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  • Sinclair is forcing its stations to run a commentary segment that’s essentially a Trump campaign ad

    Sinclair chief political commentator and former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn hosted a new “must-run” gushing about the president’s 2020 campaign

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Conservative local news giant Sinclair Broadcast Group is now pushing its local news stations to air what amounts to an unofficial ad for the Trump 2020 campaign.

    The local news behemoth currently employs two commentators -- one pro-Trump and one liberal -- who each produce a “must-run” commentary segment on a near-daily basis. The segments are distributed to Sinclair’s local news stations across the country, and the stations are required to air them within a certain period of time, typically during a local newscast. The June 19 commentary segments from Boris Epshteyn and Ameshia Cross tackled President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign launch ploy in Orlando.

    Epshteyn, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and may have signed a nondisparagement agreement during that time that would prevent him from criticizing the president, delivered a 90-second segment that could just as easily have been produced by the Trump campaign itself. 

    In the segment, Epshteyn praises crowd sizes at Trump’s rallies and “unprecedented social media engagement” from Trump supporters, and encourages the president’s campaign to “ride the wind of his accomplishments to reelection.”

    BORIS EPSHTEYN: Well, it’s official. President Trump has launched his 2020 reelection campaign. The energy behind President Trump and his “America First” movement is palpable, and if I’m a Democrat running in 2020, I am worried about my chances. That energy is quantifiable in the crowds that fill up massive stadiums. You see it on display when lines begin to form days in advance of Trump rallies. You see the energy in the unprecedented social media engagement for President Trump. You also see it in fundraising, where, according to reports, President Trump raised more in his first day running than any Democratic candidate did in their first three months.

    Democrats have struggled to find a candidate who is able to hit these notes. Democratic candidates from Mayor Bill de Blasio to Sen. Kamala Harris and even the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, are failing to fill crowds or garner supporter reactions. On the other hand, the sitting president is treated like a rock star by his base.

    President Trump’s strategy is simple: Keep the energy and motivation high, focus on several key issues, and ride the wind of his accomplishments to reelection. Here’s the bottom line: The advantages of incumbency and a successful first term are on full display for President Trump so far this cycle. While Democrats struggle to differentiate from one another, President Trump is proving that the GOP’s amp goes up to 11.

    As of this morning, Epshteyn’s “must-run” segment has already aired on at least 42 Sinclair-controlled local news stations in 26 states and the District of Columbia, according to the iQ media database.

    For more than a year, Epshteyn was the only Sinclair personality creating “must-run” commentary segments for the broadcaster to send to its stations. In February, Sinclair added commentator Ameshia Cross to its lineup to produce segments on the same topics from a more liberal perspective. The two segments -- Epshteyn’s Bottom Line with Boris and Cross’ Cross Point -- typically air during the same local newscasts on a given station. Cross’ segment about the reelection campaign focused on Trump’s attacks on media, Democratic candidates, and Hillary Clinton during the rally.

    Sinclair’s programming decisions and executive leadership tilted strongly in favor of the Trump campaign in 2016, and the close connections between the Trump administration and the broadcasting company have seemingly only strengthened in the time since. The president himself, along with numerous cabinet members and other individuals circulating in his inner circle, have made appearances on Sinclair programming and granted exclusive interviews to Sinclair hosts and reporters -- including with openly conservative personalities like Epshteyn and former Fox News host Eric Bolling.

    Epshteyn similarly used many of his “must-runs” to essentially campaign for Republicans in the year leading up to the 2018 midterms; some of his segments even skipped the usual commentary altogether and simply featured softball interviews with GOP candidates. Sinclair’s past election efforts are particularly notable because the nearly 200 stations it owns or operates are mostly concentrated in mid-sized cities and battleground states.

  • Everyone knows headlines are broken. Here's how news organizations can start fixing them.

    Blog ››› ››› BETH COPE & PARKER MOLLOY

    There’s a longstanding journalistic tradition of treating presidential utterances as inherently newsworthy -- so newsworthy, in fact, that the “president says” construct is a staple of headline writing. But how should journalists cover those remarks when a president is 10,000-plus false or misleading claims into his tenure?

    Last fall, for instance, President Donald Trump claimed that he and congressional Republicans were working “around the clock” on a plan to implement “a major tax cut” for the middle class prior to the 2018 midterms, then just weeks away.

    The claim caught the Republicans Trump said he’d been working with by surprise. The truth was that there was no plan and legislators were on recess. The boast was a fairly transparent play to help Republican chances in the elections.

    Even so, CNN ran with it, posting the headline “Trump says GOP working on tax plan for middle class.” The Associated Press, Reuters, ABC News, The Washington Post, Axios, Politico, and others also touted his claim in their headlines, giving Trump exactly the press he wanted.

    If you read beyond the headlines, you would have learned some important context. CNN noted in its piece that “it’s unclear what tax proposal Trump was referring to.” And the Post’s story mentioned that such a plan “appears highly unlikely.” But many readers don’t read the actual articles, and they might have been left thinking a 10% tax cut was coming their way.

    Media Matters has been considering how headlines and tweets can inadvertently spread misinformation for months. We’ve documented some egregious cases of news outlets repeating lies and other misstatements in headlines or tweets. We also examined 32 Twitter feeds from some of the country’s biggest news outlets, cross-referencing tweets about Trump comments with The Washington Post’s database of false or misleading claims Trump made. We found that, all together, these accounts shared demonstrably false information from the president an average of 19 times a day; 65% of the tweets did not include any context indicating the statement was false.

    That approach hardly serves to inform readers. The reality is that when information is repeated -- regardless of veracity -- it forms a lasting impression. Add to that readers’ tendency not to click beyond headlines and it becomes clear that the old rules for headline writing haven’t held up well.

    So we set out to find some new ones. We consulted journalists, media ethicists, and other experts and examined published scholarship on the issue to guide us as we put together a set of best practices. Here’s what we found.

    Why don’t the old rules work?

    Journalists have written that headlines and tweets that quote misinformation without contextualizing it can do “a disservice,” “deliberately misinform,” “perpetuate false narratives,” “undermin[e] otherwise good work,” be “dangerous,” give Trump “the headlines and quote-tweets he wants,” and spread “a species of fake news.”

    Part of the problem is that few readers have the time or luxury to read newspapers cover to cover or to click through every story they see on social media. A 2014 study by the American Press Institute found that 60% of Americans read only headlines in the week before they were surveyed. And in 2016, Columbia University and French National Institute researchers found that 59% of articles retweeted on Twitter hadn’t actually been read by the people sharing them.

    “Readers, and I count myself as one of them, are lazy and busy, and that’s a terrible combination when trying to get someone to understand what something is,” Aimee Rinehart, director of development and partnerships of First Draft News, a nonprofit focused on digital media issues, told Media Matters.

    And these repeated lies can stick. Steve Rathje of Psychology Today writes that repeating a false statement -- even in an effort to correct it -- can “fuel false claims even more. … A claim feels more ‘true’ if it comes to mind with fluency and ease, leading us to mistake what is familiar for what is true. This is called the ‘illusory truth effect.’”

    George Lakoff, director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society and a former professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, told us that the “way your brain works is that you take the things you hear first and understand other things in terms of that.” Thus a headline that quotes something that’s not true -- even if to counter it, Lakoff would argue -- can leave readers believing it.

    A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology further explains how the brain processes information, noting that the impact of headline misinformation can persist even when readers do continue through to the article.

    “Readers use available information to constrain further information processing. This means that any incoming evidence will always be weighted and interpreted in light of information already received, and a headline can thus serve to bias processing towards or away from a specific interpretation,” the study notes. And “correcting the misinformation conveyed by a misleading headline is a difficult task. Particularly in cases of non-obvious misdirection, readers may not be aware of an inconsistency, and may thus not initiate any corrective updating.”

    So how can news outlets get it right from the start?

    Does the quote belong in a headline? Is there news value in tweeting it?

    A first step is to consider the newsworthiness of the statement and decide whether it belongs in a headline at all.

    “The same ethical standards that exist for the front page of your newspaper or the lead story of your 5 p.m. newscast should apply in all circumstances,” Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Chair Lynn Walsh told us in an interview.

    “President Trump is someone that is in a position of authority,” Walsh explained. “It is someone, as journalists, that we do cover and should cover. But if what he is saying is incorrect, ... I think that is absolutely newsworthy to include in the story. But do we need to make it the headline? And do we need to make it what we are sharing specifically on Twitter or on Facebook?”

    In the hyper-competitive digital news marketplace, it can be tempting to tweet and post quotes as soon as possible. But while that may help boost one’s profile and feed the online-news click beast, how is it benefiting readers?

    Lewis Raven Wallace, a former reporter on the public radio show Marketplace and creator of an upcoming podcast that will explore the idea of objectivity in journalism, told us the competition among journalists and news outlets to be first to report a story ends up benefiting “propaganda and misinformation.” “But that whole structure isn't actually serving the public, at this point,” Wallace added.

    “The rush to be the first or the grabbiest is good for no one except the broken business model/bottom line, and the owners of platforms like Twitter,” he said. “But I can't see how it's serving the public to ever distribute tweets and headlines that mislead.”

    Bobby Magill, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, told us repetition of an inaccurate statement can be damaging -- and it often isn’t even particularly newsworthy.

    “If Trump tweets that climate change is a hoax for the 10 millionth time, we already know that Trump thinks that climate change is a hoax,” he said. “We don't need to read about it again. If you keep printing that, if you hear an untruth so many times, it eventually becomes the truth. You start believing it.”

    Others said journalists should consider who benefits from repeating misinformation in a headline: Is it the readers -- or the speaker?

    “I think the first reaction to a lie or a misleading statement should be to wonder why he has said it, why he might want it repeated, and whose interests are being served by covering it,” said Wallace. “Every outlet is weighing what to cover on limited space. Again, is the public served by a press that follows Trump in a herd, covering everything he's said? I doubt it.”

    Lakoff has written that our president is a “super salesman” who knows how to work the media, getting the headlines and articles he wants.

    “Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him to put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas,” he writes. “His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy.”

    “I don’t think he’s stupid,” Lakoff told us in an interview. “He knows that he can get his point of view out there.”

    Outlets should consider these options for addressing misinformation in headlines.

    The Associated Press’ vice president for standards, John Daniszewski, writes that reporters have “a duty not to simply relay, channel or amplify” tweets and live statements. “Even in our news alerts, headlines and tweets about a public figure’s tweets, we need to show that we are not just re-transmitting the spin.”

    “When we know a statement is factually inaccurate, or highly debatable,” he concludes, “we need to say so in some way.”

    But there is more than one way to, as Wallace put it, “call a spade a spade.”

    When a statement is blatantly false, the headline should say as much.

    “It is not that much more difficult to write a headline that contradicts a lie than it is to quote tweet and perpetuate lies that way,” said Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at (and formerly “If Joe Smith says ‘humans can breathe water,’ a bad and irresponsible headline would be something like, ‘Joe Smith: 'Humans Can Breathe Water.’ How do you get around that? Easily. ‘Joe Smith Lies, Claims Humans Can Breathe Water.’ Or, ‘People Can Breathe Water, Joe Smith Falsely Claims.’”

    When there’s not such a straightforward debunk but the claim is still counter to common knowledge, another option is to use a term like “baseless” or cite a lack of existing evidence.

    Writing in Vox last fall, Aaron Rupar highlights examples of both problematic and useful headlines about Trump’s November claim that ballots in Florida’s primary contest were “massively infected.” ABC, for instance, simply quoted the president, while The Guardian wrote that Trump repeated a “baseless voter fraud claim.”

    Other experts and journalists question the value of phrases like “said without evidence” -- for one thing, it can seem to imply that evidence exists but simply wasn’t cited, while some view it as a “partisan slide” that “identifies the journalist as almost rolling their eyes at the comment,” as Rinehart put it. She recommends including the truth right away.

    “It’s important to emphasize in a headline and tweet what is true, and not what something is not,” said Rinehart. “A classic example is the headline ‘Obama is not a Muslim.’ What two words stick out to readers who are scrolling through a newsfeed on a 3-inch screen? It’s likely to be ‘Obama’ and ‘Muslim,’ which reinforces to a scanning reader that myth.”

    “A better headline is: ‘Obama is a Christian,’” she continued, “and begin the story that way, too. … All the information contained in about 200 characters needs to be true.”

    That approach comports with the advice Lakoff has advocated. He advises a “truth sandwich” technique “to frame things in terms of what’s true” first so the accurate information will stick.

    Eli Pariser, chief executive of Upworthy (disclosure: Co-author Molloy previously worked at Upworthy), pushed a similar approach.

    “Famously, saying ‘Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11’ only convinced people there was some kind of relationship between Saddam and 9/11,” he said. “But saying ‘The 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and UAE’ offers a complete story about the hijackers and actually makes it hard to work Saddam in.”

    When it isn’t possible to lead with contradictory information, you can still flag a misleading statement for readers, said Binkowski.

    “If you must use the claim in the tweet or hed, explain briefly that it's a problem, even if you can't explain why,” she said. “Then people will either understand that it is problematic and move on, or click on the story and read more.”

    Wallace agreed, saying it’s better to use a word like “dubious” than to not flag the quote as problematic at all.

    “If it's dubious for reasons you can factually provide, call it dubious in the damn headline,” he said. “If it seems to deliberately mislead, state your reasons for thinking so. … Better to be unsure and closer to the truth than to be 100% sure of something that turns out to be wrong or misleading.”

    On the other end of the spectrum, particularly egregious falsehoods could warrant an entirely different story: one centered on the fact of the lie.

    Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent who is known for fact-checking Trump on Twitter, says that when the lying is the bulk of the topic covered, it should be the story.

    “If a car salesman told you 36 untrue things in 75 minutes, that would probably be the first thing you told your friends about your trip to the dealership,” he writes. “It should have been the first thing we all told our readers about Trump’s August rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.”

    And finally, there's the option of just refusing to report on the misinformation at all.

    Walsh said people working in newsrooms should “question whether or not we do need to report on every single response that the president has,” because when the information is incorrect, “it can be actually more detrimental to our reporting.”

    And Binkowski said media should “stop treating people who use 4chan and memes to inform their policy as though they are serious policymakers. They are lifting propaganda videos from Reddit and passing them off as their own. They lie with impunity. They push white supremacist memes and dog whistles. They call us ‘the enemy of the people.’ Why should we give someone like that free PR?”

    Whatever the approach, truth must be central -- even if it means missing out on a few clicks.

    “You cannot let your need for profit undermine your core values,” said Poynter Institute Senior Vice President Kelly McBride, who also serves as ethics chair at Poynter’s Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. “And if truth is a core value, then you can’t let distribution techniques or tricks undermine that.”

    Another consideration: Live coverage and Twitter

    Many of the issues involved in headline writing also pertain to Twitter: partly because journalists often tweet out headlines and similarly pithy phrases when sharing their work, but also because of the phenomenon of live-tweeting. But what’s the value in such work?

    “I think live-tweeting a speech in general is silly and noisy and not generally helpful for the public,” said McBride. “The kind of live-tweeting that I like is when you bring more context to something.”

    That context, she and others said, can come via fact-checking.

    “In this age of information and with all the tools we have available, there's no excuse to not be fact-checking the type of big, bold, misinformation claims that we see during political rallies,” Max Kamin-Cross, a data analytics expert and chief operating officer for FactSquared, said in an interview.

    In discussing how to tweet about misinformation, multiple experts referenced the Toronto Star’s Dale, who writes that he’s “made it my mission to fact-check every word Donald Trump utters as president.”

    “I think the work Daniel Dale at the Toronto Star does is a great example of one way to handle it,” said Kamin-Cross. “He differentiates between lies and dishonest statements.”

    “See the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale’s excellent Twitter feed,” said Binkowski. “He does it perfectly.”

    For his part, Dale has written that his work is easier than many imagine: “People sometimes ask in response how I can blast out these corrections so quickly. But I have no special talent. My secret is that Trump tells the same lies over and over.”

    The takeaway: Headlines and tweets must be able to stand on their own

    The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson writes that the “news media cannot kill the virus” of Trump’s endless misinformation. “But by refusing to host it,” he says, “they can at least limit the spread.”

    Whether journalists do that by not reporting on a falsehood, immediately highlighting contradictory facts, making the lie itself the story, putting contradictory evidence in a headline, or simply flagging a statement as dubious right off the bat will depend on the circumstances.

    But whatever the case, one rule must hold true: Reporters should write tweets and headlines as though they’re the only part of a story that people will see. Often, they are.

    Guidelines graphic created by Sarah Wasko. 

  • Wash. Post called out for needlessly scandalizing Elizabeth Warren's past work in bankruptcy law

    Blog ››› ››› COURTNEY HAGLE

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On May 22, The Washington Post published an article detailing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) work as a lawyer while she was also teaching, drawing mostly upon information Warren provided on her website and supplemented with additional Post reporting. While the article contained valuable information about Warren’s past career, the Post was criticized for its framing of the story, which seemingly attempted to scandalize the compensation Warren received as a bankruptcy attorney.

    Warren’s campaign released a list of 56 cases that she had worked on, revealing undisclosed information about an aspect of her career that she doesn’t often discuss in public. Warren previously disclosed 13 cases she was involved in when, according to the Post, she “came under pressure from her Republican opponent and the news media to discuss her legal work” during her 2012 Senate campaign. The Post also independently found that “a wave of Warren’s legal work came in the early 2000s as manufacturing companies whose products contained asbestos were forced into bankruptcy by waves of personal injury claims.” The article also described Warren’s work consulting “for more than a dozen committees representing claimants and creditors in these cases, often in partnership with the law firm Caplin & Drysdale, for an hourly rate of $675.”

    Digging into candidates’ career history is important in educating voters about them ahead of a presidential election. However, many media, political, and other figures were critical of the article -- particularly the headline's focus on Warren’s fee of $675 per hour.

    Adam Serwer, The Atlantic​

    Soledad O’Brien, Starfish Media Group

    Jared Yates Sexton, political commentator

    Matthew Miller, MSNBC analyst

    Keith Ellison, Minnesota attorney general

    Brian Beutler, Crooked Media

    Jason Linkins, ThinkProgress

    Qasim Rashid, Virginia Senate District 28 candidate

    Josh Marshall, TPM

    Journalist Helen Kennedy

    Dan Baer, Colorado U.S. Senate candidate

    Ben White, Politico

    Bishop Talbert Swan, pastor

    Harry Litman, The Washington Post

    Parker Molloy, Media Matters

    Matt Fuller, HuffPost

    Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire News

    Journalist Tom Watson

    Podcast host Aaron Mahnke

  • As turmoil within the NRA mounts, NRATV pretends nothing is wrong

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    A public feud between the National Rifle Association and its longtime ad firm Ackerman McQueen is escalating, creating a bizarre dynamic in which the ad firm continues its role producing the NRA’s media outlet even as it wages a scorched-earth campaign against the group’s leadership. Supporters of the Ackerman faction are now leaking embarrassing information about NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre that could threaten his job as well as the NRA’s tax-exempt nonprofit status. Yet NRATV continues to put forward a facade of normalcy.

    The first public sign of trouble between the NRA and Ackerman -- which have worked together for nearly four decades -- was revealed in a March 11 article in The New York Times. Noting that NRATV “has adopted an increasingly apocalyptic, hard-right tone, warning of race wars, describing Barack Obama as a ‘fresh-faced flower-child president,’ calling for a march on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and comparing journalists to rodents,” the Times quoted NRA board members, including past NRA President Marion Hammer, expressing concern about NRATV’s direction. The Times reported that LaPierre was “livid and embarrassed” after NRA national spokesperson and Ackerman employee Dana Loesch aired an episode of her NRATV show -- first reported on by Media Matters -- that depicted Thomas the Tank Engine in a Ku Klux Klan hood in an attempt to criticize the children’s television show Thomas and Friends for adding diversity to its cast of characters.

    Then in April, the NRA sued Ackerman in Virginia state court, alleging that the ad firm has not fulfilled its contractual obligations to the NRA. The NRA’s complaint mentioned that it paid Ackerman $42.6 million in 2017 alone and alleged that Ackerman refused to turn over metrics that could be used to evaluate NRATV’s effectiveness and that it would not provide full details about a contract with then-NRA President Oliver North to produce an NRATV series. (The NRA would later update its legal complaint to accuse North of duplicitously attempting to draw a salary from both the NRA and Ackerman.)

    The conflict between the NRA and its own advertising firm came to a head during the 2019 NRA annual meeting, when a series of events pitted LaPierre and Brewer Attorneys & Counselors -- an outside legal contractor that allegedly costs the NRA nearly $100,000 per day -- against North and Ackerman McQueen. (Another strange aspect to the infighting: William Brewer, the CEO of Brewer Attorneys, is the brother-in-law of Ackerman McQueen CEO Revan McQueen.) As the meetings were unfolding, North sent the NRA board a letter alleging LaPierre participated in various financial misdeeds. LaPierre responded by accusing North of attempting to extort him and said he would not resign. In the end, LaPierre was reelected by the board of the directors, while North was ousted from the presidency after acknowledging he did not have the support of the board.

    That outcome appears to have done little to stem the infighting. In one recent major development, on May 10, the letter that North sent to the board leaked and its embarrassing claims about LaPierre’s spending became public. In recent years, LaPierre often used Ackerman to pay for things that the NRA would later reimburse. Among the expenses: more than $274,000 in clothing purchases from a single Beverly Hills, CA, clothing boutique, including as much as $39,000 spent in a single day, and an additional $267,000-plus for travel and rent, including $18,300 for a car and driver during a trip in Europe and $13,800 to rent an apartment for a summer intern. The letter also highlighted legal fees charged by Brewer that North said were exorbitant.

    NRATV has continued its regular broadcasts during this infighting, with no mention of any of these new developments. Ackerman has produced the NRA’s media operation since 2004, when the outlet was originally called NRA News. In 2016, NRA News changed its name to NRATV and massively expanded to become a 24/7 online broadcast. NRATV has three shows that broadcast live on weekdays; the rest of the airtime is filled with rebroadcasts, prerecorded series, and other videos from the massive NRATV archive.

    NRATV’s news-of-the-day show Stinchfield has continued its focus on the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, which the NRA terms the ”disarmament primary.” A snapshot of “disarmament primary” segments broadcast on May 15 and 16 shows the type of unhinged and apocalyptic claims that host Grant Stinchfield routinely makes about Democratic candidates:

    • On former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX): “The cornerstone of his [2018 Senate] campaign was to ban AR-15s, a dopey move, even if just by political standards. There are some 22 million gun owners in Texas, many of whom own AR-15s. So gaffe after gaffe put the privileged white kid from boarder school who goes by Beto in a dunce cap in the back of the disarmament primary room.” (Note: Texas has an estimated population of 28.7 million people, making Stinchfield’s claim about the number of gun owners in that state incredibly unlikely.) [NRATV, Stinchfield, 5/15/19]
    • On Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) comment that she would use executive actions to ban the imports of assault weapons: “She’s going to undermine the Second Amendment using executive orders. … The arrogance there, to think that she has a right to do that. We live in a representative government world here in the United States where we send people to Congress to have a say in the laws that are passed. She wants to make an end run around Congress, that’s what Kamala Harris is willing to do, use executive action in a tyrannical fashion to take away your rights.” [NRATV, Stinchfield, 5/15/19]
    • On New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: “Another socialist gun grabber says he’s ready to be president. Let’s welcome New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to the disarmament primary. … He’ll take your money, he’ll take your guns and your home because that’s how his socialist mind works. But de Bozo is oh so late to this party.” [NRATV, Stinchfield, 5/16/19]
    • On former Vice President Joe Biden: “He declared that everyone is not entitled to a gun and … we should all ‘put a damn trigger lock on it, put it in a case, you have an obligation,’ he says. My only obligation, Sloppy Joe, is to keep my family safe. Don’t tell me how to store my firearm when you know nothing about them.” [NRATV, Stinchfield, 5/16/19]

    Stinchfield has also continued its regular attacks on the press. On May 16, Stinchfield ran three different segments on a local news story about preventing home burglaries. The reporter who wrote the story interviewed convicted burglars about what makes them more or less likely to target a home. According to the report, “That National Rifle Association (NRA) sticker on the door that once deterred burglars is now often viewed as a clue that valuable guns are in the home for the taking.” Stinchfield was apoplectic, apparently not grasping that the reporter wasn’t endorsing the interviewees’ views but was simply sharing what he was told. According to Stinchfield:

    The bottom line is this: The reporter’s apparent bias toward guns and the NRA got in the way of telling a meaningful story with some good tips. His credibility is shot now, to me, and sadly, most people will miss that little shot across the bow that he fires at the NRA in this piece. But this is what we’re up against: a mainstream media waging an information war against us. “How dare you be an NRA member,” they say. “How dare you show it proudly. If you do, you’ll be burglarized.” Give me a break.

    The theory that an NRA sticker could increase the odds of a burglary has come up in other recent local news investigations, and it has even been discussed in pro-gun media without allegations of a mainstream media conspiracy.

    NRATV’s two other live shows, Relentless, hosted by Dana Loesch, and Cam & Co., hosted by Cam Edwards, were unremarkable on May 15 and 16 , featuring criticism of Democratic presidential candidates and discussion of gun issues. In one segment characteristic of Loesch’s tendency to sometimes veer into bizarre commentary, Loesch cautioned NRATV viewers to make sure not to leave guns behind in public bathrooms or else “the disarmament left” could “use an accident in an attempt to get rid of your Second Amendment rights.”

    Despite his ouster as NRA president, North remains a prominent face at That appears to be because he still works for Ackerman; his NRATV bio page currently describes him as “Past NRA President, Host.” (North also appears to continue to serve on the NRA board of directors. He was reelected to a three-year term at the annual meeting in voting that occurred before the latest NRA infighting became public.) On NRATV’s “series” page, North is seen alongside his nemesis LaPierre.  

    The show that North hosts, American Heroes, is a major part of the NRA’s lawsuit against Ackerman. In an updated legal complaint filed against Ackerman, the NRA alleged that the series did not deliver as many episodes as promised and did not generate as much sponsorship revenue for the NRA as expected. The few episodes that North and Ackerman have managed to produce so far are available for view at Just four episodes have been released since the series’s launch in November 2018.

    The civil litigation between the NRA and Ackerman is in its earliest stages and there appears to be no end in sight for the gun group’s infighting. But for now, NRATV will continue to serve as the NRA’s messaging apparatus -- even as the PR company that produces it continues to cause massive public relations problems for the NRA.

  • Instagram is letting the NRA encourage harassment and threats against one of the gun group’s biggest critics

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The National Rifle Association is using social media to organize a harassment campaign against one of its prominent critics after she criticized the NRA for its opposition to the regulation of armor-piercing ammunition.

    In a May 8 Instagram post, the NRA criticized Shannon Watts, who leads gun safety organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, for taking issue with the group’s opposition to regulating armor-piercing ammunition.

    The NRA has long stymied attempts to restrict a particular type of armor-piercing ammunition known as “green tip” by promoting the falsehood that banning it would necessitate banning all other types of rifle ammunition. It also attacked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2015 after the agency published a letter describing its intent to ban “green tip” pursuant to its interpretation of the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1985 (LEOPA). (While “green tip” was initially exempted from restrictions placed on armor-piercing ammunition in the LEOPA, the recent prevalence of the sale of handguns that can fire rifle rounds caused ATF to ask for the exemption to be removed. ATF’s request was not granted, but even if it was, all other types of rifle ammunition currently sold would have remained legal.)

    In its Instagram post about Watts, the NRA encouraged people to contact the advocate, writing, “Tell @ShannonRWatts (aka ‘Bloomberg’s chief lobbyist’) what you think about ammunition bans.” Unsurprisingly, Watts then received a torrent of harassment and death threats on the platform that targeted her and her family. She wrote on Twitter, “The @NRA just posted this to Instagram and now people are threatening to kill me. I guess the NRA is scared of a mom.”

    Following Watts’ tweet, the NRA doubled down with a new post that attacked her for moderating comments on her Instagram account with the claim, “Shannon Watts deleted 127 comments in 19 minutes.” In the caption, the NRA tagged Watts’ Instagram handle again, claimed that Watts was “deleting all of your thoughtful comments,” bizarrely claimed that Watts “despises” the First Amendment, and added the hashtag “#SorryNotSorry.”

    As Watts continued to be harassed, the NRA put up another post highlighting the fact that Watts had disabled comments on her Instagram page.The gun group again tagged Watts’ Instagram handle in the caption and pushed the falsehood that banning armor-piercing ammunition would mean banning “all rifle ammunition used for self-defense, sport, and hunting.”

    Many of the responses Watts got as a result of the NRA’s posts were vile. As the group encouraged people to contact her, Watts documented on Twitter the messages she received on Instagram, which included:

    The NRA could have claimed some plausible deniability about the threats and harassment that its initial Instagram post elicited. Instead, it openly encouraged a harassment campaign against Watts with its follow-up posts. And among the major social media platforms, the NRA picked a good one to use for a harassment campaign, as Instagram has been notably recalcitrant to take measures to stop harassment on its platform.

    As Taylor Lorenz explained in an October 2018 article in The Atlantic on Instagram’s harassment problem, “The platform is also a powerful discovery engine: On Instagram, it’s easy to search by hashtag or location and pull up thousands of people’s profiles and public images, and it’s simple for anyone who wants to mobilize an army to encourage trolls to pile on a specific person by tagging them in an image or story.”

  • Study: Major media outlets' Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ & ROB SAVILLO

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Major media outlets failed to rebut President Donald Trump's misinformation 65% of the time in their tweets about his false or misleading comments, according to a Media Matters review. That means the outlets amplified Trump's misinformation more than 400 times over the three-week period of the study -- a rate of 19 per day.

    The data shows that news outlets are still failing to grapple with a major problem that media critics highlighted during the Trump transition: When journalists apply their traditional method of crafting headlines, tweets, and other social media posts to Trump, they end up passively spreading misinformation by uncritically repeating his falsehoods.

    The way people consume information in the digital age makes the accuracy of a news outlet’s headlines and social media posts more important than ever, because research shows they are the only thing a majority of people actually read. But journalists are trained to treat a politician’s statements as intrinsically newsworthy, often quoting them without context in tweets and headlines and addressing whether the statement was accurate only in the body of the piece, if at all. When the politician’s statements are false, journalists who quote them in headlines and on social media without context end up amplifying the falsehoods.

    Anecdotally, it’s been clear for some time that journalists have not adjusted their practices for the Trump era in which, according to The Washington Post, the president has already made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims. In recent months, Media Matters has explored how news outlets have passively misinformed the public by passing along misinformation from Trump administration figures on topics like threats of violence against journalists, special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, potential conflict with North Korea, Special Olympics funding, and whether the Obama administration was “spying” on Trump associates.

    But in order to assess the scope of the problem, Media Matters reviewed the more than 2,000 tweets that 32 Twitter feeds controlled by major news outlets sent about Trump comments from January 26, when legislation took effect that ended a lengthy federal shutdown and temporarily funded the government, through February 15, when Trump agreed to a longer extension of federal funding and declared a national emergency on the border.

    We coded all the tweets that referenced a Trump comment for whether it was false or misleading according to The Washington Post’s database, and if so, for whether the tweet had disputed the false or misleading claim. (Read the full methodology here.)

    It's important to keep in mind the narrowness of our scope: We reviewed how media outlets treated false claims only from the president, not from members of his administration who mimic his disregard for the truth. But even then, the results were striking, demonstrating that media outlets have a serious, ongoing problem dealing with passive misinformation.

    Key Takeaways:

    • 30% of the tweets by major media outlets’ Twitter accounts about Trump remarks referenced a false or misleading statement.

    • Nearly two-thirds of the time, the outlets did not dispute that misinformation.

    • That means the outlets amplified false or misleading Trump claims without disputing them 407 times over the three weeks of the study, an average of 19 times a day.

    • The extent to which outlets’ Twitter feeds passively spread Trump’s misinformation depended on the platform in which Trump made his comments. For example:

      • 92% of false or misleading Trump claims went undisputed when he was speaking at a press gaggle or pool spray.

      • 49% of false or misleading Trump claims went undisputed when outlets were responding to comments he made during formal speeches.

    • @TheHill was the worst actor and sent more than 40% of the tweets that pushed Trump’s misinformation without disputing it during our entire study.


    Passive misinformation is a problem for outlets across the board

    Trump makes false claims frequently, and the media outlet Twitter feeds we studied frequently repeat his lies.

    Media outlets put a great deal of focus on Trump’s comments -- roughly one out of every five tweets mentioning Trump was about a particular quote. We found that that content strategy leaves outlets vulnerable to passing on the president’s misinformation, as 30% of those Trump quotes contained a false or misleading claim.

    News outlets can report on Trump’s falsehoods without misleading their audience if they take the time to fact-check his statements within the body of their tweets. But we found that that isn’t happening consistently -- in nearly two-thirds of tweets referencing false or misleading Trump claims, the media outlets did not dispute Trump’s misinformation.

    All told, the Twitter feeds we studied promoted false or misleading Trump claims without disputing them in 407 tweets over a three-week period -- an average of 19 undisputed false claims published each day.

    When a tweet about a false or misleading Trump comment included a link -- which often indicates that the tweet’s text is the headline of the article found at that link -- the outlet failed to dispute the misinformation 56% of the time. We found a total of 258 such tweets.

    Media outlets performed even more poorly when they sent tweets about Trump claims that featured embedded video, a format often used to report on comments the president has just made. Outlets tweeting embedded video did not dispute false or misleading Trump comments 94% of the time. We found a total of 143 such tweets.

    Outlets passively spread Trump’s misinformation regardless of his platform

    Trump spews misinformation whenever he speaks or tweets. However, we found that media outlets responded to his misinformation differently depending on the venue where the president made his comments.

    • The Twitter feeds we followed performed the worst when Trump was speaking at a press gaggle or pool spray, passing along his false or misleading claims without disputing them 92% of the time -- a total of 61 tweets.

    • Seventy-three percent of tweets featuring a false or misleading claim Trump made during an interview did not dispute the misinformation. There were a total of 38 such tweets over the course of the study.

    • Two-thirds of tweets featuring a false or misleading claim Trump made during a press conference did not dispute the misinformation. This sample was very small, with only six such tweets.

    • Just over three-quarters of tweets featuring a false or misleading claim Trump tweeted did not dispute the misinformation. We found 166 tweets that fit that category.

    • We found that outlets performed “best” when they were responding to claims Trump made during speeches. In those circumstances, only 49% of false or misleading Trump claims went undisputed, a total of 136 tweets.

    The State of the Union exception

    The data for Trump claims during speeches is likely skewed by the media’s performance during the State of the Union.

    In our March review of the tweets media outlets sent in the 24 hours following that event, we wrote that the State of the Union likely represented a high point for the news media’s performance in responding to Trump falsehoods in real time because the night’s prominence led news outlets to devote substantial resources to fact-checking that speech.

    That hypothesis was supported by the results of our broader study. In the 24 hours after the speech began, outlets disputed 53% of false Trump claims that they tweeted about, compared to only 27% during the remainder of the study. Notably, February 5, the date of the speech, and the day before, when outlets were preparing for the speech, were the only two days over the course of the study when the number of tweets disputing Trump’s misinformation exceeded tweets failing to dispute his claims.

    In particular, some of the outlets we praised for using extensive graphics to point out misleading elements during their coverage of Trump's State of the Union speech did substantially worse in responding to his misinformation over the remainder of the study. The New York Times’ main Twitter feed and politics feed disputed every misleading Trump comment they tweeted about during the 24 hours following the State of the Union, but they did so only 38% of the time over the rest of the period. Similarly, Politico’s feed disputed more than four out of five misleading Trump claims during our March State of the Union study but did so only 8% of the time before and afterward.

    The news outlets that spread the most passive misinformation

    The outlets we studied vary in how often they report on the president’s comments, how often they highlight Trump statements that are false, and how diligent they are in fact-checking those remarks. All of these factors affect how frequently they provide passive misinformation to their audiences on Twitter.

    The Twitter feed of The Hill, which has 3.25 million followers, was by far the worst offender we reviewed, producing more than 40 percent of the tweets that pushed Trump’s misinformation without context over the entire study. It promoted Trump’s falsehoods without disputing them 175 times -- an average of more than eight per day. These numbers are so high in part because the outlet tweets about Trump far more frequently than other outlets, generating about a quarter of the total data. That high volume led to the outlet tweeting about false or misleading Trump claims 200 times. The feed rarely disputes the Trump claims it tweets about, instead simply passing along the misinformation 88% of the time. The Hill also frequently resends the same tweet at regular intervals, not only amplifying his falsehoods, but also making it more likely that the misinformation will stick with its audience through the power of repetition.

    Several Twitter feeds controlled by ABC News that we reviewed also stood out, failing to fact-check the president’s misinformation 71% of the time. Many of these cases came when the feeds tweeted Trump quotes and embedded video without additional context during or immediately following Trump events.

    • ABC News’ main Twitter feed (14.3 million followers) sent 23 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation 74% of the time.

    • The network’s politics feed (733,000 followers) sent 25 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation 64% of the time.

    • The feed for its evening news broadcast, World News Tonight (1.35 million followers), sent 13 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation every single time.

    • The feed for its Sunday political talk show, This Week (166,000 followers), sent 21 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation 64% of the time

    CBS News’ Twitter feeds also performed poorly, passing along the president’s falsehoods without disputing them 87% of the time. The network’s general feed (6.71 million followers) and the ones for its nightly news broadcast, CBS Evening News (304,000 followers), and Sunday political talk show, Face The Nation (473,000 followers), passed along Trump’s misinformation in 11, 13, and 16 tweets, respectively, failing to correct it 92%, 72%, and 100% of the time. Notably, the feeds for Face The Nation and CBS Evening News each quoted Trump in their tweets about him more than 41% of the time -- the highest rates of any feeds in our study. Considered together, that data means those two feeds are not only largely failing to assess whether the president's statements are accurate, but also using Trump's misinformation as their lens to cover his administration more than other outlets.

    Other media Twitter feeds we reviewed that sent 10 or more tweets passing on false or misleading Trump comments include MSNBC’s main feed (2.41 million followers, 11 such tweets, failing to dispute 55% of the time); NBC News’ main feed (6.52 million followers, 13 such tweets, failing to dispute 52% of the time); Politico (3.8 million followers, 14 such tweets, failing to dispute 58% of the time); and Roll Call (359,000 followers, 10 such tweets, failing to dispute 83% of the time).

    Notable exceptions

    Some feeds entirely avoided passing on Trump’s misinformation over the course of the study. NPR’s main feed, which tweeted only 20 times about Trump quotes, debunked the misinformation in all four false claims it tweeted about.

    Other Twitter feeds limited the exposure their audience had to Trump’s misinformation by minimizing their focus on Trump’s comments. For example, the feed for Meet The Press, the NBC News Sunday political talk show, failed to dispute Trump’s falsehoods 83% of the time. But it rarely tweeted about Trump comments, with such tweets making up only 9% of the outlet’s total tweets about Trump. CNN’s main Twitter feed similarly referenced Trump quotes in only 11% of the tweets about him, while doing somewhat better at fact-checking Trump, disputing his false claims 75% of the time.

    The Washington Post’s feed disputed Trump’s misinformation at the highest rate of any feed we studied that tweeted about 10 or more false Trump claims. Out of 37 tweets about false or misleading Trump claims, the outlet disputed the misinformation 33 times and failed four times, a success rate of 89%.


    Media Matters reviewed more than 54,000 tweets sent between 12 a.m. EST on January 26 and 12 a.m. EST on February 16 from the following Twitter feeds of U.S. wire services; major broadcast, cable, and radio networks; national newspapers; and Capitol Hill newspapers and digital outlets that cover Congress and the White House: @AP, @AP_Politics, @Reuters, @ReutersPolitics, @ABC, @ABCPolitics, @ABCWorldNews, @ThisWeekABC, @CBSEveningNews, @CBSNews, @FaceTheNation, @NBCNews, @NBCNightlyNews, @NBCPolitics, @CNN, @CNNPolitics, @FoxNews*, @BreakingNews, @MSNBC, @NPR, @nprpolitics, @nytpolitics, @nytimes @politico, @postpolitics, @washingtonpost, @WSJ, @USAToday, @latimes, @axios, @thehill, and @rollcall.

    We chose that time frame both because it involved a period of high-stakes political turmoil in which the information the public received was especially crucial, and because the president made public remarks at that time in a variety of ways, including the State of the Union, other speeches, press gaggles and pool sprays, interviews, a press conference, and innumerable tweets.

    Media Matters narrowed the universe down to the roughly 11,000 of those tweets that mentioned "Trump," and identified of that group more than 2,000 tweets that referenced a comment Trump had made. We then coded those tweets for whether they referenced a remark that’s included in The Washington Post Fact Checker’s database of false or misleading Trump claims. In such cases, we reviewed whether the outlets’ tweets had disputed the Trump claim. We reviewed the text and images embedded in the tweets, but did not review embedded videos.

    *@FoxNews did not tweet during the period of the study.

  • Fox "straight news" anchor Martha MacCallum allows Rush Limbaugh to spew racism and conspiracy theories with no pushback

    Fox News pushes "straight news" anchors like MacCallum and Bret Baier as somehow distinct from its prime-time opinion programming -- but Rush Limbaugh of all people just proved otherwise

    Blog ››› ››› REBECCA MARTIN

    Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum allowed Rush Limbaugh to make long debunked claims, racist statements, and false accusations which she left unchecked throughout her interview with the right-wing radio host.

    During the interview, Limbaugh claimed fomer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be investigated, indicted and put in jail. Limbaugh offered no evidence to back up this claim, and MacCallum did not ask for any. Limbaugh also used a racial slur to attack Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and MacCallum again let the attack slide without mention. Limbaugh then claimed Democratic candidates do not have plans to pay for their policy proposals, another falsehood that MacCallum did not push back on.

    Shortly after the segment ended, President Donald Trump enthusiastically tweeted it:

    A few minutes after Trump's tweet, Sean Hannity also gushed over Limbaugh's remarks on his Fox News "opinion" show.

    While Fox News presents MacCallum as a “straight news” host, labeling her as a contrast to its problematic opinion hosts, she continually pushes right-wing misinformation and allows conservative guests to present falsehoods with minimal pushback. As Media Matters' Matt Gertz recently wrote, "MacCallum is every bit as pure an ideologue as anyone else on the network, using her show to claim that a border wall is 'needed' to stop the immigrant 'invasion' and declare that 'both sides' were at fault during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, among other misdeeds."

    Fox's chief political anchor Bret Baier, whom Fox touts as being on the “straight news” side, recently interviewed Limbaugh with similar results -- even though it was days after Limbaugh had called the New Zealand shootings a false flag. Baier and MacCallum hosted Fox’s town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

    Fox News is currently in an advertiser crisis and has been pushing "straight news" anchors like MacCallum and Baier as somehow distinct from its prime-time opinion programming. In reality, the two are cogs in the same machine -- as Rush Limbaugh himself just proved.