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"Stop the Steal" protester

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

More than eight months after a mob of then-President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol building while the 2020 presidential election was being ratified, some media outlets hyped a follow-up rally at the Capitol. But in fact, the real action is happening elsewhere.

Some mainstream media outlets focused attention on Saturday's scheduled "Justice for J6" rally in Washington, D.C., organized by a former Trump 2016 campaign strategist who has resurfaced to contend that people being held in pre-trial detention for their role in the January 6 assault on the Capitol are "political prisoners." But in doing so, the media unduly magnified an event that was a sparsely attended bust — and overlooked a more insidious development in the ongoing attempts to spread further lies about the 2020 election.

Another story developed in Pennsylvania this week, where a committee in the Republican-controlled state Senate has taken a major step in advancing the far-right push for "forensic audits" of the 2020 election results throughout the country.

The state Senate's Intergovernmental Affairs and Operations Committee voted along party lines Wednesday to issue a subpoena for detailed personal records of every registered voter in the state, including normally non-public information such as driver's license numbers and the last four digits of people's Social Security numbers. In addition to the clear dangers for identity theft if such information were to leak into the wrong hands, these tactics are similar to efforts by Arizona Republicans and could lead to voter intimidation.

"There have been questions regarding the validity of people … who have voted, whether or not they exist," state Republican Sen. Cris Dush, who is also the committee chair, had said in a committee hearing. These statements are similar to former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani's discredited claims from last year that great numbers of votes had been cast under dead people's names in the swing state as it was won by Joe Biden. (There have been just a small handful of cases in Pennsylvania in which votes were cast under dead people's names — in acts committed by registered Republicans, who now regret having believed Trump's propaganda about election fraud.)

An analysis by Media Matters found that in cable news coverage since Tuesday, when Pennsylvania Republicans first announced they would be seeking all this private data, CNN has mentioned the rally in at least 69 segments, while MSNBC has included the story in at least 35 segments. (Fox News, by contrast, has given the rally almost no political oxygen, mentioning it only three times during the same time frame.)

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania story has received only a fraction of the coverage, having been mentioned in at least 13 segments on CNN and at least seven on MSNBC, according to the same analysis. (Fox News has not mentioned the Pennsylvania subpoena at all.)

Atlantic Council fellow Jared Holt, who monitors online extremism, wrote last week that the media have largely overblown the rally in their coverage. (Emphasis in original.)

Take it from me, a guy who spends 40+ hrs a week staring into the extremist abyss: What you're seeing at this point is largely speculation. To be perfectly honest, I'm a frustrated at what I've seen so far from the nation's leading publishers of journalism. It feels they have learned nothing about covering this space.
This is not to say that the event will not carry an inherent risk of attracting extreme believers, or even some with a violent disposition. For that, the event is worth monitoring and keeping tabs on. I'd also strongly advise people stay away from the rally, given that possibility. But suggestions that organized extremist groups are mobilizing at any major scale around this event are unsupported by current analysis.

The media coverage from the two networks looks even worse for CNN when examining the content itself. The network interviewed the rally's lead organizer Matt Braynard, and has aired clips from the interview multiple times, where CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider debunked Braynard's assertions that the people being held in detention were nonviolent protesters. One segment from Erin Burnett OutFront contained only a brief mention that Holt said the rally was expected to fail.

By contrast, MSNBC has done a much better job of explaining in detail that the event was expected to be a dud. (Though at the same time, this also means the network has given too much attention to a story that amounts to nothing.)

On Friday's edition of Morning Joe, NBC News senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny bluntly explained that far-right groups were actually discouraging their members from going to this event, that Braynard has been engaged in a "money-making enterprise" surrounding MAGA causes, and that "all of this media attention really helps him to do just that."

WILLIE GEIST (CO-HOST): You've been keeping tabs online, on these online forums where these groups who planned and plotted January 6 also organized. What are you seeing this week, what are you seeing this morning, in terms of tomorrow's planned rally?

BRANDY ZADROZNY (NBC NEWS SENIOR REPORTER): Well, it's some good news, you know. We're not seeing any signs that we might usually see before a large, national-scale political rally, MAGA rally, extremist rally. We're seeing basically, really underwhelming posts, really limited to people nearby. People who are talking about this rally that you'd usually find in these circles — Proud Boys, QAnon, MAGA, anti-vaxxers — actually they're saying to stay away. There's a conspiracy theory that this is actually a honeypot or some sort of plot by the feds to entrap people to commit crimes. There's really barely a whimper out there for the real target audience.

I talked to Jared Holt from the Atlantic Council's DFR lab, and he's just saying really, the local energy is already preoccupied with community issues like in Portland or anti-mask vaccine rallies. So people are just too busy. And it's really important to note that unlike the January 6 Capitol attack, where it was really a bunch of different factions all sort of coming together under the umbrella of voter fraud, of the stolen election conspiracy theory — and really asked to be there by President Trump — no one is really doing this.

This event is actually just planned by this guy. His name is Matt Braynard, he works for this organization that he founded called Look Ahead America. And you know, he's a former Trump campaign operative. He's sort of a C-list player who jumps from MAGA cause to MAGA cause. He raised $650,000 last year to investigate the stolen election. So this is a money-making enterprise, and it's really important to remember that. And all of this media attention really helps him to do just that.

One major difference between the events of January 6 and Saturday's rally was that last time, the rioters sincerely believed that they were acting on behalf of the sitting president of the United States — and seemingly confirming their belief, Trump refused to immediately deploy the National Guard to defend Congress. No such incentive structure exists anymore, now that Joe Biden is actually in the White House, and any backup support would be sent to the Capitol if it is needed. Furthermore, Congress will not even be in session until next week. Those facts all seriously narrow down the range of people who might show up with violence in mind — though as we have also learned, such individuals could potentially show up on any other day.

To be clear, it is completely appropriate for security officials to prepare for violence just in case, and those preparations can themselves have a deterrent effect on any violence even occurring. But media hyping of the event is only serving to puff up its visibility and the public profiles of its organizers in a way that does not appear to be warranted.

Not only that, the time could be better spent shining a light on how the spirit of the insurrection has continued in state legislatures.

Methodology

Media Matters searched our internal database of all original, weekday programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC (shows airing from 6 a.m. through midnight) for segments that analysts determined to include mention of either the September 18 Justice for J6 rally or the subpoenas for personal information in the Pennsylvania State audit of the 2020 U.S. presidential election from 6 a.m. September 14 through 12 p.m. September 17, 2021.

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