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Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
CNN has hired former Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich as a contributor even though he is considering running for president in 2020. Kasich’s hire is the latest example of a cable news outlet unethically allowing potential office seekers to use its national platform to boost their future election chances while simultaneously drawing a paycheck. Kasich will undoubtedly use his CNN platform to draw a contrast between himself and President Donald Trump, as he did during the 2016 GOP primary. But his “carefully cultivated appearance” as a moderate is anything but accurate.
On January 15, CNBC reported that Kasich will work at CNN as a senior political contributor. Kasich’s chief political strategist, John Weaver, told CNBC that CNN “is a strong platform for the governor to continue to offer his positive vision to the country and engage on the vital issues facing America.” As CNBC’s report notes, the hire also comes as Kasich “is planning to go on a West Coast swing this week to meet with donors and business leaders, including traveling to Los Angeles and parts of Silicon Valley.” He is reportedly considering running for president as either an independent or a Republican.
Kasich previously parlayed a cable news gig into political office. After leaving Congress in 2001, he worked at Fox News between 2001 and 2009 as a host and contributor (while also working for Lehman Brothers from 2001-2008). He then successfully ran for governor of Ohio in 2010, with Fox News acting as one of his biggest cheerleaders. The phenomenon repeated itself when Fox News gave Kasich friendly coverage leading up to his announcement of a 2016 presidential run.
When Kasich announced his candidacy on July 21, 2015, he immediately received a return on his investment with Fox; during that day’s broadcast of The Five, then-host Kimberly Guilfoyle said that Kasich “does have a tremendous amount of experience and private sector in government and as governor,” while mentioning his previous employment with Fox. Fox’s Dana Perino added that “I said for a while that I think the folks are going to like him because they have for a long time,” while Geraldo Rivera proclaimed, “Kasich could do it.”
In August 2015, then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly acknowledged that he was advising Kasich. (Kasich was previously a frequent guest host on The O’Reilly Factor, which was cancelled in 2017 following public reports about O’Reilly subjecting some of his staff members and guests to years of sexual harassment. Kasich has denied knowing about sexual harassment at Fox while he was an employee.)
Kasich has spoken candidly about the value of a cable news job in aiding political aspirations. In the lead-up to his 2016 presidential run, Kasich reportedly "endeared himself to the conservatives by mentioning his past TV work," telling a group of conservatives: "I used to be at Fox News. I was a big star at one time." In 2015, David Kushma of Toledo, OH, paper The Blade noted that Kasich's "tenure at Fox News, where he honed his heartland persona, helped make him media-savvy.” And a 2002 Columbus Dispatch profile noted that Kasich "wants to be in the White House," but in the meantime was "concerned about doing a good job with Fox, developing as 'a media person' and connecting with viewers."
Kasich’s hire by CNN is reminiscent of the revolving door between political candidacy and cable news punditry most often associated with Fox News. Media reporter Howard Kurtz noted on CNN.com in 2013 that “Fox News is the model” for the practice, citing the hire of “potential 2012 contenders like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, with the latter two jumping from Rupert Murdoch's team into the presidential primaries,” and noting, “There is no question that the high-profile platform gave them a boost.” (Kurtz left CNN and joined Fox News as a media critic later that year.)
During the 2016 primaries -- in which, in addition to Kasich, Huckabee, Santorum, and Ben Carson also ended up running for president -- CNN’s Reliable Sources show discussed the phenomenon of the “Fox News primary” in which GOP candidates courted network executives and made appearances on the network central features of their campaigns. (Although he was never a paid employee, Trump infamously boosted his profile through years of regular appearances on Fox News.)
As he considers running for president, Kasich will now have a national platform to workshop his potential appeal to voters and distinguish himself from the current Republican president. Yet Kasich has a number of ultra-conservative positions and views, such as his extreme anti-choice positions, deep-seated animus toward labor unions, opposition to same-sex marriage, and refusal to take climate change seriously.
While Kasich used media appearances during the 2016 campaign to present himself as reasonable and friendly, that hasn’t always been the case. During a 2009 guest-hosting appearance on Fox, Kasich sounded indistinguishable from Trump, ranting about “illegals” and heaping praise on then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was later convicted of a crime for refusing to stop violating the civil rights of Latinos.
Right-wing media are obsessed with insulting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she's playing them like a fiddle
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated House Democratic Caucus Chair and 10-term Rep. Joseph Crowley in a June 2018 primary, The Associated Press didn’t even bother to include her name in its tweet calling the race in her favor, referring to her as just “young challenger.”
BREAKING: U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley defeated by young challenger in Democratic primary in New York.
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) June 27, 2018
The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan pointed to the lack of Ocasio-Cortez coverage during the primary race as proof that “Big Media” hasn’t kept pace with American politics. Her win shocked political journalists and left publications such as The New York Times scrambling to cobble together explainer articles asking, “Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”
Within days of her primary win, right-wing news organizations and commentators latched on to Ocasio-Cortez as a target. As an unabashed democratic socialist who ran on the type of ambitious platform representative of virtually everything that conservatives oppose -- such as Medicare for All, housing as a human right, gun safety, a federal jobs guarantee, the abolition of private prisons, free public college education, and climate change action -- Ocasio-Cortez was fodder for Fox News segments declaring her the future of the Democratic Party.
On July 3, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt warned viewers that “socialism is surging in America,” and insisted that this was “the new battle cry of the left.” Her evidence: Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory. That same day on Fox Business Network’s Varney & Co., guest Peter Morici called Ocasio-Cortez “the modern-day Saul Alinsky,” a favorite bogeyman for conservatives.
Later that month, The Daily Caller published associate editor Virginia Kruta’s account of seeing Ocasio-Cortez speak at a campaign rally. In the piece, Kruta describes the experience as “truly terrifying. I saw just how easy it would be, were I less involved and less certain of our nation’s founding and its history, to fall for the populist lines they were shouting from that stage.” What kind of populist lines? Kruta continues: “I saw how easy it would be, as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education. I saw how easy it would be, as someone who has struggled to make ends meet, to accept the idea that a ‘living wage’ was a human right.” Everybody being paid enough to live, to not starve, to be able to go to the doctor without worrying that it will bankrupt your family? Oh, the absolute horror! Naturally, Fox interviewed the author soon after.
Fox News was taking a chance in elevating Ocasio-Cortez’s visibility, banking on its viewers to grimace at the merest mention of socialism like a child being forced to eat broccoli. However, the outsized coverage relative to her actual level of influence within the Democratic Party -- remember, at this point she hadn’t even been elected to Congress -- had the effect of actually increasing her power and popularity.
On June 25, Ocasio-Cortez had roughly 48,800 Twitter followers. By the end of July, after a month of laser-focused conservative media attention, she had more than 770,000. Today, that number sits at more than 2 million.
A huge chunk of the conservative criticisms being made against Ocasio-Cortez can be summed up in two words: “She’s stupid.” From claiming that she “represents the need for an intelligence test before somebody is ever allowed to run and hold public office” to simply calling her “Dumb-dumb,” taking jabs at her intelligence has become something of a favorite pastime for a number of conservative journalists and commentators. Here are a few examples:
Washington Times Opinion Editor Charles Hurt: “[Ocasio-Cortez] went to school, apparently, went to college, but didn’t learn anything, didn’t learn five seconds of history about anything. They have no concept of the dangers of socialism.” [Varney & Co., 7/18/18]
CRTV’s Curt Schilling: “You are being scrutinized and treated with suspicion because every time you speak you say something more stupid than the last time you spoke. You are a college graduate and likely the most unintelligent person, man or woman, in our government.” [Twitter, 12/11/18]
Fox Business host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery: “Her brain is as empty as the promises of unfettered statism.” [Kennedy, 12/6/18]
The Daily Wire’s Andrew Klavan: “This woman is a dangerous ignoramus.” [The Andrew Klavan Show, 1/3/19]
Fox Business senior correspondent Charles Gasparino: “This is a freshman rep that barely knows where the Capitol building is. … She has no idea about economics. Just go back and listen to her musings, which are idiotic.” [Cavuto Coast to Coast, 1/4/19]
There are also the conspiracy theories that she’s secretly rich or that she somehow “lied” about being from the Bronx. Additionally, the fact that she used to go by the nickname “Sandy” (a common nickname for people named Alexandria) is a scandal of epic proportions for some reason. Oh, and she once borrowed expensive clothes for a photoshoot -- emphasis on borrowed.
A June 27 New York Times profile explains her upbringing:
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s mother was born in Puerto Rico. Her late father, Sergio Ocasio, an architect, was born in the Bronx. The family lived in Parkchester, a planned community of mid-rise buildings, in the same apartment where Ms. Ocasio-Cortez now lives, until Alexandria was about 5, when they moved an hour north to a modest two-bedroom house on a quiet street in Yorktown Heights, a suburb in Westchester County, in search of better schools.
How modest was that two-bedroom house in Yorktown Heights? Newsmax host John Cardillo decided to post a picture of it, seemingly to write her off as a rich elitist or something of the sort.
This is the Yorktown Heights (very nice area) home @Ocasio2018 grew up in before going off to Ivy League Brown University.
A far cry from the Bronx hood upbringing she’s selling. pic.twitter.com/xyOtZzVJII
— John Cardillo (@johncardillo) July 1, 2018
Following her November election, Ocasio-Cortez gave an interview to The New York Times which discussed some of the steps she had to take to prepare for her transition to Congress:
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said the transition period will be “very unusual, because I can’t really take a salary. I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real.” She said she saved money before leaving her job at the restaurant, and planned accordingly with her partner. “We’re kind of just dealing with the logistics of it day by day, but I’ve really been just kind of squirreling away and then hoping that gets me to January.”
This led to yet another right-wing media freakout and a lot of misleading headlines. “Ocasio-Cortez claims she can't afford DC apartment, but records show she has at least $15,000 in savings,” read the headline of a post at FoxNews.com, noting that “records show she has more than enough to plunk down on an apartment in the U.S. capital.” At no point did she say she couldn’t afford an apartment; she did suggest that it would be hard to pay for one with a three-month gap in salary. She noted that she and her partner had saved, but her comments highlighted the broader point that it can be a major challenge for anyone other than the affluent to run for office. In any case, CNBC did a follow-up and found that Ocasio-Cortez actually had less than half of that in her account.
True or not, a narrative had been created and now she was going to be slimed for it.
Sean Hannity: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually said she can't afford an apartment in D.C. There's one little itsy bitsy problem: She actually can. She apparently has $15,000 in the bank.” [The Sean Hannity Show, 11/13/18]
Ed Henry of Fox News: “It turns out when you read deeper, she had a lot more formative years in Westchester County, New York, which is a little ritzier than the Bronx. … Her resume doesn’t always match up, and some of those [photo] shoots during the campaign, she had these multithousand-dollar outfits that could pay a month’s rent in Washington, D.C.” [America’s Newsroom, 11/9/18]
Michael Knowles of The Daily Caller: “She is a liar; she lied about her upbringing. She pretended to be from a poor part of the Bronx and grow up there. In reality, she grew up in a ritzy part of one of the ritziest counties in the country.” [Fox & Friends, 7/17/18]
Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pretends to be a champion of the people & believes the unemployment went down because [people] were taking two jobs, just posed in a photoshoot with a $3,500 outfit, $625 shoes all while saying the rich have too much power and that socialism hasn’t been tried.” [Twitter, 9/13/18]
"Alex from the Bronx" or "Sandy" as she called herself in high school, grew up in a wealthy Westchester area and went to a school that has a "history of successful lacrosse teams."
Another fraud politician appropriating victimhood. pic.twitter.com/fXuXal4Kfc
— Paul Sacca (@Paul_Sacca) January 3, 2019
And did you know that Ocasio-Cortez wants to turn America into Venezuela?! She doesn’t, actually, but that hasn’t stopped conservative media from invoking the troubled South American country to slam socialism in the same way they name-drop Chicago to dismiss gun safety measures. Pointing to Venezuela to explain why socialism doesn’t work is much like pointing to the 2008 global financial collapse to explain why capitalism is ineffective; while both examples can certainly be used as part of an argument, invoking them as the entire argument is a faulty generalization.
In truth, the policies Ocasio-Cortez supports tend to either be things that the U.S. has successfully used in the past (such as a higher marginal tax rate), or they’re policies that other countries have widely implemented (single-payer health care is used around the world). But to hear some of her loudest critics, she aspires to be an American incarnation of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. On the plus side, this critique is actually related to her policy positions, so that’s a nice change of pace!
Republican National Committee (RNC): “Meet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Mini-Maduro Foreboding The Future Of Democrats.” [email, 8/16/18]
RNC Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon: “You have the lunatic left, the Ocasio-Cortez wing, that are going full Venezuela on politics.” [Lou Dobbs Tonight, 7/25/18]
Fox News guest Morgan Ortagus (now a Fox contributor): “Just to the south of us, we have a picture of what this woman running for Congress wants to see happen, in Venezuela, versus in Colombia. It’s the most stark picture we could draw for our audience, and it is quite scary what is happening in Venezuela.“ [America’s Newsroom, 7/24/18]
Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire: “If Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk are elected to office then the U.S. will turn into Venezuela, where people are literally hungry and are fighting for food.” [Twitter, 10/16/18]
Of course, to the great shock of absolutely no one, there’s also a fair amount of garden-variety sexism thrown into a lot of the criticism for good measure.
Fox Business’ Dagen McDowell: “I would argue that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets all of the support that she does because she's a woman.” [Mornings with Maria Bartiromo, 10/30/18]
Fox News guest Ed Rollins called Ocasio-Cortez “the little girl.” [Lou Dobbs Tonight, 1/4/19]
Rush Limbaugh called Ocasio-Cortez “some young uppity.” [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 1/8/19]
Bill Mitchell: “This Ocasio-Cortez woman has perhaps the most annoying, squeaky voice since Mini (sic) Mouse.” [Twitter, 11/18/18]
Candace Owens of Turning Point USA: “Similar to Christine Blasey Ford, [Ocasio-Cortez] constantly infantilizes her voice to sound like a toddler so that journalists don’t critique her dangerous ideas. This is creepy. She is a 30 yr old adult woman trying to pass as a naive, threatened little girl.” [Twitter, 1/6/19]
Jesse Kelly of The Federalist: “She’s kind of cute, though. … There is nothing wrong with a little bit of crazy, man. A little bit of crazy can be fun. I’m not talking about marrying her; I'm just talking about a date or two. She looks kind of cute.” [Stinchfield, 1/4/19]
After Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that House Democrats would soon have subpoena power in response to a meme attacking her that was shared by Donald Trump Jr., Michael Moates of The DC Chronicle tweeted: “There is a new standard in Congress. Bitches will subpoena you if you troll them.” [Twitter, 12/7/18]
Eddie Scarry of the Washington Examiner tweeted a candid photo of Ocasio-Cortez designed to both promote the idea that she’s secretly rich and function as a bit of a sexist jab. Its caption read: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” [Twitter, 11/15/18]
The Daily Caller published a previously debunked photo with the headline: “Here’s The Photo Some People Described As A Nude Selfie Of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” [Twitter, 1/9/19] (Newsworthiness of the story aside, the photo had had already been determined not to be her, and that information absolutely should have been noted in the tweet and headline.)
GOP have been losing their mind + frothing at the mouth all week, so this was just a matter of time.
There is also a Daily Mail reporter (Ruth Styles) going to my boyfriend’s relative’s homes+offering them cash for “stories.”
Women in leadership face more scrutiny. Period. https://t.co/KuHJ75sdMg
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 10, 2019
Before even taking office, Ocasio-Cortez was being scrutinized and held to a standard more fit for a presidential candidate than a freshman member of Congress. Like all politicians, she will occasionally misspeak, misstate a fact or a figure from memory, or inartfully articulate her message. For instance, Ocasio-Cortez once accidentally referred to the presidency and the two chambers of Congress as the “three chambers of government” during a video chat. Conservative news organizations pounced on the error, treating it as somehow newsworthy and running headlines like “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Flubs Basic Government 101 Facts” (The Daily Caller), “Ocasio-Cortez Has No Idea What The 3 Branches Of Government Are” (The Daily Wire), and “Ocasio-Cortez Fails to Name Three Branches of Government” (Breitbart).
Rhetorical slip-ups are common and politicians certainly understand that anything they say or do can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion. What’s unusual is how focused the spotlight seems to be on Ocasio-Cortez so early in her career. When it comes to politicians who scare them -- that is to say, politicians who exude charisma and can cut through the news cycle’s noise to argue in favor of policies that may resonate with large swaths of the country -- right-wing media will obsess over these gaffes for years to come. A great example occurred in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama slipped up and said that he had visited “57 states” instead of 47. While we all know that he knew how many states there were, this was instantly treated as a giant story by right-wing media. A conservative blog mocked him by selling 57-star lapel pins, and it was widely covered at the time (and still gets mentioned every so often).
So are right-wing media scared of Ocasio-Cortez and what she represents? Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief at The Intercept and one of the small number of journalists who covered the Ocasio-Cortez campaign well before her primary win, thinks there’s a simpler explanation.
“I’ve noticed the alt-right has some admiration for her, which I think is sympathy for her anti-establishment bent,” Grim wrote in an email before offering an explanation for why journalists not explicitly part of the “alt-right” (such as The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro or The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft) are so focused on her. “I also think she’s great for traffic, which explains some of the right wing fixation.”
“They’re entertainers and nothing more,” he continued. “Understood through that lens, their approach makes financial sense for them. They’re exploiting her for clicks and contributions from right wing readers the same way some grifters on the left have done with Trump.”
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has her own thoughts about why we’re seeing so much Ocasio-Cortez press so early in her career.
“Some media and political figures apparently are deeply uncomfortable with her and what she represents: youth, diversity, grassroots authenticity, social-media savvy and a willingness to break with the pack,” Sullivan writes in an email. “So the outsize attention is partly a sort of panicked, semi-aware effort to grapple with all that, and maybe put her in what some see as her place. Some of the media attention, too, simply arises from her being of significant interest to readers and viewers because of the qualities I mention, not from antipathy.”
If you hold a microphone up to a speaker, the unpleasant noise you hear is a result of feedback. The longer you leave the microphone in place, the more that noise will be amplified. In running those early segments following Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win, right-wing media placed the proverbial microphone in front of the speaker with the goal of creating a loud distraction ahead of 2018’s midterm elections -- but now they don’t know how to make it stop.
Conservative radio host Wayne Dupree asked his followers whether they thought Ocasio-Cortez would be the rising star she is without the relentless right-wing attacks, correctly noting that the Democratic establishment was actually not very pleased with her primary victory.
Does anyone think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would have her growing social media army (2M followers) if conservatives wouldn't have attacked her relentlessly, calling her stupid?
Dems didn't push her ideas, as a matter of fact they were angry she beat their incumbent. #RealTalk
— Wayne Dupree 🎧 (@WayneDupreeShow) January 6, 2019
Right-wing writer Matt Walsh wrote that Ocasio-Cortez “is a star today in part because of the Right’s weird fixation on her.”
I reiterate that Ocasio Cortez is a star today in part because of the Right's weird fixation on her. Yeah she's got bad ideas and says dumb stuff, but that doesn't make her satan incarnate and it doesn't require or justify the disturbing obsession some conservatives have with her
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) January 4, 2019
We have seen this scenario play out before in the way liberals elevate conservative figures they disagree with and mock. Tomi Lahren, for instance, was hosting a web show at TheBlaze just a couple short years ago. Sure, her videos had a wide reach, but she was hardly a household name until The Daily Show began making jokes about her show and eventually invited her on for the interview that set the rest of her career in motion. Soon after, she appeared on The View and made controversial comments about abortion that ended her career at TheBlaze, at which point she appeared on ABC’s World News Tonight to complain that she was being “silenced.” Lahren was quickly picked up by Fox News and is now one of the network’s stars.
There’s little doubt that the attacks against Ocasio-Cortez will continue, and there’s even less worry that she won’t be up for the task for fighting back. But she almost certainly wouldn’t be sitting down for a widely watched interview on 60 Minutes had she not been intentionally elevated early on by conservative media. Instead, a socialist star was born, leaving right-wing news outlets with a tough decision to make about how they cover her going forward -- one they may soon regret.
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
The most prominent broadcast news programs have mentioned openly white nationalist Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) racism only a handful of times over the past two years.
King’s ugly white nationalism reared its head again in a January 10 New York Times interview in which he said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” (In a statement, King later denied being a proponent of white supremacy, despite his comments to the paper.)
According to a Nexis search of NBC’s Nightly News, Meet the Press, and Today, CBS’s CBS Evening News, Face The Nation, and CBS This Morning, and ABC’s World News Tonight, This Week, and Good Morning America, there have been just six references to King and race dating back to January 1, 2017, in some cases in segments that fell short by obfuscating or devoting scant time to the clear and open nature of the Iowa congressman’s bigotry.
In two segments, ABC mentioned a March 2017 tweet in which King showed his support for white nationalist Dutch politician Geert Wilders, writing, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.” The March 14 broadcast of ABC’s World News Tonight covered the tweet but fell short, summing up the incident as “racially charged” while noting that King’s comments were “labeled racist and bigoted.” Coverage was better the following day on Good Morning America, with co-host George Stephanopoulos plainly stating that King was “under some fire now for that tweet he had the other day where he was really appealing to white nationalists.”
During the December 10, 2017, broadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) whether King’s position that “diversity is not our strength” could be a problem for the Republican Party. King was mentioned in passing on the July 1, 2018, broadcast of CBS’s Face the Nation, when guest and former John McCain speechwriter Mark Salter said, “Steve King, for instance, who keeps writing, you know, about -- as if it's, you know, American citizenship is some kind of racial purity test.” On October 30, 2018, NBC’s Lester Holt described King as “controversial” on NBC Nightly News, noting that “the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee [is] condemning Steve King for comments about race and associations with white nationalism.” And on the November 11, 2018, edition of Face The Nation, Politico’s Rachael Bade noted that King’s “rhetoric” had “sort of divided the Republican leadership about whether or not to back him or just not say anything.”
None of these mentions seriously reckoned with King’s apparently consequence-free promotion of white nationalism, although Stephanopoulos’ brief mention of King did succinctly summarize the issue.
Following the publication of the Times’ latest article about King, soon-to-be Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie noted on Twitter:
amazing to me that we had a week long controversy over a congresswoman saying “motherf***er” when steve king is just hanging out in congress as an open white supremacist https://t.co/P3lyMivVQO
— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) January 10, 2019
Indeed, Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-MI) comments calling Trump a “motherfucker” on January 3 produced half as many mentions on broadcast news programs over several days as King’s white nationalism has over the last two years. During the January 6 broadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press, Tlaib’s comment was included in the show’s introduction and host Chuck Todd later referenced her comment again, saying, “Democrats have to worry about their own grassroots. This week, freshman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan revived the debate over impeachment after these comments were caught on tape.” Tlaib’s use of profanity was also covered on the January 4 editions of CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, with NBC correspondent Kristen Welker saying Tlaib “is sparking a firestorm, caught on camera telling a crowd last night what she told her son about the president” and “prompting a barrage of Republican backlash.”
Methodology: Media Matters used Nexis to search for “Steve King” on NBC’s Nightly News, Meet the Press, and Today, CBS’s CBS Evening News, Face The Nation, and CBS This Morning, and ABC’s World News Tonight, This Week, and Good Morning America from January 1, 2017, through January 10, 2019. We also searched for “Rashida Tlaib” on those same programs between January 1, 2019, and January 10, 2019.
Punditry doesn’t have a place in fact-checking.
“Fact-checkers prepare for their version of the Super Bowl,” said Jake Tapper, hours before President Donald Trump would take over network airwaves around the country for a speech urging Congress to approve funding for a border wall, one of his core campaign promises.
The short speech, read from a teleprompter in the Oval Office, showed a different side of Trump. Straying from his tactic of peppering his words with wild exaggerations, ad-libs, and lies, he spoke like a more conventional politician. That is to say that yes, he still lied -- a lot -- but he incorporated some facts into those lies, referencing semirelated data to support his argument. If it was fact-checkers’ Super Bowl, it wasn’t a terribly exciting game. There were a few highlights, however.
Toronto Star Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Dale is known for his quick and thorough fact checks of Trump’s rally speeches, tweets, and other public statements. In a recap of the address posted Tuesday night, Dale laid out a few of the immediate factual issues spotted within the speech:
Among other things, Trump falsely claimed Democrats had asked him to build a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall (an alternative he came up with himself), falsely claimed a wall would be “indirectly” funded through his revised NAFTA deal (which has not been approved by Congress and could not fund a wall), falsely said Democrats would not pony up for “border security” (they have offered to pay for various security measures, just not a wall), and misleadingly suggested a wall would be a significant obstacle to smuggled heroin (most of which comes through legal ports of entry).
Trump used a series of figures to make his argument that the country is facing a “humanitarian crisis” that can be solved only by building, among other things, a wall along the southern border of the U.S. The issue was that those numbers didn’t actually support the argument being made.
For instance, he claimed, “Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border.” That’s true, but according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the majority of those drugs are being trafficked through existing ports of entry and not areas that would be affected by the creation of a wall. Fact-checking that statement requires nuance, and for the most part, the fact-checkers at news organizations like the The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others did the claim justice in not rating it outright true or false.
Other statements, however, were more clear-cut, like when Trump claimed, “The wall will also be paid for, indirectly, by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.” The trade deal hasn’t yet been ratified by Congress, and there’s no wall-repayment fund or mechanism in place. The claim is false, as was his statement that the wall will be made out of steel and not concrete “at the request of Democrats.” The party’s opposition to the structure has nothing to do with building materials, but with its existence itself. Once again, fact-checkers were, generally speaking, straightforward in the response to these claims.
At 10:20 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the New York Times Twitter account posted a “fact check” of one of Schumer’s statements. Schumer said, “No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or else the government shuts down, hurting millions of Americans who are treated as leverage.”
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 9, 2019
On its face, this statement, offering Schumer’s opinion on what a president should or should not do, isn’t exactly something one can verify. The Times seemingly took issue with the claim that “millions” of Americans would be hurt by the shutdown, but that is very clearly an accurate statement. There are roughly 800,000 federal employees affected by the shutdown, but when you factor in their families, as well as local economies and people who rely on government services that could be disrupted during an extended shutdown period, the number very easily reaches into the millions -- much of which the paper acknowledges in its "fact check." Even so, the Times rated the claim as “This needs context.”
Roughly an hour later, the Associated Press Politics account tweeted that Democratic lawmakers blaming Trump for the shutdown aren’t being entirely truthful because the shutdown could come to an end if they would cave to his demands.
AP FACT CHECK: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another. https://t.co/9IWnqUgl2d
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) January 9, 2019
During a December 11 meeting with Schumer and Pelosi, Trump took full responsibility for a potential shutdown, saying that he was “proud to shut down the government for border security,” and adding, “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down — I’m not going to blame you for it.” Even at the time, the Democratic leaders had been clear on their position: They would not put forward a package that included funding for Trump’s wall. To say “it takes two to tango” without acknowledging that Trump had already taken full responsibility (which he later tried to walk back) for the shutdown, or noting that both chambers of Congress were in Republican control when the government shut down, is factually wrong. More than that, it’s an editorialization, something that really doesn’t have a place in fact checks.
In a statement to Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple, an Associated Press spokesperson clarified that the tweet was meant to highlight that "Democrats have refused to accede to President Trump's demands." It's not really clear whether that's any better.
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) January 9, 2019
In an ideal world, fact checks would probably simply be part of standard journalism and not a subgenre unto themselves. Fact checks can have benefit as standalone works, but too often they stray from the dry, straightforward approach that makes a good fact check easy to digest in a few quick glances. “It takes two to tango” probably doesn’t have a place in the fact-checking lexicon, if we’re all being honest with ourselves.
“The fact-checking genre is fine and useful in certain circumstances but it is *woefully* under-theorized as an undertaking, which leads it into all kinds of weird, shoddy, and dubious territory,” tweeted MSNBC host Chris Hayes following the speech.
Dale responded, suggesting that things like the AP and Times “checks” may be fine if published under a different label:
I think this particular issue could be addressed with better labeling - calling these ones something else. Like, it’s useful for the AP or others to explain the facts of this dispute, helping people understand the blame game. But that’s just not a “fact check.”
Fact-check people should ask, “is this a strict assertion of fact?” And then fact-check the Yes ones, and then if they still want to delve into the No ones, it should be under a different heading. I agree it’s bad when they try to “fact-check” subjective claims.
In a 2013 column in the Columbia Journalism Review, Brendan Nyhan warned of fact-checkers whose personal political ideologies turn their work from a demonstration of proof into outright punditry. Nyhan’s article highlighted the messiness of the process and the importance of being able to separate the semantic from the factual and of eschewing unnecessary adjectives. “Factchecking is an inherently subjective enterprise; the divide between fact and opinion is often messy and difficult to parse,” he writes.
For all the recent focus on the social media campaigns Russia waged during the 2016 election, it’s surprising that more attention hasn’t been paid to what was arguably a much more effective aspect of the influence operation: the hacking and release of Democratic National Committee emails.
In one high-profile 2016 media postmortem, The New York Times came to a startling conclusion. “Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and [Clinton campaign chairman John] Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence,” the paper wrote.
In fact, the emails were a media obsession, driven by bad habits the press has adopted in recent years. As coverage of the 2020 campaign begins, we look back at what went wrong in 2016 and how reporters can resolve to do better in the new year.
During the final five weeks of the 2016 campaign, evening and prime-time cable news aired nearly 250 segments about the DNC and Podesta emails. Broadcast TV news didn’t fare so well, either, running 25 segments. Five of the country’s top newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) published a combined 96 articles on the topic during that same span. Though President Donald Trump insists that the emails had “absolutely no effect on the outcome” of the election -- which isn’t exactly quantifiable either way -- it’s worth noting that he thought they were enough of a selling point that he mentioned them 164 times during the final month of the campaign.
If you're in possession of sensitive documents you want to leak, and you want to inflict maximal damage on a candidate, the recipe for injuring their campaign is obvious: Don't let the "wound" close. Keep dripping out emails, knowing perfectly well that a) the media will report that a new batch of emails has been leaked, and b) that very few people will actually take the trouble to read them, but will notice that time is not healing the thing, and the bleeding continues, cycle after cycle after cycle.
The damage, however, was extraordinary. WikiLeaks' slow-release approach forced journalists to cover each batch as new "revelations," even when there wasn't much to actually cover. Having learned through bitter experience that few Americans would bother to actually read them, WikiLeaks sprinkled emails into the news cycle and gave Americans the impression of a campaign wound so deep it couldn't heal. While Donald Trump rapid-cycled through scandals that seemed not to stick because they were so quickly displaced by fresh ones, "the emails" lingered in the public eye.
The only reason Assange’s curated, slow-burn release strategy worked to its intended effect was that American media were eager to lap up the new information, reporting the anodyne as well as the legitimately newsworthy. This created a cloud of suggested scandal which hovered through Election Day.
Self-criticism is difficult, but it is also necessary. On December 15, 2016, two days after the aforementioned Times report, the paper published another article on the emails, but this one collected quotes from editors across the country defending the coverage.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet is quoted:
“I get the argument that the standards should be different if the stuff is stolen and that should influence the decision,’’ he said in an interview. “But in the end, I think that we have an obligation to report what we can about important people and important events. There’s just no question that the email exchanges inside the Democratic Party were newsworthy.”
Setting aside the question of whether it’s ethical to publish information illegally obtained by a hostile foreign power -- there are certainly strong arguments to be made on both sides -- there’s the bigger question of how media should cover that material and what qualifies as newsworthy. Sometimes a risotto recipe is just a risotto recipe, you know?
In the case of the DNC emails, the mere existence of leaked emails was treated as a scandal in itself. For the most part, the emails were the kinds of things you might find if you could scroll through any large organization’s communications: petty arguments, office politics, the airing of personal grievances, and so on. While some revealed small-scale scandals, such as Democratic strategist Donna Brazile sharing topics to be covered at a CNN town hall with the Clinton campaign, most of it just didn’t live up to the hype -- and oh, there was a lot of hype.
On Twitter, WikiLeaks would often publish out-of-context information intended to make it seem as though something nefarious was happening behind the scenes at the DNC. Yes, the emails were real, but they often didn’t say what WikiLeaks suggested they did.
In July 2018, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple checked back in on the subject of email coverage, interviewing news outlets about “whether they regretted reporting on the email leaks.” With a bit more distance from the election, there was room for a more honest and less defensive evaluation from media executives. One quote from his article that caught my eye came from the Times’ Baquet. The contrast between this and his December 2016 opinion was stark. Here’s what he said (emphasis mine):
First off, we didn’t know then what we know now. Obviously the origins of the emails are a far bigger story than what was contained in them. But we didn’t know that at the time.
The stories that came from the emails were newsworthy. Not only Donna Brazile’s question sharing, but the details of Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, speeches she had declined to make public. Imagine if we had chosen not to publish those emails at the time, interesting details about a presidential candidate in the middle of an election. That would have been a political act. Of course one cringes reading the details of the indictment. But one of the imperfections of journalism is that you have to publish based on what you know at the time.
Baquet’s acknowledgement is important, but it still doesn’t suggest that he’d have done anything different at the time, leaving me wondering what will happen during future elections -- especially given the state of the media industry today.
While the handling of hacked emails was probably the most glaring mistake in 2016 election coverage, it was far from the only shortcoming in political media. For that, we may have the industry and its business model to blame.
According to Pew Research, more than one-third of U.S. newspapers laid off journalists between January 2017 and April 2018. In that same span, nearly one-quarter of the top digital news organizations did the same. Between 2008 and 2017, total newsroom employment has ticked down 23 percent, from 114,000 to 88,000 employees nationwide. It’s an industry in crisis, facing mounting struggles when it comes to monetizing its work. Staying afloat increasingly relies on traffic driven by social media, which means trying to game the various algorithms. Those algorithms tend to reward the emotionally charged and sensational, but not necessarily the true. As they adapted to survive, news outlets developed some extremely bad habits. Let’s resolve to break them now, especially as 2020 election coverage begins.
To break bad habits, we must first acknowledge what they are. Below, I’ve listed a few examples of common mistakes that journalists and news consumers alike should be able to easily identify:
One month after the 2016 election, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center released an analysis of campaign coverage. For people actually interested in learning about policy differences between candidates, the findings were especially disappointing. Forty-two percent of news stories from mid-August onward were dedicated to horserace-style coverage and punditry, and 17 percent centered on controversies. Just 10 percent were about policy, 4 percent on personal traits, and 3 percent devoted to the candidates’ leadership and experience qualifications.
“The car wreck that was the 2016 election had many drivers. Journalists were not alone in the car, but their fingerprints were all over the wheel,” reads one of the report’s most memorable lines. That needs to change.
Feigned ignorance is a right-wing media ritual
In what was either the final faux scandal of 2018 or the first of the new year, Saturday Night Live alum Jane Curtin raised some conservative hackles with a comment aired during CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live. In a pretaped segment asking celebrities for their New Year’s resolutions, Curtin deadpanned, “My New Year’s resolution is to make sure that the Republican Party dies.”
Within minutes, the clip began making the rounds on social media, and it later appeared on Fox News. Her video was actually part of a much larger package, which included goals from the likes of Tyra Banks (“to be on time”), Patricia Arquette (to “stop caring about New Year’s resolutions”), and Harvey Fierstein (“to stop wearing all of this jewelry”).
It may be a new year, but this response from right-wing media is very old and very predictable. Like so many others, Curtin’s comment would be taken out of context, misrepresented, and ultimately used as an example of “violent rhetoric” among liberals.
On the January 2 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy twisted Curtin’s comment into something far more sinister, mischaracterizing it as being “about killing Republicans.” Comedian Michael Loftus joined the show to weigh in:
MICHAEL LOFTUS, COMEDIAN: That was absolutely terrifying! Really terrifying! To make sure the Republican Party dies. She meant it. That wasn’t a joke -- that wasn’t a joke. That makes you glad that there’s a three-day waiting period on guns. Jane Curtin has lost it. She’s completely not funny. And here’s what I think. I think that this is what the left has been thinking for a long, long time. It would be so much easier if there was no opposition. They have no message, they can’t win a debate, so it would just be easier if all the Republicans were dead and gone. It’s terrifying!
STEVE DOOCY, CO-HOST: So in other words, she’s just being honest. That’s what she wants.
LOFTUS: I think -- I think Trump has them so frustrated, the mask is off. It would be so much easier for the left if they -- if all the Republicans could just get out of the way. And they could just take over and we’d all be Venezuela by the morning. It’s horrible. Jane Curtin has made a very good living playing cold, mean, calculating women. It turns out she wasn’t playing a part. She’s a cold, mean, calculating woman.
AINSLEY EARHARDT, CO-HOST: What do you think about folks in Hollywood, these actors that are giving their political opinions? Do you think they should do that?
LOFTUS: They can. If you want to give your opinion, go for it, but I’m not gonna hang out at any parties with these guys. Seriously, they want me dead! If I’m at a Hollywood party and Jane Curtin hands me an hors d'oeuvre, I’m gonna say “pass” and get to my car.
Townhall.com senior columnist Kurt Schlichter came away with a similar interpretation of Curtin’s comment, tweeting that “Jane Curtis (sic) is free to want me dead” before advocating that “Normal Americans buy guns and ammunition to provide a deterrent to such aspiring tyrants.”
In October, conservative media went into a total meltdown after former Attorney General Eric Holder urged Democrats to fight back against voter suppression efforts, saying:
“Michelle [Obama] always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about. We’re proud as hell to be Democrats. We’re willing to fight for the ideals of the Democratic Party.”
Though it was obvious that Holder wasn’t actually advocating for Democrats to literally kick people, he took an extra step to ensure his comments wouldn’t be misinterpreted:
"Now, when I say, you know, ‘we kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us. That stuff can be taken away. That’s what they want to do.”
Fox News, Breitbart, The Washington Times, The Federalist, The Gateway Pundit, The Daily Caller, Hot Air, and RedState all jumped on the Holder story. More than a week later, as part of the Republican Party’s “Jobs Not Mobs” campaign, President Donald Trump invoked Holder’s “kick” comment to illustrate that Democrats are “losing it.”
Absolutely none of this is new. For instance, during the 2016 campaign, Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson invoked a 2008 comment made by then-candidate Barack Obama. During a Philadelphia fundraiser, Obama quoted a line from the movie The Untouchables, saying, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
From the March 14, 2016, edition of CNN’s The Lead:
KATRINA PIERSON, TRUMP CAMPAIGN SPOKESPERSON: If we want to talk about inciting violence, where is the interview with [Democratic presidential front-runner] Hillary Clinton and [President] Barack Obama when they’re talking about bringing a gun to a knife fight? When they’re inciting violence against police officers. Today, we have police officers called out to fake calls so that they can be ambushed and potentially assassinated.
The twisting of Curtin’s words wasn’t the first time conservative press took a statement from a liberal out of context, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. That’s why it’s so important for readers and viewers to see past the outrage bait and look at the source material themselves.
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On the December 4 episode of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed that the United Nations would “like to take over the world” and it see[s] the perfect opportunity in global warming.” Dobbs then said, “There is great, great debate over whether there is that quote-unquote 'warming'" -- a claim that is, of course, objectively false. Dobbs has peddled inane theories about climate change in the past, calling human-caused global warming a “largely Democratic belief” and suggesting that the sun may be more responsible for global warming than humans.
On the November 25 episode of CNN’s State of the Union, CNN commentator and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum praised the efforts of the Trump administration to try to bury the release of the National Climate Assessment, claiming that the scientists who wrote it are “driven by the money.” Despite this claim being completely false and widely mocked on social media, Santorum repeated it on CNN just two days later. Santorum failed to note, however, that he himself has received copious amounts of money from the fossil-fuel industry throughout his career.
CNN's Rick Santorum praises Trump administration trying to bury report on climate change: "A lot of these scientists are driven by the money" pic.twitter.com/ndwpkQHUxH
— Media Matters (@mmfa) November 25, 2018
Perhaps the leader in promoting absurd conspiracy theories, Infowars waded into the topic of climate change in the wake of Hurricane Lane hitting Hawaii in August. On the August 23 episode of Infowars’ War Room, host Owen Shroyer proposed the idea that John Kerry shot an energy beam from Antarctica that split the hurricane in two. He said, “Why is John Kerry going down to Antarctica just a week after the election to discuss climate change and then you have energy beams coming out of Antarctica splitting hurricanes? Yeah, what is John Kerry doing down there? That’s awfully suspicious to me.” Kerry later poked fun at the comments on Twitter.
On the September 14 episode of Fox Business Network's Varney & Co., Fox News commentator Tammy Bruce said that climate change is “great” for “the left” because people on the left can “blame everything on it.” She continued, “And this is of course the goal, is it's not even about the nature of the weather itself but the blaming of humanity, of the nature of what we're doing, that we're the problem. And of course that gives you an excuse then to control what people do, to control business, and to control industry.”
On October 9, gamergate supporter and writer Ian Miles Cheong tweeted, “Climate change is a hoax invented by neo-Marxists within the scientific community to destabilize the world economy and dismantle what they call ‘systems of oppression’ and what the rest of us call capitalism.” Cheong followed up with, “To clarify, I’m talking about man-made climate change and the fear mongering surrounding it.” (As if we needed further clarification on this tin-foil-hat take.)
I’m gonna get shit for this, but here goes.
Climate change is a hoax invented by neo-Marxists within the scientific community to destabilize the world economy and dismantle what they call “systems of oppression” and what the rest of us call capitalism.
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) October 9, 2018
A brutal winter storm in early January left at least 22 people dead on the East Coast, and Fox & Friends used that storm to praise its favorite viewer, President Donald Trump. On the January 7 episode of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Pete Hegseth said, “I think President Trump should take credit for solving global warming. Look at how cold it is, that is just another accomplishment that we need to put on the list. Global warming, done. President Trump eradicated it.”
Former Republican Rep. Allen West, a senior fellow at the right-wing Media Research Center, has an interesting theory about climate change. On October 4 West stated on CRTV, “God couldn't get the weather right, it's man-made climate change. I remember when people asked me about climate change, I said yeah, winter, spring, summer, and fall. They said no, man-made climate-- I said no, no -- so, you know, there's a creator that's got this under control. But what they're doing is they’re delegitimizing, they're undermining the sovereignty of the creator.”
On the February 13 episode of LevinTV Tonight on CRTV, Mark Levin laments that because climate change has been “pushed out as a scientific fact,” it's assumed that …“there’s something wrong with” those who dare question it. Levin also calls climate change a “no growth, anti-capitalism movement” that has been “exported to the United States like Marxism itself.” Levin has a history of making idiotic statements denying climate change.
What’s a list of ridiculous climate change claims without right-wing media’s most prolific offender, Rush Limbaugh? On the September 11 episode of The Rush Limbaugh Show, as Hurricane Florence was headed for the Carolinas, he claimed, “The forecast and the destruction potential doom and gloom is all to heighten the belief in climate change.”
Sean Hannity, never one to shy away from denying climate change, did it again in 2018 when discussing a winter storm. On the March 6 episode of his radio program, The Sean Hannity Show, Hannity said, “They do lie to us repeatedly about global warming.” He continued: “They just call it global whatever -- climate change, because this way, it's generic. And if it's hot or too hot, they can say it's climate change. If it's cold, or too cold, they can say it's climate change. But it didn't work out when they said ‘global cooling’ or ‘global warming,’ so they had to fix it.”
Stephen Moore, a CNN commentator and self-described “economist,” is part of CNN's recent climate-denier problem. On the November 26 edition of CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront, Moore tried to discredit the National Climate Assessment by saying, “We have created a climate change industrial complex in this country, with billions and billions and billions of dollars at stake. A lot of people are getting really, really, really rich off the climate change issue.” Moore repeated these claims the next day, again on Burnett’s show. Like Santorum, Moore has been the beneficiary of money from fossil fuel companies, which have funded some of the groups he's worked for.
On the November 29 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, commentator Mark Steyn said that climate change “is actually a form of class war.” He continued: “In macro terms it’s a way of the developed world denying the developing world any chance to live the kind of lives that people in the developed world live.” He also stated, “It’s an elite thing. Nobody takes it seriously.” Although Steyn has been attacking the climate consensus for at least the last decade, he has no actual background in climate science.
In June 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen gave now-famous testimony to the Senate in which he described humans’ contributions to global warming. On the 30th anniversary of that landmark testimony, Breitbart writer and notorious climate denier James Delingpole penned an article lambasting it, claiming that Hansen used “dirty tricks” to help launch the “great global warming scare.” Delingpole wrote: “But – like the scare itself – the claims were dishonest, hysterical, misleading, unscientific, needlessly alarmist, and cynically stage-managed.” Some of the “dirty tricks” that Delingpole mentioned include the committee chairman scheduling the testimony on the hottest day in June and opening all of the windows in the room. Delingpole, of course, didn’t mention that the evidence of human-induced global warming existed long before Hansen’s testimony. He also predictably failed to note the incredible accuracy of Hansen’s global warming claims.
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas criticized the National Climate Assessment in an opinion piece that was published in a number of papers and websites, including the Chicago Tribune. Thomas claimed that climate change is not “settled science” and criticized “scare tactics by leftists who want even more government control over our lives.” To back up his claims, Thomas cited Climate Depot, a website dedicated to denying global warming, and quoted its founder, the industry-funded fraudster Marc Morano. He also cited Patrick Michaels, a climate denier who has received funding from various fossil fuel companies. Finally, Thomas misattributed a quote that called the report a “pile of crap,” saying it came from Princeton oceanographer John P. Dunne when in fact it came from John Dunn of the climate-denier group Heartland Institute. It speaks volumes that a number of newspapers chose to publish Thomas’ column despite its multiple inaccuracies (though some later corrected the quote attribution).
On April 25, Coulter tweeted: “I'm fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders. #MacronCode.” Coulter, a virulent racist who has long supported Trump’s dehumanizing immigration policies, has made ridiculous claims about climate change before, and once stated that global warming deniers are considered equivalent to Holocaust deniers. Her April tweet, sent on the day that French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the U.S. Congress, points to a disturbing trend in which some white nationalists take climate change seriously only because the changing climate will lead to the northward migration of refugees from the Global South.
I'm fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders. #MacronCode
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) April 25, 2018
Sinclair Broadcast Group began 2018 hoping to finalize a massive deal that would cement its place as the country’s largest owner and operator of local TV stations, after having more or less weathered a few bad news cycles about its obvious conservative bent. But the local TV news giant is ending the year with arguably higher negative name recognition than ever before and with its proposed acquisition of 42 more stations rejected. In fact, one of its most formidable competitors is now aiming to knock Sinclair out of that top spot. And Sinclair has only itself to blame.
In March, Sinclair news stations across the country began airing “must-run” promotional segments in which local anchors read from a script that seemed to mirror President Donald Trump’s rhetoric by criticizing other media outlets for so-called bias.
Some Sinclair employees were so unnerved by the script that they anonymously leaked it to CNN’s Brian Stelter weeks before the segments ran. Timothy Burke, then a video editor at Deadspin, quickly compiled clips of reporters at various stations reading from the shared script, and the resulting video supercut went viral.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
As of publication, the Deadspin video has more than 9 million views. Media Matters additionally documented 66 Sinclair stations nationwide airing the scripted segments. Widespread media coverage of the segments culminated with Trump himself tweeting multiple times in Sinclair’s defense. Sinclair employees continued to speak out about the “must-run” promos, saying they felt their employer was using their local credibility to advance an agenda, and professional groups condemned Sinclair’s tactics. A few employees and stations even refused to participate in the promo campaign.
In an attempt at damage control, Sinclair executives emailed with reporters and circulated internal documents suggesting that coverage of the promotional segments was itself biased, attacking CNN specifically. The company also trotted out its chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide, to deflect criticism of the promos in an odd second “must-run” segment.
Epshteyn caused numerous problems for his employer this year, producing “must-run” commentary segments that ranged from lackluster to embarrassing to -- on several occasions -- deeply offensive. This year, he drew public ire for using his Sinclair platform to:
After the tear-gas defense in November, Sinclair had to issue multiple statements, at first distancing itself from Epshteyn’s views but then pivoting to saying that the segment had been “drastically and intentionally mischaracterized.” (It was not; Media Matters broke the story and included a full video and transcript.) A couple of media advocacy groups also expressed concern about the segment, with nonpartisan group Free Press even calling on Sinclair to fire Epshteyn.
When he wasn’t forcing his employer to do damage control over his anti-immigrant commentary, Epshteyn was continuing to cultivate an embarrassingly miniscule audience and land pointless interviews with Trump officials, including the president himself. To give an idea of just how doting these interviews were, I documented the totality of the questions or comments Epshteyn made over the course of six “must-run” segments featuring portions of an interview with Trump. About half were some version of “sure” or “right.”
This makes sense, of course, because another big problem for Sinclair this year was the news that Epshteyn may in fact be legally barred from criticizing the president. Epshteyn admitted in September that he had signed a nondisparagement agreement while working on the Trump campaign in 2016. As The Washington Post noted, “Epshteyn regularly discloses to viewers his former roles with Trump but hasn’t mentioned that he signed a nondisparagement agreement while he was with the campaign. Asked for comment, Epshteyn declined to address the issue directly.”
While Sinclair regularly inserts its clearly conservative national commentary and reporting segments into local newscasts, the vast majority of employees at Sinclair-controlled stations are just legitimate journalists trying to do their jobs. At the Sinclair station in St. Louis, MO, however, that was not the case. The station, KDNL ABC 30, didn’t offer any typical local newscasts; instead, three times a day it aired a commentary program hosted by local conservative radio host Jamie Allman. At least, until April it did.
On March 26, Allman sent a threatening tweet about David Hogg, a teenage gun safety activist who survived the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. In the tweet, Allman wrote that he wanted to “ram a hot poker up David Hogg’s ass.” After the St. Louis alt-weekly the Riverfront Times reported on the Hogg tweet, some advertisers pulled their spots from his radio show and a state lawmaker called for a boycott. Within days, Allman had resigned and his KDNL show was cancelled.
This entire story was an unforced error on Sinclair’s part. It was not the first time Allman had tweeted abusive or unhinged things before or after he was hired to host the Sinclair show -- including a string of abusive tweets he sent to me after Media Matters published a report about him last year. More than eight months later, KDNL still does not appear to air any daily local news programming.
Though Sinclair has quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) engaged in openly partisan activities in the past, the company’s conservative point of view was on particular display during this year’s midterm elections. Early on in the year, Sinclair began soliciting contributions from upper-level employees for its political action committee (PAC). In keeping with its past efforts, the PAC donated overwhelmingly to Republicans. Sinclair executives personally gave to candidates including racist ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), who is known primarily for body-slamming a reporter. And Epshteyn helped New York Republican congressional candidate Naomi Levin raise money over the summer, promoting her campaign donation link on Twitter.
Epshteyn’s segments increasingly forewent commentary altogether in the lead-up to the elections, instead excerpting softball interviews that essentially served as infomercials for White House and Republican Party officials and their policies. Over the course of the year, Epshteyn segments included excerpts of interviews with at least five Republicans on November’s ballots, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In many cases, the interviews ran in the states and cities these lawmakers were hoping to represent after November or worked to lay the groundwork for Trump in communities that could be pivotal in the 2020 presidential election.
While many of the Republican candidates specifically supported by Sinclair on or off air coasted to victories in safely red areas, others saw surprisingly stiff competition and extremely close races. And as the true extent of the November “blue wave” was revealed, it seems the company’s larger strategy of promoting conservative views in swing districts didn’t quite pay off.
Sinclair headed into 2018 expecting to close on its proposed deal to acquire Tribune Media’s 42 local news stations. That plan required approval from the Trump Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but the agency had already made several regulatory moves to help the broadcasting company. The acquisition would have cemented Sinclair as the nation’s largest owner and operator of local TV stations and allowed the company to effectively control large portions of some local media markets, enter into the country’s largest markets for the first time, and reach more than 70 percent of U.S. television households.
Instead, in July, the FCC surprised experts by deciding to slow-track the deal, citing a handful of potential station divestments about which commissioners believed Sinclair has purposely misled them. Instead of approving the acquisition outright, the commission elected to send the proposal to an administrative judge, which has been a death blow to similar deals in the past. More details emerged when the hearing designation order was made public, including allegations that Sinclair had shown a “lack of candor” in its communications about the deal with the FCC. A few weeks later, on August 9, Tribune called off the merger.
The trouble for Sinclair didn’t end there, either. Tribune also filed a lawsuit against Sinclair for “breach of contract,” arguing that company representatives had recklessly endangered the deal by intentionally misrepresenting some of the proposed station divestments. The order also alleged further specifics about Sinclair’s “belligerent” conduct throughout the federal approval process for the deal, saying Sinclair “fought, threatened, insulted, and misled regulators” at the Department of Justice.
For one: Many of Sinclair’s regulatory issues stemming from the shuttered Tribune deal have yet to be resolved and will follow the broadcasting company into the new year. Since the FCC singled out the deal proposal for review due to potential “misrepresentation or lack of candor” by Sinclair, the unresolved allegation of misbehavior has been a dark cloud over the company. It’s something regulators at the FCC will have to consider as they contemplate renewing Sinclair’s public broadcasting licenses for its large number of stations -- and that could be happening sooner than expected. Last month, the American Cable Association filed a petition asking the FCC to conduct an early license renewal process for four of Sinclair’s stations so it can “resolve the serious charges it leveled against Sinclair.”
Even with this potential hurdle looming, Sinclair doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. It still controls about 190 local news stations, and the company is reportedly already pursuing other ways to expand. Earlier this month, Fox Business reported that Sinclair is planning to make a bid for Fox’s regional sports networks. The company could also take advantage of any good graces it still has with the FCC to advocate for further industry deregulation during the commission’s periodic review of its broadcast ownership rules next year.
After a high-profile year, Sinclair seems likely to really embrace its public image as an openly conservative media company. It’s already taking steps in that direction by continuing to offer Trump administration and Republican officials an easy interview platform, hosting a town hall with right-wing darlings Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens, and enlisting former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka to host a special program decrying socialism. It’s also been courting former Fox News figures -- including BlazeTV personality Eric Bolling, who left Fox News last year after colleagues reported that he sent them sexually graphic pictures and who now appears to be partnering with Sinclair in some capacity. It’s unclear what projects Sinclair may have in the works for these former Fox personalities, but they could make appearances on a rival network (though that’s not as likely without the Tribune assets) or on Sinclair’s new streaming app, STIRR, which is set to launch in the new year and could compete with Fox’s new Fox Nation platform.
One thing about Sinclair’s immediate future seems particularly certain, though: It’s going to keep up its harmful tactics. There will be more offensive “must-run” segments, and probably more brain-washy promotions in the spring, and definitely more blatant agenda-pushing with the Trump administration. The company has shown little desire to change behavior or admit when it’s done something morally objectionable so far. Why would it start now?
The day after award shows is the most predictable day on the network.
As I watched Fox News’ coverage of Time’s 2018 “Person of the Year” announcement, something struck me: I’d seen it before. Several times, in fact. This year, the distinction was given to “The Guardians and the War on Truth,” highlighting journalists lost to violence (such as Jamal Khashoggi and the staff at the Capital Gazette) or arrested for their work (such as Reuters’ Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested while reporting on the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, or Maria Ressa, who the Philippines government charged with tax fraud over reporting for her site, Rappler).
The truth is that it didn’t actually matter whom Time picked -- at least in terms of how Fox News would cover it. Regardless of the choice, various commentators across the network would chide the decision as somehow anti-Trump or self-serving before telling viewers whom it should have been. It’s what they’ve done in the past. After Time highlighted the #MeToo movement by choosing “The silence breakers” in 2017, Fox hosts suggested it should have also gone to Trump’s Twitter account. In 2012, Fox personalities Andrea Tantaros and Dennis Miller derided Time’s inclusion of reproductive-rights activist Sandra Fluke in its list of finalists. In 2010, Bill Hemmer suggested it could have gone to the tea party movement instead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Glenn Beck wove together a conspiracy theory about how George Soros was responsible for Beck’s own low numbers in Time’s online poll. In 2008, Sean Hannity suggested that then-President-elect Barack Obama was named Person of the Year because Vice President-elect Joe Biden hired the magazine’s Washington bureau chief as his communications director.
On the December 11 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Laura Ingraham played host to Raheem Kassam, whose Daily Caller essay “Time’s Failing ‘Person of the Year’ List a Product of Cultural Decline” had been published that morning. Ingraham would close out the evening’s show with her own picks, a tie between first responders to the California wildfires and Border Patrol agents.
On that day’s edition of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld suggested the title go to “the intellectual leaders that we talk about who are challenging the anti-speech mob” such as Claire Lehmann, Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, and other members of the so-called “intellectual dark web.”
There was one moment, however, that came across as genuinely refreshing. Watch this, from that same December 11 edition of Fox News’ The Five:
JESSE WATTERS (CO-HOST): All right. Dana, you've seen these things before. Is Time magazine Person of the Year -- is this a thing of the past? Does anybody care anymore?
DANA PERINO (CO-HOST): Well, all I know is we do this segment every single year --
WATTERS: Everybody does.
GREG GUTFELD (CO-HOST): Because it's fun.
Jesse Watters is probably right when he suggests people don’t care much about the magazine cover anymore, and Perino is right on the money when she acknowledges that they keep covering it anyway.
Whether it’s Time or any other magazine’s Person of the Year choices, the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, or Golden Globes, Fox News follows a brilliant formula designed to reinforce the idea that pop culture exists largely for the purpose of marginalizing conservatives.
In 2018 alone, there’s been Sean Hannity’s post-Oscars rant accusing Hollywood of hypocrisy for the #MeToo movement, Greg Gutfeld and Michelle Malkin’s accusations that Oscar attendees who spoke out about gun violence were “virtue signaling,” Jason Chaffetz taking on “Hollywood’s cultural rot” (i.e. Kevin Hart getting in a few jokes at the president’s expense during the MTV Video Music Awards), Martha MacCallum pulling a joke out of context to slam the Emmys, and Howard Kurtz’s bizarre claim that the Oscars and Emmys have “obligatory Trump-bashing moments.” These are among the many examples of Fox News using pop culture events to reinforce the “us versus them” mindset in its viewers.
In September 2017, Tucker Carlson called the Emmys “an expression of the contempt America's ruling class has for the rest of the country,” seemingly oblivious to the irony of labeling liberals “America’s ruling class” as Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Carlson would bring back his “ruling class” comment during his November 15, 2017, show by criticizing Maxine Waters’ appearance at the Glamour Women of the Year awards. And when GQ put Colin Kaepernick on the cover of its magazine as the 2017 “Citizen of the Year,” The Five’s Watters said he’d prefer the award went to NFL star J.J. Watt.
In 2016, Bill O’Reilly took Oscars host Chris Rock to task for feeding the “grievance industry,” adding, “So OK. ‘Our ancestors got lynched and raped by white people.’ OK. Every group in the world can say that -- not to the extent that African-Americans can say that -- but is it doing any good?”
During the Fox & Friends coverage of the 2015 Oscars, Stacey Dash slammed Patricia Arquette for her on-stage discussion of pay inequality. Also in 2015, The Five mustered up the courage to at least pretend to care about the ESPY Awards if only to express discomfort with the decision to give Caitlyn Jenner that year’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, instead of college basketball player Lauren Hill, who spent her final days raising awareness about cancer among young people.
Can a piece of art change the world? Maybe. Can a speech delivered from the Oscars stage heal a country? I suppose it’s possible, even if extremely unlikely. Yet, if you’re someone with a vested interest in preventing forward social change or you rely on resentment of “elites” to fuel your own political agenda, it would be beneficial to sow distrust of the people making that art or giving that speech. If you can convince your target audience that the artists can’t ever truly understand America, that they’re all rich elitists -- though many are less “rich” and arguably less “elite” than the people delivering messages on your side of this culture war -- you can use even the most anodyne cultural events to your advantage.
The morning after the 2018 Oscars, Fox & Friends asked its viewers whether they had tuned in. The responses they received, or at least the ones they decided to read on air, show just how successful this campaign has been.
“Of course we didn’t watch. We are looking to be entertained, not aggravated by a steady stream of mindless drivel from liberals who live in a bubble,” read one message.
“Very happy to report I did NOT watch the Oscars last night. Watching self-aggrandizing Hollywood elites speaking into their echo chamber isn’t something I enjoy doing,” read another.
“The REAL winner at the Oscars was me. I didn’t waste my time watching because of all the liberal, anti-Trump political rhetoric.”
By their own accounts, these viewers didn’t actually watch the Oscars, but they knew the awards show was bad -- instinctively. Even moments seemingly geared toward winning conservative kudos -- such as the tribute to war films -- were labeled insulting because the audience didn’t rise to its feet for a standing ovation. The pop culture well has been poisoned, and anything short of explicitly conservative propaganda will be met with unease.
Ahead of award shows, some people like to make predictions about who will take home what honors. My predictions are a lot simpler. In 2019, 2020, and beyond, it’s a safe bet that Fox News will pan all the major awards shows, scoff at magazine covers as “identity politics,” and continue to cultivate the resentment that is so core to its brand identity.
None of this is to say that everything said at the Oscars will be profound, nor will every Grammy serve as a reward for advancing some sort of social agenda. What I am saying is there is something we can all do as media consumers to bridge cultural divides: We can go into experiences with open minds and open hearts. This can mean different things to each of us, and it could be as simple as stepping outside your comfort zone when it comes to choosing what to put on your morning playlist, which movies to check out while they’re in theaters, and which news sources you give a chance.
Tucker Carlson's advertisers are sponsoring fascism
Tucker Carlson is attempting to stay the course amid an advertiser exodus from his Fox News program because of his racist commentary. Carlson had been a mouthpiece for white supremacy, and since being promoted to a prime-time slot on Fox, he has elevated fringe “alt-right” grievances into mainstream media.
But what are the consequences of airing unfettered, explicit white supremacy five nights a week on the top rated cable news channel in the U.S.? They’re that Fox News viewers, including the president, are exposed to extremist ideology that, thanks to the veneer of respectability a top-rated show carries, has become part of the acceptable spectrum of political discourse -- but that actually puts marginalized communities under direct threat of material harm.
In the absence of any identifiable editorial standards at Fox News, naked white nationalist rhetoric has metastasized. Carlson has interpreted this state of affairs as a blanket mandate to host a program centered around the idea that there is a crisis of discrimination against white men in America. Since his show launched on Fox News in November 2016, it has filtered story after story through the lens of white grievance, including claiming that reports of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh exposed “race hatred”, warning about the imaginary threat of white “genocide,” and spending a bewildering amount of time attacking the value of diversity. These segments track with both the rhetoric and smear campaigns cooked up online by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and men’s rights activists. Every night, he speaks on behalf of a fringe online community that endorses white nationalism and amplifies this message to an audience that would likely not have been exposed to it elsewhere. This sets off the invisible process of radicalization: avowed racists and neo-Nazis spew hatred online, Carlson picks it up, sanitizes it, and uses it to bolster the Trump agenda. This process projects explicit white supremacy (as opposed to Fox’s long-term peddling of implicit white supremacy) into the homes of Fox’s audience, blending seamlessly into the network’s long-established brand of conservative media.
Arie Kruglanski, a research psychologist at the University of Maryland, broke the radicalization process down into three parts in The Washington Post. The first step capitalizes on the drive to live a meaningful life, which white supremacy fulfills by imbuing people’s identity (“gender, religion or race”) with superiority. Carlson trafficks in these toxic white identity politics and validates the fantasy that dominate groups are actually the ones being persecuted. The second element of radicalization is what Kruglanski calls “the narrative.” He says this narrative -- “usually that there is an enemy attacking your group, and the radical must fight to gain or maintain respect, honor or glory” -- gives its believers “permission to use violence.” The constant barrage of coverage about a migrant caravan “invasion” is just one recent example of how Fox’s narrative creates an enemy to fuel racial resentment. Carlson’s show was no exception in that regard. The third piece, Kruglanski says, is forming a “community, or the network of people who validate the narrative and the violence.” Fox helps in this goal broadly across the network by sowing distrust of other outlets by raving about “fake news” and a subversive liberal agenda in mainstream media. In other words, Fox News foments an “us against the world” mentality in its viewers. Carlson specifically builds community among racists by centering “alt-right” issues and talking points in his commentary. They know they’re in this together with him because many of the stories he covers come directly from their online community. Stories about “white genocide” in South Africa and attacks against Georgetown University associate professor Christine Fair bubbled up in white supremacists’ circles online, and their adherents recognize that Carlson is playing their game.
Imagine a man, not unlike Charlottesville murderer James Fields, who is angry and captivated by the white supremacist ideology that he finds on YouTube, Twitter, and Gab. He sees Carlson take up those same issues and feels validated by seeing them presented with the glossy veneer that cable television provides. He hears his “alt-right” peers reciprocate this praise on their podcast networks. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a man like this experiences a destabilizing event, whether personal or political, and is moved to take violent action targeting those he perceives to be the enemy of white men.
The Overton window is a concept in political science that describes the range of ideas considered acceptable within the mainstream body politic. The consequences of white nationalist viewpoints airing on national television extend beyond the individuals who are radicalized as a result -- the entire spectrum of political discourse is shifted toward normalized fascism. With the rise of authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump, extreme right-wing ideas pull the Overton window to the right, such that what was previously considered to be far-right suddenly looks like the middle ground. The white supremacist rhetoric of Carlson’s show suddenly seems tempered, opening up space in mainstream conservative media for dog whistles about demographic change, white “genocide,” and the end of Western civilization. Fascists turn the oppressors into the oppressed as justification for reactionary attacks on women, immigrants, people of color, and anti-racist activists.
At the same time, Carlson has appropriated leftist ideas about challenging corporate power and American imperialism and used them to persuade people of his worldview. He claimed he agreed with Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) criticism of Amazon’s use of tax breaks to build additional headquarters in New York and Virginia. He’s encouraged an end to the United States’ never-ending presence in the Middle East, warned against instigating conflict with Iran, and mocked national security adviser John Bolton’s bloodthirstiness to his face. He has said that the Democratic Party panders to corporate interests (it does) and has criticized tax cuts for corporations. And of course, he claims he’s a champion of free speech. It’s not hard to see why taking these positions is popular. But Carlson is playing a shell game. An excellent review of Carlson’s book “Ship of Fools” in Current Affairs explores how this combination of criticizing unfettered state and corporate power combined with ethno-nationalism is “destructive and inhumane” because “it has a kernel of accuracy, it will easily tempt readers toward accepting an alarmingly xenophobic, white nationalist worldview.”
Carlson won’t cover poverty and other issues important to the left unless he’s using them as a bludgeon to demonize immigrants. In a white supremacist framework, the distinction between poor immigrants and poor citizens is of paramount importance. Tucker wants to convince his audience that immigrants cause poverty, violence, declining wages, and disappearing jobs. Carlson agonizes in his book about the loss of a “European, Christian and English-speaking” majority in America. He lays the blame for capitalism’s harm at the feet of women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and people of color. It’s effective because it identifies legitimate systemic problems that are robbing people of their liberty and weaponizes those issues against the marginalized population. This is populism predicated upon racism, better known as national socialism.
The normalization of white nationalism on Fox News, spearheaded by Carlson, encourages violence against members of marginalized communities who are deemed persona non grata. The goal is to dehumanize those who oppose racism and authoritarianism or whose very existence is in conflict with white America. In a world where all human beings are not considered full human beings, there are no restraints on how poorly they can be treated. In the words of The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, “The cruelty is the point.” Migrant children have repeatedly faced down the full force of American imperialism; they’ve been tear-gassed and forcibly separated from their parents. Transgender people are the targets of the Department of Justice, which seeks to legally erase them from existence. Who benefits from erasing transgender identities except for those who seek to perform cruelty? What is the point of ending temporary protected status for Haitian migrants and exposing Vietnam war refugees to deportation except to follow through on the white nationalist project of ethnic cleansing, sending those deemed undesirable back to their “shithole” countries? Carlson is the mouthpiece for this agenda.
Incidents of right-wing violence are increasing and it’s killing people. According to the FBI, hate crime incidents rose 17 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year, and almost three-fifths were driven by race or ethnicity. There’s a clear through line from the escalated rhetoric on immigration to the massacre of 11 Jewish people in a Pittsburgh, PA, synagogue and the tear-gassing of children on the border. White male terrorism is validated by a toxic online ecosystem of racism and extremism that migrates from the dark corners of the internet into mainstream conservative media, and the main conduit of this filth is Tucker Carlson. The lives of women of color, immigrants, disabled people, and refugees are threatened when white nationalism infects the most popular cable news channel on the planet; the consequences of this programming extend beyond the internal politics of media into a direct threat to the lives of vulnerable people.
Without advertisers, Carlson would have a harder time spewing his hatred. The segment where he said immigration makes the U.S. “dirtier” caught the attention of advertisers this time -- but it happens on a nightly basis, almost always without consequence. It is a moral imperative that Carlson be held responsible for spreading white supremacist ideology that radicalizes a mainstream audience, moves the Overton window toward fascism, and puts marginalized groups in harm’s way. Advertisers and media buyers have the ability to make this change; it’s clear Fox News won’t hold him responsible. After all, the network has completely abdicated editorial control when it comes to other ethical crises. Without action from the companies that sponsor this hate, the undemocratic threat Tucker Carlson poses to political discourse in this country will continue unabated, and his targets will continue to suffer.
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Our lawmakers are so hung up on the idea that companies are instituting politically biased policies into their products that they’re ignoring real threats.
On Tuesday, at the request of congressional Republicans, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The goal of the hearing was to better Congress’ understanding of the search giant’s practices around data collection and use -- or at least it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, like in past hearings with tech executives, much of the questioning focused on the idea that the company has some sort of deep-seated anti-conservative bias that needs to be examined and eradicated.
There’s nothing new about the false allegations that social media and tech companies are biased against conservatives. In fact, these claims are just the latest incarnation of a long-term effort to brand the mainstream American press as “liberal,” which dates back to at least a half-century ago, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read “Eastern Liberal Press.”
The claim of bias is little more than an attempt to “work the refs” or to get favorable treatment by calling foul. And given that House Republicans are just weeks from losing their power to call these sorts of hearings (as they will when the new Democratic-controlled House takes over), it made sense for them to hold one final show designed to make the McCarthy hearings look like a low-budget community theater production of The Crucible.
In 2016, Gizmodo published a story titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” It was an explosive if not particularly well-sourced story, based on the opinion of two of the site’s trending-section curators, one of whom openly identified as conservative. Other curators interviewed for that story couldn’t corroborate those claims. The argument seemed to be that sites like Drudge Report, Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax weren’t treated with the same level of authority as The New York Times, BBC, and CNN. The practice isn’t censorship or anti-conservative bias, but rather just a decision to favor trusted, mainstream sources over aggregators and partisan outlets. In any case, the article handed the Republican Party a talking point, and that same day, the GOP published a blog post demanding that Facebook address the issue of censorship against conservatives:
With 167 million US Facebook users reading stories highlighted in the trending section, Facebook has the power to greatly influence the presidential election.
It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence view points (sic) and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda.
Censorship in any form should give Americans who value their fundamental freedoms great pause.
Now, most people likely understand that there are good reasons to trust newspapers and media organizations that do original reporting over aggregators like Drudge. But the narrative had been created, and the GOP jumped on it. Panicked, Facebook officials met with a slew of conservative media commentators and other right-wing leaders to try to put out the public relations fire. The goal was to force Facebook to institute a pro-conservative bias, and it worked. Facebook fired its human curators, replacing them with an algorithm that heavily promoted hoax news stories before eliminating the section altogether. Additionally, Facebook created a task force to root out liberal bias (which, again, doesn’t actually exist).
Conservatives worked the refs, and Facebook caved. But by taking steps to appease the insatiable beast that is the conservative victimhood complex, Facebook sent a clear message: The tech industry fears conservatives, and that fear can be leveraged. Since then, Congress has held show trials masked as hearings about anti-conservative bias, leading social platforms and tech companies to take proactive steps to express pro-conservative views.
Earlier this week, Wired published a story about leaked audio from a Google meeting in which executives at the company expressed their desire to build inroads with conservative organizations.
“I think one of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives. I think we've recognized that the company is generally seen as liberal by policymakers,” said Google’s U.S. head of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, according to Wired.
The hearings may be getting results for conservatives, but they are one big swing and a miss in addressing the many actual issues with tech companies. There’s reason to be wary of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and others in the tech space. Legislatively, the U.S. hasn’t kept up with other countries. For instance, the European Union recently implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, a set of rules outlining the steps companies must take before gathering and storing user information. Though some states have taken steps to enact their own data policies, there aren’t any major consumer protections at the federal level to speak of.
Now is the time for lawmakers to be having discussions with executives at these companies, but the topic needs to change from an overwhelming focus on the idea of political bias to questions of how our data is being collected and used. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that so many of our lawmakers are complete technological neophytes, with some still barely able to get beyond the basic misunderstanding of the internet then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) demonstrated in 2006 with his “series of tubes” comment. For example, on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) wanted to know why his staff’s edits to his Wikipedia page kept getting removed, claiming that Google should be liable for the online encyclopedia’s content because the search engine has given it a “trusted spot.” (Google pulls some data from Wikipedia entries, but it’s worth noting that it’s actually against Wikipedia’s guidelines to edit your own page.) Rep. Steve King (R-IA) needed to be reminded that Google doesn’t make iPhones. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) repeatedly asked -- while, like King, holding up an iPhone, which doesn’t come with Google software installed -- whether Google could track his movement within a room via the device.
“I now know how it feels to work at the Genius Bar in Arlington,” tweeted New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose.
Had these lawmakers been even slightly more tech adept (or at least willing to brush up on some of the current controversies facing companies like Gooogle), there’s a lot they could have actually accomplished. Vox reporter Emily Stewart published a list of topics committee members could have more thoroughly addressed had they not been so laser-focused on bias. For instance, how does Google use our data for mobile advertising? Does the company plan to make changes following a $5 billion judgment in an EU antitrust case? Or why didn’t Google self-report on the massive Google+ data breach the company discovered earlier this year?
Moments before the start of Pichai’s opening remarks, CNN’s Poppy Harlow hyped the event as “what could be a very tense hearing on Capitol Hill,” noting that “Google's CEO will testify publicly for the first time, facing allegations of political bias against conservatives.” That evening, CNN International’s Quest Means Business host Richard Quest interviewed media correspondent Brian Stelter, again discussing the question of bias.
On Fox News, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) joined Tucker Carlson to talk about … bias. Jordan went on a short rant about Google and Twitter -- repeating a debunked claim that Twitter had “shadowbanned” conservatives -- and at Carlson’s suggestion, threatened to punish the companies with regulation and legislation that would scare them into making gestures to placate the political right.
How tech companies handle our data and the effects of that data being handled poorly are not sexy topics. Certainly, the thought that there are politically motivated people putting their thumbs on the search engine scale to disadvantage one political party or another is a more exciting angle. While it’s not clear whether it’s lawmakers taking their cue from media or the other way around, news media do a major disservice to their audiences when they put so much emphasis on factually dubious claims of bias. Instead, they should be helping readers and viewers better understand why policymaking around data collection matters and what the real-world consequences of inaction by our legislators could be. As always, covering politics as though it’s some sort of sport makes the world a more divided and less understanding place. If media organizations feel compelled to cover claims of bias, they owe it to the public to plainly say that these allegations are simply not backed up by the facts.
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
NRATV host Dan Bongino will leave the outlet at the end of the year, according to reporting from The Daily Beast. During his brief run at the National Rifle Association's media outlet -- hosting his own show We Stand and making frequent appearances on other programming -- Bongino found his niche in launching conspiratorial rants about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump. Other than trying to delegitimize the Russia investigation, Bongino offered little else to the network. His show, which he has hosted for less than a year, typically kicked off with scattered, nonsensical ramblings and went downhill from there.
The Daily Beast reported on December 10 that, according to two sources, NRATV had “dropped” Bongino amid downsizing efforts during a period of financial problems for the NRA. It’s unclear what is next for Bongino, but the Daily Beast article pointed out that several weeks ago he was identified as a “former” NRATV contributor during a Fox News appearance, leading to speculation that he may soon join Fox News or Fox Nation.
Bongino reacted to The Daily Beast’s reporting with a characteristically unhinged meltdown, calling the story “fake news,” claiming that he wasn’t fired but that he quit, and even threatening satirist Vic Berger for poking fun at his dismissal.
The cancellation of We Stand follows other recent changes at NRATV. On November 28, veteran NRATV producer Cameron Gray announced that he and some of his colleagues had been laid off. That announcement came after news surfaced about the NRA’s recent tax filings -- which show a $55 million drop in revenue between 2016 and 2017 -- and about cost-saving measures being taken at NRA headquarters, such as eliminating free coffee for employees.
Bongino, a Secret Service agent during the Obama administration who published a tell-all book after leaving the agency, came to NRATV after thrice failing to win congressional campaigns and sometimes guest hosting Sean Hannity’s radio show.
Bongino’s NRATV show was announced in February 2018 with a promotional video attacking CNN host Don Lemon. In the video, Bongino put unpeeled lemons into a blender and then appeared to drink the juice, leading to widespread ridicule as that’s not how lemonade is made.
The theme of Bongino’s show We Stand quickly became the Trump-Russia investigation. In an August report, Media Matters chronicled at length the bizarre and nonsensical ways Bongino used his show to try to absolve Trump and his administration from any wrongdoing and to call for an end to the investigation. (Bongino also talked about the Trump-Russia investigation during his frequent appearances on Fox News.) One typical example of Bongino’s rants is when he said on NRATV, “Fire Bob Mueller; fire this guy now. This is a disgrace. We investigate crimes -- we don’t investigate people.”
One Russia-related topic that was not discussed on We Stand: During the 2016 presidential campaign, a Russian national with ties to that country’s intelligence service seemingly infiltrated the NRA at its highest levels and sought to use the gun group as a back channel to access Trump’s circle. (A woman arrested in connection with the scheme is set to plead guilty in court on Thursday, possibly revealing more about the NRA-Russia connection.)
There was very little to Bongino’s show beyond his rants about Trump and Russia; it was as vacuous as it was angry and confusing.
More recently, Bongino went on an NRATV rant in which he accused “the losers” at Media Matters and Mother Jones of living in “mommy’s basement” while “roasting your crappy s’mores,” saying, “Try to get unlosery. Can you do that for a moment?”
Dan Bongino owning the libs by ranting about what "crappy s'mores" they make pic.twitter.com/dslID0dlBs
— Timothy Johnson (@timothywjohnson) November 27, 2018
The first few minutes of Bongino’s We Stand -- which currently airs on weekday afternoons -- are often especially painful to watch, as Bongino himself often noted during rambling introductions that he makes no plans for what to say on air before the show starts. Things often devolved from there during the 30-minute broadcast.
It was also on NRATV that Bongino debuted a mantra for conservatives facing liberals in the political realm: “We win, you lose, the new rules are in effect,” meaning that conservatives should get to implement their agendas no matter what. (The antidemocratic undertones of the mantra didn’t seem to hamper Bongino’s glee in using the phrase.)
Now, with his NRATV show canceled, Bongino will have to find a new place to “own the libs.”
Update (12/11/18): This post has been updated with the new date of Maria Butina’s plea hearing.