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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

Fox News host Sean Hannity opened his show last Friday by accusing the FBI under former Director James Comey of engaging in a criminal conspiracy aimed at preventing President Donald Trump’s 2016 election through a purportedly illegal investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. “And according to my sources, tonight, good news is in the horizon,” Hannity concluded. “James Comey, I warned you, you have the right to remain silent.”

These sorts of conspiracy theories have taken hold with Hannity’s audience, according to new poll from Navigator Research. The group’s memo reports that “the Fox News echo-chamber” has created “an alternative reality in American politics,” with Republicans who watch Fox News a few times a month or more showing significantly more radical views than others on a host of issues.

Notably, the poll shows a staggering divide between Republicans who watch Fox and the rest of the public on the question of whether Trump is the victim of a conspiracy at the hands of what Fox personalities call the “deep state.” Among GOP Fox viewers, 79 percent say that “people within the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies are trying to sabotage President Trump.” That’s compared to 49 percent of Republicans who don’t watch Fox, 24 percent of non-Republicans who watch Fox, and 8 percent of non-Republicans who don’t watch Fox.

It’s possible that the network simply attracts viewers predisposed to believe that the president is being assailed by forces within the federal investigative and intelligence agencies rather than convincing them that is the case. But whichever way the causality arrow points, Fox has been serving up this kind of conspiracy theory to its audience on a nightly basis for years.

While this sort of coverage has permeated Fox’s programming, Hannity — perhaps the most fervent Trump supporter at the network — has led the way. In May 2017, as special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Hannity began identifying the “deep state” as a key part of what he called the “Destroy Trump Alliance,” a shadowy cabal of Trump foes. The Fox host argued that the “deep state must be purged” because its members “are now the biggest threat to this republic, and of course, the free election of Donald Trump.”

Hannity’s program began revolving around a single, terrifying idea: The Mueller probe is a sprawling conspiracy that justifies Trump using any means to stop it — including the prosecutions of the “deep state” officials who started it. Nearly 200 Hannity segments over the first year of Mueller’s investigation alone included claims that top federal law enforcement officials involved in the creation of the probe had broken the law.

And Hannity has begun claiming that he’s going to get his way. After the Senate confirmed William Barr as attorney general, Hannity declared that according to his sources, “things are happening as we speak.” He went on to identify dozens of crimes he said had been committed by 10 “deep state actors,” including Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

While Hannity has been the ringleader, he’s been joined by a large cast of fellow travelers at Fox who have adopted the same storyline. From Jeanine Pirro’s calls for a “cleansing” of the FBI and Justice Department, to Lou Dobbs’ calls to imprison Mueller, to Gregg Jarrett’s declaration that the FBI’s pursuit of Trump’s associates made it akin to “the old KGB,” Fox’s airwaves have been filled with over-the-top denunciations of the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies.

That effort has extended to Fox’s so-called “news side,” where the network’s reporters have played their typical role. Congressional Republicans put sensational spin on documents they released to undermine the special counsel’s probe by suggesting that the DOJ was out to get the president. The story doesn’t really add up, but the network’s “news side” journalists run with it, and soon the opinion side’s talkers have something new to freak out about. From an anti-Trump “secret society” at the FBI to a memo that was supposedly going to bring the Mueller investigation to its knees, Fox keeps falling in line.

Fox’s spin on the Mueller probe has largely been quarantined to its own airwaves, and as the Navigator Research poll shows, contained to its own audience. But the overwhelming support among Fox viewers for the notion that the president is being sabotaged by the FBI and intelligence agencies is nonetheless quite concerning. Fox is inculcating Trump’s base with the notion that the results of the Mueller probe are invalid. That could have a drastic effect as the investigation moves toward its conclusion.

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Rep. Bennie Thompson

Photo by Customs and Border Protection (Public domain)

Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Friday afternoon announced the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack has issued subpoenas to 14 Republicans from seven states who submitted the forged and "bogus" Electoral College certificates falsely claiming Donald Trump and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in their states.

The Chairman appeared to suggest the existence of a conspiracy as well, noting the "the planning and coordination of efforts," saying "these so-called alternate electors met," and may know "who was behind that scheme."

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Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.


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