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  • Bret Stephens and the #NeverTrump farce

    Trump’s Iran belligerence conveniently mutes Stephens’ concerns about his mental fitness

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    New York Times columnist Bret Stephens believes President Donald Trump is likely mentally ill. As a self-identified member of the bafflingly influential clique of #NeverTrump conservative columnists, Stephens has at various times expounded on Trump’s manifest unfitness for high office. In March 2017, he asked in a (since deleted) tweet: “When will Republicans acknowledge that the President of the United States is mentally ill?” When he deleted the tweet, he backed off ever so slightly from that position, writing that he’s “not a diagnostician,” but adding: “That something is deeply amiss, I have no doubt.”

    Last December, in a conversation with fellow Times columnist Gail Collins, Stephens said that he goes “back and forth” on the question of whether Trump is mentally ill, explaining that he’s “not expert enough to say at what point mental decline slides into senility or dementia, but there’s clearly been a decline.” He ventured that perhaps Trump has “narcissistic personality disorder” and that the president’s “frequently unhinged and spasmodic tweets suggests a guy who isn’t in control of himself.”

    That damning assessment of Trump’s faculties, however, doesn’t stop Stephens from trusting that the out-of-control and potentially mentally unwell president can nonetheless competently pursue policy goals Stephens happens to favor.

    Under the headline “A Courageous Trump Call on a Lousy Iran Deal,” Stephens writes today that Trump was “absolutely right” to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “assuming, that is, serious thought has been given to what comes next.” After slogging through the rote right-wing criticisms of the deal and contradicting himself on the threat of Iranian nuclear enrichment, Stephens concludes that Trump’s withdrawal “will clarify the stakes for Tehran. Now we’ll see whether the administration is capable of following through.”

    Every indication thus far is that the administration has given precisely zero thought to what comes next. Trump pulled the rip cord and the White House is offering nothing but mealy-mouthed promises that everything will work out because a “better deal” can be made. The Washington Post reported that Trump’s decision was driven by his desire to fulfill a campaign promise and his “instincts to be a disrupter on the world stage.” Trump’s actions here more closely align with Stephens’ assessment of a president who acts without thinking and is driven primarily by the demands of his overriding egotism.

    But Stephens won’t say that. Instead, he calls Trump “courageous.” His analysis doesn’t grapple with what the administration is saying, what our European allies are saying, or the difficulties in negotiating a new diplomatic framework to replace the one Trump precipitously blew up. Stephens’ concerns about Trump’s mental fitness have conveniently evaporated because Stephens agrees that the Iran deal is bad. He just idly hopes that “serious thought has been given” to whatever policy will replace it.

    This is a feature of Stephens’ commentary and #NeverTrump posturing in general -- all the venting and sharp-tongue rebukes of the blundering and feeble-minded president disappear the moment #NeverTrump pundits spy an opportunity to advance their own interests. Just a month after Stephens called the president “mentally ill,” Trump fired his first salvo of Tomahawk missiles into Syria, prompting Stephens to urge the president he believed was mentally incompetent to launch a full-scale war against the Assad regime.

    Thus we have a curious situation in which a New York Times columnist feels that the president is too unstable to be trusted with a Twitter account, but is capable of renegotiating complex diplomatic frameworks and pursuing regime change in the Middle East

  • David Brooks needs to shut up

    The NY Times columnist believes gun violence will be solved by “respect” for toxic gun culture

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    David Brooks is back on his bullshit. Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, the New York Times columnist has become an outspoken proponent of ideologically vacant centrism as the one and only solution to toxic partisanship and intractable tribalism. The fact that “the center” of Brooks’ dreams has no political appeal, no coherent philosophy, and no agenda beyond tongue-clucking rebukes of partisanship is of no concern to him; it can and will fix everything simply by scolding everyone in Washington to be polite to one another.

    Brooks’ ridiculous faith in this feeble worldview animates his column this morning on gun regulation. Under the impossible-to-parody headline “Respect First, Then Gun Control,” Brooks argues that the way to prevent more gun massacres like the one that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, is for proponents of stricter gun laws to show unlimited deference to gun-rights extremists and cede them control of the legislative agenda:

    If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.

    So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.

    It feels almost gratuitous to critique this passage given how self-evidently devastating it is to Brooks’ ridiculous centrist fetish. Here we see Brooks attempt to confront the gravely serious and deadly problem of gun violence, and his paramount concerns are: 1) the reputations of elites such as himself, 2) the civility of public discourse, and 3) “compromise.” What would that compromise look like? Brooks has no idea and makes no attempt to work it out. That’s because he doesn’t actually care -- compromise for the sake of compromise is the goal, the details don’t matter.

    This is also the absolute worst political advice one could offer to someone who wants to clamp down on gun violence. Brooks’ strategy for success is for the most vocal and committed proponents of gun restrictions to keep quiet and fade into the background so “Red America” can take the lead on implementing their agenda. His rationale for this course of action is that the outrage felt by “Red America” over perceived threats to “their culture” must be the first consideration, and should be shown greater deference than outrage felt over dead schoolchildren. This is completely backwards and demonstrates appalling ignorance of how political change happens.

    The “culture” of maximalist gun rights that casts even the slightest move toward gun regulation as a tyrannical assault on freedom is the product of intense and effective activism by gun-rights extremists. That “culture” is toxic and actively impedes all good-faith efforts to address gun violence -- Congress has done nothing in response to horrific massacres and violent attacks on its own members because Republicans have decided that escalating body counts are less politically threatening to them than gun-rights activists. “Red America” has been “leading the way” on gun regulation for a long time, and look where it’s gotten us.

    The fact that Brooks views this rotten “culture” not as a problem to be fixed but as a totem to be respected is a testament to how powerful uncompromising political activism is (and how stupid Brooks is).

    The key to passing better gun laws isn’t to be unfailingly polite and deferential to the politicians and poisonous culture that brought us to our current blood-soaked state of affairs in the vague hope that they will someday allow a “compromise.” If bad lawmakers make any meaningful federal gun legislation impossible, the solution is to insist on better lawmakers. The only way to do that is through sustained and vocal activism of the sort David Brooks finds so very rude and counterproductive.

  • Why is The New York Times publishing discredited gun researcher John Lott?

    Lott’s Times op-ed makes easily disprovable attacks on the national background check system for gun purchases

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The New York Times published an opinion piece by discredited economist John Lott that made false claims about the national background check system for gun purchases and cited a survey that fact-checkers have criticized as unscientific.

    Lott is a well-known pro-gun advocate and frequent source of conservative misinformation about gun violence and other topics. He rose to prominence during the 1990s with the publication of his book More Guns, Less Crime, although his conclusion that permissive gun laws reduce crime rates was later debunked by academics who found serious flaws in his research. He has also faced accusations of data manipulation and fabrication in order to advance a pro-gun agenda.

    Just last week, Lott made headlines after a paper he published claiming undocumented immigrants in Arizona “are at least 142% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans” was debunked by the libertarian Cato Institute. As Cato immigration expert Alex Nowrasteh explained, “Lott’s controversial empirical findings regarding the high admission rate of illegal immigrants to Arizona prisons, a finding that contradicts virtually the entire body of research on the topic, stems from his simple misreading of a variable in the 1985-2017 [Arizona Department of Corrections] dataset. Lott thought that ‘non-U.S. citizens and deportable’ describes only illegal immigrants but it does not.”

    In his op-ed for the Times, Lott misrepresented data to attack proposals to expand background checks on gun sales to include private sales -- which constitute a substantial proportion of gun transfers -- by falsely suggesting that the system is broken because of “false positives” that deny legal gun owners the ability to purchase a firearm.

    In his piece, Lott wrote:

    Between 2006 to 2010, the last period for which more comprehensive annual data on the denial of firearm applications by the background check system are available, there were 377,283 denials. But the federal government prosecuted only 460 of those cases, leading to 209 convictions, mostly on charges of providing false information. There was a similarly small number of state prosecutions resulting from the gun purchase denials.

    This data led Lott to conclude that “a high percentage of cases are dropped because the applicant was wrongly denied clearance to buy a gun.” Despite Lott’s repeated touting of this talking point, it is false because it relies on the incorrect assumption that the federal government actually routinely prosecutes people who fail a background check when attempting to purchase a gun.

    A comprehensive analysis from The Washington Post suggests that the vast majority of individuals denied by the background check system are actually legally prohibited from buying a gun. The FBI, which in 2010 was responsible for approximately half of all denials, reported that less than five percent of denials were successfully appealed. The primary reasons for denial were a felony conviction or indictment (47.4 percent) or status as a fugitive (19.1 percent).

    In his Times op-ed, Lott also made the false claim that permissive laws allowing guns to be carried in public are a benefit to public safety. (Credible research indicates these laws actually increase violent crime, in particular aggravated assault.) To support his claim, Lott wrote, “In 2013, PoliceOne, a news and resource site for active and retired law enforcement officers, released a survey finding that over 91 percent of the more than 15,000 ‘verified law enforcement professionals’ who responded supported concealed carry.”

    The 2013 PoliceOne survey was criticized by fact checkers after the National Rifle Association used it to push a false pro-gun talking point, with FactCheck.org concluding “The survey wasn’t a scientific poll that aimed to gather responses from a random sample of the nation’s police officers. Rather, it was a self-selected Internet poll, in which more than 15,000 of PoliceOne.com’s 400,000 registered members chose to respond, either because of email solicitation or a link to the survey on the PoliceOne.com website.”

    Last month, The Times published a glowing profile of NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch with the paper terming her a “telegenic warrior” despite criticism that Loesch has used her NRA role to incite violence against journalists and critics of the president. The Times’ acceptance of Lott’s opinion piece is another indication of how much the paper is willing to kowtow to pro-gun activists, no matter how extreme or false their claims are.

  • If you read only headlines, you might think Jeff Sessions has become a champion of transgender people

    Stop writing headlines that whitewash bigotry

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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.

  • GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore suggested 9/11 was punishment for "legitimized sodomy," but top media outlets just call him a "firebrand"

    Moore has called homosexuality “the same thing” as having sex with a cow, repeatedly asserted that “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” and was kicked off Alabama’s Supreme Court for discriminating against same-sex couples

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    On September 26, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who has compared homosexuality to having sex with a cow and insists that “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” won his state’s Republican primary for its open Senate seat. Many media outlets failed to contextualize his extreme anti-LGBTQ views -- though most noted his infamous removal from Alabama’s Supreme Court for refusing to accept the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage -- and instead whitewashed him as simply a “firebrand.”

  • Right-wing media figures claim Trump Jr. was part of a “setup made to give the appearance of Russian collusion”

    ››› ››› BRENDAN KARET & NINA MAST

    Following a series of reports from The New York Times laying out Donald Trump Jr.’s correspondence arranging a meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, right-wing media figures attempted to absolve Donald Trump. Jr. by claiming he was set up by Democratic operatives and a “Russian honey pot” in an attempt to give the appearance of collusion.

  • Despite conservative media claims, James Comey didn't leak classified information to NY Times

    ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    Right-wing media, pro-Trump internet trolls, and fake news purveyors are boosting a report from a right-leaning journalist in a way that suggests former FBI Director James Comey might have intentionally leaked classified information to The New York Times. The report presents already-known information about Comey’s memos that recounted his interactions with President Donald Trump. Politico also reported that the source that passed along the memo to the Times confirmed that it did not contain classified information.

  • This is how right-wing media reacted to ISIS terrorism under President Obama

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN, NINA MAST, BRENNAN SUEN & CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    ISIS has claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in Manchester, England, which killed more than 20 people. During Barack Obama’s presidency, right-wing media figures exploited terrorist attacks that ISIS claimed responsibility for to blame, criticize, and attack the president. Additionally, right-wing media figures castigated Obama for not leaving a foreign trip in the aftermath of an attack.

  • Charmaine Yoest Has A Long History Of Misinforming About Abortion, Science, And LGBTQ Rights

    Trump’s Pick For HHS Appointment Has Long Espoused Anti-LGBTQ, Anti-Science, And Anti-Choice Views

    ››› ››› SHARON KANN & JULIE TULBERT

    On April 28, President Donald Trump appointed Charmaine Yoest -- the former vice president of a hate group -- as the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Following her appointment, Yoest has been deleting posts from her joint blog with her husband that detail anti-LGBTQ ideology and push rape apologism. Outlets should note Yoest’s history of extreme views against abortion, LGBTQ rights, and basic facts of science, particularly now that she is the communications head of the government agency in charge of the health and safety of all Americans.

  • The Muslim Ban Is A Religious Test Built On A False Premise

    Right-Wing Media Adopt Trump’s Absurd Claim That His Executive Order Is Not A Muslim Ban

    ››› ››› NINA MAST

    After Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, his administration and right-wing media allies defended the action as “perfectly legal” and “not a Muslim ban.” Yet mainstream media figures and experts explained that the executive order’s exception for religious minorities renders it a de facto religious test. Trump and his advisers explicitly called for a Muslim ban during the last year of his campaign, and the administration’s claim that the order’s religious exception is necessitated by disproportionate persecution of Christians in the Middle East has been debunked.

  • Cable News Hosts Anti-Muslim Extremists To Defend Trump’s Muslim Ban

    ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    Just a few days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning U.S. entry for refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, CNN and Fox News both hosted anti-immigrant extremists or members of designated hate groups to discuss the president’s move, effectively legitimizing and normalizing these groups. Neither CNN nor Fox correctly labeled any of the guests as belonging to groups that pursue fiercely anti-Muslim, anti-refugee agendas.

  • Google Takes Step In Tackling Fake News, But There's Clearly More To Do

    Google AdSense Continues To Place Ads On Numerous Fake News-Purveying Sites, Despite Its “Misrepresentative Content” Policy

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & JARED HOLT

    On January 25, Google announced that it had banned “nearly 200 publishers” from its advertising network for violating its “misrepresentative content policy.” Yet numerous notable violators of the policy that Media Matters already reported to Google remain a part of Google’s AdSense program, showing that while Google may be on the right track, the company still has more work to do.