Media Structures & Regulations

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  • Media Reports Contradict Top Trump Aide: FBI Director Briefed Trump On Alleged Russian Dossier

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    CNN and CBS are now reporting that FBI Director James Comey did, in fact, brief President-elect Donald Trump on unsubstantiated claims that Russians have a dossier of information against him. The information corroborates earlier CNN reporting that intelligence chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him. According to The Hill:

    FBI Director James Comey briefed President-elect Donald Trump on a two-page summary of an unverified dossier claiming Russia had compromising information on the real estate mogul, CNN reported Thursday.

    That contradicts claims by members of Trump’s transition team and other news outlets that intelligence officials never briefed Trump on the two-page addendum to a classified report given to President Obama and leaders in Congress about Russian efforts to interfere with the presidential election.

    From the January 12 edition of CBS' CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley:

    SCOTT PELLEY (HOST): Sources tell CBS News that F.B.I. Director James Comey personally briefed President-elect Trump last Friday about scandalous tales about Mr. Trump that were never proven, and were nonetheless attached to an official U.S. intelligence report. Major Garrett has been looking into this.

    MAJOR GARRETT: CBS News has confirmed that Christopher Steele, seen in this photo, produced the memo containing unsubstantiated claims that Russia had compromising personal and financial information about President-elect Donald Trump. Steele is a former British intelligence officer who works for Orbis Business Intelligence, a private investigation firm in London. Orbis was originally hired by Fusion G.P.S., a D.C.-based research firm working for an unknown client. The unverified claims circulated widely in political and media circles. Last week, the U.S. intelligence community included a summary of the information in a classified briefing with Mr. Trump, who said the memo was phony.

    DONALD TRUMP: I think it's disgraceful, disgraceful, that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. And that's something that Nazi Germany would have done, and did do.

    GARRETT: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper phoned Mr. Trump last night. In a statement, Clapper said he expressed his "profound dismay" at the leaks and emphasized the unverified document is not a U.S. intelligence community product. President Obama and Vice President Biden also received the briefing. On MSNBC, the vice president was asked if including the claims was appropriate.

    JOE BIDEN: It was their obligation to inform not only us, but the President-elect that this was out there, so that it didn't come out of the blue and have any impact on-- on the conduct of our foreign policy.

    GARRETT: House Speaker Paul Ryan told CBS News he understands Mr. Trump's frustration, calling the leaks and subsequent media frenzy unfair. But, Scott, the speaker said he would not have suggested U.S. intelligence agencies used Nazi tactics in this or any other matter.

    From the January 12 edition of CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront:

    ERIN BURNETT (HOST): We begin with breaking news. U.S. Officials tell CNN the FBI director James Comey personally briefed Donald Trump on unsubstantiated claims that the Russians may have compromising information on Trump. Now, Comey had a brief, one-on-one conversation with the President-elect last Friday during an intelligence briefing.

    The FBI Director at that time presented Trump with a two-page synopsis of the Russian claims. The nation's top intelligence chiefs have decided that Comey would be the one who would handle this sensitive discussion. Now, this is a very significant development because it appears to contradict what Trump's senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, has been saying over the past several days.

    [...]

    BURNETT: Evan Perez is part of the team that broke this story, he's OutFront tonight. As Evan, as we said, a significant development because you heard Kellyanne, they said that this briefing didn't happen. You are reporting it was a one-on-one conversation between James Comey and the president-elect, and it did happen.

    EVAN PEREZ: It did, and this helps correct the record, really, of what exactly happened here. Now, we know there were four intelligence chief who is met with the President-elect last Friday. The purpose of this briefing overall was to bring him up to date on the findings of the Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, the 2016 presidential election.

    Now, at the end of this, the four chiefs were finishing their work and Comey decided to do a one-on-one with the President-elect. The chiefs had decided that Comey should be the one to handle this, after all, it's the FBI counterintelligence division that is doing the investigation to take a look at these claims, and it's also their job to -- to take a look at what foreign intelligence services are up to in this country. In this case Russia, if the Russians are targeting or trying to target the President-elect, it was very important for the President-elect to know about this. That was the purpose of this.

    We're told that this was a cordial briefing, that Trump appreciated the information that he was given, and so we're a little puzzled, really, by the reaction over the last couple days in various stages of denial by the Trump transition team about what really was the FBI and the intelligence chiefs doing their job to make sure he was informed before he took office.

    BURNETT: Right, because Evan, just to underline this, they are -- you've heard them repeatedly say this briefing did not happen.

    PEREZ: Right. We've heard various different versions,I mean, we don't really know where they're at at this point, but we know this information was brought to the briefing and of course we also know from Vice President Joe Biden today, he met with reporters at the White House there, and mentioned that he and president Obama were both briefed on this information, that they got this information from the two-page -- synopsis.

    He even said that he read the entire 35-page document this thing was based on, Erin, and so he said that the intelligence chiefs told him that the reason was they were going to make sure that Donald Trump knew about this very important information.

  • 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.

  • 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 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?