“I Did Exactly What You Asked Me To Do”: Documents Expose Fox News Altering Coverage at Trump Administration’s Direction – Actions Implicate Federal Propaganda Law
Democracy Forward Also Files New FOIA Suit to Uncover Whether Coordination With Fox News Is More Widespread Than Previously Known
Washington DC— Today, Democracy Forward requested that the Inspector General of the Treasury Department launch an immediate investigation into whether officials at Treasury broke federal law by using agency resources to coordinate with Fox News in a series of actions that could constitute illegal, government-sponsored propaganda. The investigation request follows the release of documents, obtained by Democracy Forward, revealing Treasury officials dictating changes to Fox News coverage across multiple media platforms. Federal law bans government-sponsored propaganda, and these communications raise serious concerns about whether Trump administration officials are violating that ban.
To uncover the extent of coordination between the Trump administration and certain media, Democracy Forward also filed a new lawsuit against the United States Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Education, and Interior after the Trump administration failed to release documents that could reveal whether additional agencies violated propaganda laws by covertly coordinating with Fox News and similar media outlets to shape positive news coverage of the administration.
Federal law prohibits executive branch officials from disseminating “covert propaganda,” defined as communications by private individuals at the government’s direction that fail to disclose the government’s role in the creation of the content.
In March 2017, Treasury staffer Jason Chung directed a Fox Business Network producer to change the headline of an article concerning Secretary of the Treasury Stephen Mnuchin and redraft a Fox Business Network tweet accordingly. The next month, Fox Business correspondent Adam Shapiro assured administration official Tony Sayegh, a former Fox News contributor, that Shapiro had instructed his producer not to to “batter Secretary Mnuchin with [an] old soundbite” that implied Mnuchin was failing to meet the goals he had publicly set for the Trump administration.
“This extremely close coordination between Treasury officials and Fox News suggests that the Trump administration may be violating federal law that prohibits government-sponsored propaganda,” said Democracy Forward Press Secretary Charisma Troiano. “This kind of cozy, behind-the-scenes interaction between government employees and members of the media raises alarm bells, and such direct intervention could be illegal.”
The demand letter requests that Treasury’s Office of the Inspector General investigate:
Whether Treasury officials altered FBN coverage to suit their preferences by directing Julia Limitone of FBN to make a number of changes to an article covering Secretary Mnuchin’s 2017 trip to the G20 summit;
The extent of Treasury officials’ roles in creating, editing, or approving other content on FBN or other Fox networks covering the agency’s work, and whether any of these efforts were coordinated with the White House or other Executive Branch agencies;
Whether Treasury officials directed FBN to stop citing Secretary Mnuchin’s promise to achieve a tax reform bill by August 2017 after Treasury realized that that promise would not be fulfilled.
The extent of Treasury officials’ roles in crafting the narrative of FBN’s coverage of the agency’s work, and whether any of these efforts were coordinated with the White House or other Executive Branch agencies;
A review of the processes and procedures within Treasury’s Office of Public Affairs to determine how any potential violations of the prohibition against propaganda occurred, and describing remedial actions to be taken to address the harm caused to the American public and to prevent a recurrence in the future.
This demand also follows a December 2018 letter from Democracy Forward and Restore Public Trust to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General following the revelation that a Fox News script had been submitted to an EPA official for approval prior to being read on-air by a Fox News personality in the lead-in to an interview with EPA then-Administrator Scott Pruitt. In January 2019, Democracy Forward also sent a letter to the Office of the White House Counsel requesting an investigation into whether administration officials engaged in unlawful lobbying and government-sponsored propaganda by coordinating with Fox corporate executives to secure coverage from the network they believed was needed to secure passage of the recently-enacted “First Step Act.”
The letter was sent September 3, 2019 to the Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Treasury.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.