Fox News and the scourge of leak investigations (including the 'Fox Mole')
The Erik Wemple Blog joins Fox News chief Roger Ailes in denouncing the Obama administration's overreaching leak investigation involving a State Department security adviser and Fox News reporter James Rosen. We agree with Ailes that "The administration's attempt to intimidate Fox News and its employees will not succeed and their excuses will stand neither the test of law, the test of decency, nor the test of time." We agree with Sean Hannity that the probes bear some resemblance to "big brother" tactics. We agree with Andrea Tantaros that it's an outrage when journalists "are being spied on" (though we'd prefer not to see people assaulted for their political views).
And we also want to disavow any cutesy juxtaposition between Fox News's outrage over the leak investigation and its own treatment of former employee and "Fox Mole" Joe Muto. He is a one-time "O'Reilly Factor" producer who wrote harmless posts for Gawker about life at Fox News, a series that included some inside-Fox video. He was then pursued like hell by Fox News and recently wrapped up a plea deal for his offenses. "I do see some ironies there," said Muto's lawyer, Florian Miedel. "These things are discretionary. If Fox hadn't pushed, I think the DA's office wouldn't have pursued it."
IRS scandal story: Hard on White House, hard on media
The White House has had some trouble getting its story straight regarding the events surrounding the IRS scandal. Same thing can be said for the media.
Around 6 p.m. on Monday, the New York Times issued a report saying, in part: "The I.R.S. inspector general informed the White House counsel's office about the agency's nearly finished audit along with other reviews nearly a month before its release, the White House said."
A while later, the New York Times story had changed. Turns out that the Treasury Department's legal office informed the White House -- not the inspector general at the IRS. That change hit the New York Times site at 9:41 p.m., according to the site NewsDiffs, which tracks changes to the stories of various news outlets.
The Post stumbled as well. In an earlier version of this story, The Post reported that Treasury Department officials had discussed with the White House about the bizarre way that the IRS scandal would come to light -- namely, with an IRS official planting a question with an attendee at a conference of the American Bar Association. The updated version of the story inserted this line: "Treasury did not tell the White House about the planned disclosure at the ABA conference."
Now have a look at The Hill's IRS screw-up:
[White House Press Secretary Jay] Carney said that Mark Childress, the White House deputy chief of staff, twice spoke with Lois Lerner, the IRS official who oversaw the agency's tax-exempt organization, about the strategy for revealing conservative targeting.
Here's how that language reads in the current version of The Hill's story:
Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Mark Childress, deputy chief of staff, spoke twice with Treasury Department officials about the IRS's public relations strategy.
That's far from a bureaucratic difference. The IRS is supposed to operate free from the influence of political hacks, which is one of the reasons why its targeting of conservative political groups qualified for the "scandal" designation straight out of the womb. To state that a White House staffer was consulting with Lerner, who sat astride the IRS's actions in this area, is an explosive "revelation." The touchy question of interference was the first issue that Carney addressed in his Monday briefing:
Number one, as the independent Inspector General testified and as his report says, he found no evidence that anyone outside of the IRS had any involvement in the inappropriate scrutinizing of conservative groups who were applying for tax exempt status.
More errant claims: Politico messed up the IRS-Treasury thing, writing that the White House had consulted with the tax agency about how to roll out the disclosure about the targeting. Another Politico piece mischaracterized a fine point in the scandal chronology. And finally, CNN fell into the IRS-Treasury trap.
Why break down all these tedious mistakes? To rebut Tucker Carlson. In a discussion a while back with Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post, Carlson, the top editor at the Daily Caller, spoke of journalism's simplicity:
You went to journalism school? Really? What did you do there? I don't even know what that means. I don't know what that is. Journalism school? Is there a more straightforward trade than journalism? It's not a profession. Plumbing is a profession. You can flood somebody's basement. It's a complicated business. Journalism? Find out what happened and tell your readers. How hard is that? The inverted pyramid. OK, story structure. I can teach that in an afternoon -- and I do. Spell the names right? OK, get a dictionary. It's just not .
The Erik Wemple Blog has no gripe with Carlson's attack on journalism school. But the craft isn't that simple. It's not too hard to write, "IRS Scandal: Government messed up." Yet once you get a few levels deeper, into just who knew what, from whom and how--then, things get complicated. There are many agencies, offices and officials involved, and botching the details, as discussed above, means something.
Further, have a look at this excerpt from Carney's Monday briefing:
But on April 24th, as I said, the White House Counsel, Kathy Ruemmler, was informed that the Inspector General for Tax Administration was completing a report about line IRS employees improperly scrutinizing what are known as 501(c)(4) organizations by using words such as "tea party" and "patriot." Counsel was further informed that the report had not been finalized and the publication date of the report was uncertain but likely soon.
(I highlighted the bold text to highlight the passive-voice constructions with the potential to trip up even careful reporters.) Carney also explained:
After that initial notification in April, the White House Counsel informed the Chief of Staff and other members of the senior staff. At no time did anyone on the White House staff intervene with the IRS Inspector General audit. There were communications between White House Counsel's Office and White House Chief of Staff's Office, with Treasury Office of General Counsel and Treasury's Chief of Staff Office to understand the anticipated timing of the release of the report and the potential findings by the IG.
Got all that?
The news orgs involved in the IRS-Treasury media bloodbath are showing exemplary corrective hygiene, for the most part.
Politico hung corrections on both of its stories, though this one errs on the cryptic side:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Treasury Department's interaction with White House officials last month. It was a conversation.
The Hill hung a correction on its piece, though it also errs on the cryptic side:
Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct who Deputy White House Chief of Staff Mark Childress spoke with about the strategy for revealing the IRS's actions.
CNN, after being contacted by the Erik Wemple Blog, reviewed the story's evolution and ultimately penned a correction.
Dan Eggen, an editor at The Post, is looking into its story.
The New York Times didn't issue a correction to its piece nor did it respond to multiple requests for comment.
Andrea Tantaros advises listeners to punch Obama supporters
On her radio show yesterday, Fox News provocateur Andrea Tantaros mouthed an impassioned defense of journalists against the intrusions of the Obama administration:
Let me tell you how people and journalists are being treated these days. They are being stalked, they are being spied on. In Missouri, a news station fired an anchor who talked about the IRS shakedown. Yeah, fired. This is how corrupt the left is. And now, journalists can't even get into the IRS offices in Ohio, where this alleged scandal started, without an armed guard. This is what is happening to our press.
Those remarks make clear that Tantaros is an admirer of the First Amendment. As she rightly should be, given what she said later in the same monologue:
This is Obama's America. It's like the Soviet Union. He said he'd change the country. He said it. He said it. He said it. And a lot of people voted for him. And if you see any of those people today, punch them in the face.
Later, in a chat with a caller, rock 'em-sock 'em Tantaros returned to the mic:
To be clear, I didn't say punch Obama in the face -- you're going to get me arrested with this type of government. If someone voted for him. If someone voted for him. If anyone that you know who voted for President Obama, smack him down, please.
Under our great First Amendment, Tantaros's near-incitement to violence would appear to be protected expression.
For shielding her comments from criminal prosecution, Tantaros should thank a 1969 Supreme Court decision in the case Brandenburg v. Ohio.
That ruling said, in effect, that states may not criminalize thuggish speech, except when such speech "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."
Clay Calvert, who teaches media law to journalism students at the University of Florida (and is frequently consulted by this blog), lays out his analysis:
First, it is not likely she actually intends for people to go out and physically strike Obama voters. Second, even if she did intend this, there is the question of imminence -- there must be a very short time period between the speech in question and the action that results from it in order for the speech to constitute an incitement to violence. Not likely people listening to her radio show are going hear her words and then immediately jump out their cars or leave their homes to find an Obama voter. Finally, and most importantly, it's simply not likely or at all probable that anyone would actually follow her command, especially because the words leading up to her call to punch Obama voters make it clear she's in the middle of a political rant.
Or because no one takes seriously the things she says in any case.
Maddow shames Republicans and InfoWars conspiracist Alex Jones
Every TV commentator in the land has to decide whether to give air time to fringe inhabitants. Those on the most extreme edges of politics, after all, might be entertaining or horrifying, but rarely are they relevant. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has a test for such poeple: If their notions or ideas ever happen to merge with mainstream American politics, it's not only fair game, it's obligatory game. So that's why, on Wednesday night's show, she addressed the loony notions of InfoWars's Alex Jones with respect to the Oklahoma tornado. It may not have been as natural an event as you're being led to believe, suggested Jones. "They," said Jones on his talk program, apparently referring to the government, "can create and steer groups of tornadoes." That said, he conceded that he didn't know whether the Oklahoma tornado was "a weather weapon or not."
After playing the Jones weather-weapon clip, Maddow turned toward the intersection of Jones with American politics. Specifically, a certain brand of politics:
Alex Jones should be disqualified from participating in Republican Party politics. His crackpot theories shouldn't prompt hearings in Congress and they shouldn't inspire actual legislation in Congress, and you shouldn't do a money bomb on his show running for Congress. Do not fundraise on this theater of the absurd by showing yourself to be one with this guy, really. He says the tornado was a conspiracy -- the tornado. Can we agree it is over now, Republicans, going on his show, really? Can we agree? Please?
Fox News's Roger Ailes responds to Justice Dept. investigation
Fox News chief Roger Ailes has sent a memo to his subordinates at the leading cable news network. He sent this memo to his staff today in connection with the federal investigation into an alleged leak to Fox News reporter James Rosen, a story that the Washington Post's Ann E. Marimow broke earlier this week.
The memo's a masterpiece, too. For all those who wonder what it is about Ailes that endears his people to him -- and that makes him such a good interviewee for any media reporter lucky enough to get an audience with him -- just read this.
The recent news about the FBI's seizure of the phone and email records of Fox News employees, including James Rosen, calls into question whether the federal government is meeting its constitutional obligation to preserve and protect a free press in the United States. We reject the government's efforts to criminalize the pursuit of investigative journalism and falsely characterize a Fox News reporter to a Federal judge as a "co-conspirator" in a crime. I know how concerned you are because so many of you have asked me: why should the government make me afraid to use a work phone or email account to gather news or even call a friend or family member? Well, they shouldn't have done it. The administration's attempt to intimidate Fox News and its employees will not succeed and their excuses will stand neither the test of law, the test of decency, nor the test of time. We will not allow a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era, to frighten any of us away from the truth.
I am proud of your tireless effort to report the news over the last 17 years. I stand with you, I support you and I thank you for your reporting with courageous optimism. Too many Americans fought and died to protect our unique American right of press freedom. We can't and we won't forget that. To be an American journalist is not only a great responsibility, but also a great honor. To be a Fox journalist is a high honor, not a high crime. Even this memo of support will cause some to demonize us and try to find irrelevant things to cause us to waver. We will not waver.
As Fox News employees, we sometimes are forced to stand alone, but even then when we know we are reporting what is true and what is right, we stand proud and fearless. Thank you for your hard work and all your efforts.