The Washington Post reported this week that WJLA, ABC's Washington, D.C., affiliate, has taken a "subtle but noticeable turn to the right" since being taken over by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. This conservative tilt was on full display this week when the channel ran a news package promoting a baseless conspiracy theory about Benghazi from reporter Sharyl Attkisson.
The Washington Post piece highlighted the concerns of some staff members of local ABC affiliate WJLA, that following the finalization of the sale to Sinclair in August 2014, "some of the stories ordered by Sinclair on a 'must-run' basis don't meet the station's long tradition of non-partisan reporting." One factor in this shift to conservative partisan reporting was announced in July prior to the sale, when Sinclair hired discredited journalist Sharyl Attkisson as an "independent freelance reporter" to "focus on stories that follow the money and waste watch type of investigations."
However, prior to the September 17 opening hearing of the House Benghazi Special Committee, Attkisson ran a dubious report for Sinclair that appeared on WJLA highlighting the unverifiable claims of former State Department employee Raymond Maxwell alleging that some documents were intentionally withheld from the Accountability Review Board investigating the terrorist attacks in Benghazi:
The same day Attkisson's report ran on WJLA, Attkisson appeared on Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends where she reiterated the report's unsubstantiated accusations. Host Steve Doocy lamented that only a handful of outlets such as Fox and the Daily Signal -- the Heritage Foundation website to which Attkisson occasionally contributes -- were covering this latest so-called "Benghazi bombshell." Attkisson concluded the segment by mentioning that her report was also broadcast to "maybe 30 million local news viewers" through Sinclair's affiliate stations.
Although Sinclair's support of right-wing misinformation has been widely documented and criticized for many years, its increasing influence in local media bodes ill for objective journalism at stations like WJLA.
The textbooks that Texas adopts influence those that are chosen by districts across the U.S., which makes it all the more worrying that several textbooks under consideration by the state misrepresent what scientists know about climate change. The distortions in these textbooks mirror the misinformation that has been pushed in Texas media that has contributed to this dangerous ignorance.
A recent review by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) found that several textbooks under consideration by the Texas Board of Education, which includes numerous members who deny global warming, cast doubt on the basic fact that carbon pollution is driving climate change. National Journal explained that since "Texas is the second-largest market in the U.S. for textbooks after California," the textbooks chosen by the board could affect what publishers sell to states across the country.
Some of the misleading claims in these textbooks mirror the misinformation that has been pushed in the state's local media. For example, one textbook presents claims from the Heartland Institute, a climate "skeptic" organization that once compared those that "believe" in global warming to the Unabomber and in the 1990s denied the science demonstrating the dangers of secondhand smoke, as equally credible to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assembles hundreds of scientists to review thousands of peer-reviewed articles on climate change. Some Texas media have similarly treated the Heartland Institute as equally or even more credible than the world's top scientists. For example, a news reporter for the Houston talk radio station KTRH hyped a Heartland Institute report when it was released in April 2014 with the headline "New Report Debunks Climate Change," and in May 2014 turned to the group to rebut an actual scientific report on climate change that was reviewed by a National Academy of Sciences panel. An on-air host at KTRH has also called global warming a "scam."
Other news outlets in Texas have also misrepresented climate science. For example, an East Texas Fox affiliate, KFXK, aired a commentary on September 9 that falsely claimed Arctic sea ice has "expanded":
A group of right-wing news sites coordinated across the U.S. are baselessly pushing a conspiracy theory that the Environmental Protection Agency has been hiding new maps that reveal an "alarming" power grab. But the maps of U.S. waterways were simply updated from versions created during the Bush administration, and are helping the agency keep drinking water safe more efficiently.
Earlier this year, the EPA proposed clarifying which waterways are under the protection of the Clean Water Act, as companies have been able to pollute "beyond the law" due to legal confusion. Conservative media have been accusing the EPA of attempting "the biggest land grab ever" with this revision, even though the clarification will not add any new waterways compared to the EPA's historical authority -- in fact, it will cover fewer bodies of water than it did under President Ronald Reagan.
In line with this conservative media narrative, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) accused the EPA on August 26 of hiding maps that would allow them to advance the planned revision in order "to control a huge amount of private property across the country." Rep. Smith's claims are being uncritically touted by Watchdog.org, a conservative news website with state bureaus across the nation. Watchdog.org's Colorado bureau stated that the maps "graphically show the increase reach [sic] of the EPA's regulatory authority," including a map for Colorado they called "particularly alarming." Their North Dakota bureau published an article claiming that a landowner is already experiencing "the federal government attempting to regulate wetlands that aren't always wet." And an article from their Maryland bureau was boldly headlined: "Maps reveal EPA water grab in Maryland," going on to state that "the Maryland map plainly shows how much more authority the rule would give over bodies of water in the state of Maryland."
However, the maps, which were created during the Bush administration and recently revised to reflect new data, are not intended to show the scope of the EPA's jurisdiction, but will provide a scientific tool for the EPA to better understand which water bodies need protection. An EPA spokesperson explained to the Washington Examiner:
Let us be very clear -- these maps have nothing to do with EPA's proposed rule or any other regulatory purpose. They were first created during the Bush administration to identify waters that would be vulnerable as a result of a 2001 Supreme Court case and pending litigation. The maps were subsequently updated to reflect new data and a 2006 Supreme Court decision.
The agency added in a response on their website that the maps "do not show the scope of waters" to be regulated but "show generally the location" of water bodies and "serve as a tool for visualizing how water flows across our nation and in regions of this country," and will ultimately help to "reduce leg work, saving time and money." Furthermore, the width of the waterways was distorted on the maps for ease of use by water resource managers "mak[ing] it seem like water is more prevalent than it really is."
Jon Devine, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), stated on the NRDC's blog that "Only in the House of Representatives and the any-government-is-bad-government press could an expert agency having a map prepared from another expert agency's public data be a reason for hysteria."
Devine's statement was prescient. The Watchdog.org bureaus are a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which advocates "free markets" and "limited government," according to its president. The Franklin Center, which claims to provide 10 percent of daily reporting from state capitals and owns at least 55 news sites around the country, aims to "expose corruption and incompetence in government." Their funding comes almost completely from Donors Trust -- of which the Koch brothers are top contributors -- also known as the "Dark-Money ATM" of the right wing.
Devine stated in an email to Media Matters that the media's concern over the EPA's maps characterize the "bogus" rhetoric of calling the rule unprecedented:
People are using distorted maps to distort what the administration's Clean Water Protection Rule would do, but they can't escape one fact that shows how bogus all of the rhetoric is - if this proposal were finalized, fewer water bodies would be protected by the Clean Water Act than was the case during the Reagan administration. Because this proposal focuses on waters that science shows are important to people's health and well-being, it is critical that a strong rule be finalized as soon as possible.
A Media Matters analysis found that four major broadcast television stations in New York City gave disproportionate coverage to crime stories involving African-American suspects over the past three months. The stations' late-night news broadcasts on weeknights covered murder, theft, and assault cases in which African-Americans were suspects at a notably higher rate than the rate at which African-Americans have historically been arrested for those crimes in New York City.
While many national outlets are dismissing the indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as political payback, Texas journalists warn that such claims are misguided, incomplete, and the product of a "rush to judgment."
On August 15, news broke that Perry was being indicted for "abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant," both of which are felonies.
The charges relate to Perry's threatened and completed veto of $7.5 million in state funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
The case claims that the threat and veto were retaliation against Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat and the head of that unit, who ignored Perry's call for her to resign after she was convicted of drunk driving. At the time Lehmberg's unit was investigating corruption in a program Perry had heavily touted; if she had resigned, Perry would have appointed her replacement.
Following the announcement, a split has emerged among press covering the story. Much of the Lone Star State media has covered it as a valid legal proceeding and part of a greater picture of misconduct, while national media are treating Perry's indictment as mere politics.
The New York Times editorial board speculated that it "appears to be the product of an overzealous prosecution." Liberal New York magazine reporter Jonathan Chait labeled the indictment "unbelievably ridiculous." A USA Today editorial dubbed it a "flimsy indictment," while The Wall Street Journal called it "prosecutorial abuse for partisan purposes."
But Texas journalists say many on the national level don't know the facts and context and are too quick to judge from afar.
"The national pundits -- and some of them are very thoughtful people -- tend to focus first and most easily on the politics," said Wayne Slater, a columnist at the Dallas Morning News. "How does this particular event help or hurt that candidate in the potential horse race? Many reporters in Texas know Perry and are much more familiar with the details in this case, the fact that these are Republicans investigating this and that Perry has a history of hardball politics in forcing people out. This is a much more nuanced story than some in the Beltway understand."
Slater adds, "Rick Perry is getting good press because he has been masterful in the way he has framed this as a matter of partisan politics. Instinctively political journalists and reporters and outlets at some distance understand that Perry is winning the politics at the moment and that his narrative of events really comports with their general sense of how things work, that politicians threaten people and coerce people."
Forrest Wilder, who is covering the story for the Texas Observer, noted in a recent piece that the criminal complaint against Perry filed in June 2013 by Texans for Public Justice was assigned to a Republican judge who then appointed a former prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration as special prosecutor. In comments to Media Matters, Wilder said the charges were something "we should take seriously."
A recent study from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) claims that smog regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will cost the economy $270 billion. But the regulations, necessary to alleviate the unsafe smog pollution currently experienced by 140 million Americans, will likely achieve net benefits by reducing costs associated with medical expenses and premature deaths, while experts have said the NAM study uses "fraudulent" claims and is "not based in economic reality."
The Tampa Tribune has pulled a controversial column that alleged Disney is indoctrinating children with its "pro-gay agenda." The column, which was highlighted by Media Matters, had also drawn criticism from gay rights activists and Florida journalists.
On August 11, Douglas MacKinnon, who is listed on the since-pulled column as "Tribune staff," argued that Disney has been engaged in an underhanded effort to wrongly "indoctrinate" children. He also contended the company is trying to subtly push an agenda through its children's programming.
The piece, titled, "Disney's pro-gay agenda is disturbing," quoted an anonymous "former Disney executive" saying, "the company has taken direct aim at children to indoctrinate them about gay lifestyles and gay marriage through shows it airs on The Disney Channel and Disney XD."
MacKinnon later added:
The former executive said one of the more subtle techniques is to incorporate the colors of the gay-pride flag in as many shots as possible. The colors are woven in as a wink and nod to the gay community and show up on shirts, hats, posters, stacked cups and rings. The practice has been picked up by other children's networks and national advertisers. Disney also pushes the gay agenda by introducing openly gay characters and couples on its children's programing. Again, that is their right, but should they be in the business of entertaining children or indoctrinating them?
As of publication, Media Matters had received no response to requests for comment from the Tribune.* The column was removed midday today.
The newspaper posted several letters to the editor critical of the column, which termed it "boring" and "hate-filled." The Tribune's "letter of the day" on August 14 also focused on the column, stating it was "disturbing."
Prior to the column's removal from the Tribune website, several gay rights activists and journalists expressed concern to Media Matters about its stereotypical and offensive arguments. Among them, Nadine Smith, founder and CEO of Equality Florida and a former Tribune reporter.
"The first time I read it I thought it was satire," said Smith, who worked at the Tribune from 1989 to 1993. "It's absurd. He's so fixated on this bizarre, paranoid fantasy that he's actually missed the larger story. Businesses are speaking up and being very visible and speaking out quite publicly for equal rights."
A conservative columnist for the Tampa Tribune criticized the Walt Disney Co. for allegedly pushing a "pro-gay agenda," asserting that the company is using its programming to "indoctrinate" children about "gay lifestyles and gay marriage."
In his August 12 column, Douglas MacKinnon - a former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush - charged that Disney was peddling the "gay agenda" to "impressionable children" by exposing them to "openly gay characters and couples":
Beginning with the takeover of the company by Michael Eisner in 1984 and continuing under the leadership of Robert Iger since 2005, it can be argued that Disney has been working overtime to redefine "family values."
Back in the late 1990s when I worked with former Sen. Bob Dole, I had the pleasure to interact with Iger. He was professional, respectful and could not have been more kind or considerate. Since taking over, he has only made the company more profitable. But beyond his fiscal responsibility to shareholders, does Iger have an even greater responsibility to impressionable children?
Disney has made no secret that it pushes a pro-gay agenda. That is most certainly its right. But where does the company draw the line? A former Disney executive I spoke with told me the company has taken direct aim at children to indoctrinate them about gay lifestyles and gay marriage through shows it airs on The Disney Channel and Disney XD.
The former executive said one of the more subtle techniques is to incorporate the colors of the gay-pride flag in as many shots as possible. The colors are woven in as a wink and nod to the gay community and show up on shirts, hats, posters, stacked cups and rings. The practice has been picked up by other children's networks and national advertisers.
Disney also pushes the gay agenda by introducing openly gay characters and couples on its children's programing. Again, that is their right, but should they be in the business of entertaining children or indoctrinating them? [emphasis added]
MacKinnon never explains what harm might be caused by featuring gay-inclusive programming - suggesting that he sees an inherent harm in simply letting children know that gay people exist and have families.
MacKinnon's attack on Disney's alleged "pro-gay agenda is just the latest in the columnist's history of rabid right-wing rhetoric.
A recent national report from the Government Accountability Office found that a higher regulatory standard is needed to ensure that drinking water sources are protected from fracking wastewater practices. But the largest circulating newspapers of the states with the highest levels of fracking production -- therefore among the most vulnerable to its risks -- have ignored this study.
The New Hampshire Union Leader rejected the factually accurate claim that the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision would result in gender discrimination while pushing the myth that the forms of contraception discussed in the case were actually abortion-inducing drugs.
As Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) faces a repeal effort at the ballot box, Houston media outlets need to do a better job of correcting right-wing misinformation about the ordinance, holding its opponents accountable, and ensuring that LGBT advocates are no longer pushed to the sidelines of the debate.
HERO is likely headed to the November ballot after a coalition fighting to repeal the measure announced that it had collected 50,000 signatures to place HERO up for a repeal vote.
On May 28, the Houston City Council voted 11 to six to approve HERO, which prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. A coalition dubbing itself "No Unequal Rights" immediately launched a repeal drive, and the campaign's July 3 announcement that it had collected nearly three times the required signatures sets the stage for a divisive four-month slog. The repeal fight is likely to be especially damaging for Houston's LGBT community; scholars note that public referenda on LGBT rights can easily become dominated by misinformation campaigns.
In the coming months, Houston media outlets have the opportunity to correct their frequently problematic and misleading coverage of HERO . Here's how:
HERO opponents have focused particularly on the measure's protections for transgender people, asserting that affording transgender individuals equal access to gender-appropriate facilities will make it easier for sexual predators to assault women and children. But the transgender bathroom myth is completely baseless. Independent experts in states and cities that have already adopted transgender protections report no problems stemming from the laws, with one sexual assault victims' advocate calling the myth "beyond specious."
Still, in the month after HERO passed, local media outlets in Houston gave significant play to the transgender bathroom myth.
The coalition leading the repeal crusade might be called "No Unequal Rights" - ostensibly because the ordinance grants "special rights" to the LGBT community. But the ordinance establishes the same non-discrimination protections that already exist in several Texas cities.
Outlets should note that HERO isn't just an LGBT ordinance. It bans discrimination based not only on sexual orientation or gender identity, but also sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information, or pregnancy.
Fox News claimed that a move to protect an endangered jumping mouse from ranchers who graze cattle on public lands is "going to run [them] out of business" for a mouse they "can't even find," but the mouse is a critical part of the food chain that can be protected if ranchers simply don't let their cattle trample on its habitat.
In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finalized protection for the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, which is at risk of extinction chiefly due to excessive cattle grazing. On July 7, Fox News' Fox and Friends hosted rancher Mike Lucero to lash out against the potential that fences will be erected to further protect the local streams that form the mouse's habitat from his cattle. Co-host Steve Doocy suggested that because Lucero has not seen the jumping mouse, it may not even exist anymore, calling it "crazy" that "they're doing all this to protect a mouse that might not even be there":
The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse is generally nocturnal and hibernates for about nine months a year. It's also "precariously" endangered with only 29 "small" surviving populations, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. So it's not that surprising that Lucero has not seen one of these mice, which are critical because their extinction could disrupt the entire food chain. Jay Lininger of the Center for Biological Diversity explained in a Tech Times article: "They're a highly sought-after food source for a variety of snakes, foxes, and birds like redtail hawks. The entire food chain suffers if the jumping mouse blinks out." The jumping mouse is a "bellwether species" for the Southwestern stream habitats critical to their survival, according to Brian Byrd of WildEarth Guardians. The mouse's stream habitat, critical to preserve clean water in the region, has been degraded primarily due to damaging livestock practices.
While Lucero claimed that protection of the mice's stream habitats will force him "out of business," ranchers can simply pipe water from the river to their cattle rather than letting them go to the river in order to more responsibly graze, according to Lininger. Details such as this have been left out of local media coverage, including an article by New Mexico's largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, titled "Endangered mouse may cost NM ranchers their livelihood" and from the right-wing Franklin Center's New Mexico Watchdog.org.
A Tampa Tribune editorial celebrating the Supreme Court's decision to allow companies to discriminate against certain types of birth control in their insurance plans furthered the flawed concept that the government was forcing companies to provide "life-ending morning-after pills." In fact, the scientific community has found that the disputed forms of contraception are not abortifacients.
Conservative media are calling the Environmental Protection Agency's clarification of the Clean Water Act an "unprecedented land grab" that will regulate "nearly every drop of water." However, the proposed revision, which will help protect the drinking water of 117 million Americans, will not add any new categories of waters but will clarify that upstream sources will be protected from pollution.
Houston media outlets helped spread misinformation about the city's newly enacted non-discrimination ordinance, parroting the talking points of anti-LGBT groups working to repeal the measure.
On May 28, the Houston City Council voted 11 to six to approve the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibits discrimination based on categories including race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Opponents of the ordinance, led by the Houston Area Pastors Council, immediately announced a repeal drive and have spent the month of June attempting to collect the 17,000 valid signatures needed to put the measure up for a vote in November.
Anti-LGBT activists, like Texas Values' Jonathan Saenz and Fox News' Mike Huckabee, focused particularly on the measure's protections for transgender people, asserting that the protections will make it easier for sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms. That myth has been extensively debunked by independent experts in states and cities that have already adopted similar protections.
But the transgender bathroom myth played a prominent role in local media coverage of the ordinance. During the month that HERO opponents collected signatures for a repeal effort, Houston news outlets repeatedly cited the myth without attempting to debunk it according to an Equality Matters analysis:
What's especially disconcerting is how local reporters themselves often appeared to buy in to the transgender bathroom smear. A June 26 report from Fox affiliate KRIV's Andrea Watkins illustrated this kind of problematic coverage: