Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • Congressional Credentialing Committee Deals Breitbart A Devastating Rebuke

    Website’s Bid For Congressional Credentials Was Just Rejected -- And Reporters Will Lose Their Temporary Passes

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The credentialing committee for congressional reporters has denied Breitbart.com’s bid for permanent press credentials and declined to extend its temporary passes, a dramatic rebuke for the website, which has sought in recent months to burnish its reputation as an independent, legitimate news source.

    Since late last year, Breitbart has been seeking permanent credentials from the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery, which would have allowed it to join the White House Correspondents’ Association and participate in the White House press pool. Obtaining the credentials would have represented a substantial step forward for a website that has recently sought to downplay its role as a platform for the white nationalist and misogynist “alt-right” movement.

    But Breitbart has been stymied by the Senate Press Gallery’s requirement that news outlets be editorially independent of other organizations; the committee turned down their bid last month, seeking more information. Breitbart is actually part of a web of self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and corruption, as Media Matters has documented, with top editors using the site to promote nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and personal clients who in turn pay them hefty salaries.

    Breitbart is inextricably linked to its former executive chairman, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon; the major right-wing donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who are part owners of the website; and the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a nonprofit funded by the Mercers and previously run by Bannon, which employed several top Breitbart staffers. For these reasons among others, Media Matters called on the standing committee to deny Breitbart’s application.

    At a hearing this morning, the committee again rejected Breitbart’s bid, and said they would not extend their temporary passes, which expire May 31:

    The committee expressed concern that Breitbart had repeatedly offered inconsistent information about its operations, specifically about the end dates of employment for Bannon and Wynton Hall, the Breitbart managing editor who had simultaneously served as GAI's communications specialist. According to Breitbart CEO Larry Solov, Hall resigned in February, but he was listed in a masthead Solov provided to the committee in late March. As Media Matters reported last week, Hall created a mammoth conflict of interest by frequently using his position at the website to promote his private and nonprofit communications clients.  

    UPDATE: CNN's Oliver Darcy reports that according to a source, Hall is still "very involved" at Breitbart and plays a role in assigning stories. 

  • Fox’s New Evening Lineup Is O’Reillyism Without O’Reilly

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Bill O’Reilly, the king of cable news, has fallen. He was a victim of his own monstrosity. The network that had willingly written large checks on his behalf to make the women he had sexually harassed go away withdrew its support after the payments were revealed and his show’s advertisers ran for cover.

    The O’Reilly Factor was the linchpin in an evening lineup that was once the most stable in the industry. But in less than a year, O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, and Megyn Kelly have all left or been shown the door, along with the man who hired them, former Fox chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. The only remaining host from the 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time block the network was rolling out a year ago is Sean Hannity.

    Removing O’Reilly gave the network’s top executives the opportunity to dramatically reshape their network’s programming. But the new evening lineup, which debuts tonight, presents as much of the status quo as possible -- O’Reillyism without O’Reilly. The result will test whether hosts actually matter at Fox, or whether the network’s audience will sit for any pro-Trump conservative put in front of them.

    Since Fox’s inception in 1996, O’Reilly has been the anchor of the network’s ratings and the keystone of its “fair and balanced” mantra with his so-called “No Spin Zone.” After an undistinguished career as a broadcast newsman, O’Reilly used his position at the newly launched Fox to reimagine himself (falsely) as a son of working-class Levittown, Long Island, who was looking out for “the folks.” His show became the platform for his “culture warrior” mentality, presenting the average American as under constant attack by never-ending waves of elitist secular progressives who hate Christianity and traditional American values and want to reshape the country in the image of Western Europe.

    O’Reilly became the incandescent exemplar of white male rage at the rising tide of diversity, feminism, and modernity. And the ratings -- and money -- rolled in, with his success breeding imitators.

    Fox’s executives were not ready to lose O’Reilly -- earlier this year, they signed him to a new deal through 2020 with a raise to an annual salary of $25 million, in full knowledge that The New York Times was investigating the network’s sexual harassment payouts. They were betting that his high ratings, which spill over to the benefit of the rest of the evening’s programming, would be difficult to retain with only the other personnel they had under contract.

    Tucker Carlson, Jesse Watters, and Eric Bolling, the three hosts who will benefit the most from the shakeup, built their careers at Fox by imitating the same “culture war” racism and misogyny O’Reilly helped weave into the network’s DNA. Like O’Reilly, each has gained attention during the presidential campaign and the early days of Donald Trump’s administration as stalwart supporters of the president.

    Where each rising Fox star's O’Reilly imitations fall short, however, is in their ability and skill in grounding their commentary as coming from a working-class “man of the people.”

    Carlson, who spent virtually his entire life living among the elite, is the son of a U.S. ambassador and former head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the stepson of a scion of the Swanson frozen foods empire. He has hosted shows at two other networks and remains known for the bow-tied prepster image he cultivated at CNN.

    While Bolling grew up without Carlson’s privileged background, he evinces an on-air contempt for the working class rooted in his previous career as a commodities trader on the New York Mercantile Exchange, where he eventually became a member of its board of directors. And Watters, who spent his career as an O’Reilly minion, conducting ambush interviews of the leading Fox host’s various perceived enemies, bills himself as a “political humorist,” not a commentator.

    None of the three has O’Reilly’s on-air presence or skill. But Fox’s hope is that aping O’Reilly is enough to keep his audience on board.

    Fox’s promotion of three white, male, grievance-mongering Trump sycophants is no accident. The network had other options available. Executives could have given a show to Dana Perino, a more substantive conservative who has been much more skeptical of Trump. They could have tried to pivot to airing more hard news by promoting one of the reporters who contribute to the flagship news program Special Report.

    They could have even tried to bring someone in from outside the network, though admittedly it’s hard to imagine that journalists are banging down the doors to join a network mired in a year-long series of sexual harassment reports.

    No, instead, Fox doubled down on pro-Trump racism, sexism, and xenophobia because that is what the network wants to put on its airwaves. Its executives are priming the resentment pump because they think O’Reillyism will keep their audience coming back for more.

    Without O’Reilly, we will now be able to see whether Fox’s audience is stable and willing to keep watching no matter who hosts the network’s programs, or whether O’Reilly’s talent was the key factor in retaining his viewers.

    If the network’s ratings stay the same, -- or even improve -- it should be cold comfort for Fox’s executives. They kept O’Reilly around, even though they knew about the many reports that he was sexually harassing his colleagues, because they thought he was essential for the network’s ratings. If that turns out not to be the case, they enabled a predator for no reason at all.

  • Breitbart’s Managing Editor Used The Site To Promote His PR Clients

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com managing editor Wynton Hall has frequently used the website to promote a nonprofit that employs him as a communications strategist, as well as at least one client for a separate communications firm he runs.

    Hall, a conservative writer and activist, began writing for Breitbart in 2011. He became the right-wing website’s managing editor in 2013 as part of an effort to help ensure “a 24/7 editorial team focused on the site.” He is second only to Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow, according to a masthead provided last month to the congressional credentialing committee.

    But while Hall’s title suggests that he plays a key role at Breitbart, that is not his only job. He also serves as the communications strategist for the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a conservative advocacy organization.

    Breitbart and GAI are inextricably linked: Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer serves as the nonprofit’s president, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon led both organizations from 2012 to 2016, and GAI’s main funders, hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, are partial owners of the website.

    Members of the Senate Press Gallery's Standing Committee of Correspondents have questioned whether Breitbart is editorially independent given these overlaps. The committee is currently reviewing Breitbart’s bid for permanent congressional credentials, but has to this point denied its application.

    At GAI, where Hall received a six-figure salary and worked 40 hours a week from 2012 to 2015, according to the group’s publicly available IRS filings. He is responsible for engineering public relations strategies that ensure that the organization’s dry research achieves maximum impact.

    Hall has capitalized on his role at Breitbart to boost GAI’s efforts. Hall wrote 151 Breitbart posts that promoted GAI or Schweizer, according to a Media Matters review of all 1,382 posts Hall authored between 2011 and 2015.

    In addition to his work at GAI, Hall also has private communications clients. He owns his own self-named celebrity ghostwriting and branding agency; he claims its client list features major figures in politics, business, sports, and the arts, presumably creating a wealth of conflicts of interest with his work at Breitbart. Hall is also senior strategist at Oval Office Writers, the communications agency that Schweizer co-owns.

    Hall has used his Breitbart platform to promote at least one of his clients: The website published several stories on one of the books he ghostwrote without mentioning his financial ties to the book. Because neither Hall or Oval Office Writers publishes a client list, it is impossible to tell how frequently this occurs.

    It’s unclear how Hall could work full time at a nonprofit while also serving in a senior editorial role at Breitbart, running a third business, and working for a fourth. Critics say this apparent inconsistency “raises serious questions of private inurement and excessive compensation.”

    Indeed, Hall’s malfeasance is only a small part of a massive web of self-dealing and interconnected conflicts of interest linking Mercer, Bannon, GAI, Breitbart, and for-profit companies.

    Hall Uses Breitbart To Weaponize Research For The Conservative Advocacy Organization That Employs Him

    Hall’s work at GAI is both lucrative and extensive; according to the group’s IRS filings, Hall worked 40 hours a week at GAI from 2012 to 2015 and received a total of $600,000.

    At GAI, Hall is the “creative mind through which all its research flows and is disseminated,” with a mandate to “transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas that can be unleashed on a set schedule, like summer blockbusters,” according to an October 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Bannon.

    His strategy, as he described it in an interview with the magazine, is to “anchor left” by placing the stories with reporters at mainstream publications, then “pivot right” by turning those stories into narratives at conservative outlets. “We don’t look at the mainstream media as enemies because we don’t want our work to be trapped in the conservative ecosystem,” Hall says.

    Trying to get reports written up by major news outlets is a typical communications strategy for a nonprofit. What’s unusual is that Hall, Bannon, and Schweizer have been able to implement the plans Hall designs in his role with GAI through their leadership positions at Breitbart. Hall typically plays a key role in producing content at Breitbart that promotes GAI’s research.

    In August 2012, Schweizer’s book Throw Them All Out, which alleges widespread financial corruption by members of Congress, hit the stands. Hall, who has worked with Schweizer since at least 2007, when they co-authored a book as fellows at the Hoover Institution, joined Breitbart to promote the work.

    In fact, Hall’s first 17 pieces at Breitbart, and 22 of his first 24, authored over the span of six weeks in late 2011, all promoted Schweizer’s book, a 60 Minutes segment on the book that “anchored” it in the traditional media, and the legislative fight its publication spurred, according to a Media Matters review.

    Hall’s posts were clearly geared toward building support and readership for the book on the right. His work included a series of press-release-style summaries of the book’s “bombshell revelation[s],” sometimes branded as “EXCLUSIVE”; criticism of media’s failure to report on the book’s claims; and reports on politicians and media outlets that praised the book or pushed for legislation in response to it. The constant stream of posts helped maintain a drumbeat on the right around its publication.

    Hall has continued to promote GAI’s work in his writing for Breitbart. He authored 1,382 posts between November 2011 and July 2015, at times writing three a day; a whopping 151 of them referenced Schweizer or a GAI product. In addition to 51 posts mentioning Throw Them All Out, Hall wrote 18 posts on Schweizer’s 2013 book, Extortion; 10 or more pieces on GAI’s reports on presidential daily briefs, food stamps, and presidential meetings; and multiple articles on GAI’s work on campaign finance violations, Justice Department decisions, and the growth of wealth in Washington, D.C.

    Here is a sampling of headlines from Hall’s pieces about Schweizer and GAI:

    Hall’s promotion of GAI reports typically followed the same pattern: a blitz of press-release-type pieces before or immediately after the report’s release, highlighting its premise, exclusive tidbits, and any “anchoring” press; write-ups of Schweizer appearances on TV or radio shows talking about the work; and a long tail of follow-up posts that use news hooks to reiterate the premises of the GAI report and remind the audience about it.

    After Hall became managing editor and gained additional responsibilities at Breitbart, other Breitbart writers who were not employed by GAI joined in his effort to promote the nonprofit’s work. In 2015, Schweizer authored Clinton Cash, a trainwreck of sloppy research alleging corruption by Bill and Hillary Clinton that received widespread media attention for its claims even though it contains numerous falsehoods and fabrications. Breitbart played a key role by pushing the book’s claims in more than 400 posts, none of which were authored by Hall.

    Hall Works At Private Communications Firms -- And There’s No Way To Know Who His Clients Are

    When Martin Greenfield, a Holocaust survivor who had tailored men’s clothing for more than 60 years out of a factory in Brooklyn, was looking for someone to help him tell his story, he turned to Hall. The result was Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor To Presidents’ Tailor, a memoir released November 10, 2014, with both of their names emblazoned on its cover.

    “Thank you, Wynton, for helping me gather my scattered thoughts and keeping me focused. This book could not have been assembled without your laser vision and talent,” Greenfield writes in the book’s acknowledgments. “He became me,” reads Greenfield’s testimonial on the website of Wynton Hall & Co., the celebrity ghostwriting firm that Hall has owned and operated since 2008.

    Hall’s client list consists of politicians, business leaders, and top figures in sports and the arts, according to his firm’s website. In addition to writing memoirs, Hall and his team of two offer comprehensive brand management, speechwriting, and media training services.

    But when Greenfield hired Hall, he didn’t just get someone who could help him organize his thoughts, or even just a talented ghostwriter who could also help him promote the book. Whether he knew it or not, Greenfield was also getting the full support of Hall’s other employer, Breitbart.

    The conservative website published at least six stories on the book in the three days following its publication, running two of them on the top of its front page for a total of 18 hours. The front page posting claimed that "Martin Greenfield has been hailed 'America’s greatest living tailor' and the 'most interesting man in the world.'"

    Five of the stories were published without bylines, including two excerpts from the book, aggregated stories from other outlets about it, and a post featuring audio of Mark Levin reading from the book during his radio show in what the piece claims was a “rhapsodic radio performance ... that was at times operatic in its tone.”

    The sixth, bylined by Hall, purports to be a written Q&A with Greenfield -- described as “America’s greatest living suit maker” and a “legend.” Hall's hard-hitting questions included, "Why did you write Measure of a Man?" and "Talk about some of the other men you’ve made suits for."

    Several of the pieces include Amazon links to Measure of a Man. None includes a disclosure that Breitbart’s managing editor had helped write the book -- even the post authored by Hall. In fact, every piece lists only Greenfield as the memoir’s author, even though Hall’s name appears on its cover. This practice has continued in the months and years since the book’s publication

    None of Breitbart’s competitors in the conservative media have provided anything close to that level of coverage of Greenfield’s book. Then again, none of them employ Greenfield’s co-author.

    It’s unclear how often Hall has used his top editorial position at Breitbart to promote his clients. The firm’s website provides testimonials from some of the subjects of “Wynton Hall’s books,” but it does not provide a comprehensive list. And Hall’s brand management clients are completely opaque -- he appears to offer an exclusive list of 12 clients services that include biweekly marketing strategy calls, speechwriting, talking points for media appearances, and ghostwritten books and articles.

    In addition to his personal communications firm, Hall is also a senior strategist at Oval Office Writers, the four-man group that was co-founded by Schweizer and former Bush White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Oval Office Writers does not list any of its clients, but its website’s list of services suggests that they are corporate leaders and politicians.

    Images by Sarah Wasko, Shelby Jamerson contributed research.

  • Smoking Gun: Breitbart Publicity Campaign Backed Obscure Bannon-Mercer Film

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com published nearly two dozen articles last year promoting a virtually unwatched documentary whose production company is owned by the website’s partial owners Robert and Rebekah Mercer and its then-executive chairman, Stephen Bannon.

    The website’s advocacy of the film is a case study in how Bannon and the Mercers use Breitbart to promote a web of nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies. The credentialing body for congressional reporters is currently investigating these ties as part of a review of whether the conservative website is sufficiently editorially independent to obtain official press credentials to cover Congress.

    Torchbearer is a Phil Robertson (of “Duck Dynasty” fame) vehicle whose thesis is that “God is the only meaningful anchor to a civilized society” and that purported efforts by progressives to cut God out of public life are destroying Western civilization. It received a limited October 7 release in 31 U.S. theaters.

    Stephen Bannon, the Breitbart chief and conservative filmmaker who took over Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last summer and is now a top White House advisor, wrote, directed, and produced the documentary.

    One of the film’s production companies was Glittering Steel LLC, which was founded and is owned by Bannon, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and his daughter Rebekah.

    Bannon says he left Glittering Steel and Breitbart when he moved to the Trump campaign, but there’s reason to doubt that this is true, as Breitbart’s CEO has contradicted his claim, and Bannon retains an ownership stake in Glittering Steel worth between $100,001 and $250,000 (which he currently intends to sell), according to federal filings.

    The Mercers are also partial owners of Breitbart, and Rebekah Mercer reportedly “often points out areas of coverage [to the website’s editors] that she thinks require more attention.”

    Torchbearer attracted little attention from the public and was ignored by film critics. Robertson is a conservative media darling, but apart from a few scattered articles, the movie failed to make a big splash with Breitbart’s right-wing media competitors. After its brief turn in theaters, it moved to streaming services, where it was promptly forgotten (the film has 154 reviews on Amazon Video, for example, roughly one tenth as many as right-wing productions like Joel Gilbert’s Dreams From My REAL Father and Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party).

    But at Breitbart, where the site’s leaders had a financial stake in the film’s success, promoting it was a priority worthy of mentioning in at least 22 stories.

    In the months leading up to its debut, Breitbart highlighted the film’s trailer, its screening at the Republican National Convention and at the Cannes Film Festival, and news of its theatrical release. Robertson plugged the film in numerous interviews on Breitbart’s Sirius XM radio show that were then promoted on the website, sitting down with host Bannon -- or “Mr. Director,” as Robertson called him -- to discuss the “overwhelming feeling” of making the documentary and his support for Trump.

    Breitbart’s promotion of the film culminated with a pair of glowing reviews published shortly before the theatrical release.

    According to Breitbart’s Thomas D. Williams, the documentary was “groundbreaking” and “visually riveting,” with its Duck Dynasty star serving as “an unapologetic witness to the Christian faith as the cornerstone of Western Civilization” with such skill that “even his critics will be forced to reckon with a man whose simple, rough-hewn appearance masks a subtle intellect and a keen grasp of perennial truths.”

    For Ken Klukowski, the website’s senior legal editor, the “epic” film was “a clarion call for Christians” that “gives the viewer a whirlwind tour of world history with a focus on the Christian experience from apostolic times to the present, showcasing the pattern of how godless humanity descends into depravity, in stark contrast to the sublime virtues with which God’s people adorn their lives in the face of adversity—all narrated in the iconic voice of the Duck Commander.”

    Breitbart’s outlier coverage was not a typical editorial judgment, but rather the result of a conflict of interest in which figures with heavy influence over the website also stood to reap financial benefits from the film’s success through their ownership of Glittering Steel.

    And it’s not the only time Breitbart has been called upon to promote a Glittering Steel production. The company also produced the documentary Clinton Cash, based on a book authored by Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer and a screenplay by Bannon (Schweizer, Bannon, and Rebekah Mercer all received executive producer or producer credits).

    Breitbart writers authored at least 103 stories referencing the film, according to a Media Matters review of the website’s “Clinton Cash” tag. This includes articles alerting their audience to broadcasts of the documentary by the website and on the conservative One America News Network; endorsements of the film by conservatives like Fred Barnes, John Stossel, and Matt Drudge; and pieces hyping how many times the film had been viewed online.

    This web of financial interests playing out in the website’s editorial decisions should concern the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery, the credentialing committee reviewing Breitbart’s bid for permanent congressional access.

    The body has to this point denied the website permanent credentials because it has failed to prove that it is fully independent of Bannon, the Mercers, and a nonprofit group that employs several top Breitbart editors.

    The committee is seeking more information from the website and will next convene on April 25.

    Glittering Steel has also drawn attention from campaign finance watchdogs that say it may have been used to subsidize Bannon’s salary on the Trump campaign. The payments in question originate with Make America Number 1, a super PAC led by Rebekah Mercer and heavily funded by her father.

    Images by Sarah Wasko, Shelby Jamerson contributed research.

  • Breitbart Is Not Independent, It's The Communications Arm Of The Mercers' Empire

    Top Editors Use Their Roles At Breitbart To Flack For Other Mercer Ventures They Also Work For

    ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Media Matters investigates the web of self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and corruption surrounding Breitbart.com. Its top editors have used the site to promote nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and personal clients who in turn pay them hefty salaries.​

  • Fox News Rewards O’Reilly Minion Jesse Watters With Prime-Time Slot On The Five

    ››› ››› MATT GERTZ, ZACHARY PLEAT & CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    Fox News is rewarding Jesse Watters with a prime-time slot on the panel show The Five as part of the shakeup caused by Bill O’Reilly’s ouster. Watters, a former O’Reilly producer and longtime protégé, was widely condemned last year for a racist segment set in New York City’s Chinatown. His ambush interviews have disparaged immigrants, women, African-Americans, the homeless, and members of the LGBTQ community, and he earned notoriety for an incident in which he “followed, harassed, and ambushed” a female journalist on camera.

  • The FCC’s Big Giveaway To Pro-Trump Television Broadcasting Groups

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    UPDATE: The FCC has voted to reinstate the "UHF discount," which will "clear the way for Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc. to purchase Tribune Media Co.," according to the Los Angeles Times

    ORIGINAL POST:

    The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote tomorrow to ease a media ownership rule that prevents greater consolidation of broadcast television stations. Two of the biggest expected beneficiaries of that decision will be Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Television Stations and the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, both key media allies of President Donald Trump.

    To prevent the consolidation of too much power in too few hands, current rules prohibit “a single entity from owning commercial broadcast television stations that collectively reach more than 39 percent of the total television households in the nation.”

    For more than 30 years, the FCC allowed station owners to count only 50 percent of the potential viewers in the markets where they owned stations that broadcast ultrahigh frequency (UHF) transmissions, rather than their entire potential audience. This “UHF discount” was granted because such transmissions had a more limited range at the time, but the transition to digital transmission eliminated this discrepancy, and in September 2016, the Obama-era FCC repealed that rule.

    But the FCC has new leadership under President Donald Trump -- the president promoted to chairman FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a fierce opponent of media regulations who opposed eliminating the “UHF discount" -- and today the commission will reportedly act to benefit the media moguls who supported Trump’s election. According to Variety:

    That action, along with the prospect of deregulatory moves by the Republican-controlled FCC, have Wall Street analysts expecting consolidation among major station groups. Sinclair Broadcasting is reportedly eyeing Tribune Media, and other stations groups, like Nexstar, CBS Corp. and Fox Television Stations, seem to have found a sympathetic ear at the agency to their argument that the current regulations diminish investment.

    After Murdoch’s television and newspaper properties gave Trump overwhelmingly positive coverage during the presidential campaign, Trump reportedly asked Murdoch to submit a list of potential FCC chairman nominees during the transition. Murdoch’s media entities have been the president’s biggest cheerleaders over the first months of his administration, and garnered praise and access from Trump in return. Now that cheerleading is getting paid back with dollar signs.

    Through 21st Century Fox, Murdoch currently owns 28 television stations in 17 markets, including in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Orlando and Charlotte. His stations reach roughly 37 percent of U.S. television households, just under the FCC’s cap.

    The reinstatement of the “UHF discount” -- which 21st Century Fox has fought for in court -- will give the company more flexibility to purchase additional stations, increasing Murdoch’s grip on the media landscape. That will have a real impact for viewers, as Fox’s broadcast stations often adopt the same conservative talking points and story selection as Fox News.

    Sinclair Broadcasting Group would also benefit from the rule change. Sinclair has drawn scrutiny in the past for its conservative bent, and the company reportedly made a deal with Trump’s campaign in which its journalists received access to Trump in exchange for broadcasting interviews with him without commentary. Earlier this week, Sinclair announced it had hired former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn as its “chief political analyst.”

    As Variety noted, Sinclair is interested in purchasing television stations owned by Tribune Media. But such a deal would “would hinge on existing regulations being relaxed” because Sinclair is near the FCC ownership cap, according to Reuters.

    Trump’s FCC is acting to put the control of the media in the hands of ever-fewer corporate giants. And Pai is just getting started.

    Image by Sarah Wasko.

  • Trump Just Attacked Syria. Here Are The Pundits Who Said He Was A Dove.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    One week before the 2016 presidential election, Chris Matthews posed a question on his MSNBC program. Why, Matthews asked, was Donald Trump’s campaign so feckless? Why wasn’t he on the stump every day asking voters questions like, “Do you like this string of stupid wars from Iraq to Libya to Syria?” Such a strategy, Matthews suggested, would provide the country with a clear choice: If “you want to keep all this the way it is, vote for Hillary Clinton,” but voting for Trump would “shake the system to its roots.”

    Last night, Trump’s administration launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for the Syrian military’s reported murder of its citizens with chemical weapons. The strikes further enmesh the nation in a civil war with no easy solutions.

    By itself, the attack is the sort of “pinprick” that Republicans would likely scorn if it had been ordered by a Democratic president, threatening neither the survival of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime nor his ability to use such weapons in the future. If, as seems likely, this fails to change Assad’s behavior, it could lead to an unpredictable, escalating series of military actions against a close Russian strategic ally. There's little indication that the White House has considered the potential cost of that fight or who would lead Syria if Assad falls.

    It seems like Trump is leading us into what Matthews might call a “stupid war.” And that comes after escalations in U.S. uses of military force in Iraq and Yemen, both at the cost of civilian loss of life.

    To be clear, the argument that Trump was some sort of non-interventionist dove -- a dead letter since his ascendency to the presidency, especially in light of last night’s attack -- made no sense at the time.

    Trump supported U.S. military attacks on Iraq and Libya before he told the world he was against them. During the campaign, he said that we “have no choice” but to deploy tens of thousands of ground troops into Syria “to knock out ISIS,” backed military action against Iran, and refused to take using nuclear weapons in the Middle East and Europe off the table.

    Beyond the garden-variety, off-the-cuff calls for military force, Trump has explicitly supported using the armed forces for war crimes. For years, he has said that we should “take” Iraq’s oil as a way to “pay ourselves back” for the invasion. He promised to kill the families of terrorists in order to defeat ISIS. He said that he would bring back banned interrogation techniques because “torture works,” and “only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work,” and terrorists “deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”

    But somehow, as Trump and Clinton clinched their party’s nominations and the general election campaign began last spring, the political media’s savviest pundits were determined to cast the Republican as the race’s national security dove. By cherry-picking comments in which Trump presented himself as a foe of nation-building, misreading his attacks on bedrock U.S. foreign alliances as evidence of a coherent ideological framework, and ignoring his grotesque sabre-rattling and threats of violence, these journalists created a narrative that wandered far from reality.

    Trump has not “demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has,” New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler reported on April 21. He “wants the United States to spend less to underwrite NATO and has talked about withdrawing the American security umbrella from Asia, even if that means Japan and South Korea would acquire nuclear weapons to defend themselves.” Thus, Landler concluded, the election could “present voters with an unfamiliar choice: a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.”

    Over the next month, two of Landler’s colleagues expressed similar sentiments. Columnist Maureen Dowd declared that “On some foreign policy issues, the roles are reversed for the candidates and their parties. It’s Hillary the Hawk against Donald the Quasi-Dove.” According to Dowd, “Trump seems less macho than Hillary,” given that he “thought the invasion of Iraq was a stupid idea” (that isn’t true).

    And Times senior editor of politics Carolyn Ryan struck a similar tone during an appearance on MSNBC, suggesting that Trump's foreign policy positions will "redraw the typical ideological lines."

    With the Times taking the lead, the accolades for Trump’s purported dovishness piled up over the following months. Trump’s “Republican isolationism” would “ground the drones.”  (Since taking office, Trump has actually sought to “make it easier for the CIA and the military to target terrorists with drone strikes, even if it means tolerating more civilian casualties.”) He could “be the military-industrial complex’s worst nightmare.” (He’s currently seeking a $54 billion increase in spending for the Defense Department.)

    “On more than one issue, GOP's Trump sounds like a Democrat,” the Associated Press reported May 15. On national defense, “the billionaire businessman could even find himself running to the left of Hillary Clinton.”

    Before the first 100 days of the Trump administration has ended, their isolationist dove has escalated U.S. fighting in at least three countries, with more trouble spots looming.

    Just don’t expect them to learn anything from the experience.

    Graphic by Sarah Wasko.
  • To Defend Bannon, Breitbart Has Opened Fire On The President's Son-In-Law

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com, the pro-Trump propaganda outlet previously run by White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, is now being deployed against President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top White House staffer Jared Kushner as part of an internal power struggle.

    Over the past week -- as Kushner and Bannon have reportedly feuded -- the website has published articles highlighting Kushner’s meetings with the Russian ambassador, questioning the ethics of his business dealings, criticizing his “thin resume in diplomacy,” and speculating about whether he is leaking negative stories about Bannon.

    Those attacks represent a U-turn in the website’s coverage of the president’s family. Following Trump’s election and in the early days of his administration, Breitbart provided Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, with soft-focus celebrity coverage. The website chronicled their search for a home and synagogue in Washington, D.C., and lashed out at their critics.

    Kushner’s then-positive relationship with Bannon seems to have been a factor in Breitbart’s coverage -- in mid-February, the website aggregated a piece claiming that Kushner has “become a backer of chief strategist Steve Bannon’s nationalist-populist agenda” and that “Kushner has even proposed knocking down the walls between his and Bannon’s office, a sign of how close the two are.”

    But in recent days, the Kushner-Bannon relationship has reportedly soured. The New York Times and Politico both published April 5 stories detailing clashes between the two. The stories, which were driven by anonymous sources who seem to be part of Kushner’s camp, portray Kushner as deeply concerned with Bannon’s priorities and the way he “plays to the president’s worst impulses.”

    While Kushner seems to be using traditional media outlets to aid an internal fight with Bannon, the White House chief strategist’s defense has come from his former website. Breitbart -- which previously targeted White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan -- has trained its guns on the president’s son-in-law over the past week.

    Breitbart’s campaign against Kushner began with a March 28 aggregation of a Times article detailing how a Senate committee plans to question Kushner “concerning meetings he held with Russian officials close to the Kremlin, including an executive with Russia’s state-owned development bank.” The unbylined item stuck out at a website that has portrayed stories of ties between Russia and the White House as a conspiracy pushed by the so-called deep state.

    Two days later, Breitbart News Senior Editor-At-Large Peter Schweizer -- who also serves as president of a nonprofit that was until recently chaired by Bannon -- appeared on Breitbart’s SiriusXM radio show to criticize Kushner’s business dealings. Schweizer raised concerns that Kushner could use his role in the Trump administration to seek “sweetheart deals with foreign government entities,” calling the situation “worrisome.”

    Then on April 5 -- the same day the Times and Politico published their stories detailing Kushner’s burgeoning feud with Bannon -- Breitbart published four different stories attacking Kushner.

    One article detailed the “five surprisingly delicate problems” Trump has assigned Kushner -- including ending the Israel-Palestine dispute and destroying ISIS -- even though Kushner “boasts a thin resume in diplomacy.” The website also aggregated a column from the Times’ Frank Bruni making the same point. A third story highlighted Trump adviser and all-around-terrible-person Roger Stone’s theory that Kushner “is leaking negative stories” about Bannon. And Breitbart aggregated the Politico story on Kushner’s clashes with Bannon.

    Bannon still talks to staffers at Breitbart, though it's unclear if he asked for the attacks on Kushner or if his former employees knew to turn on his emerging rival without such a request. A “close Bannon ally outside of the White House” told Axios that following the Kushner camp’s attacks on Bannon, “I see some bad press in [Jared's] future." Bannon has reportedly told associates, "I love a gunfight."

    Breitbart’s attacks on its former boss’s White House rival come as the website seeks permanent congressional press credentials, a precursor to gaining access to the White House Correspondents’ Association and joining the White House press pool. The credentialing committee has raised concerns about Breitbart’s ties to Bannon and questioned whether the outlet is editorially independent of the White House.

    Graphic by Sarah Wasko.

  • Someone Tied To Breitbart Is Lying About When Stephen Bannon Left

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Breitbart.com’s bid for the press corps big leagues has become ensnared by the shifting series of stories told about how -- and when -- the site’s leader officially left to work for President Donald Trump.

    White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon served as executive chairman of Breitbart.com “until resignation on August 16,” the day before he joined Trump’s presidential campaign, according to his financial disclosure forms.

    But that claim contradicts a Breitbart press release dated August 17, which stated that Bannon was taking “a temporary leave of absence from Breitbart and will resume work with Breitbart the evening of November 8, 2016.”

    And last month, as many have noted, Breitbart CEO Larry Solov sent a letter to the credentialing committee for Capitol Hill reporters claiming that Bannon had resigned “on or about” November 13 -- the date Bannon’s White House role was announced.

    Bannon’s date of resignation and possible ongoing ties to the website are key issues in the website’s bid for permanent congressional press credentials, a precursor to gaining access to the White House Correspondents’ Association and joining the White House press pool. The members of the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery have been skeptical of Solov’s February claim that Bannon had resigned by phone and of the letter he produced last month. The committee continues to deny the website’s bid for credentials and is requesting more information from Breitbart by April 14.

    Bannon’s financial disclosures show that the standing committee was right not to take Solov’s word; either Bannon lied on his forms, or Solov lied to the committee.

    Moreover, for roughly a month after even November 13 -- the date Solov claims Bannon resigned -- Breitbart staffers continued to identify Bannon as “on leave” from the website. Joel Pollak, the website’s senior editor-at-large, regularly referred to him using that language in articles defending Bannon from criticism -- meaning that if Bannon had left the website, that information was unknown even at the highest levels of the outlet’s staff. Breitbart did not consistently identify Bannon as a former employee until mid-December -- four months after Bannon claims in his disclosures that he resigned.

    From a November 17 article:

    (Bannon remains on a leave of absence from Breitbart after joining the Trump campaign as CEO in August.)

    November 20:

    Bannon has been on leave as Executive Chairman of Breitbart News since being appointed CEO of the Trump campaign in August.

    November 21:

    In two separate interviews conducted since Bannon — on leave from Breitbart — was appointed Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to President-elect Donald J. Trump, Bannon has made his views explicit.

    November 22:

    Bannon is on leave as Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, and was recently appointed by President-elect Donald J. Trump as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor.

    November 24:

    Though Breitbart’s former Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon is on a leave of absence to serve as President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist, [Politico’s Nahal] Toosi writes that “foreign and domestic” observers “will likely scour Breitbart every day for clues about what the administration will do.”

    November 28:

    Bannon is currently on leave from Breitbart News.

    December 1:

    (Bannon is currently on leave as Executive Chairman of Breitbart News.)

    December 1:

    (Bannon has been on leave from Breitbart since being appointed CEO of the Trump presidential campaign in August.)

    December 5:

    He also repeated false charges against Stephen K. Bannon, the Executive Chair of Breitbart News (on leave) who was appointed CEO of the Trump campaign in August and has been named incoming White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor.

    December 8:

    So when Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon (on leave as Breitbart News Executive Chairman) gives his first interview to the Hollywood Reporter and says, “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” there is a method to the madness.