what the memo actually says. All they’re interested in his how they can use it to discredit the intensifying federal investigation into the president and his associates.