The Capitol riot was just the latest tell for propaganda outlets masquerading as newsrooms.
Along with nuclear arms deals, the Afghanistan war, and a proposed $700 billion defense budget, when President-elect Joe Biden’s team steps into the Pentagon this month they’ll have another immediate decision to ponder: Who else gets into the building?
More specifically, the Biden administration’s communications teams will have to decide whether employees of extreme right-wing media outlets should be welcomed as journalists into the U.S. military’s massive headquarters. Should these actors receive credentialled press badges granting 24/7 access to the building, seats in its briefing room, desks to work at in the resident press bullpen, coveted seats on the defense secretary’s plane in the traveling press corps to visit troops at military bases worldwide, and interviews with service secretaries and the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
“This is exactly the kind of question that needs to be asked right now,” said one former Obama administration spokesperson, who could only speak on background due to their current employer’s restrictions. “I do believe that incoming communicators need to have a conversation among themselves about how they're going to operate in this new landscape.”
It’s a concern several current and former government spokespeople have recently shared publicly and privately. Our conversations came before Wednesday’s Capitol Hill riot — an event many commentators believe was stoked by the inflammatory and divisive anti-government rhetoric often featured, highlighted, and celebrated in right-wing partisan media. The mob was incited by President Donald Trump, his sons, his attorney Rudy Giuliani, and others from the stage of Trump’s counter-Biden rally — but more generally by four years of lies and radicalism.
Trump and his team may be leaving office in two weeks, but the rhetoric and sentiments of the millions who support him and the partisan media outlets that carry his messages will not. Here’s how we know. Hours after the riots were quelled, a joint session of Congress resumed its proceedings to accept the Electoral College’s selection of Biden. Trump-backing Republicans had planned to turn the normally unnoticed and largely ceremonial event into a showcase for more lies about election fraud. After the riots, in the House, 147 right-wing members of Congress held the extreme line and followed through with their stunt. Across right-wing media and by the movement’s leaders, the riot was falsely portrayed as a band of patriots, as a peaceful group overtaken by undercover left-wing Antifa actors and as the fault of the media or liberals. There was condemnation of the violence. But there was no pause in the right-wing assault on truth. This is the media landscape awaiting Biden administration communicators about to fan out into the federal government’s national security agencies, with extreme right-wing media outlets foaming rabid at their collective mouths.
John Kirby, former press secretary at the State Department, Defense Department, and top spokesman for Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Navy, discussed the new media landscape on a George Washington University panel last month. “You do have to think about the OANNs and Newsmaxes, because I didn't have to deal with those guys,” said Kirby, now a CNN analyst. “Russia Today was my bane, certainly not Fox News. But you have to deal now with a far more extreme right-wing media landscape than they had to do in the past.”
This will be a new, and complicated, problem for Obama-era professionals returning to the Pentagon and other national security agencies. How do you reach the widest possible audience if much of that audience only gets their news from a slate of extreme-partisan media outlets? Whom should government officials trust?
Hyper-partisan propaganda outlets who favored Donald Trump in 2016 — among them Breitbart, Newsmax, and OANN — have risen to prominence as the president directed his supporters to them. They represented fringe elements of the partisan-fueled press that had grown out of the conservative movement since the 1970s. But in Trump’s 2016 campaign, far-right moguls including Steve Bannon, who was CEO of Trump’s campaign, and his Breitbart News organization latched on to Trump, a New York real estate celebrity who loved an uncritical media spotlight. Together, they amplified his crowd-pleasing, non-stop assault on the “mainstream media” and on reporters as the “enemy of the people.” When Trump entered office, his alt-right and alt-reality supporters followed him into government, and they made sure that those far-right outlets were treated just like hated journalists from CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post, and New York Times, often with the same or better access to U.S. government leaders.
Mostly, these new actors were limited to the White House, which treated them like journalists, but some also appeared at the State Department, Pentagon and other federal agencies, challenging the norms of press relations and press freedom. At the White House in April, as COVID surged, the White House Correspondents’ Association agreed among themselves to limit the number of seats to be occupied in the briefing room, in order to meet distancing guidelines. Chanel Rion, an employee of the far-right propagandist channel OANN, ignored the protocol and showed up when her name was not on the rotating list of reporters. The WHCA protested, but the White House invited her anyway. She stood in the back of the room as Trump’s guest. When the president or a press secretary wanted to avoid tough questioning, they simply looked past the roomful of journalists and called on their plant from OANN for softball questions and fawning praise.
There is also a Pentagon Press Association, but it has (nor wants) no power over who gets to cover the Pentagon. The group serves only as an voluntary conduit between the press corps and the Pentagon to help build relations with public affairs officers and air grievances on things like who gets invited to which briefings, travel with the secretary, access to the gym, parking passes, etc.
At the Pentagon, right-wing media are much less a factor for two reasons. One, most such outlets don’t assign an employee to cover the military. Second, when it comes covering the Pentagon, hyper-partisan politics traditionally is checked at the door.
“Covering DOD has generally been a non-partisan thing,” said David Lapan, a retired Marine Corps colonel who has served as lead spokesman for the Pentagon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Marine Corps. Lapan also directed the Pentagon’s team of specialized spokespeople in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs, or OSDPA. “The people covering DOD didn’t come at it covering it with a political stance. Now you have news organizations that are seen much more politically than they have been in the past. Back then, Fox wasn’t seen as that far off. We didn’t have OANN and Newsmax, ones that clearly have a political bent.”
For years, other older conservative outlets have employed some of the most respected veteran reporters on the military beat, like Fox’s Jennifer Griffin and producer Lucas Tomlinson, or the Washington Examiner’s Jamie McIntyre, who rose to prominence at CNN early in the Iraq War. But that could change if Newsmax and OANN want to send their own scribes to carry out their brands of information dissemination. For communications professionals, the person is often more important than the outlet.
"It always bothers me when people I worked with would consider, or look at the media monolithically. They're not all the same. Even inside an organization, Fox News has some terrific journalists that do great work,” Kirby said, on the GWU panel. “Not everybody is Sean Hannity."
In 2017, Breitbart hired Kristina Wong, who was a respected defense beat reporter for The Hill and ABC News before joining Bannon’s shop, where her byline has appeared under headlines amplifying Trump’s conspiracy theories and attempts to deflect attention from Russia. But Breitbart is just about the only far-right outlet keeping a reporter in the resident press corps. Wong has continued to regularly cover the building and travel with Trump’s defense secretaries. It’s yet to be seen if she’ll be invited to travel with Biden’s.
If Biden’s administration wants to reach the half of the country that voted for Trump and the millions who only get their news from conservative outlets, then they may have to go through far-right outlets. The question for them is: when and how?
"Sometimes it's topic-sensitive,” Kirby said. “Sometimes going on Fox...is the right thing to do, based on the issue or the reach or whatever you're trying to communicate. For instance, the Iran [nuclear] deal — we didn't court Fox but we didn't run away from Fox because we knew a lot of Fox viewers were against it and we had some convincing to do, particularly before Congress got involved in it."
Brian Karem, senior White House correspondent for Playboy, said on the same panel that if Biden wants to reach those audiences who didn’t vote for him, he will have to engage with the far-right outlets. "OANN, Newsmax, Breitbart...he's gonna have to answer those questions."
Ned Price, spokesperson for Biden’s defense transition team who previously served under Obama at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, declined to comment for this piece.
Capt. Brook Dewalt, the Pentagon’s director of public affairs operations, runs the office that manages media access to the building. For the moment, it’s quiet. Breitbart remains the only outlet listed among the “resident press corps” that frequents the building. The Pentagon’s press office has had no requests from other far-right outlets for Pentagon press badges. If anything, the biggest factor limiting media outlets from the building and SecDef travel this year is COVID, he said. Many news organizations are declining invitations for their journalists to travel on long overseas trips in close quarters with defense leaders, due to company policies, personal safety preferences, and added insurance cost. “My gut feeling: it’s not going to be much of a change from how it is now.”
As for the future, Dewalt said, “We do our best to be even-handed across the board because we want to be transparent and provide media access as best we can. And so long as the appropriate security clearances are met and they’re meeting the appropriate guidelines set forth for all media outlets, we’re going to do our best to provide that access.”
Traditionally, Lapan said, a reporter was eligible for a Pentagon badge if they could show they needed regular access to the building and could pass basic security checks. If others wanted in only occasionally to cover briefings, conduct interviews, or for other business, they simply called ahead for an escort; even most foreign and state-owned media representatives are accommodated.
But there was no consensus among former officials I spoke with on how Biden’s team should handle employees of the new far-right groups. Give equal treatment? Don’t give them hard passes, but let them come in for some briefings? Let them into briefings, but don’t call on them to ask questions? Don’t grant them interviews with the defense secretary?
“My personal view is it would be all too easy to shun these outlets, to rightfully claim that they don't apply themselves to the same journalistic standards that your outlet does, or the wire services or the daily newspapers, and you could use that critical view against them to limit their access,” said the former official. “I personally believe that would be self-defeating.”
“If we need nothing else after four years of Donald Trump, it's a clear, unambiguous and transparent commitment to the freedom of the press, and that means access, even for the press we don't like…my personal view is they should not be banned from access.”
Brent Colburn, vice president for communications and public affairs at Princeton University, and formerly the top civilian in charge of Defense Department public affairs, said “I'd encourage the incoming administration to take a look at refining the process with an eye towards transparency. Rebuilding trust with the Pentagon press corps needs to be a Day One priority.”
Colburn suggested reporters and the Pentagon could work together on credentialing, but reporters previously have taken the position that determining who gets into the building is not their job or responsibility; that’s a decision for U.S. officials. “The rise of truly partisan news outlets adds a wrinkle that is best addressed collectively, and the press should have skin in that game,” said Colburn. “It's in the interest of reporter-driven, non-partisan outlets and the Pentagon to protect the idea that the press inside the building represent the public as a whole, not a particular point of view or political agenda. If a shared set of public standards can be developed, then outlets that meet those thresholds should be credentialed.”
Others pin the problem of hyper-partisanship on the Trump administration’s Defense Department leaders.
“DOD has lost credibility because it’s seen as politicized,” said another former U.S. official, speaking on background. To gain it back, this official argued, far-right outlets like any others who cover the Pentagon should demonstrate through their reporting and frequency at the building that they are producing credible journalism and warrant a press badge, if desired.
“Show up,” the former official said, and show you have need. “Give them time to show that they have the ability to cover the building on a regular basis, and do so fairly.”