Amber Athey | Media Matters for America

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  • 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.

  • Conservative media rally around Kavanaugh amid second allegation of sexual misconduct

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Conservative media figures reacted to a New Yorker story that a second woman reported Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for sexual misconduct by digging in on their support for him and demanding that Republicans hurry up and confirm him.

    The New Yorker reported on Sunday evening that Deborah Ramirez, who attended Yale University with Kavanaugh, said that according to her recollection, “Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away”:

    Ramirez said that, when both she and Kavanaugh were freshmen at Yale, she was invited by a friend on the women’s soccer team to a dorm-room party. She recalled that the party took place in a suite at Lawrance Hall, in the part of Yale known as Old Campus, and that a small group of students decided to play a drinking game together. “We were sitting in a circle,” she said. “People would pick who drank.” Ramirez was chosen repeatedly, she said, and quickly became inebriated. At one point, she said, a male student pointed a gag plastic penis in her direction. Later, she said, she was on the floor, foggy and slurring her words, as that male student and another stood nearby. (Ramirez identified the two male onlookers, but, at her request, The New Yorker is not naming them.)

    A third male student then exposed himself to her. “I remember a penis being in front of my face,” she said. “I knew that’s not what I wanted, even in that state of mind.” She recalled remarking, “That’s not a real penis,” and the other students laughing at her confusion and taunting her, one encouraging her to “kiss it.” She said that she pushed the person away, touching it in the process. Ramirez, who was raised a devout Catholic, in Connecticut, said that she was shaken. “I wasn’t going to touch a penis until I was married,” she said. “I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated.” She remembers Kavanaugh standing to her right and laughing, pulling up his pants. “Brett was laughing,” she said. “I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants.” She recalled another male student shouting about the incident. “Somebody yelled down the hall, ‘Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face,’ ” she said. “It was his full name. I don’t think it was just ‘Brett.’ And I remember hearing and being mortified that this was out there.”

    Ramirez acknowledged that there are significant gaps in her memories of the evening, and that, if she ever presents her story to the F.B.I. or members of the Senate, she will inevitably be pressed on her motivation for coming forward after so many years, and questioned about her memory, given her drinking at the party.

    And yet, after several days of considering the matter carefully, she said, “I’m confident about the pants coming up, and I’m confident about Brett being there.” Ramirez said that what has stayed with her most forcefully is the memory of laughter at her expense from Kavanaugh and the other students. “It was kind of a joke,” she recalled. “And now it’s clear to me it wasn’t a joke.”

    Another classmate told The New Yorker that he heard about the incident at the time and that he was told Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself to Ramirez.

    The new reporting follows a week of right-wing media attacks on Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when they were in high school. Ford has agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this coming Thursday, but after this new allegation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has called for that hearing to be delayed.

    At least one right-wing pundit, Ann Coulter, became unhinged on Twitter following the publication of Ramirez’s story:

    Other conservatives called Ramirez’s accusation fake, criticized the timing of her going public, demanded Republicans stand by Kavanaugh anyway, and painted Kavanaugh as the true victim of these alleged sexual assaults.

    Conservatives allege Ramirez’s account is part of a Democratic conspiracy

    Fox & Friends co-host Anna Kooiman: “Is this a drip, drip, drip … by the Democrats trying to delay everything until the midterm elections and really fire up their base saying Republicans are bullies?”

    Conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson: “It seems more and more likely that the Blasey Ford delays were not to let her drive across country, but were to allow the Ramirez hit to get out. This is all coordinated and none of it is credible.”

    Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel: “The left made a mistake with this Ramirez story. … It strongly suggests the Ford delay demands were about cooking this up. Destroys credibility all around.”

    Fox Business anchor Dagen McDowell: “I think that this -- the timing is suspect and people have [a] right to question this second accuser coming forward.”

    Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh: “Democrats were stalling last week to give themselves more of an opportunity to conjure up another accuser against Brett Kavanaugh,” and “they whipped together another accusation.”

    Conservatives use latest accusation to demand Republican senators stand by Kavanaugh

    Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk: “Senate Republicans: DO NOT CAVE! If you were up for this nomination I bet many of you would have plenty of these fake accusations come up. Stand by our guy. Do not waver.”

    NRATV’s Dan Bongino: “Hill Democrats are consumed by raw hatred. Their capacity for evil knows no limits anymore. Correspondingly, the Hill Republicans shamefully showed weakness & cowed to their demands. … Hill Republicans let us down again.”

    The Rebel’s Amanda Head: If Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Republicans “don’t fight these allegations and #ConfirmKavanaghNow we will lose midterms, we will lose 2020, and what’s worse, we will lose any chance at seeing a conservative majority SCOTUS in our lifetime.”

    Federalist co-founder Sean Davis: “Senate Republicans have a simple choice: stand up to a coordinated Democrat smear campaign and confirm Kavanaugh, which will energize GOP voters and preserve House/Senate majorities, or buckle under Democrat lies and give up congressional GOP majorities for a decade or more.”

    CRTV’s Michelle Malkin: If Senate Republicans “refuse to man up & stop coordinated Dem smear campaign once & for all, the consequences reach far beyond the electoral landscape.”

    Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson: “#ConfirmBrettKavanaughNow.”

    One America News Network host Jack Posobiec: “Raise your hand if you think the GOP should stop playing games and hold the Kavanaugh vote Monday.”

    Conservatives complain Kavanaugh is the real victim here, not Ford or Ramirez

    Fox News host Laura Ingraham: Accusations against Kavanaugh are “a left-wing cabal, a left-wing conspiracy all coming together, swarming together.”

    Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum: “‘Sickening’ was the word I heard most often this weekend to describe what is happening. Innocent until proven guilty is how we do this in America.”

    Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe: “What is happening to #JudgeKavanaugh is wrong and terrifying.”

    Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly: “Republicans are becoming terrified of the Kavanaugh situation because they know the media will embrace every lurid accusation without scrutiny, and no one will be held accountable for ignoring due process.”

    Independent Women Forum’s Julie Gunlock: “What Ms. Ramirez and her enablers have done is odious. She’s destroying the life of a good man based on her own hazy memory of an event that happened decades ago when she was admittedly drunk.”

    Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk: “These are POLITICAL HIT JOBS against a sterling person.”

    American Conservative Union’s Matt Schlapp: “This Kavanaugh confirmation has transformed into a disgrace. How is it when Dems win their SC noms get an easy time, but ours get mauled.”

    Daily Caller’s Amber Athey: “I have no words for how sickened I am by how the left and the establishment media are weaponizing non-credible sexual assault claims to destroy a human being.”

  • Fox News spun NY Times report about FBI’s attempts to flip a Russian oligarch involved in organized crime into proof of an anti-Trump “witch hunt”

    For Fox, this is a familiar editorial stance

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On September 1, The New York Times reported on an unsuccessful years-long FBI program to flip roughly six Russian oligarchs, seeking to turn them into informants for the United States in investigations against Russian organized crime. Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and former British spy Christopher Steele, who authored a dossier of information on President Donald Trump, started communicating about this effort long before Trump announced his run for president, documents released by the Justice Department show.

    And yet, Fox News has been citing, out of context, the documents reported on in the Times as further evidence supporting Trump’s conspiracy theory that there is a “witch hunt” against him.

    While the program began in 2014, eventually -- after evidence of a possible conspiracy was established -- questions about Russian interference in the 2016 elections and Trump campaign collusion were raised with at least one of the program's targets. The Times’ sources told the paper that they revealed the program’s existence to avoid the president and his media allies “us[ing] the program’s secrecy as a screen with which they could cherry-pick facts and present them, sheared of context, to undermine the special counsel’s investigation.”

    But cherry-picked facts taken out of context perfectly describes Fox’s reporting, including its coverage of messages Ohr and Steele exchanged. Fox spun those communiques to suggest under-the-table conspiring by Ohr, Steele, and others at the FBI to maliciously target Trump. Nothing in the Times article suggests that contacts between Ohr and Steele were part of illegitimate DOJ and FBI activity, but Fox stuck to its misleading claim. When the Times article was mentioned, here's how network personalities and guests reacted: 

    In one of Fox’s earliest on-air mentions of the story, the host claimed that Ohr "was working with a man in Deripaska who's known as Putin's oligarch," and suggested that it validated Trump’s claim that the FBI was colluding with Russia. After discussing the article, guest anchor Ed Henry said, “You hear the president say there's collusion on the other side, and yet it doesn't seem to get any traction,” suggesting that in attempting to get Russian oligarchs to inform about organized crime in Russia, Ohr was actually trying to collude with said oligarchs to stop Trump. The Daily Caller’s Amber Athey also claimed details in the report “seem to confirm the president’s tweets that this is a witch hunt against him.”

    Daily Caller White House correspondent Saagar Enjeti told a Fox host that the story shows Steele “used his years-long connection with Ohr in order to push his dossier to the highest levels of the DOJ and the FBI.” In fact, a source in the Times article described Steele telling Ohr about the dossier as “more of a friendly heads-up” and said that “Steele had separately been in touch with an F.B.I. agent” to get his dossier to the bureau. Enjeti also falsely claimed that the dossier “really was the genesis for much of the investigation into President Trump” as well as “all of the other [Trump] associates” targeted. The investigation actually began after the Australian government alerted the FBI to Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos’ drunken bragging.

    Fox host Jeanine Pirro cut off a guest who mentioned that “Ohr is there to go after the Russian mob -- that is why the president is probably against Ohr.”

    Fox host Pete Hegseth speculated that “maybe it was Bruce Ohr who was actually flipped by the Russians.” 

    Guest anchor Ed Henry misleadingly described the Times article as saying “Ohr was trying to flip a Russian oligarch against the president.” And when a panel guest accused right-wing media of cherry-picking facts to create a misleading narrative, Henry interrupted him to make another decontextualized and misleading allegation. 

    Fox News contributor Gianno Caldwell claimed that, with the Times report out, “it does appear that it is a witch hunt.”

    Fox’s reaction to the latest development in the Trump/Russia investigations closely mirrors its reaction to many previous news reports that reflected poorly on Trump. The network regularly asserts that negative reports are actually good news for Trump and minimizes bad news. 

    When the Times reported in May that a confidential FBI informant contacted at least two of Trump’s advisers as part of the counterintelligence investigation into his campaign, Fox said it proved only that there was “surveillance of the Trump campaign by the Obama administration.”

    When the congressional hearing for former FBI agent Peter Strzok revealed no evidence that his political beliefs affected his work on the investigation, Fox News simply kept stoking rage over texts that revealed his opposition to the president and included rude comments about Trump supporters.

    When The Washington Post reported that Trump campaign associate Carter Page was the target of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant after he left the Trump campaign, Fox personalities lied about the warrant and falsely claimed it showed “Donald Trump was right” to accuse former President Barack Obama of spying on him. 

    When the Department of Justice inspector general released a report showing “no evidence” for allegations that former FBI Director James Comey and others allowed their “bias” to affect the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Fox used the report -- which had nothing to do with the Trump-Russia probe -- to call for an end to the special counsel investigation. 

  • Get a load of this wild Sinclair town hall discussion on “youth & morality” 

    Sinclair says such discussions are a “significant public interest benefit” for stations it buys

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Last night, Sinclair Broadcast Group station WJLA hosted a “town hall” discussion on "youth & morality" featuring morally bankrupt media personality Armstrong Williams, young conservative talking heads Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens, a campus carry activist, and a Daily Caller reporter (among others) -- and Sinclair wants you to believe it’s for the public good.

    The town hall was branded as both an episode of Sinclair-linked commentator Armstrong Williams’ show and a part of Sinclair’s ongoing town hall discussion series. The town hall does not appear to have yet aired on WJLA and it’s not clear if it has aired or will air on the WJLA-operated local Washington, D.C., cable channel News Channel 8, but it’s posted in full on WJLA’s website.

    Sinclair touts its “Your Voice, Your Future” local town halls as a public service and an opportunity to “alert, inform, empower and engage our audience.” Here’s a quick clip to give you an idea of how that went:

    For this event, “morality” actually meant Christianity specifically

    Though the panel was titled “Youth & Morality,” it was advertised as largely focusing on one study that showed dwindling millennial identification with Christianity, which WJLA characterized as a sign of “unprecedented moral decline.” The panel discussion was filmed at the Museum of the Bible.  

    Two minutes into the town hall, host Armstrong Williams asked the audience to raise their hands if they believe in God. (Williams also asked for audience members to raise their hands if they were atheist; one person did and panelists grimaced.) Williams’ first question for the panelists followed from there: “Can you be moral and good and not believe in God?” (Most of the panelists agreed that it was possible but not as easy.) Within eight minutes, panelists were equating “objective truth” with a belief in a Christian god and arguing that the inability to identify objective truths was “cultural Marxist.”

    At one point during a commercial break, Williams can be heard joking on a live mic, “Don’t fall asleep on me!” The panel returned from that break to listen to Charlie Kirk talk about “the distinction between Christianity and other religions.”  

    The “morality” panel was hosted by the notoriously morally challenged Armstrong Williams

    The town hall was hosted by conservative pundit Armstrong Williams, who has significant ties to Sinclair. Williams hosts a weekly show that airs on the Sinclair-owned News Channel 8 in the D.C. area and is syndicated on other Sinclair local TV stations across the country. Williams also owns several local TV stations through his holding company, Howard Stirk Holdings, which in turn sends business back to Sinclair through operations agreements.

    Williams is a close confidante of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson, even doing public relations work on behalf of Carson while continuing to also work as a media figure. (He also served as a Carson presidential campaign adviser while maintaining his weekly hosting duties.) Recently, Williams has aligned himself with other members of the Trump administration, joining Sinclair CEO David Smith in meeting with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai -- who was then a commissioner -- to advocate for pro-industry policies the day before Trump’s inauguration. About two months later, Williams hosted Pai on his show for a friendly interview.

    Back in 2005, Williams used an earlier version of his syndicated show to promote Bush administration education policies, failing to note he was paid $240,000 by the administration to do so. The Government Accountability Office subsequently found that the Bush Department of Education had violated federal laws about covert government propaganda by paying Williams for the promotion.

    Williams has also settled at least two sexual harassment suits -- one in 1997 involving reports that he “repeatedly kissed and fondled” a former producer for his now-defunct radio show over the course of nearly two years, and another in 2017 alleging that he groped and sought sexual favors from a former employee and later retaliated against the man.

    During the panel, Williams talked about his daily prayer routine and decision not to “use profane language” at work because he is the “moral leader” in his office.

    Several participants also seem to struggle with morals

    The panel featured eight participants in addition to Williams, the majority of whom were young conservative media figures who fall at various points on the spectrum from extreme or blatantly racist to embarrassing or just boring.

    TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens both participated in parts of the town hall. Frequent Fox News guest and conservative “boy wonder” Kirk is the founder of TPUSA, a group best known for a misguided 2017 protest in which its members wore adult diapers to “trigger the libs,” but whose stated mission is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” Kirk, Owens, and TPUSA frequently fearmonger about suppression of conservative speech on college campuses while themselves leading a McCarthyist doxxing effort against liberal professors. Meanwhile, TPUSA has defended at least one professor with ties to a white nationalist group and several of its leading members have been outed for expressing patently racist sentiments, e.g. the group’s former national field director making the statement “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE.”

    Owens, TPUSA’s communications director, is another Fox News regular and “a far-right vlogger and conspiracy theorist” who has lately garnered media attention after rapper Kanye West praised “the way Candace Owens thinks.” Owens gained attention from far-right MAGA trolls after she posted a video in the wake of the deadly Charlottesville, VA, “Unite the Right” rally in which she dismissed white supremacy as a narrative pushed by the media, leading to her appearance on conspiracy theory outlet Infowars. Owens has also called for all DREAMers to be deported and has argued that immigrants directly harm the black community.

    During the town hall discussion, Owens lamented that conservatives were allowing themselves to be “silenced by liberal outrage” and said that younger conservatives and Christians ought to “punch back.”

    The Daily Caller’s Amber Athey also participated in the discussion. The Daily Caller is Tucker Carlson’s sexist and racist brainchild, which frequently dabbles in anti-Semitism, anti-trans rhetoric, far-right conspiracy theories, and celebrity bikini photo slideshows, and makes light of sexual assault. Athey herself has tweeted anti-Semitic jokes, and repeatedly used the slurs “fag” and ”faggot,” and, in one case, “nigga$.” (Athey has since deleted the tweets, but they are available via archive.is.)

    During the town hall discussion, Athey complained, “There are a lot of ideas on college campuses that -- if they’re conservative or they’re religious, they’re considered taboo and you’re not allowed to say it. Otherwise you’re considered a bigot.”  

    Town hall participant Antonia Okafor describes herself as “one of the country’s foremost advocates of concealed carry on campus” and has previously appeared in NRA media. Okafor makes regular media appearances pushing NRA-backed myths about campus carry, arguing that carrying concealed firearms would make young black women safer. In reality, the presence of firearms in domestic violence situations, for example, puts women’s lives -- and especially black women’s lives -- at significantly greater risk. And household gun ownership in general only increases the risk of death due to homicide, suicide, or accident; Okafor’s agenda would put women in greater danger.

    Rounding out the participant list are right-wing media figures Jason Russell, an editor at the conservative Washington Examiner, and Shermichael Singleton, an aspiring conservative pundit who briefly worked at Carson’s HUD before he was fired for anti-Trump writings. Preacher and lobbyist Quadricos Driskell and American Legislative Exchange Council-affiliated conservative attorney Shelby Emmett also participated.

    Sinclair cites town halls like this as evidence its expansion would benefit the public

    Sinclair has used its “Your Voice, Your Future” town halls -- also the platform former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka used to decry “black African gun crime” last fall -- to argue that Sinclair-owned and -operated local TV stations are providing greater services to the public. In one Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filing, Sinclair pointed to the discussion series as evidence that its planned acquisition of Tribune Media would create a “significant public interest benefit.”

    The FCC is currently reviewing the Sinclair-Tribune deal specifically to ensure it would benefit the public and has signaled it will make a decision following a comment period that ends on July 12.

    Eric Hananoki contributed research to this post.