Trump Allies Target Journalists Over Coverage Deemed Hostile to White House
Trump Allies Target Journalists Over Coverage Deemed Hostile to White House
WASHINGTON — A loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House is pursuing what they say will be an aggressive operation to discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump by publicizing damaging information about journalists.
It is the latest step in a long-running effort by Mr. Trump and his allies to undercut the influence of legitimate news reporting. Four people familiar with the operation described how it works, asserting that it has compiled dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts and other public statements by hundreds of people who work at some of the country’s most prominent news organizations.
The group has already released information about journalists at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times — three outlets that have aggressively investigated Mr. Trump — in response to reporting or commentary that the White House’s allies consider unfair to Mr. Trump and his team or harmful to his re-election prospects.
Operatives have closely examined more than a decade’s worth of public posts and statements by journalists, the people familiar with the operation said. Only a fraction of what the network claims to have uncovered has been made public, the people said, with more to be disclosed as the 2020 election heats up. The research is said to extend to members of journalists’ families who are active in politics, as well as liberal activists and other political opponents of the president.
But the material publicized so far, while in some cases stripped of context or presented in misleading ways, has proved authentic, and much of it has been professionally harmful to its targets.
“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots,” Mr. Schwartz tweeted on Thursday in response to an apologetic tweet from a Times journalist whose anti-Semitic social media posts had just been revealed by the operation. “Lots more where this came from.”The information unearthed by the operation has been commented on and spread by officials inside the Trump administration and re-election campaign, as well as conservative activists and right-wing news outlets such as Breitbart News. In the case of the Times editor, the news was first published by Breitbart, immediately amplified on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr. and, among others, Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, and quickly became the subject of a Breitbart interview with Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary and communications director.
The Trump campaign said it was unaware of, and not involved in, the effort, but suggested that it served a worthy purpose. “We know nothing about this, but it’s clear that the media has a lot of work to do to clean up its own house,” said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director.
The campaign is consistent with Mr. Trump’s long-running effort to delegitimize critical reporting and brand the news media as an “enemy of the people.” The president has relentlessly sought to diminish the credibility of news organizations and cast them as politically motivated opponents.
Journalism, he said in a tweet last week, is “nothing more than an evil propaganda machine for the Democrat Party.”
The operation has compiled social media posts from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and stored images of the posts that can be publicized even if the user deletes them, said the people familiar with the effort. One claimed that the operation had unearthed potentially “fireable” information on “several hundred” people.
“I am sure there will be more scalps,” said Sam Nunberg, a former aide to Mr. Trump who is a friend of Mr. Schwartz.
But using journalistic techniques to target journalists and news organizations as retribution for — or as a warning not to pursue — coverage critical of the president is fundamentally different from the well-established role of the news media in scrutinizing people in positions of power.
“If it’s clearly retaliatory, it’s clearly an attack, it’s clearly not journalism,” said Leonard Downie Jr., who was the executive editor of The Post from 1991 to 2008. Tension between a president and the news media that covers him is nothing new, Mr. Downie added. But an organized, wide-scale political effort to intentionally humiliate journalists and others who work for media outlets is.
“It’s one thing for Spiro Agnew to call everyone in the press ‘nattering nabobs of negativism,’” he said, referring to the former vice president’s famous critique of how journalists covered President Richard M. Nixon. “And another thing to investigate individuals in order to embarrass them publicly and jeopardize their employment.”
A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, said in a statement that such tactics were taking the president’s campaign against a free press to a new level.
In a statement, a CNN spokesman said that when government officials, “and those working on their behalf, threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”
The operation is targeting the news media by using one of the most effective weapons of political combat — deep and laborious research into the public records of opponents to find contradictions, controversial opinions or toxic affiliations. The liberal group Media Matters for America helped pioneer close scrutiny of public statements by conservative media personalities.
Those familiar with the campaign described it as meant to expose what they see as the hypocrisy of mainstream news outlets that have covered the president’s inflammatory language regarding race. CreditGeorge Etheredge/The New York Times
The conservative operative James O’Keefe has twisted that concept in ways inconsistent with traditional journalistic ethics, using false identities, elaborate cover stories and undercover videos to entrap journalists and publicize embarrassing statements, often in misleading ways, to undercut the credibility of what he considers news media biased in favor of liberals.
In the case of the pro-Trump network, research into journalists is being deployed for the political benefit of the White House. It is targeting not only high-profile journalists who challenge the administration, but also anyone who works for any news organization that members of the network see as hostile to Mr. Trump, no matter how tangential that job may be to the coverage of his presidency. And it is being used explicitly as retribution for coverage.
Some reporters have been warned that they or their news organizations could be targets, creating the impression that the campaign is intended in part to deter them from aggressive coverage as well as to inflict punishment after an article has been published.
He has publicly gone after Republicans he views as disloyal, including the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, about whom he admitted spreading an unsubstantiated rumor . He has called himself a “ troll on Twitter ,” which is where he has boasted of being aware of , or having access to , damaging information on dozens of journalists at CNN and The Times that could be deployed if those outlets ran afoul of Mr. Trump or his allies.
The operation’s tactics were on display last week, seemingly in response to two pieces in The Times that angered Mr. Trump’s allies. The paper’s editorial board published an editorial on Wednesday accusing Mr. Trump of fomenting anti-Semitism, and the newsroom published a profile on Thursday morning of Ms. Grisham, the new White House press secretary, which included unflattering details about her employment history.
One person involved in the effort said the pro-Trump forces, aware ahead of time about the coverage of Ms. Grisham, were prepared to respond. Early Thursday morning, soon after the profile appeared online, Breitbart News published an article that documented anti-Semitic and racist tweets written a decade ago by Tom Wright-Piersanti, who was in college at the time and has since become an editor on the Times’ politics desk. The Times said it was reviewing the matter and considered the posts “a clear violation of our standards.”
Mr. Schwartz tweeted a link to the Breitbart piece before 7 a.m., which Donald Trump Jr. retweeted to his 3.8 million followers — the first of about two dozen times that the president’s son shared the article or its contents. Other prominent Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, joined in highlighting the report.Breitbart’s article quoted several people or groups with close ties to Mr. Schwartz, including Richard Grenell, Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Germany, and the Zionist Organization of America. It was written by the site’s Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle, whose relationship with Mr. Schwartz started when Mr. Bannon ran the website.
Mr. Boyle’s article included a reference to the Times profile of Ms. Grisham, which it characterized as “attacking White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham.” Mr. Wright-Piersanti was uninvolved in the editing of the article about Ms. Grisham.
The tweets revealed in the Breitbart article quickly spread to other conservative outlets favored by the president and his allies, including the radio shows of Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.
Mr. Wright-Piersanti apologized on Twitter on Thursday morning and deleted offensive tweets. Mr. Schwartz then issued his warning that he had further damaging information about Times employees.
Mr. Wright-Piersanti, 32, said the tweets, posted when he was a college student with a Twitter following consisting mostly of personal acquaintances, were “my lame attempts at edgy humor to try to get a rise out of my friends.”
But he said “they’re not funny, they’re clearly offensive,” adding, “I feel deep shame for them, and I am truly, honestly sorry that I wrote these.”
He said he had forgotten about the tweets as he started a career in journalism.
“For my generation, the generation that came of age in the internet, all the youthful mistakes that you made get preserved in digital amber, and no matter how much you change and mature and grow up, it’s always out there, waiting to be discovered,” Mr. Wright-Piersanti said.
Like Mr. Wright-Piersanti, other targets of the pro-Trump network have been young people who grew up with social media and wrote the posts in question when they were in their teens or early 20s, in most cases before they became professional journalists.
A week after a White House reporter for CNN sparred with Mr. Trump during a news conference, Mr. Schwartz highlighted a tweet by the reporter from 2011, when the reporter was in college, that used an anti-gay slur. Other similar tweets quickly surfaced, and the reporter apologized, though Mr. Schwartz has continued to antagonize the reporter on Twitter.
In recent months, Mr. Schwartz highlighted a nearly decade-old tweet in which a reporter for The Post had repeated in an ambiguous manner a slur used by a politician.
In March, Mr. Schwartz tweeted a link to an article from Breitbart, written by Mr. Boyle, about a reporter from Business Insider whose Instagram account included anti-Trump references and a photograph of the reporter demonstrating against the president.
In July, around the time CNN published an article exposing old posts by a Trump appointee spreading suggestions that Barack Obama was a Muslim whose loyalty to the United States was in question, Mr. Schwartz resurfaced anti-Semitic tweets from 2011 by a CNN photo editor. Mr. Schwartz suggested that a CNN reporter who specializes in unearthing problematic archival content should “look into the social media activities of your employees.”
The tweets became the basis for several articles in conservative news outlets and hundreds of tweets from conservatives targeting the photo editor, Mohammed Elshamy, which did not stop even after he resigned under pressure from CNN and apologized.
“It felt like a coordinated attack,” said Mr. Elshamy, who said he had received death threats. “It was overwhelming.”
“I was repeating slogans heard on the streets during a highly emotional time in my nation’s history,” he said. “I believe that my subsequent work and views over the years redeems for the mistakes I made as a kid.”
While he said he understands “the severity and harm of my comments,” he questioned the motivation of the campaign that cost him his job. “It is a very dirty tactic that they are using to cause as much harm as they can to anyone who is affiliated with these media outlets,” he said. “It actually feels like a competition and every termination or vilification is a point for them.”
Mr. Bannon, at the time the head of Breitbart, oversaw the site’s efforts in 2015 to attack Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News, after she called out Mr. Trump for tweets disparaging women as “fat pigs,” “dogs” and “slobs.” In an interview, he said the work that Mr. Schwartz was undertaking should be seen as a sign that Mr. Trump’s supporters were committed to executing a frontal assault on news media they considered adversarial.
“A culture war is a war,” he said. “There are casualties in war. And that’s what you’re seeing.”