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  • Google Quietly Removes “Fake News” Language From Its Advertising Policy

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & TYLER CHERRY

    UPDATE: See below for Google’s response.

    Google has removed language referencing fake news from its “prohibited content” policy for websites that use its advertising network. The policy previously stated that these sites cannot engage in “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real.”

    As of January 10, at least 20 of the 24 fake news-purveying websites flagged by Media Matters in December were still using Google’s advertising network, Google AdSense, despite Google’s November 14 announcement that it would restrict websites from using the network if they feature misrepresentative content. That announcement drew a wave of positive press saying Google was combating fake news, but it appears not to have led to the promised changes. 

    In December, Media Matters shared its findings directly with Google and asked the company to enforce its new policy. A Google spokesperson initially took issue with the characterization that it has a policy on “fake news,” stating that the company had “no policy specific to fake news.” Media Matters responded with a screenshot of Google’s policy page that explicitly cited “fake news” as an example of unacceptable content and offered additional evidence demonstrating that the flagged sites were in violation of Google’s policy.

    Google proceeded to leave the ads on the misrepresentative sites, instead quietly removing the reference to “fake news” from its much-lauded "fake news" policy.

    On December 14, Media Matters flagged 24 fake news-purveying websites -- websites that share or aggregate demonstrably fabricated stories packaged to appear as legitimate news -- using Google’s advertising service exactly one month after Google announced its ban. A January 10 review of these websites found that at least 20 of those pages are still running ads supported by Google AdSense (at least one of the websites, Observatorial, is now essentially defunct). The hyperlinked list of images at the bottom of this post shows screenshots of the sites that were still running ads that utilized Google's advertising service, which are marked with a blue triangle icon that reveals the words “AdChoices” when scrolled over and redirect to a Google ads page when clicked.

    At the time that Media Matters flagged the fake news-purveying websites for hosting Google ads, Google AdSense’s official policy on “prohibited content” included language explicitly noting that websites “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real” were prohibited from hosting Google ads. That language has since been removed from the policy page without explanation (click image to enlarge):

    Both Google and these websites benefit financially when the sites use the advertising network, which no doubt incentivizes the sites' creation of popular fake news content.

    With Google’s original announcement saying it would ban misrepresentative content from using its advertising services and the explicit reference to “fake news” in its prohibited-content policies, the company seemed to be taking concrete steps to combat the epidemic of fake news. Its public announcement drew positive press from major news outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal, all of which hailed the restriction as applying to websites that put out fake news. But Google’s refusal to take action against websites in violation of its announced decision about misrepresentative content -- and its removal of explicit “fake news” language from its policy -- indicates that the promise to ban these problematic operators might have just been a public relations move.

    Websites Still Running Google Ads

    UPDATE:

    After publication of this post, a Google Spokesperson reached out to offer reassurance and reassert that Google remains committed to enforcing its policy against misrepresentative and deceptive content, stating:

    "We have not changed our misrepresentative content policy in any way. The policy language remains the same and we are continuing to enforce it vigilantly, just as when we launched it a few months ago. We've removed a large number of misleading and deceptive sites from our network as a result."

    Media Matters president Angelo Carusone issued the following statement in response to Google:

    While it’s reassuring to hear the revision we highlighted does not signal any wavering of Google's public commitment to addressing misrepresentative and deceptive content, we won’t be satisfied until Google enforces its policy against chronic violators, including the ones that Media Matters identified.

    Make no mistake, Media Matters is concerned with the growing ambiguity around the “fake news” terminology, which is why we published a glossary last month to clarify much of the conflation we saw in the media as the issue got more attention. Regardless of the terminology Google wants to use, the fact remains that more than a month ago Media Matters flagged 24 well-documented violators of Google’s policy for their attention and review — and 20 of them are still part of Google’s ad network, despite continuing to violate the policy.

  • In One Day, 17 Signs Of How Bad Press Treatment Will Be Under Trump

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Yesterday’s press conference laid bare President-elect Donald Trump’s strategy for dealing with the press as president: He will seek to delegitimize news outlets that provide critical coverage, try to turn them against one another, reward sycophantic coverage from openly pro-Trump sources, and encourage others to follow in their lead. The candidate who waged an unprecedented war on the press will not be pivoting as president.

    In one day we saw Trump publicly punish members of the press for critical reporting, threatening one outlet with “consequences” for its actions and calling on another to apologize; thank members of the press who behaved in a way he found appropriate; and take a question from an outlet tied to his top aide about what “reforms” he wants to see from the press. We saw Trump aides publicly humiliate and jeer at reporters. We saw one news outlet respond to Trump’s criticism by throwing another under the bus. We saw journalists treat the attacks on the press as a sideshow while praising Trump’s performance. And we saw a U.S. congressman call for a reporter’s firing for being “disrespectful” to the president-elect.

    On Monday, CNN reported that top U.S. intelligence officials had presented information to President Obama and Trump that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” The allegations were based on memos authored by a former British intelligence officer reportedly considered credible by the U.S. intelligence community. CNN obtained the memos and reported on, but did not publish, the documents because it had not been able to verify them. BuzzFeed subsequently published the memos, acknowledging that it had not verified them.

    Trump sought to use yesterday’s press conference to conflate the two stories and employ them to shatter the credibility of the news outlets that published them. The result was a horrifying day for press freedom.

    Here are some of the things that happened over the course of January 11:

    1. Sean Spicer, who will serve as White House press secretary, opened Trump’s press conference by attacking BuzzFeed as a “left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect's campaign” and calling its decision to publish the memos “outrageous and highly irresponsible.” He then said that both CNN and BuzzFeed were engaging in a “sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks.”

    2. Before introducing Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence declared that there has been “a concerted effort by some in the mainstream media to delegitimize this election and to demean our incoming administration” and accused CNN and BuzzFeed of pushing “fake news” that he said “can only be attributed to media bias, an attempt to demean the president-elect and our incoming administration.”

    3. In his opening statement, Trump thanked members of the assembled press who “came out so strongly against that fake news and the fact that it was written about by primarily one group and one television station.”

    4. Asked about the story during the press conference, Trump said that BuzzFeed was “a failing pile of garbage” and is “going to suffer the consequences” for its actions. He also criticized CNN, which he said was “going out of their way to build it up” and “ought to apologize.”

    5. CNN’s Jim Acosta then sought to ask a question of Trump given that his outlet had been attacked. Trump lashed out at Acosta’s “terrible” news outlet and refused to let him ask a question, declaring, “You are fake news!”

    6. The assembled press responded to Trump’s attack on Acosta by doing nothing.

    7. A few minutes later, Trump turned to Matt Boyle of Breitbart.com, letting Boyle ask a question. Breitbart’s executive chairman is top Trump aide Stephen Bannon, who has bragged about turning the website into the “platform” for the so-called “alt-right,” a noxious collection of white nationalists, nativists, and misogynists.

    8. Boyle, who has provided Trump with sycophantic coverage for years and is effectively an agent of Trump’s house news organ, was the only journalist provided with a reserved seat at the presser.

    9. Boyle had this question for Trump: “This decision to publish fake news and all the problems that we’ve seen throughout the media over the course of the election, what reforms do you recommend for this industry here?”

    10. Trump responded that he didn’t support “reforms,” just reporters who have “some moral compass,” before again saying that some of the reporters sitting in front of him work for “fake news” outlets.

    11. The press conference reportedly ended with Acosta being heckled by Omarosa.

    12. Trump “filled the room with paid staffers who clapped and cheered as he blasted members of the media as purveyors of ‘fake news,’” as Politico reported.

    13. After the press conference, Acosta reported that Spicer had warned him that if he didn’t stop trying to ask Trump questions, he would be “thrown out of this press conference.”

    14. CNN responded to Trump’s attacks on the network by rushing to declare that it hadn’t done anything wrong, and that it was BuzzFeed that rightfully deserved Trump’s wrath. It is telling that when the network came under fire, its executives and journalists sought not just to defend themselves, but to point Trump toward a more palatable target.

    15. The Washington Post reported that Trump had a “decent press conference” in which, “remarkably, he offered kind words for news organizations.” (The Post’s headline was later changed, replacing “decent” with “aggressive.”)

    16. Politico’s influential Playbook reported, “Journalists didn’t like his attacks on them, but for most people who watched Trump yesterday, it was a pretty good performance.”

    17. Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) tweeted that Acosta “should be fired & prohibited from any press briefings” because he was “disrespectful to Trump.”

    Trump will be sworn in as president in eight days. Things can still get much, much worse.

  • Five Key Climate Takeaways From The Rex Tillerson Confirmation Hearing

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Secretary of state nominee and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 11. Tillerson is already under fire for making the seemingly false claim that Exxon has not lobbied against sanctions on Russia and other nations that would affect Exxon’s business dealings, but here are five other climate change-related takeaways that reporters should keep in mind in their coverage of the hearing and Tillerson nomination going forward.

    1. Tillerson distorted climate change science … again.

    As researchers at Harvard and MIT have documented, Tillerson has falsely claimed in the past that the temperature record “really hadn’t changed” over the previous decade and repeatedly made scientifically inaccurate claims “seeking to sow doubt about the reliability of climate models.”

    Tillerson again wrongly cast doubt on climate models during the confirmation hearing. When asked by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) whether climate change is caused by human activities, Tillerson replied that the “increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect,” but that “our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

    In reality, “climate models have proven themselves reliable in predicting long-term global surface temperature changes,” as The Guardian’s Dana Nuccitelli has noted. Indeed, in remarks to Mashable responding to Tillerson’s comments, Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann similarly said, "Climate models have proven extremely skillful in predicting the warming that has already been observed.” And David Titley, the former head of the Navy's climate change task force, explained, “The ability of climate scientists to predict the future is significantly more skillful than many other professions (economics, intelligence, political science) who try and predict the future."

    As Texas Tech University climate researcher Katherine Hayhoe told Mashable, climate projections of emissions scenarios are “based on physics and chemistry, the fundamentals of which have been understood” since the 1850s.

    2. Tillerson disputed the Pentagon’s determination that climate change is a significant national security threat.

    When Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Tillerson whether he sees climate change as a national security threat, Tillerson answered, “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do.”

    Among the “others” who disagree with Tillerson is the Pentagon, which has called climate change a “security risk” and said that considering the effects of climate change is essential to meeting the Defense Department’s “primary responsibility” to “protect national security interests around the world.” A 2014 Defense Department report similarly stated that climate change “poses immediate risks to U.S. national security,” and a bipartisan group of defense experts and former military leaders recently sent a briefing book to President-elect Donald Trump containing recommendations for addressing these risks.

    For its part, the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change calls climate change a “global threat.”

    3. Tillerson refused to discuss the “ExxonKnew” scandal.

    Tillerson refused to answer questions from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) about media investigations documenting that Exxon’s own scientists had confirmed by the early 1980s that fossil fuel pollution was causing climate change, yet Exxon funded organizations that helped manufacture doubt about the causes of climate change for decades afterward. Tillerson declared that he was “in no position to speak on [Exxon’s] behalf," and that “the question would have to be put to ExxonMobil." Kaine explained that he wasn't asking Tillerson to respond on behalf of Exxon, but rather to confirm or deny the accuracy of the allegations against the company, which he ran until the end of December. When Kaine asked Tillerson whether he was unable or unwilling to answer Kaine’s questions, Tillerson replied: “A little of both."

    The media reports on Exxon, published in the fall of 2015 by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, prompted attorneys general in New York, California, and Massachusetts to each launch investigations of Exxon that are still ongoing. As InsideClimate News noted, “If Tillerson spoke about this under oath at this hearing, it conceivably could complicate matters for lawyers at the company he led.”

    4. Tillerson declined to endorse the Paris climate agreement.

    Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon issued several statements in support of the Paris climate agreement, which committed countries around the world to cutting emissions, with the aim of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius. However, Tillerson declined to explicitly endorse the Paris agreement during his confirmation hearing.

    When initially asked about the agreement by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tillerson did not address the agreement specifically, but he did say that it’s “important that the United States maintain a seat at the table on the conversations around how to address the threats of climate change, which do require a global response.” But when asked about the agreement by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) later in the hearing, Tillerson left open the possibility of renegotiating -- or even withdrawing from -- the agreement, as InsideClimate News noted:

    In case you missed it, Tillerson answered questions about whether the United States would remain in the Paris climate accord in a such a non-committal way that he left open the possibility for the Trump administration to ditch the agreement or pull out of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as some of the President's team have recommended. 

    Tillerson suggested that the "America First" motto that Trump ran on would be the main criterion in assessing participation in the global climate accord.

    Responding to a question from Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey about staying in the accord, Tillerson said that Trump would conduct a thorough review of global and bilateral accords on climate and that he would make his views known to the new president, who has vowed to 'cancel' the agreement and who has most recently called climate change a 'hoax' invented by the Chinese to hobble American business. Tillerson did not say what his views or recommendations would be.

    Tillerson then continued: "I also know that the president as part of his priority in campaigning was to put America first. So there's important considerations as we commit to such accords and as those accords are executed over time, are there any elements of that put America at a disadvantage?"

    [...]

    Markey then asked if it should be a priority of the U.S. to work with other countries to find solutions to that problem.

    Tillerson answered: "It's important for America to remain engaged in those discussions so we are at the table expressing a view and understanding what the impacts may be on the American people and American competitiveness."

    Trump has said that he would “renegotiate” or “cancel” the Paris agreement. He’s also claimed since the election that he has an “open mind” about the agreement, but internal documents from Trump’s transition team “show the new administration plans to stop defending the Clean Power Plan,” which is the linchpin of the United States’ emissions reduction commitments under the Paris agreement.

    Some reporters are interpreting Tillerson’s reference to a “seat at the table” as support for the Paris agreement, but his broad phrasing could also apply to seeking to rewrite the terms of the deal -- or withdrawing from it altogether. Later in the hearing, Tillerson added that he believes it’s important to have a “seat at the table” in order to “judge the level of commitment of the other 189 or so countries around the table and again adjust our own course accordingly.”

    5. Tillerson did not address climate change, oil, or even Exxon itself in his opening remarks.

    In their initial coverage of the Tillerson nomination, several major media outlets uncritically portrayed Tillerson as an advocate for action to combat climate change, despite his -- and Exxon’s -- troubling track record on the issue. But when Tillerson was given the opportunity to outline his vision and priorities for the State Department during his opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he did not once mention climate change, lending credence to the contention of Tillerson’s critics that his and Exxon’s professed support for climate action “was all P.R.

    Tillerson’s opening statement also neglected to mention oil or even Exxon itself, where Tillerson has worked for the last 41 years. That glaring omission hints at a lack of concern for crucial questions about whether Tillerson’s oil industry experience prepares him to serve as America’s top diplomat, or whether, as The New Yorker’s Steve Coll put it, he will be willing and able to “embrace a vision of America’s place in the world that promotes ideals for their own sake, emphatically privileging national interests over private ones.”

  • 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.

  • Trump's Press Conference Shows Media Must Scrutinize HHS Nominee Tom Price

    Blog ››› ››› CAT DUFFY

    President-elect Donald Trump dodged a question during his January 11 press conference about how he plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and whether or not the replacement plan would insure as many people, but he did indicate the attack on health care reform will be led by his nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). In light of Trump’s delegation to Price, the media must do a better job of scrutinizing the devastating consequences of Price’s proposals than they have in the past

    A Media Matters study of pre-election coverage found that prime-time cable and broadcast news failed to ask substantive questions about what Trump’s replacement for the ACA would look like. This cannot be the standard going forward.

    On January 11, Trump held his first press conference in nearly six months and took questions on a variety of issues. A reporter asked Trump a two-part question about the future of Obamacare, first, asking for specifics on the timeline for the repeal and replacement of the ACA, and second, questioning whether or not Trump’s replacement would “guarantee coverage” for those who gained insurance under health care reform. During his three-minute answer, Trump provided no specifics on what policies the replacement package might include and dodged the question of whether or not it would maintain current levels of insurance coverage, instead insisting:

    DONALD TRUMP: We're going to be submitting as soon as our secretary is approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan. It‘ll be repeal and replace. It will be essentially simultaneously.

    Trump’s answer, while not containing any policy specifics, did reveal two key things about the upcoming ACA fight.

    First, Trump’s reluctance to answer whether or not his replacement will cover as many individuals as the ACA does is a trend, not an anomaly. As Vox senior editor Sarah Kliff and other reporters have noted, Republicans continue to dodge and obfuscate when pressed for details on how their ACA replacement will maintain the coverage expansions achieved since 2010. According to a December 15 article in The New York Times, a Republican congressional aide promised that the GOP plans would guarantee “universal access” of health care and coverage but provided no details about how this would improve on existing law.

    Second, Trump’s claim that his administration would submit a plan “as soon as [his] secretary is approved,” seems to indicate that his replacement package would closely resemble the legislation authored by his HHS nominee, Tom Price. Price’s bill, the “Empowering Patients First Act,” is the most developed health care replacement of all the Republican plans. (After dozens of symbolic votes to repeal the ACA and six years of campaigning against the law, Price is the only congressional Republican to actually put a replacement plan together in legislative language.)

    Price’s plan would gut access to health insurance in the U.S. and eliminate the essential health benefits package -- allowing insurers to determine whether or not things like maternity care should be covered. This dismantling of health care reform would benefit younger, healthier individuals while sending costs skyrocketing for older or sicker individuals. The plan would reinstate high-risk pools, endangering health care access for individuals with pre-existing conditions an ACA provision conservatives claim to want to preserve. Price’s bill would also rescind the ACA’s Medicaid expansion entirely and convert the program to a block grant, blocking access to care for many low-income communities. Additionally, as the HHS secretary, Price could unilaterally reverse the contraception mandate, a benefit he has dismissed because he claims he has yet to meet “one woman” who had trouble accessing birth control before the ACA. If enacted, Price’s “Empowering Patients First Act” would roll back the gains the Affordable Care Act has achieved, leaving millions more Americans uninsured -- as would most of the variants of “Trumpcare.”

    Given that the incoming president suggested during his press conference that he will leave stewardship of repealing and replacing the ACA to his HHS secretary, journalists need to actively scrutinize Price’s record and his proposals for the future of American health care.

    During the January 11 press conference, reporters asked just one question about the ACA, with zero attempts at a follow up, despite the fact that Trump functionally avoided the original question. The initial reporting on Price’s nomination whitewashed his history of opposition to reproductive health care, and largely failed to contextualize the potential impact of his proposed policies on the American health care system. Since Trump hinted at the major role Price might play in the upcoming ACA fight, it is incumbent on reporters to step up beyond their pre-election coverage and take the current job of vetting Price seriously, making clear the disastrous effects his proposals could have on the American health care system.

  • Government Ethics And Legal Experts Pan Trump's "Prohibited" And Conflict-Ridden Plan For The Trump Organization

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Government ethics and legal experts say President-elect Donald Trump's plan to transfer oversight of his company to his sons does not go far enough to avoid serious conflicts of interest as president, and they urged journalists not to let him off the hook.

    Trump announced today at a press conference that he would transfer control of The Trump Organization to a trust controlled by his eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, but would still retain an ownership interest in the business and receive reports on the business' finances.

    His attorney, Sheri Dillon of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, told reporters the company would also appoint an in-house ethics consultant to review future actions and cancel pending foreign deals. Still, ethics experts say the plan falls short of a clear separation from the business side.

    “It doesn’t do what everybody wanted it to do,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project On Government Oversight. “In essence, keeping an ownership interest in the business is a wrong decision. He can’t just set up firewalls between himself and his sons who are running the business and think there isn’t a conflict of interest.”

    He later added, “As the chief executive of the United States government, there will still be decisions made that can affect his business and the public needs to know that the decisions he is making are in the best interests of the public and not of his business.”

    Amey said reporters “are going to have to stay on top of what the ethics agreement is going to look like and what enforcement mechanisms are in there to prevent conflicts of interest and what monitoring is being done on the government side and with this ethics official at The Trump Organization.”

    Matthew Sanderson, a government ethics lawyer with law firm Caplin & Drysdale, called it a “mixed bag” at best.

    “There are a few laudable measures,” he said. “The cancellation of any pending deals along with the appointment of an ethics advisor, freeze on foreign deals. Those are good things.”

    “The problem is he remains conflicted,” Sanderson stressed. “He still holds an ownership interest in The Trump Organization, which means his net worth will increase with any favorable government decisions. The fact that he is now letting someone else do the work, the management, does not change the fact that he will still benefit. … He’s still in the position of being a conflicted president and open to the accusation that he is monetizing the presidency.”

    Kathleen Clark, a Washington University School of Law professor and government ethics expert, said Trump needs to “remove not just his management activities, but remove himself from having a financial interest in the firm. He’s retaining a financial interest in the company -- that hasn’t changed.

    “He’ll still be financially benefiting from them. I didn’t see any indication that he is giving up an ownership interest at all.”

    She added: “There is the conflict of interest concern, an ethical concern even though the Congress has exempted the president from the conflict. But he will be in a position where he can use government office to enrich The Trump Organization and enrich himself.”

    She also cited the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars federal officeholders from profiting from foreign governments or their agents: “The problem is that The Trump Organization and Donald Trump will receive and he will receive money from foreign governments, that is what’s prohibited. He says he will donate the profits, the Emoluments Clause is concerned with payments, not just profits. Who gets to define what the profits are?”

    Violating the Emoluments Clause is an impeachable offense. And according to legal experts, barring a full divestment from his business dealings with foreign governments, Trump will be in violation of this clause the moment he is inaugurated as president.

    On Twitter, Laurence Tribe, Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University, argued that “Trump's workaround is a totally fraudulent runaround.” He added that the plan is “cleverly designed to dazzle and deceive, but it solves none of the serious ethical or legal issues.”

  • Trump Punishes CNN After It Challenged Him, Rewards Breitbart For Sucking Up

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVER WILLIS

    During Donald Trump’s press conference, the president-elect criticized CNN for reporting on alleged contacts between his campaign and the Russian government, and then CNN reporter Jim Acosta tried to ask a question. Trump refused Acosta’s repeated requests. Soon after, Trump solicited a question from Matthew Boyle of the embarrassingly pro-Trump Breitbart News, who served up a softball.

    On Tuesday, CNN reported that "classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump." The documents also reportedly included "allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government." Buzzfeed followed CNN's article by publishing pages of raw memos related to the allegations.

    At his press conference, responding to a question from CBS’ Major Garrett, Trump elaborated on a tweet he sent out on Wednesday morning in which he wrote, "Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?"

    Trump said BuzzFeed would “suffer the consequences” for publishing the memos and that CNN went “out of their way to build it up.”

    CNN reporter Jim Acosta then attempted to ask Trump a question, noting, “Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question?” Trump refused and waved him away. Acosta persisted, and Trump refused and said CNN is “terrible,” told Acosta to be quiet, and said, “You are fake news,” before moving on to another reporter.

    A few minutes later, Trump turned to Matt Boyle of Breitbart.com, who proceeded to ask Trump about “all the problems that we’ve seen throughout the media over the course of the election” and “what reforms do you recommend for this industry here?”

    It would hardly be possible to ask a more sycophantic and fawning question, but coming from Breitbart, it’s not surprising.

    Breitbart has become the all-but-official voice of Trump over the past two years. The site has tied itself into absurd knots to defend him and attack his opponents in both the Republican and Democratic parties, while also mangling and inventing stories to serve his campaign’s narrative.

    Stephen Bannon, Trump’s incoming chief White House strategist, has been the chairman of Breitbart and has overseen its transformation from a more traditional conservative outlet to what he described as a “platform” for the so-called “alt-right,” whose noxious brand of white nationalist nativist politics now dominates the conservative movement.

    Breitbart’s dedication to Trump and its vilification of his perceived enemies were reflected in its writeup of the contentious exchange between Trump and Acosta, headlined “Trump to CNN: You Are Fake News.” Breitbart.com also posted the following headlines on its front page:

    In turn, Trump has often used the millions of followers he has on social media to direct web traffic toward Breitbart stories promoting him and his conspiracy theories.

    Later on CNN, Acosta reported that Republican National Committee communications director and incoming Trump press secretary Sean Spicer told him that if he were to persist in asking Trump questions in the same manner, he would be “thrown out of this press conference.”  (After his combative exchange with Acosta, Trump later fielded a question from CNN reporter Jeremy Diamond.)

    The lesson from Trump is that he won’t accept the sort of adversarial journalism CNN has engaged in here, which is necessary and vital for a modern, functioning democracy. But if you suck up like Breitbart did (and has done), you will be perfectly fine.

  • CNN's Russia Bombshell About Trump Deserves More Than Journalistic Navel-Gazing

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    President-elect Donald Trump is dodging serious questions raised by a blockbuster CNN story that top U.S. intelligence officials presented Trump with documents including Russian claims that they have “compromising” information about the president-elect. Instead, he is trying to turn the conversation into a discussion about ethics in political journalism, and some in the press are playing along, helping the president-elect avoid accountability.

    Yesterday, CNN reported that intelligence officials had presented information to President Obama and Trump that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” and that “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.” The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis of 35 pages of memos authored by a British former intelligence officer, which CNN obtained but did not publish.

    CNN had not been able to verify the allegations in those memos, which have reportedly been “circulating as far back as last summer,” and the FBI is still reviewing the allegations. But according to CNN, “US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago.”

    Shortly after CNN’s report came out, BuzzFeed published the memos. The site acknowledged that its own reporters had been unable to verify the contents but said it released them anyway “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

    In their responses, Trump and his allies have either deliberately conflated those two stories -- the raw information published by BuzzFeed and the journalism produced by CNN -- or focused solely on BuzzFeed in order to sidestep the serious questions raised by CNN’s report.

    Last night on Twitter, Trump himself declared the stories “FAKE NEWS” before highlighting an attack on the BuzzFeed story by LifeZette, a fringe website founded by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that has pushed false conspiracy theories.

    Trump’s pick for White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, opened Trump’s press conference today by lashing out at “outrageous and highly irresponsible” BuzzFeed, then falsely suggested that CNN had also published the memos:

    Trump’s defense has actually included citing the Kremlin’s denial as evidence that the story isn’t true. And yet, some in the media have followed along, conflating BuzzFeed’s work with CNN’s and focusing on BuzzFeed’s decision to release the memo rather than engaging with the troubling implications of the CNN report.

    “Why would BuzzFeed and why would CNN put out these reports that are unsubstantiated and they can't name a source?” Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt asked incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus this morning. “Because it’s irresponsible and it's what's horrible about politics and what’s happening in America,” Priebus replied. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

    “Right now there’s no story here," Mika Brzezinski said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “The two outlets [Buzzfeed and CNN] that are actually going with this and releasing it are continuing to make the same mistakes they made in the run-up to this election, which is to let their bias get in the way of actually finding out what the facts are and putting them out there.”

    By playing Trump’s game, these media figures are ignoring incredibly important questions that get to the heart of the democratic process.

    CNN’s report suggests that top U.S. intelligence officials suspect that a presidential candidate’s associates may have colluded with a foreign, hostile government to influence the election.

    It suggests that our officials found allegations about Russian claims of possessing “compromising” information about the president-elect to be valid enough to include in briefing documents.

    That information was reportedly delivered to Trump, and given the events of the last day it’s unclear whether he read it.

    The president-elect has responded by siding with that hostile foreign government over the apparent concerns of the U.S. intelligence community.

    Reporters need to keep their eyes on the ball, and off their navels.

  • Trump Just Shot Jim Acosta In The Middle Of Fifth Avenue And The Press Didn’t Blink

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    On the campaign trail last January, President-elect Donald Trump bragged that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”

    Today during his press conference, Trump did the rhetorical equivalent to CNN reporter Jim Acosta, and the assembled reporters did nothing.

    After Trump attacked CNN’s report that top U.S. intelligence officials believe Russian operatives may have compromising information about him, Acosta yelled out, “Since you are attacking us, can you give us a question?” In an extended back and forth, Trump lashed out at Acosta’s “terrible” news outlet.

    “I’m not going to give you a question,” Trump said. “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news!”

    Acosta was left to say that Trump was being “inappropriate” and sink back in his chair as Trump’s supporters clapped.

    And the rest of the press apparently did nothing at all. They watched it happen, then moved on to ask their own questions. Rather than deferring to their CNN colleagues until they had an opportunity to speak or or pushing back against Trump’s attack on a media outlet or even walking out, they acted like it hadn’t happened.

    This is a pattern. Members of the press have repeatedly refused to stand together as Trump has lashed out at their colleagues.

    Trump banned The Des Moines Register from covering his campaign after it printed a critical editorial. There was no collective response from the press. So he banned more outlets when he didn’t like their coverage.

    His campaign threw a New York Times reporter out of an event. No response from the press.

    He confined the reporters to press pens where he could mock them by name to the glee of his supporters, putting them in physical danger. And into the pens they went, day after day.

    His campaign manager allegedly manhandled a reporter. CNN hired the campaign manager!

    Trump treats reporters like conquered foes who he can manhandle at will. If they can’t figure out a way to stand up together and for one another, he will pick them off one by one and grind the free press into the dirt.

    The press conference reportedly ended with Acosta being heckled by Omarosa. Who’s next?

  • Sen. Ted Cruz’s “Challenge” To The Media To Cover AG Nominee Sessions’ Involvement In Prosecuting A KKK Murderer Lacks Key Details

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) implored the media to run segments on attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) participation in the prosecution of an Alabama Klansman who lynched an African-American youth. But in his retelling of the 1981 prosecution, Cruz omitted key information, specifically that Sessions’ subordinate in the U.S. attorney’s office later testified that Sessions tried to dissuade him from pursuing prosecution in the case.

    On March 21, 1981, Michael Donald, an African-American teenager, was lynched in Mobile, AL, by Henry Hays and another conspirator. Hays was acting on the orders of his father, who was second in command of Alabama’s Ku Klux Klan organization, to randomly kill an African-American in retaliation for the murder of a white police officer.

    Local law enforcement severely botched the murder investigation. As reported by The Atlantic, one law enforcement officer told reporters that the murder was a case where “three junkies had killed this lowlife black man who thought he could take drugs from them and not pay.” Other members of law enforcement attempted to smear Donald with allegations of other criminal conduct.

    At the time of the murder, Sessions was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. Following the failure of local law enforcement to properly investigate the case, an assistant U.S. attorney in Sessions’ office, Thomas Figures, became the “driving force” in securing the involvement of attorneys in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. During the subsequent prosecution, Sessions took on a “supervisory role,” working in concert with Figures, attorneys from the Civil Rights Division, and state prosecutors. Hays was convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and later executed.

    Sessions lists his participation in the case as one of his biggest career accomplishments, and conservative media have repeatedly cited the case to defend Sessions against longstanding allegations of racism. (In 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench amid testimony that he directed racially derogatory language toward Figures, who was black, and allegations that Sessions used his position as a prosecutor to unfairly target minorities.)

    During the first day of Sessions’ confirmation hearings on January 10, Cruz cited the case and the statements of other attorneys who worked on the case who said that Sessions was cooperative and helpful during the prosecution. Cruz then issued a "challenge," saying, “I would encourage the news media: Cover this story. Tell the story on the six o’clock news about Jeff Sessions helping prosecute a Klansman who had murdered an innocent African-American man, and putting him on death row, and bankrupting -- helping bankrupt the Klan in Alabama. That’s a story that needs to be told.”

    In his remarks, Cruz failed to mention Figures’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during Sessions’ failed 1986 nomination. Figures testified that Sessions sought to prevent him from forming a prosecutable case, telling him at the time “that the case was a waste of time, that it wasn’t going anywhere, that I should spend more time on other things, and that, if the perpetrators were found, I would not be assigned to the case.” As Figures recounted, Sessions came on board only when it “became increasingly apparent that we were going to break the case.” During the 1986 hearing, Sessions denied Figures’ allegations. From The Atlantic:

    In 1986, Figures testified before the Senate that while it was “literally true” that Sessions had not “obstructed the investigation of the murder of Michael Donald,” Sessions had “tried to persuade me to discontinue pursuit of the case.” Figures said that Sessions “remarked, with regard to the investigation, that the case was a waste of time, that it wasn’t going anywhere, that I should spend more time on other things, and that, if the perpetrators were found, I would not be assigned to the case.” Figures told the Senate that after the case went to the grand jury, and it “became increasingly apparent that we were going to break the case, Mr. Sessions attitude changed” and that he supported the prosecution.

    Sessions’s statements to the Senate in 1986 about his supervisory role in the case are more modest than what he and his supporters say today, and while his testimony at the time generally did not directly contradict Figures’s account, Sessions insisted that he did not urge Figures to drop the case.

    Significantly, Cruz’s secondary claim about Sessions helping to bankrupt the Klan greatly overstates Sessions’ involvement. It was actually Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center who conceptualized and executed the novel civil lawsuit that led to that outcome, using the facts of the Hays murder case to establish that the Klan had organizational liability for Donald’s murder. A 1987 New York Times article on the verdict makes no mention of Sessions, instead focusing on the members of Donald’s family, attorneys, and activists who played the primary role in securing the outcome.