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.
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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"
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
Update (10/2/18): This piece was updated with additional conspiracy theories that spread after publication.
Conservative media’s response to multiple reports of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have largely relied on false claims and conspiracy theories that often originated from from fake news websites or 4chan trolls.
Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez have both now reported that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted them. Ford came forward first and said that Kavanaugh assaulted her during a party when she was 15 and he was 17. Ramirez told The New Yorker about an incident in which he exposed himself and put his penis in her face during a party while she and Kavanaugh attended Yale.
Conservatives have attempted to discredit Ford and Ramirez by pushing a panoply of evidence-free claims, including misidentifying other people as Ford and Ramirez; sharing false information about legal proceedings involving Ford’s family; misrepresenting professional work done by Ford’s brother; proclaiming that Ford previously accused Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch of sexual assault; and lying about Ford’s professional backgrounds.
While many of the attacks originated from fringe outlets -- 4chan, 8chan, The Gateway Pundit, and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' Infowars -- these false claims have been embraced by influential conservative media figures including Erick Erickson, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, and John Fund.
The timeline below shows when some of the most widely spread conspiracy theories in defense of Kavanaugh bubbled up and which right-wing media figures pushed them:
Pro-Trump media figures attacked Ford based on student reviews of a different professor with a similar name. Right-wing media personalities, including Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin and right-wing blogger Jim Hoft, highlighted student reviews of the wrong professor Ford in an absurd attempt to discredit her accusation against Kavanaugh. The falsehood gained traction after it was published by far-right website Grabien News. [Media Matters, 9/17/18]
Right-wing websites and media figures pushed a conspiracy theory that Ford’s accusation was motivated by revenge for her parents’ home foreclosure. Right-wing bloggers Hoft and Erick Erickson repeated a conspiracy theory that Ford reported Kavanaugh for assault because his mother, also a judge, presided over a foreclose of Ford’s childhood home. But Kavanaugh’s mother had actually dismissed the foreclosure case after Ford’s parents worked out an agreement with their lender, and Ford’s parents still own the home. [Media Matters, 9/18/18]
Trump media sycophants fabricated a connection between Ford and Fusion GPS to discredit her accusation. Right-wing websites and social media trolls smeared Ford over her brother Ralph Blasey’s work at a law firm that did legal work for Fusion GPS, a company connected to the Trump/Russia investigation. But according to the trolls’ own “evidence,” Blasey’s work at the law firm ended six years before Fusion GPS was even founded. [Media Matters, 9/18/18]
Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media spread a fake claim from a serial hoaxer that Ford similarly accused Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Right-wing media figures including Rush Limbaugh repeated a made-up claim by serial hoaxer Josh Cornett that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was reluctant to share a letter Ford wrote with Feinstein’s colleagues because Ford sent a similar letter about Gorsuch last year during his confirmation hearings. [Media Matters, 9/19/18]
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones falsely identified a high school yearbook photo of a girl wearing a miniskirt as Ford and called her “captain of the sluts.” Jones and his website, Infowars, smeared Ford over excerpts from high school yearbooks of Ford’s school, falsely identifying a girl wearing a miniskirt as Ford and calling her a “hussy” and “captain of the sluts.” [Media Matters, 9/20/18]
Conservative media figures embraced the outlandish theory that Ford misidentified her attacker, who they claimed was really Kavanaugh’s doppelganger. Conservative media outlets and figures including Fox News, Erick Erickson, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and The Gateway Pundit supported a theory tweeted by conservative legal commentator Ed Whelan that Ford had confused Kavanaugh with another boy who Whelan claimed looked similar. Ford debunked the claim of mistaken identity and by the next day, Whelan had deleted his Twitter thread and apologized for publicly naming the person he suggested was the actual assailant. [Media Matters, 9/21/18]
Far-right websites falsely claimed Ford worked for a company that manufactured an “abortion pill” to question her motive. The Gateway Pundit and other far-right websites claimed Ford’s accusation against Kavanaugh was politically motivated because of work she did for a pharmaceutical company that manufactured a so-called “abortion pill.” They said she opposed Kavanaugh because of the possibility he would be the pivotal vote in overturning Roe v. Wade. But the pill is intended to treat a hormonal condition called Cushing’s syndrome, and it is not permitted to be prescribed to pregnant patients. [Media Matters, 9/24/18]
Right-wing columnists attacked the wrong Deborah Ramirez over a “tie to George Soros.” After Ramirez told The New Yorker that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party in college, right-wing columnists Quin Hillyer and John Fund claimed that Ramirez won a Soros Justice Fellowship in 2003 and criticized the magazine for leaving out that irrelevant detail -- but they identified the wrong Deborah Ramirez. Hillyer and Fund later apologized for mixing up the two women. [Media Matters, 9/24/18]
Fox News falsely claimed Republicans were kept in the dark about Ramirez’s report until it was published by The New Yorker. In its article on Ramirez’s report of sexual assault by Kavanaugh, The New Yorker wrote that “senior Republican staffers also learned of the allegation last week. … Soon after, Senate Republicans issued renewed calls to accelerate the timing of a committee vote.” But Fox News hosts instead pushed Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) evidence-free claim that Republican staff didn’t know about the report. [Media Matters, 9/24/18]
Fox News legal analyst tried to hurt Ramirez's credibility by falsely claiming The New York Times “refused to report” Ramirez’s accusations in an effort to hurt her credibility. Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano claimed Ramirez had “no credibility” with her accusation against Kavanaugh because “The New York Times refused to report her story.” But the Times didn’t publish an initial story on Ramirez’s accusation because she was already exclusively talking to The New Yorker. [Media Matters, 9/25/18]
TMZ and Erick Erickson pushed a false 8chan claim that Ford’s lawyer was pictured with Hillary Clinton during the presidential election. Right-wing blogger Erickson and Trump-friendly entertainment website TMZ ran with a false claim -- originiating on 8chan message board -- that Ford’s lawyer Debra Katz was spotted in a photo with Hillary Clinton in August 2016. In fact, the woman in the photo was Clinton photographer Barbara Kinney. [Media Matters, 9/26/18]
Conservative media figures alleged a conspiracy after Ford gave the innocuous answer that she didn’t know who paid for her polygraph test. Prior to coming forward, Ford underwent a polygraph exam that concluded that her account of the assault by Kavanaugh was “not indicative of deception.” During her September 27 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford was asked who paid for the exam and she responded that she didn’t know. Conservative media figures, including Fox News writer Stephen Miller, Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich, and Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, suggested that her answer was indicative of some sort of anti-Kavanaugh conspiracy. Later during the hearing, Ford’s lawyers said that they paid for it, which would be standard practice for the pro bono representation Ford is receiving. [Media Matters, 9/27/18]
Members of right-wing media fabricated a “gotcha” moment by making a big deal about the fact that Ford has flown on planes. Ford’s fear of flying played a role in the back-and-forth with the committee leading up to her testimony, which she ultimately decided to fly to D.C. to deliver. During her testimony, Ford was questioned by a sex crimes prosecutor about past instances when she has flown, including for vacation. Conservative outlets and media figures, including Breitbart, Washington Examiner, National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch, and Ben Shapiro, all ran with the prosecutor’s insinuation that Ford had lied about being afraid of flying, failing to acknowledge that plenty of people who are scared of flying nonetheless can and do fly. [Media Matters, 9/27/18]
Michael Savage spread a conspiracy theory that Ford is “deeply tied to the CIA.” Conservative radio host and conspiracy theorist Michael Savage sent a tweet that went viral that claimed to list three areas where Ford had connections to the Central Intelligence Agency, all of which fell apart upon cursory inspection. In one of the instances, Savage claimed that the law firm that Ford’s brother previously worked at shares office space with several businesses he said was operated by the CIA. But there is no evidence those businesses are connected to the CIA; one of them is actually a janitorial company that doesn’t even share office space with the firm in question. Infowars’ Alex Jones promoted Savage’s conspiracy theory, which was also the top Google search result for “Christine Ford CIA” on September 28. [Media Matters, 9/28/18]
A contributor to The Federalist suggested that Ford hypnotized herself in order to create a false memory of assault by Kavanaugh. Margot Cleveland, a senior contributor to The Federalist, seized on a 2008 academic article co-authored by Ford, who is a psychology professor, and 10 others that mentioned the use of hypnosis in therapy. The bizarre conspiracy theory was a misrepresentation of the article, which cited research from 1964 about hypnosis being used by therapy patients to “improve rapport in the therapeutic relationship, assist in the retrieval of important memories, and create artificial situations that would permit the client to express ego-dystonic emotions in a safe manner.” The study described by the article involved participants who were trained in self-hypnosis for use in “relaxation and affect regulation” -- not to create false memories. One of Ford’s co-authors spoke to Media Matters and slammed the conspiracy theory as “absolutely ridiculous” and that “the study had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of false memories, or the creation of memories of any kind.” The co-author noted additionally that Ford was a statistical consultant on the report, not a participant in the study, and that she worked on the data after it was collected. The disreputable website The Gateway Pundit advanced the conspiracy theory, which also spread on 4chan and Reddit’s pro-Trump “r/TheDonald” subreddit. [Media Matters, 10/1/18]
Photos falsely represented as Ford have been repeatedly shared online to discredit her. The fact-checking website Snopes.com has debunked several purported images of Ford that were spread online to discredit her. One of them was actually a photo of Ukrainian human rights activist Lyudmyla Kozlovka with philanthropist George Soros, whom the right-wing treats as a boogeyman. Another featured a photo of a half-naked woman pouring alcohol that is apparently from the 1960s, possibly before Ford was even born. Another smear attempt claimed that various women pictured at anti-Trump protests were Ford; one of them was identified as a woman named Liz Darner, while the other doesn’t “have much resemblance” to Ford, according to Snopes. The anti-choice outlet Life News and the conservative Daily Caller promoted the miscaptioned protest photos. [Snopes.com, 9/25/18, 9/23/18, 9/19/18, Twitter, 9/18/18]
Right-wing media pushed 4chan-sourced claim that the latest Kavanaugh accuser Julie Swetnick wasn’t real
Right-wing media figures spread a hoax after an anonymous 4chan poster claimed without evidence to have duped lawyer Michael Avenatti about the existence of a third woman willing to come forward to report Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for sexual misconduct. The woman in question, Julie Swetnick, has now come forward with a sworn declaration.
On Tuesday morning, an anonymous 4chan user claimed in a now-archived thread to have duped Avenatti by having someone impersonate a woman with knowledge of unreported instances of Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct.
It didn’t take long for influential right-wing media personalities to run with this baseless claim, in efforts to preemptively smear any source of new allegations against Kavanaugh. Conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson -- for whom no conspiracy theory is far-fetched enough if it discredits women with reports against Kavanaugh -- quickly helped advance the 4chan narrative, first retweeting a screenshot and then irresponsibly parroting it:
Erickson was not alone in spreading misinformation anonymously posted in a message board known for generating hoaxes. He was joined on Twitter by FoxNews.com commentator Stephen Miller, the widely-followed right-wing Twitter account Instapundit.com, and One America News Network correspondent and “Pizzagate” pusher Jack Posobiec.
Red State also jumped on the bandwagon, speculating in its report that the false narrative could be “one of the greatest events in 2018.” And on the September 26 edition of Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade also alluded to the fake narrative concocted by 4chan trolls, falsely claiming Avenatti had admitted to being fooled:
Brian Kilmeade defends Kavanaugh by circulating yesterday's 4chan-sourced rumor that 4chan duped Michael Avenatti. This timeline is so crushingly dumb. pic.twitter.com/ozE7bG0egf
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) September 26, 2018
Later on the show, Kilmeade clarified that Avenatti had denied having been duped.
Avenatti has now made publicly available a sworn declaration signed by a woman named Julie Swetnick. As legal commentators have pointed out, Swetnick’s sworn declaration was made under penalty of perjury, adding further weight to her report. The entire incident also shows how low right-wing media figures will stoop to discredit and dismiss women coming forward with potential reports against Kavanaugh. Clearly, if a narrative could potentially smear survivors or discredit sexual misconduct allegations, taking 4chan posts at face value isn’t low enough for right-wing media.
Swetnick says she “witnessed efforts by Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh and others to cause girls to become inebriated and disoriented so they could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom”
On September 26, a third woman came forward with an account of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Julie Swetnick said in a sworn declaration, initially posted on her lawyer Michael Avenatti’s Twitter account, that she witnessed Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge “drink excessively and engage in highly inappropriate conduct,” including “abusive and physically aggressive behavior toward girls.”
According to Swetnick, Judge, Kavanaugh, and others would make efforts to “‘spike’ the ‘punch’ at house parties … to cause girls to lose their inhibitions and their ability to say ‘No,’” and they would make “efforts” to “cause girls to become inebriated and disoriented so they could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.” Swetnick also stated, “In approximately 1982, I became the victim of one of these ‘gang’ or ‘train’ rapes where Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh were present.”
Several right-wing media figures reacted to this story by attacking Swetnick, casting doubt on her story, and defending Kavanaugh:
The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson: “So the FBI conducts six investigations into Kavanaugh and totally misses that he's been running drug and rape gangs since age 15, but the solution is to have the FBI do a seventh investigation?”
”Erickson: “If you know there's a band of 15 year olds running drugs and raping fellow teenagers, why'd you keep going to the parties? Why'd you never tell anyone else about this rape gang?”
Erickson, again: “Was Bill Cosby ever at a Georgetown Prep party? Because this sounds more like they confused Kavanaugh for him.”
The National Review’s David French: “Please someone help me with this. … Lots of people knew [Georgetown Prep boys] were committing gang rape, … [but] no one has talked publicly for three decades, until the day before a crucial Senate hearing. What?”
Radio host Hugh Hewitt quote-tweeted French’s tweet, writing: “It is not plausible. Committee staff should speak with her and senators/committee counsel should question Kavanaugh specifically on new affidavit. Then vote Friday. The parade of late hits won’t stop, won’t be illumined by delay.”
The National Review’s Rich Lowry: “One obvious question about this account: Why would she constantly attend parties where she believed girls were being gang-raped?”
The Daily Caller’s Saagar Enjeti: “At no point in this allegation does Avenatti's client claim she was raped by Brett Kavanaugh.”
The Daily Caller’s Derek Hunter: “Curiously @CNN is ignoring the garbage allegations of multiple gang rape parties. Yet they’re taking the test as gospel. What a bunch of bullshit.”
The Daily Caller’s Amber Athey: “Why the fuck did this woman go to ‘multiple parties’ where she knew gang rapes were a common occurrence?”
Fox News’ Stephen Miller: “This is going to end up at someone saw Kavanaugh do the shocker one time.”
The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway: “One thing that is not being captured in the media/Dem coordinated ‘Destroy Kavanaugh’ campaign is how unspeakably angry it is making a huge percentage of the population… They are *angry.*
Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter re-tweeted Avenatti’s tweet of Swetnick’s name and photo, with the caption “full of it.”
Schlichter: “This is all bullshit. Confirm him.”
Conservative radio host Buck Sexton: “We are left with 2 choices. 1) Kavanaugh was part of a secret roving gang rape squad in DC that was systemically violating women. … 2) This is the most disgustingly dishonest, coordinated smear campaign in US history.”
Conservative media figures reacted to a New Yorker story that a second woman reported Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for sexual misconduct by digging in on their support for him and demanding that Republicans hurry up and confirm him.
The New Yorker reported on Sunday evening that Deborah Ramirez, who attended Yale University with Kavanaugh, said that according to her recollection, “Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away”:
Ramirez said that, when both she and Kavanaugh were freshmen at Yale, she was invited by a friend on the women’s soccer team to a dorm-room party. She recalled that the party took place in a suite at Lawrance Hall, in the part of Yale known as Old Campus, and that a small group of students decided to play a drinking game together. “We were sitting in a circle,” she said. “People would pick who drank.” Ramirez was chosen repeatedly, she said, and quickly became inebriated. At one point, she said, a male student pointed a gag plastic penis in her direction. Later, she said, she was on the floor, foggy and slurring her words, as that male student and another stood nearby. (Ramirez identified the two male onlookers, but, at her request, The New Yorker is not naming them.)
A third male student then exposed himself to her. “I remember a penis being in front of my face,” she said. “I knew that’s not what I wanted, even in that state of mind.” She recalled remarking, “That’s not a real penis,” and the other students laughing at her confusion and taunting her, one encouraging her to “kiss it.” She said that she pushed the person away, touching it in the process. Ramirez, who was raised a devout Catholic, in Connecticut, said that she was shaken. “I wasn’t going to touch a penis until I was married,” she said. “I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated.” She remembers Kavanaugh standing to her right and laughing, pulling up his pants. “Brett was laughing,” she said. “I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants.” She recalled another male student shouting about the incident. “Somebody yelled down the hall, ‘Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face,’ ” she said. “It was his full name. I don’t think it was just ‘Brett.’ And I remember hearing and being mortified that this was out there.”
Ramirez acknowledged that there are significant gaps in her memories of the evening, and that, if she ever presents her story to the F.B.I. or members of the Senate, she will inevitably be pressed on her motivation for coming forward after so many years, and questioned about her memory, given her drinking at the party.
And yet, after several days of considering the matter carefully, she said, “I’m confident about the pants coming up, and I’m confident about Brett being there.” Ramirez said that what has stayed with her most forcefully is the memory of laughter at her expense from Kavanaugh and the other students. “It was kind of a joke,” she recalled. “And now it’s clear to me it wasn’t a joke.”
Another classmate told The New Yorker that he heard about the incident at the time and that he was told Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself to Ramirez.
The new reporting follows a week of right-wing media attacks on Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when they were in high school. Ford has agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this coming Thursday, but after this new allegation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has called for that hearing to be delayed.
At least one right-wing pundit, Ann Coulter, became unhinged on Twitter following the publication of Ramirez’s story:
Other conservatives called Ramirez’s accusation fake, criticized the timing of her going public, demanded Republicans stand by Kavanaugh anyway, and painted Kavanaugh as the true victim of these alleged sexual assaults.
Fox & Friends co-host Anna Kooiman: “Is this a drip, drip, drip … by the Democrats trying to delay everything until the midterm elections and really fire up their base saying Republicans are bullies?”
Conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson: “It seems more and more likely that the Blasey Ford delays were not to let her drive across country, but were to allow the Ramirez hit to get out. This is all coordinated and none of it is credible.”
Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel: “The left made a mistake with this Ramirez story. … It strongly suggests the Ford delay demands were about cooking this up. Destroys credibility all around.”
Fox Business anchor Dagen McDowell: “I think that this -- the timing is suspect and people have [a] right to question this second accuser coming forward.”
Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh: “Democrats were stalling last week to give themselves more of an opportunity to conjure up another accuser against Brett Kavanaugh,” and “they whipped together another accusation.”
Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk: “Senate Republicans: DO NOT CAVE! If you were up for this nomination I bet many of you would have plenty of these fake accusations come up. Stand by our guy. Do not waver.”
NRATV’s Dan Bongino: “Hill Democrats are consumed by raw hatred. Their capacity for evil knows no limits anymore. Correspondingly, the Hill Republicans shamefully showed weakness & cowed to their demands. … Hill Republicans let us down again.”
The Rebel’s Amanda Head: If Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Republicans “don’t fight these allegations and #ConfirmKavanaghNow we will lose midterms, we will lose 2020, and what’s worse, we will lose any chance at seeing a conservative majority SCOTUS in our lifetime.”
Federalist co-founder Sean Davis: “Senate Republicans have a simple choice: stand up to a coordinated Democrat smear campaign and confirm Kavanaugh, which will energize GOP voters and preserve House/Senate majorities, or buckle under Democrat lies and give up congressional GOP majorities for a decade or more.”
CRTV’s Michelle Malkin: If Senate Republicans “refuse to man up & stop coordinated Dem smear campaign once & for all, the consequences reach far beyond the electoral landscape.”
Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson: “#ConfirmBrettKavanaughNow.”
One America News Network host Jack Posobiec: “Raise your hand if you think the GOP should stop playing games and hold the Kavanaugh vote Monday.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham: Accusations against Kavanaugh are “a left-wing cabal, a left-wing conspiracy all coming together, swarming together.”
Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum: “‘Sickening’ was the word I heard most often this weekend to describe what is happening. Innocent until proven guilty is how we do this in America.”
Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe: “What is happening to #JudgeKavanaugh is wrong and terrifying.”
Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly: “Republicans are becoming terrified of the Kavanaugh situation because they know the media will embrace every lurid accusation without scrutiny, and no one will be held accountable for ignoring due process.”
Independent Women Forum’s Julie Gunlock: “What Ms. Ramirez and her enablers have done is odious. She’s destroying the life of a good man based on her own hazy memory of an event that happened decades ago when she was admittedly drunk.”
Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk: “These are POLITICAL HIT JOBS against a sterling person.”
American Conservative Union’s Matt Schlapp: “This Kavanaugh confirmation has transformed into a disgrace. How is it when Dems win their SC noms get an easy time, but ours get mauled.”
Daily Caller’s Amber Athey: “I have no words for how sickened I am by how the left and the establishment media are weaponizing non-credible sexual assault claims to destroy a human being.”
Conservative legal commentator Ed Whelan yesterday pushed a theory that it wasn’t Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford, but another man who looked like Kavanaugh. While many have denounced the speculation, calling it, for instance, “wildly irresponsible,” several mainstream and fringe conservative media outlets and personalities endorsed Whelan’s theory.
Ford has debunked the claim, saying there’s “zero chance that I would confuse them.” Though Whelan later deleted his tweets and apologized for identifying the supposed doppelganger, he hasn’t retracted his theory.
In the days before Whelan tweeted his ridiculous theory, other conservative media figures and even a Republican lawmaker speculated that Ford was mistaken about who assaulted her. A Wall Street Journal editorial published on September 17 with the title “The #MeToo Kavanaugh Ambush” claimed, “Mistaken identity is also possible.” The same day, Fox News The Five co-host Jesse Watters speculated, “Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity.” And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested Ford is “mixed up.” On September 18, conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that “as crazy as that sounds, it wouldn't be unheard of” for this to be just a matter of “mistaken identity,” in a column titled “Is there a Kavanaugh doppelganger?”
But it was Whelan’s now-deleted thread of tweets, posted on September 20, that spread throughout conservative media. Those who promoted it include:
Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy: Whelan “figured out what house it may have happened at, because it was a house closest to the golf course, and then realized whose house it was and looked at a picture of the young man who lived there at the time who was a classmate of Mr. Kavanaugh's. Put up side by side images, they look a lot alike.”
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson: Whelan “decided to put up a more compelling story that embraces Ford’s theory of assault.”
While I am still not convinced there was an assault on Professor Ford, an intriguing theory has come forward that embraces the idea she was assaulted and makes a far more plausible case than that Brett Kavanaugh did it.
Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center decided to put up a more compelling story that embraces Ford's theory of assault, while filling in the details she provided. And while I continue to find it unseemly to drag another innocent person into a fraudulent claim, the facts are very compelling that this is the location and things make more sense if you assume Ford was assaulted.
The facts, as Ed Whelan laid them out, are that Brett Kavanaugh did go to school with someone who has a striking resemblance. That person lived within walking distance of the club Ford claims she had been at. The home matches the limited description Ford provided. I suspect more information will roll out as well over the coming days.
I continue to believe Ford's accusation is not credible. If you find it credible, Whelan's evidence is compelling unless you're just trying to stop Kavanaugh for partisan or ideological reasons.
Conservative NY Times columnist Ross Douthat: I “assume there’s more reason to believe [Whelan’s] doppelganger theory than just what he just tweeted.”
Gateway Pundit: Whelan “drops pictures and evidence that blows Christine Ford’s case wide open.”
Accuser Christine Blasey Ford is waging a war on Trump’s SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh with decades-old, unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault in an effort to derail his confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Judge Kavanaugh has categorically denied the allegations and even told Senator Orin (sic) Hatch he wasn’t at the party in question.
Ed Whelan, Justice Scalia’s former law clerk and president of conservative think tank the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), came out in defense of Brett Kavanaugh and said compelling evidence will come out next week exonerating Kavanaugh.
On Thursday afternoon, Ed Whelan started dropping pictures and evidence that may blow Christine Ford’s case wide open.
Twitchy: “Ed Whelan’s BOMBSHELL thread takes Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh apart.”
Earlier today, Twitchy covered the ‘rumor’ that information had been obtained that some felt would 100% exonerate Kavanaugh. This originally stemmed from tweets Ed Whelan sent out in the first part of this week.
Welp, looks like Ed made good on his claim and posted a thread of facts that would give anyone pause as to what really did and did not happen to Ford and could eventually prove Kavanaugh’s innocence.
Keep in mind, we can neither confirm nor deny anything Whelan has stated in his bombshell thread.
Zero Hedge: “Was Kavanaugh accuser almost raped by his doppelganger? A new theory emerges.”
A new theory has emerged in the case of whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted accuser Christine Blasey Ford roughly 35 years ago; it was Kavanaugh's high school look-alike, whose high school house better fits Ford's description, and who kept in touch with the other guy allegedly in the room, Mark Judge.
The theory was presented Thursday afternoon by Ed Whelan, a former clerk to USSC Justice Antonin Scalia and currently president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a conservative think tank.
The Goldwater: “Breaking: Attorney Ed Whelan drops explosive evidence of vindication for Judge Kavanaugh.”
Ford has been traumatized by the memory of sexual assault for 35 years. She sought therapy in 2012 due to the horrible memories. No one would go to all that trouble for nothing. Something happened to her.
I couldn’t wrap my head around this story. What happened here? There had to be an explanation. Something I was missing. Then I read a story today that closed some loopholes for me. Below is the story I read.
Please note that I am in no way stating that this is true. We have no idea what happened to Ford back when she was a teenager. This is just one idea, one possibility. Keep in mind that Ford can’t remember much about the details. It was a long time ago. This is why Kavanaugh should have never been put through this. He and his family are suffering, and Ford has no facts to base her allegations on.
Ed Whalen’s Theory of Kavanaugh Rape…
Conservative Firing Line: “It looks like the case brought against Judge Brett Kavanaugh just took another serious hit.”
It looks like the case brought against Judge Brett Kavanaugh just took another serious hit. The Washington Post reported that Ed Whelan, a former clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the president of conservative think tank the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), said “compelling evidence” which apparently includes photos and maps would exonerate Kavanaugh from allegations brought by Christine Blasey Ford.
Powerline promoted Whelan’s tweets with headline “Mistake identity?”
Paul (and Senator Orrin Hatch) has already mentioned the possibility that Dr. Ford’s allegation of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh may be a case of mistaken identity, based in part on Ed Whelan’s cryptic tweets that Kavanaugh is going to be fully exonerated. This has set off a firestorm of rumors and expectations. Whelan has just now (6 pm eastern time) provided one specific scenario of this on Twitter, offering up a specific name (though careful to note that he makes no allegation of implication that the other person, Chris Garrett, assaulted Ford as claimed).
Read the whole thread—it doesn’t take long, but it is not easily summarized here.