With so many garish spectacles to feast your eyes on at the 33-ring Trump circus, some clowns are easy to miss. Especially the ones performing in proximity to Sean Spicer. Pry your eyes away from the Pagliacci of the Pressroom for a moment, however, and look hard at some of his supporting buffoons. They may not have attracted the notice of Saturday Night Live yet. But now that the White House is blocking outlets like The New York Times, BBC, and Politico from some press briefings, the ones who are still there are becoming an increasingly important part of the story.
Meet “Trey,” for instance—Trey Yingst, Washington correspondent of the “One America News Network,” a cable channel begun in partnership with the Unification Church’s Washington Times, which has since gone independent. One America owner Charles Herring explained why he started the venture: “There’s nothing wrong with Fox. The problem is that if you take the [standard cable] channel lineup, the sources of national news tend to lean to the left . . . and all we have is Fox.” One America’s Foxier-than-Fox programming includes “Jihad: The Grand Deception,” “Escape from Iran,” “Target America,” and an interview show, “On Point,” once hosted by Sarah Palin. One America was included in the press briefing from which The New York Times and BBC were banned.
And Spicer sure likes One America’s man in Washington. During Trump’s first month in the White House, Spicer called on Trey four times. The third time, after he answered Trey’s stumper—“What is the President willing to do to investigate further to determine where these leaks are coming from?”— and the press gaggle started shouting out their own questions, Spicer sounded for all the world like a wounded first-grader. “Hold On! Trey gets a follow up! Everyone else got one!”
Lars Larson is a better-known figure. He’s the top conservative talk radio host in Portland, Oregon, and an occasional fill-in for Rush Limbaugh. Larson was the second person called upon via webcam the day the White House Press Room’s “Skype seat” was inaugurated. Lars first thanked “Commander Spicer” for taking his questions (Spicer has never served in the active-duty[*] military, but he has a commander rank in the Navy reserves), then said, “Thanks for your service to America.” Next came the probing questions. “Does President Trump want to start returning the people’s land to the people? . . . Can he tell the Forest Service to start logging our forests aggressively again to provide jobs for Americans, wealth for the Treasury, and not spend $3.5 billion a year fighting forest fires?” These stinging queries surely came as welcome relief for Spicer, who had just got through dodging dagger thrusts from Kristen Welker of NBC, about what the White House meant when it claimed to have put Iran “on notice.”
And on February 14—Valentine’s Day—when Spicer found himself in a sweat keeping his stories straight about the firing of General Flynn, he went to the Skype seat for a save from “Jason Stevens of the Federalist Paper in Ashland, Ohio.” It turns out to be nearly impossible to identify this particular media juggernaut via Google, but your humble correspondent’s embarrassingly boundless knowledge of right-wing institutions is helpful. I recalled that there is a small right-wing college in Ashland, Ohio, which is how I learned that Professor Stevens’s “Federalist Papers Project” fulfills its mission of purveying “The History & Civics Schools Don’t Teach”—not only by giving away free e-books about the Founding Fathers but via articles like “WATCH: Maxine Waters UNHINGED; Goes Insane on Live TV” and “BREAKING: Feds Stop Nightmare Scenario ISIS Style Attack,” all underwritten by pop-up ads for survivalist meal plans with “25-Year Shelf Life, ‘Disaster-Proof’ Packaging.”
Another Spicer favorite is Katie Pavlich. Don’t know Katie? She’s the extremely blond Fox News regular and Townhall.com correspondent who authored such timeless classics as Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and Its Shameless Cover-Up and Assault and Flattery: The Truth About the Left and Their War on Women. Pavlich was called on three times within a fortnight to confront Spicer with riddles like: “Is President Trump planning to ask the Senate to expedite legislation allowing for the swift firing of bad VA employees?” And, concerning “a declared genocide by ISIS against Christians and other minority and religious groups . . . what specifically is the administration planning to do to comply with the legal obligations of protecting these groups under the U.N. 1948 treaty?”
Returned Spicer: “That’s a great question!” They always are, when Sean’s valentines are doing the asking.
When a former male escort named Jeff Gannon (né James Dale Guckert) began popping up in George W. Bush’s White House press room during the Iraq War, representing a not-quite-legitimate news organization called “Talon News,” which turned out to be operated by the Republican National Committee, and asking questions that sounded suspiciously like plants —“How are you going to work with [Senate Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”—it was a minor scandal. Regarding most matters Republican and scandalous, our concerns from a dozen years ago almost seem quaint.
Now the ones routinely asking the questions are “news organizations” like The Daily Signal, published by the Heritage Foundation; Breitbart News, which White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon used to run; and the London Daily Mail, which was banned as a source by Wikipedia for its “reputation for poor fact-checking and sensationalism.” Now, we have a Gannon-league loon as press secretary.
When Sean Spicer’s college newspaper printed his letter to the editor complaining about campus smoking regulations over the name “Sean Sphincter,” he complained, “The First Amendment does uphold the right to free speech, however, this situation goes beyond the bounds of free speech.” Then he more or less sued the paper, attempting to bring it up on charges before college authorities.
Today, Spicer has opened the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to “journalists” who have made their reputations “beyond the bounds of free speech.” The now-disgraced alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos, whose defense of pedophilia cost him a book contract and a speaking gig at CPAC, once got credentials to attend a White House press briefing. The aggressively incorrect hate site Gateway Pundit has a permanent seat, which is occupied by serial doxxer Lucian Wintrich. He has no previous journalistic experience, though he curated a “Twinks4Trump” art exhibit that included homoerotic photos of shirtless men wearing “Make America Great” caps. The Twinks exhibit included works by Yiannopoulos, James O’Keefe,[*] and indicted “Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, I kid you not.
But we should focus on more than just the personalities, because there is method behind this madness. The “Skype seat,” for example. The people representing major news organizations in the White House press room, whatever their faults, are at least seasoned media veterans whose professional amour propre depends on their willingness to follow up when the answer is evasive. Spicer often finds the questions asked by these White House reporters challenging.
On February 2, for example, in the wake of the massacre at a Quebec City mosque, Spicer was asked what Trump would do to make sure “homegrown violence doesn’t happen within our country.” His loopy response began, “Well, there’s a lot of things. Number one, he’s talked cyber — I mean, he’s looking at it from every angle. I think the first thing is to make sure that we look at our borders.”
He continued, “I mean, so there is a holistic approach to both immigration and there’s a direct nexus between immigration and national security and personal security that he has to look at.” Then he promised the administration would be “working with the NSA and FBI to be ahead of the curve”—either ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the National Security Agency is (for now) legally enjoined from spying on Americans.
“If I may,” came the follow-up, “these are homegrown—Oklahoma was an American kid.”
Non-sequitured Spicer, “That’s what I’m saying. . .”
Quicksand like that is why it’s handy to have on tap the cream of the nation’s crop of blow-dried Ron Burgundies. The Skype seat opens White House press briefings to representatives of local network affiliate news organizations, whose business model is fundamentally compromised and corrupt. As John Nichols and Robert McChesney document in Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, the rapidly dwindling number of conglomerates that own network affiliates earn staggering windfall profits selling ads to political campaigns, as much as 35 percent of their revenue in election years. Senator Bill Bradley once described election campaigns as “collections agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations.” In 2012, for example, Fox’s Washington, D.C., affiliate added a half hour to its newscast—not to report more campaign news, but to accommodate more campaign advertising.
It’s worth noting, too, that local broadcast outlets receive their licenses to use the public airwaves (and to print money) from the Federal Communications Commission. If they fall too far afoul of the Trump administration, they may be putting their licenses at risk.
So the Skype seat is not exactly a formula for hard-hitting accountability journalism. It’s more likely a clever ruse to crowd it out.
To be fair, some of the local folks have given it the old college try. Kim Kalunian of WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island, and Courtis Fuller of WLWT in Cincinnati asked tough questions about what Trump’s promise to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities” will mean for their cities. John Huck, of what Spicer called “WKVVU,” asked how rolling back financial regulations would not expose Las Vegas homeowners once screwed by lending practices that led to the 2007 crash “to the risky behaviors that tanked our economy last time.” Joyce Kaufman of WFTL-West Palm Beach (home to Mar-a-Lago) zeroed in on Trump’s lax security at dinner there with the Japanese prime minister.
And if the outlet is a station like WMUR of Manchester, New Hampshire, well, no worries there. Can you imagine what a license to blast campaign commercials day and night in election years is worth to its owner, the Hearst Corporation? “Hey, Sean, thanks for taking the question,” opened a friendly February 3 colloquy with WMUR’s Josh McElveen. “I know you’re looking forward to the Patriots coming down in a couple of months. . .”
And don’t expect Skype seaters from Sinclair Media regional outlets to challenge Spicer. The second largest owner of television stations in the United States, Sinclair’s consistent history of attempts to sabotage Democratic (and democratic) campaigns goes back at least to October 2004, when it was announced that all 62 Sinclair stations (it now owns 154) would preempt primetime programming to air Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s anti-John Kerry propaganda documentary Stolen Honor. The Democratic National Committee sued, and the show never ran. Sinclair’s CEO David Smith, in an article on how his company was tripling investor expectations in 2012, gushed, “the political business . . . is an ever-expanding business . . . I don’t see any evidence that it’s ever going to go away.”
Not, certainly, with Smith laundering influence directly through the president. As I wrote here in January, a fact not reported anywhere else, Smith’s yeoman work on behalf of the Trump campaign was rewarded with a guest of honor slot in the inaugural parade, which the network CEO used to promote a new Sinclair-financed cable station. Less than a month later, Trump called Scott Thuman, of Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate by name for the first question in his press briefing with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada. That was the one where Trump suspiciously did not entertain a single question regarding the resignation General Mike Flynn. (Jonathan Karl of ABC shouted one out. “He sure seemed to hear the question but did not answer,” he tweeted later.) Reported AdWeek’s “TVSpy” column, “It’s rare that a local TV news reporter would be called on during such an event. In fact, other White House reporters wanted to know if Thuman had been told he was going to be called on. He says he wasn’t, but that he was advised to attend.”
Next it was Kaitlan Collins, of the right-wing site the Daily Caller, who brought the heat: “What do you see as the most important national security matter facing us?” Kaitlan’s been another Spicer valentine, though possibly not for long. After the White House blocked the New York Times, CNN, and Politico from a press gaggle in Sean Spicer’s office, but allowed in Breitbart News, she publicly posted everything Spicer had said in the closed-door briefing.
Love sours sometimes, Mr. Spicer. Nobody loves a lying sad clown. When you’ve lost Kaitlan Collins, Mr. Spicer, what’s next: Breitbart News?
Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s National Correspondent.
[*] Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said “Spicer has never served in the military.” In fact, Spicer claims 17 years of experience as a public affairs officer in the Navy reserves.
[*] Correction: This article has been revised to remove an inaccurate description of legal charges brought in 2010 against James O’Keefe. In an earlier published version, a parenthetical phrase entered by the editor mischaracterized a crime to which O’Keefe pled guilty after he entered U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu’s office in January 2010. O’Keefe was not, as we reported, “convicted of breaking into a U.S. Senator’s office to gather news.” He, in fact, pled guilty to a misdemeanor.
As the Associated Press reported at the time of sentencing in May 2010:
“O’Keefe, Stan Dai, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan were arrested on January 25, 2010, in the offices of Senator Mary Landrieu on felony charges, but federal prosecutors later reduced the charges.”
“O’Keefe, 25, and the others pleaded guilty on Wednesday to misdemeanor charges of entering federal property under false pretenses…They were sentenced to probation, community service and fines. O’Keefe received the heaviest sentence, three years probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1,500 fine.”