Fox News defends acting attorney general from criticism of his anti-Mueller op-ed because "he was expressing his opinion"
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Alliance Defending Freedom is one of the most powerful and extreme anti-LGBTQ groups in the country
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Department of Justice (DOJ) task force to enforce “religious liberty” rules that make it easier to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and others under the guise of “religious freedom." Such discrimination is a major part of the mission of anti-LGBTQ legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and the announcement was followed by a panel that included a major ADF client and was moderated by an ADF staff alumna. Coupled with ADF's involvement in the announcement, the new task force demonstrates the influence of the group's extreme anti-LGBTQ views on the administration.
On July 30, Sessions launched a new “Religious Liberty Task Force” that would enforce discriminatory religious exemptions guidance that the DOJ released in October 2017. (Sessions had worked with ADF on the guidance before its release.) Religious exemptions policies, such as those the DOJ released, allow people and businesses to be exempt from nondiscrimination laws and policies by citing a burden on their religious beliefs. People have frequently used the exemptions to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and others.
ADF was one of the first to break the news of the July 30 “Religious Liberty Summit” in which the task force was announced, noting that the event would feature a panel including the group’s client Jack Phillips, a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple and who took his case to the Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commision. ADF’s news release, however, did not mention that the panel’s moderator, DOJ media affairs specialist Kerri Kupec, worked at ADF for four years before joining DOJ in January. During his remarks, Sessions said that the DOJ had “been holding listening sessions” with “religious groups across America,” which ADF has acknowledged it has been involved with in the past. Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel has already praised the announcement of the task force.
The Trump-Pence administration has shown a coziness with extreme anti-LGBTQ groups and with ADF, in particular. Sessions’ DOJ issued an unusual brief on behalf of Phillips before oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop, and ADF alumni and allies have been hired by various agencies and nominated for federal judgeships. As Media Matters’ recently released research book details, ADF holds dozens of extreme anti-LGBTQ positions on nearly every every aspect of life, including supporting laws that would punish sodomy by imprisonment, writing in favor of Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, and advocating against efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy. The group is in many ways the most influential group working to roll back LGBTQ equality in the country, frequently targeting basic protections for transgender students and pushing religious exemptions policies.
The “Religious Liberty Task Force” is yet another example of a cabinet-level agency devoting significant resources to make it easier to discriminate against LGBTQ people. In January, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a new division to enforce laws protecting “health care workers who express religious objections to performing abortions and certain other procedures,” including providing medical services to transgender and other LGBTQ people. ADF had previously called on HHS to rescind several LGBTQ-inclusive protections it categorized as infringing on the “religious freedom” of religious organizations and other medical providers, and it praised the division’s creation. When groups like ADF have a seat at the table with the upper echelons of our federal government, discriminatory policies such as these come as no surprise.
To learn more about the anti-LGBTQ positions of ADF, check out Media Matters’ interactive research book, “The extremism of anti-LGBTQ powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom.”
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President Donald Trump’s favorite morning cable program, Fox & Friends, is continuing its longstanding model of ignoring important reporting on potential legal troubles for the Trump administration. On June 1, the show chose not to cover a new report from Axios that the president “pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reclaim control of the Russia investigation on at least four separate occasions.”
On May 31, Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported that in “multiple conversations” with the attorney general, Trump “pressured” Sessions “to reclaim control of the Russia investigation” into possible coordination between the country and the Trump campaign. According to Swan, “The sustained pressure made several officials uncomfortable, because they viewed it as improper and worry that it could be politically and legally problematic.” The New York Times had reported two days earlier about one of those conversations, and the piece noted that special counsel Robert Mueller regarded Sessions as “a key witness in the investigation into whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry itself.”
But Trump’s favorite morning cable news program, Fox & Friends, has all but ignored the news. A Media Matters review found that on the morning of June 1, Fox & Friends did not mention Sessions or Trump’s multiple requests that he “unrecuse” himself from the investigation, which follows the show’s transparent and well-documented trend of all but ignoring negative reporting regarding the Trump administration.
Fox’s Jason Chaffetz: “The real investigation should be into the investigators”
In three separate segments today, Fox & Friends suggested the appointment of a “second special counsel to look into” the Department of Justice’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and “into the investigators” on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. Former congressman and current Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz appeared on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite cable news program, alongside Fox’s Pete Hegseth to push for an investigation of the Department of Justice employing “a special prosecutor and the IG at the same,” something the president’s legal team has endorsed.
Chaffetz’s call for a second special counsel followed two other segments in which the hosts hyped the possibility of an appointment of a second special counsel as “a debate being had right now.” Trump’s attorney general has so far resisted similar calls from Republican lawmakers. From the March 29 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:
PETE HEGSETH (CO-HOST): I know you have called and some others have called for the need, potentially, for a second special counsel to look into this FISA abuse. The attorney general is now saying the [Department of Justice] inspector general will be looking into it. Is this a good development, and is it sufficient?
JASON CHAFFETZ (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): Well, it means that they’re following the facts and that -- the inspectors general, they don't just go on fishing trips. He’s completing an investigation, nearly a year long. And what this indicates to me is he’s actually got some real evidence out there and he’s warning a second investigation.
That should be coupled with a special prosecutor, because there are a number of people that have left the employment of the government and [Department of Justice Inspector General] Michael Horowitz, as good and as talented as he and his staff are, they don't have the jurisdiction to go talk to people who, like Mr. [former Deputy FBI Director Andrew] McCabe, for instance, who’s now left. If you couple a special prosecutor, then they have the investigative tools in place to go interview those people and to prosecute those people if they find anything where people have broken the law.
HEGSETH: So this inspector general was looking into the email server abuse potentially and the investigation into the Hillary Clinton. It seems the facts have broadened into the reality, the real investigation should be into the investigators themselves and the abuse of the FISA process. But you say they should be coupled together, need a special prosecutor and the IG at the same time?
CHAFFETZ: This is also critical because [Former FBI Director and Special Counsel Robert] Mueller is evidently not doing his job based on the one-page directive that he was given. Not only was he supposed to look at directly at the Donald Trump and any collusion, even though we don't see any evidence of it, that was the directive that [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein put in place, but point number two on that one page was to follow the evidence of anything else that he might’ve seen about meddling in the election. And there is a lot of evidence about the Democrats and the Hillary Clinton campaign coordinating and spending money overseas on this fake dossier. But it does not appear that Mueller is pursuing any of that, that’s why I think the inspector general coupled with a yet-to-be-named appointment of a special prosecutor, is going to have to go do that job.
On March 6, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against the state of California, Gov. Jerry Brown, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, claiming that three of the state’s immigration laws violate the supremacy clause of the Constitution. The lawsuit is the culmination of an ongoing battle between California and the federal government over the latter’s anti-immigrant policies -- a battle in which Fox News is playing a crucial role.
For years, Fox has repeatedly accused California lawmakers of “placing illegal immigrants and illegal activity over citizens” and violating federal law. Now, the network is using the administration’s very own talking points and propaganda in an attempt to tip the scales in the lawsuit.
Fox host Harris Faulkner and Fox News contributor Steve Cortes have both adopted Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ bizarre talking point comparing California to states that seceded during the Civil War.
Fox host Laura Ingraham recited claims from the White House about undocumented immigrants who allegedly committed crimes and were released from local jails despite requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold them past their proper release dates. Fox’s Harris Faulkner welcomed Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) sweeping depiction of undocumented immigrants as members of the gang MS-13 -- a frequent characterization made by President Donald Trump -- and joined him in hyping the idea of immigrants as criminals. Faulkner later falsely claimed that ICE is targeting for deportation only “people who have so been identified that they endanger the rest of us.”
In reality, only about half of the immigrants detained by ICE during the most recent raid in California had serious criminal histories, and ICE has made clear that any undocumented immigrant caught up in a raid is subject to “"immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States." According to CNN, ICE arrested 46,000 people without criminal records in Trump’s first year in office, “a 171% increase in the number of non-criminal individuals arrested over 2016.”
Even a Fox correspondent who, presumably, should report the news without bias characterized undocumented immigrants as “fugitives” who “remain at large.” CNN has reported that ICE has recently added “ICE fugitives,” which originally referred to people with final orders of deportation, to the category of “convicted criminals,” allowing the agency to misleadingly claim that 92 percent of immigrants arrested under Trump had criminal convictions when in reality that number is closer to 70 percent.
Regardless, Fox News has taken a clear position in favor of deportations and has taken to cheering on ICE raids despite the devastation they reap on local communities and families:
And while Fox has criticized California laws that prohibit local law enforcement and private employers from cooperating with ICE, the network has made little mention of a third aspect of the DOJ lawsuit that aims to prevent California from overseeing federal immigrant detention centers, which are rife with human rights abuses. This is unsurprising given the network’s indifference to the mistreatment of immigrants in detention.
While Fox News has long been a purveyor of false information surrounding immigration, the network has of late taken a decisively aggressive and propagandistic tone in the spirit of advancing the policies of a fiercely anti-immigrant administration.
More than half of all coverage was about two specific cases, and most coverage of LGBTQ victims failed to mention the growing trend
A Media Matters analysis of broadcast and cable news found that networks discussed anti-LGBTQ violence and homicides only 22 times for less than 40 minutes across seven channels in 2017, even though it was the deadliest year in hate violence against the community since at least 2012. The majority of the coverage was about two specific stories and came on just four days, and the networks rarely noted the trend of increasing anti-LGBTQ violence nationwide in their coverage.
Each editorial USA Today publishes is accompanied by an "opposing view" op-ed that presents a counter-argument. This is a particular problem when it comes to the topic of climate change. As Media Matters has documented on multiple occasions, the newspaper's “opposing view” format regularly leads it to publish climate denial and misinformation from authors who have undisclosed fossil-fuel industry connections.
USA Today has heard from critics who have called on it to stop running climate-denying op-eds, but instead of changing its practices, the paper's editorial board is trying to defend them. Its defense does not hold up to scrutiny.
Bill Sternberg, the paper's editorial page editor, put forward that defense in a January 26 piece titled, "Why does USA TODAY pair editorials with opposing views?" From the piece:
In recent years, perhaps no debate topic has been more controversial than global warming. A number of readers and outside groups have demanded that we stop running opposing views from climate change skeptics.
We’ve tried to adhere to the rule of thumb put forth by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York: Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts.
In other words, we won’t run pieces that deny the reality of human-induced climate change. The scientific consensus on that point is overwhelming, and increasingly so.
But we will run opposing views that disagree about proposed remedies, discuss the urgency of the climate change problem compared to other problems, or raise questions about costs versus benefits.
And whenever possible, we try to disclose potential conflicts of interest, such as whether the writers, or their organizations, have received money from fossil-fuel interests.
But in fact USA Today has regularly run "opposing view" op-eds that "deny the reality of human-induced climate change." And many of them have been written by people who have "received money from fossil-fuel interests," which the paper typically fails to disclose.
A 2016 Media Matters study found that USA Today published five “opposing view” opinion pieces featuring climate denial or misinformation from January 1, 2015, through August 31, 2016. All five were written by individuals with fossil-fuel ties, which USA Today did not disclose to readers.
For example, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the Senate's leading climate denier, argued in a March 2015 "opposing view" piece that "the debate on man-driven climate change is not over," though in fact it is over. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, as Sternberg admits in his own piece.
And, in October 2015, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wrote an "opposing view" op-ed claiming that “temperatures have been essentially flat for 18 years," pushing a favorite climate-denier myth that has been thoroughly discredited. USA Today did not disclose that Inhofe and Sessions had both received substantial campaign contributions from fossil fuel industry interests -- millions of dollars in Inhofe's case and hundreds of thousands in Sessions'.
More recently, in August 2017, USA Today published an op-ed casting doubt on a federal climate report; the piece was written by Chris Horner, who the paper identified only as "a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute." As Media Matters pointed out at the time, Horner's work has been funded by big fossil-fuel corporations for years. Horner has received payments from Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal companies in the U.S., and has numerous other ties to the coal industry. Horner’s employer, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has received more than $2 million from ExxonMobil over the past two decades, as well as funding from Marathon Petroleum, Texaco, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Koch Industries, and the Koch brothers' charitable foundations, among others.
But USA Today might be making modest progress on disclosure, at least. In September 2017, an "opposing view" piece by longtime climate denier Myron Ebell did acknowledge some of his conflicts of interest. The bio that ran under his piece read, "Myron Ebell is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received donations from fossil fuel interests."
If USA Today recently adopted a policy of disclosing authors' fossil-fuel industry ties, that would be a modest step in the right direction. But it still needs to do more to fix its problem. Instead of giving a platform to an increasingly small group of climate deniers, whose views are far outside the mainstream, the paper should be inviting more commentary from diverse voices in the business, military, scientific, and other communities who are arguing for different kinds of climate solutions.
The country desperately needs intelligent debate about the best ways to combat and cope with climate change, not about whether climate change is a serious problem. If, as Sternberg claims, USA Today wants to make its readers "better informed," it should publish more op-eds by people who take climate change seriously and create a vibrant forum for honest and constructive back-and-forth about climate action.
A pair of interconnected conspiracy theories designed to undermine the FBI and the special counsel’s investigation of President Donald Trump’s administration were concocted by the president’s Republican congressional allies, championed by the pro-Trump media, and then promptly fell apart this week.
The conservative hysteria revolved around text messages during the 2016 presidential campaign between high-ranking FBI agent Peter Strzok, who helped lead federal investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server and the links between Russia and Trump’s campaign, and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was reportedly having an extramarital affair. Some of those messages included criticism of Trump (leading to Strzok’s removal from the special counsel’s investigation over the summer). The president’s allies have seized on newly released texts as part of their effort to undermine the Mueller investigation, baselessly citing them as evidence of improper “deep state” bias against the president. Meanwhile, they have largely ignored other texts that dramatically undermine that conspiracy theory.
In this latest salvo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reported on Monday that while more than 50,000 text messages had been exchanged between the two officials, the FBI’s system had not retained the messages for the period between December 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017. The same day, Republican members of Congress claimed in interviews with Fox News that one of the available text messages included a reference to “the first meeting of the secret society.”
Armed with those two facts,Trump’s media allies went wild, suggesting that an FBI “secret society” was targeting the president and that the missing messages had been deliberately deleted to cover up the effort. “People at the highest level in the DOJ and the FBI ... must be investigated, they must be indicted, and probably many of them thrown in jail,” Sean Hannity said on Tuesday night. “There needs to be serious ramifications if we are going to save our country.” Fox Business host Lou Dobbs argued that it “may be time to declare war outright against the deep state, and clear out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department.” “I’ve said it before - THEY NEED TO BE TAKEN OUT IN CUFFS,” Fox’s Jeanine Pirro tweeted.
The stories became a leading fixation on Fox News throughout the day on Tuesday and Wednesday:
And then, just as swiftly as they had arisen, the stories collapsed. Federal law enforcement officials explained that, rather than being specifically deleted as part of a nefarious cover-up, the technical glitch that prevented the archiving of five months of Page-Strzok texts had actually affected almost one in ten FBI employees. And the actual text message, obtained by ABC, that the president’s Republican and media allies were citing showed that the comment appeared to be a joke (which was always the most plausible explanation):
The “secret society” FBI text making the rounds was almost certainly a joke. It came the day after the election:
“Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”https://t.co/ALgad2nfIJ
— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) January 24, 2018
It was an embarrassing moment for the Republican congressmen who were exposed pushing obvious nonsense to protect the president by damaging the FBI, and the Fox commentators and other pro-Trump media figures who helped the story along. But of course, none of these people have any shame:
If you're curious, Sean Hannity did not care about the "secret society" story falling apart last night. pic.twitter.com/upSfjSZi39
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 25, 2018
Fox & Friends mentioned the term "secret society" over 20 times on Tuesday and Wednesday ... now that the text message shows it was a joke, silence.
Not one mention of secret societies on today's show. Not a correction, not a clarification, nothing.
— Lis Power (@LisPower1) January 25, 2018
The pro-Trump media can’t back down now. They have spent months declaring in increasingly dire terms that the “deep state” had engaged in a “coup” against the president and needed to be purged.
The heightened intensity of that counter-narrative becomes all the more important as new reports indicate that the special counsel’s investigation is getting ever-closer to Trump himself -- and as more evidence mounts that the president has repeatedly sought to obstruct that effort and purge the Justice Department of people he considers disloyal to him.
But thanks to the right-wing alternative media bubble, the pro-Trump audience is existing in a parallel news universe, constantly hearing that the president did nothing wrong and that extreme actions are needed to protect him from his foes.
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Stop writing headlines that whitewash bigotry
Several media outlets’ headlines portrayed Attorney General Jeff Session as defying his anti-LGBTQ image by sending a federal lawyer to help prosecute a plaintiff accused of murdering a transgender high school student, but these characterizations omit the crucial context that Sessions is still attempting to roll back LGBTQ protections. And studies have found that headlines influence the way people understand the news and that a majority of news consumers do not read past the headlines, including on articles they share.
On October 15, The New York Times reported that Sessions had “dispatched an experienced federal hate crimes lawyer to Iowa to help prosecute a man charged with murdering a transgender high school student last year.” The Times also enumerated many of Sessions’ anti-LGBTQ moves, including his opposition as a senator to same-sex marriage and to “expanding federal hate crimes laws to protect transgender people,” as well as a number of his discriminatory moves as attorney general. Yet the paper portrayed the attorney general’s latest action as “sending a signal that he has made a priority of fighting violence against transgender people individually, even as he has rolled back legal protections for them collectively.” The headline went further, claiming Sessions “defies his image” on LGBTQ issues:
The Times was not alone: Newsweek and HuffPost portrayed Sessions’ move as support for the LGBTQ community. HuffPost’s headline said Sessions “confound[ed] critics” with the decision, and Newsweek said he had joined the “fight for justice for [the] slain transgender teen”:
These headlines give readers the initial impression that Sessions has moderated his position toward the rights of transgender people. But investigating the murder of one transgender person hardly constitutes initiating some sort of large-scale progressive change. Indeed, National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) Program Director Harper Jean Tobin said in May, “It is somewhat reassuring that while Attorney General Sessions has apparently no problem with transgender people being fired, or bullied in school, or kicked out of public places because of who they are, he has apparently come around to believing that transgender people should not be murdered in the streets.” NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling noted that Sessions’ move “rings hollow — even hypocritical — in the face of his systematic and relentless attacks against transgender people and other LGBTQ people.”
Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Legal Director Sarah Warbelow noted that Sessions was “seeking credit for prosecuting a hate crime” just one week after he made two major moves that make it easier to discriminate against queer and transgender people, including launching what Warbelow called “a sweeping license to discriminate against LGBTQ people” and reversing a policy that protected transgender people under Title VII. Warbelow added that Sessions’ opposition to transgender rights breeds a climate allowing hate and violence: “We believe Americans deserve an Attorney General willing to address systemic discrimination and enforce policies and laws that prevent hate violence in the first place.” In the Times report, Vanita Gupta, former Justice Department civil rights division head under the Obama administration, made a similar point, saying, “It would behoove Sessions to connect the dots between his policies that promote discrimination and hate that can result in death.”
Lambda Legal released a statement blasting Sessions as a “hypocrite,” calling the move a “publicity stunt,” and saying it was “the height of cynicism” for him to “use this - frankly rare - instance of civil rights enforcement under his tenure to deflect from the current department’s sustained opposition to its historic mission.” The statement noted that “it is important and right that the Department of Justice assist in bringing to justice the murderer of Kedarie/Kandicee Johnson,” but that “no one in the Trump administration has done more to harm LGBT people, and especially transgender people, than Jeff Sessions.”
What does this all mean for the audience that saw only lazy headlines about Sessions? It could mean news outlets unwittingly fooled readers into believing that the attorney general had shifted on LGBTQ issues. In 2016, computer scientists from Columbia University and the French National Institute estimated that that a majority (59 percent) of links shared on Twitter are not clicked at all, meaning that for news stories, the headline is often all people read. “In other words,” The Washington Post wrote of the study, “most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it. Worse, the study finds that these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.” Similarly, a 2014 study by the American Press Institute found that only “4 in 10 Americans report that they delved deeper into a particular news subject beyond the headlines in the last week.”
In 2014, The New Yorker published a piece titled “How headlines change the way we think” that explained how “the crafting of the headline subtly shift[s] the perception of the text that follows.” It noted that headlines “can influence your mindset as you read so that you later recall details that coincide with what you were expecting.” The piece cited a series of studies by psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Ullrich Ecker that found that headlines do “more than simply reframe the article” and that “a misleading headline hurt a reader’s ability to recall the article’s details.” Ecker also found that misleading headlines “impaired a reader’s ability to make accurate inferences.” The New Yorker’s piece demonstrates that even the minority of readers “who do go on to read the entire piece may still be reacting in part to that initial formulation” from the headline.
Misleading headlines have been a pattern in news coverage of the right and LGBTQ issues. Despite President Donald Trump and his administration’s relentless attacks on LGBTQ people, including banning transgender people from the military, numerous headlines have praised him as pro-LGBTQ. When anti-LGBTQ extremist Roy Moore won Alabama’s Republican primary for Senate, headlines whitewashed him as simply a “firebrand.” Moore has suggested 9/11 was punishment for “legitimized sodomy,” called homosexuality “the same thing” as having sex with a cow, and repeatedly asserted that “homosexual conduct should be illegal.” He was also kicked off Alabama’s Supreme Court for discriminating against same-sex couples. Readers, however, may have been left with the impression that he was just another anti-establishment candidate, just as they may now believe Sessions has done something extraordinary.