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Opinion Dear Fox News et al.: How does it feel to be taken very, very seriously?

(Jon Vachon for The Washington Post)

There was a time when a guy like Judge Andrew Napolitano could make some marginal remarks on Fox News, and only a large plume of non-White House officials would take him seriously. Perhaps a website or two would pick up on them. Then everyone would move on to other matters.

Then came yesterday. White House press secretary Sean Spicer launched an extended rant about how many news stories had nibbled around the marbled edges of President Trump’s flabby and baseless assertion that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. “On Fox News on March 14th,” said Spicer, “Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement: ‘Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What is that? It’s the initials for the British Intelligence Spying Agency. So simply, by having two people saying to them, ‘the President needs transcripts of conversations involved in candidate Trump’s conversations involving President-elect Trump,’ he was able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on this.”

Judge Napolitano was bundled together with the New York Times, Circa, the National Review and other sources to somehow justify Trump’s tweeted allegations of March 4. In all, the riff totaled about 1,500 words and ended with this bit of Spicerian triumphalism: “Putting the published accounts and common sense together, this leads to a lot,” he said.

A day later, Spicer may want to reevaluate that quantity assessment. As it turns out, a GCHQ spokesman has something to say about the matter: “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.” Organizations like GCHQ rarely comment on media reports.

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And note: The agency likely wouldn’t have come forward if Spicer hadn’t put the full weight of the White House behind the allegations.

Warning to Judge Napolitano: People in power are now listening to you. They’re case-building off of your reporting. Comments like those of Napolitano have long served as something of a business model. They bring in audience and they drive traffic on the company’s web platforms. On Fox News Insider, for example, there’s a post under the headline, “Judge Nap: Obama ‘Went Outside Chain of Command,’ Used British Spy Agency to Surveil Trump.” Following the international eruption over the Napolitano-to-Spicer embarrassment, there’s an editor’s note at the bottom of the piece:

Editor’s Note: The British GCHQ has responded with the following statement: “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

On a Tuesday night appearance on Fox Business, Napolitano qualified the scoop, saying, “I say that members of the intel community have said this. I myself have not seen this evidence, nor of course do I have any personal knowledge, and I must also say that representatives of GCHQ … emphatically denied what members of the intelligence community have said.” He also said, “Did the British CIA, as I keep calling it, the GCHQ, actually do this? They say no. The intelligence sources with whom I spoke say yes.”

According to a Fox News spokeswoman, Napolitano “stands by his report on FOX & Friends.”

So now we have an international spy standoff: It’s Judge Napolitano’s word v. the word of the GCHQ. With whom are you riding? According to the BBC, the White House’s Spicer, who once placed so much weight with the judge, has assured British authorities that he “would not repeat the accusation.” Let’s amplify that: Spicer has assured British authorities that he would not repeat the accusation raised by a man who once said of 9/11, “It couldn’t possibly have been done the way the government told us.”

A story that surfaced yesterday on the conservative site IJ Review wouldn’t have drawn so much attention if not for the actions of the Trump administration. Kyle Becker, lead editor and director of viral media for the site, spun out a story about how former President Barack Obama visited Hawaii just days before a Hawaiian judge ruled against the second iteration of the Trump administration’s travel ban. Who cares, right? Anti-Obama innuendo has been poisoning the Internet for nearly a decade now. This is nothing new, and by the standards of Obama slime jobs, it was pretty mild.

Except: A reporter for the IJ Review, Erin McPike, was chosen as the sole reporter to fly with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his ongoing trip to Asia. The move upended decades of tradition in which the State Department allows the State Department’s traveling press to ride along with the secretary, in a pool arrangement under which media outlets receive updates from reporters in proximity to the secretary. A State Department spokesman defended the move as part of an attempt to “include a broader representation of U.S. media.”

If willingness to tar a former president with conspiratorial garbage constitutes an element of media diversity, then the State Department succeeded.

In any case, the IJ Review found itself pummeled with scrutiny. It did the right thing, first attaching an editor’s note to the piece and then retracting it. In an internal email, Becker wrote, “I let the company down at a time when there’s a lot of national attention on us….” Politico’s Hadas Gold is reporting that an IJ Review staffer has quit over the episode.

That’s what happens when your low-standard publication receives most-favored-nation status at the State Department.

The White House has been defending President Trump’s claim, without evidence, that former president Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on him in 2016. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Don’t forget that President Trump kicked off weeks of fever-pitch news cycles with his baseless claim about Obama’s wiretapping of Trump Tower. Where’d he get that notion? Let the Associated Press explain:

Radio host Mark Levin voiced without evidence the idea that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. That accusation was picked up the next day by Breitbart News, the site formerly run by Trump’s current chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
An aide placed that piece in Trump’s daily reading pile, said a White House official, who like other aides would not be named discussing the president’s private routine. Fueled by that report on Saturday, Trump unleashed a series of jaw-dropping tweets that accused his predecessor of spying on him.

President Trump may intend to hold the mainstream media accountable with his constant denunciations and invocations of “fake news.” Yet he’s much better at holding the conservative media accountable, via mere reliance on its reporting.

Be careful about what you report, in other words. Someone at the White House might take it very seriously.