Here are the top 10 media scandals of the year 2016.
- FAKE NEWS’S EVIL EMPIRE
The circulation of falsehoods to spread fear and hatred, often for political gain, is nothing new. Hitler’s use of the “Big Lie”—which “always [has] a certain force of credibility,” as he wrote in Mein Kampf, because the “broad masses” would never believe anyone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”—is a well-known example.
FAKE NEWS TRACED
A recent Politico magazine article traced the fake news phenomenon—which social media and online algorithms allowed to exercise unprecedented power over the 2016 presidential campaign—to Easter Sunday, 1475, when a Franciscan friar in Trent, Italy, conveyed a series of sermons blaming the city’s Jews for the disappearance of a Christian toddler; in a Passover rite, they supposedly drained the little boy’s blood and drank it—the original “blood libel” that activated the Prince-Bishop of Trent to order the city’s Jewish population arrested, tortured and, in the case of 15 victims, burned at the stake.
FAKE NEWS OF 2016
While the fake news of 2016 didn’t, so far as we know, result in anybody’s death, it did provoke a 28-year-old North Carolina man to fire his AR-15 assault rifle inside a popular Washington, D.C., pizza parlor on Dec. 4, seemingly to rescue the enslaved children caught up in a pedophilia ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta. That big lie reportedly started on a white supremacist Twitter account in late October, spread virally to online forums such as Reddit and 4chan, was picked up by various fake news sites, dispersed by Facebook, where it earned hundreds of thousands of user interactions, and was eventually endorsed by Michael G. Flynn Jr., the son and past chief of staff to President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser. (Young Flynn was fired from the transition team after tweeting: “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.”)
FLYNN THE ELDER
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s go-to guy on global crises, has also embraced false fake news conspiracy theories—for instance, that Florida’s Democratic state senators had voted to impose Sharia law—and Trump himself has trustingly repeated any number of fake news whoppers: e.g., that three million non-citizen immigrants voted illegally for Clinton, that Democratic operatives had hired protesters to disrupt his rallies and march in protest of his election victory, and that former Republican rival Ted Cruz’s Cuban-born father was somehow involved in the JFK assassination.
Even mainstream media outlets—Fox News being a prominent example—have at times being tricked into reporting fabrications as fact. While the Washington Post claimed that Kremlin-associated or inspired web sites were spreading lies to undermine American democracy and circulate Putin-friendly propaganda, the fake news epidemic—like a lot of bad things—seems to come down to money. Practitioners ranging from teenagers in Macedonia to impresarios in the United States discovered that they could make an easy buck in their spare time at home by creating sensational clickbait on legitimate-sounding “news” sites and pocket the cash from internet ads sold against their tall tales.
- THE MAINSTREAMING OF ‘TRUMPBART’
The late Andrew Breitbart, who started his web operation in 2007 as a rebellious antidote to the powers that be and what he saw as the liberal media establishment, would be amazed at what his creation has become: the influential arm of the coming Trump presidency.
After Breitbart died of a heart attack at age 43 in early 2012, his collection of news and opinion sites was taken over by Steve Bannon, a daring former Goldman Sachs banker-turned-filmmaker who altered Breitbart News into a vehicle for angry right-wing populism, pumped millions into the site from conservative billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, and took his fashion cues from an unmade bed.
Bannon, who was dubbed “the most dangerous political operative in America” by Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, had what in reconsideration seems amazing clairvoyance when he immediately figured out—when other media outlets were treating Trump’s candidacy as an amusing sideshow—that the blunt-spoken reality show star was a serious contender. Trump was the tribune of economic nationalism and the enemy of globalism and job-killing immigration. He was, Bannon decided, the hero of Breitbart’s white working class readers, whose numbers approached 20 million.
The fact that many of Trump’s supporters (and Breitbart’s fans) were white racists and anti-Semites—who delighted in tweeting images of Nazis and ovens at Trump’s conventionally conservative critics who happened to be Jewish—didn’t seem to bother Bannon or Breitbart’s editor in chief, Alex Marlow. Indeed, they published a headline calling NeverTrump neocon Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.”
When Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh took to Twitter to lecture unpleasantly about Mexicans, Indians and African Americans (“British settlers built the USA. ‘Slaves’ built the country much as cows ‘built’ McDonald’s”), Marlow declared: “Neither Steve nor I are big fans of Twitter, but after reviewing these tweets, we’re considering giving Katie a weekly column.”
CEO OF TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN
Bannon, who in August signed on as the CEO of Trump’s campaign, leaving the site’s political coverage in the reliable hands of Trump booster Matthew Boyle, told reporters: “If a guy comes after our audience—starts calling working-class people vulgarians and brownshirts and Nazis and post-literate—we’re going to leave a mark. We’re not shy about it at all. We’ve got some lads that like to mix it up.”
It’s a never-back-down philosophy that Breitbart’s Bannon will undoubtedly take into the White House as Trump’s chief strategist.
- TRUMP’S INSANE NEW MEDIA ESTABLISHMENT
Mere days after winning the presidency—according to astonishing real-news stories that remain contradicted—Donald Trump got on the phone to thank InfoWars.com founder Alex Jones for his unwavering support.
JONES LUNATIC FANTASIES
The 42-year-old Jones, a spreader of lunatic fantasies (like when he suggested that the Dec. 14, 2012 mass shooting-deaths of 26 first-graders and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax committed by the liberal media and gun-control advocates), isn’t simply a shock jock whose radio show then-candidate Trump graced with a lengthy interview during the primaries.
Jones is at the lead of a once-marginal alt-media cabal that not only expects to have a direct line to the White House after Inauguration Day, but is also intimidating the primacy and influence of traditional news outlets, which the 45th president has frequently called “scum.”
The Trump-inspired new media order includes Jones’s conspiracy-minded InfoWars colleague, British-born controversialist Paul Joseph Watson; cultist Irish-Canadian podcaster Stefan Molyneux; white nationalist rabble rouser Milo Yiannopoulos (nominally the tech editor of Breitbart News, but better known for his personal brand of minority-baiting and misogynist outrage); right-wing rumor-monger Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit; hoaxer-videographer James O’Keefe of Veritas; self-styled male empowerment guru and alt-right operative Mike Cernovich, who is frequently described as a rape apologist; and internet troll Charles C. (“Chuck”) Johnson of Gotnews.com.
“A lot of my friends are going to be in the White House, so it’s very exciting, to put it mildly,” Johnson declared in the warmth of the election. “We were always connected to the Trump people at the very highest levels…It’s pretty crazy that Celebrity Apprentice is the preparation for having the nuke codes, but I’ll take it.”
- ROGER AILES’S SHOCKING DOWNFALL
The year also saw the embarrassing ouster of Roger Ailes, Fox News’s founder and chairman—the man who had ruled the No. 1 cable network as a personal fiefdom for two decades.
BUILT FOX NEWS
The 76-year-old Ailes, a legendary former Republican ad-maker and TV genius, had built Fox News from nothing into the most profitable subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s multimedia empire, throwing off a billion dollars a year.
An intimidating figure with a malicious streak, Ailes commanded loyalty—or else. Nobody could have predicted that fired anchor Gretchen Carlson’s wrongful termination lawsuit on July 6—rife with credible allegations that Ailes had sexually harassed her, prompting similar accounts of misconduct from more than a dozen other women, including prime-time star Megyn Kelly—would result in his forced departure barely two weeks later, with Carlson winning a stunning $20 million settlement. (Ailes, whose exile was reduced by an abortive stint as one of Trump’s debate coaches, could at least support himself that his own severance package was worth twice that amount.)
- GLENN BECK’S MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER
Like the shape-shifting androids in the Terminator movies, the financially-struggling, lawsuit-prone founder of Mercury Radio Arts and The Blaze, has spent the year in endless reinvention. As his once-prosperous media empire underwent painful downsizing, the 52-year-old began 2016 as an fervent NeverTrumper who stumped for Ted Cruz—and ended it as the darling of the New York Times (where he wrote on Op-Ed empathizing with the Black Lives Matter movement), Charlie Rose, Lawrence O’Donnell, Vice News, and even left-leaning satirist Samantha Bee, who welcomed her new friend to her late-night TBS show, Full Frontal.
The two trashed Trump, held hands, ate ice cream and Beck—apparently desperate for her to like him—confessed: “As a guy who has done damage, I don’t want to do any more damage. I know what I did. I helped divide—I’m willing to take that. My message to you is: Please don’t make the mistakes I made. And I think all of us are doing it. We’re doing it on Facebook; we’re doing it on Twitter. We tear each other apart and we don’t see the human on the other side.”
NOT THE FIRST TIME
This was not the first time that Beck, a former radio shock jock who once phoned a rival’s wife on the air and mocked her for having a miscarriage, has apologized for disgusting behavior, including making a career out of incendiary, hurtful statements—especially his assertion, during his stint seven years ago as a Fox News host, that President Obama is “a racist” who has a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture”; and that Michelle Obama “is a monster. She is Lady Macbeth. She is a frightening woman.”
Nearly three years ago—before he once again reverted to divisive form—Beck told Megyn Kelly: “I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language, because I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart.”
One of Beck’s former business associates predicted Beck’s liberal lovefest won’t last long: “I think he’s up to his sixth apology cycle now, where he’s onto the mainstream media when they’re supporting him, and then he realizes he’s going to get burned, and he runs away from them. He’s basically flailing.”
- BILLY BUSH GETS FIRED, TRUMP BECOMES PRESIDENT
Prior to the new normal, in which a presidential candidate can mock a prisoner of war, make fun of the disabled, insult a Gold Star family, and suffer zero consequences, the 12-year-old Access Hollywood outtake video—a leaked October surprise in which Billy Bush was heard giggling like a frat boy while the future Republican nominee boasted that his celebrity status allowed him to “grab [women] by the pussy”—would surely have killed Trump’s campaign.
The newly minted Today show co-host, who officially joined NBC’s morning franchise in late August, might even have found a way to keep his job. Instead, in a Bizarro World twist, Billy Bush’s career—like that of his cousin Jeb—suffered an instant meltdown at the grabby hands of Trump. And the principal culprit lived to fight another day.
- THE RISE AND FALL OF COREY LEWANDOWSKI
Hardly anyone in the media-political multifaceted had heard of the first of Trump’s three campaign managers—a former lobbyist, Koch Brothers PAC staffer and New Hampshire cop-trainee—when he attained instant ill repute as the blunt instrument of his candidate’s anti-media juggernaut.
By Election Day, after Trump had replaced him first with Russian apologist and Ukrainian autocrat lobbyist Paul Manafort and, finally, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, the 43-year-old Lewandowski was a genuine celebrity.
CHARACTER FROM CARTOONS
He was practically a cartoon character: the crew-cut hothead with a hair-trigger temper and a taste for internal conflict, along with a decided lack of diplomacy in his relations with Trump’s adult children. Those traits got him sacked from the campaign in June—and immediately hired by CNN.
WRONG FOR CNN
Lewandowksi became the personification of everything CNN’s critics believed was wrong with how the cable network rolled over for Trump—airing endless hours of Trump rallies, along with a small army of zany Trump surrogates—in the chase for ratings and advertising revenue.
While CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker continues to defend his decision to pay Lewandowski handsomely (though perhaps not the rumored $500,000) to recite Trump campaign talking points and squabble on-air with Hillary Clinton supporters, the choice was greeted with near-universal contempt by the media establishment, especially since Lewandowski had signed a non-disclosure agreement with his former boss. “It’s like, ‘I’m going to take this guy in leg irons and have him run a race for me,’” veteran Washington Post political reporter, Karen Tumulty, stated when confronting Zucker during a Nov. 30 panel discussion at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Lewandowski ended up embarrassing the network when news broke that he was receiving a $20,000-per-month severance payment from the Trump campaign at the same time that he was appearing on CNN to be, as he claimed to Erin Burnett, “a guy who calls balls and strikes” who was “going to tell it like it is.”
Lewandowski, who had cursed and bullied one of CNN’s own reporters during a Trump campaign rally, and briefly faced criminal assault charges after manhandling then-Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields, seemed to enjoy the role of villain.
ACCUSED CLINTON OF HYPOCRISY
In the hours of election night, after it was clear his candidate had scored a stunning upset victory, Lewandowski continued in attack-dog mode, accusing Clinton of “hypocrisy” for not immediately delivering a concession speech.
He was unfazed when a clearly distressed Clinton supporter, Van Jones, quietly scolded: “Corey, you’re being a horrible person right now.”
He and CNN parted ways on Nov. 11, and on Wednesday—after failing to obtain a White House job—he announced that he’s launching a Washington consulting firm a few doors from the White House, apparently to help drain the swamp.
- KELLY AND MICHAEL’S ‘LIVE!’ DIVORCE
The televised dustup between longtime Live! Star Kelly Ripa and her newbie co-host Michael Strahan, who in April blindsided his former mentor by forgetting to tell her that after four years on Live! he was fishing to leave ABC’s popular daytime program for hosting gigs on Good Morning America and The $100,000 Pyramid, was a welcome change from the snowballing noxious presidential campaign.
After Strahan rudely informed Ripa of his plans minutes after their April 19 broadcast, she went on an extended strike, refusing to appear alongside him—sparking endless commentary on whether she was a feminist heroine, refusing to accept sexist betrayal and insult, or a spoiled-brat diva, or possibly even committing a racial micro-aggression against the African American ex-football star. She stayed away until she received an apology from Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of ABC’s parent company, Disney.
“I’m going to be completely honest. I’m fairly certain there are trained professional snipers with tranquilizer darts, in case I drift too far off message,” she told her studio audience on her return. “So what transpired, though, over the course of a few days has been extraordinary, in the sense that it started a much greater conversation about communications and consideration, and most importantly, respect in the workplace”—a none-too-veiled reference to how dismally she believed she’d been treated by, among others, Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, the principal author of this riveting melodrama.
In the end, Ripa soldiered on and gave Strahan a dutiful on-air farewell, though it was less “parting is such sweet sorrow” than “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”
- BRIWI’S REHAB: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
If 2015 was devoted to Brian Williams’s crucifixion, albeit a self-inflicted one, this year was all about the former NBC Nightly News anchor’s resurrection. After admitting his sins of invention and exaggeration to a fatherly Matt Lauer in June 2015 —via a Today show interview rather than a confession booth—Williams was deemed adequately chastened to return to the TV studio that September at the end of his six-month unpaid suspension.
The comeback was arranged by his longtime pal and sponsor, NBC News Chairman Andy Lack; Williams resumed anchoring gradually, presiding over breaking news events on MSNBC without mishap. After a year of good behavior, Lack was ready to give his old friend his own 11 p.m. show on the cable network, The 11th Hour with Brian Williams—which the anchor described on his Sept. 6 debut as a temporary gig. “We will be here at this hour from now until election day, when we will cancel ourselves,” he assured viewers.
Of course, Williams shouldn’t be punished if that wasn’t exactly factual. The promised cancellation never happened.
- GAWKER MEDIA, RIP
It turns out that Nick Denton was as wrong about the outcome of the Hulk Hogan trial as the nation’s pollsters were about the odds of a President Hillary Rodham Clinton.
INVASION OF PRIVACY
“There’s a one in ten chance of disaster,” Gawker Media’s founder and then-majority owner calculated in June 2015, as he prepared to go to trial on the invasion of privacy lawsuit filed by Terry Gene Bollea (the celebrity wrestler/reality television star’s real name).
Bollea had gone to court over Gawker’s October 2012 publication of a 101-second sex video excerpt showing him cavorting with his best friend’s wife. “The way I look at it,” Denton added, “it’s a five in ten chance that we come through this stronger, and four in ten it’s a wash. Only one in ten bad.”
At the time, Denton didn’t realize that his death by litigation was being plotted and financed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a California Trump delegate who had carried an eight-year grudge against Gawker Media for reporting accurately, if impolitely, that he is “totally gay.”
NO LONGER EXISTS
Today, less than 18 months after his rosy prediction, Denton’s once-thriving private company no longer exists, having been absorbed by the Latino-oriented multimedia powerhouse Univision, which purchased the Denton’s lifestyle and tech sites in a $135 million bankruptcy sale.
Denton’s personal wealth, once estimated at more than $100 million, transformed into personal bankruptcy. His last-minute edict to make the notoriously snarky Gawker.com “20 percent nicer” didn’t help him escape the severe judgment of an outraged Florida jury, and Bollea—after that jury awarded him $140.1 million in a two-week trial in March—has settled for a $31 million payday (almost $307,000 for each second of the video Gawker published).
The Gawker.com gossip site, for which Denton’s company was named, is no longer active (Univision understandably didn’t want to assume the risk), and should Denton succeed in selling it, Bollea, and two other litigants who filed separate Thiel-funded libel suits, will receive nearly half the proceeds.