Note: This article was first published in 2017.
The following is a news media analysis and commentary
Regardless of who is your chosen – or least favorite – presidential candidate, independent minds should be concerned about the latest revelations in the news media’s unseemly relationships with government and political actors. While there are many responsible journalists working today, inside documents and leaks have exposed serious lapses constituting the most far-reaching scandal our industry has known. It’s our very own Newsgate.
Compromised reporting has always existed as a result of covert collaborations between reporters and political officials—Democrats and Republicans alike. For example, in my new book out next year, The Smear, I’ll report on instances of improper collusion that surfaced during the Bush administration. The most recent available evidence is heavy on Democrat-ties due to the nature of the available documents and leaks.
It can be argued that some individual accounts can be rationalized and are not serious breaches of ethics. But taken as a whole, it’s easy to see how we as journalists have done a poor job protecting ourselves from being co-opted by organized interests, often ones that are paid and politically-motivated. Whether we realize it or not, they’ve figured out how to exploit the media and use us to publish their propaganda. It implies a broad and growing trend that has seriously undermined the credibility of the news industry.
Opinion reporters and those who work for obviously ideological news groups are entitled to publish party propaganda. It’s one matter to provide viewpoint journalism. But it’s quite another for us to act as a tool of any interest, publishing narratives or talking points upon suggestion or demand, without disclosing we’ve done just that.
The following accounts come from human sources, Freedom of Information Act documents and Wikileaks emails. Obviously, this is just a small sampling of the behind the scenes dealings going on between reporters and their sources. Those mentioned below, to the extent they’ve offered comment, have denied doing anything improper or unethical. Some of the reporters have explained that the reason they provided advance drafts of stories to their news subjects, or allowed the subjects to make editorial choices—moves that are generally considered unethical—was to be responsible, as part of a fact check. Some have commented their actions reflect common practice.
The State Department considered AP reporters Matt Lee and Bradley Klapper “friendlies,” and planned to “place” Hillary Clinton email stories with them and dictate the timing of their release. The goal was to blunt the June 2015 news that Clinton had failed to provide Congress certain required emails. Clinton campaign press officer Nick Merrill coordinated directly with the State Department on the plan to use AP to “lay this out before the [Republican] majority on the [Benghazi] committee has a chance to realize what they have and distort it.” Merrill posited, “It would be good to frame this a little and frankly to have it break tomorrow when we’ll likely be close or in the midst of a [Supreme Court] decision taking over the news hyenas.” AP published a story the following day.
The pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC American Bridge claimed it "placed" negative stories about Jeb Bush with AP and other news outlets.
In August of 2015, the Clinton campaign was reeling in damage control mode over revelations about Hillary’s improper email usage, her aide Cheryl Mills laid out her “personal preferences” for getting their side of the story out to the public in the most favorable way possible. They included feeding information to AP and determining the timing of its release.
(Also, see Dilanian below under LA Times)
Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic, asked a Hillary Clinton aide for advance text of a speech. The aide dictated “conditions,” including “1) You in your own voice describe [Hillary’s words] as ‘muscular’,” to which Ambinder agreed. Ambinder formerly worked for ABC, CBS and National Journal.
The State Department and White House indicated they had arranged with CBS News Face the Nation for Secretary of State John Kerry to be shielded from any questions about the Hillary Clinton email controversy. “Think we can get this done so [Kerry] is not asked about email,” the White House's Jennifer Palmieri emails to State Department spokesman Jen Psaki on March 12, 2015. Despite the fact that Kerry's appearance on Face the Nation happened two days after Clinton held her first press conference on the emails, he was not asked about the controversy. CBS News says there was no discussion about or agreement to limit questions.
On Sept. 21, 2015, Harwood appears to have solicited editorial ideas from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta for Harwood's upcoming interview with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Harwood asks Podesta: "what should I ask Jeb...in Speakeasy interview tomorrow?"
On April 28, 2016, a Democratic National Committee official indicates the DNC can supply CNN with questions to ask Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. In an email titled, "Cruz on CNN," the DNC official emails DNC colleagues that "CNN is looking for questions. Please send some topical/interesting ones. Maybe a couple on Fiorina. Someone please take point and send them all together by 3pm. Thank you!"
The Clinton campaign emailed that CNN politics producer Dan Merica and Clinton were “basically courting each other.”
In an email, Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile (then a CNN contributor) said she obtained an advance presidential debate question and passed it on to the Hillary campaign. The question was later asked in a March 13 Democratic presidential town hall including Democrat Bernie Sanders and co-hosted by CNN. Brazile says she didn't do what she allegedly said she did in the email.
A second email revealed Brazile passed along to the Clinton campaign another advance question in advance of a CNN primary debate between Clinton and Sanders. “One of the questions directed to HRC tomorrow is from a woman with a rash. Her family has lead poison and she will ask what, if anything, will Hillary do as president to help the ppl of Flint,” Brazile wrote on March 5, 2016. On March 6, a woman fitting the description asked a similar question.
CNN political commentator Maria Cardona emailed Democratic National Committee officials a draft of her opinion piece that attacked Bernie Sanders prior to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She invited the DNC’s editorial input and made changes accordingly, asking the DNC, “Is this better?”
The pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC American Bridge claimed it “placed” negative stories about Jeb Bush with CNN and other news outlets.
American Bridge also claimed that a report it produced against the conservative Koch Brothers (billionaire donors) resulted in “a high-profile CNN story.”
(See also Stelter under New York Times)
Eleanor Clift of the Daily Beast appears to feel left out when she wasn't invited to a Clinton campaign dinner for reporters as Hillary Clinton was launching her run for President. On April 10, 2015, she writes Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, "John, I completely understand why dinner at your home did not include someone like me, who's a known quantity to Clinton campaign veterans. But I wanted to make an appeal for an early opportunity to get myself and the Daily Beast Political editor, Jackie Kucinich, on your radar so I/we can write and report knowledgeably. There's a long campaign ahead, and I'd like to establish a line of communications. Is there an assistant I should go through? I look forward to working with you (and maybe getting some of that pasta and walnut sauce dish!!) All best, Eleanor"
A source for the pro-Hillary Clinton smear group Media Matters named Daily Kos as one of several news outlets that are helpful in getting out the Media Matters agenda, according to Daily Caller.
"The [Huffington Post] guys were good, Sam and Nico,” said a Media Matters source to Daily Caller, speaking of reporters who will report what Media Matters puts out. The comment apparently refers to Nico Pitney and Sam Stein.
Los Angeles Times
Ken Dilanian, who covered the CIA for the LA Times, explicitly promised positive news coverage and sometimes sent the CIA press office entire story drafts for review prior to publication, according to the Intercept, which obtained internal CIA emails and called Dilanian “the CIA’s mop-up man.” Dilanian now works for AP.
Jim Rainey of the LA Times "took a lot of our stuff,” a Media Matters source told Daily Caller.
"Media Matters staff had the direct line of MSNBC president Phil Griffin, and used it,” a Media Matters source told Daily Caller. “If we published something [negative] about Fox in the morning, [MSNBC would] have it on the air that night verbatim. We were pretty much writing their prime time. But then, virtually all the mainstream media was using our stuff."
The Clinton campaign believed it could count on Andrea Mitchell to conduct a helpful interview, upon its request, with Hillary Clinton amid the email controversy in 2015, according to Wikileaks emails.
New York Times
New York Times reporter Scott Shane privately provided the State Department Public Affairs office with what appears to be an advance NYT story publication schedule regarding a major controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's State Department.
“Brian Stelter at the New York Times [now at CNN] was helpful,” in publishing the Media Matters narrative, a source told Daily Caller.
New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich gave Hillary Clinton the opportunity to approve or veto her quotes. He later explained that was because he agreed to make the original interview off-the-record and required her approval to use selected pieces of it.
The pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC American Bridge claimed it placed negative stories about Jeb Bush with the New York Times and other news outlets.
It's unclear exactly how, but the Clinton campaign's Jennifer Palmieri got an advance briefing about a soon-to-be-published New York Times story. "I got a briefing on the story, it’s in a much better place," Palmieri writes on July 8, 2015 to Clinton and colleagues. "Takes the viewpoint that 20 years after WJC declared 'the era of big government is over,' HRC is putting forward more liberal agenda that would expand government’s role. It refers to HRC’s 'policy ideas' as opposed to 'plans,' notes she hasn’t rolled them out yet, and will do an economic speech on Monday. It says that if her ideas were enacted they would likely cost in the 'hundreds of billions of dollars,' does not put a number on it, which is good. There is a good bit in there about Bernie’s plans too, and how he would represent a bigger expansion of government and questions whether HRC’s agenda will be seen as progressive enough in comparison. It should post later tonight or tomorrow."
Nov. 13, 2015 Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon indicated the campaign had successfully planted a negative story about Sen. Charles Grassley in the New York Times. "After hitting a wall with other outlets, NYT will do a story about DiSanto. Adam Jentleson in reid’s office is giving a statement saying the connection is troubling and raises questions. Could pop this weekend," Fallon emails another Clinton ally. Three days later, the New York Times' Maggie Haberman published the article questioning whether a State Department official (DiSanto) was improperly leaking damaging information to Grassley. Haberman was previously lauded as a cooperative journalist by Clintonites while working at Politico.
(See also Haberman under Politico)
(See also Harwood under CNBC)
In April of 2015, Chief Politico political correspondent Glenn Thrush sent part of an article to Podesta for approval before it was published. “Please don’t share or tell anyone I did this,” Thrush writes in the April 2015 exchange. “Because I have become a hack I will send u the whole section that pertains to u…Tell me if I fuc*ed up anything.” Podesta signs off and the article is published. An email on April 17, 2015 shows Thrush also sent eight paragraphs from a pre-published article to Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri with the title "please read asap...don't share." Palmer writes colleagues, “Glenn Thrush is doing a story about how well launch went and some part of it will be about me – which I hate. He did me the courtesy of sending what he is going to say about me. Seems fine."
Staffers at Media Matters say they “knew they could dump stuff to Ben Smith [formerly of Politico now editor-in-chief at Buzzfeed.com],” according to Daily Caller. “Ben Smith will take stories and write what you want him to write."
Politico chief investigative reporter Ken Vogel emailed a soon-to-be-published story to Democratic National Committee official Mark Paustenbach “per agreement” and invited his “thoughts.” Paustenbach gave the draft to the DNC’s head of communications, Luis Miranda. “Vogel gave me his story ahead of time/before it goes to his editors as long as I didn't share it,” Paustenbach told Miranda.
In his effort to get an interview with Chelsea Clinton, Mike Allen, Politico's chief political reporter offered to provide questions in advance, “precisely” agreed upon with a Hillary Clinton aide. “The interview would be ‘no-surprises’: I would work with you on topics, and would start with anything she wants to cover or make news on. Quicker than a network hit, and reaching an audience you care about with no risk,” Allen wrote the aide. After the email became public, Allen apologized and said he would never do what he offered to do in his email.
Hillary Clinton staffers described Maggie Haberman, then of Politico, as an ideal “friendly journalist” with whom to place stories. “We have had her tee up stories for us before and have never been disappointed,” writes one staffer in an email. Haberman now works for the New York Times. The emails were first reported in The Intercept.
The Clinton campaign apparently arranged for PBS to "put the news out" about the reversal of Clinton's support for the Trans Pacific Partnership TPP trade deal in interview with Judy Woodruff on Oct. 7, 2015. The Clinton campaign implied it retained control over the timing of the rollout, and planned a coincident paper release statement. "I told PBS to hold till 345pm and that we would send the statement to our travelers after they put the news out (we should give them 15 minutes of breathing space)," writes the campaign's Jennifer Palmieri. She notes, "We can move up PBS' time if need be." The time on the PBS online release is 3:44pm.
A Media Matters source told Daily Caller that Salon proved to be a "helpful" news outlet for getting its message across.
San Francisco Chronicle
A Media Matters source told Daily Caller that Joe Garofoli at the Chronicle “took a lot of our stuff.”
The Clinton campaign believed it could use Ezra Klein of the liberal blog Vox (formerly of the Washington Post) to further its narrative on Clinton's email controversies in 2015, according to emails released by Wikileaks.
The Wall Street Journal
The pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC American Bridge claimed it placed negative stories about Jeb Bush with the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets.
The Washington Post
The Democratic National Committee conducted negative research about Donald Trump on behalf of Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. April 21, 2016 a DNC official wrote colleagues, "research request: top 10 worst Trump quotes? Milbank doing a Passover-themed 10 plagues of Trump. Off top of my head, I’m thinking: · Punish women · Mexicans as rapists · Ban Muslims · Shoot someone in middle of 5th ave · Rough up BLM protestor · Anchor baby · Do a lot worse than waterboarding · Blood coming out of her wherever · Spill beans on ted’s wife · Talked about penis on stage at debate Any other big things I’m missing? And can you pull bullets for these?" The resulting Milbank article entitled "The Ten Plagues of Trump" cited eight of the suggestions provided by the DNC.
Democratic National Committee officials discussed “placing” a story with the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent to put a positive spin on some bad news for Hillary Clinton. The goal was “to make sure the first story out of the gate is as helpful as possible,” according to a DNC official. “But, the specific reporter is not as important as getting it to an outlet before the news breaks so we can help control the narrative on the front end. Otherwise this may likely get spun in a not-so-helpful way. We should also get Rep. [Elijah] Cummings on the phone with that reporter.” The email continues, “…can we please consider giving Sargent the first bite to get a good first story out there? Can I have him call you? We had been working him for weeks in general on writing up something positive, we think he'd play ball.”
Staffers at Media Matters counted on the liberal Plum Line, Sargent’s Washington Post blog, according to a source who spoke to Daily Caller. “Greg Sargent will write anything you give him. He was the go-to guy to leak stuff,” claimed the source. “If you can’t get it anywhere else, Greg Sargent’s always game.”
“We’ve pushed stories to Eugene Robinson and E.J. Dionne [at the Washington Post],” the Media Matters source told Daily Caller.
The pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC American Bridge claimed it placed negative stories about Jeb Bush with the Washington Post and other news outlets.
A window into how political interests, including super PACs, work to influence and manipulate the news is found in an internal Clinton campaign memo published on Wikileaks this month. In it, the Hillary Clinton super PAC “Correct The Record” boasts it had placed 21 “strategic memos” with the media that “led to stories in a number of news outlets including National Journal, Politico, USA Today, MSNBC and The Hill.” Correct The Record has joined other pro-Hillary Clinton groups founded by Clinton surrogate David Brock, including Media Matters and the American Bridge super PAC, in attacking Clinton’s opponents. Correct The Record’s targets have included Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump.
Correct The Record president Brad Woodhouse has repeatedly appeared in news interviews without the disclosure that he operates a Hillary Clinton super PAC that coordinates openly with the campaign, unlike any other super PAC.
Among other functions, the Correct The Record memo says it “arms more than 300 surrogates with facts and talking points to spread the message and the facts on cable and other news” and “deploy products targeted to specific audiences.”
One of the “products” is “pushback documents” distributed to “members of the media, key surrogates, pundits, opinion leaders” to refute “false information” about Clinton. The documents include “research analyses,” “talking points” and “blog-style posts made specifically for the web.” Other products are “media statements” and “positive media relations with Clinton beat reporters, producers and editors…Our communications team is constantly in touch with the media and provide, whether in our own voices or in the voices of surrogates, a constant stream of statements to the press on all things Clinton related. And because media relations isn’t just going on the record, some of our team’s most important work is killing bad stories before they ever get written.”
Under “Metrics,” the Correct The Record memo cites its mailing list of 960 members of the national media and 10,756 regional reporters in 28 states. It sends talking points and memos regularly to 369 televisions producers and bookers. It says its work has “impacted the framework for dialogue about 2016, Clinton, and her competitors.” The group says it has “engaged trusted names” to write opinion editorials for newspapers across the country. [quote]“Correct The Record has placed 132 op-eds nationally and in strategic local markets” and, since May 15, “helped write and place 36 op-eds across the country in a number of publications including Politico, Times Union, Huffington Post, CNN, Washington Blade, and New Jersey’s Bergen Record.”--Correct The Record internal memo[/quote]
Correct The Record also says it’s conducted “over 900 on-the-record and off-the-record media interviews” and “identified 372 surrogates including influential and frequent pundits on broadcast and cable news for Presidential 2016 politics and provided them around 80 sets of talking points, background materials and briefings on topical issues” to defend Clinton and her record.
More information on how super PACs manipulate the news media is found in an internal memo written by Brock's pro-Hillary American Bridge super PAC. It was also published by Wikileaks.
The opposition research group set up “war rooms” for the first time on site in states where its trackers were monitoring Republican candidates to “interact with reporters on site, and to cut and move footage more efficiently so we can break news before anyone else.” In other words, American Bridge uses its formidable resources to do one-sided investigative work and then peddles the product as "news" to reporters.
Apparently, it works. The American Bridge memo said its on-site war room in Wisconsin collected negative clips about Senator Ron Johnson and got them covered by Talking Points Memo, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, The Capital Times, The Hill, and Roll Call.
In the memo, American Bridge also bragged that CNN was receptive to its outreach. “CNN recently ran a feature story on our use of livestream technology.” Examples of the group's rapid response efforts getting picked up by the press included “Jeb Bush’s comments on privatizing Social Security (June 2015), his comment that “all lives matter” (July 2015), Chris Christie jumping on Jeb Bush’s 'work longer hours' bandwagon (July 2015), and Rick Perry slamming Jeb’s economic growth record in Florida (July 2015)."
“Several of these were clipped, cut, and shared on social media and/or by press release while the candidates were still delivering the same speech,” read the American Bridge memo.
American Bridge said it “placed” negative stories about Bush with CNN, Washington Post, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and several key Florida outlets. “Our tracking operation has also been key in undermining Jeb through a constant barrage of rapid response attacks.”
One month after the 2014 midterm elections, American Bridge released a "primer" to “define the field before the prospective candidates could define themselves for the electorate.” The group took credit for successfully marketing a negative media narrative on Scott Walker, leading to his downfall. “We developed a powerful narrative of cronyism, outsourcing, and looking out for the interests of big business over middle class families, which undercut his economic message,” said the group’s memo. It also took credit for “forcing the Kochs [conservative billionaire donors]…out of the shadows” and said an American Bridge report against the Kochs resulted in “a high-profile CNN story.”
These activities appear to be within the law. But these are just two of many groups working to influence the news. The breadth and scope of their operations confirms how important it is for news organizations to set up policies and systems to retain their independence.
More on all of this in my upcoming book, The Smear.
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