Media Structures & Regulations

Issues ››› Media Structures & Regulations
  • Fox News lets Ted Nugent call in to claim his invitation for Obama to “suck on my machine gun” wasn’t a threat

    Nugent previously claimed “I’ve never suggested anybody get hung except for one time after Benghazi”

    ››› ››› BRENDAN KARET

    Fox hosts let Ted Nugent call in and deny he had used violent rhetoric when inviting Obama to “suck on my machine gun” and also defend his prior claim that he would be “dead or in jail” if former President Obama was re-elected in 2012.

  • Liz Spayd’s final NY Times column shows why she failed as public editor

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The New York Times failed its readers when it decided to eliminate its public editor position. But Liz Spayd’s final column for the paper encapsulates the false choice at the heart of her analysis of the Times’ work, demonstrating why she was a poor fit for the role.

    Under a Trump administration “drowning in scandal,” she writes, “large newsrooms are faced with a choice: to maintain an independent voice, but one as aggressive and unblinking as the days of Watergate. Or to morph into something more partisan, spraying ammunition at every favorite target and openly delighting in the chaos.”

    “If I think back to one subject I’ve harped on the most as public editor over the last year, this is probably it,” Spayd adds. Indeed, Spayd, who takes pride in being criticized from all sides, often seemed to have viewed her role as channeling the criticisms of conservatives against the paper.

    What Spayd misses -- and what she has consistently missed throughout her tenure at the Times -- is that not all criticism is offered in good faith. The difference between “aggressive and unblinking” coverage of the president and “more partisan” reporting is squishy, and it often depends on the eyes of the beholder.

    And the paper’s most ardent conservative critics -- the Trump supporters who believe the president of the United States when he says media are “the enemy of the American people” and deliberately produce “fake news” -- will never be satisfied with that distinction.

    All journalism that undermines the White House worldview will be deemed excessively partisan by those critics. Encouraged by the Trump administration at all levels, they are the heirs of a decades-long conservative campaign to convince the American people that journalists are irrevocably biased and cannot be trusted. Attempts to mollify those critics will fail, as they always have -- and at a time when journalists are literally being assaulted for doing their jobs, trying seems a farce.

    Indeed, Spayd’s paean for the “days of Watergate” is itself based on a false premise, as conservatives of that era portrayed the coverage that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon not as “aggressive” reporting, but as part of a liberal plot.

    The public editor is an essential role for the Times, and the paper was wrong to eliminate the post. But Spayd’s feckless false choices have shown the role at its worst.

  • NY Times' Farhad Manjoo shows how disinformation moves from message boards through Twitter and ends up on Hannity

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo reported on the ecosystem that allows disinformation to spread through Twitter and to mainstream and right-wing media, including a conspiracy theory surrounding the murder of a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer that was cooked up in message boards and eventually promoted by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

    Though Facebook has enabled a fake news ecosystem that empowers total lies, anonymous Twitter bots have also played a part in undermining discourse and truth. Former FBI agent Clint Watts testified in front of the Senate intelligence committee in March about “how Russians used armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be Midwestern swing-voter Republicans,” as NPR described it. And according to a McClatchy report, the FBI is investigating Russian operatives and far-right news websites for their use of bots to spread misinformation.

    In a May 31 report, the Times’ Manjoo detailed the role of Twitter in spreading disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories, using the story of murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich as one example. The report noted that though “Hannity pushed the theory the loudest, … it was groups on Twitter -- or more specifically, bots on Twitter -- that were first to the story and helped make it huge”:

    [T]he biggest problem with Twitter’s place in the news is its role in the production and dissemination of propaganda and misinformation. It keeps pushing conspiracy theories — and because lots of people in the media, not to mention many news consumers, don’t quite understand how it works, the precise mechanism is worth digging into.

    We recently saw the mechanism in action when another baseless conspiracy theory rose to the top of the news: The idea that the murder last year of Seth Rich, a staff member at the Democratic National Committee, was linked, somehow, to the leaking of Clinton campaign emails. The Fox News host Sean Hannity pushed the theory the loudest, but it was groups on Twitter — or, more specifically, bots on Twitter — that were first to the story and helped make it huge.

    Hannity’s obsession with Rich’s murder is a strong example of how this ecosystem shapes media narratives. Hannity has come under fire and lost a number of his advertisers for his relentless promotion of a conspiracy theory alleging that Rich’s 2016 murder was a result of his leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Hannity’s promotion of the theory continued after Fox News retracted an online story making similar claims and after Rich’s family requested that Hannity stop pushing the story. Hannity has a long history of pushing conspiracy theories.

    Manjoo quotes an expert on internet propaganda who said Twitter bots amplify groups’ messages and allow them to “use Twitter as a megaphone” and eventually “manufactur[e] consensus” for ideas. Manjoo contextualized how that works for conspiracy theories. First, groups take to message boards like Reddit or 4chan or Facebook groups to “decide on a particular message to push.” Then bots “flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story.” These tweets often include a “branding hashtag” such as #sethrich. The report noted that “the initial aim isn’t to convince or persuade, but simply to overwhelm,” and that as stories become Trending Topics, reporters are forced to respond, thereby aiding the propagandists’ spread of the story even as media outlets debunk it. Others, like Hannity, pick up the weaponized disinformation, attempt to legitimize it, and put it on a larger platform like his prime-time Fox News show or radio program:

    “Bots allow groups to speak much more loudly than they would be able to on any other social media platforms — it lets them use Twitter as a megaphone,” said Samuel Woolley, the director for research at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project. “It’s doing something that I call ‘manufacturing consensus,’ or building the illusion of popularity for a candidate or a particular idea.”

    How this works for conspiracy theories is relatively straightforward. Outside of Twitter — in message boards or Facebook groups — a group will decide on a particular message to push. Then the deluge begins. Bots flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story, often accompanied by a branding hashtag — #pizzagate, or, a few weeks ago, #sethrich.

    The initial aim isn’t to convince or persuade, but simply to overwhelm — to so completely saturate the network that it seems as if people are talking about a particular story. The biggest prize is to get on Twitter’s Trending Topics list, which is often used as an assignment sheet for the rest of the internet.

    I witnessed this in mid-May, just after the Fox affiliate in Washington reported that a private investigator for Mr. Rich’s family had bombshell evidence in the case. The story later fell apart, but that night, Twitter bots went with it.

    Hundreds of accounts with few or no followers began tweeting links to the story. By the next morning, #SethRich was trending nationally on Twitter — and the conspiracy theory was getting wide coverage across the right, including, in time, Mr. Hannity.

    [...]

    Because they operate unseen, bots catalyze the news: They speed up the process of discovery and dissemination of particular stories, turning an unknown hashtag into the next big thing. A trending hashtag creates a trap for journalists who cover the internet: Even if they cover a conspiracy theory only to debunk it, they’re most likely playing into what the propagandists’ want.

  • How Sinclair Broadcasting purchasing Tribune Media could help Trump get re-elected

    Blog ››› ››› DAYANITA RAMESH & JOHN KERR

    Local TV news conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group is purchasing Tribune Media Group. Sinclair and its affiliates have a history of airing far-right reporting and commentary, its executives have donated to Republicans, and Sinclair even hired former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst. With all the Tribune media stations that are located in big cities and swing states, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is about to get a big boost:

  • Former NY Times public editors criticize “unseemly” decision to cut the “essential” position

    Two former ombudsmen at other outlets join in the criticism

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Several past New York Times public editors, along with two former ombudsmen at other media outlets, are criticizing today’s announcement that the newspaper plans to cut the ombudsman-type position after more than 14 years.

    The former public editors said the independent position is a necessary tool in making sure the paper follows its ethical guidelines and sticks to factual reporting.

    “It’s a shame,” said Daniel Okrent, the first Times public editor, who began in December 2003 and served 18 months in the job. “It’s hard for me to gauge the wisdom of doing this. The public editor rightly or wrongly has more authority and credibility than the random critic you’d find anywhere else.”

    The Times announced the elimination of the post currently held by Liz Spayd in a letter to staff today. She was expected to serve until at least 2018. In a story, the paper also announced a buyout offer to employees in an effort to cut back on "layers of editing."

    The letter, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., stated that a new “Reader Center” would be created in place of the public editor and stressed that the paper would seek to respond more to reader comments.

    “I think it's unseemly,” Arthur Brisbane, who served as the Times' public editor from June 2010 to September 2012, said about the decision to cut the job. “I think it’s unfortunate because I do think the public editor remains an essential role. I think that a lot of readers look to the public editor as a place where the Times offers some accountability on what it does. And the public editor, because it is a dedicated individual, can really dive deeply into some of the important issues that arise.”

    Clark Hoyt, who served as the Times' public editor from May 2007 to June 2010, agreed.

    “Creating a new Reader Center to expand the ways The Times interacts with readers is a great idea. But it lacks one essential quality: independence,” Hoyt said via email. “No organization – whether it’s an arm of government, a business or a news outlet – likes to be second-guessed. And it’s true that there are already plenty of critics of The Times and the news media in general. There always have been. But the public editor played a unique role as an experienced journalist, within the newsroom but independent of the executive structure, who could investigate complaints and render measured judgment."

    He later added, “In my experience, readers who believed they couldn’t get a fair hearing from a newsroom invested in a particular decision, looked upon the public editor as an essential avenue of appeal. I hope The Times, one of the world’s most respected news organizations, doesn’t come to regret this decision.”

    Byron Calame, the second Times public editor, serving from May 2005 to May 2007, said expanding reader response is good, but not enough.

    “The other piece is more difficult, the crunch time stuff, when the executive editor or another top editor has made a decision that is simply wrong,” he said in an interview. “And will this process find a way to deal with that when the top guy makes a wrong decision?”

    He cited a 2006 story in The New York Times Magazine that claimed an El Salvador woman had been jailed for having an abortion. When it turned out the story was wrong, and that the woman had most likely killed a newborn, Calame revealed the truth in a column months later that prompted the paper to publish an editor’s note correcting the story.

    “I wrote a column and they had to do an editor’s note fessing up to this,” he said. “I think you need a public editor to deal with that. You can question very powerful people and keep questioning them.”

    Okrent said his “biggest concern" is that the move "will be unfairly used by the paper’s enemies [to say] that they can’t take the criticism. To say, ‘See, they don’t care about criticism.’”

    Alicia Shepard, a former National Public Radio ombudsman, said responding to reader comments is good, but it lacks the direct approach the public editor had been allowed to take.

    "While a news organization can respond to readers, no one else can really push management to be accountable and ask tough questions that can't be ignored,” she said via email. “If the new Times' Reader Center can do that, then great. At this point in journalism, we desperately need more accountability and transparency - not less."

    Robert Lipsyte, a former ESPN ombudsman and previously a longtime New York Times sports writer, called the public editor elimination a “big mistake.”

    He wrote in an email that it's "a big mistake to move from independent oversight (as ESPN has) to what is basically a customer complaint and service department. An internal check is particularly important as the paper makes business moves that may affect its journalism," he continued. "The editorial consensus at ESPN was why should we pay for an Ombudsman when we get so much criticism for free. The answer of course is that a good public editor loves the report and wants to make it better within its own terms.”

    Bill Keller, a former New York Times executive editor and the first to work with a public editor, said he did not always like what the public editors did, but he appreciated the need.

    “I've described it as the most thankless job in journalism, squeezed between critics of The Times who see you as an apologist and defenders who see you as an interloper,” he said via email, noting that today’s increased reader comments and responses can make up for some of the public editor’s job.

    “At their best, though, the public editors had two things the reading rank-and-file did not: access and authority," he added. "At their best, they knew the habits, good and bad, of newsrooms, they brought reporting skills to bear, and they sometimes spoke wisdom to power. (Of course, when not at their best they could be a royal pain in the ass.)”

  • How New York journalists overcame barriers to prison access and opened the world’s eyes to the horrors of Rikers

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    The media’s access to prisons is replete with roadblocks, which vary from state to state and can be as extreme as blanket denials to journalists. U.S. courts have found that journalists have no more right to access prisons than the general public does, and much of their reporting requires navigating complicated relationships with prison officials. Despite these challenges, dogged reporting from New York journalists covering the Rikers Island jail complex made it impossible for the public and officials to ignore injustices in the prison, which Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in March to shut down.

    Journalists face numerous barriers to prison access, which varies from state to state

    New York journalists' reporting on Rikers exemplified how to overcome many challenges to access

    Reporting on prisons is in the public interest


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Journalists face numerous barriers to prison access, which varies from state to state

    One of the first complexities journalists face in their reporting on prisons is different access policies across states. The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) developed a state-by-state media access policy resource after finding that several states “offer few guidelines for granting or denying media requests, simply leaving it up to ‘the discretion’ of whoever is in charge.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) even suggests reporters “try personally appealing to the head of the department” when they are unable to navigate the complex and often arbitrary policies. SPJ’s Jessica Pupovac interviewed a Wall Street Journal criminal justice reporter who compared prisons to “a fiefdom” with a “feudal system” in which “the warden is at the top.”

    Pupovac’s toolbox on prison reporting outlined other discrepancies between states. For example, some states permit face-to-face interviews with inmates “but reserve the right to terminate such conversations at any time,” while others may reject nearly all requests. An Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson even admitted to Pupovac in 2012 that he does not “remember any times” the department has “granted access in the last year and a half.” Other prisons require that “any sources from within the prisons” be “hand-selected by staff.” According to “peer-to-peer educational platform” GenFKD, state-by-state access policies “appear to be arbitrary considering they can be based on previous legislation, administrative regulation, individual cases or a combination thereof,” and that there are only a handful of places with “due process for media to complain if they are denied” access.

    The law, however, generally does not guarantee any sort of journalist access to prisons, though journalists have successfully sued for that access. In a 2013 Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) cover story, Beth Schwartzapfel wrote, “The courts have repeatedly held that journalists do not have any rights of access greater than that of the general public. Of course, they have no fewer rights of access, either.” One Chicago journalist threatened a lawsuit “hom[ing] in on that right to equal access,” as prison officials had granted access to school and church groups, along with the prison watchdog group John Howard Association prior to then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issuing “blanket denials to journalists seeking access to the state’s prisons.” Illinois’ Department of Corrections eventually granted access, and one of the reporter’s lawyers reasoned that it was because the department “knew that to give access to John Howard and not the media raised a significant equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

    But the challenges do not end even when a journalist is granted access. Journalists must “navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own,” and, as Pupovac told CJR, “Openness, and transparency are ‘the exception to the rule.’” GenFKD noted that reporters also often “take statements from officials as truth without investigating further,” and “prisoners and guards alike will be dishonest and mislead regularly.”

    Former Los Angeles Times corrections reporter Jenifer Warren told CPJ that when journalists can’t get access through prison officials, they should follow “the paper trail,” noting that “prisons are functions of state governments, and state governments keep all sorts of records.” Warren also noted that though the media may not have access to current inmates, reporters can “interview former inmates,” “talk to people who just got out, people on probation and parole, and their friends and family.” And according to GenFKD, “Though corrections officials can make it hard to talk to inmates, they can’t make it impossible. Inmates are allowed to write letters, and most have access to phone calls if reporters are willing to pay hefty fees.”

    New York journalists’ reporting on Rikers exemplified how to overcome many challenges to access

    Many of these tactics were effectively employed by New York journalists reporting on the Rikers Island jail complex, which Mayor de Blasio has vowed to close, potentially within the next 10 years.

    New York magazine writer Jennifer Gonnerman’s long-form feature about Kalief Browder, who was incarcerated at Rikers, was a Pulitzer award finalist. Browder spent three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was 16, nearly two of which were in solitary confinement. He was pressured to plead guilty as his trial was repeatedly delayed, and he was eventually released without a trial because his accuser left the country and the prosecutor was therefore “unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.” Browder took his own life in 2015 after having attempted to do so “several times” during his time in Rikers. Gonnerman’s work brought national attention to Browder’s case, with former President Barack Obama citing his case in a Washington Post op-ed he wrote in 2016, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy specifically citing Gonnerman’s reporting in a Supreme Court opinion. According to The New York Times, she was also credited with increasing public attention “on the plight of younger teenagers at Rikers” that led to the eventual plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers “to a dedicated jail for youths in the Bronx.”

    In her reporting, Gonnerman interviewed Browder, who had already been released, as well as his lawyers and family. She also relied heavily on court filings, transcripts, and a report by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. These reports were instrumental in corroborating Browder’s story, such as when he recounted officers beating him and telling him that he would be sent to solitary if he went to the medical clinic rather than back to bed. The group of guards had lined Browder and other inmates “up against a wall, trying to figure out who had been responsible for an earlier fight,” and Browder recounted that though “he had nothing to do with the fight,” the guards beat him and the other inmates. Gonnerman reported that “the Department of Correction refused to respond to these allegations, or to answer any questions about Browder’s stay on Rikers.” But she was able to substantiate his story by noting that Bharara’s report “recounts many instances in which officers pressured inmates not to report beatings.”

    The New York Times’ Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have also covered Rikers extensively. Their 2014 reporting -- in conjunction with court reporter Benjamin Weiser -- that the city had omitted “hundreds of inmate fights … from departmental statistics” was referenced by Bharara when he warned that his office, as the Times reported, “stood ready to file a civil rights lawsuit against” New York City over conditions at Rikers. The Times obtained a confidential report that showed that the data was incorrect in those statistics and that the warden and deputy warden “had ‘abdicated all responsibility’ in reporting the statistics and that both should be demoted.” Bharara’s office eventually joined an existing class-action lawsuit against the city for brutality at the complex. Reflecting on their “high-impact journalism,” Winerip and Schwirtz wrote that it was “remarkable” that they were able “to see the results of our reporting almost immediately.”

    In an earlier landmark report on rampant brutality at Rikers, Winerip and Schwirtz also noted that a “dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence” at the prison “hidden from public view.” Nevertheless, they uncovered “details on scores of assaults” through both interviews and by “reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records”:

    The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence.

    The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.

    Rather than simply report on the secret study, which “included no names and had little by way of details about specific cases,” Times reporters obtained “specific information on all 129 cases and used it to take an in-depth look at 24 of the most serious incidents.” In addition to many anonymous interviews with “inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail,” Winerip and Schwirtz interviewed officials like Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and the president of the correction officers’ union, Norman Seabrook. While reflecting on their reporting, they noted that “once we started publishing articles, insiders saw we were serious and came forward to help. Many of them could have lost their jobs if their names were published, but they were able to point us to documents that had been covered up, and to people who were in a position to speak honestly and openly.”

    Winerip and Schwirtz’s reporting also demonstrated the need to not take officials’ words or reports at face value. Schwirtz talked about their reporting in another article, writing that “inmates can be, or be seen as, unreliable, and the correctional bureaucracies are often not forthcoming,” so he and Winerip had “to be creative.” They got help from prisoners’ “wives and girlfriends,” who passed information from their partners to the reporters, to report on brutal interrogations. They also used letters inmates wrote to the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, and the group’s lawyers then put the inmates in contact with the Times. Schwirtz and Winerip also spoke to inmates on the phone and were able to visit four of them. The State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision did not provide the “names of correction officers” with whom the reporters could speak and issued “only a short statement suggesting that allegations of abuse were under investigation.” 

    Reporting on prisons is in the public interest

    Reporting on prisons and incarceration is a matter of intense public interest and can expose real injustice, waste, and corruption. SPJ’s Pupovac noted that “what happens behind prison walls affects us all.” Taxpayers must pay for “an annual budget of more than $74 billion” to run U.S. prisons, and incarcerated people eventually re-enter their communities. Yet in CJR, Schwartzapfel noted that “compared to other areas that siphon significant public resources, such as healthcare, prisons get vanishingly little media attention.” Schwartzapfel also noted that “more than 600,000” incarcerated people “eventually go home” each year, and their experience in our prisons “has profound consequences for the society they return to”:

    [I]t is hard to overstate the importance of covering prisons. For starters: 95 percent of prisoners—more than 600,000 people each year—eventually go home. What happened while they were inside—whether they received job training, adequate healthcare, or learned positive life skills, or whether they were embittered, recruited into a gang, or made connections in the criminal underworld—has profound consequences for the society they return to. And the ripples extend far beyond the prisoners themselves: Almost two million children have a parent in prison—to say nothing of inmates’ parents, spouses, and siblings. Half a million correctional officers work behind the walls.

    There are entire organizations dedicated to investigating incarceration in America. The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer-winning nonprofit news organization, uses “award-winning journalism, partnerships with other news outlets and public forums … to educate and enlarge the audience of people who care about the state of criminal justice,” as well as to “create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” Organizations like the Marshall Project and reporting by journalists, such as those investigating Rikers, overcame barriers to prison access and shined a light on unacceptable conditions, helping spur positive change.

  • Hannity repeatedly pushed stories after Fox backed away from or retracted them

    He also has flouted ethical and employment guidelines

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Volatile Fox News anchor and right-wing conspiracy theorist Sean Hannity has repeatedly pushed stories even after his network retracted or backed away from them and has on multiple occasions broken ethical and employment guidelines. Hannity has pushed polls that the network had previously said “do not meet our editorial standards,” hyped debunked Muslim “no-go zones” in France after the network had to apologize for reporting about them, engaged in political activity without Fox’s knowledge or approval, and has used his Fox platform to benefit a sponsor of his radio show.

  • When violence against the press becomes acceptable

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On Wednesday night, as news broke that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs had been physically attacked by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte after Jacobs asked him his position on the Republican health care bill, the conservative movement’s pro-Trump voices rallied to Gianforte’s rescue. This moral cowardice has become commonplace for commentators who have spent so much time immersed in the battle to defend the president and vilify the press at all costs that they are apparently incapable of ethical seriousness.

    Faced with a conservative politician who had -- in full view of a Fox News camera crew -- grabbed a reporter and slammed him to the ground, then lied about the incident through a spokesperson, these pundits backed the politician. Their reactions ranged from efforts to undermine the stories of the reporter and the witnesses, to declarations that it looked bad but Jacobs probably deserved it, to outright cheers for the assault. In doing so, they showed there are few actions that they are unwilling to excuse as long as the victims are journalists and the perpetrator a Republican.

    In some ways, the responses mimicked the right wing’s scorn for HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly and The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery when they were arrested while reporting on protests in 2014. But the Gianforte affair represents not just the misguided use of the power of the state against journalists, but also a politician literally taking matters into his own hands because he didn't want to answer questions. If that behavior is worthy of defense, what isn’t? Where would Gianforte’s defenders draw the line?

    It comes as no surprise that these critics have sought to fend off what seems to be an obvious conclusion to draw from the events -- that they are the result of President Donald Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the press. For if journalists are, as the president says, the “enemy of the American people,” are they not worthy of violence as well as scorn? Or, at least, are those who do respond with violence not worthy of defense?

    Press freedom advocates warned of the dangers of a soft authoritarian like Trump becoming president. And indeed, the first months of the Trump administration have featured a wave of these cases. From an Alaska reporter who says he was slapped by a Republican legislator to a West Virginia reporter arrested while trying to ask questions of a member of the Trump cabinet to a CQ Roll Call scribe who was manhandled by security guards while trying to ask questions of FCC commissioners, government agents are becoming increasingly comfortable responding to the press with force.

    In this environment, as pro-Trump conservatives demonstrate their willingness to support anything and everything the president does without question, it becomes unsurprising that they might also be willing to look away when a politician physically attacks a reporter. This feeling is by no means universal -- many conservatives have been willing to criticize both the president and Gianforte for their attacks on the press. But the Trumpists are ascendant: They have the largest audiences and the most powerful media posts, and their man is in the White House.

    This support for the use of force against journalists is horrifying, but it is not new to the U.S. conservative movement. Trump-style invective against the press has been a staple of modern conservative commentary since at least former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ)’s 1964 run for the White House. But before conservative activists at the Republican National Convention jeered at journalists who they believed had taken sides in the struggle for civil rights, segregationist mobs assaulted and even murdered reporters covering integration efforts.

    The faces change, but the plan remains the same: delegitimization by dehumanization. By convincing themselves and their followers that journalists are something other than citizens who deserve the scrupulous protection of the law and human beings who deserve respect, conservative leaders seek to limit the impact of damaging stories and step in as information gatekeepers for their supporters.

    This is not a failure of “our politics,” as some mainstream journalists have claimed. When a Democratic president says that journalists are vital to the democratic process but could at times do better, and his Republican successor denounces individual reporters from his rally podium to the delight of his jeering audience, it is nonsense to throw up one’s hands and declare oneself under attack from both sides.

    The conservative movement is suffering from a unique and acute defect. And if physically attacking a reporter is now considered acceptable, where will this anti-press mania end?

  • Sinclair owned station in Montana won't air recording of Gianforte assault

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Local Montana station KECI has not aired the audio recording of Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s alleged assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. The station is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the country’s largest operator of local television stations.

    HuffPost first reported the lack of coverage from KECI on May 25 following widespread condemnation of Gianforte’s actions. KECI belongs to Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a pro-GOP media conglomerate that has a long history of relying exclusively on conservative leaning reporting and commentary. Sinclair recently entered into an agreement to purchase Tribune Media Group, which owns 42 television stations in 33 markets. Sinclair’s reporting has heavily favored Donald Trump and recently hired one of his former aides as a political analyst. From the May 25 HuffPost report:

    If Montana residents tuned into the local news Wednesday night on NBC affiliate KECI, they wouldn’t have heard an audio recording of Republican House candidate Greg Gianforte attacking Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, even as it got widespread airplay on national television and online.

    “NBC Montana takes pride in reporting only verifiable facts from independent, reliable sources, officials and documents, regardless of what is reported by other media outlets,” anchor Laurel Staples explained to the 10 p.m. audience. (A similar statement appeared in KECI’s online reports).

    Earlier that evening, The Guardian posted a recording in which Jacobs is heard asking Gianforte a question about health care policy right before the candidate snaps. Jacobs’ recording, which contradicted claims by Gianforte’s campaign that the “liberal journalist” was the aggressor, quickly became a key part of the unfolding story.

    Before the night was over, Gianforte ― squaring off Thursday against Democrat Rob Quist in a special House election ― had been charged with misdemeanor assault.

    KECI’s coverage ― or lack thereof ― drew attention on Twitter in part because the station was recently bought by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has a history of boosting Republican candidates. The conservative-leaning media company owns 173 outlets nationwide and is poised to add dozens.