There’s some important context missing from Politico’s report Wednesday making the (dubious) claim the Trump campaign skillfully colluded with conservative media outlets before the election to get him positive coverage.
Central to Politico’s report is an attempt to make the pedestrian look salacious, in order to ding President Donald Trump as a big baby who if left alone for too long will make a mess on Twitter. But it’s actually common practice for communications departments, corporate and government, to both place and tout employers coverage that reflects well on the brand. It’s also common for presidents to have preferred outlets (typically that reinforce political decisions).
Finally, while there is little evidence of Trump colluding with conservative or right-of-center reporters, there is ample evidence of Hillary Clinton and her Democrat surrogates playing the media’s elite like a violin — including Politico’s own former reporter Maggie Haberman.
Clinton communications staffers absolutely fawned over Haberman in an email released by Wikileaks during the campaign, saying she was a “friendly” reporter who had “teed up” good stories for Clinton before, and that they had “never been disappointed” by her coverage.
“We have has a very good relationship with Maggie Haberman of Politico over the last year,” a memo titled “Earned Media/Next Steps” written by the Clinton communications team said. “We have had her tee up stories for us before and have never been disappointed. While we should have a larger conversation in the near future about a broader strategy for reengaging the beat press that covers HRC, for this we think we can achieve our objective and do the most shaping by going to Maggie.”
Haberman is now a star politics reporter at The New York Times, along with Glenn Thrush, another former Politico reporter who the Wikileaks dump revealed was sending stories to the Clinton campaign for approval. Thrush jokingly described himself as a “hack” for the campaign in an email to John Podesta in which he agreed to send part of his story for approval before publishing.
“No worries Because I have become a hack I will send u the whole section that pertains to u,” Thrush wrote to the Clinton campaign chairman in an April 2015 email. “Please don’t share or tell anyone I did this Tell me if I fucked up anything.”
The emails showing Thrush and Haberman’s tight relationship with the Clinton campaign were just a few of the many emails that revealed a pervasive culture among political media elites in which journalists operate more like political operatives than enterprising reporters. (RELATED: Leaked Documents Reveal Which Journalists Are Cozy With The Clinton Campaign)
So on the one hand, we have actual evidence that a number of prominent reporters, including former Politico stars, were absolutely over-the-top cozy with the Clinton campaign. On the other hand, we have an unnamed former campaign official making the dubious claim that Trump’s team skillfully planted stories in conservative outlets to stop him from going on Twitter.
Let’s take a closer look at that claim. Here’s what the official told Politico:
During another damage-control mission, when former Miss Universe Alicia Machado took to the airwaves to call out Trump for calling her “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping,” the communications team scrambled to place a story in conservative-friendly outlets like Fox News, the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller and Breitbart.
A former senior campaign official said Nunberg and his successor, former communications director Jason Miller, were particularly skilled at using alternative media like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, Infowars and the Daily Caller to show Trump positive coverage.
And once they got the stories published, campaign officials with large numbers of Twitter followers would tweet them out.
First, it’s not clear the Trump campaign was actually that effective in “planting” any stories in the outlets Politico mentions.
Within hours of the report going live, a White House correspondent for The Washington Examiner disputed the report on Twitter. “I covered candidate Trump for 16 months,” Gabby Morrongiello wrote. “Not once did his comms team try to ‘place a story’ in WEX for positive coverage. This is garbage”
As a politics reporter who covered the campaign for The Daily Caller News Foundation, I can assure you I wasn’t fielding a lot of emails from the Trump campaign. My colleagues at The Daily Caller tell me the same, and that the Alicia Machado story referenced appeared on the site thanks to … a good old fashioned Google search.
What does Politico mean here by “alternative media” anyways? Of course it is true conservative outlets often highlight different stories or frame them differently than the corporate press, but thinking outside their liberal box hardly requires a phone call from a devious comms director.
Even if Miller was doing exactly what the report says — pitching stories to reporters that would forward Trump’s campaign narrative, and then showing off the resulting clips to his boss — anyone who works inside the beltway knows this is standard comms procedure. Politico is slamming him over his job description.
For an example of someone really excelling at this position, look no further than Ben Rhodes, a communications and foreign policy big whig for former President Barack Obama. He’s credited with selling the Iran deal to the public by skillfully manipulating — and lying to — the media. He revealed how he successfully shaped the narrative in a New York Times Magazine profile, in which he said of the average White House reporter: “They literally know nothing.”
Rhodes relied on a few “compadres” in the press, prominent Washington reporters his team could rely on to regurgitate their messaging, to spread the narratives he planted in a seemingly organic fashion on Twitter. He became “adept at ventriloquizing many people at once” through this method (“ventriloquizing” here is a two-dollar word for puppetry). At the same time, his team worked to stack think tanks and outside groups with people who thought along White House lines, so that reporters who called for “independent” analysis would end up getting another version of the same talking points he planted with them.
“We created an echo chamber,” he admitted.
“The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented … was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal,” David Samuels wrote in the profile. “Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false.”
If Miller and the rest of Trump’s comms team was in fact trying to drum up positive coverage to keep Trump off of Twitter during the campaign, they clearly weren’t very successful. What presidential candidate or president doesn’t want to read positive coverage of themselves? That’s hardly groundbreaking news.
Take Obama. The guy apparently devoured favorable media coverage. His favorite columnists, according to a dripping Buzzfeed writeup, include liberal blogger Ezra Klein, a frequent visitor at the White House who wrote adoringly of Obama, and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, another liberal who assured everyone after the election that “Obama’s Legacy Is More Secure Than You, Or The GOP, Think.” Most of all, he seemed to love The New York Times, which he read in print daily.
The thrust of Politico’s report is that Trump is a big baby who can’t be left alone for too long or he will cause a huge mess, in this case on Twitter. There may be some truth to that, but a comms guy communicating with reporters to drum up stories that push the White House narrative ain’t it.
Let’s not get too worked up over a couple of flaks doing their jobs.
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