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  • Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Devin Nunes are feeding the Fox News conspiracy pipeline

    Congressional Republicans team up with a credulous right-wing media to undermine the FBI’s Trump investigation

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The crusade by the Republican Party and its media allies to discredit the FBI’s investigation of President Donald Trump and his campaign is a fantastically dishonest and propagandistic farce, and the whole effort is conducted with transparent bad faith while grotesquely masquerading as an exercise in good-government oversight. The mechanism driving this disinformation campaign is a pipeline of bullshit that originates with Republicans in Congress, flows directly through Fox News, and sometimes ends up spilling out all over the president’s Twitter feed.

    To date, there have been two high-profile congressional sources for the “scandals” that have powered conservative media coverage of the FBI’s Trump investigation: Senate homeland security committee chair Ron Johnson (R-WI) and House intelligence committee chair Devin Nunes (R-CA). Both have been repeatedly caught lying and ginning up controversy where there is none, and both have had phenomenal success in propagating falsehoods through conservative media outlets that don’t care whether what they report is true or not.

    Late last month, Johnson went on Fox News to talk about “corruption at the highest levels of the FBI” as evidenced by a text message conversation between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page that referenced a “secret society” -- presumably a cabal of powerful individuals plotting to illegitimately tar Trump’s presidency. The “secret society” talking point quickly permeated conservative media and became a focal point of outrage.

    A couple of days later, the truth about the “secret society” text came out -- it was an obvious joke between the two officials. There was no secret society, and Johnson backpedaled by acknowledging the “real possibility” that the supposedly nefarious text message he’d highlighted as proof of a conspiracy just days earlier might, in fact, be nothing more than a gag.

    Just a couple of weeks after that, Johnson was at it again. His committee released an “interim report” on the FBI’s investigation of the Clinton email scandal that once again highlighted specific texts between Strzok and Page. Among them was a September 2, 2016, text from Page regarding the creation of talking points for then-FBI Director James Comey. Page wrote that then-President Barack Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing.” According to the report, “This text raises additional questions about the type and extent of President Obama’s personal involvement in the Clinton email scandal and the FBI investigation of it.”

    Fueled by a credulous Fox News write-up of Johnson’s report, the text message shot like an electrical current through the conservative media, which leaped on Johnson’s suggestion that Obama might have meddled with the FBI’s investigation into Clinton. The president himself got in on the dissemination, tweeting that the “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS” not long after his favorite Fox News morning program ran a segment on the report.

    And, once again, it all turned out to be false. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the text was referring to a briefing on Russian election interference, not a Clinton matter. The FBI’s Clinton investigation was closed by the time Page sent the text.

    Devin Nunes’ contributions to the fog of disinformation include last year’s “unmasking” fiasco, in which Nunes -- acting on information fed to him by the Trump White House -- wrongly accused Obama national security officials of inappropriately exposing  the identities of Trump aides captured on wiretaps. More recently, Nunes wrote a report that all but accused the FBI of illicitly obtaining a warrant to surveil a former Trump aide. The report’s key contention -- that the FBI hid the political origins of some of the evidence in its warrant application -- was quickly debunked.

    In each of these examples, the lies spread rapidly and had ample time to become entrenched as part of a conservative media narrative before the facts undermining them could be established. Claims that former Obama officials inappropriately “unmasked” Trump associates and that an anti-Trump “secret society” exists within the FBI formed the bases of countless Fox News prime time monologues before they were debunked. After the truth came out, the lies were either quietly shelved (per a Nexis search, Sean Hannity mentioned the “secret society” in three straight Fox News shows after Johnson highlighted it on January 23, but hasn’t brought it up since) or kept alive as nefarious-sounding buzzwords (casual, unelaborated references to “unmasking” still come up regularly in Hannity rants).

    The presence and power of the conservative echo chamber means that Republicans in Congress like Johnson and Nunes don’t really have to care when the obvious lies they’re peddling get debunked. They have a receptive audience for whatever conspiratorial claim they can manufacture, and they can be confident that they’ll face no factual challenge to their nonsense so long as they limit their media appearances to Fox News and other conservative safe spaces.

  • Fox publishes senator's leaked text messages less than two weeks after Julian Assange promised “news about Warner” to Hannity

    Assange promised "news about Warner” to a fake Sean Hannity account via "other channels" just weeks ago

    Blog ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    Less than two weeks after The Daily Beast reported WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange contacted a fake Sean Hannity account on Twitter discussing “other channels” for Assange to send information about Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- Fox News hyped “brand new text messages” that revealed “questionable relationship between [Warner] and a lobbyist representing a Russian oligarch.”

    On January 29, The Daily Beast’s Ben Collins reported that, after Fox News host Sean Hannity’s Twitter account briefly “disappeared,” Julian Assange unknowingly messaged an account posing as Hannity, presumably under the impression that the account was authentic. In the direct messages, Assange suggested the parody Hannity account send messages “on other channels” because, according to a screenshot of the conversation, Assange had “some news about Warner” to discuss with Hannity.

    On the February 8 edition of Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum, host Martha MacCallum reported “brand new text messages” from Sen. Warner that were “obtained exclusively by Fox News” from, according to Fox News chief national correspondent Ed Henry, “a Republican source.” MacCallum claimed the text messages “puts a little bit of a wrinkle in” the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election. Soon after MacCallum’s exclusive report, Hannity promoted Henry’s report about the leaked Warner texts. President Trump weighed in as well, writing, "Wow! -Senator Mark Warner got caught having extensive contact with a lobbyist for a Russian oligarch."

    MARTHA MACCALLUM (HOST): We have some breaking news for you this evening on The Story. There are brand new text messages obtained exclusively by Fox News that reveal a questionable relationship between the top Democrat in the Senate's Russia investigation and a lobbyist representing a Russian oligarch. Good evening, everybody, I'm Martha MacCallum and this is The Story for tonight. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, who held numerous press conferences over the past year promising a fair and bipartisan investigation into President Trump's supposed ties to Russia, was apparently trying to gain access through the Russians to Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous anti-Trump dossier. Writing in part in these text messages that are just being revealed for the first time, "we have so much to discuss. You need to be careful, but we can help our country."

    [...]

    It's potentially at least a stream to follow up on that the Russians, perhaps, were trying to lay groundwork on both sides of the fence here.

    ED HENRY (FOX NEWS CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT): No doubt about it.

    [..]

    The bottom line is Democrats have spent a lot of time talking about the president's ties to Russians, what kind of conversations he and his aides have had. Now these text messages that I got from a Republican source close to the committee is clearly an attempt by Republicans to say hang on a second, the top Democrat on this committee also had some questionable conversations about trying to keep some of this secret. And again, I want to stress, Warner’s office was very direct with me in saying they realize that this doesn’t look good out of context, as they say, but they insist the Republican chairman was in the loop.

    [...]

    MACCALLUM: Both sides have sort of pointed fingers at each other from the House side and Senate side that the House Intel Committee has all this friction between the Republicans and the Democrats and that on the Senate side, the gentlemen are working everything out with no problems. This sort of puts a little bit of a wrinkle in that.

    Soon after the report, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) acknowledged that “Sen.Warner fully disclosed this to the committee four months ago,” adding that this disclosure, “has had zero impact on our work." 

    Fox News has waged a months-long campaign attempting to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election. 

  • Russian trolls moved 340,000 Americans up the ladder of engagement

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Last night, The Washington Post revealed that Russian trolls “got tens of thousands of Americans to RSVP” to local political events on Facebook. We’ve known since last September that Russian trolls employed this tactic and often created dueling events at the same location and time, probably to incite violence or increase tension within local communities. But it is only now we’re learning the scale of that engagement. Per the Post, “Russian operatives used Facebook to publicize 129 phony event announcements during the 2016 presidential campaign, drawing the attention of nearly 340,000 users -- many of whom said they were planning to attend.”

    The new information comes via the Senate intelligence committee, which has been investigating potential Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S. elections and pressuring tech companies, especially Facebook, Twitter, and Google, to disclose more of what they know about just how much propaganda Americans saw on their platforms. Both Twitter and Facebook have agreed to let users know if they were exposed, but given that we’re still learning more about the scale of the operation, I’m skeptical that anyone knows how many Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda or how often. (If you’d like to check for yourself, I helped create a site that allows anyone to check the likelihood of them being exposed on Facebook.)

    By now most Americans accept that Russian propaganda appeared on their social media feeds in 2016. What concerns me is whether or not they believe that they themselves were susceptible to it. The fact that nearly 340,000 people RSVP’d to events created by Russian trolls -- that they moved up the ladder of engagement from consuming content to RSVPing to an event -- should make us all reconsider our own vulnerability, especially when you consider that many of these events were created to sow discord. Russia’s goal is to destabilize U.S. democracy. Stoking racial, cultural, and political tensions in local communities across the U.S. via creating events on Facebook is a cheap and effective way for Russian trolls to do this.

    Russia’s use of social media to disseminate propaganda and stoke political tension is an ongoing problem. Last fall, Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA), leaders of the Senate intelligence committee, issued a bipartisan warning that Russian trolls would continue their actions into the 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential elections to sow chaos. A ThinkProgress article on the now-defunct website BlackMattersUS.com illustrates how sophisticated propaganda operations can use content, online campaigns, offline events, and relationships with local activists to develop trust and credibility online. And as the successful dueling event demonstrate, all Americans, no matter what their political persuasion, are susceptible to these influence operations.

    As Recode Executive Editor Kara Swisher pointed out on MSNBC today, we’re in an “ongoing war.” There’s no easy way to tell if the content we see on our social media feeds comes from Russian trolls or other hostile actors. There’s no media literacy course or easily available resource that can teach individuals how to identify propaganda. That’s why regulation that protects consumers such as stricter disclosure of political ads and safeguards against fraud is so vital to solving this problem. Especially as tech companies have proven reluctant to make any real changes beyond what public pressure demands of them.

  • Ted Cruz said he always opposed government shutdowns. He told Hannity something else in 2013.

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)  told reporters he has “consistently opposed shut downs,” a statement that contradicts his position in 2013.

    In 2013 Politico reported that Cruz’s colleagues were “angry” with him “for helping prompt a government shutdown crisis without a strategy to end it.” And earlier in the year on Hannity, Cruz endorsed the idea of a “partial government shutdown,” while also agreeing with Sean Hannity that the 1995 shutdown was positive because “We got to a balanced budget for the first time.” From the Janury 8, 2013 edition of Fox News’ Hannity:

    SEAN HANNITY (HOST): You said something the other day I was really glad you said. I think the Republicans were weak when it came to the fiscal cliff. I think they have a lot more leverage now over the debt ceiling.

    TED CRUZ:  Yep.

    HANNITY: So my question to you, you said they should be willing to shut the government down, not all functions of the government.

    CRUZ:  Right, right.

    HANNITY: What would you shut down and do you think your fellow Republicans will do that?

    CRUZ: Well, I hope we stand strong. The reason we got a lousy deal with the fiscal cliff, is that President Obama had the leverage. Because when you've got divided government, whoever owns the default, whoever wins if nothing is done is in the strongest position, and Obama was in a strong position there because if nothing was done taxes were raised on every American taxpayer. With respect to the debt ceiling, we have the default. If fiscal conservatives stand together we can forcesome substantive reforms, some pro-growth reforms, and if not the effect is not a default and Obama is going to say that over and over and over again, and we’ve got to be very clear, it's not a default we should always, always, always pay our debts. But what the effect would be is a partial government shutdown. And we’ve seen that before, we saw it in 1995 with Republicans in congress.

    HANNITY: It worked. We got to a balanced budget for the first time.

    CRUZ: Year after year after year.

  • Alex Jones hosts Joe Arpaio and commands his viewers to donate to and volunteer for his Senate campaign

    Jones urged supporters to vote by pushing a conspiracy theory alleging hopped up “illegals” will try to steal the race from Arpaio

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    From the January 11 edition of Genesis Communications Network’s The Alex Jones Show:

    ALEX JONES (HOST): I don’t go to the audience and bitch at you and say, “Hey, do more, buy more products, spread the articles, thank our affiliates more.” I know you’re doing a lot. But we’re all in a fight, so everybody needs to seriously go to SheriffJoeForAmerica.com,  SheriffJoeForAmerica.com, and they need to donate and they need to volunteer and they need to get involved because in the polls he’s either ahead or neck and neck but you know they’re going to have people voting in the names of dead people. You know they get the illegals and hop them all up and tell them he’s the enemy, just because he’s for law and order, and they’ll get them to try to vote against him and there’s serious fraud in Arizona. So we need to get him five, ten, 15 points ahead to even have a chance of winning like Trump did, which we can do if you take action. But this isn’t about shooting our mouths off, it’s about doing it.

    Previously:

    Joe Arpaio thanks conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for getting his story to Donald Trump, who is reportedly poised to pardon the former sheriff

  • Right-wing trolls hype “apparent effort to dupe reporters and smear” Chuck Schumer

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Right-wing media trolls Mike Cernovich and Chuck Johnson promoted a forged document that accused Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) of sexually harassing a former staffer, then quickly walked back their claims when the document was reported to police as a forgery.

    In a now-deleted tweet, far-right Twitter troll Mike Cernovich promoted claims by  Chuck C. Johnson, who has a history of harassing journalists, saying he was “currently reading the sexual harassment settlement documents of a major Democratic US Senator.”

    After posting and deleting the comment, Cernovich began walking back his claim, posting multiple videos on Twitter where he attempted to explain away his promotion of the document, arguing that he believed the story to be a “Big story or a Big hoax.” Cernovich later admitted that the document was apparently a hoax and claimed he has the “phone number of the hoaxer.”

    According to Axios, the document Johnson purported to be reading was a forgery and an attempt to “dupe reporters and smear” the Democratic Senator. After catching wind of the attempted smear, Schumer reported the forged document to the Capitol Police who are investigating the incident:

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was the victim of a fake news hit on Tuesday, and has turned over to Capitol Police a document that purports to detail lurid sexual harassment accusations by a former staffer.

    Why it matters: This was an apparent effort to dupe reporters and smear a senator — both symptoms of an amped-up news environment where harassment charges are proliferating and reporters have become targets for fraud.

    The former staffer told me in a phone interview that she did not author the document, that none of the charges ring true, and that her signature was forged.
    She said she had never heard of the document before Axios took it to Schumer's office for comment on Tuesday.

    Matt House, Schumer's communications director, told me: "The document is a forged document and every allegation is false. We have turned it over to the Capitol Police and asked them to investigate and pursue criminal charges because it is clear the law has been broken."

    House continued: "We believe the individual responsible for forging the document should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to prevent other malicious actors from doing the same."

  • Reported child molester Roy Moore gets an A grade from the NRA

    Blog ››› ››› CYDNEY HARGIS

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    After staying quiet for most of the Alabama Senate special election campaign, the National Rifle Association has officially awarded Republican candidate Roy Moore an “AQ” rating.

    According to the NRA’s Political Victory Fund webpage for Alabama, Moore has an “AQ” rating, which the NRA reserves for “a pro-gun candidate whose rating is based solely on the candidate's responses to the NRA-PVF Candidate Questionnaire and who does not have a voting record on Second Amendment issues.” The NRA awarded Democratic candidate Doug Jones a “?” rating, which the group defines as “Refused to answer the NRA-PVF Candidate Questionnaire, often an indication of indifference, if not outright hostility, to gun owners' and sportsmen's rights.”

    Based on a search of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, the rating was posted some time after December 8, and comes just after the NRA quietly spent more than $54,000 against Jones while at the time not mentioning the race on its Political Victory Fund website. The organization’s “AQ” grade also comes around the same time as the Republican National Committee restarted funding Moore after previously cutting the campaign off, and after Trump announced his official endorsement.

    On December 1, the Moore campaign claimed that the NRA is “on board with us now” after supporting his opponent, Luther Strange, in the primaries.

    Moore is accused of having inappropriate sexual relationships with multiple teenage girls, one as young as 14, while he was in his 30s, including attempting to rape a 16-year-old girl.

    Through regular monitoring of NRATV, the NRA’s broadcast platform, Media Matters can report that the Alabama Senate election has not been a regular topic of discussion. 

  • In final stretch of campaign, Roy Moore runs to friendly outlets to avoid questions of child molestation

    Blog ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    In the last week leading up to today's special Senate election in Alabama, Republican candidate Roy Moore has avoided most media, granting interviews instead to friendly outlets including Breitbart and One America News Network. On the night before the election, Moore did one of these interviews with Breitbart.com chief Stephen Bannon at a rally where Bannon was campaigning for him. 

    Since December 4, Moore has given at least five interviews, none of which were to major mainstream media outlets despite the national attention the race garnered after Moore was accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with teenagers, including a 14-year-old girl. Moore granted one interview to Breitbart's Aaron Klein, one interview to Bannon at a Moore rally where Bannon was campaigning for him (Breitbart has been running defense to get him elected), one interview to pro-Moore outlet One America News Network, one interview to a local Alabama political talk show, and one interview to a “pro-Trump” 12-year-old girl in an interview arranged by an organization “formed by former Breitbart news staffers.”

    Moore has largely avoided the media since early November, when reports surfaced that Moore engaged in numerous inappropriate encounters with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Since those reports, pro-Trump media have generously supported Moore in an attempt to drag him across the finish line, helping him in his efforts to attack his accusers. Breitbart.com has led the pack, with Bannon campaigning extensively for Moore and the site going all in soon after the first reports of inappropriate contact with teenagers surfaced. Breitbart’s senior editor Joel Pollak has argued that Moore’s reported sexual relationships with teenagers were “perfectly legitimate.” And Breitbart has even rented out its email list to the Moore campaign, which sent fundraising emails to Breitbart’s subscribers on at least four occasions.

  • How cable news covered Trump's robocall in support of reported child molester Roy Moore

    CNN and MSNBC repeatedly aired Trump’s pro-Roy Moore robocall

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    On the eve of Alabama's special election, CNN and MSNBC repeatedly aired President Donald Trump's robocall in support of reported child molester and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

    In early November, The Washington Post reported the stories of several women who said that Moore pursued sexual encounters with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Since then, other women have come forward with their own stories of sexual misconduct by Moore. Trump, who himself has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by numerous women, has thrown his full support behind Moore, including recording a robocall in which he urges Alabama voters to “go vote for Roy Moore,” because “if Alabama elects liberal Democrat Doug Jones, all of our progress will be stopped cold.” Trump adds, “We need Roy to help us with the Republican Senate.”

    On December 11, the day before the special election, CNN and MSNBC repeatedly aired audio of Trump’s robocall throughout the day, occasionally also airing portions of Trump’s pro-Moore rally as well.

    Overall, throughout the course of the day, CNN aired portions of Trump’s pro-Moore, anti-Jones robocall nine times. MSNBC aired portions of the robocall seven times, and Fox News aired portions of the robocall twice.

    While MSNBC and CNN often presented the ad in the context of noting that the president is throwing his support behind a reported sexual predator, the networks nonetheless repeatedly broadcast Trump's closing pitch to Alabama voters to their viewers. In effect, they were giving a wider audience to a major political ad for Moore.