Eric Boehlert

Author ››› Eric Boehlert
  • D.C. Press Took Collective Action To Protest Obama White House Restrictions -- Why Not Trump?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    With an allegation of Russian-style censorship hanging in the air in 2013, dozens of news organizations loudly protested to the Obama White House that journalists were being denied proper access for newsgathering. Taking collective action, the news outlets, including ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, requested “an immediate meeting” with White House officials “to resolve this very serious situation.”

    Specifically, the allegation was that the Obama White House was "routinely" excluding news photographers from presidential events that were recorded exclusively by a White House staff photographer. The administration claimed the events were “private.” News organizations countered that the White House's subsequent release of its own, in-house photos of those events on social media meant the events hadn’t actually been “private.”

    The conflict became intense. “A mini-revolt by news organisations against White House press restrictions gathered momentum Monday as USA Today joined other media shops to have declared a boycott on officially issued photographs,” The Guardian reported.

    In their letter to the White House, co-signed by 38 organizations including various news outlets, the White House Correspondents' Association, and the White House News Photographers Association, the groups wrote, “As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government."

    One National Journal headline at the time announced, “Obama’s Image Machine: Monopolistic Propaganda Funded by You.” And a New York Times photographer protested to the White House that its restrictions were “just like Tass,” the Soviet state news agency.

    Why is this collective outcry from 2013 relevant again now? And why is it worth noting the strategy news organization adopted to protest allegations of White House restrictions? Because today, those same news organizations face an incoming Trump administration that seems sure to institute new media restrictions that are far more stringent than the Obama White House's rules for photographers. Yet we don’t we hear much in terms of an organized protest.

    Back in 2013, dozens of individual news outlets joined press organizations to take strong action in documenting their grievances with the Obama White House over the photo restrictions, demanding that meetings be held and the problem solved. So why have they been so quiet and timid in terms of airing their objections with Trump?

    And no, 2013 wasn’t the only time news outlets banded together under Obama and took collective action to protest White House press limitations.

    In 2009, as a feud between Fox News and the Obama administration over Fox’s coverage boiled over – the White House labeled the conservative channel “not a news network” – the administration excluded Fox News from interviewing “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg, who was handling distribution of TARP funds during the financial crisis. The other television news networks showed solidarity by staging a “revolt” and boycotting their scheduled interviews.

    “All the networks said, that’s it, you’ve crossed the line,” CBS News’ Chip Reid reported at the time.

    And don’t forget that during the recent presidential campaign, about 17 journalists representing a multitude of news organizations joined forces and met for hours in Washington, D.C., because they were so angry with how Hillary Clinton's campaign was supposedly limiting access for journalists and they wanted to strategize about the best way to confront the campaign.

    In those three instances, when Washington journalists felt they had been slighted by Democrats, they took collective action. There were no signs of timidity. So what explains the media’s current passivity toward Trump while he seems poised to take a far worse stance toward the press?

    It’s true that the media’s 2013 protest came while Obama was in office, and that Trump hasn’t been sworn in yet. But it’s already common knowledge within the press corps that dramatic changes regarding White House access may be looming -- changes that make the complained-about restrictions on White House photographers under Obama look tame. In fact, expected Trump changes, the Times reported last month, could mean “a loss of transparency that would hinder the press’s role as a conduit for information to the people.”

    Why haven’t dozens of news organizations fired off a letter to Trump’s transition team, sternly demanding that he not abolish or diminish the presence of White House reporters? Why haven’t they demanded “an immediate meeting” with Trump officials “to resolve this very serious situation”?

    Recall that during the campaign, the petulant Trump often banned specific news organizations from his events. I don’t remember news outlets taking collective action against Trump in the spirit of all-for-one defiance. I don’t remember them boycotting scheduled interviews with Trump in solidarity with the news outlet that he had banned. Do you?

    In late 2015, several news organizations did discuss their concerns about access with the Trump campaign, according to The Huffington Post, but seemingly nothing came of it. In fact, "facing the risk of losing their credentialed access to Trump's events, the networks capitulated," BuzzFeed reported.

    Last November, after Trump ditched the press in New York City in order to go eat dinner, the White House Correspondents' Association publicly urged him to travel with a press pool, and his transition team promised it would "operate a traditional pool." Two months later, the WHCA is still trying to get Trump to establish a formal press pool that mirrors that of previous presidents. (FYI, Trump ditched the press again last month to go play golf.)

    Yet despite the stonewalling from Trump’s team, it was reported last week that the WHCA will host a reception for Trump’s communication aides in coming weeks.

    So instead of getting an angry letter denouncing press restrictions the way Obama officials did, Trump’s team is receiving social invitations.

  • Faced With Trump’s Looming Press Crisis, Media Embrace Timidity And Accommodation

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has apparently undergone a rather dramatic change in terms of how she views President-elect Donald Trump -- specifically, whether she thinks it’s OK for journalists to label him a liar when he constantly lies.

    Stressing the “huge challenge” that looms for the press to cover Trump “fairly” in coming years, Marcus joined forces with Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker, who last week insisted it’s out of bounds for his reporters to call a Trump a liar. (They run the risk of not looking "objective," Baker fretted.)

    Weighing in with her Sunday Post column, Marcus agreed that it’s just not fair to label Trump a liar. “The media shouldn’t hesitate to label an assertion false, but it should be cautious about imputing motive,” wrote Marcus, who doesn’t like the “inflammatory baggage” that comes with dubbing the president-elect a liar.

    This is rather remarkable, given the fact that last year Marcus herself wrote a column that explicitly, and repeatedly, called Trump a liar. Because he is one.

    “The past few weeks have offered Americans a chilling glimpse of three faces of Donald Trump: the stonewaller, the shape-shifter and the liar,” Marcus wrote on May 18. She conceded that it was a “strong charge,” but insisted it was “warranted.”

    How does a media transformation like that take place, considering the avalanche of lies Trump told over the course of the campaign and since his election win? How do you go from stating unequivocally that Trump’s a liar, to advocating that calling him that same thing today is somehow out of bounds and means you’re not treating him “fairly”?

    Is it because Trump will soon be president and some journalists are nervous about offending him -- nervous about appearing to be too tough on him and not wanting to be the targets of further bullying? Perhaps journalists are simply intimidated by Trump, whose political fortunes this year can be partially attributed to his gleefully mean-spirited attacks on the media.

    Over and over we’re seeing this discouraging and potentially dangerous pattern unfold: At a time when Trump and his team are ratcheting up their attempts to discredit the media, and as they stand poised to choke off all meaningful access for journalists, too many news organizations are responding with timidity and accommodation. They seem to have learned nothing from the campaign, when Trump banned certain news outlets at will while his staff herded reporters into restricted press pens at rallies.

    “Winter is coming,” is how New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has framed the looming press threats under Trump: “For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent.”

    As is the case with so much of the press’s relationship with Trump, there continues to be a runaway normalization effort at play. Rather than Trump’s relentless assault on the press sparking a collective resistance, more and more it seems to have sparked a weird, collective acceptance.

    Just look at the media event that took place last Friday: Trump met in private with editors from Vanity FairThe New Yorker, and Vogue. He met them at the headquarters of the magazines’ parent company, Conde Nast. Trump’s confab was off the record, which is exactly what journalists should not be doing right now -- cutting side deals with Trump for sit-downs in exchange for secrecy. Instead, media outlets should be taking collective action to push back against Trump’s naked refusal to be held accountable, as well as Trump’s 19-month war on the press, not ushering him in for closed-door meetings.

    A president-elect who has refused for nearly 170 days to hold a press conference and who has essentially closed off all meaningful access to political reporters -- while constantly publicly denigrating journalists -- doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with off-the-record bull sessions.

    For instance, at their meeting the Conde Nast editors reportedly asked Trump about his plans for “health care, climate change, relations with Russia, women’s issues and abortion rights,” which are exactly the types of topics he should be asked about on the record Because right now it’s virtually impossible to understand his specific policy positions since Trump refuses to articulate them in detail.

    Besides, remember what happened the last time the president-elect had an off-the-record meeting with news executives?

    For more than twenty minutes, Trump railed about “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage. When he was asked about the sort of “fake news” that now clogs social media, Trump replied that it was the networks that were guilty of spreading fake news. The “worst,” he said, were CNN (“liars!”) and NBC. 

    Another participant at the meeting said that Trump’s behavior was “totally inappropriate” and “fucking outrageous.”

    Meanwhile, what also occurred on Friday, after Trump met off-the-record with Conde Nast editors? He issued this stunning threat:

    So now we can add threats of congressional investigation to the long list of bullying tactics President-elect Trump has unveiled against journalists since Election Day.

    Winter is coming, indeed.

  • It’s Time To Banish “Trump Says” Headlines; They Don’t Work

    Stop Giving A Liar The Benefit Of The Doubt

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The New York Times made the same headline misstep twice in four days.

    Typing up reports based on President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets and staged announcements, the Times presented as breaking news -- and in a very Trump-friendly manner -- the contents of his latest utterances:  

    • “Trump Says He Has Hacking Information Others ‘Don’t Know'” (December 31)
    • “Trump Says Intelligence Officials Delayed Briefing on Russian Hacking” (January 3)

    Obviously, public pronouncements from incoming presidents can, and should, be treated as news. The problem with the “Trump says” formula (and similar variations) that the Times and other news outlets have adopted since Election Day is that what Trump said was, at best, either baseless or openly disputed.

    There’s no indication Trump will ever reveal new information about U.S. government allegations that Russians unleashed cyberattacks against the Democratic Party. (And it certainly didn’t happen on “Tuesday or Wednesday” this week, as Trump originally suggested.) An aide quickly downplayed the notion that Trump would even try.

    And while Trump claimed his intelligence briefing on the hacking topic was “delayed” from Tuesday until Friday, as the Times article itself makes clear, “senior administration officials disputed it, saying that no meeting had been scheduled for Tuesday.”

    Trump’s claims falling apart shouldn’t be a surprise, though, since the president-elect has shown himself to be a committed liar who will falsify all kinds of information. 

    And therein lies two ongoing problems. One: How does the press treat a new president who is a habitual liar, the likes of which we’ve never seen in U.S. presidential politics? And two: How does the press treat an incoming president whose primary form of communication is Twitter, which means he refuses to take most press questions or be held publicly accountable for his claims?

    Those parallel-track problems then produce a third one: lazy, misleading headlines that play right into Trump’s strategy of routinely lying while also being historically inaccessible to reporters. Within that sphere, I’d suggest there’s a very specific headline problem -- the “Trump says” formula. Solution? Ban uncritical, context-free "Trump says" headlines. It’s a good first step.

    Yes, most politicians, on occasion, like to bend and twist the truth to their favor. But Trump has been cracking the truth in half, and in full public view, since he entered the presidential race in June 2015. (Here’s a list of 560 documented falsehoods Trump told in the span of only four weeks during the campaign.) People like that don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt, and benefit of the doubt is what drives “Trump says” headlines.

    The headlines often revolve around what Trump has stated on Twitter. Or misstated on Twitter, to be more accurate. With no real access to him, journalists are reduced to a this-is-what-Trump-said-today style of reporting, as if they’re covering the utterances of a reclusive royal family member.

    If Trump’s tweeted claims are almost always disputed and often proven wrong, the dispute should be the headline; that’s what the news of the day is, not the fact that Trump floated some new nonsense; not what “Trump says.” If Trump tweeted that the moon was made of cheese, news organizations shouldn’t produce a “Trump says” headline for him, while also quoting experts in the article itself who confirm the moon is not a dairy-based orbital.

    As Times columnist Paul Krugman noted this week:

    Another problem is that the timid mentality behind “Trump says” headlines often leads to timid reporting.

    Note that last week Trump made news when he claimed responsibility for Sprint bringing back 5,000 jobs to the United States. Trump insisted that the jobs were coming back “because of me.”

    That boast immediately produced a rash of Trump-friendly headlines. And yes, it produced plenty of “Trump says” headlines:

    WSJ: “Trump Says Sprint Bringing 5,000 Jobs Back to U.S.”

    New York Post: "Trump says Sprint is bringing 5,000 jobs back to US”                                

    Reuters: "Trump says Sprint to bring 5,000 jobs back to U.S." 

    But those Sprint jobs were part of a previously announced, pre-election jobs initiative by the telecommunications giant. Which means this Bloomberg headline was perhaps the most accurate: “Trump Seeks Credit for 5,000 Sprint Jobs Already Touted.”

    By choking off access with the press, Trump has produced a media thirst for presidential pronouncements and tidbits of news; tidbits that now arrive on the form of inaccurate tweets. The press needs to stop rewarding Trump’s strategy with passive and misleading “Trump says” headlines.

  • President-Elect Trump Is Historically Unpopular; His Press Coverage Should Reflect That

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    There are lots of ways the political press continues to normalize President-elect Donald Trump’s often radical behavior. From regurgitating his vague tweets as news while he refuses to grant press conferences, to shying away from calling the serial prevaricator a liar, journalists continue to play nice.

    Here’s another way Trump’s getting the benefit of the doubt: He’s a wildly unpopular political figure, yet the press continues to gloss over that fact while granting him soft coverage.  

    In terms of polling data, there’s virtually no good news for Trump. The results generally point in the same direction: He’s widely disliked and inspires little confidence in his presidential abilities.

    This stands in stark contrast with characteristically stronger bipartisan approval for presidents-elect in recent decades. For instance, in 2008, "50 percent of John McCain's voters approved of Barack Obama's handling of his presidential transition,” noted an NBC News report. And as NPR reported, “Even after a prolonged recount and Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush received 29 percent approval from Democrats in 2001.” This is 14 percentage points higher than the same Pew statistic for Trump.

    Trump’s contrast with Obama in late 2008 is stunning: Obama entered 2009 with a 68 percent favorable rating. Today, Trump’s favorable rating stands at an anemic 43 percent. And if history is any indication, that rating is almost certain to go down once the new president takes office.

    A plurality of Americans think he will be a “poor” or “terrible” president. His cabinet picks enjoy historically little support, and 54 percent of adults say they’re either "uncertain (25 percent) or pessimistic and worried (29 percent) about how Trump will perform during his presidency." Meanwhile, 68 percent would describe the president-elect as "hard to like," and less than half of Americans are confident in Trump’s ability to handle an international crisis.

    Those numbers are off-the-charts awful for an American president-elect. On average, 71 percent of Americans were confident that Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton could handle an international crisis, when polled after each was newly elected. Today, just 46 percent are confident about Trump's ability to handle such a crisis.

    Modern American history hasn't seen anything like this. So what explains the press’s passive, often genuflecting coverage of Trump since November?

    “Watching the formation of Donald Trump’s presidency, the press coverage is disappointingly weak and thin,” John Dean recently wrote in Newsweek. “The news coverage of the transition of the most unqualified man ever elected to the White House is as weak and wishy-washy as it was at the outset of his campaign.”

    And as Media Matters stressed last month:

    In the weeks since Election Day, political journalism has largely fallen short both in style and substance. Journalists watching from the sidelines have been reduced to parroting Trump’s publicly available tweets -- allowing him to drive the news cycle -- and have bungled one of the most important roles the press plays during a transition period: the vetting of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations and appointments.

    If Trump had just posted a 49-state, Reagan-esque landslide victory, I could more readily understand why the press would be acquiescing so regularly. But Trump just made history by losing the popular tally by nearly three million votes and remains, without question, the least popular president-elect since modern-day polling was invented.

    Yet members of the press seem unduly intimidated by his presence, and have even rewarded him with chatter of an invisible “mandate.” (He has none.) Noted John Nichols at The Nation, “It's absurd to claim that [Trump's] administration and this Congress enjoy enthusiastic popular support. They don’t.”

    Yes, some news outlets have highlighted Trump’s miserable standing with the public, and what the political implication might be for him this year. “Trump will enter the White House as the least-popular incoming president in the modern era of public-opinion polling,” Politico announced in late December.

    But those kinds of stories have made for spot coverage, passing reports here and there about Trump’s approval ratings. But why isn’t that the running narrative about Trump's presidential transition? Where is the endless cable news hand-wringing about Trump standing poised to be a failed president even before he’s inaugurated? Or about the mountainous challenge he faces in trying to lead a country that largely does not support him or even find him likable?

    Does anyone think that if Hillary Clinton had won in November while badly losing the popular vote to Trump, and then posted historically awful approval ratings during her transition, that story would not dominate Beltway coverage day after day, week after week?

    And don’t forget the press’s entrenched fascination with Obama’s public approval during his presidency, particularly the desire to depict “collapsing” support when, in fact, Obama’s approval rating remained stubbornly stable for years.

    There’s a glaring Trump transition story hiding in plain sight: He’s historically unpopular. The press ought to start telling that tale on a daily basis.

  • The Year Fox News Flushed Roger Ailes And His Sexual Harassment Scandal Down The Memory Hole

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    It turns out Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani aren’t the only famous Republicans who are emerging as prominent losers in President-elect Donald Trump’s transition sweepstakes. Among those who were also expected to play a potential role in shaping the new Republican administration was Fox News founder Roger Ailes.

    Touted in the press as a marketing whiz, it was Ailes who allowed Trump to use Fox as his personal megaphone for much of the last two years and actively coached Trump during his Republican primary run.

    With Ailes returning to his roots as a GOP image-maker, he and Trump seemed to represent the same side of a dark coin: paranoid, vindictive, deeply Islamophobic, and big proponents of race-baiting, especially when it comes to President Obama. Indeed, Trump mirrors the often-tasteless brand of divisive rhetoric that Ailes hallmarked at Fox for decades.

    Known for whipping up partisan fears and corralling voter suspicions of the other, Ailes is a logical choice to occupy a vaunted position on Team Trump after the election. Yet Ailes seems to have joined the ranks of the disappeared in recent weeks. (The Trump campaign quickly, and publicly, shot down recent media chatter that Ailes might be tapped for a State Department post.)

    It’s been an astonishing fall from grace, considering Ailes began the year at the peak of his powers. Watching Trump race out to a big lead in the Republican primary, and guiding Fox News through several flare-ups with the candidate, Ailes seemed poised to ride the Trump wave all year.

    And then July 6 happened.

    That was the day former Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson detailed the harassing office culture at Fox when she filed a lawsuit against Ailes, claiming he had once said to her, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.” Carlson’s lawsuit alleged Ailes sought to “sabotage her career because she refused his sexual advances and complained about severe and pervasive sexual harassment.”

    Her startling allegations were many, but they were just the beginning. As Fox’s parent company launched an internal investigation into Ailes’ behavior, more women came forward with their own claims of harassment by Ailes.

    Fox’s Megyn Kelly told investigators that Ailes made unwanted sexual advances toward her a decade earlier, according to New York magazine. (Ailes resigned two days after Kelly’s allegations were reported.)

    “Current and former employees described instances of harassment and intimidation that went beyond Mr. Ailes and suggested a broader problem in the workplace,” The New York Times soon reported. “The Times spoke with about a dozen women who said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment or intimidation at Fox News or the Fox Business Network, and half a dozen more who said they had witnessed it.”

    According to a Washington Post exposé, Ailes made “jokes that he liked having women on their knees,” and women at Fox did not want to be alone with Ailes in closed-door meetings. Also, Ailes allegedly grabbed the buttocks of a young intern in 2002 after she rebuffed his sexual advances.

    Then came the chilling report in New York magazine about former Fox News booker Laurie Luhn and her alleged years-long “psychological torture” and harassment by Ailes. Luhn alleged that Ailes “instructed her to recruit young women for him,” demanded she engage in “sadomasochistic sex with another woman while he watched,” and set her up with a no-show job. After she alleged a pattern of harassent by Ailes, Luhn reportedly signed "a $3.15 million settlement agreement with extensive nondisclosure provisions," which "bars her from going to court against Fox for the rest of her life."

    In all, at least 25 women detailed allegations against Ailes and the cable channel.

    Even Fox News’ Howard Kurtz conceded, “This has been a painful and embarrassing period for the network." Yet at the outset of the scandal, Fox News pretended Carlson was the problem, not Roger Ailes.

    Greta Van Susteren suggested Carlson falsely accused Ailes of sexual harassment because she was “unhappy that her contract wasn’t renewed.” (Months after Ailes' departure, she expressed regret for her comments.) Bill O’Reilly compared Carlson's allegations to a "frivolous lawsuit," and announced, "I stand behind Roger 100 percent." Jeanine Pirro called Carlson’s allegations “absurd” and tagged Ailes as a “no-nonsense guy,” adding, “I just loved him.”

    And Fox’s Kimberly Guilfoyle claimed she had spoken to other women at Fox and “nobody believed” Carlson’s allegations. She insisted that Ailes “is a man who champions women.”

    Trump himself weighed in, initially calling the claims against Ailes “totally unfounded based on what I’ve read,” and stressing that Ailes is “a very, very good person” and “a friend of mine for a long time.”

    As for Fox defending Ailes, two months after Carlson’s lawsuit, Fox News’ parent company reached a $20 million settlement with her and issued an apology. That concession made a mockery of the staff wide victim-blaming that had gone on at Fox on behalf of Ailes.

    Post-Ailes, were effusive, public apologies offered up to women working at Fox? Was there any attempt to make wholesale changes among top managers at Fox? Of course not.

    Instead, Fox News simply flushed the Ailes scandal down the memory hole and promoted Ailes’ longtime lieutenant Bill Shine.

    That’s the same Bill Shine who reportedly “played an integral role in the cover up” of sexual harassment claims against Ailes. Shine, according to reporter Gabriel Sherman, was involved in “rallying the women to speak out against” Ailes’ accusers. Shine also reportedly played a role in “smearing” Fox News reporter Rudi Bakhtiar, who claimed she was fired after complaining about sexual harassment.

    Clearly lessons have not been learned, and apparently being Fox News means never having to say you’re sorry. Even when your founder and archetype spends 2016 exposing the channel as a haven for sexual harassment.

  • NBC In Bed With Trump Is The Media’s Latest Grand Failure

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Can we even count all the ways that NBC’s ongoing business relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, in the form of his executive producer title for The Apprentice, obliterates virtually every common sense standard that exists for avoiding conflicts of interest and creates an impossible situation for the network’s reporters?

    The parent company for NBC News, one of the largest news organizations in America, is going to maintain its business relationship with the president of the United States; the same Donald Trump whom NBC announced last year didn’t reflect the company’s “core values,” which was why NBC publicly terminated its business relationship with him.

    But now after winning the White House, it turns out Trump is going to stay on as executive producer for the latest incarnation of The Apprentice reality show, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. And all of this we’re learning just days after Trump made a big public show about how he was going to remove himself from his business conflicts.

    We’re obviously through the looking glass with this Trump-NBC deal. Yet lots of Beltway pundits, the type who obsessed over the appearance of conflicts for Hillary Clinton during the campaign, now shrug their shoulders and suggest Trump maintaining a lucrative business association with a news and entertainment giant is no big deal.

    Unfortunately, NBC News is no stranger to ethical entanglements when it comes to Trump and the larger NBC family. In October, NBC News was caught flat footed on one of the biggest scoops of the election season when The Washington Post revealed live-microphone comments Trump had made during an Access Hollywood taping about grabbing women by the “pussy,” because when you’re a “star” you “can do anything.”

    Access Hollywood airs on NBC and executives at NBC News were told about the tape days before the Post scoop.

    As CNN reported:

    Thanks to a series of decisions that can be described as at least curious, NBC News missed out on gaining credit for the scoop of the campaign, an October surprise to put all others that have come before it to shame.

    And it has left NBC News answering questions about its hyper-cautious reaction to the tape, and pondering if it can rehabilitate the image of its recent high-profile anchor hire, Billy Bush.

    Once the disturbing tape recordings were found, NBC reportedly sat on the blockbuster story figuring out how to proceed. (By contrast, the Post published its story just hours after learning about the tapes.) But today, with Trump having an ongoing financial relationship with NBC, we’re supposed to believe there won’t be anymore potential entanglements? That’s really not believable.

    Meanwhile, recognize that over the years, NBC News treated Trump very kindly while his show was a tent pole on NBC’s entertainment lineup.

    Earlier this year during the Republican primary season, when the conservative Media Research Center was upset with how much television airtime Trump was getting compared to the other GOP candidates, the group examined NBC News’ often-cozy relationship with Trump between 2004-2015, while he was a regular presence on NBC’s primetime lineup:

    NBC has spent more than a decade building his brand as a successful businessman of almost mythic proportion. The network’s coverage of Trump was overwhelmingly and consistently positive. MRC Business found only 15 stories (out of 335) on Trump’s business failures, and 320 stories promoting him as a businessman, his businesses and his shows. The vast majority of stories were about the network’s show The Apprentice, which featured Trump … NBC News’s Today served as a de facto PR machine for The Apprentice and its star.

    It’s impossible to suggest those conflicts for NBC will soon evaporate when Trump’s sworn into office. In fact, they’ll only multiply.

    For instance, The Apprentice has been leaking viewers for years. If the show continues to lag next year, who at NBC is going to be responsible for telling President Trump that his television show has been canceled and his weekly, five-figure checks are going to dry up? What if the enraged executive producer (i.e. the president of the United States) then goes on a Twitter tirade and urges his millions of followers to stop watching NBC programs, or he starts an advertising boycott against the network?

    Conversely, what if the new Apprentice turns into a ratings behemoth? Will NBC News think twice about airing a blockbuster scandal report about Trump corruption, for instance, knowing it could damage a key NBC primetime asset?

    And remember how Trump picked that weird public fight with U.S. manufacturing giant Boeing last week? What if the next target of Trump’s free market wrath decides it needs to mend fences with the White House and buys millions of dollars worth of product placement on The Apprentice; a cut of which could end up in Trump’s pocket?

    This is just nuts. Trump’s looming business conflicts are out of control. The fact that a media company with a huge news division is part of the problem just makes it all the more distressing.

    Meanwhile, a key point is that this is just the latest in the media’s rampant normalization of Trump’s wildly abnormal behavior. Every modern-day president before Trump, and every modern-day nominee before him, pledged to make sure not only wouldn’t there be any conflicts of interest surrounding their presidencies, but there wouldn’t even any appearances of conflicts; of cashing in on the Oval Office. (Cue Richard Nixon: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.”)

    Now Trump does the opposite by openly flaunting obvious conflicts and the D.C. press largely shrugs its shoulders. (Exceptions were appreciated.) Does the controversy surrounding Trump’s Apprentice payday constitute the pressing issue facing the president-elect’s transition? It does not. (Not when he’s tapping a climate denier to run the EPA, among other alarming moves.) But it highlights the disturbing pattern of the press routinely explaining away Trump’s unparalleled behavior.

    I mean c’mon. When President Obama published a children’s book in 2010 as president, he donated all the earnings to charity. It would have been political suicide for him to even think about pocketing the profits. And it also would’ve been the unethical thing do.

    But Trump thumbs his nose at all of that and lots of journalists just shrug while NBC stays mum? This is just the press needlessly normalizing radical Republican behavior.

  • One Month Later, Press Failing Trump Transition Test

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    In a December 2 tweet that rattled embassies on the other side of the world, President-elect Donald Trump shredded nearly four decades of U.S. diplomatic protocol when he announced he had accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president. Seen as a public slight to China, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, Trump’s move set off a flurry of international speculation and concern about America’s relationship with China, which boasts one of the most important economies in the world.

    The next day, The New York Times heralded the news on the front page: “Trump Muddies China Relations With Taiwan Call.” What was so odd about the article -- yet what’s become such a hallmark of Trump transition coverage to date -- was that the Times was unable to provide any insight into why the president-elect had made such a baffling move. “Mr. Trump's motives in taking the call, which lasted more than 10 minutes, were not clear,” the paper conceded.

    The Times didn’t publish a single quote, either on or off the record, from any Trump aides or advisers shedding light on the diplomatic controversy. Instead, the Times was left to quote Trump’s tweets on the topic of Taiwan tweets which, of course, are public and anyone can read.

    That’s extraordinary. Yet sadly it’s also become the norm during the one month since Election Day. It wasn’t as if the Trump team, by its own standards, was being unusually secretive about Taiwan. It’s simply been unusually secretive about everything, leaving the press with few avenues of information. (Remember the time, days after the election, when the caught-in-the-dark press corps didn’t know where Trump was?)

    Recall the Times’ front page on November 22, when the paper touted as the day’s biggest news offering a newly released YouTube clip from Trump in which he discussed the goals of his first 100 days. There again, locked out from any advisers with insights, reporters were reduced to transcribing the two-and-a-half-minute infomercial and treating it as breaking news (i.e. “Mr. Trump offered what he called an update on his transition”).

    Question: Isn’t that more how monarchs and figureheads are covered, not presidents of the United States? I kept asking myself that question last Wednesday when CNN’s daytime coverage for hours revolved around the image of Trump’s plane sitting on a runway in preparation for his trip to Ohio. Is the nation that eager to catch a glimpse of Trump, who lost the popular vote in November and boasts a miserable favorable rating for a newly elected president?

    Soon after the election, I warned that if journalists’ game plan in dealing with Trump was wishing and hoping that he’d change, then they’d be doomed, and so would news consumers. One month after the election, the doomsday appears to be looming larger.

    And yes, the stakes are that high. “The Trump transition has put in stark relief the very foundations of the profession of journalism in modern America,” writes historian Rick Perlstein.

    From Politico, here’s a quick reminder about how Trump openly disrespected the press this year, and will likely continue to do so:

    He did not allow the press to travel with him on his plane, which meant they were not in his motorcade and often, because of travel snafus, were left behind. He’s banned outlets for months at a time and called out specific reporters he didn’t like. And despite the years of tradition that the White House allows journalists into the building, has them travel with the president in a protective pool and that the press secretary holds a daily briefing, none of that is guaranteed in any sort of law. It is just tradition, and not many believe a Trump White House will keep that going.

    And don't forget, Trump hasn't held a press conference since late July.

    Instead of Trump’s historic lack of access prompting the press to be even more aggressive and vigilant in its coverage, we seem to be entering Stockholm Syndrome territory, where too many battered journalists seem to think that if they’re nice to Trump and paint him as a success -- as taking on big business and scoring a big Carrier jobs victory -- that he’ll stop bullying them. They hope he’ll grant them access and won’t shred all White House press protocols starting next year.

    But that ship has sailed, my friends. The best way for journalists to cover Trump moving forward is to assume they’ll never have any access. That means news organizations can, and should, stop fretting about possibly offending Trump. That opens up possibilities for detailed reporting on his sprawling web of conflicts. (Even if it arrives a bit late.)

    And they should stop dancing around the fact that he constantly tells bald-faced lies. When Trump pushed out his fantasy that if it weren’t for “millions” of people who voted “illegally” he would’ve won the popular vote, way too many news outlets simply typed up the assertions without properly stressing that Trump’s claim was categorically false. (Even Trump’s attorneys don’t believe it.)

    If the press can’t swiftly and collectively knock down this nonsense, journalists are opening the door to every conceivable crackpot claim in the near future. Is the press really prepared to play he said/he said with Trump and his surrogates about whether the earth is flat, or the moon is made of cheese? Because that’s the direction we’re heading in if Trump’s team is allowed to advance its preferred “post-truth” presidency, where there’s “no such thing” as facts.

    Meanwhile, the timid press corps really needs to stop normalizing the outlier and radical nature of Trump’s transition and the people he’s appointing. During the first month of transition coverage, when not erroneously tapping Trump adviser and white nationalist Steven Bannon as a feel-good “populist,” journalists for weeks turned away from the dark, hateful rhetoric of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser.

    One week before Election Day, Flynn, a high-profile Trump surrogate in the press, tweeted out a fake news article claiming Hillary Clinton was linked to “sex crimes with children.” That, of course, is insanely irresponsible behavior for any adult, let alone a retired general, let alone Trump’s soon-to-be national security advisor.

    But for weeks, while profiling Flynn, the press politely looked away from the specific instance of him hyping a rancid allegation about Clinton. Instead, in long articles about Flynn, news consumers were told about Flynn’s “outspokenness,”  his “fiery temperament,” how he throws “sharp elbows,” and isn’t afraid to “ruffle feathers.” Those were some ways that The Washington Post, CNN, the Times and NPR categorized Flynn’s erratic behavior. Yet none of those profiles mentioned his "sex crimes with children" tweet, which seems like a glaringly obviously example of Flynn's at-times shocking behavior.

    Right after the election, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan rightfully urged her colleagues “to keep doing our jobs of truth-telling, challenging power and holding those in power accountable.”

    Raise your hand if, over the last four weeks, you’ve been awed by the Beltway media’s tireless drive to hold Trump accountable.

    Not me.

  • Fox News Cheers Trump Over 1,000 Carrier Jobs; Denounced Obama For Saving 1.5 Million Auto Industry Jobs

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Fox News and much of the conservative media slipped into messiah mode coverage this week when news broke that Carrier, the air conditioner giant, has decided to not move approximately 1,000 manufacturing jobs from Indiana to Mexico as the company had previously planned. President-elect Donald Trump took credit for having negotiated the respite.

    Cheering Trump’s hands-on approach and his commitment to the working class, Fox talkers portrayed the Republican’s maneuver in relentlessly glowing terms. “A Big Win For Donald Trump,” announced Bill O’Reilly’s show last night.

    Fox’s Stuart Varney claimed Trump had played hardball with Carrier and won: “He strong-armed them. What’s wrong with that?” (According to reports, it was likely the lure of additional tax incentives that convinced Carrier to keep the jobs in Indiana, not being “strong-armed” by Trump.)

    Trump’s cheerleader-in-chief Sean Hannity was just gobsmacked by the whole thing, saying on his radio program that he "can't think of a time in my lifetime where a president-elect or a president ever" did this. 

    Hannity loved the fact that Trump reached out to corporate America, which is fascinating because you know what Hannity didn’t love in 2009? He didn’t love when newly elected President Obama reached out to Detroit’s auto industry in the form of an $80 billion-dollar bailout. Back then, an unhinged Hannity called Obama every name in the book as conservative pundits accused the president of trying to destroy democracy and capitalism.

    Fox News and the entire right-wing noise machine relentlessly denounced Obama as he tried to rescue American manufacturing jobs, which the federal bailout eventually did. One independent study estimated the aggressive government move saved 1.5 million jobs. “This peacetime intervention in the private sector by the U.S. government will be viewed as one of the most successful interventions in U.S. economic history," the study’s author wrote.

    Lots of people might forget, especially in light of the bailout’s stunning success, but Obama’s push to help the Detroit industry once served as a defining line of GOP attack. The bailout symbolized the dangers of Obama's alleged socialist/gangster leanings. This, despite the fact it was actually President George W. Bush who unveiled the first phase of the bailout plan during the final weeks of his presidency, in order to "avoid a collapse of the U.S. auto industry."

    Nonetheless, the topic soon became a cornerstone of the Tea Party and its overheated attacks on Obama, amplified by Fox News.

    Remember how Varney this week toasted Trump for having “strong-armed” Carrier? Back in 2009, the host was furious that Obama was allegedly trying strong arm the public into buying American cars: “[N]ow you're in the position where the government somehow has to coerce or force us all into buying the small cars that it insists Detroit puts out." (Varney routinely whined that Obama was a “bully” to business.) 

    Meanwhile, Glenn Beck, then with Fox News, claimed the bailout reminded him of "the early days of Adolf Hitler." Fox favorite Michelle Malkin compared the auto deal to a "crap sandwich," and a "lemon" the U.S. taxpayers would be stuck with "for life."

    Hannity himself berated Obama for engaging in what he called a "mission to hijack capitalism." And in the infamous words of Rush Limbaugh, it was as if General Motors and Chrysler "bent over and grabbed the ankles." (Limbaugh loves Trump’s Carrier deal, by the way.)

    Question: Why would conservatives be so upset about saving American manufacturing jobs? Seems bizarre, right? But they were furious. So wrapped up in hatred for the new Democratic president, conservative pundits despised the government’s attempt to save GM and Chrysler from bankruptcies. They also seemed to despise the companies’ union workers, suggesting they were wildly overpaid. (Pundits even lied about how much the Detroit autoworkers made.)

    Republican politicians were also angry. Mitt Romney, who’s reportedly being considered for a cabinet position in Trump’s administration, derided the auto bailout as a "sweetheart deal disguised as a rescue plan," and guaranteed that if Detroit companies accepted the aid, you could "kiss the American automotive industry goodbye." 

    In the end, the bailout that Obama championed saved more than one million jobs, and Fox News still hated it.

    If only Obama had saved 1,000 Carrier jobs instead.

  • Stop Normalizing Hate: Reactionary White Nationalism Doesn't Equal “Populism”

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The process by which the media continue to normalize President-elect Donald Trump and the extreme elements that now define his pending administration is achieved story-by-story, headline-by-headline, and even adjective-by-adjective.

    Language, and the way journalists deploy words during the Trump transition, are a central avenue for downplaying and whitewashing what’s now taking place.

    Just look at some of the recent in-depth, page-one newspaper profiles of Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart.com executive who Trump has tapped to be his chief strategist and senior counselor. I’m sure much to Bannon’s delight he’s been awarded the “populist” label. But that description is wildly misguided, completely inadequate, and continues a long-running problem of the press mislabeling extreme right-wing movements and politicians as populist. (See: The Tea Party.)

    Populism is supposed to represent a running struggle on behalf of regular people against powerful and elite economic forces. Bannon and Trump’s pro-corporate, anti-worker politics pretty much represent the opposite of that.

    Plus, “populist” badly downplays the fact Bannon helped run a race-baiting cesspool, while underplaying Bannon’s own alleged history of anti-Semitism.

    How best to accurately describe Bannon? Vox did a pretty good job of it: “He’s a leading light of America’s white nationalist movement accused of using misogynistic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and barely hidden racist language throughout his professional life.”

    How far is that from feel-good “populism”? Very, very far. “Far from populism, this is Revolutionary-era elitism drawn along racist lines,” noted Laurel Raymond at Think Progress.

    Yet the problem persists.

    New York Times headline, November 27: “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump.”

    Washington Post headline, November 19: “For Trump Adviser Stephen Bannon, Fiery Populism Followed Life In Elite Circles.”

    It’s true that both the Times and Post articles did explore in detail Bannon’s controversial past and the fringe nature of his unseemly politics. The Times even detailed how Bannon once discussed “genetic superiority” with a business colleague and suggested that maybe only property owners be allowed to vote.  

    But “populist”? No. Reactionary white nationalist? Yes.  

    Note that Bannon himself this summer called Breitbart “the platform of the alt-right.” And what is "alt-right" synonymous with? White nationalism. “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist,” wrote John Daniszewski, the Associated Press’s Vice President for Standards, as he outlined to writers how to employ “alt-right” in AP coverage.

    The weird part is that this week the Times published an article looking at how news organizations, including the Times, are using the phrase “alt-right” to describe the radical movement Trump and Bannon have become the face of, and whether the relatively new moniker sufficiently captures the movement’s rough and often offensive edges. “The term has attracted widespread criticism among those, particularly on the left, who say it euphemizes and legitimizes the ideologies of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy,” the newspaper reported.

    So, "alt-right" might not properly convey the outlier politics of people like Bannon, but the Times itself this week published a headline labeling Bannon a “populist.”

    Meanwhile, when you thumb through Bannon’s resume it’s nearly impossible to see any threads of “populism” running through it. He is a Harvard Business School graduate who became a Goldman Sachs banker before opening up a boutique investment bank in Beverly Hills, CA, Bannon & Co., which he eventually sold to the French bank, Société Générale. Last decade, Bannon also operated some dubious penny stock ventures, which attracted a number of lawsuits. He has also been a Hollywood movie producer.

    After he exited the world of finance, Bannon became the chairman of Breitbart. Under his leadership, the white nationalist echo chamber called for the hoisting of the Confederate flag (“high and proud”), weeks after shootings at a black Charleston, South Carolina, church. It claimed that political correctness “protects Muslim rape culture.” It has referred to conservative writer Bill Kristol as a "renegade Jew." It ran a piece last year encouraging male readers to tell women that "this isn’t going to suck itself."

    None of that garbage remotely fits under a breezy umbrella of “populism.” 

    Of course, the Bannon “populist” coverage flows from the media’s long-running Trump “populist” campaign coverage, which has been ill-advised for more than year. And it continues to this day.

    Here are highlights of the likely Trump and Republican Party agenda for next year. Good luck finding lots of “populist” proposals aimed at boosting quality of life for regular Americans:

    *Repeal healthcare for 20 million Americans who are insured through Obamacare. 

    *Pass massive new tax cuts for the wealthy. 

    *Drastically cut Medicare.

    *Defund Planned Parenthood.

    *Defund public broadcasting.

    *Vastly expand the Pentagon’s budget.

    *Block overtime pay for workers making less than $47,000 a year.

    *Deport millions of undocumented workers. 

    This is all part of the larger Beltway media failure of playing nice with radical right-wing politics under the auspices of populism.

    Especially during President Obama’s first term, reporters and pundits spent way too much time portraying the Obama-hating Tea Party movement has a "populist" one, when it most certainly was not. Most “populist” movements, as a rule, don’t passionately defend oil companies, insurance conglomerates, and AIG banking executives. And most “populist” movements don’t compare the president to Adolf Hitler and parade around with swastika posters. They don’t claim the president’s a “racist” who wants to put a spike in the heads of babies. And they usually don’t call for a military coup to overthrow the White House.

    But the Tea Party did, and the media rewarded them with the honorary titles of populism.

    And now they’re doing it again with Trump and his white nationalist appointments. 

  • Too Little, Too Late: Weeks After Election, Media See Trump's Conflicts, Potential Self-Dealings, And Corruption

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    New York Times editors and reporters might’ve thought they were going to be congratulated by readers for Sunday’s front-page, six-reporter expose on President-elect Donald Trump’s nearly endless business conflicts. But a chorus of media observers and critics had other ideas.

    Rather than applaud the Times for its report, lots of commentators wondered why the newspaper waited until after the election to wave large red flags about Trump’s obvious conflicts, especially when the Times -- and so much of the campaign press -- spent an extraordinary amount of energy obsessing over potential conflicts of interest, and possible ethical lapses, supposedly surrounding Hillary Clinton.

    Looking back, there certainly seems to be a perception that the political press didn’t really care about Trump’s looming, impossible-to-miss conflicts or the bad “optics” they might produce. And it appears that the press was overly infatuated with conflict questions about Clinton -- questions today that seem quaint compared to Trump’s far-flung business dealings, which represent a possible gateway to corruption.

    That’s not to say the topic wasn’t addressed or that some journalists didn’t tackle it in real time during the campaign season. Kurt Eichenwald at Newsweek produced a helpful deep dive back in September. And the business press was urgent and upfront in detailing the unprecedented nature of Trump’s looming problem. Bloomberg in June: “Conflicts of Interest? President Trump's Would Be Amazing.”

    But in general, the political press seemed less engaged with this issue and appeared reluctant to tag the obvious Trump storyline as a campaign priority. There didn’t seem to be an institutional commitment to pursuing and documenting that storyline, even though the potential problems for Trump were obvious and the story might have disqualified him.

    Even today, the story isn’t being treated with the urgency it deserves. Yes, more new organizations are tepidly acknowledging the colossal conflicts and looming inside deals, but so much of the coverage still lacks resolve. Question for journalists: If Clinton arrived at the White House with open and boundless business conflicts, how would you cover that story? What kind of outraged, lecturing tone would you take? Now treat the Trump story the same way.

    Newsrooms need to learn from their lackluster campaign coverage and treat the unfolding Trump controversy as a permanent beat inside newsrooms for the next four years. It certainly demands that kind of attention and focus.

    Note that aside from the Times’ big Sunday Trump conflict piece, the newspaper also published detailed articles on the topic November 21 and 14, and before the election on November 5. But aside from a few exceptions, in the months prior to Election Day, when voters were assessing the candidates, the intense focus on Trump’s conflicts just wasn’t there. (As Media Matters reported, the same trend played out on network newscasts, which devoted scant time to Trump’s conflicts of interest before the election only to ramp up coverage after Trump’s victory.)

    Where was there lots of media campaign interest? (And also lots of bad journalism?) Trying to detail Clinton’s possible conflicts, a storyline forever deemed by the press to be a Very Big Deal.

    Recall that the Times and The Washington Post considered potential Clinton conflicts stemming from the family charity to be so pressing that both newspapers entered into unusual exclusive editorial agreements with Peter Schweizer, the partisan Republican author who wrote the Breitbart-backed book Clinton Cash. (The Times also breathlessly hyped the book in its news pages.)

    And that was 18 months before Election Day. The topic remained a media priority throughout the campaign.

    Clinton Cash, a hodgepodge of innuendo and connect-the-dot allegations, was riddled with errorsU.S. News & World Report described the book as a "somewhat problematic" look at the Clintons' financial dealings, while Time noted that one of the book’s central claims was "based on little evidence.”

    Yet Clinton’s alleged conflicts were considered to be so important inside newsrooms -- and it was deemed so crucial for the Beltway press to suss out every conceivable detail -- that the Times and the Post were willing to make dubious alliances with GOP operatives.

    Needless to say, no such partisan unions were formed to report out Trump’s massive business conflicts. Indeed, most news consumers would be hard-pressed to suggest Trump’s obvious business conflicts constituted a centerpiece of his campaign coverage for the previous 18 months.

    Meanwhile, recall that lots of media elites demanded Clinton take action before the election in order to eliminate the supposed conflicts surrounding the Clinton Foundation. During August and September, that topic created yet another wave of frenzied Clinton coverage, fueled by the media’s “optics” obsession

    At the time, NBC’s Chuck Todd perfectly summed up the media’s weird pursuit when he announced, “Let’s be clear, this is all innuendo at this point. No pay for play has been proven. No smoking gun has been found.” Todd then quickly added, “But like many of these Clinton scandals, it looks bad.”

    From NPR:

    There's no question the optics are bad for Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. But no proof has emerged that any official favors -- regulations, government contracts, international deals -- were curried in exchange for donations or pledges.

    And from Time:

    If she didn’t do anything wrong, why won’t she defend herself? By avoiding taking responsibility, Clinton only exacerbates the perception she is dishonest and untrustworthy, the primary hurdle on her path to the White House. Optics matter when the issue is transparency.

    According to the media mantra, Clinton’s possible big-money conflicts looked really, really bad. Reporters hammered the theme for weeks and months, while only occasionally glancing over in the direction of Trump’s concrete conflicts.

    Today, coverage of Trump’s conflicts and self-dealing has belatedly arrived. But it often comes with an odd sense of delayed wonder, as if journalists are just now realizing the epic size of the pay-for-play problem at hand for the country, while still hedging their bets. 

    For instance, the headline for the Post’s November 25 article announced, “Trump’s Presidency, Overseas Business Deals And Relations With Foreign Governments Could All Become Intertwined.”

    Could? The president-elect’s business dealing could be a conflict for U.S. foreign policy? That Post framing seems to dramatically underplay what’s currently unfolding. As the Post itself has reported, “Trump has done little to set boundaries between his personal and official business since winning the presidency.”

    Indeed, Trump’s refusal to divest himself from a sprawling array of business interests is certain to create an ethical morass that even Republican attorneys insist will produce endless, possibly debilitating, conflicts for Trump.

    The media mostly missed this pressing story once during the campaign. They can’t afford to overlook it a second time.