Everyone — even the the most dialed-in, savvy observer of the blink-of-an-eye Zeitgeist — posts dumb ideas online. And with this unlimited resource of bad tweets and Facebook screeds, one Trump ally intends to weaponize the old, bad ideas of journalists and leftist activists in an effort to discredit sound reporting on the president and other conservative figures.
According to a report from the New York Times, a new effort has emerged, involving the compiling of “dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts and other public statements by hundreds of people who work at some of the country’s most prominent news organizations.” One source familiar with the operation claimed that it discovered potentially “fireable” info on “several hundred” people. According to the Times, “among the central players in the operation” is 47-year-old Arthur Schwartz, who maintains connections to several of the president’s close or former allies: He is friends with Anthony Scaramucci, has worked with Steve Bannon, and serves as an informal adviser to Donald Trump Jr. According to the Times, Schwartz’s willingness to defend Trump has paid off:
Trained as a lawyer, Mr. Schwartz has endeared himself to members of the president’s family by becoming one of their most aggressive defenders, known for badgering and threatening reporters and others he believes have wronged the Trumps.
He has publicly gone after Republicans he views as disloyal, including the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, about whom he admitted spreading an unsubstantiated rumor. He has called himself a “troll on Twitter,” which is where he has boasted of being aware of, or having access to, damaging information on dozens of journalists at CNN and the Times that could be deployed if those outlets ran afoul of Mr. Trump or his allies.
A test case helps clarify Schwartz’s emerging project, and how the information reverberates through conservative social media. Shortly after the New York Times published an editorial condemning Trump’s anti-Semitic language and a profile of the new White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, Breitbart News published an article featuring anti-Semitic and racist tweets from Times political editor Tom Wright-Piersanti, who was in college at the time of his bigoted posts. (The paper stated that the tweets were “a clear violation of our standards” and that it is reviewing the issue.) The Breitbart post was then retweeted by Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson and Senator Ted Cruz, was the subject of a Breitbart interview with Stephanie Grisham, and was retweeted by Trump Jr. around two dozen times. After Wright-Piersanti apologized, Schwartz promised more material:
The threat wasn’t empty: In recent months, Schwartz has dredged up tweets from a CNN reporter using a gay slur in 2011 and a CNN photojournalist’s anti-Semitic tweets from the same year. Though the White House and the Trump campaign have both denied involvement in Schwartz’s project — and the consultant himself downplayed his importance — the efforts are consistent with Trump’s strategy to discredit journalists covering his administration. Newsrooms are certainly taking it seriously, and do not consider the unearthing of their employees’ foul tweets equivalent to the publishing of past objectionable statements of politicians. Per the Times:
Using journalistic techniques to target journalists and news organizations as retribution for — or as a warning not to pursue — coverage critical of the president is fundamentally different from the well-established role of the news media in scrutinizing people in positions of power.
“If it’s clearly retaliatory, it’s clearly an attack, it’s clearly not journalism,” said Leonard Downie Jr., who was the executive editor of The Post from 1991 to 2008. Tension between a president and the news media that covers him is nothing new, Mr. Downie added. But an organized, wide-scale political effort to intentionally humiliate journalists and others who work for media outlets is.
New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger added: “They are seeking to harass and embarrass anyone affiliated with the leading news organizations that are asking tough questions and bringing uncomfortable truths to light. The goal of this campaign is clearly to intimidate journalists from doing their job, which includes serving as a check on power and exposing wrongdoing when it occurs. The Times will not be intimidated or silenced.” A CNN spokesman added that when administration officials or “those working on their behalf threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”
Conservative operatives close to Schwartz don’t see it that way. “Two can play at this game,” former Trump aide Sam Nunberg told the Times. “The media has long targeted Republicans with deep dives into their social media, looking to caricature all conservatives and Trump voters as racists.” Steve Bannon added that “a culture war is a war” and there are “casualties in war.” As for potential casualties, the Times notes that Schwartz’s research “is said to extend to members of journalists’ families who are active in politics, as well as liberal activists and other political opponents of the president.”
This post has been updated to remove a reference to the work of Arthur Schwartz as opposition research.