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  • Two anti-LGBTQ websites dropped a writer for being too homophobic. She's right to be surprised.

    What she tweeted would have looked perfectly at home on their sites

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Two right-wing websites won minor praise over the weekend when they parted ways with a freelancer after she went on a homophobic tirade against a gay journalist.

    On Saturday night, journalist Yashar Ali replied to a nearly day-old tweet by conservative writer Denise McAllister. Her tweet read, “Trying to talk to my husband while Carolina is playing. He looks at me and says, ‘Woman, you know better than this. The game is on.’ He’s right. I slipped. Commercial comes on. I fetch him a beer. He grabs me. Deep kisses. Patience and timing, ladies. That’s the lesson.”

    While there was no shortage of people making jokes about the tweet’s retrograde views on gender, Ali’s comment was one of genuine concern.

    “It made me genuinely sad,” Ali tells me, explaining that he was disappointed and frustrated by some of the jokes people were making at McAllister’s expense. “At that moment I thought to myself, ‘This makes me so sad that she thinks she slipped simply because she spoke,’ and I actually felt terrible that she was living in that kind of marriage. No one should be treated that way.”

    Likely interpreting Ali’s tweet as sarcasm or scorn, McAllister unloaded on him in a series of now-deleted tweets, writing, “A gay man commenting on a heterosexual relationship is just. Sad. Pathetic really,” “I think [Ali] has a crush on me. Maybe I’m making him doubt his love of penis,” and “Oh so sad. [Ali] is lost. He doesn’t know his purpose as a man. He doesn’t know his purpose as a human being. He doesn’t know his purpose as an Individual. So he wallows and tries to find himself in another man’s asshole. Sad.”

    Within hours, The Federalist and The Daily Wire cut ties with McAllister, who had previously written for both outlets. Federalist co-founder and publisher Ben Domenech tweeted that McAllister “will not be writing for us at The Federalist any more.” The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro confirmed to The Washington Post that he’d asked McAllister to take the reference to the site out of her Twitter profile, calling her tweets “gross” and “self-explanatorily beyond the boundaries of decency.”

    In all fairness to McAllister, it’s not exactly clear how her tweets were any more incendiary than what gets published on both of those sites regularly.

    When it comes to LGBTQ issues, both Domenech and Shapiro have abysmal track records.

    Early in his journalism career, following a plagiarism scandal that cost him a job writing for The Washington Post, Domenech made waves when he called Elena Kagan “openly gay” (she isn’t) in a blog post. Three years later, he launched The Federalist, and it quickly became a hub for anti-LGBTQ screeds in favor of discrimination and against marriage equality.

    Today, The Federalist is rife with articles arguing against allowing gay couples to adopt, some of which frame the issue as akin to child abuse. Articles such as “Dear Gay Community: Your Kids Are Hurting,” “What It’s Like To Face The LGBT Inquisition,” “Same-Sex Marriage Won’t Bring Us Peace,” and “The Kids Are Not Alright: A Lesbian’s Daughter Speaks Out” warn that “if people cease to take thinking seriously, the LGBT lobby wins,” that it’s “not natural” to grow up living with two women, and that “redefining marriage undermines freedom of speech and conscience, parent rights, and good home lives for children.”

    The Federalist is also home to a host of articles eager to blame gay people for the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, with articles bemoaning that the church isn’t putting a focus on “the link between sexual abuse and homosexuality among the clergy.” Similarly, Federalist writers have argued repeatedly that “Christianity that endorses sexual license isn’t Christianity” and that “there have been a disturbing number of people who claim the name of Christ who would like us to believe that God and the Bible are totally cool with homosexuality. They are not.” It also hosts op-eds extolling the virtues of “the traditional Christian teaching on sex and marriage” while denouncing “homosexual practice” and “sex-changes as an answer to gender dysphoria.”

    Most of all, The Federalist is regularly, virulently transphobic in a way that makes McAllister’s tweets seem downright polite by comparison.

    “Transgender identity is a symptom of mental illness,” writes Jon Del Arroz, an opinion shared by other writers at The Federalist who’ve warned of “the contagion of mass delusion” that is the acceptance of trans people and asserted that “transgenderism is a legal fiction.” Authors have compared being transgender to having anorexia on more than one occasion and labeled it “a war against reality.” They have advocated for pulling children out of school to avoid “trans indoctrination,” something they believe is rampant within the public school system. The end goal, one writer surmises, is “to groom children towards gender change.” Perhaps trans people are simply raging narcissists, one writer wonders. Another thinks that it’s perfectly fine to bully trans people because he’s pretty sure that there’s no link between the trans suicide attempt rate and discrimination (there is).

    Conservative commentator Bethany Mandel has tried to blackmail the broader LGBTQ community into turning its back on trans people by threatening to withdraw whatever support she was supposedly willing to offer. In one piece for the The Federalist, “How The Transgender Crusade Made Me Rethink My Support For Gay Marriage,” Mandel calls trans people’s fight for basic human rights and legal recognition “totalitarian,” writing:

    With every tweet aimed at publicizing and shaming my position on transgenderism, the progressive Left is solidifying my decision to call Bruce Jenner by his given name instead of the name he has chosen because of a condition that mental health professionals once took seriously. Playing along with delusions isn’t a kindness to those suffering from other psychological conditions, and it isn’t a kindness for those with gender dysphoria either.

    In another, “Man-splaining Is No Excuse For Invading Girls’ Locker Rooms,” she defends the bullying of a trans student, writing:

    While I’ve been told I should use a pronoun of one’s choosing out of respect and kindness, I decline to do so because I refuse to play along with the delusion. We don’t play along with the delusions of schizophrenics, and I won’t play along with the notion that someone with a penis is somehow a woman.

    Mandel remains in the good graces of both conservative and mainstream media (The New York Times published an op-ed she wrote as recently as March 2018), even though she once tweeted that trans people have “a mental illness and pair it with genital mutilation.”

    The Daily Wire is also chock-full of rampant homophobic and transphobic sentiments. Headlines serve as jabs of their own, with titles such as “CDC Finally Acknowledges: Homosexual Behavior Can Lead To More STDs. Duh,” “Homosexual Christians Doing Just What Jesus Wants By Waiting to Have Homosexual Sex Until After Homosexual Marriage,” “Trans Woman Demands TSA Ignore Biological Sex” (neither the headline nor the story accurately depicts what happened in that situation), and “FDA: Screw The Public, Let Gay Men Donate Blood.”

    Like The Federalist, The Daily Wire is also very concerned about “LGBT school indoctrination,” the potential negative effects of letting same-sex couples adopt children (even going so far as to claim that adoption agencies have a “right to deny children to homosexual couples”), and the rise in acceptance of “activity typically gauged as immoral” such as being gay. Columnists are quick to remind you that if you don’t accept that “the homosexual act is a grave sin and abortion is an abomination,” you are not a “real Christian.”

    You’ll also find a number of articles bemoaning the support of “same-sex ‘marriage’” from people “pushing homosexuality, ‘transgenderism’ and other pernicious perversions down everyone’s throat.” Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson has written a number of inflammatory anti-LGBTQ articles with lines such as “homosexuality is a perversion and sin” and California is “hellbent on forcing children into the latest religious craze: transgenderism.” Other Daily Wire writers warn that the United Nations is trying to “push homosexuality” on the rest of the world, that Pope Francis is wrong for saying that being gay isn’t a choice, and that people who disagreed with the intensely anti-LGBTQ “Nashville Statement” are basically heretics.

    Shapiro’s own writing is broadly anti-LGBTQ, but he is extremely hostile when it comes to trans people (a group he’s mocked relentlessly on Twitter). Shapiro has warned that “the gay marriage caucus” was “utilizing the law as a baton to club wrong-thinking religious people into acceptance of homosexuality,” calling for state-level resistance. He claimed that legal protections for gay and trans people would be “discrimination” as they would “override religious objections to homosexuality and business objection to hiring the mentally ill” (by which he means trans people), calling them “downright fascistic.”

    Based on what these outlets publish, McAllister was understandably surprised that she lost her freelance gigs.

    Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is the norm in articles published at both The Federalist and The Daily Wire, but when McAllister tweeted the same venom at a relatively high-profile, respected journalist, she was cut loose.

    “I was fired when I criticized a gay man who mocked my heterosexual relationship,” she tweeted. “Yet no one defended me when I stood for masculinity and God’s design for sexuality despite outlets saying they represent Judeo-Christian values about sexuality, identity and purpose. What is truth?”

    She’s got a point: This all seems extremely hypocritical. Maybe Domenech and Shapiro now realize how bad their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric sounds once it reaches an audience outside of the conservative media bubble. Maybe this will inspire real change. But more likely, Shapiro saw the negative attention coming and dropped McAllister at the first sign of trouble. Domenech was probably just looking for a reason to cut McAllister loose after she insulted his wife, Meghan McCain, last week (McCain’s response to that insult, “You were at my wedding, Denise,” became a meme).

    They should not get kudos for doing the bare minimum under the glare of the public spotlight while also regularly publishing content that is just as reprehensible. She wrote for your sites, Bens.

  • How right-wing media tried to spin Michael Cohen’s testimony 

    Blog ››› ››› GRACE BENNETT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On February 27, longtime Trump lawyer and confidant Michael Cohen delivered damning testimony about President Donald Trump to the House oversight committee. Cohen alleged that Trump was aware of WikiLeaks’ plan to release hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, that Trump lied during the campaign about his plans to build a Trump tower in Moscow, and that Trump directed Cohen to repeatedly pay off women to keep quiet about their sexual relationships with him. Cohen also called the president a “racist” and a “con man.” Despite the serious criminal allegations, right-wing media were quick to dismiss and reject Cohen’s testimony.

    Here are the ways they tried to spin the hearing:

    Cohen’s testimony wasn’t newsworthy

    Right-wing media figures argued that Cohen’s allegations weren’t newsworthy and aren’t worth discussing.

    • Fox’s Sean Hannity asserted that the hearing was “a Democratic party [and] a hyperventilating, hysterical media putting politics over country with a political charade designed to just embarrass and trash the president.”

    • Fox contributor Dan Bongino claimed that Cohen’s presentation of the reimbursement check he says he received from Trump for paying off adult film actor Stormy Daniels is irrelevant. “I don’t think it’s damaging at all,” he said. “This has all been baked into the cake. There’s no news here.”

    • After the Cohen testimony was over, Fox’s Greg Gutfeld asked, “Why did we endure this spectacle?” He claimed, “People here are acting like this is news. We need to believe that it's news because we are forced to cover this. I don't feel like this is news. I can't find the news.”

    • Right-wing radio host Mark Levin said on Twitter, “The Democrats are a farce. Their media handlers are as well. What was the legislative purpose of the Cohen hearing? There was none.”

    Cohen's testimony was a distraction, especially from Trump's North Korea summit

    Others in right-wing media branded the hearing a distraction, especially from Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Some figures also argued that the Democrats shouldn’t have held the Cohen hearing while Trump was in negotiations with Kim.

    • Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk: “Democrats holding a hearing with convicted liar Michael Cohen while [Trump] is in Vietnam negotiating peace with North Korea tells you everything you need to know about the left. They would rather see America fail than see Donald Trump succeed.”

    • The Federalist’s Ben Domenech: “The Cohen circus is a perfect encapsulation of the 2016 Forever era: A bunch of salacious noise from which we learn very little, even as much greater concern should be focused on *what's actually happening* as a matter of policy.”

    • National Rifle Association spokesperson and radio host Dana Loesch said that Trump is de-escalating hostility with North Korea, “India and Pakistan are on the brink of war, but this Cohen guy tho that already undermined himself.”

    • Fox’s Ainsley Earhardt complained, “You’ve got this major news story that’s happening on the other side of the world, and then in D.C., they’re trying to put this guy who already lied to that very committee, ... and they’re putting him on the stand the very day that our president’s talking to Kim Jong Un.”

    • Fox’s Jason Chaffetz said, “This Cohen situation is such a distraction from what is going on that is actually going to matter in the world.”

    • Fox’s Andrew Napolitano argued, “The Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for doing this today. Politics is supposed to stop at the water's edge and whatever they have on the president, they ought to cut him a break and let him freely and without worrying about what’s going on in Washington, D.C., be in a position to negotiate with Kim Jong Un.”

    • Fox’s Geraldo Rivera: “I think it was pathetic, the timing. … They easily could have postponed it 48 hours, 72 hours to let the world focus on this profoundly significant event.”

    • Fox’s Sean Hannity complained that at the “very same moment” of a “historic summit with the president of the United States,” Democrats “purposely scheduled and hauled in Michael Cohen … just to embarrass the president.”

    • The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro questioned why Cohen was even testifying if he couldn’t provide “direct evidence” that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. He concluded, “Democrats want headlines so they can distract from their own incompetence and garbage legislation, and Cohen shifts the headlines.”

    • Fox’s Tucker Carlson claimed Cohen’s testimony “doesn't have anything to do with anything and that is the exactly the point of it,” and said, “This is a distraction, and we are falling for it.”

    Cohen’s allegations don’t hurt the president

    Some right-wing media figures claimed that Cohen’s testimony -- which included allegations that the president committed multiple felonies -- doesn’t hurt Trump, especially not legally.

    • Right-wing radio host Mark Simone claimed, “Michael Cohen’s testimony will be the 2019 version of the Michael Wolf gossip book. They’ll call it a ‘bombshell’ and two weeks later it’ll be forgotten about.”

    • Prior to Cohen’s testimony but after his opening statement was published by The New York Times, Fox’s Geraldo Rivera argued that the statement suggested that the “Cohen testimony will be dramatic, entertaining, embarrassing, nothing new & will not advance Collusion narrative.”

    • The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro said on Twitter: “Cohen's testimony falls into three buckets for Trump: (1) illegality; (2) embarrassing for Trump; (3) stupid hilarity. There's not much in bucket (1), there's a lot in bucket (2), and there's a fair amount in bucket (3).”

    • Shapiro also wrote: “So is Cohen's testimony damaging to Trump? In terms of public relations, sure. In terms of impeachment, meh. In terms of legal liability, not really.”

    • Fox’s Dan Bongino insisted that, even if it is true, “there's no there there" on Michael Cohen's claim Trump knew about WikiLeaks' plan to publish hacked DNC emails, saying, “None of this is great politically. The question is, is it criminally damaging? And the answer is no.”

    The testimony actually helps Trump’s legal case

    Other right-wing media figures suggested that far from hurting the president, Cohen’s testimony to Congress actually helps him.

    • The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh: “Remarkably Cohen's testimony exonerates Trump. He says Trump never directly told him to lie, he has no evidence of collusion, and Trump only worked on the Moscow project because he thought he wouldn't win, which means he wasn't trying to leverage the presidency for financial gain.”

    • Breitbart’s Joel Pollak: “Michael Cohen’s not saying anything new legally. His testimony exonerates Trump from telling him to lie to Congress. There’s nothing new about collusion. And his recollection of things Trump said is unclear by his own admission.”

    • Frequent Fox guest John Solomon claimed the hearing was “a good day for the president,” and “a good day for his legal defense.”

    Former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis orchestrated the hearing

    Some right-wing media figures unsurprisingly tried to tie the Cohen’s testimony to the Clintons by noting that his lawyer has previously worked with them.

    • Fox’s Katie Pavlich: “Everything you need to know about Cohen’s testimony is sitting behind him: Lanny Davis. This is about revenge for Clinton’s 2016 loss in 2020.”

    • Breitbart’s Joel Pollak said that Cohen’s testimony was partly “Lanny Davis talking thru Cohen’s mouth.”

    • Fox’s Lisa Boothe: “How is this not ridiculously sketchy to everyone? Lanny Davis, a Clinton loyalist, is working for Michael Cohen for free. I wonder what is in it for Davis.”

    • Boothe: “Doesn’t Lanny Davis representing Michael Cohen and sitting behind him today tell you everything you need to know? Democrats still can’t get over the fact that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016.”

    • Fox’s Sean Hannity said that the hearing was “highly orchestrated by, yes, the biggest Clinton supporter on the entire Earth, Lanny Davis, who is apparently representing Michael Cohen for free.”

  • Conservative media are testing attacks on 2020 Democratic candidates to see what sticks

    A coherent theme won’t emerge for a while, but here’s what’s in the works

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As the first Democratic presidential hopefuls declare their candidacy, right-wing media outlets are launching a campaign of their own. The goal? Planting seeds of doubt about each of the potential nominees so that by the time the Democratic National Convention in July 2020 rolls around, voters will harbor negative feelings toward whoever comes out on top.

    The message in the 2016 presidential campaign was that Hillary Clinton was an extraordinarily corrupt, pay-to-play politician who felt she was above the law. It was specific enough to be an effective message but vague enough that its exact interpretation remained subjective. After all, terms like “corrupt” and “crooked” can mean pretty much whatever the person interpreting wants them to. In June 2016, Gallup asked people, “What comes to your mind when you think about Hillary Clinton?” Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they “don’t trust her” or found her “dishonest” or “unethical,” 13 percent said they “dislike /or “don’t care for her,” and 8 percent described her as a “crook,” a “criminal,” “corrupt,” or said she “should be in jail.”

    When it comes to 2020 candidates, it’s clear that conservative media are simply throwing narratives around to see what sticks.

    The early stages of a smear campaign can seem a bit absurd. Headlines will overpromise and underdeliver, messages won’t be consistent, and the purported scandals and gaffes will underwhelm.

    Elizabeth Warren’s first week on the stump filled with missteps” reads the headline of a recent article by The Daily Caller. Among the supposed flubs criticized in the piece:

    • She said, “I’m gonna get me, um, a beer,” during an Instagram livestream.
    • She lost her voice after one day of campaigning.
    • Her excuse for losing her voice was “too much time with little people,” referring to her grandchildren. The article says this was “poorly-worded.”
    • She “awkwardly ‘admitted’ to purchasing things on Amazon.”

    “If her first campaign week is any indication, Warren could be in for a long and bumpy road ahead for 2020,” the article concludes.

    It’s not really clear what the “missteps” mentioned in the headline were. Does “I’m gonna get me, um, a beer” come off like forced folksiness? Could her temporarily lost voice be used to paint her as “low stamina”? Will her saying “little people” be cited as insensitive toward people who have dwarfism or be divorced from context to seem like she’s smugly referring to people she met during her campaign stop as “little people”? Will her Amazon Prime Day purchases cost her regulatory credibility?

    At this point in a smear campaign, the objective really is quantity over quality. Quality -- which is to say what message will stick with voters and sour their opinion of the candidates -- comes much later. The beer bit seemed to have legs. Fox News’ Outnumbered offered baffled criticism like, “Somebody tell me, why beer? Why that beverage? Is that to appeal to, like, male voters? I'm just wondering, because she's playing the gender card.” Also on Fox News, during an episode of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said, “It's just obvious that she's inauthentic in everything she does.”

    One of the first major policy positions Warren laid out at the beginning of her campaign was a 2 percent annual tax on wealth over $50 million. One can argue the pros and cons of any policy, but with a sprinkle of hyperbole and a dash of bad faith, anything can be turned into a smear narrative. For example, while reporting on Warren’s wealth-tax proposal, CNBC’s Joe Kernan claimed that Warren “wants billionaires to stop being freeloaders, stop creating jobs, stop creating wealth, stop succeeding.”

    This narrative almost writes itself: Elizabeth Warren wants you to fail, America. While that’s a completely ridiculous reading of what she’s proposed, it certainly won't stop conservatives from running with it.

    Similar smears and distortions are already being tested on Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

    Other candidates found themselves at the center of outright lies and willful ignorance.

    In early February, Booker gave an interview to VegNews, a news site aimed at vegetarians and vegans. Booker, who is a vegan, touched on the environmental sustainability of a world in which people get so much of their food in the form of meat. Booker discussed his own decision to go vegan, adding, “This is the United States of America, and I, for one, believe in our freedom to choose. So, I don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets; that’s just not how I live.”

    Naturally, Booker’s words were twisted by right-wing media. He explicitly stated that he wasn’t advocating for the abolition of animal farming, but that didn’t stop Fox’s Lisa Kennedy Montgomery from claiming that Booker “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson made the odd claim that Booker was trying to carry out the supposed agenda of Pope Francis “to coerce farmers into abandoning animal populations in favor of vegetarian farming.” National Review claimed that “Cory Booker wants only the rich to eat meat,” another evidence-deficient claim.

    Another line of attack right-wing media figures level against Booker includes accusations of religious bigotry. “Cory Booker is an anti-religious bigot and a disgrace to the Judiciary Committee,” tweeted The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro after Booker asked judicial nominee Neomi Rao if she thinks gay relationships are sinful. The Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams made a similar charge, accusing Booker of engaging in “gotcha” questions during Rao’s hearing. Booker is actually fairly well-known for his Christian beliefs and is a member of a National Baptist Convention church in Newark, NJ.

    As for Harris, after an appearance on the radio show The Breakfast Club, she got slammed for, supposedly, lying about what music she listened to while she got high in college (seriously). A smile on his face, co-host Steve Doocy held her to account during Fox & Friends:

    STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): She was listening to Snoop and Tupac when she was in college. We took a look at the record, and take a look at this. That was the appearance on the so-called world's most dangerous morning show, The Breakfast Club, here in New York. She graduated from college at Howard in 1986. She finished law school in 1989. She was admitted to the state bar of California in 1990 and then in 1991, Tupac's first album came out and in 1993, Snoop Dogg's first album was released. So there's a problem with the timeline.

    Unfortunately for Doocy and others eager to rip Harris for being inauthentic and untruthful over this trivial matter, this isn’t exactly how it happened. The Breakfast Club published a clip calling out Breitbart, Fox News, and The View’s Meghan McCain for taking Harris’ comments out of context. The question about whether she smoked marijuana in college was separate from the question of what music she likes. Even if the likes of Fox and Breitbart had offered a fair interpretation of events, this is hardly the scandal they were trying to make it out to be.

    Harris was also the subject of a smear steeped in sexism. After former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote a short op-ed to say that he and Harris briefly dated “more than 20 years ago,” and that he had appointed Harris to two state commissions when he was speaker of the California State Assembly, conservative media jumped at the chance to baselessly accuse Harris of sleeping her way to the top and being some sort of #MeToo-era hypocrite. The story faded after a day or so; there wasn’t anything to suggest Harris did anything improper.

    In Gillibrand’s case, one of the early narratives being used against her is centered on her decision to call for former Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) resignation after multiple women reported that he had touched them inappropriately. This isn’t a new attack on Gillibrand, but it does seem to be getting a bit more traction since she began hinting at a run. It’s most often used to paint her as opportunistic and power-hungry. Her evolving views on issues like immigration and guns have been cast in that same light. Like Warren, Gillibrand is framed as though her every action has been focus-grouped. The Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry asked whether she dyes her hair. Conservative radio host Mark Simone flipped out over news that Gillibrand seemed unsure whether to eat fried chicken with her hands or with silverware, tweeting, “Another example of phony, pay for play, politician Kirsten Gillibrand proving every move she makes is pandering and contrived.”

    This collection offers just a small sampling of an untold number of attacks that conservative media will filter and refine for maximum political damage between now and Election Day. For the moment, these look more like hastily sketched prototypes of pointed political commentary than the works of rhetorical art they will most certainly become. One question worth asking -- for people inside and out of the media world -- is what makes a smear successful, and why do people believe things that are clearly untrue or exaggerated? Luckily, there is some insight to be had here.

    Smear campaigns aren’t an exact science, but there are a few principles worth following if you want to understand them.  

    Not every smear is an all-out lie. Some, as mentioned above, are built around exaggerations or bad-faith interpretations of candidate actions. Both types can be effective, even if the claim is especially brazen.

    A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology General examined two of the more omnipresent smears of the 2008 presidential campaign in an attempt to better understand why people believe even the most blatantly false accusations against some candidates. One part of the research looked at claims that Barack Obama was secretly Muslim and that John McCain was senile and unfit to lead the country. Another portion addressed a less blatant but just as ubiquitous smear post-election about whether Obama was a socialist. The authors explain their motivation behind these studies:

    During election seasons, media bombardments by political propagandists are pervasive and difficult to avoid. Such extensive exposure might have the unsavory consequence of instilling implicit cognitive associations consistent with smear attacks in the minds of citizens. ... One measure of the success of smear campaigns might thus be the extent to which individuals exhibit strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label.

    What researchers ultimately found was that there’s a link between whether someone believes a harmful rumor and whether they’re politically aligned with the candidate beforehand. That is, a Democrat is more likely to believe a negative rumor about a Republican than Republicans are -- and vice versa. This conclusion may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s helpful in understanding why otherwise intelligent people might genuinely believe Obama was born in Kenya or that Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. It’s a case study in confirmation bias.

    The idea of creating “strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label” gets at why it’s important for successful attack campaigns to keep a singular focus. For the many attacks Hillary Clinton faced during the 2016 election, the common theme was clear: She was “crooked.” In Donald Trump’s case, his scandals included financial corruption and reports of sexual assault, racism, and sexism. There was no single coherent association to be made here, and it’s entirely possible that that worked to his advantage with voters. (This isn’t to say that those scandals were part of a smear campaign, just that his opposition maybe didn’t utilize those stories to their maximum political potential.)

    “At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” says Mark Whitmore, an assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University in a press release from the American Psychological Association about “why we’re susceptible to fake news.” “In fact, one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”

    Whitmore notes that thanks to the ever-expanding list of places people go to get their news -- whether that’s somewhere online or on cable TV --  “the receiver is often faced with paradoxical and seemingly absurd messages. It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”

    Trump Derangement Syndrome” is a popular phrase within conservative media to describe people who reflexively disagree with anything Trump does. The term originated in a 2003 Charles Krauthammer column as “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” which some reappropriated as “Obama Derangement Syndrome” to describe anti-Obama mindsets. Aside from the irony in Krauthammer using this newly created term to roll his eyes at people opposed to the invasion of Iraq -- a decision that only looks worse with passing time -- he was also essentially making reference to confirmation bias.

    As news consumers, we need to be aware of how personal biases guide our judgment when it comes to determining the validity of both praise and attacks on various candidates. Now is the perfect time to be on the lookout for these narratives, while they’re still sloppy and unrefined.

  • Right-wing media used state abortion measures to villainize people who have abortions

    Blog ››› ››› MADELYN WEBB


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    After several states promoted measures protecting abortion access, right-wing media not only spread an immense amount of misinformation about the efforts, but also lashed out at people who have had abortions, stigmatizing and denigrating them for making a personal health care decision. In particular, these outlets and media figures targeted people who have had abortions later in pregnancy -- by suggesting that they are heartless murderers, misrepresenting them as callous and irresponsible, and even calling them “satanic.”

    The bills that instigated this outrage are far from radical: Democratic lawmakers in New York and Virginia were attempting to protect abortion access at the state level, not to legalize “infanticide” -- as some right-wing media alleged. Right-wing media seized on clips of Democratic Virginia lawmakers Rep. Kathy Tran and Gov. Ralph Northan alledgedly describing later abortion procedures, spurring the spread of further hyperbole and misinformation about proactive state abortion protection bills. In reality, these measures would legalize abortions later in pregnancy “when the fetus is not viable or a woman’s health is at risk,” a far cry from right-wing media’s allegations that such procedures (and the people who have or provide them) are “demonic.”

    Here are just some of the examples of right-wing media misrepresenting people who have received abortions, a legal and sometimes necessary medical procedure:

    • Fox News contributors and right-wing internet personalities Diamond and Silk (Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) tweeted that Democrats were trying to allow “abortions up to the birth” of a baby (they aren’t) and that this was “murder”: 

    • During the January 31 edition of his radio program, Fox News’ Sean Hannity claimed that people should take advantage of “birth control options” to avoid getting pregnant. He concluded that because of these options, someone who needs an abortion later in pregnancy is irresponsible because they either should have prevented the pregnancy or gotten an abortion “in the first three months.”
    • On Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News program, Justice with Judge Jeanine, political columnist Amy Holmes said, “There are women who kill their kids for selfish reasons."
    • In a series of tweets, Washington Examiner contributor Kimberly Ross attacked people who support access to abortions as "morally weak,” and accused patients who have received them of being “predatory” and of “stand[ing] on the backs of the unborn dead”:

    • During the January 31 edition of Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee alleged that people who have abortions later in pregnancy are doing so because they think having a child is “going to be an inconvenience.”
    • The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro also pushed the narrative that people who have abortions later in pregnancy are doing so callously, saying that people might argue “I’d be healthier if I didn’t have this 9-month-old baby right here that’s about to enter my vaginal canal. Cut its brains out,” and claiming, “That’s what this law now allows.”
    • During President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative group Turning Point USA, tweeted that later abortions are “despicable” and that anyone who supports efforts to protect or expand abortion access was endorsing “this savagery”:

    • After New York illuminated One World Trade Center with pink lights to honor the passage of abortion protections, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that New York was celebrating “legalized murder, calling it abortion."
    • During his Fox News program, Hannity, host Sean Hannity stated that because several laws that allow later abortion in order to protect the pregnant person’s health don’t further define what’s entailed in protecting health, “If someone says hours before [giving birth], ‘Oh, I'm having emotional second thoughts,’ and a doctor says, ’OK,’ then they're allowed to commit infanticide."
    • On Twitter, Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens said people celebrating state abortion protection measures -- which she said allow “slaughtering babies” -- were “satanic”:

    • During the January 31 edition of Fox News’ Fox News @ Night, actor Kevin Sorbo compared people who have abortions later in pregnancy to Nazis, saying: “You know, there's a group of people about 70 years ago that decided what lives were worth living, what lives were not, and they were called the Nazis.”
  • Here are some of the dumbest right-wing media takes on the Green New Deal

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a Green New Deal resolution on Thursday -- a framework for what they intend to include in detailed legislation down the line. Ocasio-Cortez's office also released a less formal summary and answers to frequently asked questions about the plan.

    Right-wing media figures and outlets -- who've been freaking out over the Green New Deal and Ocasio-Cortez in general over the last couple of months -- swiftly went on the attack, insulting Ocasio-Cortez's intelligence and employing misinformation, mockery, and straight-up climate denial to argue against the plan.

    Many of the attackers appear not to have actually read the 14-page resolution. Instead, they focused on the FAQ document and mischaracterized it, so Ocasio-Cortez's office removed it from her website and said they'll post a better version later, but it's still available in other places online. [Update, 2/11/19: In a February 9 Twitter thread, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff explained that “an early draft of a FAQ that was clearly unfinished and that doesn’t represent the GND resolution got published to the website by mistake.”]

    Here's a sampling of comments and arguments from right-wing media.

    Right-wing media made unhinged claims that the Green New Deal would destroy civilization

    MSNBC contributor Hugh Hewitt waxed melodramatic while discussing the Green New Deal on his radio program on February 8: "It is not socialism; it is communism, it is fascism, it is despotism."

    Sean Hannity went on an extended rant on his Fox show Hannity on February 7:

    History is riddled with the roadkill and the misery and of many versions of socialism, almost always ending the same way: false promises, broken promises, failure, poverty, misery among the people. This is a real, serious threat to our way of life.

    Ocasio-Cortez and others put forth one of the most dangerous, impractical, misguided, economically guaranteed-to-be-devastating plans ever championed by any American politician.

    All aboard, the poverty express is coming.

    Fox's Laura Ingraham said the Green New Deal would result in a "hellscape." Fox's Tucker Carlson said, "It's literally insane and anti-American." Watch these and other lowlights:

    Right-wing media attacked Ocasio-Cortez's intelligence

    Ocasio-Cortez introduced the legislation jointly with longtime lawmaker Markey, who has served in Congress since 1976 and co-authored major climate legislation that passed the House in 2009. But in attacking the measure, conservative commentators focused almost exclusively on Ocasio-Cortez, calling her "immature" and an "idiot."

    Ben Stein, an actor, political commentator, and climate denier who frequently appears on Fox programs, offered sexist insults about Ocasio-Cortez during Fox Business Network's Cavuto Coast to Coast on February 7:

    The fact that we listen to her is just amazing. The fact that we pay attention to anything she says is just amazing. I mean, she doesn't know her ass from her elbow about investments and the return on investments. Why do we even listen to her? I mean, she’s charming and she’s very good-looking, but why do we even listen to her?

    Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade and climate-denying blogger Marc Morano took turns ratcheting up the insults during a segment on Fox & Friends on February 8:

    BRIAN KILMEADE: Why would you stand behind a deal like this when it is -- looks like something that was put out by a 10th-grader?

    MARC MORANO: Actually, 10th is being very, very generous.

    KILMEADE: Let's go seventh.

    MORANO: I would go as low as third grade.

    Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the right-wing Daily Wire, attacked Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet:

    Shapiro elaborated on this theme in a blog post at The Daily Wire titled "AOC's Green New Deal Proposal Is One Of The Stupidest Documents Ever Written":

    Whoever wrote the proposal is, to put it kindly, dense. Idiotic. Moronic.

    How bad is the Green New Deal paper? Putting aside the fact that, as written, it would receive a C+ in any high school English class, it essentially articulates a magical world in which the skies rain chocolate, the world is powered by unicorn farts, and AOC dances through the gumdrop meadows to Lisztomania.

    My two-year-old son could come up with a better, more realistic proposal than this one.

    David Harsanyi, a climate denier and senior editor at the conservative online magazine The Federalist, played on similar themes during an appearance on Fox's The Ingraham Angle:

    Right-wing media spread misinformation about the Green New Deal

    Conservative media figures propagated a number of falsehoods about the Green New Deal. Here are a few:

    They say the plan would ban cars. It wouldn't: Madison Gesiotto, a columnist for The Hill and a member of the Trump campaign's advisory board, suggested in a tweet that the Green New Deal would require Americans to give up their cars. In fact, the resolution calls for "investment in … zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing," not the banning of vehicles.

    They say the plan would ban airplanes. It wouldn't: Longtime climate denier Rush Limbaugh claimed on his radio show on February 7, "They want to phase out air travel in 10 years." Fox & Friends hosts made the same claim on February 8, including Ainsley Earhardt, who said, "No more airplanes. Airplanes are -- exactly, you have to take a train now." In fact, the resolution makes no mention of airplanes or air travel. The FAQ acknowledges that it's likely not feasible to phase out traditional airplanes within a decade, so it calls for "build[ing] out highspeed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary." The Green New Deal aims to give people a cleaner option than flying, but it doesn't call for the elimination of flying.

    They say the plan would ban meat. It wouldn't: Morano said during his February 8 appearance on Fox & Friends that the plan calls for "banning meat." In fact, the resolution makes no mention whatsoever of meat. In contrast, it calls for "working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, including ... by supporting family farming [and] by investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health." The FAQ mentions just one potential meat source, "farting cows," but says it doesn't appear feasible to get rid of them within 10 years.

    Right-wing media mocked the Green New Deal

    Many of the conservative critiques were short on substance, long on silliness and scorn.

    Fox personality Laura Ingraham suggested the Green New Deal would send the country back to the time of the Flintstones and the Stone Age:

    Climate-denying blogger Steve Milloy called the plan "bedwetting":

    Breitbart's Joel Pollak disingenuously accuses the plan of being "homophobic and transphobic."

    Note: the legislation fails to mention — even once — the historic oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities. This is a homophobic and transphobic document.

    Right-wing media displayed their climate denial while criticizing the Green New Deal

    In many cases, right-wing media figures failed to acknowledge that the Green New Deal is so ambitious because it's trying to address an incredibly serious and deadly threat: climate change. The hosts of Fox & Friends, for example, neglected to mention climate change at all during an extended rant on February 8.

    But in some cases, the conservative commentators put their climate denial on full display, making clear that part of the reason they disdain the Green New Deal is because they don't believe climate change is even happening.

    Limbaugh launched into a climate-denying diatribe during his Green New Deal segment on February 7:

    It is a crime what has been done to these kids. It is literally a crime the way they have been propagandized from the moment they started watching television, from early childhood. They literally believe this planet is under destruction as we sit here today and that human beings in the United States of America are responsible for it, primarily Republicans, and they’re calling for drastic action.

    Breitbart's Pollak explicitly contradicted climate science in his Green New Deal blog post:

    The “Green New Deal” begins by asserting “human activity is the dominant cause of observed climate change over the past century” — far beyond the “consensus” that humans have some significant impact on global temperature.

    It goes on to declare that “a changing climate is causing sea levels to rise and an increase in wildfires, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life” — all speculative claims that even scientists who endorse anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are hesitant to endorse.

    In fact, climate scientists have been very clear that climate change is human-caused, it is exacerbating extreme weather, and we have a small window in which to dramatically overhaul our energy, transportation, and agriculture systems if we want to avoid the worst impacts. But if you deny that climate change is a problem, then of course an ambitious plan to address it is going to be anathema.

  • How a myth about journalists telling miners to “learn to code” helped people justify harassment

    Hundreds of journalists lost their jobs, and the darkest corners of the internet were ready to pounce.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Tucker Carlson Tonight / Fox News

    Journalism took a hit last week when BuzzFeed and HuffPost both announced a steep reduction in staff, cutting hundreds of jobs over the course of just a few days. For many journalists, the layoffs meant the end of a job they’ve had for years and, in the case of many BuzzFeed staffers, the separation from a company they had effectively helped build. Jobs in media, especially digital media, are tough to come by and even tougher to keep. And the people who lost their jobs know that they will be joining an already oversaturated talent pool of unemployed industry vets.

    Needless to say, it was a rough few days for those involved. Thanks to a 4chan campaign, it got even worse.

    If you were to scroll through the Twitter mentions of some of the laid-off journalists, there’s one phrase you probably saw more than a handful of times: “Learn to code.” On its own, “learn to code” is a perfectly innocuous suggestion, and few would deny that coding is a strong skill to have in the modern economy. The reason this phrase was being tweeted in such large volumes, however, was not out of a genuine concern for the newly unemployed but as a way to taunt them.

    The “learn to code” narrative sprung out of an impression among some on the right that journalists, whom conservatives have long tried to paint as elitists, had been flippant about layoffs that hit working-class Americans, particularly coal miners, over the last few years. By tweeting “learn to code” -- a reference to government and tech initiatives aimed at promoting STEM education -- at these journalists, Twitter users were trying to give them a taste of their own medicine.

    Talia Lavin, who had a steady freelance gig writing for HuffPost’s now-shuttered opinion section, was one of the first to pinpoint the origin of the “learn to code” campaign: 4chan.

    “Oh the sweet, sweet taste of victory and justice. These vile, soulless pieces of shit are going to have to find actual work now,” wrote one anonymous user on the message board, referring to news of the layoffs.

    “They should learn to code,” wrote another. Others said they were going to create so-called sockpuppet accounts (fake, deceptive, or throwaway accounts) for the specific purpose of tweeting at laid-off reporters.

    “Making them an hero is the goal,” wrote one person, referencing 4chan slang for committing suicide.

    The following day, NBC’s Ben Collins published a story about some of the tweets laid-off journalists received, which included a meme about the “Day of the Rope” (a reference to the day of mass execution in The Turner Diaries, a novel with heavy neo-Nazi themes) and a photo of an ISIS member about to execute journalist James Foley with the text “Shut the fuck up journalist.” These messages were mixed in as part of the larger “learn to code” campaign.

    Then a mangled message from Twitter set off a firestorm among conservative Twitter commentators.

    On Monday morning, The Wrap’s Jon Levine reported that a source inside Twitter told him that “tweeting ‘learn to code’ at any recently laid off journalist will be treated as ‘abusive behavior,’ and is a violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service.”

    Just over two hours later, the company issued a public statement contradicting this report, saying that “just Tweeting ‘learn to code’ is not a violation,” but tweeting the phrase “at an account coupled with targeted harassment, violent threats, intimidation, and/or as part of a coordinated campaign is considered a violation of our abusive behaviour policy.” Given that at least one person on 4chan explicitly stated that the goal of their tweets was to encourage journalists to commit suicide, it made sense that Twitter would view tweets resulting from that thread with at least a little caution. Essentially, Twitter’s official statement clarified that people tweeting “learn to code” weren’t somehow exempt from its rules.

    Levine also tweeted an update to his original post. In a direct message to me, he wrote, “Twitter told me something on background and then backed away from it publicly after they began to take heat. The whole affair suggests that even their own staff are unsure of how to enforce the nuts and bolts of their [terms of service].”

    In fairness, Twitter has what can only be described as an abysmal track record when it comes to enforcing its rules. Moderators routinely ignore posts that clearly violate the site’s terms of service, while marking harmless posts as violations all the time. Conservative media outlets and politicians often argue these inconsistencies are proof of anti-conservative bias at tech companies, but there’s little evidence to back up this claim. Twitter has wrongly taken down tweets from both right-wing and left-wing users, and it has ignored harassment campaigns against people on both sides of the political divide.

    Unfortunately, the confusion arising from Levine’s initial report and then Twitter’s official statement provided a misleading narrative for conservatives in the media to latch onto, even after it had been corrected, making journalists on the receiving end of this brigade look fragile and thin-skinned.

    There’s scant evidence that journalists told laid-off miners to “learn to code.” This has led the campaign’s defenders to engage in a bit of revisionist history.

    The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson wrote that in 2016, “millennial reporters at various online outlets suggested that blue collar coal miners ‘learn to code’ as the Obama Administration hatched plans to close coal mines. More than one outlet suggested as much with the New York Times even going so far as to profile one group that taught unemployed rust belt workers to code.”

    “Well, what’s good for the goose … isn’t working so well for the gander,” he continued. “The internet trolls at 4Chan have encouraged people to tweet out ‘learn to code’ to some of the very same millennial reporters who were suggesting blue collar workers do that.”

    Erickson doesn’t give any example of a single laid-off journalist mocking the plight of coal miners, and there’s a good reason to believe it didn’t happen.

    The 2016 New York Times profile Erickson mentioned wasn’t published as some sort of smug suggestion that miners just suck it up and “learn to code,” but as an empathetic look at the struggles faced by families in Appalachian coal country suddenly finding themselves without a source of income as once-reliable mining jobs vanished for good.

    In September 2018, the Times published an op-ed titled “The Coders of Kentucky,” highlighting bipartisan efforts to revitalize some of the more economically challenged segments of the country. It was, much like the 2016 piece, extraordinarily empathetic to the plight of workers who saw these once-steady careers evaporate.

    Neither article was authored by a millennial. The 2016 piece was written by a baby boomer, born in the 1960s, and the 2018 article was authored by a member of the silent generation, born in 1940. The closest thing to a smug “learn to code” response to miners losing jobs came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who actually dismissed out-of-work miners as being unable or unwilling to code. Bloomberg, born in 1942, is definitely not a millennial.

    This isn’t to say that there haven’t been articles urging various groups to learn how to code. A 2013 post published on Forbes’ community page suggested that women should learn the skill. People have made a case for including coding classes in K-12 public education, for businesspeople to give it a shot, and for designers to get in on the action. A 2014 interactive BuzzFeed piece by Katie Notopoulos listed various articles handing out this bit of advice broadly. Interestingly enough, none of them were in the oh, you just got laid off -- deal with it and learn to code vein.

    Erickson’s “what’s good for the goose” statement doesn’t apply here. Instead, it simply functions as a release valve for people who might feel a tinge of guilt over targeting those who were laid off or who felt a sense of glee at the news.

    The “learn to code” portion of this campaign is something of a red herring. NBC’s Ben Collins walked me through it.

    According to Ben Collins, the author of NBC’s report on the harassment campaign, smugly suggesting coal miners “learn to code” wasn’t the approach newspapers took when covering those  who lost their jobs. He noted that reports on news about coding programs and statements from politicians aren’t anywhere near the type of arrogant sneer conservatives are making them out to be.

    And Collins has a theory about why some conservatives build on these sorts of myths. “It ... feeds into this larger narrative that ‘the news’ is one homogeneous organism that is all writing the same thing, that we're all one sentient blob,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message.

    The goal of these types of campaigns is to launder actual hate and threats across social media to convince outsiders that the people being harassed are just weak, overdramatic, or perhaps even deserving of whatever they receive. Collins elaborates:

    The learn to code stuff is not the point for [people on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board] /pol/. They understand when they brigade specific tweets/journalists telling them to do something benign, in this case tweet "learn to code," people on /pol/ will obviously take it too far and send a picture of ISIS executing a journalist instead. Subversion, and the subversion of that subversion, is the very point of /pol/.

    That's why [the recent campaign] was a perfect storm. Center-right blogs could claim plausible deniability, while writing journalists are soft for not being able to take thousands of "learn to code" messages on the day they were fired. But they understand what /pol/ is. They understand trolling culture and harassment campaigns. They are willfully ignoring the admittedly smaller subset of (but real) threats that are baked into the cake when a campaign like this gets started on the most notorious part of the internet that was built on hate.

    On Twitter, Talia Lavin shared examples of the hateful messages she received mixed in with those  telling her to “learn to code.”

    In response to Ben Shapiro’s dismissal of the campaign, she tweeted, “A lot of the people telling me learn to code were also telling me to jump in an oven, talking about gassing all the kikes and celebrating race war. No matter how much cover you run for fascists, they still hate you, Ben.”

    The generally incredulous response to these recent claims of harassment illustrates just how unwilling and out-of-touch social platforms and a sizable chunk of the media world is when it comes to understanding the way information and harassment travels on the internet.

  • Media should avoid these traps in covering this year's March for Life

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN & MADELYN WEBB


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The annual anti-abortion March for Life will take place on January 18 this year

    Every year in January, anti-abortion groups and individuals gather in Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Life -- a series of events protesting the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion in the United States. This year, the January 18 march will celebrate the theme “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science.” That theme echoes a common argument from anti-abortion groups that “medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause” including “that life begins at fertilization, or day one.”

    Last year, media coverage of the March for Life demonstrated that some outlets were unable to handle the necessary fact-checking or provide the needed context about the extreme history of many anti-abortion groups, the deceptive science behind many of their claims, and the alleged popularity of anti-abortion policies. This year, media can learn from these mistakes before the annual protest kicks off.

    Three lessons media should learn from the coverage of the 2018 March for Life

    #1 Avoid whitewashing the extremism of anti-abortion groups and spokespeople

    During the 2018 March for Life, there were several examples of outlets whitewashing anti-abortion groups and spokespeople by downplaying these organization’s long histories of extreme rhetoric and activism.

    For example, leading up to the 2018 event, NPR highlighted two anti-abortion leaders -- Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America, and Abby Johnson of And Then There Were None. In both reports, NPR failed to provide critical context about these anti-choice activists and the efforts of their organizations to oppose abortion access. In one piece, NPR asked Hawkins to comment on the status of various anti-choice movement priorities but failed to mention her long history of extreme comments about abortion, contraceptives, and more. These comments include her statement that certain forms of birth control should be illegal or are “carcinogenic” or “abortion-inducing,” as well as her claim that being an "abortion abolitionist" is "just like the slavery abolitionists." Similarly, NPR’s profile of Johnson and her organization focused on the group’s effort to “persuade as many [abortion clinic] workers as possible to leave the field.” Although NPR did note that the circumstances of Johnson’s departure from her own job at a clinic have been disputed by Planned Parenthood, the outlet did not substantively explain the details, which suggest there’s more to Johnson’s “conversion” story than meets the eye. NPR also didn’t explore the full spectrum of misinformation that Johnson regularly spreads about her former employer -- including the inaccurate claim that Planned Parenthood performs abortions on people who aren’t pregnant.

    Johnson is scheduled to speak during this year’s March for Life rally -- giving outlets ample opportunity to fact-check her inaccurate claims. In addition to Johnson, outlets must also avoid downplaying the extremism of other right-wing media and anti-abortion figures scheduled to speak during the event. These figures include Fox News commentator Alveda King and The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, who will be recording an episode of his podcast before speaking at the rally on January 18.

    #2 Prevent anti-abortion groups from promoting junk science and unqualified “experts” to support anti-abortion policies

    During last year’s March for Life, outlets legitimized the false narrative of scientific support for anti-abortion policies by repeating unsubstantiated claims and manipulative terminology and by promoting so-called “scientific experts” without disclosing their ties to anti-choice organizations. For example, The Atlantic published an article the day before the 2018 March for Life quoting several representatives of the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) without noting that the group was founded by the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) specifically to produce research supporting the anti-choice movement. Perhaps more concerning than CLI’s origins, the group is still operated as part of SBA List -- filing federal 990 tax forms as “The Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund.” The Atlantic’s failure to identify CLI’s ties to the wider anti-abortion movement earned the outlet a place in Rewire.News’ 2018 “Hall of Shame” for inaccurate or deceptive reporting on reproductive rights. Other outlets such as CNN and The Birmingham News have also made the mistake of either downplaying or omitting CLI’s affiliations when citing the anti-abortion group in reporting.

    Beyond failing to identify CLI’s anti-abortion affiliations in reporting, outlets have also continued to reiterate anti-abortion talking points and signal-boost partisan science. In March, The Associated Press published an article that repeated the discredited claim that there is a pathological link between having an abortion and developing “depression, anxiety and sleeping disorders.” In April, The Washington Post reported on a study that purported to show the effectiveness of a junk science anti-abortion procedure referred to as “abortion pill reversal,” but the journal that published the study was later forced to withdraw it after widely reported methodological concerns.

    The consequences of allowing anti-abortion junk science to go unchecked can already be seen in several states’ anti-choice laws. The unscientific concept of fetal pain was influential in passing an anti-abortion bill in Missouri, even though many medical experts have disputed the validity of the studies and claims used to support such laws. In other states like Ohio and Iowa, anti-abortion lawmakers are promoting bans on abortion as early as six weeks (before many people know they’re pregnant), on the grounds that abortion should be illegal if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat. Already in 2019, Kentucky lawmakers have proposed a similar ban -- despite previous arguments from doctors that such policies actually do more harm than good.

    Given the theme of this year’s march, media have a responsibility to accurately report on reproductive science and not to elevate pseudoscientific talking points from anti-abortion organizations without providing necessary context and pushback. In particular, media should:

    • Avoid using, or letting guests use, the phrase “partial-birth abortion,” which is not a medical term. Anti-abortion groups, in fact, invented the term to inspire shame and stigma. In reality, the term and the nonexistent medical practices to which it refers are a favorite right-wing and anti-choice media talking point when attacking access to later abortions.
    • Be skeptical of claims about so-called “post-abortion syndrome.” Although right-wing media and anti-abortion groups have long claimed that people experience regret or develop depression after having an abortion, the supposed evidence supporting such claims has been consistently refuted.
    • Provide ample context about the lack of evidence supporting so-called “abortion pill reversal,” an anti-choice medical procedure which supposedly allows a patient to reverse an abortion induced via pill. This procedure has been largely discredited as junk science, with one of the major studies supporting it having been pulled from a medical journal after ethical concerns were raised.
    • Identify and disclose the affiliations of Charlotte Lozier Institute’s “associate scholars” and staff. Given the theme of this year’s march, CLI will likely play a prominent role in promoting anti-abortion talking points and misinformation. Media have a responsibility to identify these so-called experts’ affiliation with an organization that has an explicit mission statement to eliminate “the scourges of abortion.” 

    #3 Avoid signal-boosting misinformation about the alleged popularity of anti-abortion policies and positions

    During the 2018 March for Life, several outlets spread misinformation about the American public’s alleged support for anti-abortion policies by sharing polling data without proper context or analysis. For example, in an article about the anti-abortion policies promoted by President Donald Trump’s administration, Politico shared a poll commissioned by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus to support the anti-choice argument that Americans want greater restrictions on abortion access. However, as MSNBC’s Irin Carmon has previous explained of the Knights of Columbus poll, a simple shift in phrasing or question style could substantially alter the findings:

    You could ask Americans if they want Roe v. Wade overturned, as the Pew Research Center did in 2013, and learn that 63 percent want to see it stand. Or you could ask Americans to choose between two vague statements, like the recent poll the Marist Institute for Public Opinion conducted for the Knights of Columbus, a group that opposes abortion. Asked to pick between “it is possible to have laws which protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn; or two, it is necessary for laws to choose to protect one and not the other,” 77 percent said it was possible to do everything. The policy implications of the first statement are unclear.

    Further examining this phenomenon, Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained that “the public has diverse views on abortion” that cannot neatly be categorized or assessed. In another piece for Vox, Tresa Undem, co-founder and partner at a public-opinion research firm, thoroughly explored how much of “the current polling fails at accurately measuring opinion on this complex issue.” For example, Undem wrote, even those “who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases” when polled about the legality of abortion expressed a higher level of support for abortion access when questioned about their “‘real life’ views on the issue”:

    Among people who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases, 71 percent said they would give support to a close friend or family member who had an abortion, 69 percent said they want the experience of having an abortion to be nonjudgmental, 66 percent said they want the experience to be supportive, 64 percent want the experience to be affordable, and 59 percent want the experience to be without added burdens.

    Additional polling by Undem’s firm, PerryUndem, has also found that most people believe that the decision to have an abortion should be made by a patient and their doctor (and, to a lesser extent, the larger medical community) -- and not by politicians.

    There will be no shortage of claims during this year’s March for Life about the supposed popularity of anti-abortion positions. Given the theme of this year’s march, media should be prepared to provide audiences with the necessary context about polls, organizations, and anti-abortion media personalities included in their reporting about the march. Media must avoid oversimplifying public opinion polling or repeating inaccurate talking points in ways that uplift anti-choice misinformation.

  • Trump officials and right-wing media use Jakelin Caal Maquin's death to rally for Trump's wall

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Update (12/18/18): This piece has been updated with an additional example.

    Following reports of the December 8 death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala who died after being taken into Border Patrol custody, high-level White House officials and prominent right-wing media personalities exploited her death to advocate for President Donald Trump’s desired border wall while accusing her father of causing the tragedy.

    On December 13, The Washington Post reported that Caal Maquin “died of dehydration and shock after she was taken into Border Patrol custody last week for crossing from Mexico into the United States illegally with her father and a large group of migrants along a remote span of New Mexico desert.” She did not receive medical treatment until an hour and a half after it was requested. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) claimed that Caal Maquin “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days” before her death -- but this was quickly disputed by her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cruz. According to a statement from his lawyers, Caal Cruz “made sure she was fed and had sufficient water." The family wants an investigation into Caal Maquin's death.

    The Post first resported Caal Maquin’s death several days after it happened. But once the story broke on December 13, right-wing media personalities and major Trump administration officials immediately began exploiting her death or claiming that her father had caused it:

    Fox News host Sean Hannity: “A wall can prevent these types of heart-breaking stories.”

    White House senior adviser Stephen Miller during a Fox appearance: “If you want to stop the horrors on the northward trek, ... then, for the love of God, fund the border wall.”

    MSNBC contributor and talk radio host Hugh Hewitt: Caal Maquin’s death "is about the most complete argument for building a long, strong" border wall.

    Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a Fox appearance: "This family chose to cross illegally."

    Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz: "That should be the message, don't make this journey, it will kill you."

    CNN political commentator and BlazeTV host Ben Ferguson: “This is child abuse in its worst form. … This is sick.”

    Fox News guest and Border Patrol Council Vice President Art Del Cueto: “No one’s pointing the finger at this father, they’re all pointing the finger at the Border Patrol agents, and that’s just disgusting.”

    One America News host Graham Ledger: Caal Maquin was a “seven-year-old illegal” whose parents should be “investigated for probable child abuse.”

    One America News host Liz Wheeler: Caal Maquin’s father “forced her to undergo the dangerous journey to the U.S. border and didn’t feed her or give her water for days and days on end.”

    Fox News host Laura Ingraham: “Now they’re, ‘Oh, it’s Trump’s fault that a seven-year-old girl died after her father dragged her across a desert for seven days.’ That’s Trump’s fault?”

    Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro: "The person responsible for all of this is the father who didn't feed the child."

    Video by Leanne Naramore

  • After Time recognizes Jamal Khashoggi, Ben Shapiro launches old, debunked smears

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

    Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro criticized Time magazine’s decision to put murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi on its cover as a Person of the Year, claiming he was “pretty radical on politics,” “had a longtime history of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood,” and “was very much in favor of more radical Islam in the Middle East.” Right-wing media began smearing Khashoggi in this vein soon after his murder by Saudi agents.

    While Khashoggi reportedly attended Muslim Brotherhood meetings early in his career, according to those who knew him, “to say that Jamal was some kind of an extremist is all lies.” In an August 28 column in The Washington Post, Khashoggi himself explained his lack of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was, at its core, based on his support for Arab democracy -- a concept that the Saudi ruling family and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deeply resent and fear. The Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked as a journalist at the time of his murder, further debunked these smears as they circulated among right-wing media and more extreme Republican midterm election candidates: “While Khashoggi was once sympathetic to Islamist movements, he moved toward a more liberal, secular point of view, according to experts on the Middle East who have tracked his career.” Yet, months later, Shapiro has renewed this smear to attack Time magazine for choosing to honor a journalist murdered for his work.

    From the December 11 edition of DailyWire.com’s The Ben Shapiro Show:

    BEN SHAPIRO (HOST): Jamal Khashoggi was made the Person of the Year on the cover of Time magazine. Now Jamal Khashoggi, you'll recall, was the Saudi citizen who was here on a visa, and then he went to Turkey and went to the Saudi consulate for a marriage document and was promptly murdered by the members of the Saudi consulate, and then chopped up and sent in a bag back to Saudi Arabia. This all went wrong -- it was very bad for the Trump administration, which of course has been very close with the Saudi Arabian government, particularly the new leader of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. That's the reason that Time magazine selected Jamal Khashoggi, who, in reality, was, in fact, pretty radical on politics. He had a longtime history of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. He was very much in favor of more radical Islam in the Middle East, not less radical Islam in the Middle East. He was certainly no moderate. But since he was murdered for being a journalist, he is the Time magazine Person of the Year.

    ...

    Now that doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about the Jamal Khashoggi case, but again, this is the media trying to play itself up.

  • Anti-LGBTQ media and groups have been crying "censorship" as flawed research on trans teens is re-evaluated

    A Brown researcher published a flawed study about so-called "rapid-onset gender dysphoria" that relied on surveys from anti-trans websites. The report claimed that teens were coming out as trans due to “social contagion”; after concerns were raised, it is now under review.

    Blog ››› ››› BRIANNA JANUARY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Update (3/20/19): On March 19, PLOS ONE issued a correction and formal comment on Littman’s study. The journal’s editor-in-chief also issued an apology on PLOS ONE’s blog, noting, “We should have provided a better context of this research, its framing, and its limitations related to the study design.” The note continued, “In our view, the corrected article now provides a better context of the work, as a report of parental observations, but not a clinically validated phenomenon or a diagnostic guideline.”

    In August, a researcher at Brown University published flawed research about so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” a concept that suggests that young people may be coming out as trans due to “social and peer contagion” and that has not been recognized by any mainstream medical organization. Among other flaws, the study was widely criticized for surveying only parents found on anti-trans parent communities rather than transgender people themselves, and Brown and the academic journal that published the study have since pledged to re-evaluate the work. Right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ groups responded by calling the reassessment “academic censorship” and saying Brown and the journal had caved to “transgender activism.”

    Brown University researcher Lisa Littman published a flawed study that claims teens may be identifying as trans due to social influences

    A Brown University researcher published a study on so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” that suggested teenagers were identifying as trans due to “social and peer contagion.” In August, Brown University researcher Dr. Lisa Littman published a study on so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) in the online journal PLOS ONE. The study suggested that transgender youth are experiencing a new type of “rapid” gender dysphoria due to social influences, asserting that both multiple peers in pre-existing friend groups coming out as transgender and “increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity” raise “the possibility of social and peer contagion.” From PLOS ONE (citations removed):

    The description of cluster outbreaks of gender dysphoria occurring in pre-existing groups of friends and increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity raises the possibility of social and peer contagion. Social contagion is the spread of affect or behaviors through a population. Peer contagion, in particular, is the process where an individual and peer mutually influence each other in a way that promotes emotions and behaviors that can potentially undermine their own development or harm others.

    Littman’s study surveyed the parents of transgender people ages 11-27, circulating the survey on three websites: 4thwavenow.com, transgendertrend.com, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals.org. Those websites are online communities primarily for parents of transgender people who deny their children’s identities, and the study acknowledged that the survey was specifically targeted to “websites where parents and professionals had been observed to describe rapid onset of gender dysphoria.” In fact, according to trans researcher Julia Serano, the phrase “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” and accompanying acronym originated on those very websites in July 2016, before Littman’s study or abstract were released. The term and acronym are frequently used by parents who do not accept their children’s trans identities; there is even a website called parentsofrogdkids.com. Prior to releasing her full study, Littman published an abstract in the Journal of Adolescent Health in February 2017 describing supposed parental experiences with ROGD.

    Gender dysphoria is an established diagnosis involving “a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning.” The American Psychiatric Association recommends affirming the gender expression of people with gender dysphoria, including through “counseling, cross-sex hormones, puberty suppression and gender reassignment surgery” as well as social transitions not involving medical treatments.

    After fielding concerns about Littman’s methodology, Brown and PLOS ONE announced they would re-assess her research

    PLOS ONE is seeking “further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses” after receiving complaints. On August 27, PLOS ONE announced that it would re-evaluate Littman’s study due to “concerns raised on the study’s content and methodology.” Slate’s Alex Barasch noted that “re-evaluating a study’s content and methodology doesn’t stymie the scientific process; it’s a natural and necessary extension of it.” From PLOS ONE’s announcement:

    PLOS ONE is aware of the reader concerns raised on the study’s content and methodology. We take all concerns raised about publications in the journal very seriously, and are following up on these per our policy and [Committee on Publication Ethics] guidelines. As part of our follow up we will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses. We will provide a further update once we have completed our assessment and discussions.

    Brown University removed a news article about the study after receiving complaints about Littman’s research and its methodology. After experts and advocates pointed out several flaws in the study’s methodology and PLOS ONE announced its own re-evaluation, “Brown determined that removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action.” The next day, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health issued a letter confirming that the article had been removed “because of concerns about research methodology,” acknowledging concerns that the flawed study’s conclusions could harm the transgender community, and reiterating the university’s commitment to academic freedom and “the value of rigorous debate informed by research.” On September 5, the university released an expanded statement, proclaiming, “Brown does not shy away from controversial research.” The statement claimed that the article’s removal from the university’s news site was “not about academic freedom,” but rather “about academic standards,” noting that “academic freedom and inclusion are not mutually exclusive.”

    Researchers, experts, and journalists have found several flaws with Littman’s research

    The World Professional Association for Transgender Health urged restraint of the term “ROGD” and noted that it has not been “recognized by any major medical professional association.” The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which publishes the internationally accepted Standards of Care and Ethical Guidelines for managing gender dysphoria, released a position statement about ROGD on September 4, noting that it “is not a medical entity recognized by any major professional association” and has not gone through “the deliberative processes by which diagnostic entities and clinical phenomena are classified and established.” WPATH’s statement said ROGD “constitutes nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon that may or may not warrant further peer-reviewed scientific investigation.” From the September 4 statement (emphasis original):

    At present, WPATH asserts that knowledge of the factors contributing to gender identity development in adolescence is still evolving and not yet fully understood by scientists, clinicians, community members, and other stakeholders in equal measure. Therefore, it is both premature and inappropriate to employ official-sounding labels that lead clinicians, community members, and scientists to form absolute conclusions about adolescent gender identity development and the factors that may potentially influence the timing of an adolescent’s declaration as a different gender from birth-assigned sex.

    ...

    WPATH also urges restraint from the use of any term—whether or not formally recognized as a medical entity—to instill fear about the possibility that an adolescent may or may not be transgender with the a priori goal of limiting consideration of all appropriate treatment options in accordance with the aforementioned standards of care and clinical guidelines.

    Researchers writing in PinkNews: Littman’s study “was heavily biased towards specific groups” and “tells us less about trans teenagers than it does about the parents being surveyed.” Writing for PinkNews, researchers Florence Ashley of McGill University and Alexandre Baril of the University of Ottawa said Littman’s research “was heavily biased towards specific groups and in no way can be said to be representative of the general population” because it surveyed parents from specific anti-trans websites. Their report contended that “the study tells us less about trans teenagers than it does about the parents being surveyed.” They also pointed out that research suggesting that trans identities are the result of a “contagion” attempts to frame the narrative in a way that “distinguishes ‘good,’ true transgender people from ‘bad,’ fake trans people, allowing proponents to claim that they have nothing against trans people — well, at least the real ones.”

    Slate’s Alex Barasch: “The sites that participants were culled from are full of damning evidence of bias” against transgender people. Barasch noted that Littman’s study was “purportedly about 256 trans-identified ‘adolescents and young adults,’” but it is “perhaps fairer to say that it’s about their parents, who participated in a 90-question survey about their relationships with and perceptions of their children—with no input from the kids themselves, and no controls to speak of.” Barasch identified several problems with the study’s sample, including that it sourced parental reporting from websites with anti-trans biases such as 4thwavenow.com, which “hosts long missives from parents who have strenuously denied their children’s identities for years.” He continued, “In exclusively surveying parents from these ‘gender critical’ spaces, Littman sharply limited both the relevance and the validity of her results.”

    Barasch added that “one of the study’s most glaring flaws” is that Littman made no effort to substantiate the claims of the parents who participated in her study by speaking to their transgender children. He noted that the study’s findings about "the worsening of parent-child relationships" after the child came out and the children's preference to befriend other LGBTQ kids actually weakened its conclusions about trans identities being a “social contagion” because young LGBTQ people would be more likely to “flock together online or in-person” if they face “skepticism and hostility at home.”

    Finally, Barasch noted that the concept of ROGD “treats the emergence of dysphoria around or after puberty as something new and unusual that should be treated with suspicion” when in fact the medical community recognizes late-onset gender dysphoria, which describes the emergence of dysphoria “around puberty or much later in life.” Barasch highlighted examples of PLOS ONE retracting several other studies that featured “questionable research” and pointed out that “peer review isn’t an automatic assurance of ironclad science” and that the review of the study “is both standard and vital.”

    Researcher Julia Serano: The concept of ROGD originated in 2016 on three blogs “that have a history of promoting anti-transgender propaganda.” In an essay on Medium, biologist and transgender activist Julia Serano explained that the concept of ROGD was not new, but originated in 2016 on three anti-trans blogs -- the same blogs from where Littman drew her sample. Thus, Serano wrote, Littman’s study was “entirely based on the opinions of parents who frequent the very same three blogs that invented and vociferously promote the concept of ROGD.” She contended, “This is the most blatant example of begging the question that I have ever seen in a research paper.” Serano also refuted the study’s assertion that gender dysphoria in the surveyed parents’ children was “rapid,” writing that “the word ‘rapid’ in ROGD doesn’t necessarily refer to the speed of gender dysphoria onset. … Rather, what’s ‘rapid’ about ROGD is parents’ sudden awareness and assessment of their child’s gender dysphoria (which, from the child’s standpoint, may be long standing and thoughtfully considered).”

    Brynn Tannehill in The Advocate: Transgender youth featured in the study may have avoided coming out to “hostile parents,” which could have led to parents perceiving their gender identity development as “rapid.” Responding to an abstract of Littman’s study released in 2017, transgender advocate and author Brynn Tannehill -- who recently published an explanatory book about transgender issues -- pointed out flaws in the hypothesis that young people may be identifying as transgender because of other LGBTQ friends and online LGBTQ media. She noted that “transgender youth in unsupportive homes are much more likely to share their thoughts and feelings with LGBT friends at school and peers online than family.” Tannehill added that those youth often “stick to ‘safe’ LGBT social groups” and “delay telling hostile parents until they cannot bear not to,” which could explain why the parents Littman surveyed from unsupportive online communities thought that their child’s identity came on rapidly.

    Tannehill in INTO: “Littman failed to mention the viewpoints of the groups from which she drew her sample” and did not interview supportive parents or trans youth. Writing for the digital magazine INTO, Tannehill reiterated that the study “failed to address the much more realistic explanation that transgender teens with anti-trans parents look for support from other LGBTQ youth online because they fear the reaction of their families.” She also noted that Littman did not acknowledge the anti-trans viewpoints of the websites from which she drew or sampled, “nor did she make any attempt to reach out to groups for supportive parents” or interview transgender youth.

    Extreme anti-LGBTQ groups have claimed Brown “is in denial about transgender identity” and “caved to cross-dressers”

    Family Research Council’s Cathy Ruse: Littman’s study “reveals trouble in transgender paradise.” Cathy Ruse of the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council wrote a post in The Stream attacking Brown University for removing news about Littman’s study from its website. Ruse called the move “censorship” and asserted that “there’s an alarming trend of adolescents suddenly announcing they’re in the wrong body.” She also defended the study’s survey of parents rather than the actual transgender young people the study was about, writing that this “acknowledged limitation of the study” is a response to clinicians accepting what transgender patients tell them “at face value, never seeking the parents’ perspective.” Ruse has a history of disparaging trans identities, and she has previously suggested that affirming transgender children “can be child abuse.”

    American College of Pediatricians’ Michelle Cretella: Littman’s study “was quickly silenced” because “transgender activists called for censorship.” Writing for The Heritage Foundation’s right-wing outlet The Daily Signal, American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) President Michelle Cretella said that Littman’s study “was quickly silenced by activists and by Brown University,” which “disconnected its link to the study and issued an apology” for it because “transgender activists called for censorship.”

    ACPeds is a small and extreme anti-LGBTQ group of physicians that broke off from the legitimate American Association of Pediatrics (AAP). Cretella and ACPeds have worked for years to discredit trans-affirming science and policy under the veneer of credibility offered by the group’s misleading name, which “is easily confused with the AAP.” Cretella has claimed that affirming transgender youth is child abuse.

    ACPeds’ Dr. Andre Van Mol posted several times about ROGD on Twitter. ACPeds’ Dr. Andre Van Mol retweeted several posts about Littman’s study, including from two of the anti-transgender parent forums where Littman sourced her data. Van Mol promoted a tweet linking to a petition calling for Brown to “defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry” by supporting Littman and her study. He also tweeted a link to an article about Littman’s study and asserted, “Idealogues (sic) are trying to suppress a study that shows the effect of peer pressure on transgenderism.” Van Mol has a long anti-LGBTQ record, including advocacy in favor of forcibly changing sexuality or gender identity through the discredited and harmful practice of conversion therapy. He has actively worked to oppose measures to protect LGBTQ people from the practice.

    Illinois Family Institute’s Laurie Higgins: Brown “cave[d] to cross-dressers and their collaborators.” Laurie Higgins of the extreme anti-LGBTQ state organization Illinois Family Institute wrote that Brown “cave[d] to cross-dressers and their collaborators” after feeling “the wrath of men in dresses with flowing tresses and bearded women in dungarees.” Higgins called Brown’s removal of its article about the study “censorship” and claimed, “No matter how well a study is designed and executed, if trannies don’t like the findings, ‘progressive’ universities will not draw attention to it even if the study is conducted by their own faculty.” Higgins previously called transgender identity a “superstition” and compared trans people and their allies to a cult. She has also praised the Trump-Pence administration’s plan to redefine “gender” to exclude the transgender community.

    Right-wing media and proponents of the study have called the re-evaluation “academic censorship” and said Brown and PLOS ONE caved to LGBTQ activists

    Proponents of ROGD launched a petition to “defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry” by supporting Littman’s research. Supporters of the ROGD concept launched a petition urging Brown and PLOS ONE to “defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry” in response to the study’s re-evaluation. The petition implies that the study was being censored, claiming that Brown and PLOS ONE should “resist ideologically-based attempts to squelch controversial research evidence.” The petition, which currently has 4,900 signatures, was shared by some of the same anti-trans websites where Littman collected data for her study, including 4thwavenow and Transgender Trend.

    Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Brown’s decision: “Acknowledging reality itself becomes a criminal act; superstition reigns. The dark ages have arrived.” Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson claimed that Brown was “censoring” Littman’s study and stopped promoting it because “activists descended” and “were offended by the conclusions of the study.” Carlson claimed that activists found Littman’s conclusions “ideologically inconvenient and therefore unacceptable.” He also asserted that they “demanded that the data be suppressed, and remarkably, Brown caved to their demands.” Carlson has previously denied the existence of the trans community, claimed that trans-affirming policies would hurt women, and hosted anti-transgender guests like ACPeds’ Cretella on his show. From the September 11 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight:

    TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): Brown University is censoring a scientific study by one of its own researchers because political activists don't like it. In a paper published earlier this month, a tenured Brown professor called Lisa Littman found that teenagers who say they want to switch genders are often influenced, not surprisingly, by friends and social media like all young people are. Well, the study was solid enough to be picked up by a reputable scientific journal. In fact, Brown’s PR department sounded a press release promoting the study. But then activists descended. They were offended by the conclusions of the study, not because the conclusions were wrong -- no one even argued they were wrong -- but because the conclusions were ideologically inconvenient and therefore unacceptable. They demanded that the data be suppressed, and remarkably, Brown caved to their demands. The university yanked the press release and apologized for sending it in the first place.

    This is not really about Brown. This is what it looks like when reason itself dies: Politics trump science; empirical conclusions are banned; acknowledging reality itself becomes a criminal act; superstition reigns. The dark ages have arrived. This is what they told you the Christian right wanted to do. They were lying. As soon as they took power, they did it themselves. Of course.

    The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro: “The left went insane” over Littman’s study, “so Brown caved” in an act of “academic tyranny.” The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro claimed that “Brown immediately caved” by removing its article because “any effort to actually research the environmental component of transgenderism is met with raucous calls for censorship.” Shapiro alleged that PLOS ONE and Brown “turned against the study because it offended politically correct sensibilities about transgenderism” and called the situation “academic tyranny.”

    Shapiro: “Science is taking a back seat to the realities of political correctness.” On his show, Shapiro repeated talking points from his Daily Wire post and claimed that Brown had “buried the study” and “caved” because “it offended politically correct sensibilities about transgenderism.” He called the move “insane,” claimed that “science is taking a back seat to the realities of political correctness,” and called leaders at Brown “cowards.” Shapiro then predicted that Brown would fire Littman, saying that the left “will go after anyone who does not follow the basic leftist consensus on politics, they will destroy science in order to do so, and they will censor people.” Shapiro has a history of anti-transgender bigotry, including calling transgender troops “mentally ill soldiers” and mocking transgender men and women who date them. He has also called being trans a “mental disorder” and “tyranny of the individual.”

    One America News’ Liz Wheeler: “This is even creepier, I think, than just stifling free speech. This is akin to book banning and book burning.” On the September 7 edition of One America News’ The Tipping Point, host Liz Wheeler railed that Brown’s decision to remove its article on the study was “even creepier, I think, than just stifling free speech,” comparing it to “book banning and book burning.” She continued, “This is taking a scientific study because it doesn't substantiate your political view and erasing it. That's so creepy.” Wheeler’s guest Amber Athey, a Daily Caller contributor, asserted that Brown “decided to get rid of the study not because they think that it didn’t meet scientific standards but just because they don’t like the results of it.”

    Wheeler: Brown is participating in “thought control. … That’s incredible scary. That is 1984.” In another segment, Wheeler repeatedly claimed that Brown’s removal of its post about the study was an example of “thought control.” Wheeler and her guest, The Daily Caller’s Anders Hagstrom, compared the situation to the dystopian novel 1984 and the Soviet era. Wheeler had previously criticized the Boy Scouts for accepting transgender youth and has suggested that affirming trans identities will lead to accepting “transracial, “transable,” and “transbaby” identities in which people believe themselves to be of a different race, ability or disability, or age. From the September 17 edition of One America News’ The Tipping Point:

    ANDERS HAGSTROM (REPORTER, THE DAILY CALLER): I know there’s a study at Brown college where a similar thing happened where this -- I can't remember if it was a he or a she who did this study, but they basically found that something regarding transgenders and a gender dysphoria and the way that children may grow out of it. And people objected to what that study found, and they just said, “OK, you're not allowed to publish that anymore. You can’t do any more research.”

    LIZ WHEELER (HOST): Right, because it might offend activists who are advocating for the transgender ideology.

    HAGSTROM: Yeah, exactly, because it might offend people.

    WHEELER: This is why I say this is thought control, because when you pick and choose what information is to be made public, and you pick and choose what you're going to hide from the American people because it might influence their thought in a way that you don't want. That's incredibly scary. That is 1984. That is thought control. It goes beyond the speech control.

    HAGSTROM: It’s Soviet, yeah.

    WHEELER: The way that you control speech is you control what people are allowed to put in their heads so that they can form those ideas. It's terrifying, and it’s sanctioned now by liberals on these campuses.

    Breitbart’s Tom Ciccotta: “Brown University has decided that not displeasing the LGBT community is more important than having its professors research this phenomenon.” On August 30, Breitbart News’ Tom Ciccotta wrote that Brown had “censored a research paper on gender dysphoria” because the university “decided that not displeasing the LGBT community is more important than having its professors research this phenomenon.” Breitbart often pushes anti-transgender narratives and cites ACPeds’ anti-transgender positions as credible.

    The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski: “Is transgender the new anorexia?” The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski called Littman’s study a “blockbuster” for arguing that transgender identities “might be a ‘social contagion’ -- a maladaptive coping technique for troubled teens, spread by peer groups and the Internet.” Tracinski claimed that Brown retracted its press release “in response to a furious outcry from transgender activists” who saw the research as a “threat.” He also posited that the study began because researchers saw “eerie parallels” of “social contagion” between eating disorders such as anorexia and transgender identities, and then highlighted the study’s assertion that so-called ROGD, “with the subsequent drive to transition, may represent a form of intentional self-harm.” He further claimed that medical professionals who offer gender-affirming care are “ideologically motivated gender dysphoria specialists” who “have engaged in massive malpractice in their zeal to ‘affirm’ their young patients’ self-diagnosis.”

    The Federalist’s Joy Pullman: Brown “repressed” the study because it reinforces the idea that “transgenderism looks a lot like a dangerous fad.” Federalist Executive Editor Joy Pullmann wrote that Brown had “repressed” Littman’s study “after a transgender activist feeding frenzy.” She continued, “The reason trans activists went nuts is that the study reinforces what plenty of parents, public health experts, and doctors have been saying: Transgenderism looks a lot like a dangerous fad.” She also said that transgender advocates “demand[ed] suppressing the results” and that Brown “chose to prioritize the unreasonable demands of a tiny minority above the potential well-being of children and the process of scientific inquiry.” Pullman admitted that “the study design has many flaws — self selection and self reporting among them.” However, she claimed that it was “comparable in quality to studies that LGBT activists amplify when it serves their narratives.” Despite its flaws, Pullman still praised the study because “Littman found a number of things that make transgender narratives look terrible.” The Federalist is a go-to outlet for conservatives to push anti-LGBTQ stories, compare transgender inclusion to “transgender authoritarianism,” and call gender-affirming procedures “mutilation.” From the August 31 post:

    This makes it obvious why transgender activists do not want this information public. It suggests many gender dysphoric young people hit a rough patch in life (or several), have poor or immature coping skills, and got the message from peers, online, or both that transgenderism was a handy, simple explanation for their feelings that also offered instant social acceptance and attention.

    National Review’s Madeleine Kearns: Brown “succumbed to political pressure” and “sacrificed its core principles of scientific inquiry and truth-seeking.” In a post titled “Why Did Brown University Bow to Trans Activists?” National Review’s Madeline Kearns claimed that Brown and PLOS ONE “succumbed to political pressure” by re-evaluating the study and that the university “appears more concerned with its marketability than with finding truth,” which she said “undermines academic freedom.” Though she acknowledged that there were concerns about the sample of parents coming from 4thwavenow and other biased websites, Kearns suggested that Brown’s removal of its article about Littman’s study was “cowardice” and “part of a bigger trend” -- an example of how “a radical ideological lobby has, once again, been highly effective in bullying dissenters into silence.” She concluded that Brown “sacrificed its core principles of scientific inquiry and truth-seeking to the feelings of ‘some members’ of their community.” National Review has a history of providing a platform to anti-LGBTQ figures such as anti-transgender conservative commentator David French, who in a May 9 article repeatedly misgendered Chelsea Manning and declared, “He’s a man.”

  • After Elizabeth Warren published DNA test results, right-wing media move the goal posts

    Blog ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    After years of accusing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) of misrepresenting her heritage, right-wing media are digging in their heels now that she has publicly released DNA test results that revealed “strong evidence” that she has Native American ancestry. Reporting surrounding the release also noted that Harvard Law School, where she has taught, did not consider her claim of Native American ancestry in deciding to hire her. But the “strong evidence” for her heritage is only causing right-wing media to move the goal posts.

    Since 2012, conservative media have been strangely obsessed with Warren and her family heritage. Originally popularized by Boston talk radio personality/columnist Howie Carr and the Scott Brown for Senate campaign in 2012, the attacks against Warren’s ancestry reached national audiences during the 2016 campaign. Then-candidate Donald Trump picked up the assertion that Warren had misrepresented her heritage, making it a regular theme at his campaign rallies. The fixation on her heritage eventually reached Fox News, with the hosts of Fox & Friends Weekends pushing a challenge for Warren to take a DNA test to “prove, once and for all, her Native American ancestry.”

    On October 15, The Boston Globe reported that Warren had taken a DNA test “that provides ‘strong evidence’ she had a Native American in her family tree dating back 6 to 10 generations.” More importantly, even though Warren marked “Native American” on her Harvard University employment application -- which has been central to the absurd and racist claims about her family that have dogged her since her 2012 Senate campaign -- the Globe noted that there was “clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools.”

    But now, the problem for conservative media is not that Warren may have misrepresented her heritage or that it played a role in her hiring, it is that she doesn’t have enough Native American ancestry.

    Now that every angle of their stupid argument has been debunked, right-wing media are simply digging in their heels. The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro ditched any argument about Warren’s employment at Harvard or the veracity of the DNA results and simply referred to those who trust Warren’s word about her family and the Globe’s “exhaustive review” as the “real bitter clingers.” The immensely credible and not-racist Daily Caller tweeted that Warren is “Like between .09 and 3 percent cherokinda.” And CRTV’s Michelle Malkin posted an incomprehensible tweet calling Warren “#Fauxcahontas.”

  • The party of personal responsibility is now the party of “the libs made me do it”

    More than just a hit song by Taylor Swift, Look what you made me do has become the go-to excuse for unsavory actions among conservatives.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    You’d be surprised how many conservatives were this close to casting a ballot for Democrats next month only to be thrust back into their Republican ways by how liberal protesters and Democratic senators handled themselves during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. No, I don’t have data to back this up. What I do have, however, are anecdotes -- lots and lots of anecdotes from conservative media figures who are sharing them, ever so kindly and not at all suspiciously, because they just want to help Democrats win some elections.

    “From a conservative who has been disgusted by the Trumpified GOP: ‘I didn’t think I could drag myself to the polls. But after the Left’s performance in the Kavanaugh affair, I would crawl across broken glass.’ I believe this sentiment is common,” wrote National Review’s Jay Nordlinger on Twitter.

    In his most recent Washington Post column, Hugh Hewitt stressed the importance of not rewarding the “outburst of the new McCarthyism” that was the opposition to Kavanaugh’s spot on the court. This lesson, of course, is for the Democratic Party’s own good -- and it’s one that can be taught only by increasing Republican majorities in the House and Senate. For Republicans who find themselves disapproving of President Donald Trump’s “hyperbole and occasional cruelty,” voting a straight-GOP ballot is a courageous sacrifice worthy of applause. Democrats can rest easy knowing that Hugh Hewitt, longtime friend of the left, has their best interests at heart. Or … something like that.

    “I’ve heard from several of my center-right friends today who are turned off by the Left’s attacks on Kavanaugh & Cruz. As a result, they have started solidly supporting them both,” wrote Daily Beast columnist and CNN commentator Matt Lewis on Twitter, sharing an “admittedly anecdotal” bit of info with his followers.

    Each of these stories could be thusly summed up: I didn’t want to vote for Trump or his congressional enablers … but look what you made me do. In other words, it’s your fault that we’re here.

    It’s a convenient defense to sidestep responsibility for actions or positions one knows to be ethically murky. For many conservatives, that includes supporting Trump and his oft-cruel agenda.

    One variation on this trope is the rejoinder, “This is how you got Trump.” Again on Twitter, Lewis reminds readers that though he’s spent years “lamenting the rise of what came to be called ‘Trumpism’ on the Right,” we should remember at least two of the real causes behind the phenomenon: “liberal media bias” and “the radicalization of the Left.”

    The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro has blamed the rise of Trump on a litany of factors: former President Barack Obama’s lectures; Hillary Clinton’s decision to participate in a sketch during the 2018 Grammy Awards (14 months after Trump’s election); a joke about salads; a tweet from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about the cancellation of Roseanne; an admittedly bizarre HuffPost article titled “Why I Put A Dragonfruit Up My Butt…”; the response to a CNN segment in which Fox Sports Radio host Clay Travis said the only two things he believed in were “the First Amendment and boobs”; and, in the most meta example possible, the phrase “this is why Trump won.”

    Surely some of those were meant as jokes, but they illustrate something important within modern politics: No one can ever be to blame for their own actions. “How you got Trump” is that Republicans voted for him during the party’s 2016 primary and then went on to cast their ballots for him in the general election. Yes, of course there were other factors, such as Obama voters who crossed over to Trump, Democrats and independents who sat the election out, voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts, and so on. None of them, however, were tweets, salads, or sketches during awards shows. Voters -- Trump voters -- gave us Trump. At least that would seem apparent.

    Sometimes, this tactic is deployed as a response, as it was during the Kavanaugh confirmation. Other times, it’s a warning against future action.

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win during the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District left some on the right flustered. A young, affable, progressive candidate who rose from obscurity to defeat a powerful incumbent could pose a threat to the conservative monopoly on power -- if more candidates like her were to emerge and succeed. Right-leaning commentators have since deployed a series of editorials urging Democrats, for their own sake, not to venture too far to the left.

    “Democrats need to choose: Are they the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the party of Michael Bloomberg?” asked a June Business Insider article by Daniella Greenbaum. At The Atlantic, Reihan Salam wrote about Ocasio-Cortez as a sign that the Democratic Party may be in for an unwise shift to the left. Former George H.W. Bush staffer Lloyd Green warned at The Hill that “wealthy swing voters will not buy what Ocasio-Cortez is selling.”

    The promise, though sometimes unspoken, is that if the Democrats were to simply be a little more conservative, they would be able to cash in on the many disillusioned Trump voters. At The New York Times, David Brooks urged Democrats to make less of a fuss about right-wing attacks on abortion rights. Doing this, he surmises, would help them defeat the threat that Trumpism poses to the country and the world. Often, these articles are a request for just one little concession here or there -- maybe it’s to ease up on abortion; or maybe it’s to sit out the conservative battle against LGBTQ rights; or maybe it’s to adopt a more market-driven approach to health insurance. The message bombarding readers is that people on the left are forcing those on the right to march toward authoritarianism simply by being on the left. The underlying argument is that to be successful at the polls, Democrats need to abandon many of the things that differentiate them from Republicans -- which, in Greenbaum’s argument, involves becoming “the party of” a former Republican mayor -- or else conservatives will have no choice but to continue their rightward march.

    But if Trump is the type of existential threat to conservatism and country that National Review made him out to be in its “Against Trump” issue or that Shapiro sugested in a piece for The Daily Wire, then the “party of personal responsibility” needs to take it upon itself to reshape from within. Instead, right-wing media figures are rattling off reasons that it’s actually the fault of Democrats that Republicans became the party of Trump -- not because of their own choices, actions, and divisions.

    Trump himself uses this tactic in his own political battles. Take his immigration policy, for example.

    “It is now time for Congress to act!” Trump said in a 2017 statement announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

    The meticulously crafted statement suggested that his hands were tied. As much as he wanted to keep the program in place, he had little choice but to send the issue back to Congress with hope that it would pass legislation to protect the undocumented immigrants here under the 2012 program. This, of course, was a farce. Trump had every right to leave the program in place while encouraging Congress to make it permanent. Instead, he turned the lives of nearly 700,000 people into a political bargaining chip attached to a ticking time bomb.

    “We want to see something happen with DACA,” Trump said in January. “It’s been spoken of for years, and children are now adults in many cases.” But did he actually want to have a DACA bill on his desk to sign? A number of Democrats (including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein) called on Republican leaders in Congress to vote on a clean bill to completely resolve the issue. In fact, at the same time Trump announced the plan to wind down DACA, the DREAM Act of 2017 had been languishing in the Senate for more than a month. He chose not to put pressure on Republican members of Congress (the bill did have Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Cory Gardner (R-CO) as co-sponsors) to pass the existing bill. Instead, he railed against inaction, making repeated claims that Democrats were the ones choosing not to protect DACA recipients, tweeting that Democrats were “nowhere to be found” on the issue, didn’t care, and were ultimately responsible for the fact that “DACA is dead” (DACA is actually still active as it faces challenges in courts).

    Not only were Democrats willing to act, but many crossed the aisle to provide a bipartisan solution which included an offer to fund his border wall. In response, Trump threatened to veto the bill were it to pass Congress. He went on to repeat this exact same strategy to defend his administration’s family separation policy, falsely blaming it on a “horrible law” that simply did not and does not exist.

    Just as some conservatives in the media can justify their support of Trump’s cruelest policies by blaming just about anything apart from their own decision-making (did you know that Saturday Night Live can lead the most disillusioned former Republican back into the party’s warm embrace?), Trump justifies his own policies by blaming his political opponents. Everyone is happy to take credit for making the right call when something is good -- there’s no shortage of positive coverage among conservatives when it comes to the “Trump economy” -- but blame gets spread far and fast when something has a negative outcome.

    One of the latest examples of this trend involves Trump’s own op-ed in USA Today. While there are a number of outright lies in the piece, there’s one that’s especially galling.

    “As a candidate, I promised that we would protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions and create new health care insurance options that would lower premiums,” reads the editorial. “I have kept that promise, and we are now seeing health insurance premiums coming down.”

    Trump has not kept his promise to people with pre-existing conditions, of course, instead painting Democrats as the party that wants to take away people’s access to health care. In fact, the administration is actively trying to gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions in court. On Wednesday, the Republican Senate voted down a measure to prevent a new rule put forward by the administration that would allow insurance companies to offer plans that exclude these crucial and popular protections.

    If and when those defenses erode, there’s little doubt that he will look to Democrats as he did during the DACA debate and shrug as if to say, “I really wanted to help. Really, I did. But look what you made me do.” His defenders are sure to join in. It’s the job of a responsible media to hold him to account.

  • PragerU posts a video about Christopher Columbus that features a racist depiction of indigenous people

    It's that time of year.

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    PragerU put out a video featuring CRTV’s Steven Crowder explaining that Columbus Day is “not about paying homage to America’s original inhabitants” and showing a racist depiction of indigenous people as cannibals wielding salt-and-pepper shakers.

    PragerU is an online hub for right-wing propaganda that has made a name for itself by producing short explainer videos that get quickly propelled by YouTube’s virality algorithm. It has an incredibly strong following that leads to its videos raking in millions of views on YouTube and Facebook. On this occasion, PragerU gave its powerful platform to bigoted Crowder -- who recently referred to Christine Blasey Ford as a “lying whore” on his CRTV show -- to characterize initiatives against the erasure of original populations as a “charade” that is an “exercise in hating Western civilization.”

    On 4chan, a hub for far-right extremism, users have latched onto right-wing media’s culture war outrage and historical revisionism surrounding Christopher Columbus. 4chan users framed the issue in white supremacist terms by celebrating Columbus because of his role in the genocide of people of color:

    This outrage has become an annual tradition. Every year on this date, right-wing media figures rant against calls to celebrate indigenous people rather than Columbus’ bloody legacy, by lashing out with racist depictions of original populations. In 2017, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire published a cartoon showing Native Americans as cannibalistic savages who should be grateful for colonization, a take so racist even Shapiro had to apologize following the backlash.

    Similarly, Mike Huckabee published a wildly racist educational video about Columbus and indigenous people in 2011.

    And speaking about Columbus Day in 2005, Lou Dobbs said that he resented “those kinds of holidays” that have “nothing to do with celebrating America.” In the same context, Rush Limbaugh in 2010 linked disease rates among indigenous populations to evolution.

    White supremacist darling Tucker Carlson has repeatedly bemoaned celebrations of indigenous people, characterizing them as an “attack on civilization” and claiming Europeans coming to America led to “far less human sacrifice and cannibalism.”

    Talia Lavin contributed research to this piece.