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Media shouldn’t be so willing to let White House press secretary Sean Spicer off the hook for his comments comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler given the implicit and explicit ways President Donald Trump and his administration have embraced white nationalists. No matter how ineffective, Spicer’s comparison is another example of a wink and a nod to the type of hatred that is a part of this White House’s culture.
During an April 11 White House press briefing, Spicer likened Assad to Hitler, telling reporters that unlike Assad, “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” When he was asked to clarify, Spicer said that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” when in reality the German SS and police used poison gas to asphyxiate millions of Jews in concentration camps (which Spicer called “Holocaust centers” in his comments). After repeatedly trying to explain his comments, Spicer ultimately apologized, calling them “inexcusable and reprehensible.” Meanwhile, white nationalists cheered the remarks, praising the press secretary for exposing the “Jewish gas chamber hoax.”
Media were quick to accept Spicer’s apology and let him off the hook. Fox News’ Kevin Corke called it “heartfelt and … very unequivocal” and added, “he should be able to move on … quickly.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said, “I’m going to give Sean the benefit of the doubt,” saying Spicer “got himself into a verbal trap and could not get himself out.” On CNN’s New Day, Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to former President George W. Bush, accepted Spicer’s apology, adding that “the notion that this is somehow nefarious or indicative of Holocaust denial, I dismiss.” Additionally, CNN commentator David Axelrod tweeted that Spicer has “apologized” for his comments and it’s “time to move on.”
But this is hardly the first time that Spicer and the Trump administration used obtuse language or offered an implicit nod to the white nationalist community. For instance:
Trump hired Stephen Bannon, who previously ran Breitbart, a "platform for the” white nationalist “alt-right" movement as his chief strategist -- a move that was lavishly praised by white nationalists.
At the end of the presidential campaign, Trump ran an ad that Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote was “packed with anti-Semitic dog whistles, anti-Semitic tropes and anti-Semitic vocabulary.” Naturally, Trump’s white nationalist supporters loved it, calling it “absolutely fantastic.”
In a closed-door meeting, Trump reportedly suggested that an onslaught of anti-Semitic incidents were false flags, an assertion repeatedly made by white nationalist media figures. Previously, Trump had refused to condemn the incidents while berating a Jewish reporter.
The White House failed to mention the Jewish people in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This is in addition to the direct contact Trump and his aides have had with members of the white nationalist community. For instance:
According to The New York Times, Trump has “retweeted supportive messages from racist or nationalist” supporters, including “accounts featuring white nationalist or Nazi themes.”
Former Trump adviser A.J. Delgado retweeted a Trump endorsement from the anti-Semitic hate site The Right Stuff.
Trump’s senior counselor Kellyanne Conway tweeted “love you back” to an anti-Semitic Twitter account.
Media figures are wrong to simply dismiss Spicer’s Holocaust comments as a hiccup. The connections between the Trump team and the white nationalist community are too strong for Spicer’s comments to be treated as a one-off. Spicer’s blunder is emblematic of the administration’s continuing effort to wink and nod at -- and sometimes openly embrace -- its white nationalist supporters.
Before, during, and after President Donald Trump’s speech last night to a joint session of Congress, political journalists and pundits shamelessly prioritized the speech’s optics over its content. Focusing on the president’s “tone,” they rushed to declare that Trump had finally “pivoted,” giving a “presidential” speech.
That obsession with style over substance drew swift criticism from other commentators. And Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza isn’t happy that pundits are being called out for saying Trump did an awesome job:
These are dumb questions. Of course Trump can be praised for “delivering a good speech.” In fact, you don’t need to be a savvy pundit or political journalist to watch the speech and decide whether the speech is good!
And that’s the problem. As Greg Sargent suggests, the real question is whether journalists are actually giving their audience useful information when they obsess over the president’s tone instead of the content of his speech.
Do readers and viewers learn anything, for example, when they see Cillizza praising Trump for giving the best speech of his political life and complaining on cable news that “the worst thing, I think, for our politics is this assumption, and you see it over and over again in a speech like this, is that Donald Trump can do nothing good and nothing can be accomplished while Donald Trump is president”? (Really, that’s the absolute worst thing Cillizza can think of that can happen to our politics?)
Americans need journalists to dig into whether anything Trump said last night could possibly be converted to policy (nope). They need journalists to interrogate Trump’s claims and determine whether they were true (they weren’t). They need journalists to put Trump’s speech into the context of his actions and explain whether he’s needlessly fearmongering about immigrant communities (my god, yes).
And it’s helpful to learn that even the White House is shocked at how eager the press has been to praise Trump’s speech:
Some sources in WH are frankly surprised at how pundits are warming to the speech. Say Trump has not changed, no big shift in policy coming.
— Robert Costa (@costareports) March 1, 2017
Endless discussion of the optics of Trump’s speech, on the other hand, is entirely useless. There is no value in providing the “winners and losers” from last night in a way that treats Trump’s mendacity as a throwaway line.
Of course, Cillizza’s entire oeuvre is based on the concept that he is a savvy pundit who tells people what they really need to know about politics based on a surface-level, optics-first approach.
While he’s certainly one of the worst examples of the genre, he’s not alone -- at times, cable news seems to exist solely so Mark Halperin and Joe Scarborough and Gloria Borger and David Gergen and their ilk can pontificate about nonsense. They present value judgments and opinion dressed up as koans of wisdom.
At best, content like this is ephemeral garbage that lasts a news cycle and is forgotten, but provides traffic that supports the work of actual reporters.
At worst, this sort of fact-free punditry creates false narratives that can alter the public’s perception of political figures (see: the press’s obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 election cycle, which paved the way for Trump’s election).
President Trump’s first weeks have been a shitshow of incompetence and extremism. The American public needs more from the press than meaningless dreck.
Media seized on President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress as an opportunity for him to “pivot” or “reset” his administration. This canard that he would at some point change course was repeated throughout the presidential campaign, yet any shifts that occurred were always short-lived.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has attracted widespread criticism for “a series of false statements” he made about the size of the crowds at the presidential inauguration. Prior to Spicer’s meltdown, however, some media figures were full of praise for the “competent, thorough” “straight shooter.” Later, other media figures credited him for a supposed “reboot” in his first official press briefing as White House press secretary.
Right on cue, as President Obama readies his exit from office, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza this week published a misguided critique of the Democrat’s two terms. His analysis focused specifically on Obama’s broken “promise” and parroted a favorite Beltway media talking point: Both sides are to blame for the federal government being mired in “partisan gridlock” during his eight years, and it’s largely Obama’s fault he didn’t “fix” politics. Obama didn’t create “a government that worked for all of us”; he failed to create “something new, different and better,” wrote Cillizza.
Cillizza acknowledges that “Democrats immediately point to the fact that congressional Republicans, almost from the first day of Obama's time in the White House, made opposing him a political strategy,” but dismisses it as being the primary cause for the partisan mess. (In Cillizza’s view, it’s both sides’ supposed culpability for the failed “grand bargain” in 2011 that serves as the key event.)
The erroneous analysis represents a safe refrain that’s been repeated by journalists for years, as they’ve collectively convinced themselves that Obama’s culpab
It’s pure fantasy, of course.
Fact: When Republican leadership adopted the radical position that they’d refuse to even hold hearings for Obama's next Supreme Court nominee, the GOP systematically shred more than 100 years of protocol in the process. That’s what Obama faced for much of the last eight years, and the press’s messaging has helped Republicans every step of the way.
Still, the bipartisan fantasy endured: Republicans wanted to work with Obama and make serious, good-faith deals, it’s just that Obama wasn’t savvy enough to read their signals (i.e. Why won’t he just lead?).
What’s so bizarre about this parallel universe that the press concocted is that by the end of Obama’s second term, Republicans weren’t even trying to hide their radically obstructionist ways in closed-door strategy sessions. They bragged about refusing to work with Democrats. (Today, they insist that Trump, who lost the popular vote, somehow secured a “mandate” that Democrats must respect.)
Yet here’s Cillizza in the face of Republican obstructionist boasts, still pretending Obama’s largely at fault for screwing things up and that he passed up a great chance to forever fix partisan rancor. So desperate is the media’s need to portray the Republican Party as a mainstream institution that has not drastically veered toward the fringes in recent years, that journalists are willing to blame the victim. And they’ve been willing, and eager, to normalize Republican behavior.
Just logically, why would the president who's had his agenda categorically obstructed be the one blamed for having his agenda categorically obstructed, and not the politicians who purposefully plotted the standoff? It doesn’t make sense, other than because the Beltway press is opting to give in to Republicans and downplaying the party’s radical ways -- in an apparent effort to maintain the preferred media mirage that “both sides” are to blame when the government doesn’t function.
When Republicans obstructed Obama's agenda, the president was responsible for not changing the GOP's unprecedented behavior. And if it wasn’t entirely Obama’s fault, then "both sides" were to blame for the GOP's extremist actions and the grand gridlock it purposefully produced.
And the media blame game started from essentially day one for Obama. On January 29, 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported, "As the House on Wednesday gave President Obama the first big legislative victory of his term, it was clear that his efforts so far had not delivered the post-partisan era that he called for in his inauguration address."
Meaning, nine days after first being sworn in, Obama was being blamed for not having ushered in a shiny, new "post-partisan era." (Loved that Times headline, too: “Newpolitical era? Same as the old one.”)
But no, Obama didn’t usher in a new bipartisan era, because Republicans wouldn’t let him -- and that’s according to Republicans. "If he was for it, we had to be against it," was how former Republican Ohio Sen. George Voinovich once explained the GOP’s knee-jerk response to Obama proposals.
We saw it with the sequester obstruction, government shutdown obstruction, paid leave obstruction, cabinet nominee obstruction, Hurricane Sandy emergency relief obstruction, the consistent obstruction of judicial nominees, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act obstruction, and of course the 2013 gun bill obstruction.
That was the expanded background check bill featuring a centerpiece proposal that enjoyed nearly 90 percent public approval,
But most of the context was left out of the gun vote coverage in 2013, as pundits and press rushed in to blame “Obama and his allies” for the actions of obstructionist Republicans.
For the record, there were some lonely voices in the Beltway wilderness who specifically debunked the “both sides” meme and placed the gridlock responsibility squarely on the shoulders of activist Republicans.
"We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional," scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote in The Washington Post in 2012 in an essay adapted from their then-new book. "In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Sunday morning broadcast network political talk shows and much of the media at large wasn’t interested in their analysis, which Ornstein told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent was unfortunate given the fact that their assessment “focused on press culpability — it would be hard to find a more sensitive issue for the media than the question of whether they’re doing their job.”
That simply wasn’t the preferred story the Beltway press wanted to tell during the Obama years.
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Media figures praised Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for his speech in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania that briefly touched on health care, calling it a “very, very good speech” focused on the substance of his proposals for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. In reality, Trump’s speech was full of recycled, unworkable Republican proposals that would increase the deficit and leave an estimated 24 million people without health insurance coverage.
Fox News has attempted to delegitimize Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s lead in the polls for months, claiming that the polls are skewed due to oversampling, that the size of rallies Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds is more indicative of his support than polls, and that there are “secret” Trump supporters who are too embarrassed to tell pollsters whom they support. However, other media outlets have explained that concerns about oversampling are “laughably incorrect,” and that claims that crowds are more accurate than polling are some of “the most idiotic claims out there.”
Media commentators are noting that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has to “win big” at the final presidential debate or “he will lose the general election,” given that he is “down in the polls nationally and in key swing states.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and other Republicans are trying to use newly released FBI documents from the agency’s closed investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as secretary of state to generate a scandal around a purported “quid pro quo” between the FBI and State Department, raising new issues for political journalists who have records of getting the facts wrong on email stories. In one such case, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post’s The Fix politics blog made a series of missteps regarding who issued the proposed “quid pro quo,” whether it occurred, and the meaning of a classification marking.
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has an extensive history of attacking the media, and his campaign and supporters have joined in the fight throughout the election. The nominee, his surrogates, and his supporters have called media outlets and reporters across the spectrum “dishonest,” “neurotic,” “dumb,” and a “waste of time,” and until recently, the campaign had a media blacklist of outlets that weren’t allowed into campaign events.
Media attacked as “ridiculous” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s citation of Abraham Lincoln during the second presidential debate in explaining why she said during a 2013 speech that politics can require taking different public and private positions. According to The Associated Press, Clinton was correct that she was talking about Lincoln in her 2013 remarks, and according to Time magazine, Clinton accurately characterized Lincoln’s actions in her debate answer.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is claiming that terror attacks like the weekend’s explosions in New York and New Jersey and stabbings in a Minnesota mall will benefit Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump because they are “external events [that] affirm his diagnosis of the current state of politics,” and thus his message “hits home” under those circumstances. But Cillizza presents no actual evidence of his claim, and polling following terror attacks in San Bernardino, CA; Paris, France; Orlando, FL; and Nice, France undermine his claims.
Cillizza writes that Trump’s message is “politicians are failures,” and that “To get voters to sign onto that message and, more challengingly, that messenger, Trump needs external events to affirm his diagnosis of the current state of politics — that it is an utter failure and, not only that, but that the failures of politicians have made the average person less safe.” He concludes in his September 19 post:
Most people — Democrats and Republicans — share Trump's alienation from politics and politicians. They are convinced, as Trump is, that politics is broken, and none of the people in office right now have any idea how to fix it. Given that, when they turn on the news and are presented with the chaos we have seen over the past three days, the Trump message — "We have to make a change. No choice." — hits home in a way that it wouldn't if most people feel safe and secure.
The most basic dynamic of this race is [Hillary] Clinton as safe, capable and status quo, and Trump as risky, unpredictable and change. The more chaos people see in the country and the world, the more they are willing to throw over Clinton's experience and swallow their doubts about Trump's readiness for office. He truly is the chaos candidate.
Cillizza cites no polling data to support this contention; he is simply dressing up his gut opinion as savvy analysis. A review of actual data shows no evidence to back his suggestion that Trump does better than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton following unpredictable events such as terrorist attacks.
Here's the RealClearPolitics poll average for the two weeks after the June 12 terrorist shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Trump’s support was static while Clinton’s increased:
Here’s the poll average for the two weeks after the December 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino. Trump’s support fell slightly while Clinton’s increased by several points:
The RealClearPolitics average showed almost no movement in the two weeks after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris:
And while the average shows an increase in Trump’s support following the July 14 attacks in Nice, that period overlapped with the Republican National Convention:
If Cillizza had consulted data, rather than trying to tell a story that validates his own opinions, he would have found that terror attacks are at worst a wash for Clinton and that they may actually improve her standing with voters.