In response to a question about food policy during an interview with vegetarian and vegan news site VegNews, 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) argued that “this planet simply can’t sustain” the “massive increase in consumption of meat” that has been occurring. Conservative media are predictably misrepresenting Booker’s remarks to falsely claim that he’s launching a “war on meat.”
In the interview, Booker noted the public health, environmental, and animal cruelty impacts of industrial farming and explained that he wanted to empower small farmers legislatively and that “corporate power shouldn’t be snuffing out competition.” He clarified, “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.” Booker also explicitly stated that “this doesn’t mean, in any way, getting rid of animal farming, but in many ways, it means lifting up the voices of small farmers again.”
Nowhere in his comments did Booker say he is going to seek to ban any American from eating meat. However, truth did not stop conservative media from spinning the interview to claim “soy boy” Booker said he was declaring a “war against meat.”
Fox News’ The Five claimed Booker “is going to war against meat” and “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us.” Co-host Morgan Ortagus introduced a segment about Booker's comment, saying, “Sen. Cory Booker is going to war against meat.” In the segment, co-host Jesse Watters celebrated the fact that Trump is “the McDonalds president, and he’s running against a vegan.” Watters also said Trump will claim that Booker “wants to take away your hot dog on the Fourth of July.” Later in the segment, Fox Business host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery also falsely claimed that Booker “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us,” which Booker specifically denied in the interview, saying:
“None of us want our government or elected officials preaching to us and telling us what we can or can’t eat. 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.”
The Daily Caller ran a threatening headline saying, “Vegan Cory Booker says meat eaters’ days are numbered.” The article also misleadingly claimed that Booker’s critique was about the planet’s inability to “keep providing enough beef and pork to satisfy meat cravings” and not about the environmental damage wrought by industrial-scale animal farming.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson connected Booker’s comments to the supposed big-government tyranny of Pope Francis. A write-up on Erickson’s website The Resurgent contained the bizarre, and unsourced, claim: “The pope wants to use the power of government to coerce farmers into abandoning animal populations in favor of vegetarian farming. Booker is doubling down on that.”
National Review misleadingly claimed that “Cory Booker wants only the rich to eat meat.” The article, referencing Booker’s point in the interview that it’s unsustainable to “see the planet earth moving towards what is the Standard American Diet,” misleadingly characterized Booker’s argument as saying “the destitute and poor of the world ... can’t possibly be allowed to attain the benefits of prosperity that the West has achieved.” The article also suggested he’s part of “the brewing war against our meat industries.”
Trump troll website The Gateway Pundit: “Vegan soy boy Cory Booker is now attacking meat eaters — because that’s a winning strategy when you’re running to be president of a country full of bacon lovers.” The website called Booker’s food tastes “gross” and slammed veganism as “the latest Marxist, new age rubbish the Democrats and Hollywood elites are pushing onto Americans.”
RedState: Booker “dropped some (non)science recently” in his pro-veganism interview. The RedState post mocked Booker’s interview, calling his comments “really idiotic” and “(non)science,” and bizarrely claimed that the relatively recent invention of industrial-scale animal farming is part of Earth’s “natural system of carnivorism.” The article ended with a reference to Booker’s conduct during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, suggesting the senator should now be called “Farticus” for “leading the brigade against those Nazi air biscuits” and for “eating so much fruit.”
The Federalist: “Booker fuels his life with fake cheese. … Cory Booker is the vegan cheese of politicians.” A Federalist article about Booker’s comments claimed that “perhaps it’s appropriate that a man like Booker fuels his life with fake cheese. He fueled his career with fake friends.” It also suggested that if Booker won the Democratic nomination, he would lose Wisconsin to Trump, “who serves cheeseburgers en masse to champion college athletes.”
After Democratic lawmakers moved to protect abortion rights in New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island, right-wing media responded with a flurry of inaccurate allegations that their efforts promoted “infanticide.”
Hundreds of journalists lost their jobs, and the darkest corners of the internet were ready to pounce.
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.
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.
btw, if any other journos targeted by layoffs are getting masses of “learn to code” harassment, it was coordinated on 4chan (of course) pic.twitter.com/DtpinjWhID
— Talia Lavin (@chick_in_kiev) January 25, 2019
“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.
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) January 25, 2019
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.”
I am told by a person in the know 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
— Jon Levine (@LevineJonathan) January 28, 2019
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.
Our nation’s bravest firefighters must be protected from microaggressions like “learn to code” jokes on Twitter. Pathetic.
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) January 28, 2019
This is ridiculous, and insulting as well. Surely people understand that the "learn to code" taunt, tacky though it may be, is mere turnabout for all the times when MSM'ers said the same to, e.g., coal-miners or blue-collar types when their jobs disappeared. https://t.co/svz45n7maz
— Esoteric Jeff (@EsotericCD) January 28, 2019
— Cam Edwards (@CamEdwards) January 28, 2019
Twitter last week was full of accounts doxxing and threatening the Covington students. No crackdown.
Today they're cracking down on people who tell laid off bloggers to "learn to code"
— Jack Posobiec 🇺🇸 (@JackPosobiec) January 28, 2019
Thinking of changing my twitter bio to "learn to code." I am amazed that advice given in the media to laid off blue collar workers is suddenly hate speech when given to the laid off reporters who first suggested it.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) January 28, 2019
Is this real or trolling that no one caught?
If real, I wonder why no one cared when many of those same journalists thought it was amusing that laid off Blue Collar workers were told to "Learn to code" when they lost their jobs??? https://t.co/cRPKqw2Ioq
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 28, 2019
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.
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.”
— Talia Lavin (@chick_in_kiev) January 29, 2019
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.
Anti-abortion figures and right-wing media continued to push misinformation about reproductive health in 2018 and tried to insert abortion into nearly every major news story -- no matter how tenuous the connection. The past year also included ample efforts by anti-choice groups to influence federal policy under President Donald Trump, as well as several anti-abortion acts of harassment and violence. Here are some lowlights of anti-abortion extremism this year:
As the Trump presidency entered its second year, right-wing and anti-abortion media attempted to deflect from the administration’s various crises by drawing ridiculous comparisons to reproductive rights or blaming abortion.
Parkland shooting and the gun-control debate
At 330,000 aborted babies a year Planned Parenthood, how many classrooms full of children have you killed in senseless violence? https://t.co/JHx0WSHXCF
— Steven Ertelt (@StevenErtelt) February 21, 2018
Family separation policy
Democrats brought mothers & babies into Horowitz hearing to demonstrate against separating moms from their babies. But the most brutal & final separation of mom & baby is ABORTION!
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) June 19, 2018
Confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court
Christine Blasey Ford: The Abortion Pimp's Tale? https://t.co/LmILFHx4sR
— Operation Rescue (@operationrescue) September 24, 2018
Harassment, extremism, and violence are not new tactics to the anti-abortion movement. But 2018 featured some particularly notable instances when anti-abortion groups and right-wing media engaged in perpetuating harmful misinformation, conspiracy theories, and extreme narratives about abortion, or fueled anti-abortion harassment:
Fake health clinics (also known as anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers) engage in deception and manipulation in their advertising and interactions with clients with the goal of stopping that person from accessing an abortion. This year, fake health clinics were front and center at the Supreme Court in a case called National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the NIFLA, stopping the implementation of a California law designed to deter some of the manipulative practices of these fake health clinics. Right-wing media celebrated the decision as a “win” for free speech:
The NIFLA case was not primarily about abortion. It was about free speech. That we have four Supreme Court justices who care more about the manufactured right to an abortion than preeminent rights is disgraceful.
— Alexandra DeSanctis (@xan_desanctis) June 26, 2018
Anti-abortion groups continued to promote misinformation on reproductive rights and to use claims that they were being censored by social media companies and news outlets as a tactic to rally support and raise money:
Last year, Media Matters documented how Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was filled with appointees promoting anti-choice “alternative science” about contraception and abortion. While some of those people have moved to other areas of the administration or just moved on, Trump’s HHS has continued to employ and promote the work of anti-abortion movement darlings in 2018:
Every year, the National Abortion Federation releases a report documenting the previous years’ incidents of anti-abortion harassment and violence against providers, patients, and clinics. This year’s report found that “trespassing more than tripled, death threats/threats of harm nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017. We also continued to see an increase in targeted hate mail/harassing phone calls, and clinic invasions, and had the first attempted bombing in many years.” The harassment of abortion providers, clinics, and supporters continued in 2018:
We’re all being trolled by attention-starved wannabe media stars
When right-wing pundit Erick Erickson suggested last week that the U.S. cut foreign aid to Central American countries and instead use those funds to “prop up the next generation of Pinochet types,” it didn’t come as much of a surprise. A number of conservatives have a bit of a soft spot for the former Chilean dictator. When Erickson said that he was “hoping for some helicopters in this plan,” though, he raised a few eyebrows, as such a statement is designed to do.
His reference to helicopters was a nod to Augusto Pinochet’s history of having at least 120 political dissidents thrown to their deaths from helicopters into the “the ocean, the lakes and the rivers of Chile.” On his blog, The Resurgent, Erickson elaborated a bit on that tweet, still straddling the line between being serious and just joking around, and writing that he’s “not actually fully on board” with his own idea.
Does Erickson actually think helicopters are essential to this tweet, blog post, or political suggestion? Probably not. Certainly, he knows that the extrajudicial murder of political opponents is a reprehensible thing to praise. Why say it, then? Because it gets him attention, and in a sea of political media takes, attention is everything. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time watching political talk shows or cable news channels knows that it’s the loudest and most extreme voices that rise to the top of the punditry food chain. It’s as true for Erickson as it is for more recent additions to our national discourse, Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos. The power to provoke has replaced intelligent discussion, and would-be commentators are catching on.
Erickson, along with the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, or any number of other conservatives coming out of the world of talk radio, have made entire careers based on saying things so outrageous that the rest of us ask whether they even mean what they’re saying. Does Coulter actually wish that Timothy McVeigh had bombed the New York Times building? Or that politicians who support immigration reform should face “death squads”? Probably not, but her many outrageous statements have helped make Coulter a bestselling author and mainstay in the world of political commentary for two decades running.
The truth is that you don’t have someone like Erickson or Coulter on your Sunday morning political talk show if you’re interested in an-depth discussion about policy. No, you have them on because of their potential to generate controversy. Their entire brand is built upon being predictably unpredictable.
The truth is that discussing politics can be boring, and maybe it should be. Deficit discussions and tax talk just aren’t sexy. Foreign policy is probably better considered with a sober seriousness, and the economy is best understood as a complex mess of systems only a technocrat could love. But people like their politics with a side of entertainment. After all, there’s a reason people tune in to CNN over C-SPAN, and this creates a major incentive for would-be commentators to embrace a politics-as-WWE approach.
Before becoming the poster boy for crude offense masked as commentary, Milo Yiannopoulos was the editor of The Kernel, an online tech and culture magazine he founded. Though he was never shy about his conservative beliefs, he was far from the firebrand who’d later publish Breitbart articles under such headlines as “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Teenage Boys With Tits: Here’s My Problem With Ghostbusters.”
While he’d always had a reputation for his inflated ego and a tendency to pick fights, back in his days writing at The Kernel, Yiannopoulos could actually be -- dare I say -- thoughtful. Based on his writing, 2012’s Yiannopoulos would have almost certainly hated his 2018 self. Take, for instance, a 2012 blog post titled “The internet is turning us all into sociopaths,” in which he describes the rise of a new sort of anti-civility, online and off:
What’s disturbing about this new trend, in which commenters are posting what would previously have been left anonymously, is that these trolls seem not to mind that their real names, and sometimes even their occupations, appear clamped to their vile words. It’s as if a psychological norm is being established whereby comments left online are part of a video game and not real life. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten that there’s a real person on the other end, reading and being hurt by our vitriol. That’s as close to the definition of sociopath as one needs to get for an armchair diagnosis, though of course many other typical sociopathic traits are also being encouraged by social media.
In “When ‘free speech’ means defending evil murderers,” Yiannopoulos lambasted social media companies that refused to take swift action against cyberbullying and extremist content. In another blog, he argued that “free speech has its limits,” and in yet another, he took one of his own cyberbullies to task. He called Laurie Penny’s book Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet “terrific,” writing, "We do need to think more carefully about how women are spoken to online."
In 2013, The Kernel shuttered after being sued by former contributors over unpaid wages. It was acquired by a German company called Berlin 42 before being sold to the publisher of The Daily Dot. By 2014, Yiannopoulos was writing for Breitbart and fanning the flames of Gamergate, a controversy he would use to propel himself to U.S. stardom. The rest is, as they say, history.
Tomi Lahren went from hosting a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political roundtable show in which she accepted the realities of climate change to becoming a Fox News megastar. The secret to her success: a newfound embrace of the theatrical and outrageous. Her road to stardom was paved with tweets calling the Black Lives Matter movement “The new KKK,” videos in which she said that the U.S. government during the Obama administration had a “be-friendly-to-Jihadis mentality,” and more recently, a tweet saying that the “highlight” of her Thanksgiving weekend was watching the tear-gassing of migrants (including children) at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bum-rushing the border is a CHOICE and has consequences. Watching the USA FINALLY defend our borders was the HIGHLIGHT of my Thanksgiving weekend. 🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼 https://t.co/jAkfcgzRuN
— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) November 26, 2018
Lahren found a shortcut to success, and she took it. How many of us can honestly say that we wouldn’t act out a more extreme version of ourselves if it meant a one-way ticket to the top? Because if it’s not Lahren filling the rage void in political media, it’d be someone else just as over-the-top and abrasive. If social media has shown us anything, it’s that there are always people waiting in the wings, longing to be discovered.
The Yiannopoulos star burned bright, but for now, it’s fizzled. He knows that the only way to stay relevant is to say truly outlandish things, like when he told The Observer in June, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” He’s become the political embodiment of The Onion’s brilliant 2001 “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People” article.
He faded because the blueprint shifted ever so slightly. People got bored of watching an entirely unserious man shout slurs and call it commentary, because he couldn’t take off the “Milo” public persona he’d created for himself, even for a moment. He tried, as in the wake of comments he made that appeared to condone pedophilia, but it came off as hollow and insincere. The trick for media provocateurs is to offer a dash of humanity in with the vitriol. Lahren did this when she opened up about being pro-choice on an episode of The View. Erickson does this whenever he stops by a respectable talk show to promote civility or denounce conspiracy theories.
As the rules change, so do the players. Uninterrupted trolling no longer has the power it once did. Maybe we can move the bar further still. Maybe the answer to professional trolls is to deny them the attention they so desperately need to remain relevant. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about Erickson’s “helicopter” tweet at all. Maybe I shouldn’t bother to note when media figures hang a neon “pay attention to me” sign above their heads as they tweet things like “Can someone explain to me why I'm supposed to lose sleep over Saudi Arabia killing an Islamist political opponent?” about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or when they tweet “I've found my Christmas card photo. #Caring” in response to a photo of a family running from tear gas on the border.
If the expected response is reactive outrage, maybe deliberate disinterest is the answer. So, why am I writing about this, you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the patterns at play. Starving the trolls of the attention they seek is a reasonable long-term goal. But in the meantime, we need to recognize that there are people toying with our national political discourse just for a shot at fame and fortune.
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is being attacked by conservative media and her opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, because a group of people affiliated with the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) marched in support of Abrams while openly carrying rifles. The conservative figures promoting the story have shown no tie between the New Black Panther Party and Abrams -- the story is just yet another conservative media smear that falsely connects the fringe hate group to mainstream Democratic figures.
Photos of NBPP members with campaign signs supporting Abrams were first posted to Facebook on the evening of November 3, by two pages seemingly affiliated with the fringe organization. A few hours later, users began sharing these posts to right-wing Facebook groups, including one group dedicated to Kemp’s gubernatorial bid that says it’s not affiliated with the campaign. While the NBPP photos were being spread, a video posted by a Kemp supporter on Facebook showing the NBPP members was also making rounds on right-wing groups.
The next morning, Kemp shared one of the photos posted by the NBPP on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In all three posts, Kemp called Abrams “radical” and “TOO EXTREME” for Georgia. Other right-wing Facebook pages shared Kemp’s post while the far-right news site The Western Journal ran an ad promoting a write-up of the story. Conservative media figures Erick Erickson and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch also shared the images.
Since Kemp posted the photo, far-right and fake news sites have attacked Abrams while falsely claiming her campaign was affiliated with these NBPP members.
Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich said that if Abrams is elected, “she’ll be the most radical governor in the country.”
From the November 5 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom:
GINGRICH: You just had Black Panthers in Atlanta, for example, carrying what looked like semi-automatic weapons, for Stacey Abrams. You want a really radical America? You can get one, and she'd be -- if she wins, she'll be the most radical governor in the country, with the possible exception of [San Francisco’s] Gavin Newsom.
Breitbart News posted an article whose headline states that “armed Black Panthers lobby for” Abrams. The article earned just over 71,000 engagements on social media and was posted by a pro-gun Georgia Facebook page.
The Daily Caller criticized Abrams for attacking Kemp instead of addressing the NBPP march. In a Daily Calles write-up of the NBPP’s march, Jason Hopkins wrote that an Abrams campaign statement he received in response to questions “did not specifically address the Panthers’ march, but instead attacked Kemp.” The article amplified Kemp’s calls on Abrams to denounce the NBPP and earned over 38,000 engagements on social media. Reprints of the article by The Western Journal, BizPac Review, and The Tennessee Star earned an additional 41,000 interactions.
On the far-right news site Big League Politics, Laura Loomer falsely stated that “armed Black Panthers” were “campaigning with Stacey Abrams.” Loomer also claimed that the NBPP’s march for Stacey Abrams was “an act of racially motivated anti-white voter intimidation.”
NBPP, which was founded in 1989, is an “anti-white and antisemitic” group, according to a report on the group’s activities published by Southern Poverty Law Center. The original Black Panther Party has condemned NBPP as a “black racist hate group,” and it has also been denounced by the NAACP.
The group rose to national prominence in 2008 after a video went viral that showed two NBPP members at a polling site in Philadelphia, PA, one of whom was carrying a nightstick. The Department of Justice launched an investigation into the incident that ended with a default civil judgement against the armed NBPP member after the Bush administration decided to pursue civil, rather than criminal, charges against the men. Conservative media endlessly scandalized the outcome of the DOJ investigation, although a 2011 report issued by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility found “that politics played no role in the handling of the New Black Panther Party case, which sparked a racially charged political fight,” according to The Washington Post.
Right-wing media still often cite the 2008 incident before Election Day. In 2016, conservative media supporters of then-candidate Donald Trump raised concerns about the NBPP to defend Trump from criticism after he suggested the 2016 election would be “rigged” by voter fraud. Conservative media frequently used extraordinarily tenuous or entirely nonexistent evidence in attempts to tie NBPP to President Barack Obama -- a similar tactic to what right-wing media figures are now trying to accomplish in the Georgia gubernatorial race.
Meet the Press hosted radio host Erick Erickson to talk about civility and the need for conservatives to believe in facts. This is like asking an exhaust pipe about the virtues of clean air, or a wolf about how to keep sheep alive.
Erickson has repeatedly pushed conspiracy theories:
Erickson pushed a conspiracy theory about the timing of the so-called "caravan," the migrants in southern Mexico fleeing violence in central America.
Erickson pushed a conspiracy theory that Parkland survivor David Hogg was not actually at his school when the shooting happened.
Erickson pushed a slew of conspiracy theories about Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who came forward to report that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her.
Erickson pushed conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama taking away guns.
Erickson defended then-ESPN analyst Curt Schilling when he tweeted a conspiracy theory and smear of Muslims.
Erickson hilariously argued that mass shootings in America are "so rare."
Erickson also goes to absurd lengths to protect conservatives in the face of reported facts. He endorsed reported pedophile Roy Moore for a Senate seat until the very end, on the basis that Moore was "the only one standing" against "the left." He dismissed concerns about one of President Donald Trump’s cabinet members flying in private jets because he "needs to be protected." When Erickson is on Fox or on the radio, he's more than happy to defend Trump's behavior toward the mainstream press.
And then there's just the ugly. He wrote a book warning of a "leftist-homosexual mafia" and argued in 2017 that gay men in bars who wear certain clothing are asking to be assaulted. Erickson has also endorsed the horrific practice of anti-LGBTQ "conversion therapy," a practice more akin to torture than therapy. He also compared members of the LGBTQ community to terrorists.
Erickson is an unrepentant sexist. He said of the Women’s March, "I feel sorry for all the ham and cheese that won't get made into sandwiches while all those women are marching." He's argued that "the male typically is the dominant role" and that women should stay home while men bring "home the bacon."
He called Trump's Muslim ban "brilliant politics." Erickson shot up a copy of The New York Times when the paper published an editorial on gun violence, and he blamed Obama for mass shootings. When Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis was briefly jailed for contempt of court for not issuing same-sex marriage licenses, Erickson warned of a civil war. In 2009, Erickson asked at what point people in Washington state might "beat [their state representative] to a bloody pulp for being an idiot."
Needless to say, none of this came up on Meet The Press, with host Chuck Todd only offering a brief nod to “some people” who say Erickson pushes conspiracy theories. Instead, Erickson was portrayed as a reasonable conservative interested in the facts.
WATCH: Erick Erickson speaks to conservatives who spread conspiracy theories, now that we have facts about the bomb suspect #MTP@EWErickson: “If you’re a conservative who’s at war with the truth, you’re not really a conservative.” pic.twitter.com/yJOAbu16E4
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) October 28, 2018
There's a real danger here: Presenting an extremist as a moderate only pushes people more toward that extremism. My colleague Parker Molloy explained that phenomenon regarding Erickson just a few weeks ago, writing about a piece in which The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan wrote that he is seen as moderate.
The long-term effect of the constant recalibration of what constitutes a moderate position can change perception not only in media, but in politics itself. Sure, what’s moderate in 2018 -- for instance, support for marriage equality -- would have likely be considered extreme in the 1950s. Recalibrations happen over time, but usually as the result of more organic forces, not ratings. This is the Overton window in action, being shifted not by a changing landscape of political views, but by the editorial decisions involved in boosting them. That should worry us.
All of this raises the question: What role do CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post play in establishing and upholding the Erickson-as-moderate mythology? I asked Sullivan.
In an email, she writes, “Although Erickson may be seen by some as moderate or may actually be relatively moderate compared to someone like Alex Jones, he’s not moderate in any real sense. And whenever we refer to him, we should be a lot clearer about that than I was in my column. We owe it to our readers not to reinforce a false idea.”
Molloy and Sullivan are correct: Erickson is an extremist, and Meet The Press just gave him cover.
Erickson takes zero responsibility for pushing this shit, Todd doesn’t really mention it. Erickson gets to make vague condemnations of “conspiracies” w/o addressing his own wink & nod to the Alex Jones set. He’s back to being the go-to Safe NeverTrump Republican. Rinse & Repeat. pic.twitter.com/6K8kLIYnW2
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) October 28, 2018
Media Matters emailed Chuck Todd for comment on Friday asking why the program was hosting Erickson. Todd has not responded.
Todd has said he wants to stop conservative media from taking over and discrediting the news. He should start with his own show.
Loading the player reg...
Ever since the first of three women reported sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, right-wing media’s message to victims of sexual violence has rung painfully clear -- if you come forward and tell your story, you’re putting yourself at risk and the establishment will circle the wagons to protect your abuser.
Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick have faced unending smear campaigns while also being summarily dismissed by those seeking to ram Kavanaugh onto the court. Conservative media have systematically overlooked the fact that Kavanaugh lied and perjured himself during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, instead propagating outlandish conspiracy theories about his accusers and questioning whether they have political motivations. Their smear campaign coalesces around one simple message of intimidation: If you tell your truth about sexual violence, it won’t disqualify your assailant from moving up in his career; instead, you’ll ruin the reputation of a good man, and a right-wing attack mob will set its sight on ruining yours as well.
Right-wing media’s radical and insulting insistence that a history of sexual assault doesn’t disqualify a man from sitting on the Supreme Court is perhaps the most honest confession in their coverage of allegations made against Brett Kavanaugh. They are telling survivors that coming forward is, as Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) put it, but a “hiccup” on the way to their assailant getting a promotion.
Perhaps the most shameless example of conservatives telling on themselves is an article published in The Federalist titled, “Why Brett Kavanaugh Should Be Confirmed To The Supreme Court Even If He’s Guilty.” An anonymous author argues “the actual impact” of Kavanaugh’s alleged history of sexual violence would likely be irrelevant to his “behavior as a Supreme Court justice.” The article goes on to say that “the stakes” of confirming Kavanaugh “are even higher” now than they were before, noting that if he fails to get on the court, “every Supreme Court nomination henceforth will be derailed by mere allegation.”
For its part, Fox News has also made clear that Ford’s report should not get in the way of Kavanaugh’s promotion. This is not a surprise, considering that the network functions as a mouthpiece for the White House communications team led by disgraced former Fox executive Bill Shine, who was forced out due to his role in the culture of sexual harassment that prevailed under Roger Ailes. Here are some of the most offensive takes from the network’s Kavanaugh coverage:
In the effort to rehabilitate Brett Kavanaugh’s image, right-wing media have characterized the reports as nothing more than smears of a good and innocent man. Some have bizarrely admitted they believe Christine Ford but they don’t believe what she says Kavanaugh did to her. They’ve also deflected from the women’s stories by mentioning that Kavanaugh goes to church and volunteers and coaches his daughters’ basketball team:
According to some right-wing pundits, even listening to victims is a wholesale attack on men. During her daily radio show, Laura Ingraham said she wanted to “focus on men for a moment” because “this could happen to any of you.” Not to be outdone by his peers, Tucker Carlson used the stories of sexual assault survivors to continues his ongoing white nationalist campaign, categorizing allegations against Kavanaugh as an attack on all white people and men and arguing that Democrats’ willingness to listen to Ford demonstrates a sexism that’s similar to racism. He also called Kavanaugh a “folk hero” to the “unfairly maligned.”
When conservative media figures portray a sexual assault report as a politically motivated smear of a decent family man, they are telling victims the damage wrought by the violence they experienced is unimportant and that speaking about it is wrong.
The conservative victim-blaming campaign discourages survivors from speaking up through the direct threat of a never-ending character assassination and harassment campaign. The results of this tactic have been illustrated by the fact that Ford has had to go into hiding, separately from her children, for her family’s safety. Here are some examples of right-wing media attacking Ford’s character:
And while Twitter is a general cesspool of conspiracy theories and smears against sexual assault survivors, no individual has put more into this effort than conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who called the confirmation process “the Left’s PizzaGate” and said that the Democrats were “willing to destroy an innocent man so they can keep killing kids.”
Right-wing media and Republicans in Congress have been working overtime to send a clear message to survivors of sexual violence: It’s better for us if you stay quiet. The campaign against Kavanaugh’s accusers reinforces what women already know -- that sexual violence is about power, and that when backed into a corner, power brokers will regroup and lash out at its challengers.
Millions of people watch Fox News every day. Many of them are undoubtedly survivors of sexual violence themselves. While Fox News personalities get rich smearing victims in an effort to install Kavanaugh into power no matter his past behavior or the fact that he repeatedly lied to Congress, they’re saying to their viewers, “We don’t care about you, we don’t believe you, and you should shut up and keep your experiences to yourself.” Right-wing media outlets are sustained by their commitment to punching down, even if that means launching an attack on half of the world’s population to save the career of one man. Only through the power of testimony and solidarity can survivors overcome the system that seeks to silence us.
Conservative media are hyping claims from the White House and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that the results of an FBI investigation into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh do not corroborate multiple women’s accounts that he sexually assaulted them while at the same time attacking anyone who pointed out flaws in the investigation. The FBI investigation was extremely limited in scope and time; did not include interviews of Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford, or approximately 40 others who say they tried to talk to the FBI but couldn’t get through; and did not look into the likelihood that Kavanaugh lied in his Senate testimony. Ford, whose report that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school is central to determining Kavanaugh’s fitness for the Supreme Court, offered to speak with the FBI, but was rebuffed.
The FBI was initially authorized by the Trump administration and Senate Republicans to interview just four people. From The New York Times:
Mr. Trump ordered the one-week F.B.I. investigation on Friday after Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona and a key swing vote, insisted the allegations be examined before he committed to voting to confirm Judge Kavanaugh. But the White House and Senate Republicans gave the F.B.I. a list of only four people to question: Ms. Ramirez and Mark Judge, P.J. Smyth and Leland Keyser, three people Dr. Blasey identified as being at the house where she said Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. [The New York Times, 10/1/18]
Trump later reportedly authorized the FBI to interview more witnesses, but still kept it limited by an arbitrary deadline. From The New York Times:
The White House authorized the F.B.I. to expand its abbreviated investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh by interviewing anyone it deems necessary as long as the review is finished by the end of the week, according to two people briefed on the matter.
At an event on Monday celebrating a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, President Trump said he instructed his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, over the weekend to instruct the F.B.I. to carry out an open investigation, but the president included the caveat that the inquiry should accommodate the desires of Senate Republicans.
The new directive came after a backlash from Democrats, who criticized the White House for limiting the scope of the bureau’s investigation into Judge Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The F.B.I. has already interviewed the four witnesses it was originally asked to question, and on Monday it reached out to others. [The New York Times, 10/1/18]
In the end, only 10 witnesses were reportedly interviewed. [Twitter, 10/4/18]
The investigation finished within only a few days. CNN reported that the White House sent the information gleaned from the investigation to the Senate on the morning of October 4, just days after the investigation was set into motion on September 28. [CNN, 10/4/18]
The FBI reportedly did not investigate whether Kavanaugh lied to the Senate. New York magazine’s The Cut noted that, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the FBI did not investigate whether Kavanaugh perjured himself by lying about his high school and college behavior:
What’s not being investigated is Kavanaugh’s behavior in high school and college, which his classmates say was defined by partying and drinking to excess, at which point the SCOTUS nominee would allegedly become “aggressive” —accounts that drastically differ from those Kavanaugh offered while under oath. Some senators, including Bernie Sanders, have raised concern over the FBI’s apparent disregard for the likelihood that Kavanaugh may have perjured himself.
“The FBI investigation of Brett Kavanaugh must include a review of his numerous untruthful statements in his previous testimony before Congress,” Sanders tweeted. “Lying to Congress is a federal crime.” He then outlined the numerous examples in which Kavanaugh appears to have lied under oath. [The Cut, 10/3/18]
Neither Kavanaugh nor Ford were interviewed by the FBI. Kavanaugh repeatedly lied under oath about his behavior in high school and college, but he didn’t have to defend his statements during an FBI interview. Ford sought to speak with the FBI, but was turned down. From Vox:
Notably, Ford and Kavanaugh are both not yet on the list of people that the FBI has interviewed. A spokesperson for Ford’s attorneys said she had still not been contacted by the FBI as of early Wednesday afternoon.
“We have received no response from anyone involved in this investigation, and no response to our offer for Dr. Ford to be interviewed,” Ford’s attorneys emphasized in a Tuesday letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray. “This afternoon, we learned of media reports that the FBI does not intend to interview either Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanaugh. We hope that this reporting is inaccurate.”
There could be a crucial reason for their omission from the investigation. Sources have told Bloomberg that the FBI has not done interviews with Ford or Kavanaugh because the White House hasn’t granted it the authority to conduct them. [Vox, 10/3/18]
NBC News: “More than 40 people with potential information into the sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh have not been contacted by the FBI.” [NBC News, 10/4/18]
Chris Kang, former Obama administration deputy counsel: “President Trump and Senate Republicans are turning this much-needed FBI investigation into a sham. … The entire investigation must be made public, so the American people can know which witnesses were interviewed and whether the FBI was able to follow a full range of questioning, including regarding Kavanaugh's candor and credibility.” [The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 10/3/18]
Mike Zubrensky, former deputy assistant attorney general at DOJ Office of Legal Counsel: “The investigation of Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct is far too serious for a rigged process. … Senator Flake and his Senate colleagues must insist that McConnell respect the confirmation process. And they should demand that the FBI take the time it needs to conduct a thorough and meaningful investigation.” [The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 10/3/18]
Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence: “Existing background investigation protocols between the White House and the FBI regarding presidential appointees are flawed and need to be reexamined. ... When the White House can prevent the nation’s premier investigative agency from fully determining the suitability of a Supreme Court nominee we have a problem.” [The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 10/3/18]
Kristine Lucius, former top legal and policy advisor to Sen. Patrick Leahy: “During my over 14 years on the committee, I can’t remember any supplemental investigation in which the FBI did not interview the person who brought forth the allegations, and the nominee himself. … That has been – and must remain – a minimum base line for credibility. No senator should even consider agreeing to proceed with this nomination unless and until the FBI investigation is determined to be thorough and unfettered.” [The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 10/3/18]
Former FBI officials said past background checks were not limited by politics. From The New York Times:
Several former F.B.I. officials said that they could think of no previous instance when the White House restricted the bureau’s ability to interview potential witnesses during a background check. Chuck Rosenberg, a former F.B.I. chief of staff, said background investigations were frequently reopened, but the bureau decided how to pursue new allegations.
“The White House normally tells the F.B.I. what issue to examine, but would not tell the F.B.I. how to examine it, or with whom they should speak,” he said. “It’s highly unusual — in fact, as far I know, uniquely so — for the F.B.I. to be directed to speak only to a limited number of designated people.” [The New York Times, 10/1/18]
Leah Litman, UC Irvine assistant law professor: Restricted FBI investigation makes it “a joke.” From The New Yorker:
Leah Litman, an assistant professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, said the severe restrictions on the scope of the investigation made it “a joke.” She asked, “What kind of an investigation into an assault that happened under the influence of alcohol doesn’t include investigating the accused’s use of alcohol?” She said, “Usually, the F.B.I. investigators aren’t told who to call and who not to.” She said that Rasor should be interviewed, given her past relationship with Judge. “If Mark Judge is on the ‘approved’ list of witnesses, and they are interviewing him, there is no reason not to interview Rasor, who has testimony that is very relevant to his credibility, and the testimony that he would offer,” she said. [The New Yorker, 9/30/18]
John Mindermann, former FBI special agent: The restrictions on the probe means it’s not a “real, authentic FBI investigation.” From an October 4 MSNBC interview:
JOHN MINDERMANN (FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT): What will be laid out within the limits of the scope and the time that the FBI had to do the investigation will be a portrait of the individual who is being investigated. That's in any background check. The key to a background check is comprehensive running out of all available leads. Apparently in this case, those leads, which were available, were not run out by the FBI because of the limits of time and scope. That is very, very problematic because that limits the overall portrait. It's like taking the brush out of the hand of the painter midway through the portrait session. What will be in there will be, corroborating or not, statements, data, information, times, dates, et cetera, that may or may not corroborate specific allegations that were brought forward.
HALLIE JACKSON (HOST): We know that the FBI has spoken with nine people that have been interviewed. And we know the names of six of them. We don't know who the other three people are. We know that they originally contacted 10 people. It's not clear to us just yet, based on our sources, why that 10th person was not actually interviewed. You can see who we know and who we don't know there. Dr. Ford's attorney says because she's not on this list -- right, you don't see Christine Blasey Ford on that screen right there -- so her lawyer says this can't be called an investigation. The FBI was not actually seeking the truth. So John, do you agree? Is this a comprehensive investigation or not?
MINDERMANN: I actually agree that really this does not fall under the definition of a real, authentic FBI investigation. It really is an investigation which is just limited in terms of targeting specific individuals, and for reasons unknown, eliminating a vast majority of people who could have provided corroborating evidence, corroborating information, positive, negative, neutral, whatever. But in an FBI investigation -- and I've done these and I've supervised these -- in these investigations, you encourage your agents to go out, cover all bases, run out all leads, develop that comprehensive look so that whoever is looking at this is well versed and can make that judgment call. This is a judgment call. There's a lot of subjectivity if you don't have factual information. [MSNBC, MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson, 10/4/18]
Fox News’ Sean Hannity:
A source familiar with the supplemental report told Fox News it shows no evidence corroborating the allegations of sexual assault or misconduct against Kavanaugh https://t.co/jCuIpZa2c7
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) October 4, 2018
Conservative pundit Erick Erickson:
The White House is suddenly very upbeat about the Kavanaugh confirmation. I hear the FBI report is very strong for Kavanaugh and the Democrats are left with only process arguments that third party non-witnesses with hearsay were not interviewed.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) October 4, 2018
I can't wait for the Democrats to cast doubt on the FBI later today.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) October 4, 2018
Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk:
No corroboration of sexual misconduct found in FBI report
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) October 4, 2018
Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume:
On the FBI Kavanaugh inquiry he brokered with Jeff Flake, Dem. Senator Chris Coons said this a.m. that he doesn’t think enough people were interviewed. You can see where this is going. Dems won’t accept the report. Of course they won’t.
— Brit Hume (@brithume) October 4, 2018
Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro: The FBI didn't need to talk to Ford because "there is nothing else to ask her. There is nothing else that they need to do”:
Fox & Friends applauded the investigation by claiming "the very narrow scope" avoided "tangents":
CRTV’s Allie Stuckey:
Y’all wanted an FBI investigation, you got one. So sorry it didn’t turn out in your favor, you selfish, power-hungry life ruiners.
— Allie Beth Stuckey (@conservmillen) October 4, 2018
Conservative media personalities are attacking Christine Blasey Ford following President Donald Trump’s attack on her at a political rally. Ford testified last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her.
Trump inspired a second wave of attacks from conservatives by mocking her public account of high school sexual assault at his October 2 political rally in Mississippi, as The Washington Post reported:
President Trump mocked the account of a woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of assault and told a Mississippi crowd that the #MeToo movement was unfairly hurting men.
Trump, in a riff that has been dreaded by White House and Senate aides, attacked the story of Christine Blasey Ford at length — drawing laughs from the crowd. The remarks were his strongest attacks yet of her testimony.
“ ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ‘Upstairs? Downstairs? Where was it?’ ‘I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember,’ ” Trump said of Ford, as he impersonated her on stage.
“I don’t remember,” he said repeatedly, apparently mocking her testimony.
While three Republican senators criticized Trump’s denigration of Ford, other conservatives responded by defending Trump’s attack on her and doubling down with their own.
Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft: “BOOM! President Trump Mocks Christine Ford's Flimsy Accusations at Mississippi Rally - CROWD ROARS!”
MSNBC contributor Hugh Hewitt: Ford’s “story is crumbling, and the president just broke the glass last night. He was not mocking her. He was attacking the credibility of her testimony.”
Other right-wing media figures accused Ford of repeatedly lying in her testimony, drawing on a letter from an ex-boyfriend that said, among other things, that she helped a friend prepare for a polygraph test -- a claim that was soon countered by the friend in question.
Hoft: “SHE’S A FRAUD: Dr. Ford Lied About Flying, Tight Spaces, Closed Quarters, Polygraph Tests.”
Conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson: “Dr. Ford lied. Kavanaugh’s reputation died. All intentional to ruin a good man.”
Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe: “You look at ... what looks like blatant lies” Ford “has told people about flying. … There’s been so many inconsistencies, so many lies.”
And Hoft, along with others, have stated that Ford should be criminally investigated or even locked in prison.
Fox News guest Joe diGenova: Ford “should be investigated and if necessary charged with the crime of submitting a false statement to the Senate.”
Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens: “I would like to be among the first to say that I want Christine Blasey Ford to serve time in PRISON.”
Hoft, citing Owens: “Is It About Time to Lock Up Christine Ford in a Prison Cell With Two Front Doors?”
Left or right, political media bubbles are, at best, unproductive; at worst, they can be gateways into alternate realities. Since the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a significant push for people to exit their respective echo chambers and start really listening to one another. For example, BuzzFeed introduced its “Outside Your Bubble” experiment in February 2017, offering readers a range of views from around the internet and across the political spectrum on a single topic. The following month, Amanda Hess at The New York Times gave a rundown of this movement, noting that it is geared less toward trying to convince hardcore Trump supporters to open their minds to the political left, and much more toward convincing liberals to entertain more perspectives from the right.
But just exposing news consumers to wildly different opinions doesn’t do much to bridge the polarization gap -- in fact, it might make people even more entrenched in their partisan views. Earlier this year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that being presented with different worldviews could actually trigger motivated reasoning and other defense mechanisms among consumers. While the study’s authors cautioned against making too much of its conclusions, it may be worth pumping the brakes a bit on assumptions that we may have about bubble-busting. Perhaps, a place to start would be to seek out milder points of view -- ideologically challenging but not overly partisan -- to add to an idea mix. In other words, a mainstream Democrat might benefit more from reading a relatively thoughtful conservative pundit like David Brooks than party cheerleaders like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh.
One might think that the most obvious place to look for less partisan but still right-leaning figures would be among “Never Trump” Republicans. After all, who better to help bridge the left and the right than people who would have ordinarily voted for the GOP candidate but made the decision not to support Donald Trump?
One person who’s benefited from the push to pop ideological bubbles is conservative commentator Erick Erickson. Erickson, who edits the website The Resurgent, has also had stints as a contributor at both CNN and Fox News in recent years. Like many other “Never Trump” conservatives, such as New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens or The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, Erickson’s profile has arguably risen in the wake of Trump’s election. If you were to base your opinions of him entirely on his appearances in mainstream news outlets, you might even find him reasonable (if perhaps still a little out of your comfort zone).
Perhaps you’ve seen Erickson on Meet the Press, tsk tsk'ing incivility or sharing relatively harmless theories about who could be the author of the mysterious, anonymous White House op-ed. Or maybe you recognize him from sharing a few laughs with Brooke Baldwin on CNN Newsroom, or saying that The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson was “bad form” on CNN’s Reliable Sources (on The Resurgent, he called The Atlantic’s move “liberal fascism”). Or it could be that you saw him on Real Time with Bill Maher, or read his extremely sensible-sounding New York Times op-ed “How to Find Common Ground.”
But Erickson isn’t moderate. He has argued that gay men should expect to be assaulted in bars if their appearance makes others uncomfortable, defended Roy Moore voters for sticking with their candidate despite “damning” evidence that suggested he preyed on teenage girls, uncritically spread a conspiracy theory about Parkland survivor David Hogg, and later labeled Hogg a “high school bully.”
Since September 17, Erickson has written dozens of stories at The Resurgent about the reports by Christine Blasey Ford and others that Kavanaugh engaged in sexual misconduct. Those blog posts included a number of falsehoods -- such as the debunked claim that The New York Times refused to run one Kavanaugh accuser’s story -- as well as an abundance of hyperbolic claims (“Christine Blasey Ford Demands a Soviet Style Show Trial” reads one headline).
On Twitter, he’s shared conspiracy theories that began as pranks on 4chan (“rumors are flying Michael Avenatti, the creepy porn lawyer, locked his Twitter account because his supposed Kavanaugh victim is a prankster off 4Chan that successfully trolled him,” he wrote, boosting a debunked theory that another Kavanaugh accuser and Avenatti client, Julie Swetnick, didn’t exist). He also helped spread the false rumor that Kavanaugh’s mother foreclosed on Ford’s childhood home (first by saying “a growing body of blogs are posting” the rumor and later by tweeting about it as a fact). He went all-in on conservative commentator Ed Whelan’s elaborate theory that Ford must have confused Kavanaugh with a look-alike (first by couching it in language that simply called the theory a “credible and coherent explanation,” but later by posting a number of tweets presenting the doppelgänger theory as a factual, proven truth). Add to that the fact that he claimed Democrats were “willing to destroy an innocent man so they can keep killing kids” and called the confirmation process “the Left’s PizzaGate,” with MSNBC as “the Left’s Alex Jones.”
Not only are Erickson’s views far from moderate, but his penchant for signal-boosting rumors and conspiracy theories has done much more to confuse the public than to inform it. This isn’t meant as a criticism of his political views, his personal life, or even his bombastic approach to media; it’s a criticism of the sanitized way he’s presented by mainstream outlets that provide him with a platform.
Following Erickson’s attack on Hogg, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan published a column titled “The sliming of Parkland students shows the spreading stain of media polarization.” The post was critical of Erickson’s “bully” blog post and criticized him for suggesting that Hogg wasn’t at Parkland on the day of the shooting. But even in writing about these vicious and irresponsible actions, Sullivan seemed to hedge.
“Erickson’s actions matter because he’s seen as moderate — someone who gets to offer platitudes about ‘healing’ in the New York Times and whose comments get picked up — not as if they were the ravings of an Alex Jones, but as a legitimate conservative opinion maker,” the column originally read.
On Twitter, I criticized the soft language, to which Sullivan replied, “He’s seen as relatively moderate compared to the likes of Alex Jones or Hannity. He’s apparently seen as relatively moderate by, say, The Hill, which saw fit to write up his post without challenging anything in it. And credible enough to write for NYT.”
The current iteration of Sullivan’s column on the Washington Post website now includes the words “despite his often extreme views” following “Erickson’s action’s matter” and qualifies “relatively” before “moderate.”
Sullivan’s reply suggested that whether someone is a moderate or an extremist is a matter of relativity and the editorial decisions of mainstream news outlets. This idea is as fascinating as it is frustrating -- but I believe it’s correct. The long-term effect of the constant recalibration of what constitutes a moderate position can change perception not only in media, but in politics itself. Sure, what’s moderate in 2018 -- for instance, support for marriage equality -- would have likely be considered extreme in the 1950s. Recalibrations happen over time, but usually as the result of more organic forces, not ratings. This is the Overton window in action, being shifted not by a changing landscape of political views, but by the editorial decisions involved in boosting them. That should worry us.
All of this raises the question: What role do CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post play in establishing and upholding the Erickson-as-moderate mythology? I asked Sullivan.
In an email, she writes, “Although Erickson may be seen by some as moderate or may actually be relatively moderate compared to someone like Alex Jones, he’s not moderate in any real sense. And whenever we refer to him, we should be a lot clearer about that than I was in my column. We owe it to our readers not to reinforce a false idea.”
I agree, and I believe that there’s a responsibility among media outlets to ensure that they’re reflecting public opinion and the realities of modern political discourse rather than putting their thumbs on the scale to create a false balance. Whether it’s in the form of a moderate makeover for someone like Erickson or Shapiro, or ubiquitous “both sides” horse race coverage, it’s time for decision-makers at media organizations to really take into consideration the lasting effects that their work and their choices will have beyond the industry for years to come. It’s for that reason that “left, right, and center” can’t be replaced by “left, Never Trump, and pro-Trump.”
What are they afraid of?
Conservative media personalities are attacking calls by a bipartisan group of senators for the FBI to investigate allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh following Thursday’s hearing with the nominee and Christine Blasey Ford, who testified that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her in the 1980s.
A day after Thursday’s hearing, where Ford’s testimony was widely acknowledged as “credible” and Kavanaugh misled the senators in his own testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor for a final vote. Following some last-minute drama,Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced he was voting to send Kavanaugh's nomination to the full Senate for a vote under the condition that the FBI spend up to a week investigating current allegations against the judge. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also voiced support for Flake’s call for a delay on the floor vote so that the FBI can investigate.
Conservative media personalities, a couple of whom had smeared or discounted the women who reported sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh, quickly attacked the calls for the FBI investigation and called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to ignore the request and quickly hold a vote to confirm Kavanaugh:
Fox News host Sean Hannity: "Now we need one more week, why so another 15 people can be brought up by Democratic operatives?"
Conservative author Ann Coulter: Investigation "surrenders advice & consent to corrupt FBI."
NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch: “Because the seventh FBI background check will definitely do the trick.”
FoxNews.com’s Stephen Miller: “If you think Dems are going to hold on a one week FBI investigation deadline you're absolutely bananas.”
Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich: “Mitch McConnell better veto this delay. Hold the vote.”
Conservative talk show host Erick Erickson: “Get ready -- the Democrats are going to flood the zone. Kavanaugh will be a suspected serial killer by Friday.”
Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe: “This just means the Democrats and their friends in the media have more time to find and exploit unverified and unsubstantiated allegations against #JudgeKavanaugh.”
Conservative talk radio host Buck Sexton: “There is nothing for the FBI to investigate. … This is just rewarding the worst political behavior of my lifetime.”
The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro: “This will satisfy no one, next week will be a complete tornado of crap, and we’ll see you here next Friday!”
Conservative author David Limbaugh: “This is not about due diligence but another delay designed to defeat Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation.”
Media Research Center’s Dan Gainor: “Liberals: We will keep investigating you until you are found guilty.”
Daily Caller’s Benny Johnson: “Why give the monster a cookie in the first place?”
MSNBC contributor Hugh Hewitt: This is a “sham of a process.”
Hannity radio guest Jonathon Gilliam: "We do still have a realistic expectation that the deep state is part of the FBI"