How a right-wing sting of the Washington Post was under way for months

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A concerted quest to infiltrate The Post

It's apparently time for journalists to start wearing a wire — to tape themselves.

The prospect of making sure you have a record of what you say to virtually anyone outside the home comes to mind as The Washington Post offers quite the footnote to its own story about right-wing skullduggery. A follow-up reveals, "The failed effort by conservative activists to plant a false story about Senate candidate Roy Moore in The Washington Post was part of a months-long campaign to infiltrate The Post and other media outlets in Washington and New York, according to interviews, text messages and social media posts that have since been deleted."

The original Post story was a gem. This new one reveals that "Jaime Phillips, an operative with the organization Project Veritas, which purports to expose media bias, joined two dozen networking groups related to either journalism or left-leaning politics. She signed up to attend 15 related events, often accompanied by a male companion, and appeared at least twice at gatherings for departing Post staffers."

To what end? Clearly, she, like Project Veritas and co-founder James O'Keefe, wants to find dirt on the evil liberal mainstream media. "Phillips, 41, presented herself to journalists variously as the owner of a start-up looking to recruit writers, a graduate student studying national security or a contractor new to the area. This summer, she tweeted posts in support of gun control and critical of Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants — a departure from the spring when, on accounts that have since been deleted, she used the #MAGA hashtag and mocked the Women’s March on Washington that followed Trump’s inauguration as the 'Midol March.'"

If one had any doubt, last night brought not just the Post epilogue but a separate tale, from of all places, the Student Press Law Center in Washington. Emily Goodell, who moved cross country for an internship at the center, saw the original Post story and video and realized that she'd met the very garrulous and inquisitive Phillips (who introduced herself as "Jaime Taylor") at one of those very journalism networking events. And she'd been part of a post-gathering dinner at which "Taylor" joined the fray with journalists from Bloomberg BNA, McClatchy and Center for Public Integrity.

"She was the first person I met at the event; I remember thinking she was outgoing and passionate. Jaime told me she had recently left her job to pursue reporting and was in the process of starting her own investigative news website. Learning about journalism, Jaime said, was why she frequented events like this."

It was a crock and now leaves Goodell wondering, "What if she had approached me with a story the same way she did with The Post? What if she had secretly recorded me and edited my comments out of context? What if she had used any number of tactics Project Veritas uses to embarrass me or damage my credibility or my employer’s?"

The moral of the story? Maybe it's that reporters should think at most every moment about the possibility they were being profiled, and the ramifications of their words going public. And perhaps not being too loosey-goosey, as if they were a cable TV pundit running off at the mouth.

It's sobering to think that we're come to this, with media outlets being infiltrated as if they were innocent East German citizens during the Cold War who were spied upon by the secret police, the odious Stasi. 

As all Post political reporters know, it's common for politicians to conduct opposition research on themselves prior to a campaign, just to have a sense of what their opponents might know and exploit.

Maybe journalists should carry a second smartphone and just have its recording function on all the time, just in case you run into a slimeball like Jaime Phillips, the Chatty Cathy of a media Stasi.

A BuzzFeed stumble

Writes The Wall Street Journal, "Facing a significant revenue shortfall this year, BuzzFeed is laying off about 100 employees and reorganizing its advertising sales and business operations as it moves away from relying purely on native advertising."

"BuzzFeed plans to reduce its U.S. staff by 8%, with all the cuts coming from the business and sales side of the organization, the company said Wednesday. Some editorial staffers and business-side employees in the U.K. will also be let go. BuzzFeed employs about 1,700 people world-wide."

L.A. Oh-So-Confidential

The Los Angeles Times reports, "LA Weekly’s staff was gutted Wednesday as Voice Media Group completed its sale of the alternative newsweekly to a newly created company, Semanal Media. Nine of the 13 members of the editorial staff lost their jobs, including all the top editors and all but one of the staff writers."

And in the hallowed tradition of full disclosure, "Semanal investor and Chief Executive David Welch, a Los Angeles attorney known for representing members of the cannabis industry, declined to comment. None of Semanal’s other financial backers or managers have disclosed their identities."

Hey, maybe Jamie Phillips and Project Veritas can infiltrated the board room (or is it a phone booth?) and get to the bottom of this.

The Daily News portrays the president as madman

The New York tab editorializes, "After his latest spasm of deranged tweets, only those completely under his spell can deny what growing numbers of Americans have long suspected: The President of the United States is profoundly unstable. He is mad. He is, by any honest layman’s definition, mentally unwell and viciously lashing out."

Morning Babel

"Trump & Friends" was heavy on Trump's tax plan, light on his Twitter craziness. Steve Doocy criticized The New York Times: "the big newspaper, it looks as if It's been rented out to the Democrats. because yesterday they essentially turned over everything to stop this tax bill. ... It look as if they've crossed the line where they're working for the Democrats." Show anchors were especially upset that the opinion section tweeted out phone numbers of certain centers and then they regurgitated the paper's own social media rules, which they interpreted as now being violated and applying to "every department in the newsroom." Trump must have been watching, because he quickly echoed the sentiment in this tweet.

No surprise, "Morning Joe" could not avoid the Trump tweets as they they involved Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, including resurfacing an internet conspiracy about a then-congressman Scarborough aide perhaps having been murdered. Said Brzezinski:

Trump "advanced  a false conspiracy theory to intimidate the press and cause a chilling effect on the First Amendment. Joe and I are not intimidated and his bizarre behavior contravenes both the Constitution and basic moral judgment. That is all we're going to say on the matter, so we'll focus more now on North Korea."

CNN's "New Day" focused on yesterday's tweets, including the anti-Muslim videos and could not avoid the question of, as my late friend and advice icon colleague Ann Landers put it, whether Trump might be several sandwiches short of a picnic, namely nuts. Co-host Chris Cuomo says this is Trump "at his best, not necessarily his most diseased," namely fighting dirty when under attack. So there you have one dichotomy: aggressive vs. deranged. And then they turned to "deviant predatory behavior" of Matt Lauer, as Alisyn Camerota put it to Rachel Abrams, a New York Times reporter involved in reporting the saga.

Meanwhile, watching Willie Geist on "Morning Joe," why not just quickly move him into Lauer's slot, while the company presumably conducts a bloodless examination of the Lauer mess as it pertains to the entire culture? Is something amiss? As Suzanne Muchin, a Chicago branding and corporate strategist puts it to me, "We need to stop focusing on the individual men and start looking for patterns that can illuminate the problem. Otherwise, this turns into a game of 'who’s next' which in a bizarre way, makes this entertaining and not enlightening." It's a point Cuomo made well in noting that the "easy thing" is just getting rid of "the bold-faced name," rather than deal with a workplace culture.

By the way, Lauer issued an apology of sorts this morning.

FiveThirtyEight's take on Roy Moore's race

Its theories on why Moore seems to be ahead includes this: "Time. As the 2016 campaign demonstrated, a scandal’s biggest effect on a race can be limited to the weeks following the revelations. Some scandal-hit candidates plummet in the polls, then recover a bit. We’re now nearly three weeks removed from the initial accusations and follow-up claims. And according to Google Trends data tracking how often Alabamians were searching about Moore after the scandal broke, interest in the story has waned."

'More than half of U.S. kids might be obese as adults'

Sheesh, this is cheery from STAT. We better pass along to Michelle Obama after her years of toiling on the topic:

"Nearly 60 percent of kids today will be obese by age 35 if current trends continue, researchers report in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers pooled health data from kids and adults to project changes in height and weight trends over time. The upshot: Obesity during childhood can put kids on a trajectory that’s hard to change. The authors estimated that 75 percent of 2-year-olds who have obesity now will still have obesity when they’re 35. Obesity rates are higher among Hispanic and black children, and the study found those racial and ethnic disparities will likely persist as kids grow up."

A New Zealand angle on Lauer?

Bloomberg says, "New Zealand is seeking further information about allegations of sexual harassment against U.S. broadcaster Matt Lauer, who owns a large estate on the country’s South Island." Huh?

The justification: "In February, the office granted Lauer’s company Orange Lakes (NZ) Ltd. consent to purchase the Crown lease for Hunter Valley Station, a 10,800 hectare (27,000 acre) lake-side farm near Wanaka, a picturesque resort town in the south of the South Island. While financial details of the purchase were not disclosed, local media reported the property is valued at more than NZ$13 million ($9 million)."

Under their law, buyers of certain lands must continue to show themselves to be of "good character."

There's no need for lots of HR seminars

Not long after the Matt Lauer story broke, Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, passed along a NiemanReports piece with a straight-forward headline: "When Women Stand Up Against Harassers in the Newsroom." But the subhead is really her theme: "We don't need more training — we know what to do."

It's a fine piece that references the late Ellen Soeteber, a former Chicago Tribune colleague of ours, who was the first female metro editor (Lipinski would later be the first female editor-in-chief). It's about the signals she sent concerning outrageous male behavior no longer being tolerated in the newsroom. It's not all that hard. Nervous male editors, publishers and executives in other industries really need not schedule endless symposia or enrich consultants.

Lipinski's memories and thoughts formed the crux of this U.S. News & World Report piece, which was written after a nearby third-grader's potluck breakfast from the sun-drenched atrium of the University of Chicago graduate school of business (where giant photos of the school's many Nobel Prize winners line the walls). At one point, I looked around at some of the best and brightest MBA students from around the globe, who were sipping their Starbucks and chatting away earnestly, and realized that they'll be running the world one day.

Will they get what was so utterly obvious, so long ago, to Soeteber?

Breitbart's sexual misconduct "rap sheet"

Puhleese. It offers a "mainstream media" rap sheet of 19 individuals, now including Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor. That means Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly don't make it because, well, you are not "mainstream" if you're the most-watched cable news channel and  "S&P Global Inc.’s Kagan research unit estimates that Fox News was responsible for about one-fourth of the company’s 2016 operating income, which was $6.6 billion."

Great student journalism

Check out this very fine report by an investigative reporting class in the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale that's taught by Bill Recktenwald, a terrific former longtime Chicago Tribune investigative reporter. It dissected public records about an interlocking network of conservative news organizations connected to the Illinois Policy Institute.

It shows how readers of a series of papers and websites in the state, who are being promised the "highest standards of truth and accuracy, and independence" are getting quite the opposite, namely shilling for a Republican governor and a heavy dose of free-market, anti-tax, anti-labor union policies espoused by the Illinois Policy Institute.

"Readers also get 'local' stories often written by freelancers thousands of miles away who never set foot in Illinois. And, even though the conservative network promises transparency, some funding is shrouded in dark, unreported money."

Project Not-So Veritas

Will Sommer, an editor at The Hill, produces a newsletter on right-wing media that's called Right Richter. He surveys response to the great Washington Post unveiling of the Project Veritas/James O'Keefe story on right-wing media:

"While this flop likely won't hurt O'Keefe much with his core demographic — he rushed out some truly weak material on the Post this week in an attempt to salvage the sting — his usual collaborators in right-wing media have been tellingly reluctant to back him up."

"With the exception of Gateway Pundit, which breathlessly ran O'Keefe's 'scoops' on the Post, the leading figures in right-wing media has either ignored O'Keefe or soft-pedaled his stories. Breitbart, long O'Keefe's favorite outlet, merely ran a story saying he and the Post had 'busted each other.'"

As for Garrison Keillor

During a Chicago luncheon question and answer session with Tina Brown about her new book, Chicago Tribune reporter Heidi Stevens started a question with reference to the day's Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor disclosures. Folks knew about Lauer, clearly not about Keillor, and responded as if a relative had been run over by a truck. For sure, it was an older, very NPR-ish audience. There was a shocked collective groan.

It was soon back to the sum and substance of the session, with Brown giving kudos to her old employer, Conde Nast, for the selection of Radhika Jones as new editor of her old magazine, Vanity Fair. She noted how Jones, 44, was the most interesting of the candidates but how she didn't think one could have necessarily dipped into a much younger age group (Brown was in her 30s when picked in 1984).

One reason she thinks you couldn't go much younger is that there just aren't many people in that age cohort with the complex skills set needed to still run a print publication. Digital, yes, but not print. That species has simply not been a fixture in their lives.

A not so amicable parting

New leadership at Foreign Policy has decided against continuing the blog of longtime defense and national security expert Tom Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Coincidentally, it comes amid a very good critical reception for his new book, "Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom." Here's the blog.

An unexpected boost from Amazon

If you don't check out Cheddar, the not-so-new online business platform for younger folks, you're making a mistake. Typically interesting was its interview with Instacart founder Apoorva Mehta, who explained why Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods was a boon to his burgeoning grocery delivery service.

“Whether grocers had an e-commerce strategy before or not, now they needed one. Regardless of whether you’re a small mom-and-pop grocer or a national chain, you needed to be able to deliver to your customers within one hour or same day.”

Of the six major grocers, five partner with him, in part due to the Amazon purchase, he said. It cut a deal with Albertsons and plans to "provide one-hour delivery to customers of 1,800 existing stores across the U.S. by mid 2018." Its clients already include Kroger, Publix, Aldi and Whole Foods.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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