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Broadcast and cable news coverage of ruinous economic policies rolled out by the White House last week was overwhelmed by the president’s false accusation that his predecessor illegally wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 election.
On March 13, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that up to 24 million Americans would lose access to health insurance over the next 10 years if the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare goes into effect. On that same day, the Trump administration unveiled an overlooked executive order that encourages cabinet secretaries and agency directors to create a plan to completely reshape a federal bureaucracy of over 2.8 million employees. And on March 16, the Trump administration unveiled its budget outline for the 2018 fiscal year, featuring proposed “massive cuts” to nondefense spending. The proposed cuts, which would offset an increase in spending on military programs and a border wall, would hit almost every facet of the federal government, but they would come down particularly hard on funding for small programs including Meals on Wheels, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS.
Yet according to Media Matters research, from March 13 to 17, President Donald Trump’s false wiretap claim dominated TV news coverage, overshadowing discussion of these important policy moves. While Trump’s lie certainly merits extensive media coverage, it’s also crucial to share details of his policymaking with the public.
Trump ignited a media firestorm in early March when he repeatedly accused former President Barack Obama of illegally wiretapping him in the midst of last year's election. Right-wing media, led by Fox News, sprang to his defense even though the president offered no evidence to support his claim. Meanwhile, legitimate reporters exposed the bizarre accusation’s source as “the right-wing fever swamps” of fringe media and reported that it was pushed by a Russian state-sponsored news network. During March 20 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, FBI Director James Comey put Trump’s wiretapping lie to rest, telling the committee, “I have no information that supports those tweets.”
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
Yet nearly two weeks after Trump initially made the claim, his smear of Obama still had such an influence on television news coverage that it overshadowed every other discussion about Trump’s policy agenda last week. Media Matters identified 226 segments from March 13 through 17 that focused on Trump during evening programming on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC and major news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. Of those segments, 64 focused on Trump’s wiretapping allegations -- a figure that dwarfed every other major issue Media Matters identified. Coverage of Trump’s health care plan came in a distant second place, with 37 segments, and stories related to the portion of Trump’s 2005 tax returns obtained by Rachel Maddow ranked third (26 segments). Trump’s proposed budget outline was discussed in just 14 segments, and his executive order to reshape the federal workforce registered just four mentions.
With television news forced to dissect and debunk Trump’s outrageous claims, coverage of pressing economic issues was eclipsed. Coverage of the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act -- which health care experts have said would be particularly harmful to low-income Americans, seniors, and people dealing with illnesses -- could not overtake that of Trump’s wiretapping tweet, even with the Trump administration attempting to smear the CBO numbers in the press. The executive order, which was described by CNN reporter Stephen Collinson as part of Trump’s larger goal to “dismember government one dollar at a time,” barely registered in news coverage at all. And Trump’s budget cuts, which would decimate social safety net programs, were discussed 14 times during evening news coverage on March 16 and 17, while Trump’s lie about wiretapping was discussed 35 times on those two days.
Trump’s promotion of a discredited lie accusing his predecessor of illegal conduct while in office merits extensive media coverage, but the policies he has enacted or plans to enact can be just as destructive as the misinformation he spreads. Media cannot afford to let Trump's misleading claims dominate the news cycle, drowning out crucial coverage of the pain his policies may cause the United States.
Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of evening news programming (defined as 6 p.m. through 11 p.m.) on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, as well as the major news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, from March 13, 2017, through March 17, 2017. We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: Trump or executive order or federal government or federal employ! or federal worker or federal workers or civil service or government workers or government worker or federal government or budget.
The following programs were included in the data: ABC's World News Tonight, CBS' Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS' NewsHour, as well as CNN's The Situation Room, Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Tonight, Fox News' Special Report, The First 100 Days, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The O'Reilly Factor, and Hannity, and MSNBC's For The Record, Hardball, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell. For shows that air reruns, only the first airing was included in data retrieval. This survey includes CNN’s second live hour of Anderson Cooper 360 during the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slot.
For this study, Media Matters included only those segments that contained substantial discussions of Donald Trump. We defined a "substantial discussion" as any segment where a host dedicates a monologue, or portion of a monologue, to Trump, his activities, or the policies he is pursuing as president of the United States, or any segment where two or more guests discuss Trump, his activities, or the policies he is pursuing as president of the United States. We did not include teasers or clips of news events, or rebroadcasts of news packages that were already counted when they first aired in the 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. survey window.
Independent Journal Review (IJR) chief content officer Benny Johnson and two other IJR employees were indefinitely suspended after writing and publishing a baseless conspiracy theory -- originally pushed by “alt-right” fringe media -- which suggested that former President Barack Obama’s visit to Hawaii played a role in a ruling by a federal judge based there that froze President Donald Trump’s revised Muslim ban.
On March 16, under Johnson’s direction, IJR published, then retracted, an article that attempted to “point out the timing and the opportunity” presented by Obama’s presence in Hawaii days before the judge’s ruling. The conspiracy theory was originally pushed by fringe and “alt-right” outlets such as Infowars and The Gateway Pundit, and it seemed to originate from a thread on the online anonymous message board Reddit. The outlandish theory even made its way to Donald Trump Jr., who retweeted a Twitter post that tied the judge to Obama.
According to reports from Politico and Business Insider, after IJR investigated the publication of the baseless story, the site suspended Johnson and editors Kyle Becker and Becca Lower. In a statement, IJR founder Alex Skatell wrote that “we got it wrong and ultimately deserve all the criticism.” Business Insider noted that Johnson, who has been accused of plagiarism multiple times and has previously pushed false claims, “had been warned earlier that the story about Obama was an unfounded conspiracy theory, but he assigned it to Becker anyway.”
This is the second recent occasion in which a right-wing media figure has been disciplined for spreading unsubstantiated allegations and conspiracy theories about Obama. IJR’s actions came a day after reports emerged that Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano was being taken off the air “indefinitely” for promoting the false claim that Obama used the British government to spy on Trump.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano “is being kept off the air indefinitely” after Media Matters exposed his false claim that President Barack Obama allegedly used British intelligence community to wiretap Trump Tower during the 2016 election. The claim originated from a discredited conspiracy theorist on the Kremlin-backed news network RT.
On March 14, Napolitano told hosts of Fox News’ Fox & Friends that Obama asked “the British spying agency” for “transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump” without “American fingerprints” to sidestep the American intelligence community. Napolitano’s claims were repeated by White House press secretary Sean Spicer while he was defending Trump’s baseless claims that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential election.
The Trump administration’s promotion of Napolitano’s conspiracy theory resulted in an international incident with the U.K., and Trump faulted Fox News during a news conference with German President Angela Merkel. Fox News distanced itself from Napolitano’s claims in a statement explaining that the network “knows of no evidence of any kind that the now president of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way, full stop.”
Media Matters first traced Napolitano's wiretapping conspiracy back to an interview on the state-sponsored Russian television network RT with the former CIA analyst and discredited conspiracy theorist Larry C. Johnson, who previously promoted false claims that Michelle Obama used a racial slur against Caucasian people. Following Media Matters’ post, The New York Times confirmed that Napolitano used Johnson as “one of the sources” for his bogus wiretapping claim on March 17. Media Matters also exposed Napolitano's history as a 9-11 truther, reporting that he told renowned conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that it is "hard for me to believe that" World Trade Center Building 7 "came down by itself."
On March 20, the Los Angeles Times reported that Napolitano is “not expected to be on Fox News Channel any time in the near future” after being “conspicuously missing from the network’s coverage of the confirmation hearings” for Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. From the article:
Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano is being kept off the air indefinitely amid the controversy over his unverified claims that British intelligence wiretapped Trump Tower at the behest of former President Obama.
Fox News did not respond to inquiries about Napolitano’s status Monday. Napolitano was conspicuously missing from the network’s coverage of the confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch — an event in which he typically would have played a significant role. He has not been on the air since Thursday.
People familiar with the situation who could speak only on the condition of anonymity said Napolitano is not expected to be on Fox News Channel any time in the near future. Napolitano was not available for comment.
Media Matters President Angelo Carusone released the following statement:
“Media Matters’ war on Fox News may be over. But, we don’t need to be on a war footing to expose when they promote conspiracies that originated from a segment on Russian state media. Especially when that false information gets into Donald Trump’s brain and leads to an international incident, as it did this week with Andrew Napolitano’s Fox & Friends segment.
Most people may not realize it, but Napolitano has long been one of Trump’s favorites (I’m sure that’s not just because he’s one of Trump’s tenants either). Just a few months ago, Trump confidant Roger Stone was predicting that Trump would eventually nominate Napolitano to the Supreme Court. And, don’t forget that Napolitano met with Trump on multiple occasions between election day and inauguration day to reportedly advise Trump on filling Supreme Court vacancies among other things.
So, it’s somewhat ironic that Donald Trump is responsible for getting Andrew Napolitano booted from the airwaves. And, yes, it’s all Trump’s fault.
Napolitano has been peddling convoluted conspiracies and false claims on Fox News for years. It wasn’t that long ago that Napolitano was bouncing back and forth between Alex Jones’ radio program and Glenn Beck’s since cancelled Fox News show, cross pollinating nonsense and lies.
But, Napolitano’s conspiracies never mattered to Fox News before. They only mattered now because Trump parroted one and subsequently sparked an international incident with the United Kingdom. (A country, by the way, where Fox News owner Murdoch is currently being carefully scrutinized in order to secure regulatory approval to expand his media empire and take over Sky News).
If Fox News was actually concerned with standards, they would have sanctioned Napolitano years ago -- and they would certainly do something about the litany of lies that Trump continues to consume by watching Hannity, Tucker, and Fox & Friends.”
This post has been updated for clarity.
In order to back President Donald Trump’s false allegation that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, fringe outlets and fake news purveyors -- along with some right-wing media -- are hyping a claim from Infowars’ Jerome Corsi and Alex Jones that supposedly reveals National Security Agency (NSA) documents that show Trump was spied on for years. Corsi and the “sources” he and Jones rely on have been major proponents of the debunked myth that Obama’s birth certificate is fake.
The New York Times has confirmed that Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano sourced his false allegation that former President Barack Obama asked British intelligence to spy on President Donald Trump to a discredited former CIA analyst. This analyst, Larry C. Johnson, floated the conspiracy theory on the Russian state-sponsored news network RT on March 6, the week after Trump’s original accusation that Obama was responsible for an illegal wiretap.
On March 13, Napolitano told hosts of Fox News’ Fox & Friends that Obama circumvented the American intelligence community to ask “the British spying agency” for “transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump” without “American fingerprints.” Napolitano’s claims were cited by White House press secretary Sean Spicer while defending Trump’s baseless claims that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential election.
On March 14, Media Matters uncovered the link between Napolitano's claims and an interview Johnson gave to RT. The New York Times confirmed Media Matters' reporting that Napolitano used Johnson as “one of the sources” for his “claim about British intelligence.” The Times also noted Johnson’s direct involvement in spreading false rumors that video existed of Michelle Obama using a racial slur against white people. From the March 17 article:
Mr. [Andrew] Napolitano’s unlikely leap into global politics can be explained by his friendship with Mr. Trump, whom he met with this year to discuss potential Supreme Court nominees. Mr. Napolitano also has a taste for conspiracy theories, which led him to Larry C. Johnson, a former intelligence officer best known for spreading a hoax about Michelle Obama.
Mr. Johnson, who was himself once a Fox News contributor, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Napolitano called him on Friday and requested that he speak to The New York Times. Mr. Johnson said he was one of the sources for Mr. Napolitano’s claim about British intelligence.
Mr. Johnson became infamous in political circles after he spread false rumors in 2008 that Michelle Obama had been videotaped using a slur against Caucasians. In the interview on Friday, Mr. Johnson acknowledged his notoriety, but said that his knowledge of surveillance of Mr. Trump came from sources in the American intelligence community. Mr. Napolitano, he said, heard about his information through an intermediary.
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Donald Trump Jr. Retweets Right-Wing Radio Host Pushing The Conspiracy Theory
Pro-President Donald Trump outlets and “alt-right” outlets pushed a conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama was the reason a federal judge in Hawaii blocked Trump’s revised Muslim ban executive order. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the claim, which seems to have originally spread on Reddit. The conspiracy is yet another variation of right-wing media’s theory that Obama is running a “shadow government.”
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Spread By Infowars, Reddit, Breitbart, And Other Conspiracy Sites, The Wiretap Claim Goes Back To The Person Who Said There Was An Obama "Whitey" Tape
Fox News’ senior judicial analyst, Judge Andrew Napolitano, claimed that former President Barack Obama asked a British intelligence agency to spy on President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and the transition period and to provide the former president with transcripts of Trump's conversations. Napolitano’s claim can be traced in part back to an interview on the state-sponsored Russian network RT with a former CIA official who has accused John Kerry of war crimes, spread the 2008 rumor about a supposed recording of former first lady Michelle Obama “railing against ‘whitey,’” and now is floating "sedition" charges against former Obama officials.
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On March 4, President Donald Trump accused former President Barack Obama of ordering his phones in Trump Tower to be wiretapped during the 2016 election. Trump’s claim echoed points made by Mark Levin, a right-wing talk radio host with a history of anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ statements, climate denial, and racism. He also attacked Obama throughout his presidency, comparing him to dictators, accusing him of racism and anti-Semitism, and saying he had “planted the seeds of World War III.”
In science, nature abhors a vacuum. On cable news, Fox News abhors not having a Democratic villain. So the network is trying to bring back former President Barack Obama for the starring role.
Desperately searching for someone with a high profile to blame for the generally chaotic start of Trump’s controversy-filled administration, the conservative media are refitting the former Democratic president, who has kept a low profile since exiting the White House, as an all-powerful gremlin who’s to blame for Trump’s laundry list of political woes.
And now, of course, Trump has seized on the right-wing media theme. Brandishing little more than a right-wing radio rant that was typed up by Breitbart.com, Trump over the weekend made the wholly unsubstantiated, and nonsensical, claim that Obama ordered a wiretap at Trump Tower. Trump then demanded that Congress investigate the alleged abuses. (Surprise! Trump’s right-wing media allies support the call.)
The burgeoning blame game started last month with allegations that Obama was responsible for the big crowds protesting Trump’s presidency. (He wasn’t.) Since then, the allegations have widened, and now Obama is viewed as some sort of all-powerful troll who’s mysteriously capable of disrupting all factions of the Trump administration.
But let’s take a step back and understand what’s also going on: The right-wing media cannot survive without high-profile liberal villains who can be used to rile up the Republican masses. For the previous eight years, Obama was portrayed as an almost demonic figure bent on destroying the American way of life. And for the last two years of Obama’s term, Hillary Clinton received co-star status as America’s Villain on Fox News and in other right-wing media, which denounced her every move, real or imagined, as an outrage.
Being outraged, and especially being outraged about made-up things, has been a signature of the far-right press for years. It certainly defined the Obama era, blossoming into Fox News' entire programming blueprint. Fox News posted huge profits each year by overreacting to imagined Obama slights. (Remember when Obama disrespected the Oval Office by putting his feet on his desk, watched too much sports television, was too mean to Republicans, and ordered too fancy a mustard on a burger?)
But with Republicans now controlling the White House, the Senate, the House, and possibly soon the Supreme Court, it’s getting hard for Republicans to focus on a single villain. (Can Trump’s failures really all be blamed on the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi?)
So Fox News and friends have for weeks been trying to drag Obama out of retirement for the top role of Democratic scoundrel. Even though Obama has remained mostly silent since Trump was sworn in, he has been denounced as a devilish figure and used to rile the GOP base.
Here was New York Post writer Paul Sperry frantically sounding the Obama alarms on Alex Jones’ conspiratorial radio show, according to a transcript from the Austin American-Statesman (emphasis added):
Forget about Hillary, Hillary’s gone. His main concern right now is Obama. I mean the guy’s set up a bunker down the street from the White House..He’s got a mansion. He’s got an office. OFA, the Obama Foundation he’s setting up. He’s got his own chief of staff, press secretary. He’s setting up his own shadow White House, just within two miles of the White House .. This is something on the order of a civil war here.
Jones was a believer: “And I agree with you, at a gut level I am more concerned about this than anything I’ve seen in 20 years on air.”
The right-wing Daily Mail has also been issuing the warning, insisting that “Obama's goal is to oust Trump from the presidency either by forcing his resignation or through his impeachment” and that Obama’s new Washington, D.C., home was being turned “into the nerve center of the mounting insurgency against his successor.”
Politically, why the urgent need from the Trump loyalists in the press to bring back Obama, and his allegedly conniving cohorts, just weeks after he left office? Because there has to be an explanation for why Trump and his administration have suffered such a chaotic first few weeks, why they have sparked so many controversies and experienced so many early losses. There must be an explanation for why Obamacare hasn’t been repealed, why the White House travel ban was overturned by the courts, and why Trump is so deeply unpopular.
Yes, the White House has declared war on the press, but that blame game doesn’t really address Trump’s endless political setbacks. So the default explanation has become “It’s Obama’s fault.” That, and his all-powerful “shadow government.” (He’s kinda like George Soros, but with Secret Service protection.)
By elevating the supposed looming, off-stage threat of Obama, the right-wing media also allow Trump to play the perpetual victim.
What’s funny is that while Obama has remained mostly mum about his successor, it was former Republican president George W. Bush who made headlines last week when he seemed to voice concerns about Trump’s presidency.
From The New York Times:
Former President George W. Bush implicitly criticized President Trump on Monday, taking issue with his approach to immigration and the news media, and suggested that any ties between the new president’s team and Russia should be investigated.
Today, there’s no evidence to support right-wing media claims that Obama has turned his home into an anti-Trump “nerve center,” or that he’s marshaling the forces of his “shadow government” to overthrow the administration. But there is plenty of proof that Obama’s living rent-free inside the heads of Fox News pundits.
Without citing any evidence, President Donald Trump accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping communications in Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign. Right-wing media figures soon echoed and attempted to validate Trump’s allegations.