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After President Barack Obama commuted most of Chelsea Manning’s remaining prison sentence, right-wing media figures responded by attacking her gender identity, denouncing transition-related care, and hoping Manning would commit suicide.
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Donald Trump has a message for the White House press corps: The press briefing room the journalists have used since the 1970s belongs to him, and if he wants to take it away, he can.
On Saturday, Esquire reported that the incoming Trump administration has discussed evicting the press from the briefing room and holding the daily briefings with the press secretary in a space outside of the White House. "They are the opposition party," a senior official told the magazine. "I want 'em out of the building. We are taking back the press room."
But something is happening here that is more insidious than Trump and his administration lashing out at perceived enemies. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, the administration is interested in potentially “stacking press conferences with conservative columnists and staffers from pro-Trump outlets.”
“The current briefing room only has 49 seats,” Trump press secretary Sean Spicer told Stelter, “so we have looked at rooms within the White House to conduct briefings that have additional capacity to accommodate members of media including talk radio, bloggers and others."
I’m generally skeptical of the current structure of White House press briefings; while it’s important for a top White House aide to be answerable to the public on a daily basis, the fact that the briefings are televised live seems to encourage everyone involved to grandstand and limits the amount of actual news created by the practice. As former press secretaries have noted, this practice created a “theater of the absurd,” with journalists and staff alike subject to perverse incentives that prioritize optics over substance.
But retaining the daily, televised briefings while opening them up to a panoply of Trump sycophants will make them much, much worse, taking time away from real journalists and giving it to pro-Trump propagandists.
Urging the incoming Trump administration to adopt a similar plan in November, Newt Gingrich hinted at the effort’s real purpose: undermining the traditional press. “They should rethink from the ground up the whole concept of the White House press corps, come up with a totally new grass-roots model, and not allow the traditional media to dominate and define White House press coverage,” he told Sean Hannity
In other words, in order to limit the number of potentially fraught questions from professional journalists, the Trump administration will open the doors to hacks and charlatans.
Jeffrey Lord, one of CNN’s resident Trump supporters, previewed how this could work last night. He told Anderson Cooper, “I think a lot of members of the press are perceived as thinking, ‘This is ours.’ What happens, for instance, if Sean Spicer comes out one day and says not only is [Trump] going to Twitter, but we’re giving the first six seats in here to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, et cetera, et cetera. And then we’re giving the rest, the next five, to various bloggers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
The White House press corps has and should remain welcoming to journalists of all political stripes. But White House press briefings will change dramatically if a vastly increased pool allows Spicer the opportunity to avoid damaging news revelations by directing questions to loyal outlets like Breitbart.com, Infowars, Right Side Broadcasting Network, One America News Network, Ingraham’s LifeZette, or the National Enquirer.
We saw how this could work in practice at Trump’s press conference last week. Trump had rarely publicly interacted with the press since his election, so there were a wide variety of pressing issues worthy of reporters’ attention. But the president-elect was able to soak up some of the precious question time by pivoting to softball questions from Breitbart and OANN.
Trump’s press conference behavior mirrored his general practice of using his platform to lift up outlets devoted to his success; for instance, over the past week, he has used his Twitter feed to promote LifeZette and OANN and to attack NBC News and CNN.
Overseas precedents demonstrate how this method, taken to the extreme, can be used to discredit the media and damage their ability to provide oversight. Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist who has covered Vladimir Putin’s annual press conferences, noted in the wake of Trump’s press conference last week that the Russian dictator has been able to defang the media by alternating questions between “people from publications that exist for no other reason than heaping fawning praise on him and attacking his enemies” and “token critic[s].”
As Gingrich’s November comments suggest, the floated plan to alter White House press briefings is based in a general denial of the media’s historical responsibility to inform the American public. We should expect Trump’s administration to do everything it can to do to hinder journalists’ efforts and reduce their credibility. He and his team treat the press as an enemy to be defeated and destroyed.
“You don't have to think of The New York Times or CNN or any of these people as news organizations,” Gingrich explained last week. “They're mostly propaganda organizations. And they're going to be after Trump every single day of his presidency.”
Sean Hannity took this line of argument to its logical extreme in the wake of the election, stating that until the traditional press admit that they were “colluding” with the Clinton campaign (this is laughable), “they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.”
Trump’s potential plans for the White House press briefings should be seen as a part of that strategy of delegitimizing journalists. It is a tangible step he can take to damage the press corps. The White House Correspondents Association has spoken out against the proposed move, but the group can’t stop the move if the administration really wants to go through with it.
The potential bright side is that journalists may respond to the Trump administration’s declaration of open war against the press by finding new ways to critically cover the new president without being so reliant on the access they have traditionally received from the White House. If they don’t take that opportunity, though, they’ll be following the rules of a game that no longer exists.
Sign Media Matters’ petition urging the White House press corps to “close ranks and stand up for journalism” against Trump’s attacks.
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Trump And Right-Wing Media Are Demanding Greater State Control Over Abortion -- Even If It Causes Harm
Forty-four years ago, Roe v. Wade determined that the constitutionally protected right to privacy ensures an individual’s ability to make personal, medical decisions without interference from politicians -- including the decision to have an abortion.
But now, President-elect Donald Trump and anti-choice politicians who have made careers from promoting scientifically dubious and medically harmful anti-abortion laws want to eliminate Roe’s protections.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to appoint “pro-life justices” who would “automatically” overturn Roe. After the election, Trump told CBS’ Lesley Stahl that he would prefer control over abortion “go back to the states” even it it meant that women would “perhaps have to go … to another state” to obtain necessary reproductive health care.
This may sound like hyperbolic campaign rhetoric, but the threat is very real -- and it’s impossible to overstate how dangerous losing federally protected abortion rights would be.
Right-wing media have consistently argued that greater state control over abortion clinics and providers is necessary to “protect women’s health.” The Supreme Court rejected this allegation in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which rebuked states for attempting to baselessly regulate abortion clinics under the guise of improving public health and safety.
Legal abortion is one of the safest and most common medical procedures. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “Where abortion is legal, it is extremely safe. … In contrast, historical and contemporary data show that where abortion is illegal or highly restricted, women resort to unsafe means to end an unwanted pregnancy.”
In contrast, life before Roe v. Wade -- without federally protected abortion rights -- was dangerous and difficult. Women traveled to neighboring states or even other countries to receive an abortion, often alone, in secrecy, with just enough money pooled together from friends or roommates. Some even saw their friends die from what can and should be a safe and simple procedure.
Trump and anti-choice lawmakers seem to think a return to this grim reality would constitute “protecting women.”
Even without attacks on Roe, accessing reproductive health care is already difficult -- especially for marginalized communities. Between rules like the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion, and the targeted restriction of clinics meant to increase logistical barriers to abortion access, essential reproductive care is already tenuously out of reach for many.
Conservatives are already putting people’s lives at risk with medically unnecessary laws that restrict abortion access. If they succeed in eliminating the federal and constitutional protections guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, people will get hurt.
Anyone trying to spin that as “protecting women’s health” is lying to you.
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Fox’s Tucker Carlson “thoroughly enjoyed” President-elect Donald Trump castigating CNN reporter Jim Acosta for being “rude” during a press conference, which is strange since Carlson previously held up one of his own reporters as God’s gift to journalism for interrupting a President Obama statement by shouting out a question.
Back in 2012, Neil Munro, then a reporter for The Daily Caller, made a fool of himself when he interrupted an Obama Rose Garden statement on immigration policy by shouting out questions about the administration "employ[ing] foreigners." Munro’s breach of decorum was widely criticized, and both the reporter and the Caller’s publisher issued statements saying that he had attempted to time his question to coincide with the conclusion of the president’s remarks. This was transparently false, but at least they recognized Munro had done something bad.
But for Carlson, then the website’s editor-in-chief, Munro hadn’t made a simple error -- instead, he was a journalistic hero. According to Carlson’s statement at the time:
I don't remember Diane Sawyer scolding her colleague Sam Donaldson for heckling President Reagan. And she shouldn't have. A reporter's job is to ask questions and get answers. Our job is to find out what the federal government is up to. Politicians often don't want to tell us. A good reporter gets the story. We're proud of Neil Munro.
Carlson’s comparison of Munro to Sam Donaldson and his claim that Munro “got the story” are bullshit. But the then-Caller editor had laid down a marker: Interruption in pursuit of reporting is no vice.
Flash forward to this week’s Trump press conference. After the president-elect lashed out at CNN in response to a journalist’s question, the network’s reporter Jim Acosta yelled out, “Since you are attacking us, can you give us a question?” In an extended back and forth, Trump slammed Acosta’s “terrible” news outlet and rejected his request, calling the network “fake news.”
Acosta’s interruptions, coming amid the scrum of an actual press conference, would seem like far less of a breach of decorum than Munro shouting out questions in the middle of President Obama’s speech. But for some reason, Carlson isn’t “proud” of the CNN reporter.
Instead, during an “Ask Me Anything” thread on the pro-Donald Trump subreddit “/r/The_Donald,” Carlson answered a question about what he thought of the Trump/Acosta exchange by writing, “Acosta was rude. Trump rose to it. I thoroughly enjoyed the exchange.”
“/r/The_Donald” has been described as an “authoritarian [subreddit] full of memes and in-jokes, far right talking points, coded racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia, and a hypocritical ‘free speech’ rallying point.” The forum is a hub of the “alt-right” movement, among which Carlson has cultivated a strong following.
In directly criticizing Acosta, Carlson went further on Reddit than he had on his own show. During an interview with Sean Spicer on Wednesday, Carlson remained silent as the future White House press secretary described Acosta as “rude, inappropriate, and disrespectful” and called on the CNN reporter to apologize.
Sam Donaldson’s legacy did not come up.
Newt Gingrich, a prominent supporter of President-elect Donald Trump and a Fox News contributor, would like to shatter the influence of an “adversarial” press. And he thinks Trump’s press conference confrontation with CNN reporter Jim Acosta has given the incoming administration the opportunity to dramatically reshape White House press interactions to favor journalists who will treat the president-elect more favorably.
During Trump’s January 11 presser, he lashed out at CNN and demanded the network apologize for a recent report on his alleged ties to Russia, and Acosta repeatedly called out, seeking to ask a question in response. Trump replied by calling CNN “terrible,” castigating Acosta for being “rude,” and declaring, “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news!” Sean Spicer, who will serve as Trump’s White House press secretary, subsequently told Acosta that he would be removed if he continued to press for a question, and Spicer later demanded that the reporter apologize to the president-elect.
Team Trump’s efforts seem intended to both damage the credibility of CNN and cow other networks into shying away from similarly critical journalism -- as Gingrich put it, to “shrink and isolate” the network. But the Fox News contributor wants the incoming administration to go even further and use the incident as an excuse to “close down the elite press.”
Gingrich laid out this strategy during an interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, one of the most pro-Trump venues available. He urged Spicer to learn “a couple of big lessons” from the incident. First and foremost, he suggested that Acosta be banned from reporting on Trump events for 60 days “as a signal, frankly, to all the other reporters that there are going to be real limits” for proper behavior.
But Gingrich’s recommendations went far beyond chastising Acosta. He urged Trump to stop prioritizing questions from major news outlets due to their tough coverage and confrontational attitude. Instead, he suggested that he “extend the privileges to reporters from out of town, folks that fly in from all over the country to be allowed to be at a briefing.” Those reporters, Gingrich suggested, would be “a lot more courteous” and “responsible” rather than being “adversarial.”
Gingrich went on to explain his theory of the press under the Trump administration. “You don't have to think of The New York Times or CNN or any of these people as news organizations,” he explained. “They're mostly propaganda organizations. And they're going to be after Trump every single day of his presidency.”
“And he needs to understand that that's the case, and so does Sean Spicer in speaking for him. And they simply need to go out there and understand they have it in their power to set the terms of this dialogue.” He added, “They can close down the elite press.”
Trump has already started to take steps like those Gingrich describes. During the 2016 campaign, he reportedly made a deal with the right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns television stations across the country, to provide more access to its stations in exchange for a promise from Sinclair to broadcast his interviews without commentary.
He took questions from sycophantic pro-Trump outlets Breitbart.com and One America News Network during this week’s press conference. Right Side Broadcasting Network, which has been described as “the unofficial version of Trump TV,” claims it will be in the White House press briefing room under the new president. Other right-wing outlets like Laura Ingraham’s LifeZette and Alex Jones’ conspiracy website Infowars could be next.
Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist who has covered Vladimir Putin’s annual press conferences, warned of the use of such tactics in a searing “message to my doomed colleagues in the American media” that he authored following Trump’s press conference.
“A mainstay of Putin’s press conferences is, of course, softball questions,” Kovalev wrote. These include both “hyperlocal issues that a president isn’t even supposed to be dealing with,” which nonetheless provide “a real opportunity for him to shine.” Putin also benefits from “people from publications that exist for no other reason than heaping fawning praise on him and attacking his enemies.”
“But there will also be one token critic who will be allowed to ask a ‘sharp’ question,” Kovalev added, “only to be drowned in a copious amount of bullshit, and the man on the stage will always be the winner (‘See? I respect the media and free speech’).”
Of course we are not there yet, but the precedent is unnerving. Gingrich wants nothing more than a cowed, broken press that exists solely to promote the Republican Party’s message. We’ll see soon enough how much of his advice Trump takes.
UPDATE: Gingrich is not alone in urging Trump to freeze out the press. Following Trump's election, Hannity stated that "until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people."
"In other words, the mainstream press should not be allowed to cover Trump," New York University's Jay Rosen wrote in response to Hannity's comments. "A few years ago that was a bridge too far. Now it’s a plausible test of poisoned waters." It looks like we'll see more of those tests in the days to come.
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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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
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.
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