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Ben Smith

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  • The Guide To Donald Trump's War On The Press (So Far)


    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has an extensive history of attacking the media, and his campaign and supporters have joined in the fight throughout the election. The nominee, his surrogates, and his supporters have called media outlets and reporters across the spectrum “dishonest,” “neurotic,” “dumb,” and a “waste of time,” and until recently, the campaign had a media blacklist of outlets that weren’t allowed into campaign events.

  • BuzzFeed’s Editor-In-Chief Slams Media For Giving Credence To Trump’s Lie He Opposed Invasion Of Iraq

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith lambasted media outlets and reporters for allowing GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump to “lie to their face” about his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, ignoring the evidence showing that in 2002 Trump supported the invasion of Iraq.

    Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed throughout the GOP presidential primaries that he opposed the Iraq invasion, using his alleged opposition to attack his GOP rivals and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. But BuzzFeed’s “Andrew Kaczynski unearthed an audio recording of [Trump] saying he supported” the invasion in 2002. Despite releasing audio evidence, media outlets, including “CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the Washington Post” have all either reprinted Trump’s lie, or allowed him to claim he opposed the invasion without pushback.

    Smith also highlighted how the media, led by the Times’ Maureen Dowd, have also added this “fake fact” into a “fake narrative” that Trump is more of a “dove” on foreign policy than Hillary Clinton, ignoring that Trump’s claim he opposed the invasion has been debunked, that he has has refused to rule out using nuclear weapons in the Middle East and Europe, and has floated military engagement with Iran.

    In his May 3 article, Smith implored media reporters to “stop letting [Trump] lie to their face about the most important policy call of the last 20 years,” writing, “Donald Trump did not oppose the invasion of Iraq” and “there’s no evidence that he’s ever been a ‘dove'”:

    One of the great stories of 2016 is how Donald Trump hacked the media: How he learned from the New York tabloids and The Apprentice; how he dictated terms to the weakened television networks; how he used Twitter and won Facebook.

    Those are complex questions that we will argue about for decades.

    Here is a simpler one: Could reporters stop letting him lie to their face about the most important policy call of the last 20 years?

    Donald Trump did not oppose the invasion of Iraq. Further, there’s no evidence that he’s ever been a “dove” — and a great deal that he’s been an impulsive supporter of military intervention around the world.

    We know this because BuzzFeed News’s intrepid Andrew Kaczynski unearthed an audio recording of him saying he supported it. You can listen to it above. The audio quality is clear.

    In the recording, made on Sept. 11, 2002, when it mattered, Howard Stern asked Trump whether he supported the invasion. His answer: “Yeah, I guess so.” On the war’s first day, he called it a “tremendous success from a military standpoint.”

    It was the most recent in a series of belligerent statements about Iraq. In 2000, he opined at length in his book how U.S. airstrikes did nothing to stop Iraq’s WMD programs and said it “is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion” in the context of a new war. He said many times in the late 1990s and early 2000s George H.W. Bush should have toppled Saddam during the Gulf War.

    Trump’s opinions during that period have all the force and thoughtfulness of a man who isn’t paying much attention and whose opinion doesn’t matter. His support for the war is also totally unambiguous.

    And yet, since Kaczynski found the audio recordings, most of the leading American media organizations have either repeated Trump’s lie or allowed him to deliver it unchallenged. That includes CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

    This fake fact is the basis for a fake narrative, crystallized in a Maureen Dowd column over the weekend christening “Donald the Dove.”


  • Will Media Give Other Republicans A Pass On Trump-Like Anti-Muslim Rhetoric?

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Media figures and outlets are strongly condemning Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. But while Trump's rhetoric is extreme, it is not unique -- several other Republican candidates have extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric without receiving such "universal condemnation," as The New Republic noted.

  • Media Return To Deriding Hillary Clinton's Laugh

    "The Cackle," "A Record Scratch," And Other Tired Attacks From The Debate

    Blog ››› ››› HANNAH GROCH-BEGLEY

    Clinton and Sanders at the October 13 debate

    Multiple media figures derided Hillary Clinton's laugh during the first Democratic presidential debate, calling it a "cackle" and "a record scratch." During the 2008 presidential race, Clinton's laughter was repeatedly attacked, despite criticism that such attacks were rooted in sexism.

    During the October 13 CNN debate in Las Vegas, Clinton laughed after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders defended her from repeated questions about her use of private email by criticizing the media for fixating on the issue and saying, "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!" Clinton and Sanders shook hands as the crowd applauded.

    The moment has been described by several outlets as a highlight of the night.  

    But several media figures initially focused on Clinton's laugh. BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski tweeted, "oh god the Clinton laugh is out," while the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote, "THE CLINTON LAUGH," and Fox's Sean Hannity tweeted "Omg that laugh."

    Several conservative media figures took it further, calling it a "cackle":

    Attacking Clinton's laughter was a common theme during the Democratic primary before the 2008 election. In September 2007, after Clinton appeared on several Sunday political talk shows and laughed in response to some questions, media figures spent weeks debating and mocking her laughter. Fox News led the charge, with Bill O'Reilly even discussing Clinton's laughter with a "body language expert" who deemed it "evil," and Sean Hannity calling the laugh "frightening."

    The mainstream press picked up on the attacks on Clinton's laugh, with New York Times political reporter Patrick Healy writing an article with the headline "Laughing Matters in Clinton Campaign," in which he described Clinton's "hearty belly laugh" as "The Cackle," calling it "heavily caffeinated" and suggesting it may have been "programmed."

    Then-Politico reporter Ben Smith also described Clinton's laugh as her "signature cackle," while Politico correspondent Mike Allen and editor-in-chief John F. Harris wrote that Clinton's laugh "sounded like it was programmed by computer."

    And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who has a long history of nasty attacks on Clinton, claimed Clinton's laugh was allowing her to look less like a "hellish housewife" and a "nag" and more like a "wag":

    As Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, once told me: "She's never going to get out of our faces. ... She's like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won't stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone."

    That's why Hillary is laughing a lot now, big belly laughs, in response to tough questions or comments, to soften her image as she confidently knocks her male opponents out of the way. From nag to wag.

    The list goes on: MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, then-MSNBC host David Shuster, then-MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, radio host Mike Rosen, Dick Morris, the Drudge Report, The Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi, Time magazine's Joe Klein, the New York Times' Frank Rich, CNN's Jeanne Moos, and others all debated or derided Clinton's laughter during Clinton's first run for president.

    Politico's Allen said on MSNBC during all of this that "'cackle' is a very sexist term," and disputed MSNBC's Chris Matthews' use of it in reference to Clinton. Other outlets agreed; Jezebel called out Matthews for his "cackle" criticism and other derisive remarks, asking, "can we agree that no matter what your political allegiances, this is not the way you speak of a woman -- whether she is a senator or not?" Rachel Sklar, writing in the Huffington Post, said at the time "I keep finding sexist Hillary Clinton bashing everywhere I turn," noting that criticisms of the candidate's laughter "turn completely on the fact that she's a woman. 'The Cackle?' So would never be applied to a man. We all know it."

    Unfortunately, the criticism hasn't stopped in the intervening seven years. The Washington Free Beacon has a "Hillary Laugh Button" permanently on its site. The National Journal published in June 2014, many months prior to Clinton declaring her second bid for president, a "Comprehensive Supercut of Hillary Clinton Laughing Awkwardly With Reporters." And conservative tweet-aggregator Twitchy in August mocked "scary as hell" pens which featured "Clinton's cackling head." 

  • How The Kermit Gosnell Case Is An Indictment On The Anti-Choice Movement

    Blog ››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

    As the media begin to spotlight the murder trial of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, it's critical that they also examine the anti-choice policies that force women into what Demos senior fellow Bob Herbert called "the terrible alternatives" - alternatives that the right now hopes to make the face of abortion.

    Gosnell has become a poster boy for media conservatives looking to make him the monstrous face of abortion, and while the procedures conducted by Gosnell as explained in a grand jury report are illegal and nothing short of monstrous, the report made clear that Gosnell's business model was to prey on women who had no access to legal abortions. Herbert and BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith emphasized this point on the April 15 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

    HERBERT: What you want to do, though, is, if a woman is going to have an abortion, because abortion is legal in this country, then you want it to be accessible and safe. You want it to be done under sanitary conditions with qualified practitioners and that sort of thing.

    One of the problems is that in so many parts of the country, it's just not available, and then women go to the terrible alternatives. 

    SMITH: There has certainly been a campaign on the right to make it, in lieu of being able to actually ban abortion, just to make it incredibly difficult to get. And this is obviously the downside of that, right, that people wind up going outside the law.

    As the media examine how they should cover this case going forward, it's important to keep in mind that there has been, in fact, a lot of discussion of the atrocious actions alleged to have taken place at the Women's Medical Society in Philadelphia, largely by pro-choice advocates pointing out that the case illustrates the horrible alternatives that rise up in the absence of safe and legal abortion services.  

  • Pundits Try To Gore Joe Biden's Debate Performance

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Stressing style over substance, lots of Beltway pundits teamed up with Republican partisans to push the theater criticism point that Vice President Joe Biden may have blown last night's debate with his body language. Specifically, critics are complaining he smiled and chuckled too much while Rep. Paul Ryan was speaking.

    Even after CBS News' snap poll showed that Biden had scored a big win with undecided voters, pundits and Republicans suggested Biden's facial expressions, not the substance of his comments, were newsworthy.

    From the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin:

    And BuzzFeed's Ben Smith:

    The media effort is reminiscent of when pundits and Republicans teamed up on Al Gore after his first presidential debate with George W. Bush in 2000. Back then, they pushed the line that Gore had sighed too often in response to Bush's answers. History shows that right after the debate viewers crowned Gore the winner of the face-off. But after the media's sigh initiative, Bush was perceived to have won the debate. Today, Gore's sighs are routinely referenced as debate blunders. ("Utterly insufferable," Esquire recently wrote.)

    It's unlikely the press can turn Biden's strong showing into a stinging defeat, in part because the 2000 sigh episode was part of a much larger anti-Gore press push. But it's telling how seamlessly the mainstream press joined with Republican operatives to launch post-debate (style) spin targeting Biden last night and trying to tie him to Gore's performance.

    From former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer:

    And the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza

    In its piece, "Is Joe Biden The New Al Gore?" Politico reported that "at least among some pundits and Republican strategists: it reminded them of Al Gore's infamous sighs in the 2000 presidential debates against George W. Bush, which were enough to seriously hurt Gore's candidacy." [Emphasis added.]

    Politico stressed that Gore's sighs were "universally panned by pundit" are now "remembered as one of the standout aspects of the debates that year." What's lost in that rewriting is that Gore actually won the first debate. The Associated Press reported on October 4, 2000 that Gore had won three out of four snap polls conducted that night.

    Blogger Bob Somerby meticulously documented Gore's press treatment during the 2000 campaign. He recently revisited the infamous sighs:

    Did George Bush win that first debate? Only after the press corps began playing videotaped loops of Gore's troubling sighs (with the volume cranked, of course).

    Debates matter. But so can the media's lazy style spin.

  • Buzzfeed Declares A Debate Winner... Halfway Through The Debate

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    BuzzFeed's Ben Smith only needed 40 minutes of a 90-minute debate to pick the "winner."

    Mitt Romney, trailing in the polls, needed to prove tonight that he could stand on stage with President Barack Obama as an equal and a plausible president of the United States.

    He did that in the crucial first 40 minutes of Wednesday night's debate, addressing Obama respectfully, even warmly -- but then tangling with a sometimes hazy and professorial Obama on taxes and deficits.

    "You don't just pick the winners and losers -- you pick the losers," he told Obama of his energy investments, sliding time and time again into a second person singular address calculated to level the rhetorical playing field.

    Calling a game in the middle of the fourth inning isn't standard practice in any league.

    UPDATE: Conservatives like Sean Hannity quickly began highlighting Smith's early call of a Romney victory:

    Hannity tweet

  • The media as observers and participants

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Politico's Ben Smith makes a good point about Fox -- and, indeed, all media:

    The challenge to reporters is to cover Fox -- and, at times, MSNBC, and a range of print and online publications, and to a lesser degree every media outlet -- as the political actors they often are. …

    And as the POLITICO article suggests, it's a story that will only get bigger as the 2012 Republican primary campaign ramps up. That's a campaign in which Fox News is just undoubtedly the single most important player -- it pays the candidates, and reaches the electorate. Its executives' and hosts' specific decisions will be crucial to deciding the nominee. Coverage that treats Fox as an observer, not a player, will miss much of the point.

    One thing this means is that, contrary to the media's tendency to beat itself up for being too slow to chase after stories Fox (or Breitbart or The Weekly Standard, etc) is promoting, they should be extremely wary of such stories.

    But the nakedly partisan and flagrantly dishonest tactics employed by the likes of Fox News aren't the only ways in which the line between observer and participant is blurred. There are far more subtle (and less nefarious) ways in which this happens.

    News reports that speculate that a scandal "threatens" to dog a politician contribute to it doing so, whether or not it should do so on the merits. Speculation about how voters will react to a speech plays a role in shaping that reaction. The constant insistence that national security issues will benefit Republicans makes it more likely that they do so. Media who don't ask politicians about the views of executive power and the Constitution help ensure that the public doesn't think much about those issues. And so on.

    Smith's point that reporters should treat Fox as a political player rather than merely an observer is spot-on. But they should also keep in mind that they aren't merely observers, either. The decisions they make about what to cover help determine what politicians and voters talk and think about. Their speculation about how an event "plays" politically helps shape how it plays. There's no way for them to avoid that -- but it's important that they be aware of it.

  • Facts checked -- occasionally

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Last week, Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier told Greg Sargent that the AP's fact-check pieces are consistently among the wire service's most popular features.

    In response, Politico's Ben Smith raised some concerns about the practice:

    The rise of a formal fact-checking establishment has been, by and large, a very good thing for politics. ...

    And there seems to be a market for it: Ron Fournier tells Sargent that AP is doing more and more of it in part because it's popular. That may be in part because readers like simple stories cast in black black-and-white, as fact checks often are.

    But the practice, and the presumption of absolute authority, can itself easily be misused politically, and I think it's worth adding a note of caution on two levels. First, just because it's labeled "fact check" doesn't render an article any less vulnerable to error and spin. Further, much of politics is made of arguments about policy and values that aren't easily reduced to factual disagreements.

    Smith's concerns strike me as reasonable: The structure many media organizations impose on their fact-checking pieces is often problematic. In particular, the labels many media fact-checkers apply are highly questionable and misleading. Take this PolitiFact assessment of Jeff Sessions' statement that Elena Kagen "violated the law of the United States" in her handling of military recruiters at Harvard:

    So did Kagan violate the law when she banned military recruiters from using the Office of Career Services for that one semester?

    First off, the law didn't say universities may not bar military recruiters. It said certain types of federal funds may not go to those schools if they bar the recruiters. There's a big difference.

    It's certainly fair to say Kagan tested the law, but it's another thing to claim she violated the law. Kagan barred military recruiters from using the Office of Career Services only after a Third Circuit court ruled the Solomon Amendment was "likely" unconstitutional. And she reversed course even before the Supreme Court ruled against the universities -- so she didn't willfully flout the law after the Supreme Court made the law unmistakably clear.

    Some may argue that the Third Circuit decision didn't affect Massachusetts, which is in the First Circuit, and that the Supreme Court was decisive in its reversal of that circuit court decision. So one could also argue that Kagan didn't comply with what the law required, but we think it's a stretch for Sessions to say Kagan "violated the law of the United States at various points in the process." There was at least some legal ambiguity -- for a time -- about Harvard's obligation. And, we note, no money was ever denied to Harvard. And so we rate Sessions' comment Barely True.

    In short, PolitiFact said Kagan didn't really violate the law, then declared the statement that she did so "Barely True." That's an interesting definition of "barely true."

    PolitiFact also gave a "barely true" to George Will's statement that Utah Senator Robert Bennett voted for TARP, the stimulus, and an individual mandate for health care -- despite concluding that Will was "incorrect that Bennett voted for Obama's stimulus bill, and it was inaccurate for him to suggest that Bennett cast a vote for an individual mandate." So, PolitiFact found that one of the three things WIll said was true and two were not -- and gave him a "Barely True." Sounds more like "mostly false" to me -- but PolitiFact doesn't have a "mostly false" classification, so they leave the impression that Will's statements were more accurate than they really were.

    But that isn't a problem with fact-checking. It's a problem of execution. The problems Smith identifies aren't inherent to fact-checking; they are the product of the journalists responsible for conceptualizing and writing the fact-checks, not of fact-checking itself.

    The other problem with the execution of these highly structured, branded "Fact Check" pieces is that fact-checking shouldn't be relegated to occasional, highly specialized pieces; it should be a basic part of everyday journalism. Checking the truthfulness of a politician's statements shouldn't be something a news organization saves for its "Fact Check" feature; it should be present in every news report that includes those statements. It isn't enough to occasionally debunk a false claim, as I've been saying over and over again.

    Smith suggests the popularity of the AP's fact-checking pieces stems from the public's fondness for "simple stories cast in black black-and-white." I'm not so sure that's the case. I think it may stem less from the public's appetite for simplistic "Mostly True" graphics and more for its appetite for clearly-written explanations of the key issues of the day, rather than the endless passive-voice prognostication and horse-race journalism that makes up so much of today's political news content. It may be the substance and clarity that readers crave, not the overly-simplistic, label-friendly branded "Fact Check" pieces.

    What I'd like to see isn't another media organization with a branded, occasional "Fact Check" feature -- it's a news organization that commits to never reporting a politician's statement without placing that statement in factual context. I suspect that a news organization that made that -- rather than assessments of how the claim will "play" -- a central value would see at least some of the readership benefits that the special branded features apparently bring. And I'm certain it would result in better journalism and a better-informed readership.

  • Update: VoteVets official asks why Fox News would reject an ad "that calls on Congress to defund our enemies"

    Blog ››› ››› KARL FRISCH

    This morning, Media Matters' Oliver Willis wrote about Ben Smith's Politico report that Fox News had rejected an advertisement from claiming it was "too confusing." As Willis noted:

    It's interesting that Fox News is refusing the ads, and apparently using confusion as some sort of justification. For instance, Fox regularly buys print advertising for themselves in newspapers and trade publications, yet I've never heard of a Fox ad being rejected because readers might confuse the network with actual news (they act more like a PAC nowadays). Or perhaps Fox felt VoteVets ads might create some sort of cognitive dissonance for viewers who have become used to the network's shoddy coverage of environmental issues?

    Now, in a statement provided to Media Matters, is asking why the conservative network would reject an ad "that calls on Congress to defund our enemies":

    "There's nothing confusing about the link between oil and terrorist funding, and even the most dyed-in-the-wool neocons agree on that point," said senior advisor Richard Smith. He continued, "The only confusing thing here is why FOX News would reject an ad that calls on Congress to defund our enemies by finding new sources of energy."

    Take a look at the ad. Does it confuse you as much as it apparently confuses the folks at Fox News?

  • Read FBI affidavit in the alleged plot to interfere with the phones* at Sen. Landrieu's office by O'Keefe, others

    Blog ››› ››› KARL FRISCH

    Politico's Ben Smith posted the FBI agent's affidavit in the alleged plot to interfere with the phones* at Sen. Landrieu's office by O'Keefe and three others to his Twitter account this afternoon. You can read it here (pdf).