The saga that led to this week’s resignation by Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) put on full display the vicious, unethical tactics right-wing media figures are willing to utilize to undermine their enemies. It was a test balloon for a new set of media norms, and it should serve as a warning sign of where political media might be headed.
Much has already been written about Hill and the scandal that forced her out of office. She admitted to a potentially inappropriate relationship with a female campaign staffer and denied having a separate affair with Graham Kelly, her legislative director. The right-wing site RedState was one of the first outlets to bring these various allegations to light, publishing an October 10 story about the alleged relationship with Kelly, as well as an October 18 story centered on what it referred to as a “throuple” relationship between Hill, the unnamed campaign staffer, and Hill’s estranged husband, Kenny Heslep.
RedState Deputy Managing Editor Jennifer Van Laar, who wrote the October 18 piece and several other stories about Hill, offered a preemptive justification for posting the story, arguing that otherwise un-newsworthy relationships become fair public fodder when they "occur within one of the parties’ workplace ..., and that workplace is the United States Congress” because then “they determine that elected official’s fitness to serve.”
That explanation seems fair enough, especially as the woman Hill and Heslep were involved with was 22 and just out of college at the time, while Hill and Heslep were both over 30. But her argument was nullified the moment RedState decided to publish a nude photo of Hill.
Congressional sex scandals are big news, and RedState’s report would have been sufficiently noteworthy without including a series of text message screenshots or linking to a nude photo the site had obtained of Hill. Van Laar’s subsequent reports, at both RedState and The Daily Mail, and other writing about the evidence for the affair, would demonstrate that the goal wasn’t just to shine a light on an inappropriate relationship, but to destroy her career and humiliate Hill as a human being.
The Daily Mail’s October 24 article, in which Van Laar was listed as one of three authors, went even further than her reporting for RedState. It included two additional nude photos and accused Hill of having a “Nazi-era tattoo.” (Last week, attorneys for Hill sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Mail over its publication of the photos and for the “false and defamatory” claim about her tattoo.) And both RedState and the Daily Mail made clear that there were more photos at their disposal that they were simply choosing not to publish -- at least not yet.
“Another set of images obtained but not published by DailyMail.com shows Hill and [the staffer] inside a steamy shower, embracing and kissing each other,” reads a line in the Daily Mail’s piece.
“RedState was also provided with intimate photographs of the women, which we have chosen not to publish,” read a line in a RedState piece, which later added, “If people who don’t have our nation’s best interests at heart had access to the photographs, text messages, and other information provided to RedState, Rep. Hill would be an easy blackmail target.”
While feigning concern that Hill could be blackmailed, Van Laar was essentially blackmailing Hill -- and it worked.
Hill isn’t the first member of Congress to get caught up in a sex scandal, and she certainly won’t be the last. There are lawmakers who’ve resigned in disgrace for much less than what Hill is accused of doing, and there are current members of Congress who’ve refused to step down for much worse. Hill had a choice to make. Would she resign, as former Reps. Eric Massa (D-NY), Chris Lee (R-NY), Mark Souder (R-IN), and Anthony Weiner (D-NY) did? Or would she defy calls for her resignation, as Reps. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) and Duncan Hunter (R-CA), former Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA), and former Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) did?
But Hill’s resignation letter specifically cited her fear that additional personal information and photos will be made public. It’s fair to ask whether Hill’s relationship with a campaign staffer should disqualify her from holding office, and it’s fair for an outlet to report the story out. What’s not fair is that Hill was forced to resign because holding her seat meant she had to remain “fearful of what might come next and how much it will hurt,” knowing that her political enemies hold a stockpile of embarrassing photos -- which she claims came from her estranged husband -- that right-wing media won’t hesitate to publish.
Fairness, I’d imagine, wasn’t something Van Laar was concerned about. RedState is an unabashedly partisan blog -- part of Salem Media Group, which touts its commitment to “Christian and family-themed content and conservative values” -- and Van Laar’s political leanings are well-known. She’s the executive director of the conservative Save California PAC, where she writes articles with headlines like “Dr. Drew Warns of Imminent Bubonic Plague Outbreak in Los Angeles” and “This is How California's “Ballot Harvesting” Law Leads to Voter Fraud.”
Van Laar recently tweeted an endorsement of one of Hill’s possible replacements, writing, “If you want to help us flip @KatieHill4CA's former #CA25 seat BACK to RED, please learn more about @MikeGarcia2020 and contribute to his campaign at ElectMikeGarcia.com! Fortunately we already have a strong GOP candidate here.” She followed that up with a tweet noting that she’d previously worked for former Rep. Steve Knight, the Republican who lost to Hill in 2018.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the cache of Hill’s compromising photos had been shopped around to places like the National Republican Congressional Committee after local radio host Joe Messina, a former Knight campaign adviser, claimed to have received emails and packages containing texts and photos. Weeks earlier, Heslep had reached out to a local podcaster, saying that he was ready to discuss “the whole story” of his split from Hill, only to be rebuffed by the show’s host, who said it seemed Heslep just “wanted to air dirty laundry.” For his part, Heslep has maintained that he isn’t the source of the texts and photos, reportedly telling his parents that he believed he had been hacked.
The writers and editors at RedState know that it’s wrong to publish someone’s nude photos, even if that person is a member of Congress.
In November 2017, RedState published a piece titled “To Be Clear, Naked Congressman Joe Barton Is The Victim.” Barton, a Republican congressman, had been making headlines after a nude photo of him was posted to social media. Notably, when The Texas Tribune broke the story, it didn’t actually include the photo in question. All but four states now have laws banning nonconsensual pornography (also known as “revenge porn”).
Publishing Barton’s photo would have been unnecessary. Here’s how RedState wrote about the ordeal at the time:
Whoever posted the photo posted it anonymously, but what they did is called “revenge porn” and it’s illegal. You can’t post sensitive images like that, without the consent of the person depicted in the images.
I can only imagine how embarrassing this is for Barton, but he’s said he has no intention of stepping down from his position in Congress.
And he shouldn’t.
But there’s no low that right-wing media won’t sink to in order to get their way.
Van Laar may role-play as a journalist, but she’s not. Defenses of her role in Hill’s story have hinged on the idea that her work was legitimate journalism when it was really little more than a coordinated hit job designed to destroy Hill on a professional and personal level.
RedState Editor-at-Large Kira Davis defended the site’s decision to publish the photos, blaming Hill for taking them in the first place. But Davis conflated the House Ethics Committee’s investigation into whether Hill had a relationship with Graham Kelly (which would have violated House rules) with nude photos related to her admitted relationship with a campaign staffer. Once the two allegations -- one of a relationship with Kelly and another of a relationship with a campaign staffer -- are separated, it becomes clear that nude photos of Hill with the campaign staffer are irrelevant to the ethics committee’s investigation. In other words, Davis’ rationale doesn’t hold up.
Following Van Laar’s October 18 story, Hill gave a statement to Politico, explaining that she was “going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me” and that the attack “will not succeed.” Hill’s refusal to cower following the October 18 story didn’t sit well with her opponents, as she addressed in her October 31 farewell speech:
I’ve been told that people were angry when I stood strong after the first article was posted, and that they had hundreds more photos and text messages that they would release bit by bit until they broke me down to nothing while they used my faults and my past to distract from the things that matter most.
Hill didn’t resign just because of an inappropriate relationship with a campaign staffer; she resigned because her political enemies were set on obliterating her humanity -- and she’s not alone.
While Hill was a somewhat high-profile member of Congress, the targets of right-wing campaigns aren't always in such elevated positions.
In 2010, Breitbart.com founder Andrew Breitbart targeted Department of Agriculture Georgia Director of Rural Development Shirley Sherrod with an astoundingly misleading video edited to make it look as though the Obama appointee was “racist” against white farmers, catapulting the relatively unknown Sherrod into conservative media’s cesspool of smears. From Breitbart, the video went to Fox News; this led to the video being picked up by blogs including HotAir, The Gateway Pundit, and Drudge Report. From there, the video carried over to mainstream media outlets and Sherrod lost her job. This was a bizarre and seemingly random attack on a low-level political appointee, and it’s likely to stick with Sherrod for the rest of her life.
Picking obscure targets -- especially groups and individuals without the power or funding to fight back -- is a common theme in right-wing media. From nonstop assaults on ACORN and other groups smeared with deceptively edited videos to the use of Seth Rich’s murder as a smokescreen for 2016 election interferrence, conservative media fight dirty and without regard for the well-being of the people on the receiving end. We see this whenever The Gateway Pundit misidentifies an attacker or when The Daily Caller goes after trans high school students to advance right-wing political agendas.
It’s because right-wing media outlets are so willing to ignore even the most basic tenets of journalistic ethics that there’s never actually any true “left” analogue to what the right is doing: The opposite of Fox News is not MSNBC, and the opposite of Breitbart is not The Nation, for instance. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that RedState would so casually blackmail Hill with the implicit threat that the site would continue to leak nude photos of her (perhaps breaking laws in the process). Hill’s inappropriate relationship with someone on her campaign payroll was bad enough on its own without adding revenge porn and public humiliation into the mix.
Even if you don't have a personal stake in what happened to Hill or how this story was covered, this marks an important moment in political media and could truly usher in the age of digital gutter politics. At Lawfare, Quinta Jurecic wrote about the disturbing precedent RedState's editorial decisions may have, writing, “But as far as I am aware, the Katie Hill photograph is the first instance in which a politically aligned publication—or, indeed, any publication -- has released nonconsensual pornography depicting a politician of the opposing party affiliation,” calling it “an ugly line to have crossed.”
Jurecic is concerned that the ethical guardrails against publishing these types of photos for political gain are coming loose. If she's right, things are only going to get uglier from here on out.
Correction (11/1/19): This piece originally listed Hill's political affiliation as “R-CA” in one instance. Hill is a Democrat.