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  • It’s time for a reckoning for journalists who boosted false narratives about Donald Trump’s LGBTQ policy positions

    Audiences were repeatedly told that he was pro-LGBTQ. He’s been nothing but a nightmare.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    It’s an understatement to say that LGBTQ rights in the U.S. haven’t exactly flourished under President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

    Upon taking office, Trump and his team ordered the removal of references to LGBTQ issues from a number of federal websites. By the second month, the departments of Education and Justice had officially rescinded Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students from discrimination. Six months in, Trump shocked the country by casually tweeting his intention to reinstitute a ban on trans people in the military and having the DOJ issue an updated interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 saying it is legal to fire someone for being gay or trans.

    Those are just a few examples of the many, many anti-LGBTQ actions that Trump has carried out since taking office. According to GLAAD, an LGBTQ media watchdog group, the Trump administration has launched 114 attacks on LGBTQ people thus far. Some actions are petty but not actively harmful, such as not officially proclaiming June to be LGBTQ Pride Month while still extending that recognition to Great Outdoors Month, National Homeownership Month, and National Ocean Month. However, other actions could put lives at risk, such as the appointment of anti-LGBTQ lawyers to lifetime federal judgeships and issuing rules allowing discrimination against trans people in public housing and health care.

    Some media outlets seemed caught off guard by the barrage of anti-LGBTQ actions. They shouldn’t have been.

    Last month, The Washington Post reported that the candidate “who cast himself as pro-LGBT” had become the community’s “worst enemy” in the eyes of activists and allies. And the Post was far from alone in reporting that Trump’s recent actions are a departure from his pro-LGBTQ campaign -- a campaign that never actually existed. These reports place blame on Trump for failing to make good on promises he never made. The truth is that too much of the press ignored what he said he would actually do.

    To understand where the narrative suggesting that Trump would be a pro-LGBTQ president originated, look back to his April 21, 2016, appearance on NBC’s Today.

    Co-host Willie Geist asked the candidate a viewer question from Twitter about specific ways he would be LGBTQ-inclusive as president and about a recently enacted North Carolina law that legalized discrimination against trans people and banned them from many public restrooms. Trump responded by saying that the law wasn’t worth the “economic punishment” brought on by backlash. Then co-host Matt Lauer followed up, asking Trump a question about whether he’d “be fine” with trans TV personality Caitlyn Jenner using the women’s restroom in Trump Tower.

    “That is correct,” answered Trump.

    Nothing in Trump’s answers actually addressed how he would be “inclusive” of LGBTQ people as president. In talking about the North Carolina law, he said that he opposed it because it was hurting businesses, not because it was hurting the people actually being discriminated against. This position in itself is a sort of middle ground between government-mandated anti-LGBTQ discrimination and the position of the Obama administration, which was that anti-LGBTQ discrimination should be illegal. And it would still be a step backward for LGBTQ rights. On the topic of Caitlyn Jenner, it was already New York City law that she had to be allowed to use the women’s restroom; Trump being “fine” with that was as unspectacular as if he’d said he was “fine” with cars stopping at red lights.

    As unremarkable as they were, both answers earned Trump some quick praise from mainstream journalists.

    An April 22, 2016, article in The New York Times headlined “Donald Trump’s More Accepting Views on Gay Issues Set Him Apart in G.O.P.” picked up where the Today interview left off. It cited a Trump blog post from a decade earlier congratulating Elton John and David Furnish on their civil partnership, his support for HIV/AIDS charities in the ’80s and ’90s, and his appearance alongside former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in a video in which Giuliani dressed in drag as evidence that Trump “is far more accepting of sexual minorities than his party’s leaders have been.” In contrast, Trump’s opposition to marriage equality and his “recent alliances with social conservatives such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Pat Robertson” were treated as minor footnotes.

    That night on NBC Nightly News, correspondent Hallie Jackson said that “Trump is considered one of the more LGBT-friendly Republican candidates” and highlighted his Today Show comments. The April 24 edition of Meet The Press featured a segment on Trump’s Today Show comments and the reactions they provoked both from his primary challenger (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz released an ad saying that Trump wasn’t anti-trans enough) as well as his likely general election opponent (the Hillary Clinton campaign pointed to the Today Show comments as an example of Trump’s inconsistency). During that segment, a banner appeared on screen reading: “Trump Campaign: More Accepting On ‘Bathroom Laws.’”

    Trump got additional positive coverage on the topic after the Pulse shooting, his speech at the Republican National Convention, and a moment at a rally when he held a gay pride flag.

    On June 14, 2016, Trump tweeted, “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.” The tweet was one of several empty platitudes Trump offered to LGBTQ Americans following the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL, and at first glance, it might look like a sign of support. Upon closer reading, it’s clear that when he said “fight for you,” he wasn’t referring to fighting for LGBTQ civil rights at home. Instead, Trump’s statement used the community as yet another justification for his anti-Muslim immigration proposals. In his first speech following the Pulse attack, Trump claimed that he was a “friend of women and the LGBT community” because unlike Clinton, he would not “allow radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country,” saying “they enslave women, and murder gays.”

    In response, ABC’s Jonathan Karl called Trump “the most pro-gay rights Republican presidential candidate that we have ever seen.” Politico’s Kyle Cheney framed the bizarre, uncomfortable speech following the Pulse nightclub massacre as evidence of a pro-LGBTQ position, writing that Trump brought a “welcoming tone toward LGBT Americans” and that “in Trump, pro-gay rights Republicans see a new hope.”

    Trump won kudos again the following month during his speech at the Republican National Convention, when he said, “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” Again, this wasn’t a promise to support LGBTQ rights, but a promise to physically “protect” LGBTQ people from what he considered a “hateful foreign ideology” -- Islam.

    Following Trump’s convention speech, many mainstream journalists fell into the Trump-as-LGBTQ-ally trap, reinforcing the myth that he’d be good for LGBTQ people as a whole. Sometimes, as was the case in an Associated Press write-up headlined “Making GOP history, Trump vows to protect LGBTQ community,” important context (in this case, what he was suggesting when he said “protect”) was left out:

    With five letters, Donald Trump brushed off decades of Republican reluctance to voice full-throated support for gay rights — at least for a night.

    Trump’s call in his speech to the Republican National Convention for protecting the “LGBTQ community” was a watershed moment for the Republican Party — the first time the issue has been elevated in a GOP nomination address. Four years ago, Mitt Romney never uttered the word “gay,” much less the full acronym — standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning.

    But Trump, as if to drive the point home, said it not once, but twice.

    Nowhere in Trump’s convention speech -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- did he so much as mention “gay rights,” let alone “voice full-throated support” for them. You wouldn’t have gotten that impression from many journalists, though.

    Fox News’ John Roberts said Trump had “become a champion for the cause” of LGBTQ people. CBS News’ John Dickerson said, “It’s extraordinary the distance the Republican Party has traveled” on LGBTQ issues. On MSNBC, Mark Halperin said, “In the history of the Republican Party and gay rights, last night was one of the biggest days ever.”

    In October 2016, Trump stood on stage at a Colorado campaign stop and briefly held a Pride flag with the words “LGBTs for Trump” scrawled across the front, handed to him from the audience. While few would cite photos of Trump holding signs that say “Women for Trump” or “Blacks for Trump” as evidence that he would be good for women or people of color, the moment with the flag has been occasionally referenced as an example of his supposed support for LGBTQ people.

    All of this praise was based on a falsehood, and LGBTQ people are going to pay the price.

    One of the earliest signs that Trump would be an LGBTQ adversary came in December 2015, when the then-candidate went on record in support of the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill that would have codified a federal right to discriminate against LGBTQ people into law so long as it was done on the basis of one’s religious beliefs. The deceptively named bill was introduced that summer in response to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision as the best chance for anti-gay politicians to undermine the ruling’s effects at the federal level. If it had become law, it would have had devastating effects and wreaked havoc on state and local nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

    “If Congress considers the First Amendment Defense Act a priority, then I will do all I can to make sure it comes to my desk for signature and enactment,” Trump wrote in a response to the American Principles Project request that he make enacting FADA a priority within his hypothetical administration’s first 100 days. Though he stopped short of committing to it as his own priority, anti-LGBTQ activist Maggie Gallagher called his reply “big news and good news.”

    During the January 31, 2016, edition of Fox News’ Fox News Sunday, Trump reaffirmed that he still opposed marriage equality and would “strongly consider” appointing Supreme Court justices to reverse the court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, a decision establishing the right for same-sex couples to marry. The following month, during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, Trump was asked whether evangelicals could trust him on “traditional marriage,” to which he immediately responded, “I think they can trust me. They can trust me on traditional marriage.” On Twitter, Trump called Ted Cruz a “liar” for suggesting that he and Marco Rubio secretly supported marriage equality.

    In April 2016, on the same day as his Today appearance, he walked back his mild opposition to North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ law during an interview on Hannity. Stunningly, the walk-back wasn’t included in the New York Times article or NBC News segments that followed, which lauded him for his more moderate position. By July, he had come out in full support of the law.

    Even his supposedly pro-LGBTQ convention speech was a sham. As Sean Spicer would later reveal in his post-White House memoir, the inclusion of any mention of LGBTQ people at all in Trump’s convention speech was a concession made to convince one Republican National Committee delegate to remove his name from a “Never Trump” petition. The truth is that the 2016 Republican Party platform released during the convention was called the “most overtly anti-LGBTQ platform in history” by the Human Rights Campaign. Even Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelo echoed that message, adding, “Opposition to marriage equality, nonsense about bathrooms, an endorsement of the debunked psychological practice of ‘pray the gay away’ -- it's all in there.”

    Even if journalists didn’t see through the use of LGBTQ people as props in his speech to advance anti-immigration policies, it’s hard to understand how the narrative of Trump as an LGBTQ-inclusive candidate continued after he selected Mike Pence as his running mate and stood with the extremist policies outlined in the platform.

    Contrary to what the Times reported that April, there wasn’t any reason to believe anything “set him apart” in the Republican field. Sure, candidates like Cruz, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry were more overtly anti-LGBTQ, but practically speaking, they held nearly identical policy views. Even if there was space to argue that the other candidates were more clearly anti-LGBTQ than Trump, reporting that is misleading if it lacks the context that he’s still far from an ally.

    During an October 3, 2016, event with a veterans group, Trump was asked what he would do “about the social engineering and political correctness that’s been imposed upon our military,” a reference to Obama-era decisions around trans inclusion and women participating in combat.

    “We’re gonna get away from political correctness,” Trump responded. A Nexis search for TV news transcripts including the words “transgender” and “military” in the week following Trump’s statement turned up zero references to the comments.

    On July 26, 2017, he announced a ban on trans people serving “in any capacity in the U.S. military.” The decision appeared to come out of absolutely nowhere, but in fact, he was making good on a campaign promise.

    Trump has been a disaster for LGBTQ people in the U.S. As we approach the 2020 election, it is imperative that journalists shine an honest light on this issue.

    In May, the departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development announced new anti-trans policies and Axios reported on HHS’ intent to release a formal policy rolling back nondiscrimination rules in adoption, allowing federally funded adoption and foster agencies to refuse same-sex couples if they choose. Media Matters analyzed TV news coverage of these administration moves and found that during a 10-day period while these policies were being reported on, broadcast TV news networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and cable news network MSNBC made no mention of these changes. CNN and Fox News devoted minimal coverage to the topic. These are major policies that will affect the lives of millions of Americans, but they barely made a blip on the TV news radar. If you weren’t specifically looking for news on the state of LGBTQ rights, you may not be aware of just how many ways those protections have changed for the worse during Trump’s administration.

    An alarming number of headlines still get the issue completely wrong -- and that doesn’t bode well for 2020 coverage. A recent article in The New York Times about a May 31 Trump tweet was headlined “Trump’s Celebration of L.G.B.T. Rights Is Met With Criticism.” In fact, he did not offer any “celebration of LGBT rights” in his tweet. That tweet lauded “the outstanding contributions LGBT people have made to our great nation,” but it said nothing of legal rights or protections. Headlines overstating what was said or inferring messages not actually stated reflect a continuing naiveté in the press. Not only that, but the article itself advances one of the administration’s favorite falsehoods, quoting Kellyanne Conway as saying, “He’s the first president to start as president for approving of gay marriage.”

    In fact, a 60 Minutes interview people often point to when defending that comment simply features Trump saying marriage equality is settled law and that he’s “fine with that.” When specifically asked if he supported marriage equality, he responded that it was “irrelevant” what he thought. Those are not the words of someone who is “approving of gay marriage.”

    Based on sheer quantity of anti-LGBTQ policies and political appointments, Trump is, arguably, one of the worst presidents on LGBTQ rights in the country’s history. He may have no personal problem with gay people. He may say he’s “fine” with a gay person being married. He may sell “Pride”-themed merchandise on his website. He may collaborate with Peter Thiel or appoint Richard Grenell to an ambassadorship. He may even sputter out the letters “LGBTQ” from time to time. None of this has anything to do with LGBTQ civil rights or legal protections at home.

    After the Pulse attack in 2016, Trump said reporters should “ask the gays” about LGBTQ rights in majority-Muslim countries and whether his anti-Muslim policy proposals made him a friend of the community. As 2020 coverage gets going, news organizations should do exactly that: talk to the broader LGBTQ community.

    Yes, there will always be some gay and bisexual Trump supporters, some hard-core conservative trans people, and a handful of lesbian libertarians. Whenever the Trump administration takes action against the community, a common impulse is for journalists to seek these supporters out for comment. Rarely, however, are these the people hurt most by these individual policies, and giving them a disproportionately large platform only obscures the actual damage any given policy can cause. Their continued support for Trump and the Republican Party doesn’t cancel out what harm the party and its leader will do. Rather, their support is often just a sign that there are other issues they care about more than legal protections or civil rights. In other words, the existence of LGBTQ Trump supporters does not tell us anything about the administration’s hostility when it comes to policies specific to this community. Journalists must remember this.

    What Trump said in a 2000 interview or what charities he supported in the 1980s aren’t relevant to the lives of LGBTQ Americans. What matter are the policies being implemented, the judges appointed, and laws championed -- right now. A July 2016 Pew Research survey found that 40% of voters said LGBTQ issues were “very important” in determining who to vote for. By not informing the public about what Trump said he would do, the press failed. It’s time for journalists to accept that Trump was not nearly as pro-LGBTQ as he was made out to be in the press and to contemplate what role they played in building the myth that he ever was.

  • News organizations parrot Trump's false justifications for accepting foreign help in 2020 election

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Several national-level news organizations, including The New York Times, CBS News, Roll Call, and The Washington Post, repeated Trump’s false justifications for his widely criticized comment in an ABC News interview on June 12 that he would accept information from a foreign government about a 2020 Democratic rival. In the interview, he also falsely claimed that accepting information from foreign governments is identical to political opposition research and it is a routine practice: They all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”

    After Trump started getting criticized for his comments, he tweeted on June 13 several defenses of his remarks, equating accepting information as a candidate that a foreign government dug up to acting in his official capacity in routine meetings and discussions with foreign dignitaries. As Politico explained in an article about Trump's defenses: "Every president regularly communicates with other heads of state. Accepting negative information from a foreign agent about a campaign opponent is a different matter, however. It is a crime for a campaign to solicit or accept something of value from a foreign entity, which some lawyers say could apply to information." But several major news organizations repeated Trump’s false justifications through their Twitter accounts, misinforming their audiences about the grave nature of Trump’s admission.

    In contrast, NPR's and Politico's Twitter feeds made clear that Trump's claims in the interview were false:

  • How Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss have taken the NY Times’ campus concern trolling to new heights in just 2 years

    The two were brought over from the WSJ to bring a bold new perspective to the paper. Instead, they’ve been amplifying its most played-out talking point.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In April 2017, The New York Times announced the hiring of Wall Street Journal columnist and Pulitzer winner Bret Stephens. In a memo sent to staff, editorial page editor James Bennet wrote that Stephens would “bring a new perspective to bear on the news” as part of the newspaper’s plan to “continue to broaden the range of Times debate about consequential questions.”

    Hiring Stephens was a controversial move given his history of denying the reality of human-caused climate change, engaging in Iraq War revisionism, and disputing the existence of the campus-rape epidemic. And Stephens did little to assuage critics of his hire; his debut column for the Times was an error-riddled op-ed misrepresenting the state of climate consensus in the scientific community. That article was later held up by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt to defend his personal skepticism of climate science.

    Stephens was joined at the Times by fellow Wall Street Journal alum Bari Weiss. At the Journal, Weiss wrote about things like “campus rage,” “the PC police,” and “social justice warriors” who were supposedly outraged over the film Sausage Party. In another memo to staff, Bennet announced that Weiss would “be writing and commissioning the kinds of quick-off-the-news pieces that are such a critical part of our efforts to amplify the section’s already important voice in the national conversation.”

    More than two years into Stephens’ and Weiss’ tenures at the Times, it remains unclear how Stephens -- or Weiss, for that matter -- has broadened the range of debate on the paper’s pages.

    Instead, it seems their presence has served mostly to intensify the focus on topics like campus speech and social justice activism -- namely, arguing that liberals are overstepping their bounds in both arenas. From reading Stephens and Weiss, you'd get the impression that some of the most pressing issues in the country are the conduct of protesters demonstrating outside a Ben Shapiro speech -- where he’s no doubt busy CRUSHING a question about atheism and DESTROYING the argument for trans rights -- and runaway PC culture on college campuses, which poses an existential threat to democracy itself.

    Weiss appears to delight in shining a light on minor campus controversies such as the one that erupted at Evergreen State College, when a professor was challenged by student activists for his views on a proposed “day of absence” protest. Similarly, she has shown a particular interest in stories about speakers being “no platformed” at universities.

    In a piece titled “We’re All Fascists Now,” Weiss bemoaned Lewis & Clark Law School students’ protest of a speech by American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers. On Twitter, Weiss called this incident “a 21st-century auto-da-fe,” referring to public executions carried out during the Spanish Inquisition. But far from the teeming masses her article made the protest out to contain, video shows only about a dozen demonstrators in total.

    Weiss also took issue with students’ characterization of Sommers as a “fascist,” noting that she is “a self-identified feminist and registered Democrat.” As this piece illustrated, Weiss has a tendency to give incomplete and often inaccurate descriptions of her stories’ protagonists. In this case, Weiss failed to note that Sommers was a prominent voice in the anti-diversity “GamerGate” movement, has joined panel discussions alongside the likes of neo-Nazi sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos and far-right troll Steven Crowder, has appeared on Fox News to argue against perceived liberal causes, and has been a guest on white supremacist YouTube channel Red Ice TV’s Radio 3Fourteen. The original version of Weiss’ article also referred to libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin as “a liberal commentator” who was supposedly “denounced as an ‘Anti-L.G.B.T. fascist’ and a ‘fascist lieutenant’ for criticizing identity politics.” But those criticisms of Rubin came from a parody Twitter account, and the references to him were later removed.

    In May 2018, Weiss published a piece about the so-called Intellectual Dark Web, a “collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now.” As Weiss framed it, the IDW is made up of freethinkers who dare to speak uncomfortable truths that exist outside the liberal mainstream. In reality, the IDW is a collection of trolls, harassers, and some outright bigots. Her pieces on the issue often feature many of the same rotating cast of characters. In the May article, Weiss namechecked Sommers and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who was also referenced in her “We’re All Fascists Now” article). Additionally, there’s Bret Weinstein (who was the subject of Weiss’s story about Evergreen State College), Rubin (again), Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro (who she profiled in a fawning piece in September 2017), Joe Rogan, and others. Weiss paints these speakers as outcasts “in our new era of That Which Cannot Be Said,” but the truth is that these are some of the most watched and listened to commentators in the world.

    Since joining the Times, Weiss has cheered on cultural appropriation, written repeatedly of the perceived overreaches of the #MeToo movement, and made a laughably inaccurate prediction that “liberal lion of Hollywood and prominent donor to Democratic politicians” Harvey Weinstein would remain welcome in progressive circles following reports that he sexually abused numerous women.

    On Twitter, Weiss has made a habit of sharing stories by other authors related to college controversies. “The new normal on campus,” Weiss tweeted earlier this month, sharing a Commentary article by Jonathan Marks about the status of a pro-Israel student group being denied recognition at Williams College (the school did eventually recognize the group). Last June, Weiss shared a story by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic warning of the “potential excesses of policing sex on campus.”

    Stephens has remarkably similar positions on political correctness and campus speech. While Weiss has tended to pull from her Intellectual Dark Web rogues’ gallery for stories about campuses, Stephens takes a slightly more macro approach and often focuses on what college liberals could be doing instead of protesting what he invariably sees as a wasted cause.

    In a February 2018 piece, Stephens chided liberals for not focusing their ire at Venezuela’s Maduro regime instead of whatever it is they’re protesting these days. He wrote:

    Every generation of campus activists embraces a worthy foreign-policy cause: Ending apartheid in South Africa; stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; rescuing Darfur from starvation and genocide. And then there’s the perennial — and perennially unworthy — cause of “freeing” Palestine, for which there never is a shortage of credulous campus zealots.

    Then there are the humanitarian causes young activists generally don’t embrace, at least not in a big way. Cuba’s political prisoners. Islamist violence against Christians in the Middle East. The vast and terrifying concentration camp that is North Korea. Where are the campus protests over any of that?

    “Waiting on campus progressives everywhere to take bold stance against Malaysia….” Stephens tweeted in January, quoting a post about an anti-Semitic statement made by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

    Stephens’ list of campus complaints isn’t limited to student protests. In the month following his hiring, Stephens published the transcript of a commencement address he delivered at Hampden-Sydney College titled “Leave Your Safe Spaces.” In it, he referenced a 2014 mini-scandal at Brown University in which a student offered counter-programming for sexual assault survivors during an event in which the subject of sexual assault would be debated elsewhere on campus. Stephens criticized this move, writing that “if a college or university should accept the principle of a ‘safe space’ in a single designated room, why should that same principle not extend to the classroom, the lecture hall, dormitories, college newspapers, chat rooms, social media and so on?” He took that a step further, writing, “And if it is not O.K. to say certain things, anywhere, should we even think them?” In the span of just a few paragraphs, Stephens distorted the idea of giving people a space to relax for an hour into an Orwellian attack on free thought, making aggressive use of the slippery slope fallacy along the way.

    Stephens lauded the Trump administration (something he will be the first to say that he is loath to do) for its September 2017 decision to roll back Obama-era Title IX guidelines on campus sexual assault, calling the original Obama move “Exhibit A in the overreach of an administrative state pursuing a narrow ideological agenda through methods both lawless and aggressive.”

    In “America’s Best University President,” Stephens cheered University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer’s defense of the school’s stance on “trigger warnings” and school speakers. Again, Stephens invoked Orwell in making his argument for a campus speech free-for-all:

    If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one. You will succumb to a form of Orwellian double-think without even having the excuse of living in physical terror of doing otherwise.

    On Twitter, Stephens called a recent heckling of AEI’s Sommers “leftist fascism,” and he sneered at critics who protested conservative author Charles Murray at Middlebury University as “leftist enemies” of free speech.

    There wasn’t some glaring absence of articles about supposed anti-speech liberals on college campuses before the Times hired Stephens and Weiss.

    In 2014, Times columnist Ross Douthat compared the culture of “hypersensitive political correctness” on American college campuses with Kim Jong Un and the North Korean response to the movie The Interview. The following year, Douthat wrote, “I have little sympathy for the goals of these new activists,” and the Times’ David Brooks denounced what he called “a form of zealotry” among student activists. Timothy Egan capped 2015 by cheering, “Campus free-speech censors are on the run. Across the political spectrum, people have had enough of pampered college students who are afraid of words and ideas that offend them.” Douthat continued his campaign against liberal fragility on college campuses following the 2016 election, publishing a piece comparing campus protests to “religious revivalism.”

    And it’s not as though the Times’ other columnists have softened up since Stephens and Weiss came on board. In April 2017, Brooks wrote a piece that partly blamed “fragile thugs who call themselves students” for creating a “crisis of Western civilization.” That August, Douthat penned a column referencing the “fainting-couch politics of recent campus and online progressivism.” Brooks wrote a November 2017 article comparing “campus social justice warriors” with the gun lobby, and he would later heap praise upon New York University professor Jonathan Haidt and Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker for “bravely stand[ing] against what can be the smothering orthodoxy that inhibits thought on campus.”

    Not even the Times’ more liberal-leaning columnists can resist getting in a jab at campus liberals. In August 2017, Thomas Friedman wrote, “Political correctness on college campuses has run ridiculously riot.” Frank Bruni questioned whether colleges should adopt some sort of campus affirmative action program for conservative instructors, wrote an entire op-ed responding to a college newspaper’s opinion piece criticizing whiteness, slammed “illiberal liberalism” on college campuses, interviewed a professor who said, “The student became the customer who’s always right," and penned a somewhat sympathetic piece about Yiannopoulos, writing, “There’s too much policing of indelicate and injurious language and too little recognition that the wages of fully open debate are ugly words and hurt feelings."

    Not all cases of campus censorship are created equal, apparently.

    With so much going on right now in the world, you would think that there’d be less focus on a handful of college students at one campus or another protesting a speaker. At very least, you might expect that instances of conservatives shutting down progressive speakers would be discussed with the same regularity as those about liberals.

    Instead, readers are treated to a full-on case of free speech hypocrisy.

    One example of this involves progressive Jewish political cartoonist Eli Valley’s recent trip to Stanford University. Days before his scheduled appearance, the Stanford College Republicans posted flyers around campus containing some of Valley’s work alongside clippings from Der Stürmer, a Nazi-era German newspaper known for publishing vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. The group acknowledged that it did this in retaliation because posters for one of their events were covered up by posters of the group sponsoring Valley’s appearance.

    The groups bringing Valley to campus, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, took some of the blame for the backlash. In an op-ed for The Stanford Daily, the groups apologized for including Valley’s work, which is meant to be a grotesque and provocative political criticism, without the proper context. In response, The Stanford Daily published an opposing op-ed comparing Valley’s work to the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels, writing, “To apologize for the flyers but insist on continuing with the event is equal parts absurd and appalling.”

    This seemed like precisely the kind of campus controversy that would grab the attention of Weiss, Stephens, and the rest of conservative media: Here was a student group trying to intimidate a speaker out of appearing on campus as scheduled. On the principles of free speech and academic freedom, taking a stand for Valley seemed to be the obvious call. Instead, Weiss praised the article calling for Valley’s cancellation on Twitter, thanking its author.

    “Bari Weiss's attempt to get me de-platformed at Stanford, and her smear that my celebration of non-Zionist Jewish culture, politics, and art is tantamount to Nazism, should put an end to the myth that she is interested in a free exchange of ideas,” Valley said in a Twitter direct message. “She is interested [in] silencing the Left and in mainstreaming far-right ideology.”

    Valley’s view of Weiss is in line with her own history of activism and protest against pro-Palestinian Columbia University professors during her time at the school. Far from a proponent of across-the-board freedom of expression, she and the Times’ other columnists have been extremely selective about which stories get heard.  

    The idea that no-platforming and other efforts to control campus speech are tactics carried out primarily by students on the left is almost undoubtedly the result of outlets like the Times’ opinion section giving such incidents excessive amounts of coverage -- while essentially ignoring the many examples of conservatives trying to shut out speech they don’t like. You’re unlikely to read Bret Stephens’ take on the efforts of conservative students to use the court system to cancel a panel discussion about Palestinian rights at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. David Brooks isn’t likely to weigh in anytime soon on the University of Arizona students who were arrested on campus for criticizing Border Patrol agents. Ross Douthat didn’t churn out an article to condemn the Nebraska GOP for using its political influence to call on Creighton University to rescind its offer to have former-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) deliver its graduation speech.

    The New York Times has been publishing stories about a supposed campus speech crisis for more than 100 years.

    “Is free speech an essential part of the American college and university system? This question, never for long obscured, has again become of major importance,” wrote Ralph Thompson in the Times in 1935, quoting a school administrator saying that harmful political movements “will reveal themselves more evidently in the light of open discussion than in the obscurity of whispered argument.”

    The entire piece could have just as easily been written in the past couple of years, demonstrating that the moral panic surrounding campus speech is far from a new phenomenon. In fact, examples of Times articles about academic liberty and freedom of expression date back more than a century.

    In 1903, French sociologist M. Léopold Mabilleau decried the state of American higher education as a restrictive nightmare void of freedom of speech or expression. “It is necessary that the professor be able to think and speak as he chooses, even though his ideas be contrary to the opinions of the Trustees,” he told The New York Times, speaking of his experience lecturing at the University of Chicago. “This liberty does not exist in many of your American universities, many of which are founded by private individuals.”

    In 1970, the Times published an article warning that “leftist student agitation” in France was “contributing toward the rebirth of extreme rightist student movements of a fascist and antirepublican nature.”

    “The rightists are campaigning against Marxist dictatorship in the faculties and for ‘freedom of expression.’ The far leftists — followers of Mao Tse-tung and Trotsky for the most part — rally students against fascism. Each extreme feeds on the other,” reads the piece -- a line that wouldn’t sound at all out of place in today’s paper.

    If the idea behind hiring Stephens and Weiss was to expand the conversations unfolding in the Times opinion pages, their excessive focus on this specific topic gives little reason to believe this was a successful move. Repeating the same talking points that have peppered the paper’s opinion pages since 1903 isn’t some sort of bold expansion at all, but rather a retreat into what is essentially a “safe space” for milquetoast defenses of the status quo. Yes, the Times publishes work by many authors who aren’t on-staff columnists, and there certainly is some variety in their opinions. But if the paper of record wants to break new ground, its columnists will need to look further than the local campus for their next stories.

  • How disinformation works: News outlets are filtering Mueller's statement through Trump's lies

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Wednesday statement served as an indictment of the press for its failure to effectively convey the damning conclusions of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the public and its willingness to accept the dishonest spin of President Donald Trump and the members of his administration. But the behavior of many major news outlets since Mueller stepped down from the Justice Department’s lectern suggests that few lessons have been learned, and journalists continue their business-as-usual practice of filtering their coverage through the lens of Trump’s deceptive critiques.

    New York Times reporter Peter Baker’s analysis is a key example of journalists reporting on Mueller’s statement as a good faith disagreement between Democrats and the president. The story appeared online on Wednesday under the headline “Mueller Delivered a Message. Washington Couldn’t Agree on What It Was,” and it was splashed across the paper’s front page the next day. “At long last, the sphinx of Washington spoke on Wednesday,” Baker wrote, “and here is what President Trump heard: ‘Case closed.’ Here is what the president’s adversaries heard: ‘Time to impeach.’”

    These are statements that can be assessed for their accuracy, with the reporter concluding that one party’s interpretation is correct. Instead, Baker chose to examine the remarks from both sides and then all but throw up his hands in dismay, framing his story as a case of Washington partisans simply failing to agree on the facts. But the Times scribe’s own reporting in the piece showed that Trump is not credible when he discusses Mueller’s probe. As Baker noted, Mueller’s statement “effectively refuted Mr. Trump’s no-collusion, no-obstruction mantra,” demonstrating the president’s mendacity. He also wrote that the special counsel “implied that Congress could pursue impeachment without directly recommending it,” thus supporting the opinion he ascribed to “the president’s adversaries.”

    Baker’s piece rewarded what Washington Post opinion writer Greg Sargent has called the Trump administration’s “full-saturation propaganda casting the investigation itself as the real crime — disinformation designed to blot out shared agreement on the most basic facts about what just happened before all of our very eyes.”

    This style of political journalism -- setting out the claims of both the Trump administration and its critics and leaving it to the reader to decide which interpretation is correct -- simply doesn’t work in the face of Trump’s systemic disinformation.

    Trump and his allies know that they can take advantage of this media vulnerability by offering arguments in bad faith on every last detail. This pushes reporters to cover stories with an “on the one hand, but on the other hand” frame, leaving the public confused about basic facts.

    This vulnerability is particularly acute when it comes to headlines -- the only part of a story that most people actually read. Since journalists tend to treat a politician’s statements as intrinsically newsworthy, Trump’s comments are often quoted without context in headlines. That pattern held true yesterday, as several major news outlets produced headlines quoting Trump’s “case is closed” reaction to Mueller’s statement without any context:

     

     

     

     

     

    This pattern of amplifying the president’s claims continued the next day. Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, Trump laid into Mueller with a fact-free screed, calling him a “true never-Trumper” who “should have never been chosen” as special counsel because he is “totally conflicted.” While the president’s allies have been pushing Mueller’s purported conflicts for years as a way of delegitimizing his investigation, those claims have long been debunked. But that didn’t stop a flurry of tweets from major media outlets promoting his claims in tweets:

    And their on-air chyrons:

    Meanwhile, the president’s right-wing media allies continued hammering the message of Mueller’s malfeasance to their huge audiences, depicting the special counsel as a “sleazy and dishonest”Trump-hating partisan” who participated in a Democratic plot to “steal” the 2018 midterm elections.

    The propaganda machine marches on, and credible news outlets aren’t doing nearly enough to hold back its disinformation.

  • The New Orleans Times-Picayune did vital environmental reporting for decades

    Strong environmental journalism is key to informing citizens and holding polluters accountable

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Update (5/31/19): After publication of this article, Media Matters spoke with The New Orleans Advocate and learned that it has made job offers to The Times-Picayune's full three-person team of environmental journalists and those offers have been accepted. The Advocate also plans to bring over a grant-funded journalism fellow as part of a year-long environmental reporting project that was started at The Times-Picayune. These journalists, who are expected to begin their new jobs on July 2, will join the Advocate reporters who have been covering environmental issues as they intersect with other beats.

    "We are extremely excited to be expanding our environmental coverage," said New Orleans Advocate Managing Editor Martha Carr. "The Advocate has a strong record of environmental reporting in New Orleans and Louisiana. These reporters will add to what we can do to keep citizens informed."  


    The Times-Picayune, a 182-year-old newspaper published in New Orleans, has produced some of the most important environmental journalism in the country. But after a surprise purchase by the owners of The New Orleans Advocate and the Baton Rouge Advocate in early May, the entire staff of the Picayune was laid off. The buyers reportedly plan to merge The Times-Picayune with The New Orleans Advocate, but it's unclear how many of the 161 Picayune employees will be rehired to work on the new joint paper, which is expected to relaunch in July. Local environmental advocates are concerned that a degraded and depleted Picayune will have a much harder time informing the public about important environmental issues.

    The Times-Picayune has been a longtime publisher of award-winning environmental journalism

    For decades, The Times-Picayune has produced groundbreaking stories about how humans affect the environment in southern Louisiana and around the world. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for its “Oceans of Trouble” series, which examined threats to fish populations around the world.

    In 2006, the Picayune was awarded another Pulitzer, this time “for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.” The paper's Katrina reporting was also built on critical work its journalists had done in previous years. In 2002, it published a prescient five-part series that revealed how woefully unprepared the region was for the full brunt of a major storm. The series included an ominous warning: “It's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”

    The Times-Picayune has twice earned the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, presented by the Columbia Journalism School. In 2001, it won for “Unwelcome Neighbors: Race, class and the environment,” a four-part series that examined environmental justice and the legacy of environmental racism in Louisiana. And in 2008, it was honored with an Oakes Award for a special report titled “Last Chance: The fight to save a disappearing coast.”

    The newspaper also received many other accolades over the years. For example, the Picayune's reporting on the BP oil spill earned first place for outstanding beat reporting in a small market from the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2011. In 2018, the paper partnered with The New York Times to produce a three-part series that investigated the ecological catastrophe occurring along Louisiana's disappearing coastline, and further reporting on the topic won the 2018 Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors award for continuing coverage.

    The Times-Picayune continued to produce innovative and informative environmental journalism even after suffering massive staff layoffs in 2012. But as in far too many other newsrooms across the country, good journalism would ultimately not be able to save the paper.

    Great journalism isn’t enough to stem the tide of newspaper dissolution and consolidation

    Notable achievements, high readership, and even profitability have so far proved unable to stem the growing tide of newsroom erosion and extinction all around the country.

    Picayune journalist Haley Correll, who found out that she lost her job while in New York to accept an award, illustrated this point in a tweet.

    The Wall Street Journal recently took a deep dive into the dire state of local newspapers. The article noted, “Nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018, leaving 200 counties with no newspaper and roughly half the counties in the country with only one,” according to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina. The job losses have also been staggering: Between 1990 and 2016, newspaper positions in the U.S. declined by about 60%, falling from 465,000 jobs to 183,000.

    In a region highly vulnerable to climate threats, activists stress the need for strong environmental journalism

    Local environmental activists have expressed apprehension about what the Picayune’s sale portends for the future of journalism in a region that is highly vulnerable to climate change and plagued by environmental injustices like “Cancer Alley.” Dustin Renaud, a spokesperson for New Orleans-based conservation nonprofit Healthy Gulf, told Media Matters, "Environmental protection starts with informed citizens, and The Times-Picayune has been an invaluable source of information on issues like sea-level rise, land loss, increased severity of storms, and oil and gas development, which are all very real threats to Louisianians.”

    His unease is shared by Andy Kowalczyk of climate action group 350 New Orleans, who told Media Matters, “Unbiased reporting is increasingly important in Louisiana because there is an all-too-common and casual lack of transparency from regulators of polluting industries, and, of course, the industries themselves.” 

    They're right to be concerned. Research suggests that the loss of local newspapers can result in citizens who are less civically engaged and institutions that are less accountable, leading to more government and industry waste, fraud, and abuse. A recent study also found that newspaper coverage of polluting plants was correlated with lowered emissions from those plants.

    Without knowledgeable journalists who can tell compelling stories, a local paper will sometimes morph into a digital version plagued by junk advertisements and rife with stories that have little relevance to the community it serves.

    Renaud emphasized the importance of tenacious reporters: “We need dedicated environmental journalists to tell the stories that Healthy Gulf advocates for or else we risk important environmental news falling through the cracks.” Having experienced journalists on the job is particularly important for beats like environmental reporting that require a grasp of science, regulatory systems, politics, and local arcana.

    There is at least one bit of good news on this front: Poynter reported that the leaders of The New Orleans Advocate intend to hire some Picayune journalists on contract, and “the hires will draw on the strength of the Times-Picayune’s environmental reporting,” among other areas of expertise.

    Potential new models for local news

    The outlook for local news outlets around the country is bleak, but there are new models being pioneered that have the potential to help newspapers survive and even thrive in some cases.

    One example is Report for America, a project aimed at recruiting, training, and placing 1,000 reporters in local newsrooms by 2023. The organization splits the cost of a reporter’s salary with the local newsroom and an individual donor, university, family trust, or foundation. This year, Report for America placed 61 reporters in 50 local news organizations.

    Another project is focused specifically on the environmental beat. InsideClimate News’ National Environment Reporting Network is "hiring experienced reporters based in key regions of the nation to write stories, train local reporters, and collaborate with newsrooms to produce more in-depth environment reporting.” The network recently teamed up with 14 news outlets in the Midwest to produce a series of stories on local climate solutions.

    Public funding of news outlets is another model that is beginning to be tested in the U.S., as the Nieman Lab reports. In New Jersey last year, grassroots activists successfully pushed through the Civic Info Bill, which created a public fund to support journalism projects and other potential ways to inform state residents.

    In Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it is seeking to become a nonprofit. If successful, the paper would become the first “legacy U.S. daily to switch to nonprofit status,” according to a Tribune article. The effort will be a complicated process; to kick it off, the Tribune’s owner has petitioned the IRS to change the paper’s status “from a privately owned business to a community asset.”

    These are promising steps, but the ability of these models to support quality journalism is still in doubt -- as are the fates of many talented and experienced journalists who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. But no matter which models ascend to fill the role historically played by local newspapers, one thing is certain: They should be guided by the consistently rigorous, revealing, and relevant reporting produced by local papers like The Times-Picayune.

  • Mueller’s statement was an indictment of the press

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday morning gave his first public statement on his office’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. His most newsworthy comments during the nine minutes of remarks at the Justice Department included that his team would have publicly cleared President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice if they had been confident he did not commit a crime, that he was prohibited by Justice Department policy from charging the president with a crime, and that the Constitution provides for a different remedy for crimes committed by a sitting president (namely impeachment). All these points can be found -- with little variation -- within his 400-plus page report, which the department released last month.

    But Mueller’s words nonetheless carry grave significance. His statement followed a sustained disinformation effort by Trump, Attorney General William Barr, and the president’s propagandists at Fox News and elsewhere meant to mislead the public about Mueller’s conclusions. Too often, mainstream journalists bought into that dishonest spin, thereby promoting an inaccurate narrative that seemingly spurred Mueller to speak out publicly.

    By the time Mueller submitted his report to the Justice Department in March, Trump and his allies in the right-wing media had spent nearly two years working hand in hand to shape the communications battlefield. With declarations of “NO COLLUSION” and “WITCH HUNT” from the president and invocations of the “Mueller Crime Family” and the special counsel’s purported corruption from Fox host Sean Hannity and his coterie, this sinister effort undermined the legitimacy of the investigation among Trump’s base.

    Fox's reaction was unsurprising: The network has long served as the communications arm of the Republican Party, and it has spent the last few years fusing with the Trump administration and becoming an instrument of state propaganda. But it has been more unnerving to watch the mainstream press grapple unsuccessfully with Mueller's actual conclusions and let the Trump administration's spin set the narrative.

    Recall how major newspapers handled the letter Barr sent to Congress on March 24 summarizing what the attorney general termed the “principal conclusions” of the report Mueller submitted a few days earlier.

    There was no reason for journalists to accept Barr's rosy assessment at face value -- Trump had long publicly griped that his previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had failed to act in his personal interest, making it likely that Barr had been selected at least in part because he was willing to do so. His letter was a transparent attempt to spin the report in Trump’s favor while it was still hidden from the public.

    And yet, the next morning some of the nation’s biggest newspapers had splashed Barr’s statements across their front pages as evidence that Mueller had exonerated Trump and his associates:

    “For President Trump, it may have been the best day of his tenure so far,” The New York Times’ Peter Baker reported. “The darkest, most ominous cloud hanging over his presidency was all but lifted on Sunday with the release of the special counsel’s conclusions, which undercut the threat of impeachment and provided him with a powerful boost for the final 22 months of his term.”

    Over the next few weeks, that phony narrative circulated, bolstered by Trump’s own false statements, the willingness of major news outlets to parrot those falsehoods, and Fox’s vicious attacks on the rest of the press for their prior reports on Russia.

    On the morning of April 18, Barr held a press conference to discuss Mueller’s report, which was scheduled for release later that day. This was, again, a clear effort to spin the press. And again, many in the press fell for it, echoing his obvious false claims.

    Then the report came out and the Trump-Barr story collapsed. The report diverged from Barr’s description in several key ways that made it much more damning for the president than the attorney general had let on. But by the time reporters had access to Mueller’s actual conclusions, the damage had already been done.

    “What Barr did shaped the debate for the half of the country that mattered,” The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake concluded after reviewing the discrepancies between Mueller’s report and Barr’s statements. “It gave Trump’s supporters a built-in narrative that, though misleading, has taken hold.”

    Mueller himself was reportedly disturbed by Barr’s letter and the way it was subsequently interpreted by the press. In a March 27 letter to Barr, he wrote that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation. In a subsequent phone call, he reportedly told the attorney general “he was concerned that media coverage of the obstruction probe was misguided and creating public misunderstandings about the office’s work.”

    The weeks since have done little to assuage such concerns, as major media outlets continue to view Mueller’s report in large part through the false statements of the president and his allies.

    That’s the context in which Mueller stepped up to the lectern this morning. Minutes after he stepped down, Trump and his allies started lying, and the media spin cycle began again.

  • Right-wing media's anti-abortion misinformation playbook for 2020

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump and other conservative candidates have already signaled that anti-abortion lies will be a core part of their 2020 playbook -- tactics that right-wing media are certain to amplify in order to fearmonger and rally support ahead of the election. In line with this, right-wing outlets have already been badgering Democratic candidates about their stances on abortion access, in some cases smearing them with sensationalized and inaccurate tropes about later abortions.

    Following the introduction of measures in New York, Virginia, and other states to ensure abortion access if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, right-wing media generated a firestorm of coverage that mischaracterized Democrats’ efforts to protect abortion rights as promoting “infanticide” or so-called abortion “up to birth.” In reality, the idea that abortions happen up to the “moment of birth” is a fiction fueled by right-wing media and does not reflect any actual medical procedures performed in the U.S. Rather, abortions that happen later in pregnancy are performed for complicated personal and medical reasons, with the people anti-choice advocates compare to murderers often having to make the difficult decision to end a wanted pregnancy. In other instances, people need abortions later in pregnancy due to anti-choice restrictions prohibiting or greatly delaying earlier access.

    Beyond broadly alleging that Democrats support abortion “up to birth,” right-wing media have also promoted the false claim that pro-choice candidates are in favor of denying care to babies “born alive” after so-called “failed abortions.” These alleged “born alive” abortions that right-wing media protest are not based in any medical practice or standard of care, as Rewire.News reported in 2013. Nevertheless, Republicans in Congress recently introduced the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to aid so-called “abortion survivors” who are “born alive” following an attempted abortion procedure. As doctors Daniel Grossman and Jennifer Conti pointed out to The New York Times, it is more likely that the bill would force doctors to pursue treatment options that run counter to patients’ wishes -- such as ensuring that a fetus delivered “at the edge of viability” but unlikely to survive could not receive “comfort care” which would “allow the child to die naturally without extreme attempts at resuscitation.” In addition, as writer Robin Marty explained, the bill could also be used opportunistically by anti-choice opponents to prosecute abortion providers.

    Right-wing media and anti-abortion groups have used these manufactured controversies as part of a playbook for attacking abortion rights supporters and have already proven they'll deploy the same strategy against candidates. The playbook involves:

    1) Hounding candidates with anti-choice questions -- and spinning any abortion-related answers -- to generate an outrage-based news cycle

    2) Manufacturing fake “grassroots” support for anti-choice misinformation

    3) Using candidate comments about unrelated topics as a jumping-off point to criticize them about abortion

    1. Hounding candidates with anti-choice questions -- and spinning any abortion-related answers -- to generate an outrage-based news cycle

    The tactic

    Although right-wing media have long represented Democratic positions on abortion in bad faith, the campaign trail has given these outlets more opportunities to hound candidates with inaccurate and sensationalized questions about abortion to intentionally generate outrage. In addition, others in the right-wing and anti-abortion media echo chamber are then able to pick up these comments -- or really any comment from candidates on abortion -- and spin them to fit predetermined anti-choice narratives. Thus far, those anti-choice narratives have been focused on Democrats’ alleged support for abortion “up to birth” or even after.

    Unfortunately, this has permeated beyond right-wing media and several outlets outside of this ecosystem have adopted this inaccurate framing. Already in 2019, non-right-wing outlets have uncritically repeated dangerous lies about abortion from Trump’s State of the Union address and echoed the language used by right-wing media and Republicans about efforts to secure a vote for the so-called Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

    Examples

    Beto O’Rourke

    Presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) received a flurry of inaccurately framed questions about his stance on abortion in March. On March 18, at a campaign event in Ohio, Millie Weaver (also known as “Millennial Millie”), a staffer from the far-right conspiracy outlet Infowars, questioned O’Rourke about his support for abortion access later in pregnancy. Relying on an inaccurate right-wing framing of the topic, Weaver asked:

    Are you for third-trimester abortion or are you going to protect the lives of third-trimester babies? Because there is really not a medical necessity for abortion. It’s not a medical emergency procedure because typically third-trimester abortions take up to three days to have. So, you would -- in that sense, if there was an emergency, the doctors would just do a C-section, and you don’t have to kill the baby in that essence. So, are you for or against third-trimester abortions?

    In her subsequent article about the event, Weaver continued to distort the premise of the question, as well as misrepresenting O’Rourke’s answer. Weaver claimed that she asked “if he supports up-to-birth abortions” and that his answer that abortion should be “a decision that the woman makes” showed he “endorses third-trimester abortions.”

    After that, O’Rourke was peppered with similar questions about abortion from other right-wing outlets and reporters. For example, after Weaver's question, The Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito -- known for producing “revealing dispatches from Trump country” that have drawn claims of fabrication and plagiarism -- asked O’Rourke whether he supported access to third-trimester abortions “to make sure” there was “clarity” about his previous answer. Zito ultimately wrote that “O’Rourke has refused to rule out abortions more than six months into a pregnancy,” but she noted on Twitter that supporters’ “cheers” in reaction to his answer “told me so much about the state of what Democrats want from their eventual nominee.” Apparently dissatisfied that his answer didn’t garner broader coverage, Zito followed up with another piece about O’Rourke’s “extreme abortion stance” days later, complaining:

    It is hard to find any D.C. reporters in a mainstream news organization writing about a viewpoint professed by a Democratic presidential candidate as being “extreme” or “radical.” Yet had this been a Republican candidate coming out in support of something the majority of Americans find impossible to support, it would be a headline for days, followed by asking every Republican running or holding office if they support that radical position as well.

    Right-wing media used O’Rourke's answers to these bad faith questions to claim that he supports abortion “up to birth” or beyond and to say that this view represents the Democratic “party line” on abortion. Fox News, Townhall, and The Daily Wire published articles condemning the alleged position of O’Rourke and the Democratic Party on abortion access. Right-wing media figures echoed this approach, with the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro saying on Fox & Friends that “Beto O'Rourke and every other major Democrat feel forced to embrace this position, that you have to be for abortion up to and sometimes beyond the point of birth. It just demonstrates the radicalism of the Democratic Party.”

    Fox News host Sean Hannity dedicated an entire opening monologue on March 19 to this claim. Hannity claimed that O’Rourke’s comments were further evidence of the Democratic Party’s “barbaric abortion agenda” and said, “If Democrats get their way, well, third-trimester abortion, including infanticide during and after birth -- well, that would be perfectly legal and readily available. Sadly, they’re fighting for that. They would protect infanticide seemingly above all else.” To further his point, he also displayed this on-screen graphic:

    Anti-abortion groups and other conservative figures signal-boosted right-wing media’s claims about the alleged “extremism” of O’Rourke’s position (and by extension, the Democratic Party’s). For example, American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp presented the comments as part of Democrats’ efforts to allow so-called “post-birth abortion.” Anti-abortion group Live Action claimed O’Rourke “barbarically defends abortion until birth." Kristan Hawkins, president of anti-abortion group Students for Life of America, tweeted:

    Anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List even sent supporters a fundraising appeal citing O’Rourke’s comment, saying the organization needed followers to make “a pro-life contribution” to help the group “fight back in the name of saving ALL babies and to STOP Beto O’Rourke’s extreme pro-abortion and pro-infanticide agenda.”

    Outlets outside of the right-wing media ecosystem have also adopted this framing at times without offering pushback. Newsweek published Weaver’s question to O’Rourke (but identified her as “a crowd member”) and O’Rourke’s response, but did not provide adequate context about what support for abortions later in pregnancy means or dispute the flawed premise of Weaver’s question. The Hill also reported on O’Rourke’s responses to Weaver and to the Washington Examiner, but focused on his “fundraising status” and "national prominence” without noting the flawed basis of the questioning itself.

    Bernie Sanders

    During a Fox News town hall event, candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was also asked an inaccurate question based on anti-abortion misinformation. Notably, Fox News is attempting to leverage Democratic candidate town halls to sanitize the network’s image, which is currently suffering as companies become less willing to associate with its toxic commentary. During Sanders’ town hall, anchor Martha MacCallum -- who works on Fox’s “news” side but has a history of pushing anti-abortion lies -- asked Sanders, “With regard to abortion, do you believe that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?”

    Sanders’ answer that abortion in the third-trimester "happens very rarely” and “the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician” predictably evoked the ire of right-wing and anti-abortion media, with one headline proclaiming “Bernie Sanders Supports Abortions Up to Birth, Okay to Kill Babies Up to Birth Because ‘It’s Rare.’” During the April 16 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson said of Sanders’ comments, “Like 10 years ago, that would be considered like an extreme position. Today, it's the moderate position in the Democratic Party. Some are defending ‘infanticide’ just flat-out. Safe, legal, and rare. No. That's not at all the position today. It should be free, frequent, and horrifying.” Anti-abortion advocate Lila Rose similarly (and inaccurately) summarized Sanders’ response:

    Elizabeth Warren

    In March, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) received a question about the so-called “Born Alive” bill when someone in a crowd shouted at her, “What about the babies that survive abortion? How come they can’t have health care?” Warren replied that “infanticide is illegal everywhere in America” and moved on. Despite Warren’s accurate characterization of the bill, right-wing outlets spun the answer as Warren defending her “abortion extremism” or intentionally avoiding answering the question.

    Cory Booker

    In April, candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said people have started to ask him if he voted for a bill that allows “us to kill babies when they’re born.” Booker responded by saying, “That is a felony” and explaining that the bill (meaning the “Born Alive” bill) was “put forth to try to create schisms and differences between us.” Predictably, anti-abortion and right-wing media claimed Booker was “defending voting for infanticide.”

    Pete Buttigieg

    Right-wing and anti-abortion media utilized comments from South Bend, IN, Mayor and candidate Pete Buttigieg about abortion and reproductive rights to push misinformation -- with at least one outlet outside of right-wing media circles falling for this false premise in subsequent coverage.

    Following comments from Buttigieg in March that he supported measures introduced to protect abortion access in Virginia and New York, National Review’s David French argued that Buttigieg “has zero appeal to religious conservatives so long as he holds to the Democratic party line on the right of a woman to hire a doctor to kill a viable, living unborn baby.” During Buttigieg’s candidacy announcement speech, he said that “women’s equality is freedom, because you’re not free if your reproductive health choices are dictated by male politicians or bosses.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham argued during the April 15 edition of her show that Buttigieg’s vision of “reproductive freedom” apparently does not include “the unborn child in the womb or, for that matter, the child born ... after a botched abortion in this new Democrat Party. I don't see the freedom there.”

    This framing spread beyond the right-wing media echo chamber on the April 18 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. During the segment, co-host Willie Geist asked Buttigieg about third-trimester abortions, and, after Buttigieg noted that it can be an “incredibly painful set of decisions in these horrifying medical cases,” Geist said, “But to people who would criticize that, they’d say, ‘Actually there is a pretty easy answer -- that’s a fundamental child in the third term … of pregnancy, that is a human being who could be born alive and have a great and full life,’ and so it is a pretty easy question to people who would criticize your answer.” Geist’s question relied on right-wing framing and anti-abortion misinformation that he and the other hosts did not refute. The back-and-forth was picked up by right-wing and anti-abortion outlets, which spread further misinformation about Buttigieg’s answer, with LifeNews.com tweeting that Buttigieg “is perfectly fine with killing defenseless unborn babies in abortions right up to birth.” 

    In each instance, right-wing media relied on either inaccurately framed questions or dishonest spin to generate outrage and drive additional news cycles about alleged Democratic extremism on abortion.

    2. Manufacturing fake “grassroots” support for anti-choice misinformation

    The tactic

    Beyond peppering Democratic candidates with incendiary and inaccurately framed questions about abortion, right-wing media have also attempted to propagate the idea that there is “grassroots” opposition to supporting abortion access. Following the introduction of Virginia and New York’s recent measures, right-wing media heavily promoted the narrative that Democrats are pushing an “extreme” position on abortion that is not supported by their base. This is an approach that the Republican Party -- including Trump himself -- has adopted as part of a 2020 election strategy at both the federal and the state level. Right-wing media and Republicans previously deployed this strategy during the ultimately failed 2017 special election for U.S. Senate in Alabama.

    Right-wing media have also attempted to extrapolate about voters’ probable opposition to a candidate’s position on abortion based on polling about specific abortion policies or viewpoints. Most frequently, right-wing media have touted polls claiming to represent likely voters’ support for bans on abortion after 20 weeks -- which would include procedures performed in both the second and the third trimester. While some polls have suggested that support for abortion access decreases as a pregnancy advances, polls that provide adequate context about the specific circumstances surrounding why a person would choose to have an abortion after 20 weeks don’t show the same results. In fact, as experts have explained, these polls better reflect the reality of abortion later in pregnancy and thus show that people support maintaining this health care option.

    Examples

    To prove allegations of so-called Democratic extremism, right-wing media have cherry-picked examples of people opposing abortion and presented these views as being widely held. For example, after O’Rourke responded to Infowars' question, Fox & Friends First aired two segments that shared the thoughts of random Twitter users who disliked his answer:

    On Fox News’ Hannity, Fox News contributor Lawrence Jones was sent to Texas to ask voters about O’Rourke’s alleged position on abortion, with many in the resulting segment claiming he was problematically extreme.

    Some right-wing media also specifically noted when questions came from non-media participants in an effort to imply that those questioners represented the views of many voters. For example, on One America News’ The Tipping Point, host Liz Wheeler applauded a “student who asked a question” about abortion, saying “professional reporters” wouldn’t do it “because Beto’s a Democrat, and the mainstream media wants to protect the left.” Conversely, many right-wing media outlets failed to note that Weaver, who asked O’Rourke if he would “protect the lives of third-trimester babies,” works for Infowars. The Daily Caller, Fox News, TheBlaze, Washington Free Beacon, and National Review credited either an “attendee” or “a woman” at the event for the question.

    Right-wing media have also pointed to imprecise polling on abortion and a supposed lack of public support for the health care staple in discussions of candidates' answers. Townhall’s Lauretta Brown wrote that O’Rourke’s answer about abortion to Infowars “marks a significant departure from public opinion and state laws.” CBN News said the Democratic presidential candidates “are out of step with the public.” After candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) answered a question on abortion during MSNBC’s Morning Joe by saying “the reality of it is that you got to protect the woman’s right to choose,” Townhall’s Guy Benson tweeted that Ryan was “pandering to” a supposedly extreme position that he claimed was only “shared by roughly one-fifth of the electorate.” The Washington Free Beacon also wrote that Booker had cast votes against anti-abortion legislation “despite popular public opinion” supporting them.

    These assertions are largely based on polling that asks generic questions about abortion. However, polling that puts into context why someone would have an abortion after 20 weeks shows a different result. There’s a drastic drop in support for 20-week bans when people realize that abortions in later stages of pregnancy are often undertaken out of medical necessity or for particular personal circumstances. For example, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that when asked in the abstract about later abortion, “less than a quarter of people (23%) believe women should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks.” However, that flipped when people were asked about access to a later abortion when a pregnant person had been infected with the Zika virus -- with results showing “a majority of Americans (59%) believe a woman should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks” in that situation. In other words, as Hart Research Associates found, “once voters consider the range of circumstances in which abortions would be made illegal under most 20-week abortion ban proposals, a majority of Americans oppose them.”

    In each instance, right-wing media have relied on selective samples of public opinion and opinion polling to give the appearance of widespread opposition to Democratic support for abortion access. In reality, right-wing media have been intentionally fearmongering about so-called Democratic extremism on abortion as part of a 2020 strategy being pushed by Trump and other members of his administration.

    3. Using candidate comments about unrelated topics as a jumping-off point to criticize them about abortion

    The tactic

    Anti-abortion groups and right-wing media have also tried spinning non-abortion comments from candidates to fit anti-abortion groups' stereotypes about Democrats. Right-wing media relied on this approach to spread misinformation and stigma before, employing similar spin to try to connect abortion to the Parkland school shooting, the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and Christine Blasey Ford’s report that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

    Examples

    At a CNN town hall, when Warren said her “favorite Bible verse” includes the lesson that “there is value in every single human being,” the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America asked, “But only the ones that are wanted? What about the ones who survive an abortion?” Warren repeated this comment on her Twitter account, prompting The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh to claim that her comment proved Democrats “will actually jump on any opportunity to extol the virtue of human life and the value of human life,” but “you would think they would avoid talking about that because they know 60 million babies have been slaughtered in the womb and they are perfectly OK with that.” He also asserted:

    Even though the Democratic Party is the party of Satan, and even though it has embraced satanism and it has embraced infanticide and all of these forms of just the most -- the darkest, most debauched, evil you can imagine, even in spite of all that, still most Democrats feel the need to pretend to be Christian.

    In response to a tweet from candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) explaining her belief that “housing is a basic human right,” anti-abortion activist Lila Rose replied, “If housing is a basic human right, then I imagine you’re even more passionate about the right for a child to be born?” Following comments from Buttigieg about Trump’s religion, Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy dismissed his criticism because Buttigieg “is a guy who is on the record as a supporter of late-term abortion.” Tucker Carlson said on his show of Buttigieg, “This is a guy telling us what a great Christian he is, who’s for abortion up until birth and for sex-selection. Spare me your Christian talk, please. It's absurd.”

    Similarly, when candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called Trump “a coward,” right-wing radio host Stacy Washington replied, “You believe in abortion up to birth, gun confiscation, open borders and limp-wristed governance. You have no room to call anyone a coward.” When Gillibrand later tweeted about legislation she introduced that would “limit opioid prescriptions for acute pain to 7 days,” Fox News’ Brit Hume replied with an inaccurate comparison between her comments and the idea that abortion should be between a patient and a doctor. He wasn’t the only one to make this inaccurate “joke.”

    Anti-abortion activist Alveda King wrote a piece for Newsmax claiming that “Booker is touting a new reparations bill for African Americans while secretly supporting an agenda of genocide and infanticide by abortion of millions of black babies.” After comments from candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) that the “number one cause of death for a black child in America today is gun violence,” LifeNews.com tweeted, “Actually @ericswalwell the #1 killer of black children is abortion.”

    Right-wing media regularly dominate the conversation about abortion -- so it is unsurprising that these outlets are working overtime to drive an inaccurate narrative in advance of the 2020 election. Trump and the GOP have emphasized anti-abortion misinformation as a core part of their electoral strategies, and right-wing media have already shown their willingness to manufacture or signal boost these attacks. It is crucial for other media outlets to recognize these tactics and provide important context, rather than repeating lies and misinformation from these sources.

    Graphics by Melissa Joskow

  • Media outlets’ context-free headlines on AG Barr’s “spying” claim help fuel right-wing falsehoods

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Update (4/11/19): This piece has been updated to include additional examples. 

    Media outlets’ headlines are not telling the full story in reporting on Attorney General William Barr’s claim during a congressional hearing that he believes the FBI spied on the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election. Later in the hearing, Barr walked back his claim -- which had given legitimacy to a prominent right-wing conspiracy theory -- but that was left out of news headlines about Barr’s testimony.

    While discussing special counsel Robert Mueller’s report during April 10 testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Barr said, “I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was ... adequately predicated.” The claim that President Donald Trump and his campaign were improperly surveilled by the FBI during the election is a prominent conservative media defense of Trump and a favorite narrative of right-wing conspiracy theorists -- even though there is no evidence it ever happened.

    Barr’s comment immediately made major news. But as attorney Luppe B. Luppen pointed out on Twitter, where he goes by @nycsouthpaw, Barr backed off his spying claim at the conclusion of the hearing:

    As Luppen noted, Barr’s initial claim dominated headlines at major news outlets:

    In addition to The Washington Post, New England Cable News, The New York Times, and CBS News -- the outlets referenced by Luppen -- other major outlets also credulously quoted Barr’s unsubstantiated claim. Here are some of the headlines that cited his initial allegation without noting that it was later walked back:

    Politico:

    The Associated Press:

    USA Today:

    NBC News:

    The Washington Post:

    The New York Times

    Los Angeles Times:

    NPR

    CBS News

    The Guardian

    Careless headlines like these give cover to serial misinformers. For example, Fox News host and Trump adviser Sean Hannity reacted to Barr’s spying claim at the hearing by saying on his radio show, “Now what really broke today that has both the media and Democrats freaking out is that the attorney general of the United States of America today confirmed, yes, that which we have been telling you is going on for a long time.”

  • Flawed media coverage of Mueller’s findings underscores the importance of good headlines

    Headlines play a fundamental role in our understanding of the world around us, which is why journalists need to get it right the first time

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow - Media Matters

    What makes a good headline? And for that matter, how do we define what “good” even means in such a context? Is a good headline one that informs the reader what to expect -- a sort of one-sentence summary? Or is it one that piques a reader’s curiosity, enticing them to click and share an article across their social media accounts?

    There’s no single, agreed-upon answer, but every news organization must -- knowingly or not -- find a balance between the two that works for them. But what happens when the latter comes at the expense of the former? One recent event makes for an interesting case study on the topic.

    On March 24, Attorney General William Barr released a four-page letter on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. In it, Barr wrote that he thought it was “in the public interest to describe the report and to summarize” its main conclusions. Barr went on to state that Mueller’s team had determined that there were “two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election,” but that “despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” he wasn’t able to find that the Trump campaign accepted or acted on any of these offers. On the issue of whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr noted that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on the matter, and so Barr took it upon himself to decline to press charges.

    The letter was certainly favorable to Trump and his supporters, but it wasn’t as favorable as many stories' news headlines made it out to be.

    In their March 25 front page headlines, none of the five largest daily newspapers in the U.S. (USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Post, and Los Angeles Times) noted that the conclusion was coming from Barr and not Mueller himself. While I personally think that some sort of attribution to Barr belonged in the headline itself -- the Chicago Tribune got it right with a headline reading: “AG: NO RUSSIA CONSPIRACY” -- it’s maybe fair to chalk that up to nitpicking. In one of the few places Barr’s letter did quote directly from Mueller, he wrote, “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” While perhaps a bit oversimplified, the imprecise wording was not as damaging as some other mistakes outlets made in covering the end of Mueller's investigation.

    Other examples of misleading headlines were more troubling, thanks to their use of words like “no proof” or “no evidence.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s March 25 front page boldly states that there was “NO EVIDENCE OF CONSPIRACY.” This goes beyond anything Barr wrote in his letter. As CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, “One thing we know with certainty is that Mueller is not bringing a criminal case based on the collusion set of issues. But that doesn’t mean there’s no evidence of collusion. It only means there’s not a prosecutable case. There’s a world of difference between ‘no evidence’ and not enough evidence to bring an actual case.”

    The Inquirer wasn’t alone either, as similar narratives were being shared across social media and in online articles. CNN tweeted, “President Trump claims vindication after Mueller finds no evidence of collusion.” (CNN would later edit this headline to more accurately read, “Trump claims vindication after Mueller does not establish collusion.”) Politico reporter Darren Samuelsohn wrote, “Mueller finds no evidence of Trump-Russia conspiracy.” The Wrap, The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Bloomberg, ABC’s The View, and NBC’s Meet the Press shared similar messages. The claim was also included in articles by The Associated Press and The New York Times, among other news organizations.

    Both Toobin and Lawfare’s Ben Wittes pointed out the problems with this “no evidence” messaging in Wemple’s piece. Wittes noted that such framing “may turn out to be a lucky guess, but it is not supported by the current record.” Wemple also quoted guidance sent out to journalists on the Post’s national desk about the issue:

    It is not accurate to say that Mueller found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and Russia. Barr’s memo states that Mueller did not “find” or “establish” a criminal conspiracy — meaning whatever evidence the special counsel found, it did not rise to the level of that legal standard.

    On April 3, The New York Times reported that some members of Mueller’s team were pushing back on some of conclusions drawn from Barr’s letter, arguing that he glossed over portions of the report that painted Trump in a bad light. Just days earlier, on March 29, Barr clarified that his March 24 letter wasn’t actually intended to be a “summary” of Mueller’s report at all.

    While none of this is to suggest that Mueller’s findings differ from Barr’s in any sort of legal sense, the narrative published in the letter’s immediate aftermath was a bit simpler and more exculpatory than reality may dictate. (And this is to say nothing of the numerous outlets that amplified Trump's false claim that the Mueller report was a "complete and total exoneration” of him.) Unfortunately, correcting that narrative may be more difficult than simply publishing an updated article.

    Does subtle misinformation in headlines really matter? One study suggests it can have a big effect on a reader’s comprehension of articles themselves.

    Responding to the Times’ new reporting, BBC anchor Katty Kay tweeted that Democrats risk looking “like sore losers” if they continue to pursue investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Her tweet was widely panned, but she wasn’t entirely wrong.

    A 2014 report published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology explored the role headlines had on what readers take away from articles in both opinion and reported journalism. The researchers behind the report, titled “The effects of subtle misinformation in news headlines,” concluded that “misleading headlines affect readers’ memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions.”

    One of the study’s most interesting findings was just how resilient headline misinformation can be, even when explicitly corrected within the article itself:

    Correcting the misinformation conveyed by a misleading headline is a difficult task. Particularly in cases of non-obvious misdirection, readers may not be aware of an inconsistency, and may thus not initiate any corrective updating. By contrast, if a headline is perceived as inappropriate, people may be able to correct its influence on their understanding of the article, although this correctional effort itself may withdraw resources from mnemonic processing of the article and may thus impair memory. In sum, these effects further corroborate the notion that misinformation tends to influence people’s memory and reasoning continuously despite corrections.

    This is to say that even in the best case scenario, in which someone reads both the original and updated articles on a story all the way through, bits of the early narrative -- such as claims that there was “no evidence” -- will linger long after it’s been corrected. Kay was right to say that the public narrative around the Mueller report may, indeed, have already been formed. What Kay’s tweet ignored, however, is what role journalists like herself played in creating it.

    Responsible publications have an obligation to factor in the importance of a piece of news when calibrating the balance between accuracy and clickability.

    The more serious a story is, the more deliberative the headline-writing process should be. Condensing a four-page letter, itself the product of a nearly 400-page report, into a single sentence is an impossible task. Even so, it’s the responsibility of journalism to advance the public understanding of an issue, not muddy it. This lesson goes beyond Trump and Russia, speaking to a need to restore trust in the press. Gray areas -- such as whether it’s fair to say “no evidence,” in this case -- make for difficult editing decisions, but they’ll ultimately benefit both the public and press if made correctly.

  • Right-wing media can't stop mis-citing a 2013 abortion study -- and other outlets are repeating the error

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As part of the escalating rhetoric surrounding abortions later in pregnancy, right-wing media and anti-abortion media have consistently -- and erroneously -- pointed to a 2013 study from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health as a piece of “gotcha” evidence allegedly disproving arguments about the dangers of restricting later abortion access. The study doesn't support the purported argument about the frequency of later abortions; that hasn't stopped anti-abortion groups (which repeatedly argue that being "pro-life is pro-science") from touting it -- nor has it stopped other outlets from uncritically allowing or repeating these assertions.

    In 2013, Diana Greene Foster and Katrina Kimport authored a study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (though it is sometimes inaccurately cited as a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a disclaimer at the bottom clarifies that “the views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute”). This study examined the potential impact of legislation banning abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and attempted to assess the reasons why someone would choose to have an abortion around that time period.

    This January, as state legislatures in New York and Virginia began considering measures to protect abortion access or to remove unnecessary anti-choice barriers, right-wing media continually cited this 2013 study out of context to allege that Democrats had an extreme position on later abortion access. In particular, anti-abortion and right-wing media have cherry-picked language from the introduction of the 2013 study as proof that third-trimester abortions are not performed due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. In reality, that is not the time period analyzed by the study and those reasons for seeking an abortion were explicitly excluded from its scope.

    The crux of this disingenuous allegation relies on a misinterpretation of a sentence in the study’s introduction stating that “data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” Right-wing and anti-abortion media have taken this sentence as evidence that few, if any, people seek abortion care in the third trimester due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. There are several issues with this interpretation.

    First, as the study’s co-author Foster confirmed on Twitter, the study “was about abortions at 20 weeks up to the end of the second trimester [around 27 weeks]. It has no relevance to third trimester abortions.” She continued, “My article was intended to increase understanding of the circumstances of women who have abortions after 20 weeks and within the second trimester,” however, “that doesn’t mean that women seeking abortions in the third trimester are just like those in the second trimester.” In addition to focusing on abortions in the second trimester, the 2013 study also explicitly excluded people who had abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality or dangers to the pregnant person’s life from the analysis altogether. As the authors wrote: “Our study has several important limitations. Our data are limited by the exclusion of women who sought later abortions on grounds of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

    Despite this, abortion opponents have alleged the study’s findings about common reasons why people seek abortion care -- “they were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous” -- were all evidence that pro-choice advocates’ claims about the medical necessity of access to third-trimester abortion care were inaccurate. In reality, there are many personal and medical reasons people choose to have abortions in the second and third trimester. As Foster further clarified to Rewire.News after a 2018 congressional report inaccurately referenced the study, “I wouldn’t state that fetal anomaly and life endangerment are a small minority of later abortions because nobody has statistics on this.”

    While right-wing media and anti-choice advocates have erroneously cited this study before, faux outrage spun up in reaction to state abortion measures spurred an uptick in the mischaracterizations and misuse of this study -- mischaracterizations that are now spurring inaccurate coverage from other outlets.

    After New York and Virginia’s abortion measures, anti-abortion and right-wing media cited the 2013 study to counter arguments about the necessity of later abortion access

    • Anti-abortion advocate Abby Johnson wrote in Townhall that the 2013 study showed “the most common reasons why women chose abortion late-term” and claimed that it refuted pro-choice claims that people need to be “able to terminate so late in their pregnancies because of fetal abnormalities.”
    • In February, Hillary Clinton tweeted that abortions later in pregnancy occur “almost always” because a pregnant person’s “health or life is at risk, or the pregnancy is no longer viable.” Townhall’s Lauretta Brown disagreed, claiming that “the Guttmacher Institute cited a study from 2013 that found ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’”
    • In a series of posts, National Review writers cited the 2013 study to question the necessity of Virginia’s abortion measure. The most explicit example came from senior writer David French, who opined:

    So, why do these babies die? The Guttmacher Institute has looked at the reasons for late-term abortion, and the reasons are chilling. First, the top-line finding is clear: “[D]ata suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

    Interestingly, even in some of the anecdotes chosen by Guttmacher, the women describe their decision to have a late-term abortion as “easy” or “very easy.” They didn’t find out they were pregnant until later in the pregnancy, didn’t want the child, and aborted it. Their only challenge was raising the money or finding the clinic. The thought that they were killing a viable infant — a person who would could be raised in a loving home if the mother didn’t want her child — apparently doesn’t factor into their decision-making. It’s treated as casually as an early-term abortion.

    This is the reality of late-term abortion in America.

    • The New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat cited the 2013 study on Twitter to claim “most third-trimester abortions are not performed for reasons of fetal or maternal health.”
    • The Federalist’s David Harsanyi:

    • The Federalist also published several articles incorrectly citing the 2013 study. Ben Domenech wrote that those “seeking 3rd trimester abortions” are not doing so “because of the non-viability of the fetus or fetal abnormalities.” Instead, he claimed, “A 2013 Guttmacher study – no friend of anti-abortion activists – found this was not the case at all.” In another article, Kenny Xu wrote that the 2013 study allegedly “revealed that out of 272 women surveyed who had received an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, none of them received it for any kind of clinical endangerment to the health of the mother.”
    • The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh incorrectly cited the study and then tweeted about how it was further evidence that so-called “pro-aborts” are “damned dishonest” and “everything they say is a lie”:

    • Breitbart published two articles using the study to allege that “research does not support the common pro-abortion-rights narrative that late-term abortions are performed primarily in cases of ‘severe deformities’ or when the unborn baby is determined ‘non-viable,’” and to claim that it “found that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’”
    • Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, tweeted that the “pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute” refuted pro-choice advocates’ “claims about ‘tragic’ circumstances of most/all late abortions” involving fetal abnormalities or the health of the pregnant person, again citing the 2013 study.
    • Micaiah Bilger of the anti-abortion media outlet LifeNews.com:

    • Bilger repeated this claim in an article for LifeNews.com, writing, “The truth is that many late-term abortions are elective.” The assertion was repeated in another LifeNews.com article and on the outlet’s Twitter account:

    • Anti-abortion group Live Action published a piece citing the study as evidence that pro-choice advocates were misrepresenting why people have abortions later in pregnancy:

    Abortion supporters will claim, “No one’s going to abort so late in pregnancy unless there’s something wrong with her or the ‘fetus’!” They’re wrong about that. A Guttmacher study points out the reasons why women seek “later” abortions — to use their terminology — and it’s not for the reasons they publicly claim. Instead researchers found that most “were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous.”

    No mention of the mother’s life or health being at risk, or of a fetal anomaly.

    • The Washington Examiner published a “fact check” of a CNN article about abortions later in pregnancy. However, the Examiner’s so-called “fact check” cited the 2013 study to allege that most people do not seek later abortions due to fetal abnormality or risks to the health of the pregnant person. An additional Examiner article said that the 2013 study actually showed “most late abortions are elective, and done for socio-economic reasons.”
    • Americans United For Life’s Catherine Glenn Foster used the 2013 study incorrectly in a thread on Twitter:

    A major anti-abortion movement “research” organization often uses this study erroneously to support inaccurate conclusions

    The Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) is the research arm of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List, and attempts to brand its members as impartial scientific experts, when in reality the organization has an explicit mission to oppose abortion access. Unfortunately, while right-wing media and anti-abortion groups often cite CLI to support inaccurate claims about abortion, other outlets sometimes rely on them without sufficient context or disclosure about the organization’s ideological purpose. CLI has adopted an inaccurate reading of the 2013 study to support anti-abortion positions, using it in both a “report” and “fact sheet” on their website. Although in each instance, CLI included a note that the 2013 study does have “significant” limitations, such as excluding those participants seeking an abortion for health risks or fetal abnormalities, both documents still inaccurately conclude that the study is an effective bludgeon for refuting arguments about the reasons people have abortions later in pregnancy.

    However, CLI’s Twitter account did not mention the potential “limitations” of the 2013 study, and instead repeatedly promoted it to further the popular misinterpretations of the findings:

    Other outlets have allowed anti-abortion advocates to erroneously cite this study

    As the hyperbolic “controversy” over the measures in New York and Virginia unfolded, The Atlantic and The Washington Post both gave right-wing misinformation about the 2013 study an uncritical platform in each outlet’s opinion section.

    The Atlantic published a piece by National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis in which she wrote, “Research from the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute contradicts the claims that abortions after 20 weeks are most often necessary in heart-wrenching medical emergencies. One study summarized the available data as suggesting that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” A note on the piece stated that it was “updated to clarify that the claim quoted from the Guttmacher Institute study came from its survey of existing research, and was not a finding made by the study itself,” but failed to address DeSanctis’ inaccurate primary claim that she had mockingly pushed on Twitter as well:

    Similarly, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Bethany Mandel, where she said that “according to research from the Planned Parenthood-affiliated Guttmacher Institute, ‘data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” Mandel also continued promoting this claim on Twitter:

    Right-wing and anti-abortion media will continue to erroneously cite this 2013 study, and it will likely be rehashed by anti-abortion lawmakers in any number of reports or hearings. Other outlets have a responsibility not to repeat this inaccurate characterization of the study -- or else they're helping abortion opponents spread further misinformation with potentially dire consequences.

  • Climate silence was the big problem in 2018. In 2019, we've got new challenges.

    Fox News is distorting the national dialogue about the Green New Deal just as it's getting going

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A version of this post was originally published by Grist.

    Climate change coverage in much of the mainstream media was abysmally low in 2018. It's been tilting upward in the first quarter of 2019, thanks in large part to the Green New Deal. The ascending trend is a positive development overall -- it's about time media started paying more attention to the existential crisis of our time! -- and yet some of the coverage has been weak, and some has been a total mess.

    Climate change was pitifully undercovered in 2018

    Media Matters found that climate coverage on the national broadcast TV networks in 2018 plunged 45 percent from 2017 levels -- and it's not like coverage in 2017 was anything to brag about. In 2018, the major nightly news and Sunday morning political shows on the national broadcast networks spent a combined total of just 142 minutes on climate change, and almost a third of that came from a single climate-focused episode of NBC's Meet the Press on December 30. Without that one show, 2018's coverage would have fallen 64 percent from the previous year -- an astonishing decline when you consider the horrific extreme weather last year, the harrowing climate science reports released by the United Nations and 13 U.S. government agencies, the Trump administration's ongoing assault on climate protections, and the ever-increasing urgency of the climate crisis.

    Analyses of other media trends in 2018 also pinpointed shortcomings. The watchdog group Public Citizen examined coverage of extreme weather events in a number of U.S. newspapers, online sources, and cable and broadcast TV networks last year and found that "the proportion of pieces that mentioned climate change was disappointingly low." Just 7 percent of stories about hurricanes incorporated climate change, while the figures were higher for other kinds of weather disasters, but still not as high as we need them to be.

    Many of the journalists who served as moderators in 2018 midterm election debates neglected climate change too. Only 29 percent of key debates in competitive Senate and gubernatorial races included a question about climate change.

    But the 2018 midterm election ultimately triggered a change in climate coverage and in the broader national conversation about the need for climate action -- because it brought us AOC.

    So far in 2019, climate change is getting a little more media attention

    President Donald Trump drove climate coverage (or the lack of it) in the last couple of years, but so far in 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has taken over the driver's seat.

    When she and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced their Green New Deal resolution on February 7, they kicked off a firestorm of climate coverage. Whether you love the Green New Deal, hate it, or want to quibble over its specifics, you can't deny that it's spurring more discussion of climate policy than the U.S. has ever seen. 

    The Green New Deal inspired The Washington Post to dedicate five consecutive days of editorials to substantive discussion of a comprehensive climate plan (handily compiled into one online piece). It got the major Sunday morning political shows talking about climate change with more fervor than they did during most of last year. It prompted an unusual amount of prime-time cable climate coverage. It sparked MSNBC's Chris Hayes to host a special event with Ocasio-Cortez -- after he said last year that climate coverage was a "palpable ratings killer." And it propelled young Americans to march in the streets and confront their senators, thereby pushing their messages into the press.  

    The Green New Deal has even motivated a handful of Republican members of Congress to cough up some of their own ideas for addressing aspects of the climate crisis, as The Washington Post recently noted, sparking still more media coverage of climate policy. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) went on NPR's All Things Considered to tout his plan for advanced nuclear power, natural gas, carbon capture, and other greener technologies (and he took the opportunity to bash the Green New Deal). Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was interviewed by Vice about his forthcoming proposal to spur "innovation" in some of the same areas as Alexander's plan (Gaetz bashed the Green New Deal too). The GOP proposals are not big or comprehensive, as McClatchy DC pointed out; milquetoast would be a kind way to describe them. Same with some new Democratic climate proposals such as the Climate Action Now Act. Suggestions from industry lobbyists are even weaker. But they're all putting climate solutions in the news.

    Presidential hopeful Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state, is also helping by making climate change the central issue in his campaign. He emphasized the need to fight climate change on two of the major Sunday morning political shows in March -- ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos and CNN's State of the Nation -- as well as on Fox & Friends, Trump's favorite show. The other Democratic presidential candidates are also talking up the importance of climate change and in many cases endorsing the broad outlines of the Green New Deal, taking cues not just from Ocasio-Cortez but from Democratic voters, who rank climate change among the very top issues that they want candidates to talk about, and from voters across the spectrum, who overwhelmingly say they're worried about global warming. Given all that, we're likely to see debate moderators this year and next ask political candidates more questions about climate change than they did in 2016 or 2018.

    So the quantity of coverage is up, but how about the quality?

    Some of the climate coverage we've seen so far this year been informative and constructive. See: The Washington Post's editorial series and Chris Hayes' special with Ocasio-Cortez. Some of it has been superficial. See: Beltway pundits. And some of it has been a mess of lies, mockery, and fearmongering. See: Almost everything on Fox News.

    When the major networks' Sunday morning political shows discussed the Green New Deal the weekend after the resolution was unveiled, "most of the discussion was superficial and narrowly focused on whether the Green New Deal will cause intra-party fighting among Democrats or end up benefiting Republicans, not on whether its policy ideas are good approaches for fighting climate change," as Media Matters' Evlondo Cooper pointed out.

    Carlos Maza at Vox looked at a broader selection of TV coverage and found the same thing, as he described in a video:

    I have watched hours of segments about the Green New Deal and none of them actually explained how it might work. Instead, they focus on the politics. Is it gonna pass? Does Pelosi like it? What did Trump tweet about it? Everything except: Is it a good idea?

    This kind of narrow, horse race-style coverage of policy proposals is one of the climate-coverage pitfalls we need to be on the watch for in 2019.

    Another problem is that some coverage of the Green New Deal doesn't even mention climate change. More than half of Fox News' segments on the plan in the days after it was released didn't include any discussion of climate change. Fox personalities and guests often talked about the proposal as though it were a pointless scheme to oppress the masses, not a plan to address a major looming threat. CNN and MSNBC weren't nearly that bad, of course, but they also ran segments that failed to bring up climate change and discussed the Green New Deal as a political football. When the Green New Deal was voted on in the Senate in March, we again saw Fox News talking heads discuss it without mentioning climate change.

    One of the biggest problems with coverage of the Green New Deal is that there's a lot more of it on Fox and other right-wing outlets than on mainstream and left-leaning outlets -- and in many cases, Fox and its ilk are straight-up lying. From February 7 to 11, Fox aired more than three times as many segments about the Green New Deal as CNN and MSNBC combined. With their heavy coverage and repetition of misinformation -- like completely bogus claims about sky-high costs -- right-wing media are distorting the national dialogue just as it's getting going.

    Sean McElwee of the progressive think tank Data for Progress explained how this is playing out in a recent New York Times op-ed:

    According to data shared with The Times from Navigator, a progressive polling project, 37 percent of Republican viewers of Fox News had heard “a lot” about the Green New Deal, compared with 14 percent of all registered voters.

    When asked simply, “Based on what you know, do you support or oppose the Green New Deal?,” 22 percent of respondents are in support, 29 percent are opposed and 49 percent are not sure. But 74 percent of Fox-viewing Republicans oppose the Green New Deal (65 percent strongly), and only 21 percent have not formed an opinion. 

    He concludes that "the Republican propaganda machine has already reshaped the narrative."

    We don't expect Fox to improve (some news outlets are beyond redemption), but mainstream and left-leaning news organizations can do better. They need to cover the Green New Deal and climate change more often to provide a counterweight to the bunk coming from the right. And they should cover it not as a political story (who "won" the day when Mitch McConnell held a stunt vote on the Green New Deal?), but with substantive reporting and discussion about how to implement climate policies that are fair, effective, and commensurate with the enormous size of the problem.

  • ABC, CBS, and NBC completely failed to mention climate change in coverage of major Midwest floods

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER



    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    After a bomb cyclone triggered historic floods that devastated large swaths of the Midwest, the major broadcast TV networks completely failed to explain how climate change influences such aberrant and extreme weather. Media Matters’ analysis of coverage on the networks’ morning and evening news programs and Sunday morning political shows found that ABC, CBS, and NBC did not mention climate change or global warming once during their combined 28 segments reporting on the floods.

    The bomb cyclone and floods were right in line with climate scientists' projections

    A bomb cyclone of “historic proportions” began raging across the Midwest on March 13. It unleashed a torrent of wind, snow, and rain that caused unprecedented flooding in Nebraska as well as floods in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, resulting in at least four deaths and $3 billion in losses. The floods destroyed hundreds of homes and affected millions of acres of farmland. Unfortunately, these disastrous outcomes align with the projections of climate scientists, a number of whom explained how climate change plays a role both in worsening events like bomb cyclones and in creating the conditions for flooding of the sort that followed in the storm's wake.

    As climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State told MSNBC, "As the oceans warm up, there’s more moisture that’s available to these storms to turn into record rainfall. That’s what we saw with this bomb cyclone that was drawing on warm, moist Gulf air that led to extreme amounts of precipitation, both rain and snow. The snow then melted, and we got this extreme flooding." Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research also noted that the bomb cyclone was carrying large amounts of moisture from the Pacific to the Midwest and told Reuters that climate change played "a strong supporting role" in the resulting floods.

    The bomb cyclone may also have been aided by a fluctuating jet stream. A study published in March 2018 found that a rapidly warming Arctic is linked to very wavy, slow jet stream patterns that are strongly correlated to an increase in extreme and aberrant winter weather events such as bomb cyclones and nor’easters. As Climate Nexus noted in the wake of the recent bomb cyclone, "The polar jet was extremely wavy across the northern hemisphere, and is consistent with the unusual jet stream behavior expected due to Arctic warming."

    The flooding that followed the bomb cyclone was caused by a complex confluence of events that were also in line with scientists' projections about the consequences of climate change. As climate reporter E.A. Crunden wrote for ThinkProgress:

    The historic flooding is the result of rain coupled with a considerable amount of pre-existing water on the ground. February brought a record-setting 30 inches of snow to the state, which locked in several inches of water. With eastern Nebraska’s rivers already higher than usual following the state’s fifth-wettest season in 124 years, the bomb cyclone unleashed a mountain of water, submerging parts of the region.

    ...

    Connecting any one weather event to climate change is often impossible or incredibly challenging, but experts say the flooding is indicative of larger climate impacts. According to the government’s National Climate Assessment (NCA) released last fall, the Midwest is likely to see an uptick in flooding associated with global warming.

    Broadcast networks completely ignored how climate change affects bomb cyclones and flooding

    Media Matters analyzed coverage of the Midwest flooding from March 18 to 25 on the morning and evening news programs and Sunday morning political shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC and found that none of their coverage mentioned climate change. During this period, ABC’s weekday morning and evening news programs ran 11 segments on the flooding, NBC's also ran 11, and CBS' ran six. None of the networks' Sunday political shows even mentioned the flooding.

    Some segments noted the unusual and historic nature of the Midwest floods, but they all did not connect the flooding to climate change.

    Other news outlets neglected flood and climate reporting too

    Cable news also fell down on the job. According to a Washington Post analysis, from March 15 to 19, the cable news networks covered both the Nebraska floods and climate change less than they covered President Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about deceased Sen. John McCain and the feud between Trump and George Conway, the husband of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway.

    Newspapers and wire services did better than TV news in covering the floods and covering climate change, the Post found. Still, they were not exemplary either. The nonprofit End Climate Silence pointed out notable pieces about the flooding in The New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, The Washington Post, and other outlets that failed to mention climate change.

    Some TV journalists demonstrated how to incorporate climate change into flood coverage

    Here are two good examples of TV news segments that discussed climate change while covering floods. On MSNBC Live With Katy Tur on March 22, Tur hosted climate scientist Michael Mann to discuss a recent warning from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that 200 million Americans are at risk of experiencing flooding this spring. Mann also described how climate change worsens events such as the recent bomb cyclone and Midwest flooding.

    And, on March 23, Soledad O’Brien hosted former Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel on her syndicated weekly show, Matter of Fact, to discuss the flooding in the Midwest and how climate change is making it more extreme.

    Media Matters has conducted study after study documenting the failure of corporate TV news outlets to connect extreme weather events to global warming and has highlighted their tendency to neglect potential solutions to the climate crisis. Broadcast networks often report on extreme and aberrant weather, but they also need to report on how climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. And they should report on possible solutions to climate-related problems before it’s too late.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched Nexis and iQ media for segments about the Midwest floods on national news broadcasts from March 18 through March 25, searching for the terms "flood,” “flooding," or "bomb cyclone." We then searched those segments for the keywords “climate," "warming," "emission(s)," "carbon," "CO2," or "greenhouse gas(es)." Our analysis covered morning news shows (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today), nightly news programs (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News), and Sunday morning political shows (ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press). We did not count brief mentions, teasers, or rebroadcasts.

  • How an Austrian Identitarian leader with a financial link to the New Zealand shooter profits from YouTube

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On March 27, Austria’s chancellor confirmed that the man who allegedly shot and killed at least 50 Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, made a donation to the Austrian Identitarian Movement. According to Reuters, the movement’s leader Martin Sellner received roughly $1,690 last year from a man with the same name as the suspect, which prompted Austrian law enforcement to raid Sellner’s house on March 25. Sellner is a prolific YouTuber with a wide-reaching digital presence who asks for monetary support for his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant messaging and collects donations through his YouTube videos and via Paypal and Bitcoin.

    The alleged Christchurch shooter was clearly steeped in the far-right internet culture, which is known for disseminating anti-immigrant memes, videos, and conspiracy theories on various platforms, including anonymous message boards and YouTube. Sellner, who has over 91,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, gained notoriety beyond Austria for promoting anti-immigrant stunts meant to grab attention online, like the failed “Defend Europe” mission in which his group planned to disrupt search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea and force stranded refugees back to North Africa.

    After Sellner’s anti-Muslim activism led the U.K. to refuse him entry into the country, Fox’s Tucker Carlson passionately defended him, his romantic partner Brittany Pettibone, and others who were refused entry on similar grounds, claiming the U.K.’s actions were evidence that the country “hates itself, its heritage, [and] its own people.”

    Like its American copycat Identity Evropa (which recently rebranded as the American Identity Movement after chat logs displaying its users’ extremism were made public), Sellner’s group is a white supremacist organization focused on sanitizing its image to maintain mainstream appeal. Aided by glossy media coverage and a wide-reaching network of YouTube influencers, Sellner has been able to get donations by spreading anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim messaging to a global far-right audience.

    On a March 26 YouTube livestream, Sellner addressed the Christchurch shooter’s donation and claimed that media coverage was smearing him unfairly despite his group’s claimed opposition to violence. While addressing the matter, Sellner collected donations using YouTube’s “super chats” feature, which has allowed other extremists to also profit from the content they upload to the platform. (Super chats allow viewers to pay to have their comments featured prominently in a bar at the top of the chat.)

    On his YouTube channel, Sellner asks for financial support from his audience by linking to the donations sections of his personal website, in which he writes (in German) that his political work is financed by these donations and that in gratitude for such support, he feels it is his obligation to continue his commitment to his ideas. These ideas include his fearmongering about “demographic replacement” of Europeans and the “rapid Islamization” of Europe, pushing “the great replacement” as a “very important term” to describe that “all populations are being completely replaced within a few decades by massive immigration.” (Before he perpetrated the Christchurch massacre, the alleged shooter posted a manifesto online that he titled “The Great Replacement.”) On a YouTube video where he appears with Pettibone, Sellner has also suggested that eating croissants and drinking coffee is a way to mock Islam.

    In 2016, Sellner admitted that he had started creating English language content to “create a network of information” by reaching English-speaking audiences; in the same video, he complained that his involvement in hanging an anti-Muslim banner that read “Islamization kills” led to him and others being charged with hate speech. In a conversation with the New York Times, Sellner acknowledged that he had pointed the New Zealand shooter to his English-language YouTube videos after receiving praise for his work.

    While Sellner claims that his movement is nonviolent, his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim messaging reaches far-right audiences around the globe, including violent extremists. And the donations he gets from spreading this message allows him to continue producing more work. As The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weil explained, “A bright line connects the fascist movement’s leaders, and the murderers who keep putting the movement’s ideas into practice.” The content they put out on social media platforms is that bright line.