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  • Media coverage of the 2016 election was a disaster. In the new year, reporters should resolve to do better.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    For all the recent focus on the social media campaigns Russia waged during the 2016 election, it’s surprising that more attention hasn’t been paid to what was arguably a much more effective aspect of the influence operation: the hacking and release of Democratic National Committee emails.

    In one high-profile 2016 media postmortem, The New York Times came to a startling conclusion. “Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and [Clinton campaign chairman John] Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence,” the paper wrote.

    In fact, the emails were a media obsession, driven by bad habits the press has adopted in recent years. As coverage of the 2020 campaign begins, we look back at what went wrong in 2016 and how reporters can resolve to do better in the new year.


    During the final five weeks of the 2016 campaign, evening and prime-time cable news aired nearly 250 segments about the DNC and Podesta emails. Broadcast TV news didn’t fare so well, either, running 25 segments. Five of the country’s top newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) published a combined 96 articles on the topic during that same span. Though President Donald Trump insists that the emails had “absolutely no effect on the outcome” of the election -- which isn’t exactly quantifiable either way -- it’s worth noting that he thought they were enough of a selling point that he mentioned them 164 times during the final month of the campaign.

    Writing at The Week in November 2016, Lili Loofbourow explained how Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were able to “hijack” U.S. media by extending the email news cycle for weeks on end:

    If you're in possession of sensitive documents you want to leak, and you want to inflict maximal damage on a candidate, the recipe for injuring their campaign is obvious: Don't let the "wound" close. Keep dripping out emails, knowing perfectly well that a) the media will report that a new batch of emails has been leaked, and b) that very few people will actually take the trouble to read them, but will notice that time is not healing the thing, and the bleeding continues, cycle after cycle after cycle.

    The damage, however, was extraordinary. WikiLeaks' slow-release approach forced journalists to cover each batch as new "revelations," even when there wasn't much to actually cover. Having learned through bitter experience that few Americans would bother to actually read them, WikiLeaks sprinkled emails into the news cycle and gave Americans the impression of a campaign wound so deep it couldn't heal. While Donald Trump rapid-cycled through scandals that seemed not to stick because they were so quickly displaced by fresh ones, "the emails" lingered in the public eye.

    The only reason Assange’s curated, slow-burn release strategy worked to its intended effect was that American media were eager to lap up the new information, reporting the anodyne as well as the legitimately newsworthy. This created a cloud of suggested scandal which hovered through Election Day.

    If news organizations fail to honestly evaluate their flaws and implement changes ahead of 2020, they’ll be responsible for the spread of more misinformation.

    Self-criticism is difficult, but it is also necessary. On December 15, 2016, two days after the aforementioned Times report, the paper published another article on the emails, but this one collected quotes from editors across the country defending the coverage.

    New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet is quoted:

    “I get the argument that the standards should be different if the stuff is stolen and that should influence the decision,’’ he said in an interview. “But in the end, I think that we have an obligation to report what we can about important people and important events. There’s just no question that the email exchanges inside the Democratic Party were newsworthy.”

    Setting aside the question of whether it’s ethical to publish information illegally obtained by a hostile foreign power -- there are certainly strong arguments to be made on both sides -- there’s the bigger question of how media should cover that material and what qualifies as newsworthy. Sometimes a risotto recipe is just a risotto recipe, you know?

    In the case of the DNC emails, the mere existence of leaked emails was treated as a scandal in itself. For the most part, the emails were the kinds of things you might find if you could scroll through any large organization’s communications: petty arguments, office politics, the airing of personal grievances, and so on. While some revealed small-scale scandals, such as Democratic strategist Donna Brazile sharing topics to be covered at a CNN town hall with the Clinton campaign, most of it just didn’t live up to the hype -- and oh, there was a lot of hype.

    On Twitter, WikiLeaks would often publish out-of-context information intended to make it seem as though something nefarious was happening behind the scenes at the DNC. Yes, the emails were real, but they often didn’t say what WikiLeaks suggested they did. 

    Hindsight is always 20/20, at least eventually.

    In July 2018, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple checked back in on the subject of email coverage, interviewing news outlets about “whether they regretted reporting on the email leaks.” With a bit more distance from the election, there was room for a more honest and less defensive evaluation from media executives. One quote from his article that caught my eye came from the Times’ Baquet. The contrast between this and his December 2016 opinion was stark. Here’s what he said (emphasis mine):

    First off, we didn’t know then what we know now. Obviously the origins of the emails are a far bigger story than what was contained in them. But we didn’t know that at the time.

    The stories that came from the emails were newsworthy. Not only Donna Brazile’s question sharing, but the details of Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, speeches she had declined to make public. Imagine if we had chosen not to publish those emails at the time, interesting details about a presidential candidate in the middle of an election. That would have been a political act. Of course one cringes reading the details of the indictment. But one of the imperfections of journalism is that you have to publish based on what you know at the time.

    Baquet’s acknowledgement is important, but it still doesn’t suggest that he’d have done anything different at the time, leaving me wondering what will happen during future elections -- especially given the state of the media industry today.

    The press serves an important role in democracy, but industry conditions have made that increasingly difficult.

    While the handling of hacked emails was probably the most glaring mistake in 2016 election coverage, it was far from the only shortcoming in political media. For that, we may have the industry and its business model to blame.

    According to Pew Research, more than one-third of U.S. newspapers laid off journalists between January 2017 and April 2018. In that same span, nearly one-quarter of the top digital news organizations did the same. Between 2008 and 2017, total newsroom employment has ticked down 23 percent, from 114,000 to 88,000 employees nationwide. It’s an industry in crisis, facing mounting struggles when it comes to monetizing its work. Staying afloat increasingly relies on traffic driven by social media, which means trying to game the various algorithms. Those algorithms tend to reward the emotionally charged and sensational, but not necessarily the true. As they adapted to survive, news outlets developed some extremely bad habits. Let’s resolve to break them now, especially as 2020 election coverage begins.

    To break bad habits, we must first acknowledge what they are. Below, I’ve listed a few examples of common mistakes that journalists and news consumers alike should be able to easily identify:

    • Leave outrage bait behind. If the only reason you’re saying something is that you think you’ll get a reaction out of others, or if you have to pull something so far out of context that it doesn’t even resemble the truth, you’re not really saying much at all.
    • Avoid bad polling. If you ever see a poll that just happens to confirm your beliefs a little too much, take a second and look at the methodology. Who was polled? What was the polling method? Is it an outlier? How were the questions phrased? Bad polling goes hand-in-hand with the previous point about outrage bait. For instance, a recent poll suggested that there are people clamoring for a “gender-neutral Santa.” You may be shocked to learn that’s not the case, and that a single survey offered a multiple choice question about how you would modify Santa if you had to “modernize” him (such as giving him an iPhone, tattoos, making him skinnier, restyling his hair, and so on). There were also headlines claiming a poll shows 40 percent of college students are anti-free speech, and pieces about a bizarre poll that might not actually exist showing Kid Rock leading in a hypothetical election against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).
    • Bring back boring (and accurate) headlines. You have 280 characters on Twitter -- use them! The overwhelming majority of people who see a tweet or a headline will not click on it, but they may remember what it said. That’s why it’s so important to add necessary context. If you have to mislead readers to increase the number of clicks you receive, you’re probably not telling a very interesting story to begin with.
    • Avoid rhetorical empty calories. If you find yourself using ambiguous buzzwords like “political correctness” or “identity politics,” consider swapping in another word or phrase to help make your point more clear to your audience. NPR recently combined bad polling and rhetorical empty calories when it asked respondents whether they consider political correctness a problem. Without defining the term, which is almost always used in a negative connotation, people unsurprisingly responded that yes, they did think political correctness was an issue.
    • Not every local story or minor controversy needs to be blown up into a national news story. Did a couple of radio stations decide not to play “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in December? Sure. Is that a sign of some gigantic national trend worthy of our anger and outrage? Absolutely not. Keep an eye out for “trend” stories that seem to be based on just a handful of incidents.
    • Remember that pundits aren’t representative of all people. People who get paid to talk about politics on TV (or at least invited to do so on a regular basis) tend to be there because they are, first and foremost, at least somewhat entertaining to watch. After all, what’s the fun in watching two people discuss the nuances of policy when you could draw more viewers by broadcasting a nightly shouting match between two people on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum?
    • Conduct challenging, even confrontational, interviews. Reporters are tuned into political media, but a lot of readers might not be. Catching a clip of a congressional candidate on the local news or listening to someone explain the details of a policy proposal on a Sunday morning talk show might be some of the only background consumers get, so make it count! If someone tells a lie, correct them; if the interviewee veers off topic, steer the conversation back as quickly as you can.

    One month after the 2016 election, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center released an analysis of campaign coverage. For people actually interested in learning about policy differences between candidates, the findings were especially disappointing. Forty-two percent of news stories from mid-August onward were dedicated to horserace-style coverage and punditry, and 17 percent centered on controversies. Just 10 percent were about policy, 4 percent on personal traits, and 3 percent devoted to the candidates’ leadership and experience qualifications.

    “The car wreck that was the 2016 election had many drivers. Journalists were not alone in the car, but their fingerprints were all over the wheel,” reads one of the report’s most memorable lines. That needs to change.

  • Is SNL great Jane Curtin planning to murder millions of registered Republicans? Fox & Friends can’t say for sure.

    Feigned ignorance is a right-wing media ritual

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In what was either the final faux scandal of 2018 or the first of the new year, Saturday Night Live alum Jane Curtin raised some conservative hackles with a comment aired during CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live. In a pretaped segment asking celebrities for their New Year’s resolutions, Curtin deadpanned, “My New Year’s resolution is to make sure that the Republican Party dies.”

    Within minutes, the clip began making the rounds on social media, and it later appeared on Fox News. Her video was actually part of a much larger package, which included goals from the likes of Tyra Banks (“to be on time”), Patricia Arquette (to “stop caring about New Year’s resolutions”), and Harvey Fierstein (“to stop wearing all of this jewelry”).

    It may be a new year, but this response from right-wing media is very old and very predictable. Like so many others, Curtin’s comment would be taken out of context, misrepresented, and ultimately used as an example of “violent rhetoric” among liberals.

    As is often the case, Fox News played a major role in building on this tried and true narrative.

    On the January 2 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy twisted Curtin’s comment into something far more sinister, mischaracterizing it as being “about killing Republicans.” Comedian Michael Loftus joined the show to weigh in:

    MICHAEL LOFTUS, COMEDIAN: That was absolutely terrifying! Really terrifying! To make sure the Republican Party dies. She meant it. That wasn’t a joke -- that wasn’t a joke. That makes you glad that there’s a three-day waiting period on guns. Jane Curtin has lost it. She’s completely not funny. And here’s what I think. I think that this is what the left has been thinking for a long, long time. It would be so much easier if there was no opposition. They have no message, they can’t win a debate, so it would just be easier if all the Republicans were dead and gone. It’s terrifying!

    STEVE DOOCY, CO-HOST: So in other words, she’s just being honest. That’s what she wants.

    LOFTUS: I think -- I think Trump has them so frustrated, the mask is off. It would be so much easier for the left if they -- if all the Republicans could just get out of the way. And they could just take over and we’d all be Venezuela by the morning. It’s horrible. Jane Curtin has made a very good living playing cold, mean, calculating women. It turns out she wasn’t playing a part. She’s a cold, mean, calculating woman.

    AINSLEY EARHARDT, CO-HOST: What do you think about folks in Hollywood, these actors that are giving their political opinions? Do you think they should do that?

    LOFTUS: They can. If you want to give your opinion, go for it, but I’m not gonna hang out at any parties with these guys. Seriously, they want me dead! If I’m at a Hollywood party and Jane Curtin hands me an hors d'oeuvre, I’m gonna say “pass” and get to my car.

    Townhall.com senior columnist Kurt Schlichter came away with a similar interpretation of Curtin’s comment, tweeting that “Jane Curtis (sic) is free to want me dead” before advocating that “Normal Americans buy guns and ammunition to provide a deterrent to such aspiring tyrants.”

    Everyone understands full well that Curtin wasn’t advocating for violence, but feigned ignorance is a right-wing media ritual.

    In October, conservative media went into a total meltdown after former Attorney General Eric Holder urged Democrats to fight back against voter suppression efforts, saying:

    “Michelle [Obama] always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about. We’re proud as hell to be Democrats. We’re willing to fight for the ideals of the Democratic Party.”

    Though it was obvious that Holder wasn’t actually advocating for Democrats to literally kick people, he took an extra step to ensure his comments wouldn’t be misinterpreted:

    "Now, when I say, you know, ‘we kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us. That stuff can be taken away. That’s what they want to do.”

    Fox News, Breitbart, The Washington Times, The Federalist, The Gateway Pundit, The Daily Caller, Hot Air, and RedState all jumped on the Holder story. More than a week later, as part of the Republican Party’s “Jobs Not Mobs” campaign, President Donald Trump invoked Holder’s “kick” comment to illustrate that Democrats are “losing it.”

    Absolutely none of this is new. For instance, during the 2016 campaign, Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson invoked a 2008 comment made by then-candidate Barack Obama. During a Philadelphia fundraiser, Obama quoted a line from the movie The Untouchables, saying, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

    From the March 14, 2016, edition of CNN’s The Lead:

    KATRINA PIERSON, TRUMP CAMPAIGN SPOKESPERSON: If we want to talk about inciting violence, where is the interview with [Democratic presidential front-runner] Hillary Clinton and [President] Barack Obama when they’re talking about bringing a gun to a knife fight? When they’re inciting violence against police officers. Today, we have police officers called out to fake calls so that they can be ambushed and potentially assassinated.

    The twisting of Curtin’s words wasn’t the first time conservative press took a statement from a liberal out of context, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. That’s why it’s so important for readers and viewers to see past the outrage bait and look at the source material themselves.

  • The 15 most ridiculous things media said about climate change in 2018

    Blog ››› ››› TED MACDONALD


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    1. Fox host Lou Dobbs says that climate change is a UN plot “to take over the world”

    On the December 4 episode of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed that the United Nations would “like to take over the world” and it see[s] the perfect opportunity in global warming.” Dobbs then said, “There is great, great debate over whether there is that quote-unquote 'warming'" -- a claim that is, of course, objectively false. Dobbs has peddled inane theories about climate change in the past, calling human-caused global warming a “largely Democratic belief” and suggesting that the sun may be more responsible for global warming than humans.

    2. CNN commentator Rick Santorum says that that climate scientists are “driven by the money”

    On the November 25 episode of CNN’s State of the Union, CNN commentator and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum praised the efforts of the Trump administration to try to bury the release of the National Climate Assessment, claiming that the scientists who wrote it are “driven by the money.” Despite this claim being completely false and widely mocked on social media, Santorum repeated it on CNN just two days later. Santorum failed to note, however, that he himself has received copious amounts of money from the fossil-fuel industry throughout his career.

    3. Infowars host suggests John Kerry broke up a hurricane with an energy beam shot from Antarctica

    Perhaps the leader in promoting absurd conspiracy theories, Infowars waded into the topic of climate change in the wake of Hurricane Lane hitting Hawaii in August. On the August 23 episode of Infowars’ War Room, host Owen Shroyer proposed the idea that John Kerry shot an energy beam from Antarctica that split the hurricane in two. He said, “Why is John Kerry going down to Antarctica just a week after the election to discuss climate change and then you have energy beams coming out of Antarctica splitting hurricanes? Yeah, what is John Kerry doing down there? That’s awfully suspicious to me.” Kerry later poked fun at the comments on Twitter.

    4. Fox commentator Tammy Bruce calls climate change a “malleable issue” for “the left” as they can “blame everything on it”

    On the September 14 episode of Fox Business Network's Varney & Co., Fox News commentator Tammy Bruce said that climate change is “great” for “the left” because people on the left can “blame everything on it.” She continued, “And this is of course the goal, is it's not even about the nature of the weather itself but the blaming of humanity, of the nature of what we're doing, that we're the problem. And of course that gives you an excuse then to control what people do, to control business, and to control industry.”

    5. Former Daily Caller contributor Ian Miles Cheong says that climate change is a neo-Marxist hoax invented to dismantle capitalism

    On October 9, gamergate supporter and writer Ian Miles Cheong tweeted, “Climate change is a hoax invented by neo-Marxists within the scientific community to destabilize the world economy and dismantle what they call ‘systems of oppression’ and what the rest of us call capitalism.” Cheong followed up with, “To clarify, I’m talking about man-made climate change and the fear mongering surrounding it.” (As if we needed further clarification on this tin-foil-hat take.)

    6. During cold weather spell, Fox & Friends host urges Trump to take credit for solving global warming

    A brutal winter storm in early January left at least 22 people dead on the East Coast, and Fox & Friends used that storm to praise its favorite viewer, President Donald Trump. On the January 7 episode of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Pete Hegseth said, “I think President Trump should take credit for solving global warming. Look at how cold it is, that is just another accomplishment that we need to put on the list. Global warming, done. President Trump eradicated it.”

    7. Former Rep. Allen West says God has climate change “under control”

    Former Republican Rep. Allen West, a senior fellow at the right-wing Media Research Center, has an interesting theory about climate change. On October 4 West stated on CRTV, “God couldn't get the weather right, it's man-made climate change. I remember when people asked me about climate change, I said yeah, winter, spring, summer, and fall. They said no, man-made climate-- I said no, no -- so, you know, there's a creator that's got this under control. But what they're doing is they’re delegitimizing, they're undermining the sovereignty of the creator.”

    8. Conservative host Mark Levin likens climate change to Marxism

    On the February 13 episode of LevinTV Tonight on CRTV, Mark Levin laments that because climate change has been “pushed out as a scientific fact,” it's assumed that …“there’s something wrong with” those who dare question it. Levin also calls climate change a “no growth, anti-capitalism movement” that has been “exported to the United States like Marxism itself.” Levin has a history of making idiotic statements denying climate change.

    9. According to radio host Rush Limbaugh, the Hurricane Florence forecast was “all to heighten the belief in climate change”

    What’s a list of ridiculous climate change claims without right-wing media’s most prolific offender, Rush Limbaugh? On the September 11 episode of The Rush Limbaugh Show, as Hurricane Florence was headed for the Carolinas, he claimed, “The forecast and the destruction potential doom and gloom is all to heighten the belief in climate change.”

    10. Fox’s Sean Hannity says that “they do lie to us repeatedly about global warming”

    Sean Hannity, never one to shy away from denying climate change, did it again in 2018 when discussing a winter storm. On the March 6 episode of his radio program, The Sean Hannity Show, Hannity said, “They do lie to us repeatedly about global warming.” He continued: “They just call it global whatever -- climate change, because this way, it's generic. And if it's hot or too hot, they can say it's climate change. If it's cold, or too cold, they can say it's climate change. But it didn't work out when they said ‘global cooling’ or ‘global warming,’ so they had to fix it.”

    11. CNN commentator says there is a “climate change industrial complex”

    Stephen Moore, a CNN commentator and self-described “economist,” is part of CNN's recent climate-denier problem. On the November 26 edition of CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront, Moore tried to discredit the National Climate Assessment by saying, “We have created a climate change industrial complex in this country, with billions and billions and billions of dollars at stake. A lot of people are getting really, really, really rich off the climate change issue.” Moore repeated these claims the next day, again on Burnett’s show. Like Santorum, Moore has been the beneficiary of money from fossil fuel companies, which have funded some of the groups he's worked for.

    12. Commentator Mark Steyn says that that climate change is a form of class war

    On the November 29 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, commentator Mark Steyn said that climate change “is actually a form of class war.” He continued: “In macro terms it’s a way of the developed world denying the developing world any chance to live the kind of lives that people in the developed world live.” He also stated, “It’s an elite thing. Nobody takes it seriously.” Although Steyn has been attacking the climate consensus for at least the last decade, he has no actual background in climate science.

    13. Breitbart’s James Delingpole claims that the “great global warming scare” was launched by “dirty tricks”

    In June 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen gave now-famous testimony to the Senate in which he described humans’ contributions to global warming. On the 30th anniversary of that landmark testimony, Breitbart writer and notorious climate denier James Delingpole penned an article lambasting it, claiming that Hansen used “dirty tricks” to help launch the “great global warming scare.” Delingpole wrote: “But – like the scare itself – the claims were dishonest, hysterical, misleading, unscientific, needlessly alarmist, and cynically stage-managed.” Some of the “dirty tricks” that Delingpole mentioned include the committee chairman scheduling the testimony on the hottest day in June and opening all of the windows in the room. Delingpole, of course, didn’t mention that the evidence of human-induced global warming existed long before Hansen’s testimony. He also predictably failed to note the incredible accuracy of Hansen’s global warming claims.

    14. Columnist Cal Thomas doesn’t think climate change is “settled science”

    Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas criticized the National Climate Assessment in an opinion piece that was published in a number of papers and websites, including the Chicago Tribune. Thomas claimed that climate change is not “settled science” and criticized “scare tactics by leftists who want even more government control over our lives.” To back up his claims, Thomas cited Climate Depot, a website dedicated to denying global warming, and quoted its founder, the industry-funded fraudster Marc Morano. He also cited Patrick Michaels, a climate denier who has received funding from various fossil fuel companies. Finally, Thomas misattributed a quote that called the report a “pile of crap,” saying it came from Princeton oceanographer John P. Dunne when in fact it came from John Dunn of the climate-denier group Heartland Institute. It speaks volumes that a number of newspapers chose to publish Thomas’ column despite its multiple inaccuracies (though some later corrected the quote attribution).

    15. Conservative author Ann Coulter cites white nationalism as a reason to pretend to “believe in global warming”

    On April 25, Coulter tweeted: “I'm fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders. #MacronCode.” Coulter, a virulent racist who has long supported Trump’s dehumanizing immigration policies, has made ridiculous claims about climate change before, and once stated that global warming deniers are considered equivalent to Holocaust deniers. Her April tweet, sent on the day that French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the U.S. Congress, points to a disturbing trend in which some white nationalists take climate change seriously only because the changing climate will lead to the northward migration of refugees from the Global South.

  • Sinclair had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year and it has only itself to blame

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Sinclair Broadcast Group began 2018 hoping to finalize a massive deal that would cement its place as the country’s largest owner and operator of local TV stations, after having more or less weathered a few bad news cycles about its obvious conservative bent. But the local TV news giant is ending the year with arguably higher negative name recognition than ever before and with its proposed acquisition of 42 more stations rejected. In fact, one of its most formidable competitors is now aiming to knock Sinclair out of that top spot. And Sinclair has only itself to blame.

    Sinclair saw a huge spike in public criticism following the launch of a controversial anchor-read, Trumpian “must-run.”

    In March, Sinclair news stations across the country began airing “must-run” promotional segments in which local anchors read from a script that seemed to mirror President Donald Trump’s rhetoric by criticizing other media outlets for so-called bias.

    Some Sinclair employees were so unnerved by the script that they anonymously leaked it to CNN’s Brian Stelter weeks before the segments ran. Timothy Burke, then a video editor at Deadspin, quickly compiled clips of reporters at various stations reading from the shared script, and the resulting video supercut went viral.

    As of publication, the Deadspin video has more than 9 million views. Media Matters additionally documented 66 Sinclair stations nationwide airing the scripted segments. Widespread media coverage of the segments culminated with Trump himself tweeting multiple times in Sinclair’s defense. Sinclair employees continued to speak out about the “must-run” promos, saying they felt their employer was using their local credibility to advance an agenda, and professional groups condemned Sinclair’s tactics. A few employees and stations even refused to participate in the promo campaign.

    In an attempt at damage control, Sinclair executives emailed with reporters and circulated internal documents suggesting that coverage of the promotional segments was itself biased, attacking CNN specifically. The company also trotted out its chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide, to deflect criticism of the promos in an odd second “must-run” segment.

    Sinclair’s chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn isn’t bringing in a loyal audience, but he has sparked several news cycles of outrage over his segments.

    Epshteyn caused numerous problems for his employer this year, producing “must-run” commentary segments that ranged from lackluster to embarrassing to -- on several occasions -- deeply offensive. This year, he drew public ire for using his Sinclair platform to:

    • defend Trump’s racist diatribe calling Haiti, El Salvador, and unspecified African nations “shithole countries”;
    • attempt to minimize the cruelty of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family separation and child detention policies at the southern border;
    • exploit the murder of a young woman in Iowa to attack immigrants;
    • defend tear-gassing families seeking asylum; and
    • back conspiracy theorist and anti-Muslim extremist Laura Loomer.

    After the tear-gas defense in November, Sinclair had to issue multiple statements, at first distancing itself from Epshteyn’s views but then pivoting to saying that the segment had been “drastically and intentionally mischaracterized.” (It was not; Media Matters broke the story and included a full video and transcript.) A couple of media advocacy groups also expressed concern about the segment, with nonpartisan group Free Press even calling on Sinclair to fire Epshteyn.

    When he wasn’t forcing his employer to do damage control over his anti-immigrant commentary, Epshteyn was continuing to cultivate an embarrassingly miniscule audience and land pointless interviews with Trump officials, including the president himself. To give an idea of just how doting these interviews were, I documented the totality of the questions or comments Epshteyn made over the course of six “must-run” segments featuring portions of an interview with Trump. About half were some version of “sure” or “right.”

    This makes sense, of course, because another big problem for Sinclair this year was the news that Epshteyn may in fact be legally barred from criticizing the president. Epshteyn admitted in September that he had signed a nondisparagement agreement while working on the Trump campaign in 2016. As The Washington Post noted, “Epshteyn regularly discloses to viewers his former roles with Trump but hasn’t mentioned that he signed a nondisparagement agreement while he was with the campaign. Asked for comment, Epshteyn declined to address the issue directly.”

    A Sinclair host in St. Louis resigned after aiming abusive language at a Parkland school shooting survivor. 

    While Sinclair regularly inserts its clearly conservative national commentary and reporting segments into local newscasts, the vast majority of employees at Sinclair-controlled stations are just legitimate journalists trying to do their jobs. At the Sinclair station in St. Louis, MO, however, that was not the case. The station, KDNL ABC 30, didn’t offer any typical local newscasts; instead, three times a day it aired a commentary program hosted by local conservative radio host Jamie Allman. At least, until April it did.

    On March 26, Allman sent a threatening tweet about David Hogg, a teenage gun safety activist who survived the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. In the tweet, Allman wrote that he wanted to “ram a hot poker up David Hogg’s ass.” After the St. Louis alt-weekly the Riverfront Times reported on the Hogg tweet, some advertisers pulled their spots from his radio show and a state lawmaker called for a boycott. Within days, Allman had resigned and his KDNL show was cancelled.

    This entire story was an unforced error on Sinclair’s part. It was not the first time Allman had tweeted abusive or unhinged things before or after he was hired to host the Sinclair show -- including a string of abusive tweets he sent to me after Media Matters published a report about him last year. More than eight months later, KDNL still does not appear to air any daily local news programming.

    Sinclair attempted to put a thumb on the scales for midterms, but it didn’t really pay off.

    Though Sinclair has quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) engaged in openly partisan activities in the past, the company’s conservative point of view was on particular display during this year’s midterm elections. Early on in the year, Sinclair began soliciting contributions from upper-level employees for its political action committee (PAC). In keeping with its past efforts, the PAC donated overwhelmingly to Republicans. Sinclair executives personally gave to candidates including racist ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), who is known primarily for body-slamming a reporter. And Epshteyn helped New York Republican congressional candidate Naomi Levin raise money over the summer, promoting her campaign donation link on Twitter.

    Epshteyn’s segments increasingly forewent commentary altogether in the lead-up to the elections, instead excerpting softball interviews that essentially served as infomercials for White House and Republican Party officials and their policies. Over the course of the year, Epshteyn segments included excerpts of interviews with at least five Republicans on November’s ballots, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In many cases, the interviews ran in the states and cities these lawmakers were hoping to represent after November or worked to lay the groundwork for Trump in communities that could be pivotal in the 2020 presidential election.

    While many of the Republican candidates specifically supported by Sinclair on or off air coasted to victories in safely red areas, others saw surprisingly stiff competition and extremely close races. And as the true extent of the November “blue wave” was revealed, it seems the company’s larger strategy of promoting conservative views in swing districts didn’t quite pay off.

    Sinclair mishandled its proposal to acquire 42 new stations, and the FCC slow-tracked the potential deal until Tribune pulled out.

    Sinclair headed into 2018 expecting to close on its proposed deal to acquire Tribune Media’s 42 local news stations. That plan required approval from the Trump Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but the agency had already made several regulatory moves to help the broadcasting company. The acquisition would have cemented Sinclair as the nation’s largest owner and operator of local TV stations and allowed the company to effectively control large portions of some local media markets, enter into the country’s largest markets for the first time, and reach more than 70 percent of U.S. television households.

    Instead, in July, the FCC surprised experts by deciding to slow-track the deal, citing a handful of potential station divestments about which commissioners believed Sinclair has purposely misled them. Instead of approving the acquisition outright, the commission elected to send the proposal to an administrative judge, which has been a death blow to similar deals in the past. More details emerged when the hearing designation order was made public, including allegations that Sinclair had shown a “lack of candor” in its communications about the deal with the FCC. A few weeks later, on August 9, Tribune called off the merger.

    The trouble for Sinclair didn’t end there, either. Tribune also filed a lawsuit against Sinclair for “breach of contract,” arguing that company representatives had recklessly endangered the deal by intentionally misrepresenting some of the proposed station divestments. The order also alleged further specifics about Sinclair’s “belligerent” conduct throughout the federal approval process for the deal, saying Sinclair “fought, threatened, insulted, and misled regulators” at the Department of Justice.

    What’s next for Sinclair?

    For one: Many of Sinclair’s regulatory issues stemming from the shuttered Tribune deal have yet to be resolved and will follow the broadcasting company into the new year. Since the FCC singled out the deal proposal for review due to potential “misrepresentation or lack of candor” by Sinclair, the unresolved allegation of misbehavior has been a dark cloud over the company. It’s something regulators at the FCC will have to consider as they contemplate renewing Sinclair’s public broadcasting licenses for its large number of stations -- and that could be happening sooner than expected. Last month, the American Cable Association filed a petition asking the FCC to conduct an early license renewal process for four of Sinclair’s stations so it can “resolve the serious charges it leveled against Sinclair.”

    Even with this potential hurdle looming, Sinclair doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. It still controls about 190 local news stations, and the company is reportedly already pursuing other ways to expand. Earlier this month, Fox Business reported that Sinclair is planning to make a bid for Fox’s regional sports networks. The company could also take advantage of any good graces it still has with the FCC to advocate for further industry deregulation during the commission’s periodic review of its broadcast ownership rules next year.

    After a high-profile year, Sinclair seems likely to really embrace its public image as an openly conservative media company. It’s already taking steps in that direction by continuing to offer Trump administration and Republican officials an easy interview platform, hosting a town hall with right-wing darlings Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens, and enlisting former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka to host a special program decrying socialism. It’s also been courting former Fox News figures -- including BlazeTV personality Eric Bolling, who left Fox News last year after colleagues reported that he sent them sexually graphic pictures and who now appears to be partnering with Sinclair in some capacity. It’s unclear what projects Sinclair may have in the works for these former Fox personalities, but they could make appearances on a rival network (though that’s not as likely without the Tribune assets) or on Sinclair’s new streaming app, STIRR, which is set to launch in the new year and could compete with Fox’s new Fox Nation platform.

    One thing about Sinclair’s immediate future seems particularly certain, though: It’s going to keep up its harmful tactics. There will be more offensive “must-run” segments, and probably more brain-washy promotions in the spring, and definitely more blatant agenda-pushing with the Trump administration. The company has shown little desire to change behavior or admit when it’s done something morally objectionable so far. Why would it start now?

  • Fox News uses award shows to reinforce the idea that pop culture exists to marginalize conservatives

    The day after award shows is the most predictable day on the network.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As I watched Fox News’ coverage of Time’s 2018 “Person of the Year” announcement, something struck me: I’d seen it before. Several times, in fact. This year, the distinction was given to “The Guardians and the War on Truth,” highlighting journalists lost to violence (such as Jamal Khashoggi and the staff at the Capital Gazette) or arrested for their work (such as Reuters’ Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested while reporting on the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, or Maria Ressa, who the Philippines government charged with tax fraud over reporting for her site, Rappler).

    The truth is that it didn’t actually matter whom Time picked -- at least in terms of how Fox News would cover it. Regardless of the choice, various commentators across the network would chide the decision as somehow anti-Trump or self-serving before telling viewers whom it should have been. It’s what they’ve done in the past. After Time highlighted the #MeToo movement by choosing “The silence breakers” in 2017, Fox hosts suggested it should have also gone to Trump’s Twitter account. In 2012, Fox personalities Andrea Tantaros and Dennis Miller derided Time’s inclusion of reproductive-rights activist Sandra Fluke in its list of finalists. In 2010, Bill Hemmer suggested it could have gone to the tea party movement instead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Glenn Beck wove together a conspiracy theory about how George Soros was responsible for Beck’s own low numbers in Time’s online poll. In 2008, Sean Hannity suggested that then-President-elect Barack Obama was named Person of the Year because Vice President-elect Joe Biden hired the magazine’s Washington bureau chief as his communications director.

    Fox’s coverage of the 2018 unveiling was extremely predictable.

    On the December 11 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Laura Ingraham played host to Raheem Kassam, whose Daily Caller essay “Time’s Failing ‘Person of the Year’ List a Product of Cultural Decline” had been published that morning. Ingraham would close out the evening’s show with her own picks, a tie between first responders to the California wildfires and Border Patrol agents.

    On that day’s edition of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld suggested the title go to “the intellectual leaders that we talk about who are challenging the anti-speech mob” such as Claire Lehmann, Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, and other members of the so-called “intellectual dark web.”

    There was one moment, however, that came across as genuinely refreshing. Watch this, from that same December 11 edition of Fox News’ The Five:

    JESSE WATTERS (CO-HOST): All right. Dana, you've seen these things before. Is Time magazine Person of the Year -- is this a thing of the past? Does anybody care anymore?

    DANA PERINO (CO-HOST): Well, all I know is we do this segment every single year --

    WATTERS: Everybody does.

    GREG GUTFELD (CO-HOST): Because it's fun.

    Jesse Watters is probably right when he suggests people don’t care much about the magazine cover anymore, and Perino is right on the money when she acknowledges that they keep covering it anyway.

    If you consume enough conservative media, you’ll begin to see this pattern play out in all sorts of ways, and it’s almost certainly not accidental.

    Whether it’s Time or any other magazine’s Person of the Year choices, the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, or Golden Globes, Fox News follows a brilliant formula designed to reinforce the idea that pop culture exists largely for the purpose of marginalizing conservatives.

    In 2018 alone, there’s been Sean Hannity’s post-Oscars rant accusing Hollywood of hypocrisy for the #MeToo movement, Greg Gutfeld and Michelle Malkin’s accusations that Oscar attendees who spoke out about gun violence were “virtue signaling,” Jason Chaffetz taking on “Hollywood’s cultural rot” (i.e. Kevin Hart getting in a few jokes at the president’s expense during the MTV Video Music Awards), Martha MacCallum pulling a joke out of context to slam the Emmys, and Howard Kurtz’s bizarre claim that the Oscars and Emmys have “obligatory Trump-bashing moments.” These are among the many examples of Fox News using pop culture events to reinforce the “us versus them” mindset in its viewers.

    In September 2017, Tucker Carlson called the Emmys “an expression of the contempt America's ruling class has for the rest of the country,” seemingly oblivious to the irony of labeling liberals “America’s ruling class” as Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Carlson would bring back his “ruling class” comment during his November 15, 2017, show by criticizing Maxine Waters’ appearance at the Glamour Women of the Year awards. And when GQ put Colin Kaepernick on the cover of its magazine as the 2017 “Citizen of the Year,” The Five’s Watters said he’d prefer the award went to NFL star J.J. Watt.

    In 2016, Bill O’Reilly took Oscars host Chris Rock to task for feeding the “grievance industry,” adding, “So OK. ‘Our ancestors got lynched and raped by white people.’ OK. Every group in the world can say that -- not to the extent that African-Americans can say that -- but is it doing any good?”

    During the Fox & Friends coverage of the 2015 Oscars, Stacey Dash slammed Patricia Arquette for her on-stage discussion of pay inequality. Also in 2015, The Five mustered up the courage to at least pretend to care about the ESPY Awards if only to express discomfort with the decision to give Caitlyn Jenner that year’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, instead of college basketball player Lauren Hill, who spent her final days raising awareness about cancer among young people.

    Fox News uses manufactured outrage as a tool, and it's become so useful that some of its viewers have tuned out pop culture as a whole.

    Can a piece of art change the world? Maybe. Can a speech delivered from the Oscars stage heal a country? I suppose it’s possible, even if extremely unlikely. Yet, if you’re someone with a vested interest in preventing forward social change or you rely on resentment of “elites” to fuel your own political agenda, it would be beneficial to sow distrust of the people making that art or giving that speech. If you can convince your target audience that the artists can’t ever truly understand America, that they’re all rich elitists -- though many are less “rich” and arguably less “elite” than the people delivering messages on your side of this culture war -- you can use even the most anodyne cultural events to your advantage.

    The morning after the 2018 Oscars, Fox & Friends asked its viewers whether they had tuned in. The responses they received, or at least the ones they decided to read on air, show just how successful this campaign has been.

    “Of course we didn’t watch. We are looking to be entertained, not aggravated by a steady stream of mindless drivel from liberals who live in a bubble,” read one message.

    “Very happy to report I did NOT watch the Oscars last night. Watching self-aggrandizing Hollywood elites speaking into their echo chamber isn’t something I enjoy doing,” read another.

    “The REAL winner at the Oscars was me. I didn’t waste my time watching because of all the liberal, anti-Trump political rhetoric.”

    By their own accounts, these viewers didn’t actually watch the Oscars, but they knew the awards show was bad -- instinctively. Even moments seemingly geared toward winning conservative kudos -- such as the tribute to war films -- were labeled insulting because the audience didn’t rise to its feet for a standing ovation. The pop culture well has been poisoned, and anything short of explicitly conservative propaganda will be met with unease.

    When it comes to pop culture criticism, conservative media aren’t acting in good faith. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

    Ahead of award shows, some people like to make predictions about who will take home what honors. My predictions are a lot simpler. In 2019, 2020, and beyond, it’s a safe bet that Fox News will pan all the major awards shows, scoff at magazine covers as “identity politics,” and continue to cultivate the resentment that is so core to its brand identity.

    None of this is to say that everything said at the Oscars will be profound, nor will every Grammy serve as a reward for advancing some sort of social agenda. What I am saying is there is something we can all do as media consumers to bridge cultural divides: We can go into experiences with open minds and open hearts. This can mean different things to each of us, and it could be as simple as stepping outside your comfort zone when it comes to choosing what to put on your morning playlist, which movies to check out while they’re in theaters, and which news sources you give a chance.

  • What happens when the No. 1 cable news channel is steeped in white nationalist rhetoric?

    Tucker Carlson's advertisers are sponsoring fascism

    Blog ››› ››› MADELINE PELTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Tucker Carlson is attempting to stay the course amid an advertiser exodus from his Fox News program because of his racist commentary. Carlson had been a mouthpiece for white supremacy, and since being promoted to a prime-time slot on Fox, he has elevated fringe “alt-right” grievances into mainstream media.

    But what are the consequences of airing unfettered, explicit white supremacy five nights a week on the top rated cable news channel in the U.S.? They’re that Fox News viewers, including the president, are exposed to extremist ideology that, thanks to the veneer of respectability a top-rated show carries, has become part of the acceptable spectrum of political discourse -- but that actually puts marginalized communities under direct threat of material harm.

    Unchecked white nationalism on Fox News facilitates radicalization

    In the absence of any identifiable editorial standards at Fox News, naked white nationalist rhetoric has metastasized. Carlson has interpreted this state of affairs as a blanket mandate to host a program centered around the idea that there is a crisis of discrimination against white men in America. Since his show launched on Fox News in November 2016, it has filtered story after story through the lens of white grievance, including claiming that reports of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh exposed “race hatred”, warning about the imaginary threat of white “genocide,” and spending a bewildering amount of time attacking the value of diversity. These segments track with both the rhetoric and smear campaigns cooked up online by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and men’s rights activists. Every night, he speaks on behalf of a fringe online community that endorses white nationalism and amplifies this message to an audience that would likely not have been exposed to it elsewhere. This sets off the invisible process of radicalization: avowed racists and neo-Nazis spew hatred online, Carlson picks it up, sanitizes it, and uses it to bolster the Trump agenda. This process projects explicit white supremacy (as opposed to Fox’s long-term peddling of implicit white supremacy) into the homes of Fox’s audience, blending seamlessly into the network’s long-established brand of conservative media.

    Arie Kruglanski, a research psychologist at the University of Maryland, broke the radicalization process down into three parts in The Washington Post. The first step capitalizes on the drive to live a meaningful life, which white supremacy fulfills by imbuing people’s identity (“gender, religion or race”) with superiority. Carlson trafficks in these toxic white identity politics and validates the fantasy that dominate groups are actually the ones being persecuted. The second element of radicalization is what Kruglanski calls “the narrative.” He says this narrative -- “usually that there is an enemy attacking your group, and the radical must fight to gain or maintain respect, honor or glory” -- gives its believers “permission to use violence.” The constant barrage of coverage about a migrant caravaninvasion” is just one recent example of how Fox’s narrative creates an enemy to fuel racial resentment. Carlson’s show was no exception in that regard. The third piece, Kruglanski says, is forming a “community, or the network of people who validate the narrative and the violence.” Fox helps in this goal broadly across the network by sowing distrust of other outlets by raving about “fake news” and a subversive liberal agenda in mainstream media. In other words, Fox News foments an “us against the world” mentality in its viewers. Carlson specifically builds community among racists by centering “alt-right” issues and talking points in his commentary. They know they’re in this together with him because many of the stories he covers come directly from their online community. Stories about “white genocide” in South Africa and attacks against Georgetown University associate professor Christine Fair bubbled up in white supremacists’ circles online, and their adherents recognize that Carlson is playing their game.

    Imagine a man, not unlike Charlottesville murderer James Fields, who is angry and captivated by the white supremacist ideology that he finds on YouTube, Twitter, and Gab. He sees Carlson take up those same issues and feels validated by seeing them presented with the glossy veneer that cable television provides. He hears his “alt-right” peers reciprocate this praise on their podcast networks. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a man like this experiences a destabilizing event, whether personal or political, and is moved to take violent action targeting those he perceives to be the enemy of white men.

    Carlson’s show shifts the Overton window toward fascism

    The Overton window is a concept in political science that describes the range of ideas considered acceptable within the mainstream body politic. The consequences of white nationalist viewpoints airing on national television extend beyond the individuals who are radicalized as a result -- the entire spectrum of political discourse is shifted toward normalized fascism. With the rise of authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump, extreme right-wing ideas pull the Overton window to the right, such that what was previously considered to be far-right suddenly looks like the middle ground. The white supremacist rhetoric of Carlson’s show suddenly seems tempered, opening up space in mainstream conservative media for dog whistles about demographic change, white “genocide,” and the end of Western civilization. Fascists turn the oppressors into the oppressed as justification for reactionary attacks on women, immigrants, people of color, and anti-racist activists.

    At the same time, Carlson has appropriated leftist ideas about challenging corporate power and American imperialism and used them to persuade people of his worldview. He claimed he agreed with Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) criticism of Amazon’s use of tax breaks to build additional headquarters in New York and Virginia. He’s encouraged an end to the United States’ never-ending presence in the Middle East, warned against instigating conflict with Iran, and mocked national security adviser John Bolton’s bloodthirstiness to his face. He has said that the Democratic Party panders to corporate interests (it does) and has criticized tax cuts for corporations. And of course, he claims he’s a champion of free speech. It’s not hard to see why taking these positions is popular. But Carlson is playing a shell game. An excellent review of Carlson’s book “Ship of Fools” in Current Affairs explores how this combination of criticizing unfettered state and corporate power combined with ethno-nationalism is “destructive and inhumane” because “it has a kernel of accuracy, it will easily tempt readers toward accepting an alarmingly xenophobic, white nationalist worldview.”

    Carlson won’t cover poverty and other issues important to the left unless he’s using them as a bludgeon to demonize immigrants. In a white supremacist framework, the distinction between poor immigrants and poor citizens is of paramount importance. Tucker wants to convince his audience that immigrants cause poverty, violence, declining wages, and disappearing jobs. Carlson agonizes in his book about the loss of a “European, Christian and English-speaking” majority in America. He lays the blame for capitalism’s harm at the feet of women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and people of color. It’s effective because it identifies legitimate systemic problems that are robbing people of their liberty and weaponizes those issues against the marginalized population. This is populism predicated upon racism, better known as national socialism.

    White nationalist rhetoric poses a threat to the well-being of vulnerable populations

    The normalization of white nationalism on Fox News, spearheaded by Carlson, encourages violence against members of marginalized communities who are deemed persona non grata. The goal is to dehumanize those who oppose racism and authoritarianism or whose very existence is in conflict with white America. In a world where all human beings are not considered full human beings, there are no restraints on how poorly they can be treated. In the words of The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, “The cruelty is the point.” Migrant children have repeatedly faced down the full force of American imperialism; they’ve been tear-gassed and forcibly separated from their parents. Transgender people are the targets of the Department of Justice, which seeks to legally erase them from existence. Who benefits from erasing transgender identities except for those who seek to perform cruelty? What is the point of ending temporary protected status for Haitian migrants and exposing Vietnam war refugees to deportation except to follow through on the white nationalist project of ethnic cleansing, sending those deemed undesirable back to their “shithole” countries? Carlson is the mouthpiece for this agenda.

    Incidents of right-wing violence are increasing and it’s killing people. According to the FBI, hate crime incidents rose 17 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year, and almost three-fifths were driven by race or ethnicity. There’s a clear through line from the escalated rhetoric on immigration to the massacre of 11 Jewish people in a Pittsburgh, PA, synagogue and the tear-gassing of children on the border. White male terrorism is validated by a toxic online ecosystem of racism and extremism that migrates from the dark corners of the internet into mainstream conservative media, and the main conduit of this filth is Tucker Carlson. The lives of women of color, immigrants, disabled people, and refugees are threatened when white nationalism infects the most popular cable news channel on the planet; the consequences of this programming extend beyond the internal politics of media into a direct threat to the lives of vulnerable people.

    Without advertisers, Carlson would have a harder time spewing his hatred. The segment where he said immigration makes the U.S. “dirtier” caught the attention of advertisers this time -- but it happens on a nightly basis, almost always without consequence. It is a moral imperative that Carlson be held responsible for spreading white supremacist ideology that radicalizes a mainstream audience, moves the Overton window toward fascism, and puts marginalized groups in harm’s way. Advertisers and media buyers have the ability to make this change; it’s clear Fox News won’t hold him responsible. After all, the network has completely abdicated editorial control when it comes to other ethical crises. Without action from the companies that sponsor this hate, the undemocratic threat Tucker Carlson poses to political discourse in this country will continue unabated, and his targets will continue to suffer.

  • Congress had a big chance to hold Google accountable. Legislators blew it. 

    Our lawmakers are so hung up on the idea that companies are instituting politically biased policies into their products that they’re ignoring real threats.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On Tuesday, at the request of congressional Republicans, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The goal of the hearing was to better Congress’ understanding of the search giant’s practices around data collection and use -- or at least it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, like in past hearings with tech executives, much of the questioning focused on the idea that the company has some sort of deep-seated anti-conservative bias that needs to be examined and eradicated.

    There’s nothing new about the false allegations that social media and tech companies are biased against conservatives. In fact, these claims are just the latest incarnation of a long-term effort to brand the mainstream American press as “liberal,” which dates back to at least a half-century ago, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read “Eastern Liberal Press.”

    The claim of bias is little more than an attempt to “work the refs” or to get favorable treatment by calling foul. And given that House Republicans are just weeks from losing their power to call these sorts of hearings (as they will when the new Democratic-controlled House takes over), it made sense for them to hold one final show designed to make the McCarthy hearings look like a low-budget community theater production of The Crucible.

    It doesn’t actually matter that Republicans are lying when they claim bias, since they get their desired result anyway.

    In 2016, Gizmodo published a story titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” It was an explosive if not particularly well-sourced story, based on the opinion of two of the site’s trending-section curators, one of whom openly identified as conservative. Other curators interviewed for that story couldn’t corroborate those claims. The argument seemed to be that sites like Drudge Report, Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax weren’t treated with the same level of authority as The New York Times, BBC, and CNN. The practice isn’t censorship or anti-conservative bias, but rather just a decision to favor trusted, mainstream sources over aggregators and partisan outlets. In any case, the article handed the Republican Party a talking point, and that same day, the GOP published a blog post demanding that Facebook address the issue of censorship against conservatives:

    With 167 million US Facebook users reading stories highlighted in the trending section, Facebook has the power to greatly influence the presidential election.

    It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence view points (sic) and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda.

    Censorship in any form should give Americans who value their fundamental freedoms great pause.

    Now, most people likely understand that there are good reasons to trust newspapers and media organizations that do original reporting over aggregators like Drudge. But the narrative had been created, and the GOP jumped on it. Panicked, Facebook officials met with a slew of conservative media commentators and other right-wing leaders to try to put out the public relations fire. The goal was to force Facebook to institute a pro-conservative bias, and it worked. Facebook fired its human curators, replacing them with an algorithm that heavily promoted hoax news stories before eliminating the section altogether. Additionally, Facebook created a task force to root out liberal bias (which, again, doesn’t actually exist).

    Conservatives worked the refs, and Facebook caved. But by taking steps to appease the insatiable beast that is the conservative victimhood complex, Facebook sent a clear message: The tech industry fears conservatives, and that fear can be leveraged. Since then, Congress has held show trials masked as hearings about anti-conservative bias, leading social platforms and tech companies to take proactive steps to express pro-conservative views.

    Earlier this week, Wired published a story about leaked audio from a Google meeting in which executives at the company expressed their desire to build inroads with conservative organizations.

    “I think one of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives. I think we've recognized that the company is generally seen as liberal by policymakers,” said Google’s U.S. head of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, according to Wired.

    The hearings may be getting results for conservatives, but they are one big swing and a miss in addressing the many actual issues with tech companies. There’s reason to be wary of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and others in the tech space. Legislatively, the U.S. hasn’t kept up with other countries. For instance, the European Union recently implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, a set of rules outlining the steps companies must take before gathering and storing user information. Though some states have taken steps to enact their own data policies, there aren’t any major consumer protections at the federal level to speak of.

    Now is the time for lawmakers to be having discussions with executives at these companies, but the topic needs to change from an overwhelming focus on the idea of political bias to questions of how our data is being collected and used. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that so many of our lawmakers are complete technological neophytes, with some still barely able to get beyond the basic misunderstanding of the internet then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) demonstrated in 2006 with his “series of tubes” comment. For example, on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) wanted to know why his staff’s edits to his Wikipedia page kept getting removed, claiming that Google should be liable for the online encyclopedia’s content because the search engine has given it a “trusted spot.” (Google pulls some data from Wikipedia entries, but it’s worth noting that it’s actually against Wikipedia’s guidelines to edit your own page.) Rep. Steve King (R-IA) needed to be reminded that Google doesn’t make iPhones. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) repeatedly asked -- while, like King, holding up an iPhone, which doesn’t come with Google software installed -- whether Google could track his movement within a room via the device.

    “I now know how it feels to work at the Genius Bar in Arlington,” tweeted New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose.

    Had these lawmakers been even slightly more tech adept (or at least willing to brush up on some of the current controversies facing companies like Gooogle), there’s a lot they could have actually accomplished. Vox reporter Emily Stewart published a list of topics committee members could have more thoroughly addressed had they not been so laser-focused on bias. For instance, how does Google use our data for mobile advertising? Does the company plan to make changes following a $5 billion judgment in an EU antitrust case? Or why didn’t Google self-report on the massive Google+ data breach the company discovered earlier this year?

    Political media seem less interested in issues of substance than in he said/she said accusations of bias -- and that’s a problem.

    Moments before the start of Pichai’s opening remarks, CNN’s Poppy Harlow hyped the event as “what could be a very tense hearing on Capitol Hill,” noting that “Google's CEO will testify publicly for the first time, facing allegations of political bias against conservatives.” That evening, CNN International’s Quest Means Business host Richard Quest interviewed media correspondent Brian Stelter, again discussing the question of bias.

    On Fox News, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) joined Tucker Carlson to talk about … bias. Jordan went on a short rant about Google and Twitter -- repeating a debunked claim that Twitter had “shadowbanned” conservatives -- and at Carlson’s suggestion, threatened to punish the companies with regulation and legislation that would scare them into making gestures to placate the political right.

    How tech companies handle our data and the effects of that data being handled poorly are not sexy topics. Certainly, the thought that there are politically motivated people putting their thumbs on the search engine scale to disadvantage one political party or another is a more exciting angle. While it’s not clear whether it’s lawmakers taking their cue from media or the other way around, news media do a major disservice to their audiences when they put so much emphasis on factually dubious claims of bias. Instead, they should be helping readers and viewers better understand why policymaking around data collection matters and what the real-world consequences of inaction by our legislators could be. As always, covering politics as though it’s some sort of sport makes the world a more divided and less understanding place. If media organizations feel compelled to cover claims of bias, they owe it to the public to plainly say that these allegations are simply not backed up by the facts.

  • Dan Bongino’s NRATV exit means the outlet is losing its primary Trump-Russia defender -- but not much else

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    NRATV host Dan Bongino will leave the outlet at the end of the year, according to reporting from The Daily Beast. During his brief run at the National Rifle Association's media outlet -- hosting his own show We Stand and making frequent appearances on other programming -- Bongino found his niche in launching conspiratorial rants about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump. Other than trying to delegitimize the Russia investigation, Bongino offered little else to the network. His show, which he has hosted for less than a year, typically kicked off with scattered, nonsensical ramblings and went downhill from there.

    The Daily Beast reported on December 10 that, according to two sources, NRATV had “dropped” Bongino amid downsizing efforts during a period of financial problems for the NRA. It’s unclear what is next for Bongino, but the Daily Beast article pointed out that several weeks ago he was identified as a “former” NRATV contributor during a Fox News appearance, leading to speculation that he may soon join Fox News or Fox Nation.

    Bongino reacted to The Daily Beast’s reporting with a characteristically unhinged meltdown, calling the story “fake news,” claiming that he wasn’t fired but that he quit, and even threatening satirist Vic Berger for poking fun at his dismissal.

    The cancellation of We Stand follows other recent changes at NRATV. On November 28, veteran NRATV producer Cameron Gray announced that he and some of his colleagues had been laid off. That announcement came after news surfaced about the NRA’s recent tax filings -- which show a $55 million drop in revenue between 2016 and 2017 -- and about cost-saving measures being taken at NRA headquarters, such as eliminating free coffee for employees.

    Bongino, a Secret Service agent during the Obama administration who published a tell-all book after leaving the agency, came to NRATV after thrice failing to win congressional campaigns and sometimes guest hosting Sean Hannity’s radio show.

    Bongino’s NRATV show was announced in February 2018 with a promotional video attacking CNN host Don Lemon. In the video, Bongino put unpeeled lemons into a blender and then appeared to drink the juice, leading to widespread ridicule as that’s not how lemonade is made.

    The theme of Bongino’s show We Stand quickly became the Trump-Russia investigation. In an August report, Media Matters chronicled at length the bizarre and nonsensical ways Bongino used his show to try to absolve Trump and his administration from any wrongdoing and to call for an end to the investigation. (Bongino also talked about the Trump-Russia investigation during his frequent appearances on Fox News.) One typical example of Bongino’s rants is when he said on NRATV, “Fire Bob Mueller; fire this guy now. This is a disgrace. We investigate crimes -- we don’t investigate people.”

    One Russia-related topic that was not discussed on We Stand: During the 2016 presidential campaign, a Russian national with ties to that country’s intelligence service seemingly infiltrated the NRA at its highest levels and sought to use the gun group as a back channel to access Trump’s circle. (A woman arrested in connection with the scheme is set to plead guilty in court on Thursday, possibly revealing more about the NRA-Russia connection.)

    There was very little to Bongino’s show beyond his rants about Trump and Russia; it was as vacuous as it was angry and confusing.

    During an October NRATV broadcast, Bongino said, “I know I shouldn’t say this,” but “my entire life right now is about owning the libs. That’s it.” As expected, he again drew widespread ridicule.

    More recently, Bongino went on an NRATV rant in which he accused “the losers” at Media Matters and Mother Jones of living in “mommy’s basement” while “roasting your crappy s’mores,” saying, “Try to get unlosery. Can you do that for a moment?”

    The first few minutes of Bongino’s We Stand -- which currently airs on weekday afternoons -- are often especially painful to watch, as Bongino himself often noted during rambling introductions that he makes no plans for what to say on air before the show starts. Things often devolved from there during the 30-minute broadcast.

    It was also on NRATV that Bongino debuted a mantra for conservatives facing liberals in the political realm: “We win, you lose, the new rules are in effect,” meaning that conservatives should get to implement their agendas no matter what. (The antidemocratic undertones of the mantra didn’t seem to hamper Bongino’s glee in using the phrase.)

    Now, with his NRATV show canceled, Bongino will have to find a new place to “own the libs.”

    Update (12/11/18): This post has been updated with the new date of Maria Butina’s plea hearing.

  • Tucker Carlson Tonight is the local news broadcast from hell

    Fox News peppers its lineup with a “greatest hits” of local news stories designed to reinforce its audience’s existing beliefs

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Here’s what was in the news on February 28, 2018: Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart announced that they would be ending sales of “assault-style” rifles, President Donald Trump (briefly) came out in favor of raising the minimum purchase age on some guns, and an explosive report from the United Nations linked North Korea to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

    Viewers of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, however, would not be hearing about any of those stories. Instead, they got front-row seats to an exclusive interview with Ryan Wolfe, a Wake Forest student upset that the university had not pursued a “school judicial case” against other students after one photoshopped his face onto a picture of a saltine cracker 16 months earlier.

    “I assume that’s a slur against your ethnicity, correct?” Carlson asked Wolfe, referring to the photo. It was a patently ridiculous moment in television history, and it went on for four surreal minutes.  It was something you might expect to find in a school newspaper, or maybe hear a quick mention about on a local TV segment -- but almost certainly not something one might expect to see broadcasted to Carlson’s more than 2.5 million nightly viewers. Except it actually is, if you’ve kept up with the show at all.

    One way of thinking about Tucker Carlson Tonight is as less of a nationally broadcast news show, and more … local news from hell.

    Here’s what I mean by that. Local news broadcasts are known for including a few cutesy local interest stories or lighthearted takes on things that happened around town. Tucker Carlson Tonight functions as a sort of “greatest hits” round-up for local stories and minor controversies that feel custom-made for the Fox News audience. Now, I should be clear: This is pretty standard for Fox shows, but Carlson’s is truly the pièce de résistance of the whole lineup, the broadcast your local news outlet would tease with scary cliffhangers like, “This one common household item might kill you. Tune in at 9 to learn more!”

    A lot of the time, Carlson does this with the help of Cathy Areu during a regular segment called “The Liberal Sherpa.” Areu is introduced as the founder of Catalina magazine and, as Carlson said during his July 4 show, as someone “willing to defend pretty much any new fad on the left, whether it's hiding in cry closets or getting consent before you change your baby's diaper.”

    Recent “Liberal Sherpa” segments included discussion about Cleveland radio station WDOK’s decision to leave the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” off of its holiday playlists, a British university’s internal memo asking professors to avoid writing in all capital letters in correspondence with students, and a California school district’s new dress code.

    Others included debate over a college diversity network’s recommendation to curtail use of the phrase “as you know,” a pair of Massachusetts parents who’ve decided to raise their children gender neutral (Carlson called this “steep civilizational decline”),  a New Jersey high school that let all interested students join the cheerleading team without tryouts, a white Utah teen wearing a traditional Chinese dress to prom, as well as the aforementioned cry closet and diaper consent stories.

    Sometimes, as was the case in a February 23 segment about Purdue University urging students not to use words with “man” in them, Carlson & Company straddle the line somewhere between exaggerating and being willfully misleading.

    Areu is the Washington Generals to Carlson’s Harlem Globetrotters, reinforcing the audience’s perception of liberals as a whole.

    Areu’s role really does seem to be to defend anything Carlson puts forward as being a trend on “the left.” Watching these segments, you get the clear impression that the mainstream “left” would back every single one of these views, even taken to the absolute extreme. For instance, Carlson asked Areu during the “dress code” segment whether girls should just be allowed to come to school topless if they want; instead of telling him that’s ridiculous, she actually agreed that they should.

    These clips seem to exist primarily as a way to get Carlson’s audience worked up into a lather about how ridiculous or out of touch progressives are, and based on the responses they elicit when they’re posted on social media, it seems to work. It’s genuinely unclear whether Areu is being completely earnest in her Tucker Carlson Tonight appearances; in fact, there’s at least one thread on the pro-Trump r/The_Donald reddit forum asking whether she’s just playing a character.

    Is the average Democratic voter a gender-neutral, clothing-optional, lowercase-letter-using, cry-closet-dwelling, language-policing, prom-dress-hating, Christmas-song-averse parent who asks their babies for permission to change their diapers? No. On the local news broadcast from hell, however, that’s the party’s core constituency.

    These segments fuel the identity politics-driven culture war that conservative media blame on progressives.

    One way Carlson achieves this is by covering hot-button social issues, such as the ongoing debates over transgender rights, plucking examples of minor controversies around the country and overwhelming his audience with sheer quantity. For instance, as of this writing, someone has mentioned the word “transgender” on 35 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight in 2018. Sometimes, it comes in reference to a policy that has a legitimate place in national news, such as the Trump administration’s efforts to ban trans people from the military.

    Many of the others times, however, it’s just more local news stories blown up for effect. For example, in March, Carlson interviewed a college student who was reportedly “kicked out of class” for saying there were “only two genders.” Carlson has also used his show to discuss the results of a Connecticut track meet, the Boston Marathon’s entry rules, and a bizarre story involving the winner of the women’s 35-to-44 division cycling meet in Los Angeles -- all because the stories involved trans people.

    Very few, if any, of these stories were likely deserving of national airtime, and yet, Tucker Carlson Tonight was there to give them a boost. What makes the conservative media obsession with trans issues a bit maddening is that these outlets appear unwilling to admit that such a preoccupation exists at all. Carlson took time out of his July 24 episode to chide former Bernie Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver for the Democratic Party’s supposed “fixation” on “esoteric sexual politics like transgender bathrooms.”

    Meanwhile, The Rachel Maddow Show, Carlson’s MSNBC counterpart, mentioned the word “transgender” during just six episodes over the course of the same period. Four shows were discussing Trump’s military ban, one was about Vermont’s Democratic nominee for governor, Christine Hallquist, and another addressed The New York Times’ bombshell October 21 report that the Trump administration was considering sweeping changes to the federal definitions of “sex” and “gender.”

    Whether it’s by design or not, the stories highlighted on Carlson’s show help build upon a conservative media alternate reality in which the deck is stacked against Republicans, where they’re the primary victims of discrimination, where the world is out to get them, and where every success they have comes in spite of all of this -- a topic I recently covered. The stories themselves surface from a number of places: other Fox News shows, other conservative outlets, or even 4chan. Once Fox covers a story, whether on Tucker Carlson Tonight or any of its other programming, it signals a sort of legitimacy to the rest of the world that this actually is worthy of national coverage. This has played out in the past with trumped-up “War on Christmas” narratives, and we’re seeing it happen now with overblown stories about free speech on college campuses.

    I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Neither conservatives nor liberals benefit from portraying the most extreme elements of the opposing side as mainstream. This isn’t to say that one should adopt a Pollyanna approach to media coverage and pretend that “unity” is all we need to solve the very serious differences we have with one another. Let’s be real: We live in a particularly fraught moment in political history. The local news broadcast from hell serves only to convince us that things are somehow even worse and more divided than reality would show.

    Shelby Jamerson contributed research to this post. 

  • The path to conservative media success is paved with outrage-bait

    We’re all being trolled by attention-starved wannabe media stars

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    When right-wing pundit Erick Erickson suggested last week that the U.S. cut foreign aid to Central American countries and instead use those funds to “prop up the next generation of Pinochet types,” it didn’t come as much of a surprise. A number of conservatives have a bit of a soft spot for the former Chilean dictator. When Erickson said that he was “hoping for some helicopters in this plan,” though, he raised a few eyebrows, as such a statement is designed to do.

    His reference to helicopters was a nod to Augusto Pinochet’s history of having at least 120 political dissidents thrown to their deaths from helicopters into the “the ocean, the lakes and the rivers of Chile.” On his blog, The Resurgent, Erickson elaborated a bit on that tweet, still straddling the line between being serious and just joking around, and writing that he’s “not actually fully on board” with his own idea.

    Does Erickson actually think helicopters are essential to this tweet, blog post, or political suggestion? Probably not. Certainly, he knows that the extrajudicial murder of political opponents is a reprehensible thing to praise. Why say it, then? Because it gets him attention, and in a sea of political media takes, attention is everything. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time watching political talk shows or cable news channels knows that it’s the loudest and most extreme voices that rise to the top of the punditry food chain. It’s as true for Erickson as it is for more recent additions to our national discourse, Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos. The power to provoke has replaced intelligent discussion, and would-be commentators are catching on.

    There’s nothing new about self-styled “provocateurs” in political media, especially among conservatives.

    Erickson, along with the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, or any number of other conservatives coming out of the world of talk radio, have made entire careers based on saying things so outrageous that the rest of us ask whether they even mean what they’re saying. Does Coulter actually wish that Timothy McVeigh had bombed the New York Times building? Or that politicians who support immigration reform should face “death squads”? Probably not, but her many outrageous statements have helped make Coulter a bestselling author and mainstay in the world of political commentary for two decades running.

    The truth is that you don’t have someone like Erickson or Coulter on your Sunday morning political talk show if you’re interested in an-depth discussion about policy. No, you have them on because of their potential to generate controversy. Their entire brand is built upon being predictably unpredictable.

    The truth is that discussing politics can be boring, and maybe it should be. Deficit discussions and tax talk just aren’t sexy. Foreign policy is probably better considered with a sober seriousness, and the economy is best understood as a complex mess of systems only a technocrat could love. But people like their politics with a side of entertainment. After all, there’s a reason people tune in to CNN over C-SPAN, and this creates a major incentive for would-be commentators to embrace a politics-as-WWE approach.

    Milo Yiannopoulos is one of the more fascinating cases of a commenter embracing the extreme for a taste of fame.

    Before becoming the poster boy for crude offense masked as commentary, Milo Yiannopoulos was the editor of The Kernel, an online tech and culture magazine he founded. Though he was never shy about his conservative beliefs, he was far from the firebrand who’d later publish Breitbart articles under such headlines as “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Teenage Boys With Tits: Here’s My Problem With Ghostbusters.”

    While he’d always had a reputation for his inflated ego and a tendency to pick fights, back in his days writing at The Kernel, Yiannopoulos could actually be -- dare I say -- thoughtful. Based on his writing, 2012’s Yiannopoulos would have almost certainly hated his 2018 self. Take, for instance, a 2012 blog post titled “The internet is turning us all into sociopaths,” in which he describes the rise of a new sort of anti-civility, online and off:

    What’s disturbing about this new trend, in which commenters are posting what would previously have been left anonymously, is that these trolls seem not to mind that their real names, and sometimes even their occupations, appear clamped to their vile words. It’s as if a psychological norm is being established whereby comments left online are part of a video game and not real life. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten that there’s a real person on the other end, reading and being hurt by our vitriol. That’s as close to the definition of sociopath as one needs to get for an armchair diagnosis, though of course many other typical sociopathic traits are also being encouraged by social media.

    In “When ‘free speech’ means defending evil murderers,” Yiannopoulos lambasted social media companies that refused to take swift action against cyberbullying and extremist content. In another blog, he argued that “free speech has its limits,” and in yet another, he took one of his own cyberbullies to task. He called Laurie Penny’s book Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet “terrific,” writing, "We do need to think more carefully about how women are spoken to online."

    In 2013, The Kernel shuttered after being sued by former contributors over unpaid wages. It was acquired by a German company called Berlin 42 before being sold to the publisher of The Daily Dot. By 2014, Yiannopoulos was writing for Breitbart and fanning the flames of Gamergate, a controversy he would use to propel himself to U.S. stardom. The rest is, as they say, history.

    The blueprint to conservative media stardom is obvious to even the casual observer, making it easier than ever for young voices to grab the spotlight.

    Tomi Lahren went from hosting a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political roundtable show in which she accepted the realities of climate change to becoming a Fox News megastar. The secret to her success: a newfound embrace of the theatrical and outrageous. Her road to stardom was paved with tweets calling the Black Lives Matter movement “The new KKK,” videos in which she said that the U.S. government during the Obama administration had a “be-friendly-to-Jihadis mentality,”  and more recently, a tweet saying that the “highlight” of her Thanksgiving weekend was watching the tear-gassing of migrants (including children) at the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Lahren found a shortcut to success, and she took it. How many of us can honestly say that we wouldn’t act out a more extreme version of ourselves if it meant a one-way ticket to the top? Because if it’s not Lahren filling the rage void in political media, it’d be someone else just as over-the-top and abrasive. If social media has shown us anything, it’s that there are always people waiting in the wings, longing to be discovered.

    The key to longevity is to muster up the ability to be totally earnest on occasion.

    The Yiannopoulos star burned bright, but for now, it’s fizzled. He knows that the only way to stay relevant is to say truly outlandish things, like when he told The Observer in June, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” He’s become the political embodiment of The Onion’s brilliant 2001 “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People” article.

    He faded because the blueprint shifted ever so slightly. People got bored of watching an entirely unserious man shout slurs and call it commentary, because he couldn’t take off the “Milo” public persona he’d created for himself, even for a moment. He tried, as in the wake of comments he made that appeared to condone pedophilia, but it came off as hollow and insincere. The trick for media provocateurs is to offer a dash of humanity in with the vitriol. Lahren did this when she opened up about being pro-choice on an episode of The View. Erickson does this whenever he stops by a respectable talk show to promote civility or denounce conspiracy theories.

    As the rules change, so do the players. Uninterrupted trolling no longer has the power it once did. Maybe we can move the bar further still. Maybe the answer to professional trolls is to deny them the attention they so desperately need to remain relevant. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about Erickson’s “helicopter” tweet at all. Maybe I shouldn’t bother to note when media figures hang a neon “pay attention to me” sign above their heads as they tweet things like “Can someone explain to me why I'm supposed to lose sleep over Saudi Arabia killing an Islamist political opponent?” about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or when they tweet “I've found my Christmas card photo. #Caring” in response to a photo of a family running from tear gas on the border.

    If the expected response is reactive outrage, maybe deliberate disinterest is the answer. So, why am I writing about this, you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the patterns at play. Starving the trolls of the attention they seek is a reasonable long-term goal. But in the meantime, we need to recognize that there are people toying with our national political discourse just for a shot at fame and fortune.

  • If Sinclair really didn't endorse Boris Epshteyn's commentary, the company wouldn't force its local news stations to air it

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Earlier this week, local news stations controlled by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group aired a segment defending the use of tear gas on children and families traveling with a migrant caravan near the U.S.-Mexico border. Last night, the broadcast company finally issued a tepid statement, but there’s plenty more that Sinclair still needs to address.

    On November 26, Sinclair-owned and -operated local news stations across the country began airing a two-minute segment in which former aide to President Donald Trump and Sinclair chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn defended the use of tear gas and pepper balls on members of a Honduran migrant caravan attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, CA. The crowd hit with tear gas included children. Epshteyn also characterized the group of migrants as “attempting to storm” the border in an “attempted invasion of our country.”

    This segment has since aired, often spliced into local news coverage, on Sinclair-controlled local news stations in at least 26 states, according to the iQ media database. Media Matters estimates that the segment aired on roughly 100 Sinclair news stations as part of the company’s infamous “must-run” lineup.

    News outlets ranging from the local to the national, in print and online, covered the rightful public outrage generated by Epshteyn's comments. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists released a statement saying that it’s reconsidering its professional relationship with Sinclair.

    This is what the broadcasting giant said in a series of tweets: 

    We'd like to take a moment and address some concerns regarding a commentary segment by @borisep that was aired on Sinclair stations this week. The opinions expressed in this segment do not reflect the views of Sinclair Broadcast Group. When Boris’s segments are aired on our stations, they are labeled clearly as commentary. We also offer our stations reporting from the Beltway and beyond that are not partisan or bias (sic) in any way. If you have any concerns about any of our content, we genuinely want to hear from you: https://wjla.com/content-concerns …. Above all, we are committed to fair, unbiased journalism across our stations nationwide and are truly honored to serve our communities. Local news always comes first. 

    There is no press release version on Sinclair’s website as of publication. Given the massive amount of attention the tear gas segment provoked, this statement is almost certainly a response to it -- but it's impossible to say, because it doesn't mention anything about the content of the segment in question. The words “tear gas” and “children” are nowhere to be found. Neither are words like “sorry,” “apology,” or “consequences.”

    Instead, the broadcasting giant is attempting to distance itself from its own employee. To be clear, Sinclair’s actions have proved that that distance simply does not exist.

    Sinclair hired Epshteyn fresh off his stint in the Trump White House last year and quickly invested in his regular “must-run” segments -- upping the frequency with which the segments are aired on local stations, rolling out a daily newsletter, hiring a producer (also an ex-Trump staffer) to work with Epshteyn, and sticking by him as he’s defended some of Trump’s worst, most racist moments.

    Epshteyn is currently creating new “must-run” segments for Sinclair about five days a week. This segment defending deploying tear gas on migrant families isn’t the first or last time Epshteyn has used his Sinclair platform to defend the indefensible with no clear consequences.

    In fact, the day after Epshteyn’s tear gas defense began airing, he was out with a new segment defending conspiracy theorist and anti-Muslim extremist Laura Loomer.

    Earlier this year, Sinclair stations ran a segment from Epshteyn minimizing the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating families and detaining children at the border.

    In January, an Epshteyn segment attempted to dismiss Trump’s reported reference to Haiti, El Salvador, and unspecified African nations as “shithole countries,” arguing that media had simply overblown some “salty language” from the president.

    And in August 2017, Epshteyn produced a “must-run” segment backing Trump in his “both sides” statements about a neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, VA, in which a white supremacist killed peaceful counterprotester Heather Heyer.

    Media Matters has documented plenty more examples, too.

    What’s more, there should be no reason for Sinclair to stick with Epshteyn in spite of all the unforced errors and grief he’s brought his employer. His “commentary” has no natural audience, which is probably why Sinclair has to force its stations to air these segments in the first place.

    And Sinclair is currently facing the possibility it will have to prove to the Federal Communications Commission that it still has the “basic character qualifications” to hold public broadcasting licenses. Running regular segments that defend cruelty and violence against specific groups of people probably doesn’t help its case.

    I can think of only three possibilities for why Sinclair continues to employ Epshteyn as its chief political analyst.

    The first is the access-above-all-else argument. Epshteyn often uses his commentary segments to interview Trump administration and GOP officials, including the president himself. If Epshteyn used those interviews to ask thoughtful, tough questions and to break news, that would absolutely be a reason to keep him on staff. But he does not. Instead, those softball interviews essentially serve as infomercials for Trump and the Republican Party. Epshteyn typically just nods along in agreement with whatever his interview subjects say. In fact, he may be legally barred from criticizing the president because of his work on the Trump campaign.

    The second potential reason is that hiring Epshteyn was a major investment that Sinclair hasn’t or can’t give up on, perhaps a contract that can’t be easily broken.

    And the third is that those in charge at Sinclair Broadcast Group -- -- which has a long history of meddling in elections in favor of Republicans, has plenty of other ties to the Trump administration, and is owned by an openly and vocally conservative family -- do, in fact, hold the same indefensible views as Epshteyn. It's probably why they hired him in the first place. 

  • Trump helped create Fox Business, which is now a key pro-Trump propaganda network

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    According to The Daily Beast, Donald Trump “helped” disgraced former Fox CEO and chairman Roger Ailes create Fox News' sister network, Fox Business.

    According to the report, “Prior to the Fox Business Network’s debut in 2007, late right-wing cable-news chief Roger Ailes consulted with then-reality-TV star Trump on how it should look and feel.” The report went on to note that Ailes and Trump “maintained their relationship well into the 2016 campaign, during which the disgraced and ousted Fox News chief briefly advised Trump.”

    Throughout the Trump presidency, Fox Business personalities such as Stuart Varney, Maria Bartiromo, and Lou Dobbs have consistently proven to be possibly even more sycophantically pro-Trump than their Fox News counterparts, pushing absurd conspiracy theories and even contradicting the public statements of their own network’s leadership in Trump’s defense. Fox Business’ programming in the Trump era also has earned the praise of noted conspiracy theorist and illustrious clown Alex Jones.

    From The Daily Beast’s November 21 report:

    Prior to the Fox Business Network’s debut in 2007, late right-wing cable-news chief Roger Ailes consulted with then-reality-TV star Trump on how it should look and feel, according to former Fox executives. The two maintained their relationship well into the 2016 campaign, during which the disgraced and ousted Fox News chief briefly advised Trump, the executives and a source close to Trump said.

    According to one source, Trump advised Ailes to angle the network more toward news, entertainment, and politics instead of only business coverage. It was Trump’s decade-old vision for Fox Business that would, especially during the Trump presidency, become reality.

    One of the reasons Fox Business has endured in political relevance is that the most powerful person in the world agrees with that sentiment.

    In the West Wing, Trump is still a frequent consumer of the Fox Business Network, former and current White House aides say, and is particularly taken by shows hosted by Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo. The president cites and praises both Fox Business stars regularly within the halls of the White House, both in official meetings and in casual conversations.

    Even without Trump’s physical presence at the Fox Business Network, the president’s fingerprints are all over the network 11 years later in that the channel has morphed from a right-leaning CNBC competitor into what can often be viewed as an even more fervently pro-Trump outlet than its big sister.

  • Foreign media outlets keep showing how to cover politics in the age of Trump. Will U.S. outlets learn their lesson?

    Access journalism and softball interviews fail the American people. U.S.-based media need a reality check.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    “Trump returns to his dangerous lying about elections, makes up story about massive voter fraud he says has cost the Republicans victories...and falsely adds that you need a ‘voter ID’ to buy cereal,” Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale tweeted about a recent interview between the president and The Daily Caller, an outlet Dale called “horrific.”

    Dale, who is known for his meticulous fact checks on Trump’s statements to the press and at rallies, was right: The interview with The Daily Caller was riddled with unchallenged errors and nonsensical statements. For instance, he lied about his border wall and about his attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He claimed that undocumented immigrants were voting in California and that Massachusetts residents had been bused into New Hampshire during the 2016 election, flipping the state to Hillary Clinton’s favor. He accused people of voting twice by putting on disguises and changing clothes and, as is almost always the case, he also peppered his responses with half-truths and exaggerations.

    Daily Caller editor Amber Athey responded to Dale’s criticism with a tweet of her own: “Why don't you let American outlets handle interviewing the president?”

    Maybe U.S. outlets, including mainstream organizations, simply aren’t up to the task of holding the powerful accountable.

    The Daily Caller has a conservative bent, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that this was a friendly interview. After all, one of the two people conducting the site’s interview with Trump was “lib-owning” enthusiast Benny Johnson, a serial plagiarist and publisher of conspiracy theories.

    But it’s not just the Daily Callers, Fox Newses, and Breitbarts of the world that give members of the Trump administration and its surrogates a pass. Even the most mainstream, nonpartisan news outlets in the country often let the administration spread rumors and outright misinformation during interviews without follow-up.

    For example, take a look at Trump’s October interview with The Associated Press. At one point, an AP interviewer asked if Trump had any plans to pardon Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. During his response, which trailed off into a comment on Russians who had been indicted for hacking Democratic National Committee emails, the president said, with absolutely zero proof or explanation, “Some of [the hackers] supported Hillary Clinton.” Rather than question him about this bombshell accusation, the interviewers moved on to their next subject: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s planned trip to Saudi Arabia. At another point in the interview, Trump repeated well-known lies about a law requiring the U.S. to separate undocumented children from their parents at the border and another about members of the military receiving a raise for the first time in 11 years. On both occasions, there was no pushback from the interviewers.

    Another example comes from Trump’s recent on-camera interview with Jonathan Swan and Jim VandeHei of Axios. During the outlet’s November 4 HBO special, Swan asked Trump about his campaign promise to end birthright citizenship, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (emphasis added).

    DONALD TRUMP: You can definitely do it with an act of Congress. But now they're saying I can do it just with an executive order. Now, how ridiculous -- we're the only country in the world where a person comes in, has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years, with all of those benefits. It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous. And it has to end.

    But we’re not actually “the only country in the world” with birthright citizenship. While Axios does note on its website that there are, in fact, more than 30 other countries that offer birthright citizenship, people who saw the viral Youtube clip likely wouldn't know this, as neither Swan nor VandeHei corrected the false statement at the time. 

    Last week, a video of journalist Mehdi Hasan interviewing Trump campaign adviser Steven Rogers accumulated millions of views on social media. The video shows Hasan, who hosts UpFront and Head to Head on Al-Jazeera English and writes a column for The Intercept, asking a series of questions about: birthright citizenship, Trump’s claim that there were riots in California, and a frequent Trump lie about American Steel announcing plans to open new plants in the U.S. when it has done no such thing. Unlike the aforementioned examples of journalists passing on the opportunity to push back on false statements in real time, Hasan continued following up on the same issue until he got something resembling an honest answer out of Rogers.

    MEHDI HASAN: He said during the campaign that there’s six to seven steel facilities that are going to be opened up. There are no -- U.S. Steel has not announced any facilities. Why did he say they’ve announced new facilities? That’s a lie, isn’t it?

    STEVEN ROGERS: No, it isn’t, because there are a lot of companies opening up -- there are steel facilities that are going to be opening up or I think they actually, one opened up in Pennsylvania.

    HASAN: Sorry, Steven, that’s not what he said. I know it’s difficult for you. I know you want to try and defend him.

    ROGERS: No, it isn’t difficult for me.

    HASAN: Well OK, let me read the quote -- let me read the quote to you. “U.S. Steel just announced that they’re building six new steel mills.” That’s a very specific claim. U.S. Steel have not announced six new steel mills. They have said they’ve not announced six new steel mills mills. There’s no evidence of six new steel mills. He just made it up. And he repeated it. He didn’t just say it once.

    ROGERS: Look, I don’t know of what context these statements were made, but I can tell you this, the president of the United States has been very responsive to the American people, and the American people are doing well. Look, people can look at me and say, “Steve Rogers lied --”

    HASAN: The American people can be doing well, and the president can be a liar. There’s no contradiction between those two statements.

    ROGERS: I am not going to say the president of the United States is a liar. I’m not going to do that.

    HASAN: No, I know you’re not! But I’ve just put to you multiple lies, and you’ve not been able to respond to any of them.

    It’s not a matter of partisanship, either. In the past, Hasan has grilled Obama administration deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes over U.S. intervention in Syria and Obama adviser Derek Chollet on the former president’s foreign policy legacy. 

    It says a lot about the state of U.S. journalism that Hasan’s clip got attention for just being the type of interview journalists everywhere should be conducting.

    Journalist Mehdi Hasan Brilliantly Grills Trump Official On President’s Lies,” read one HuffPost headline. “Al Jazeera Host Pummels Trump Adviser With Examples of His Lies: ‘The President Lies Daily,’” read another over at Mediaite.

    In July, BBC journalist Emily Maitlis won similar praise after forgoing softball questions in favor of something a bit more substantive when interviewing former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. So used to friendly interviews, Spicer characterized the questions -- which included queries about the infamous Access Hollywood tape, Spicer’s lie about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, and about how he could both care about democracy and serve as the “agent” for a president who repeatedly lied -- as “extreme.” Maitlis told The New York Times, “That is what we do: We hold people accountable in robust interviews. It was not about me versus Sean Spicer at all.”

    In an exchange with me via Twitter direct messages, Hasan offered tips to journalists at U.S.-based outlets. On brushing off bad-faith accusations of bias and resisting the impulse to preserve access, Hasan borrows from a conservative catchphrase: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” He writes:

    If journalists are posing tough but factual questions, then who cares how conservatives -- or liberals, for that matter -- feel about that? U.S. conservatives, of course, have a long, tried-and-tested history of 'playing the ref' and pressuring media organizations to soften their coverage with bad-faith accusations of liberal bias.

    One way around this is for interviewers to establish reputations for being tough with politicians from across the spectrum. Only a handful of U.S. cable news interviewers do this -- Jake Tapper and Chris Wallace, off the top of my head. But they're still not tough enough -- especially with Trump administration officials and supporters who like to tell brazen lies live on air.

    But being a tough interviewer isn’t without its downsides. For instance, in June 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed then-candidate Trump. Tapper grilled Trump about his comments that Judge Gonzalo Curiel -- who was presiding over a case involving Trump University -- had a conflict of interest in the case because his parents were Mexican immigrants and Trump wanted to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The interview, which aired during the June 5 edition of State of the Union with Jake Tapper, left Trump looking foolish and unable to defend his Curiel comments. The interview was hard-hitting. Trump has not given another interview to Tapper in the more than two years since.

    Hasan has thoughts about how journalists can avoid the access trap, but it involves a bit of teamwork. He wrote: “Unless all interviewers toughen up their act, it'll be very easy for politicians to pick and choose between tough and soft interviewers and decline requests from the former.” That is to say, journalists all need to up their games.

    He and his team on UpFront devote a lot of time to researching the people and issues they plan to discuss in advance. The team will watch past interviews the guest has done to see “what works and what doesn’t.” Importantly, they think realistically about how much ground an interview can or should cover in the time allotted. It’s an important question: Is it better to cover a dozen topics with zero follow-up questions, or does it make more sense to really drill down on three or four questions? The answer is probably the latter.

    “It's not rocket science: if you can't be bothered to prepare, to turn up for an interview equipped with relevant information, with facts and figures, don't be surprised if you're unable to hold an evasive guest to account,” writes Hasan. “Despite what Kellyanne Conway might want you to believe, facts are facts and facts still matter.”

    “Also: you're not there to make friends. You're there to speak truth to power. Don't be charmed, don't be bullied, don't be distracted. Focus,” he adds. “And if you let your guest get away with a brazen lie, in my view, you're complicit in the telling of that lie.”

    On-air interviews are rare opportunities for politicians to show how brave they really are. Voters should expect elected officials to take risks and to be able to defend their positions in unscripted environments.

    A good on-air interview can tell the voting public more than any debate or print interview ever could. Hasan explains:

    Interviews on television are one of the few times that a politician has his or her feet held to the fire in a sustained or coherent way. Print interviews tend to be softer, and done in private. TV debates between candidates tend to be an exchange of hackneyed and partisan talking points. A TV interview is an opportunity to perform a robust interrogation of a politician's views, positions, policies and statements. If it's not probing and challenging, what's the point of it? Why bother doing it?

    News consumers and voters should encourage politicians to take on the toughest interviewers they can find. Politicians who can’t explain and defend their policy positions are politicians who probably shouldn’t hold office at all. So long as interviewers are fair, fact-based, and focused on relevant issues, there’s no reason a tough interview isn’t also one that can win over both skeptics and supporters. Friendly interviews have their place, but they’re not especially helpful when it comes to giving voters the information they need to make informed choices about who they want representing them.

    Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect that presidents and other politicians will seek out the easiest, most slam-dunk interviews they can book. For instance, during the 2016 campaign, the Trump campaign forged an agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group to air exclusive (and exceptionally friendly) interviews with Trump.

    The 2016 election demonstrated not just that candidates were afraid to take the risk of engaging in difficult interviews, but also that journalists were afraid to offer them.

    A study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that during the 2016 presidential election, there wasn’t a whole lot of policy being discussed. According to the report, 42 percent of all election media reports were dedicated to horse race coverage, with 17 percent focused on controversies. Just 10 percent of all election coverage was centered on policy issues.

    Perhaps news and entertainment have become too intertwined, with too much focus on viewership and not nearly enough emphasis on what should be the primary goal of informing the American people. Infotainment simply does not make for an informed electorate, and it’s a shame that we live in a world where interviews like Hasan’s are the exception and not the rule.