August 27, 2019

This is the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here.

Good morning. We continue to decipher the blockbuster report that said supporters of President Donald Trump have hatched a plan to go after journalists by exposing past behavior.

Journalists: Bad behavior is fair game

There still is plenty of buzz about The New York Times story that claimed there are allies of President Donald Trump who want to discredit what they deem as anti-Trump news organizations by digging up embarrassing social media posts and past statements of journalists who work for those outlets.

Writing for Splinter, Hamilton Nolan makes a fair point: “Journalists, who work in the publishing business, can hardly claim that it is unfair to publish things that they published. … There is little meaningful difference between what this shadowy group of ‘conservative operatives’ is doing and what media reporters at Gawker or the New York Observer did for many years, save for the motivation.”

To Nolan’s point, a comparison has been made between what this pro-Trump group is doing and what many claim Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog, has been doing for years.

Amber Athey, White House correspondent for The Daily Caller, tweeted on Monday:

“Media Matters tried to ruin my life over offensive jokes I made with my Jewish boyfriend in high school. I tried to apologize and move on but I’ve still been labeled an anti-Semite and blacklisted by some. The left made its bed … now it can lie in it.”

Politico senior media writer Jack Shafer wrote that journalists’ old tweets are fair game. “Journalists don’t deserve a get-out-of-bigotry-jail free card just because they’re journalists,” Shafter wrote. “If their past tweets, however ancient, undercut their current journalistic work or make them sound hypocritical, they can’t blame their diminished prestige on Trump’s allies.”

According to The Times story, this operation will continue to put out information intended to embarrass journalists and discredit news outlets that are “hostile” toward the president. The guess is these efforts will mainly target The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC.

Nolan wrote, “Many journalists have been seduced by the respect that can be earned by tricking the public into assuming that journalists are qualitatively different from the average citizen. We certainly are not. We might take better notes. But we make just as many dumbass tweets. Don’t get too worked up about it.”

Ultimately, the public will decide how worked up they get and if old posts on social media are enough to wipe out the journalism published by those outlets.

Journalists should be held to the highest of standards. But the public also needs to recognize what is important and what simply needs to be let go.

Sanders for governor?

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, with her son, Huck, at the White House in April. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Sarah Sanders hasn’t even started her new job, but she appears to have her eyes on her next one. Sanders, hired just last week as a Fox News contributor, launched a new website Monday. It looks a lot like the kind of website someone might have if she was considering a run for public office. She touts her time as White House press secretary, noting that she was the first mother to ever hold that job, as well as telling fans how to stay up to date on her latest news.

There have been rumors ever since she left her job as White House press secretary in June that she will run for governor of Arkansas. Her father, Mike Huckabee, is a former Arkansas governor. Politico reported that several sources close to Sanders said she will run and there might be a few internal polls that suggest she would be the favorite. Republican Asa Hutchinson is the current governor, but he can’t run again in 2022 because of term limits.

Some will complain that Sanders might have an unfair advantage because she’ll appear regularly on a national platform such as Fox News, but she would not be the first person to serve as a political commentator while plotting a run for office.

Investigating the sex cult next door

In this April 2018 courtroom sketch, Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group Nxivm, attends a hearing in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

The sex cult Nxivm (pronounced nex-ee-um) became a major story in 2017 when The New York Times wrote about the cult and its leader, Keith Raniere. National news outlets began covering the story because of actress Allison Mack’s ties to the group.

But long before then, and well before The New York Times investigated, local reporters in Albany, New York, where the cult was headquartered, were on the story.

In a compelling piece, Poytner’s Kristen Hare revisits the coverage with some of the reporters whose work on Nxivm goes back more than 16 years. She also talks to the Times’ Barry Meier, who blew the lid off the story and led to a criminal investigation.

Hare told me, “I’m struck over and over by the diligence local journalists and news organizations showed in covering this story. It was a world that was nearly impossible to penetrate, and they never stopped trying.”

Hare’s work is a fascinating account of how a story often comes together, first on the local level and then on a national scale.

‘Our new home: the court of public opinion’

Former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in 2009. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

After you’re done reading Kristen Hare’s story about the sex cult next door, be sure to check out Dahlia Lithwick’s thoughful piece on The gist is that investigative journalism was at the leading edge of the #MeToo movement, helping to bring down the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Sen. Al Franken and many other celebrities. But, Lithwick contends, journalism has its limitations when it comes to such stories.

She writes, “Journalism is not, nor can it ever be, a fail-safe substitute for legal processes.”

To support her story, Lithwick delves back into Jane Mayer’s New Yorker storyabout Franken. That piece was seen as too sympathetic to Franken by many, while others praised it for its many-sided thoroughness. But in the end?

“The net effect was another scrum of judgment, with journalism acting as both the body of evidence and the trial mechanism,” Lithwick wrote. “We ended up possibly more divided than we’d been before, living and luxuriating in our new home: the court of public opinion. The whole affair should serve as yet another reminder that when journalism is made to substitute for due process, things go sideways.”

Bernie Sanders: No media monopolies

Bernie Sanders speaks in Iowa. (AP Photo/John Locher)

When people run for president, they talk about health care, guns, the climate, immigration, foreign relations, the economy. You know, the usual topics. What rarely comes up is one of the most critical aspects of our democracy: the media.

In an op-ed for the Columbia Journalism Review, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders laid out his plan for journalism if elected.

Sanders praised journalism for its important work, pointing to the Miami Herald’s reporting on the Jeffrey Epstein story and the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s coverage of the opioid crisis. He criticized Trump for attacks on the media.

But Sanders added that journalism suffers from consolidation, and worried that “just a small handful of companies control almost everything you watch, read, and download.”

“When I am president,” Sanders wrote, “my administration will put in place policies that will reform the media industry and better protect independent journalism at both the local and national levels.”

You can read his details for doing so, but he will be against media consolidation and other mergers, in addition to taking a deep look at antitrust concerns when it comes to Google and Facebook.

Hot type

  • Last week, I wrote that the Houston Astros banned a Detroit Free Press reporter from a postgame media scrum with Astros pitcher Justin Verlander. Free Press sports editor Chris Thomas revealed why Verlander was angry and, well, this turned out to be a real dud — the whole beef seems rather silly.
  • More trouble inside The New York Times newsroom and it’s because of … bed bugs?
  • Could Jeffrey Epstein have been stopped more than 20 years ago? Maybe, if anyone had bothered to listen to two sisters who accused Epstein of assault, according to a chilling story by The New York Times’ Mike Baker. The story also was the subject of Monday’s “The Daily”podcast.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

Upcoming Poynter training:

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.


Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
More by Tom Jones

More News

Back to News