Sean Spicer | Media Matters for America

Sean Spicer

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  • Citing far-right outlet OANN, Trump revives conspiracy theory that caused an international incident with the UK in 2017

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    On April 24, President Donald Trump tweeted that former CIA analyst Larry Johnson has accused the United Kingdom's intelligence agencies of “helping Obama Administration Spy on the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign.” Trump was apparently tweeting in response to a segment he watched on One America News Network, a conservative cable news channel. In doing so, the president has resurfaced a conspiracy theory from a discredited fraud that -- when Fox News promoted it in 2017 -- helped cause an international incident between the United States and the United Kingdom. 

    Larry Johnson is a conservative conspiracy theorist notorious for pushing the racist smear that there was a tape of former first lady Michelle Obama calling people “whitey.” Johnson appeared on Russian television network RT in March 2017 to argue that “there was some collusion overseas” between U.S. intelligence and the U.K. security agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and that British intelligence gathered information about Trump that it passed to Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan. None of Johnson’s allegations are true.

    Several days later, Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano shared the theory (with anonymous attribution) on two Fox shows. It then spread over right-wing media and ultimately reached then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer. On March 16, 2017, Spicer cited Napolitano’s RT-sourced conspiracy theory in a press briefing to suggest that one of the United States’ strongest allies was illegally spying on Trump on behalf of then-President Barack Obama. The British government was displeased, and GCHQ issued a rare statement denouncing Napolitano’s “utterly ridiculous” claim. 

    After The New York Times confirmed Media Matters’ discovery that Johnson was one of Napolitano’s sources for the conspiracy theory, Fox News suspended Napolitano “indefinitely,” which turned out to be approximately two weeks. (Upon his return to Fox, Napolitano doubled down on the claim that got him suspended.) When the controversy blew back on Trump himself during a press conference, the president ducked all responsibility and blamed Fox News

    A few weeks after this incident, CNN reported that European intelligence agencies, including GCHQ, captured Trump campaign communications “during routine surveillance of Russian officials” and passed them on to U.S. intelligence. However, no agencies involved in this incidental collection were “proactively targeting members of the Trump team,” as Johnson, Napolitano, and Spicer had falsely alleged.

    Now, two years later, the president is pushing the same conspiracy theory that previously damaged the U.S.-U.K. alliance and which the British government has denounced as “utterly ridiculous” for the second time -- all because he was watching TV. 

  • Fox plays defense for Trump after Democrats ask the IRS for his tax returns 

    Blog ››› ››› GRACE BENNETT

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On April 3, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) asked the Internal Revenue Service to deliver the last six years of President Donald Trump’s tax returns to the committee. Trump’s personal lawyer William S. Consovoy and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney have both forcefully responded to the committee’s request, claiming Democrats have no right to the documents -- and Fox News seems to agree.

    Hosts, contributors, and guests on the network suggested that Democrats’ efforts to view the documents are a politically motivated “fishing expedition” and claimed that congressional Democrats are weaponizing the IRS and abusing their power.

    But in reality, there are plenty of good reasons for seeking a president’s tax returns. And while the law Neal is relying on to request them has not previously been used for that purpose, it also hasn’t ever been needed; Trump is the first president in 40 years to forgo releasing his tax returns. Additionally, Republicans used the same law in 2014 to access the returns from several partisan groups and then made the documents public.

    Fox figures also argued that the public likely doesn’t care about the returns. But a recent poll found that the majority of Americans -- 56% -- want Trump to release his returns to the public.

    Here are some of Fox’s reactions:

    Fox claim: The request is an attempt to change the narrative from the Mueller report or other issues

    After special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report to the attorney general about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Fox Business host Stuart Varney argued that Democrats are asking for Trump’s returns to “sow doubt in the public mind [and] undermine Mueller’s conclusion” by “implying a coverup” on his tax returns.

    Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs hosted frequent Fox guest Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who argued that requesting Trump’s tax returns is an “effort by Democrats to distract us from how corrupt the DNC and Clinton campaign were.”

    Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy argued that Democrats have moved on from collusion and “changed the narrative now to the taxes.” Fox contributor Dan Bongino agreed that Democrats “switched the narrative,” saying, “Now that obstruction isn't working, they are going to move on to some kind of financial collusion with the Trump tax returns.”

    Kayleigh McEnany, frequent Fox guest and national press secretary for Trump’s 2020 campaign, claimed Democrats are “so upset that the Mueller report turned up no collusion, no obstruction. So they’re returning back to the old tactic of let’s go after the tax returns.”  

    Fox claim: Requesting the returns is a politically motivated “fishing expedition” to find anything at all on Trump

    Fox regular and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the request as “a political fishing expedition” and complained that Democrats “are not going after him because of some particular reason. They want to go in a fishing expedition and find something that they can hang over his head.”

    Fox contributor Byron York claimed on multiple Fox programs that the IRS request is a “fishing expedition.” On Fox Business, Dobbs told York that he didn’t use the phrase “fishing expedition” himself because he believes “that nomenclature trivializes what is a venal, venomous, ignorant assault against a sitting president.” Dobbs also claimed that the request is “absolutely beyond the proper bounds of the intent of the Constitution or the statutory authority of the United States Congress.”  

    Fox hosts Sandra Smith and Bill Hemmer hosted White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley and failed to push back when he asserted that if the government “gave the Mueller report to the entire press corps” along with Trump’s tax returns, “they’d come up with something else. It is never good enough.”

    Fox claim: Democrats are weaponizing the IRS

    Fox contributor Karl Rove claimed that “every American, Republican or Democrat, ought to be concerned about weaponizing the IRS in this manner,” and he said that Democrats are looking for “anything they can find in order to bring [Trump] down.”

    Fox guest and Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler argued that Democrats are doing “exactly what the IRS did to the Tea Parties -- they targeted people based on their political affiliation.”

    Frequent Fox guest and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said the IRS will “have to resist” the Democrats’ request “because it would be totally illegal.”

    On America’s Newsroom, McEnany accused Democrats of “using the IRS as a political weapon.”

    Fox claim: People aren’t interested in seeing Trump’s tax returns

    After Fox contributor Jessica Tarlov claimed that “people want to know how rich is the president actually,” Outnumbered co-host Harris Faulkner suggested that those people don’t actually exist. She asked Tarlov, “Have you talked to these people?” and, “Are they in the electorate? Where are these people?” Faulkner added that “America voted,” suggesting that Americans must not care about the returns since Trump won an election without releasing them.

    Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt claimed that "the majority" of "America doesn't care about seeing" Trump's tax returns.

  • “Did you hear that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”: Fox has another socialism freakout after Trump’s State of the Union address

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS & JOHN KERR

    During his 2019 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump declared, “America will never be a socialist country.” Fox News and Fox Business guests and hosts picked up the narrative, stressing that while we are watching socialism “falling apart” in Venezuela, “the Democrats continue to crawl closer” to the ideology” even though “it leads to ruin, it is immoral, and it is fundamentally wrong.”

    Here are some examples of Fox News and Fox Business figures losing their minds, once again, about socialism.

    Fox’s Sean Hannity: “The president also made it perfectly clear, America will never become -- now think about this, even Nancy [Pelosi] and Chuck [Schumer] had to stand up. Not sure that Congresswoman [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez liked it -- we will never become a socialist country.”

    Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy: “One of the most delicious cutaways was of Bernie Sanders” while Trump was talking about Venezuela and saying that “the United States will never be a socialist country. Now that’s something everybody’s got to applaud for, right? No, not really.”

    Doocy: “The Democrats, who would not stand, when we were talking about socialism, the unborn, unemployment, and things like that. You would think these are things we all get together on.”

    Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed that socialism is “falling apart” in Venezuela, adding, “When you talk about the Green Deal, free pre-K, free college, free ‘Medicare-for-all,’ you talk about an unsustainable, untenable series of invoices that America can’t possibly pay.”

    Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer: “The policies that are being advocated by Democrats continue to crawl closer to socialism and embrace an economic scheme that I think has failed throughout the world, and that concerns me.”

    Spicer: “We see the folks in Venezuela really fighting for freedom and independence, ... and yet you have these folks in the Democratic Party that are embracing socialism and proudly -- they are embracing it.”

    Fox Business host Stuart Varney: “Socialists don’t care about growth and prosperity. They don’t care about America’s booming economy. They don’t care about it.”

    Varney: “The Democrat Party, again, my opinion, has been taken over by the socialist left. … Look what you have got here on the left of the Democrat Party. It is socialism! I’m not surprised that the Democrats in the House did not stand up and cheer when the president called out socialism. That’s who they are. That’s who they have become. OK, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, because I am a refugee from socialism. … It leads to ruin, it is immoral, and it is fundamentally wrong. It is based actually on legalized theft.”

    Varney: “If you watch this program, you’ll know we are dead set against socialism. Personally, I walked away from British socialism in the 1970s. I have often said I am a refugee. Socialism leads to decline and ruin. It stifles individual success. So-called democratic socialism is simply legalized theft.” 

    Varney: “Democrats running for the presidency have embraced … the Green New Deal to kill oil companies and ‘Medicare-for-all’ that kills private health insurance. That is socialism. That is the new face of the Democrat Party. No wonder they sat on their hands when the president said, ‘We were born free, and we will stay free.’ Forgive me, please, for spending so much time on this, but I have seen it in practice. I have lived it. And I'm here to tell you socialism is just plain awful. This is Varney & Co.; we celebrate capitalism.”

    Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo: “How is it possible that they did not stand up when he said we will not become a socialist country?”

    Bartiromo: “That was President Trump last night disavowing socialism in his State of the Union address. … Nobody got up! … Half the room didn’t get up.”

    Fox News contributor Dagen McDowell: “These Democrats are actually anti-capitalism. … They are on the record for being in favor of socialism. We already know that socialism is going mainstream in the Democratic Party.”

    Fox Business host Cheryl Casone: “The president called out socialism last night in his State of the Union, and Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [is] not happy about it. … The left is reeling this morning.”

    Fox Business’ Trish Regan: “Did you hear that, Bernie Sanders? Did you hear that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Socialism has no place in the United States of America. So it is time, right now, for you to abandon your far-left policies. We’ve seen what they have done to Venezuela.”

    Regan: “The president tonight rejecting Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro's brutal socialist policies and vowing that the United States of America will never head in that direction. Let’s hope not.”

    Regan: “To me, [denouncing socialism] should be something you should stand for. Yes, America’s never going to be a socialist country. … Nancy Pelosi -- you’re right; she did clap, a little bit -- but she wouldn’t stand for that. And to me, you know, our identity is not as socialists. I mean, we really -- we are capitalists that believe in safety nets.”

    Regan: Ocasio-Cortez “tells us we just need to be socialists, and it won't be like Venezuela. It'll be much, much better. This is her theory; this is what she was explaining to her comrades over there watching on MSNBC tonight -- that somehow Americans want this, that Americans want their money to be stolen from them, to be redistributed, and given to the likes of her.”

    Regan: “When they’re talking about things like freedom and Bernie Sanders can’t even applaud for that, we’ve got a problem!”

    Regan: “There used to be a time when that was not a cool thing, to be called a socialist. That was actually, you know, a term that could be used against you. … That’s suddenly en vogue. And do you think that that should be a warning for Americans right now, when you look at a country like Venezuela only three hours from Miami; that’s 20 years of socialism.”

    The Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman: “Some people are talking on Twitter about how isn’t it amazing an American president has to say this, that we’re not going to be socialist. But that is sadly the time we’re living in.”

    Freeman: “It is amazing, given that we’ve been getting this real-time education [from Venezuela] in socialism and its destructive power, that meanwhile it seems to be picking up in the United States.”

    Donald Trump Jr.: Democrats “use Venezuela as their model for socialism, so I love that my father said that ‘America will never be a socialist country,’ because that’s the other side’s platform right now. … Watch their body language last night on things that all Americans should agree on. They don’t even stand or applaud. It’s pretty scary.”

    Trump Jr: Systems like socialism would “shut down” everything that makes America great. “Just look at anywhere else they’ve been implemented.”

    Presidential historian Doug Wead on Trish Regan Primetime: “My socialist friends here in the United States say American socialism will be very different from the Soviet Union, very different from Venezuela, and we'll have freedom of speech, for example. But we already have American socialism. It's practiced at the University of California at Berkeley. On many of our campuses, we're experiencing socialism right now. They don’t allow freedom of speech.”

    Wead on Varney & Co.: “Bernie Sanders got trapped in that socialism comment. I think that will come back to haunt him.”

    Republican National Committee spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany: The speech was great at “exposing the radical left agenda, the infanticide, the ideas of socialism and single-payer and these really radical proposals.”

  • Some Democrats went to Puerto Rico to spotlight the island's recovery, and Fox News is furious

    Democrats went to Puerto Rico to discuss, fundraise for, and spread awareness about hurricane recovery, but Fox News says they were "partying in Puerto Rico" instead of "doing something in Washington"

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    On the morning of January 14, Fox News focused heavily on a group of over 30 Democrats, most of them members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who spent the weekend in Puerto Rico as part of an annual retreat. Fox spun this trip as the Democrats partying "on the beaches" instead of working to end the government shutdown.

    Democrats were actually in Puerto Rico for a retreat organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Bold PAC. According to The Hill, Bold PAC chair Tony Cárdenas said “he chose Puerto Rico for this year's convention to showcase the island's needs as it slowly recovers from 2017's Hurricane Maria.” NBC News reported that members of Congress sought to aid the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria by bringing medical supplies and discussing the neglected recovery with Puerto Rican political leaders, including Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and several top legislators. 

    Democrats also attended a performance of Hamilton, part of a special limited-time run in which creator and original star Lin-Manuel Miranda reprised his role to help raise funds for hurricane recovery. According to The Hill, Miranda said, “We brought Hamilton here to bring a spotlight to Puerto Rico” and its recovery. All Democrats who attended bought their tickets with their own money. 

    NBC News also reported that “The Bold PAC conference was scheduled for Puerto Rico months before the shutdown” and that the group would be monitoring the shutdown and its developments. The report also noted that the congressional members would “be able to get a bird's-eye view of how the shutdown is affecting the island that is trying to pull itself out of a financial crisis while recovering with the devastation of Category 4 Hurricane Maria."

    While Fox News did mention that it was “a work-play trip,” most of its 19 mentions or segments about the story between 6 a.m. and noon on January 14 were intended to create an image of Democrats ducking their responsibility to help end the government shutdown (which Fox News helped start) and instead vacationing in paradise while real Americans suffer. 

    Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt said that “the optics are not good” for the Democrats when “there are 800,000 [federal] workers that aren’t getting paid,” but members of Congress who are “supposed to be doing something in Washington” are instead “on the beaches with their families.” Fellow co-host Brian Kilmeade also falsely claimed that CBS and NBC didn’t cover the story, when both networks covered the story online before Monday.

    Fox & Friends opened its 8 a.m. hour with the line “President Trump says it’s time for Democrats to get off the beach and come back to work while the shutdown enters day 24.” 

    Kilmeade said that the Democrats were “even enjoying a Broadway show" in Puerto Rico. Fox & Friends First co-host Rob Schmitt, who is covering the story in Puerto Rico, reported, “There have been some meetings and there has been some work done. But there’s also been plenty of leisure time.” He also complimented Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) “great Instagram photo,” saying he’s “got the nice tan going.” 

    Kilmeade also asked counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway about the White House’s reaction to “the Democrats partying in Puerto Rico rather than staying” in Washington, D.C.

    Fox correspondent Doug McKelway compared the Democrats’ Puerto Rico trip to Trump’s normally frequent golfing excursions, commenting that Trump “has been picking his travels very, very carefully” with the government shutdown, and during these times “playing golf, not such a good thing, visits to Puerto Rico, not such a good thing.” 

    Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer criticized the “30 Democratic members” for going “down on some PAC event where they’re soliciting money from lobbyists in Puerto Rico and hanging out on the beach.”

    Fox re-aired Trump’s highly misleading comment that “the Democrats were in Puerto Rico celebrating” the government shutdown.

    Miranda addressed the controversy at the summit in Puerto Rico as he thanked the Democrats and other officials assembled for being “here to work, despite what anyone might claim.” 

  • Spicer’s GMA interview shows why news networks would be nuts to hire him

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Since he exited the White House, President Donald Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer has been feted by Hollywood at the Emmy Awards, nabbed a coveted slot as a fellow at Harvard University, and started lining up high-dollar speaking gigs for business groups. But his effort to monetize the political celebrity status he acquired by famously lying to the public before it fades has hit a major snag: Unlike many of his predecessors, he has reportedly found that the major TV news organizations are unwilling to sign him to a lucrative contract as a paid contributor. Per NBC’s Claire Atkinson, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, and NBC News have all passed on offering him a job. According to The Daily Beast, even the pro-Trump One America News Network isn’t interested in Spicer.

    The networks are reportedly unwilling to sign Spicer to a deal for the same reason he became a household name: He has no credibility after lying for the president at a near-comical rate and serving in the vanguard of the Trump administration's war on the press. And while Spicer himself continues to deny that he has a credibility problem, his first TV news interview -- on ABC’s Good Morning America today -- demolished any case for giving him a media gig. Over the course of his sit-down with Paula Faris, Spicer demonstrated an ongoing lack of candor and a refusal to take responsibility for his past actions that makes him a poor investment for a news network. Indeed, he seemed to vindicate their reported concerns, point by point.

    Spicer’s lack of contrition for lying from the White House podium was reportedly an issue for network executives. And on GMA, Spicer furthered this impression. As Faris ran down one falsehood after another, Spicer denied that he ever “knowingly” lied to the American people, an obvious untruth that further dismantles his credibility.

    Media executives reportedly worried that “they would be paying him to uncritically spout Team Trump talking points.” That was certainly the case during this morning’s interview. Spicer offered no criticism of the president. When pressed about the administration’s contradictory statements on the firing of FBI Director James Comey, for example, he described the president’s statement that he fired Comey because of his handling of the Russia investigation -- a dramatic turnaround from the White House’s prior explanation of the firing that suggested potential obstruction of justice -- as Trump setting the record “straight.”

    “Some executives,” The Daily Beast reported, “were also not enthused about Spicer and the Trump administration’s ‘degrading’ treatment of TV journalists.” Asked by Faris about his “combative relationship with the press corps,” Spicer offered explanations before lashing out at journalists who had “questioned my integrity.”

    Faris’ interview also opened up a new problem for Spicer’s potential employers. Spicer repeatedly refused to address questions about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump White House, including whether he had hired a lawyer or been subpoenaed. Every political contributor at a broadcast or cable network is likely to be called upon for segment after segment about that investigation in the coming months. Why hire someone who can’t (or won’t) discuss it -- especially if the reason they won’t do so is for fear of their own legal jeopardy?

    In fact, an item this morning from Axios’ Mike Allen demonstrates the confluence of Spicer’s ongoing mistreatment of journalists and the Russia investigation. Allen, who has known Spicer for many years, reached out to him for comment for a story about Spicer’s voluminous notes from meetings at the Trump campaign and White House potentially becoming an item of interest for Mueller’s investigation. Spicer responded by warning Allen that if the reporter continued sending him “unsolicited texts and emails,” Spicer would “contact the appropriate legal authorities to address your harassment.”

    From time to time, journalists either mock or scorn individuals who don’t seem to realize the fundamentals of reporting -- the people who seem to think journalists need to get permission to film public demonstrations, or request approval to quote from tweets. But Spicer isn’t an ignorant civilian -- he’s a political communications professional with decades of experience who recently served in the White House, and he’s threatening a reporter with legal consequences for seeking a comment.

    Imagine signing Spicer to a cushy network contributor gig, then needing to field requests for comment from reporters who want to know why your new hire is engaging in that sort of behavior.

    Thus far, media outlets appear to be doing a solid job of refusing to reward Spicer’s atrocious behavior. That’s good news. As I warned in July, treating Spicer like any other flack and offering him a media gig after he left the White House would establish a horrendous incentive structure, in which those who lie to the public and try to undermine and berate the press receive no punishment for their actions.

    This is a dramatic change in behavior from last year, when CNN hired former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was notorious for not only berating but also physically assaulting and sexually harassing journalists. For its money, the network got an unrepentant Trump shill, a series of ethical scandals, and the contempt and mockery of other journalists. Per the Beast, this PR disaster has been “instructive” for media executives “in what not to do.” I suppose the lesson is better learned late than never.

    But the lesson is very expensive for Spicer, who apparently will not be drawing a six-figure salary from a media outlet anytime soon. He won’t starve, of course -- there will be plenty of business groups willing to pay up to hear him speak, and no doubt he’ll be able to line up a consulting gig eventually.

    Then again, given the hourly rate of the white-collar lawyers White House aides have been hiring to deal with the Mueller investigation, Spicer may need every dollar he can get.

  • DOJ revealed that Trump lied about Obama wiretapping him. Fox News covered it for 30 seconds.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    More than any other news outlet in the country, Fox News had a responsibility to cover the Justice Department’s declaration that there is no evidence to justify President Donald Trump’s March lie that President Barack Obama had illegally wiretapped his communications during the 2016 presidential election. But after the network’s hosts and contributors spent weeks trying to defend the president’s baseless charge -- to the point that their reporting triggered an international incident -- the network has given only 30 seconds of airtime to DOJ’s revelation last Friday that the claim was bunk.

    On the morning of Saturday, March 4, Trump tweeted that Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” shortly before the 2016 election, which the president deemed “McCarthyism” and “A NEW LOW!” Trump provided no evidence for his charge, which seems to have been based on a right-wing radio rumor that had been highlighted by Over the next few weeks, the president’s claim was denied by Obama’s spokesperson, his director of national intelligence, the directors of the National Security Agency and FBI, and the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. And then this past Friday, Trump’s Justice Department stated in a court filing that there was no evidence to support his claim.

    The Justice Department’s disclosure should be a big deal. “Make no mistake, this information is embarrassing. It's embarrassing because the president said something that wasn't true at all and the federal government knew it wasn't true back in March when [then-FBI director James] Comey testified, and your taxpayer dollars keep being used to investigate this fiction,” CNN’s Jake Tapper explained on Tuesday. “The Trump administration has made any number of attempts to try to force the claim into somewhere near the possibility of a neighborhood of maybe true. ... But the bottom line is and always has been there is no evidence that Donald Trump was wiretapped by Barack Obama. It was and continues to be a lie, and no holiday weekend Friday night document dump is going to cover that up.”

    Many mainstream news outlets covered the DOJ’s declaration, though it did not receive the level of full-spectrum attention one might expect from a federal agency effectively acknowledging that the president made up an attack on his predecessor. As Tapper suggests, the disclosure on a Friday evening before a holiday weekend likely played a role in the coverage; other breaking stories, such as continuing coverage of Hurricane Harvey, also probably had an impact.

    But while both CNN and MSNBC found time to cover the wiretapping story over the weekend and into this week, Fox has been entirely uninterested in examining the president’s embarrassment.* The network’s coverage of the Justice Department’s disclosure came in a single 30-second Saturday night news brief:

    Trump’s charge was always an easily identifiable lie. But the pro-Trump pundits at Fox -- who are always eager to push an attack on Obama, no matter how far-fetched -- rallied around the president in the days after he issued the claim, desperately searching for ways to justify his claim.

    Sean Hannity led the charge, tweeting, “What did OBAMA know and when did he know it??” in response to Trump’s initial tweet, and devoting time in every broadcast the following week to defending Trump’s lie. Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning news show, also played a key role, seeking to support Trump by mainstreaming conspiracy theories from the dregs of the internet.

    The network’s effort to bend over backward to defend the president’s lie culminated when senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano reported that Obama had enlisted a British intelligence service to spy on Trump. Napolitano’s claim, which appeared to have originated with the state-sponsored Russian news network RT, was subsequently cited by then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to defend Trump; was publicly denied by the British intelligence service; led to a “diplomatic row” between the two countries; was cited by Trump himself as evidence he had been right; and was repudiated by Fox, with anchor Shep Smith saying the network could not confirm Napolitano’s reporting. The senior judicial analyst received a brief suspension -- when he returned to the Fox airwaves roughly two weeks later, Napolitano said he still stood by his claims.

    After doing its best to back up Trump’s baseless claim that Obama wiretapped him, Fox had a responsibility to tell its viewers the truth. Instead, the network is mostly hiding the federal government’s own repudiation of the charge.

    * Coverage was assessed by searching all three networks’ transcripts via the Nexis and SnapStream databases.

  • Roger Stone says he's in communication with the White House about the Seth Rich lawsuit

    Stone was one of the first to push conspiracy theories about Rich’s murder, and he has called on Rich’s parents to be “charged with obstruction” of the investigation into their son’s death

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Roger Stone is doing damage control following the filing of a lawsuit alleging a scheme by Fox News and Trump administration officials -- including possibly the president himself -- to use the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to absolve the Trump campaign of accusations it coordinated with Russia.

    During an appearance on Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory program, Stone said that officials he has spoken to at the White House are calling the lawsuit “bogus” and that he thinks the lawsuit will be dismissed “summarily.”  

    NPR reported on August 1 on a defamation lawsuit filed by Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler against 21st Century Fox, Fox News, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, and frequent Fox guest Ed Butowsky.

    Wheeler alleges that Zimmerman published fake quotations attributed to him in a since-retracted May 16 story about Rich, and that Trump administration officials, including the president himself, were involved in crafting the story. The retracted story suggested that Rich, rather than Russia, provided WikiLeaks with emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.

    Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged to NPR that he did meet with Butowsky and Wheeler prior to the story’s publication. The lawsuit also alleges that Trump himself reviewed the Zimmerman story before it ran.

    Rich was murdered in Washington, D.C., in July 2016 in what local police believe was a botched robbery attempt. Conspiracy theories began spreading within weeks of Rich’s death and percolated throughout fringe right-wing media for nearly a year before finally exploding into the national conversation thanks to Fox News host Sean Hannity, who continuously hyped Zimmerman’s May 16 report.

    During the August 1 broadcast of conspiracy theory program The Alex Jones Show, Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, said, “My sources at Fox and my sources in the White House tell me that the lawsuit filed by the black private investigator, former D.C. police officer, is completely and totally bogus.” Stone also added that he thinks the lawsuit will be quickly dismissed.

    Stone was one of the first prominent figures to promote conspiracy theories about Rich’s death.  

    On August 9, 2016, less than a month after Rich’s death, Stone included Rich in a group of four murdered people for whom he blamed the Clintons:

    In recent months, Stone has turned his sights on Rich’s parents, first calling their behavior regarding the investigation into their son’s death “suspicious,” and most recently saying that Rich’s “parents should be charged with obstruction" of the investigation.

  • Trump administration met with a GOP donor and a Fox contributor about a fake story meant to distract from Russia probe

    A new lawsuit alleges that Trump personally helped Fox create fake news regarding Seth Rich, and Sean Spicer admits that he took a meeting with two people involved in the story

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A new NPR report confirms that the Trump administration met with a Republican donor and Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler about a now-debunked report that pushed false claims about Seth Rich, a deceased Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer. As reported by NPR, according to a subsequent lawsuit filed by Wheeler, the donor gave talking points about the Rich conspiracy theory not only to Wheeler but also to other Fox News employees, messaging that was then parroted on Fox & Friends and Sean Hannity’s show.

    Wheeler's lawsuit also alleges that President Donald Trump helped with the article in order to distract from the ongoing controversy about Trump’s possible ties to Russia. Trump, people in Trump’s inner circle, and Fox News have all previously spread fake news and downplayed and delegitimized efforts to counter the spread of fake news.

    In May, a Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C., claimed that Wheeler, who is a private investigator, said police had told him that they were told to stand down regarding the death of Rich, a DNC staffer killed in what law enforcement has concluded was likely a botched robbery attempt. The affiliate also said that Wheeler said it was “confirmed” that Rich had spoken to WikiLeaks, which published thousands of leaked DNC emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. reporter Malia Zimmerman subsequently published an article on the site quoting Wheeler as saying, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” and, “My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward.” According to the lawsuit, in conjunction with the story, the Republican donor who brought Wheeler and Zimmerman together also suggested talking points to "various Fox News producers" and Fox & Friends on-air personalities, as well as to Wheeler for use on Hannity’s program. Both Fox News shows parroted the suggested messaging within days.

    But the story was quickly debunked, with Wheeler admitting he had no evidence and D.C. police saying Wheeler’s supposed claim was false. Fox News was forced to later retract the story. Yet Hannity, who ran with the report, continued to push the conspiracy theory even after the retraction.

    Wheeler, in an August 1 lawsuit against 21st Century Fox, Fox News, Zimmerman, and the Republican donor, investor/Trump supporter Ed Butowsky, now claims that Zimmerman made up those quotes she attributed to him. Wheeler claims that Trump was given the article in advance to review and urged its publication, and that the supposedly fabricated quotes were published “because that is the way the President wanted the article.” Wheeler added that Zimmerman and Butowsky, who bankrolled Wheeler’s original investigation into Rich’s murder, “had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda.” Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer -- who had said in May that he knew nothing about the story -- has now confirmed to NPR that he met with Wheeler and Butowsky to discuss the article before it was published, adding that he did not know of any involvement by Trump.

    Here’s audio of Spicer denying knowledge of the Rich story in May:

    The allegations come after Trump and his inner circle have worked tirelessly to cloud the actual meaning of fake news while spreading fake news stories themselves. Trump and his aides, echoing right-wing media including Fox News, have repeatedly called legitimate news stories and outlets they do not like “fake news.” People close to Trump, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have pushed fake news -- as has Trump himself. Additionally, federal investigators are looking into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign digital operation, headed by Brad Parscale along with Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm hired by the campaign, colluded with Russia to target voters in specific states with fake news.

    And this would also not be the first time that Fox News has spread fake news. Last October, Fox hosts Howard Kurtz and Megyn Kelly both reported a fake news story that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called supporters of her primary opponent Bernie Sanders a “bucket of losers.” Kelly subsequently apologized for reporting the fake quote. In April, published an article from the British tabloid The Sun that reported fake news originating from Russian state media; Fox later removed the article after The New York Times asked the outlet about it. Additionally, Fox News repeatedly tried to minimize and dismiss concerns about fake news after the 2016 election, calling them "nonsense” and “a fake story,” and claiming that fake news is actually just “in the eye of the beholder." And when Facebook considered (and later implemented) the idea of partnering with fact-checking organizations to fact-check potential fake news stories on its platform, Fox criticized the fact-checkers for having “a liberal bias” and a “proven” bias “against conservatives.”

  • Don’t hire Sean Spicer

    Trump's press secretary spent months lying and attacking the press. Networks shouldn’t pay him to do it.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    UPDATE: Shortly after the publication of this post, news broke that financier Anthony Scaramucci had been forced out of his position as White House communications director, which was announced 11 days ago and scheduled to begin next month. He was reportedly escorted from the building this morning. It is currently unclear if he will take another job in the White House or the administration. In the event that he does not stay in the administration, networks shouldn't hire him, either

    Outgoing White House press secretary Sean Spicer will need a new job when his tenure in the Trump administration concludes at the end of August, and he’s apparently hoping that one of the news outlets he’s spent the year berating will step up and pay him a salary.

    Spicer spent last Wednesday “in talks with major broadcasters about a new career in TV where he can share his insider knowledge of President Trump,” according to The New York Post, which reported that Spicer took meetings with top executives at the Manhattan headquarters of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News.

    It has become customary in recent decades for high-ranking White House communications advisers to convert their public service into a high-paying media sinecure. Former President George W. Bush’s White House aides Dana Perino and Nicolle Wallace and President Barack Obama’s advisers Jen Psaki and Josh Earnest are among the long list to make this transition. In return for their media salaries, these aides-turned-political-analysts offer network viewers an inside look at how messaging decisions are made at the highest level.

    But if network executives have a modicum of self-respect and the slightest sense of self-preservation, they will not offer Spicer this deal. To give the former White House press secretary a mainstream media gig would ensure that Trump’s communications aides face no punishment whatsoever for using the imprimatur of the White House to lie to and seek to undermine reporters. With that incentive structure firmly in place, there is no reason to expect that behavior to change. If networks are helpless to prevent this assault on their work, surely they can at least avoid rewarding it.

    President Donald Trump’s administration has been driven by a vicious, unyielding effort to destroy the credibility of journalists, setting them up as the “the opposition party” and the “enemy of the American people” in order to call their reporting into question. Spicer could have used his position to provide some space from the administration’s vitriol. Instead, he was an unapologetic leader in this campaign, regularly denouncing journalists for producing “fake news.” Spicer reportedly had a “strong antipathy toward both political journalism as a craft, and political journalists as a class of people” long before he joined the administration. There is no reason to think he would halt those attacks once he received a network salary, and indeed, that platform might make his attacks ever more potent. Why would a credible media outlet hire someone who holds journalism in contempt?

    Trump constantly tells lies, great and small, creating an immense challenge for journalists who have to sift through his statements and compare them to reality. In turn, Trump’s obviously false statements regularly puts his aides to the test, forcing them to decide whether they are willing to stand by those lies. But Spicer never seemed to have a problem choosing between Trump and the truth -- he was willing to say literally anything, no matter how absurd, in order to defend Trump. There is no reason to think that he wouldn’t do the same on air if a network put him on its payroll. Why would a credible media outlet hire someone who doesn’t clear even the lowest possible bar for truth-telling?

    Network executives who may be tempted to think that Spicer offers them more in value than they’d lose in credibility should take heed of the humiliation CNN put itself through last year. The network hired Corey Lewandowski shortly after he was fired from his post as Trump’s campaign manager, in spite of Lewandowski’s notoriety for verbal assaults and physical altercations with journalists. For all intents and purposes, Trump found a way to give Lewandowski a raise at the network’s expense, as the former aide continued to advise the candidate, travel with him, receive hefty “severance” checks from the campaign, and use his on-air time to defend every indefensible Trump action. After network head Jeff Zucker repeatedly defended the move while sustaining months of criticism from journalists of all stripes, CNN suffered the final indignity when Lewandowski resigned, seeking a job in the administration.

    CNN, which has experienced the most hostile attacks from the Trump administration of them all, is notably the only network to publicly say it is not interested in hiring Spicer. According to network host Brian Stelter, the decision is a deliberate response to “those anti-media attacks, the criticism of CNN and other outlets, all of the sort of inaccurate and false statements from the podium.” If CNN has truly learned its lesson -- and I am somewhat skeptical of a network that retains Jason Miller, Jeffrey Lord, and Kayleigh McEnany as on-air pro-Trump shills -- that’s a good sign.

    It’s also a good example for executives from the other networks, who may face a revolt from the journalists they employ if the hand a six-figure salary to one of their main antagonists. Opposition to a Spicer hire is already seeping onto MSNBC’s airwaves. “What hypocrites any broadcast network will be if they hire him,” anchor Thomas Roberts said last night before turning to look behind himself in the studio. “And he’s not here yet, but I’m just saying, what hypocrites every network will be if they hire Sean Spicer.”

    Networks seeking to maintain their credibility in the face of a White House assault on the press without recent precedent should pass on Spicer. If he’s going to get a media payday, let it be from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. That network’s hosts and analysts regularly defend whatever the president says, and for decades they’ve sought to undermine the rest of the press for their own benefit. Spicer can have a seat on Fox & Friends’ curvy couch in the morning and do hits on Sean Hannity’s show at night. He’ll fit right in.