Nicole Lafond

Nicole Lafond is a news writer for TPM based in New York City. She is also currently earning a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and previously worked as an education reporter at The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_Lafond.

Articles by Nichole

During a discussion between Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office and Sinclair Broadcasting Group staff in November 2017 about the company’s proposed merger with Tribune Media, Sinclair staff indicated that the company does not dictate the words or content that local reporters deliver, a Durbin spokesperson told TPM Wednesday.

But, evidenced by the viral, infamous compilation of videos showing dozens of Sinclair-owned stations’ reporters repeating a scripted denunciation of “fake” and “one-sided” reporting, Durbin has asked the company’s executives to clarify its policy on the “must-run” promotional segments.

In a letter to Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith Wednesday, Durbin called the recent scripted promotions a continuation of the company’s “troubling history” of “dictating content to its stations.” He also questioned why Sinclair staff misrepresented its policy at the November meeting, in which Durbin discussed his concerns about the merger, spokesperson Ben Marter confirmed to TPM.

In response to concerns raised by my staff about the consequences of Sinclair-mandated programming on local reporting, Sinclair representatives repeatedly represented that Sinclair does not dictate the words or content local reporters deliver and that any national content distributed on Sinclair-owned stations is delivered by an identified national correspondent,” Durbin said in the letter. “The requirement that local news anchors deliver a scripted promotional message on-air is inconsistent with those representations.

He also called reports that there were “contractural penalties” for news stations and employees who refused to run the mandatory content “further troubling.”

Please confirm what Sinclair’s policy is regarding Sinclair-produced mandated content for local news anchors. Further, please clarify whether there will be employment consequences for personnel at local stations who refuse to deliver the scripted promotional message,” he wrote.

While Marter said the Sinclair-Tribune merger and Durbin’s concerns over Sinclair’s mandated promotion content were “separate issues,” he said the senator’s main concerns about the merger stem from the issue of independence for local media and the journalistic integrity of those local news stations.

Sinclair currently owns more television stations than any other broadcaster in the U.S. and if the merger is allowed, Sinclair’s reach would extend to 72 percent of American households.

Currently, both the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission are separately reviewing the $3.9 billion deal to determine if its in the public’s interest. Under FCC rules, a single company is limited to owning stations that reach no more than 39 percent of households, The New York Times reported in February.

Sinclair spokesperson Scott Livingston did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.

Read the letter Durbin sent to Sinclair below:

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A former news director for a Sinclair-owned TV station in the Midwest said this week that the “must-run” promotions — like the one that went viral featuring local anchors denouncing fake news — have been commonplace for years.

But the infamous “one-sided news stories” script was the worst example the 14-year local news producer has seen. The producer, Aaron Weiss, told CNN on Wednesday that the videos were “equivalent to a proof-of-life hostage video.”

“My heart broke, my heart broke for the anchors who were forced to do that,” Weiss told the network, after publishing an op-ed about Sinclair in The Huffington Post on Monday.

“I know several of them and as someone who grew up in the local news business — my mom was an anchor in Tucson, Arizona for 30 years and I imagined if she had been forced to do something like that when I was a kid and forced to make a decision about their ethics versus feeding her family and keeping her job in a business she loves,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing it and so my heart goes out to all those anchors who were basically forced to do the equivalent of a proof of life hostage video.”

In 2013, Weiss joined a news station in the Midwest as news director, after working as a producer in several larger markets on the West Coast for years. Sinclair bought the station not long after he joined the team and he was rapidly introduced to the company’s “must-run” segments, which he described as “pre-produced packages” that came from corporate along with a script for the anchors to read. He said the pieces “barely passed as journalism,” but couldn’t be changed by producers or anchors.

“We had to air them whether we wanted to or not,” Weiss wrote in his Huffington Post op-ed. “Sinclair knows its strongest asset is the credibility of its local anchors. They’re trusted voices in their communities, and they have often been on the air for decades before Sinclair purchased their stations.”

At first, Weiss said his station tried to bury the packages in the early morning news, but were quickly warned by executives that they had to feature them at a more prominent time.

“I didn’t last long after that,” he wrote.

Weiss said he decided to speak out because he knew people inside the Sinclair-owned stations had, essentially, been issued a gag-order.

“They have successfully locked down the company where anyone inside — we have seen some memos that have been leaked threatening anyone who dares to speak out to anyone publicly about this,” he told CNN.

On Tuesday, FTV Live was first to publish a leaked memo that was sent to staff at the KATU news station in Portland, warning staff that they were not allowed to answer “any questions” or “get into any discussion with callers” or speak with the press about the promotional segments. The general manager for the region, Robert Truman, warned that there would be repercussions if they did.

“I will also remind you that giving statements to the media or sharing negative information about the company can have huge implications,” he said, according to the memo.

CNN and The Oregonian have both confirmed that the memo was sent out to the Portland station’s staff from Sinclair’s Truman. TPM attempted to reach Truman and Sinclair’s corporate spokesperson Scott Livingston Tuesday, but neither returned requests for comment.

In a press release on Monday, Sinclair claimed that the promotional segments “served no political agenda, and represented nothing more than an effort to differentiate our award-winning news programming from other, less reliable sources of information.”

Read the response from Sinclair below:


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Embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday that reports on his excessive spending and scrutiny over his housing are just fueled by critics trying to derail President Trump’s agenda.

“There are people that have long in this town done business a different way and this agency has been the poster child of it,” he told the Examiner’s “Washington Secrets” team. “And so do I think that because we are leading on this agenda that there are some who want to keep that from happening? Absolutely. And do I think that they will resort to anything to achieve that? Yes. … It’s toxic here in that regard.”

Pruitt has been widely criticized in recent weeks for everything from ethical conflicts within his department to excessive spending on his travel. In just the past few weeks it’s been reported that Pruitt has taken expensive first class plane trips for official and unofficial business; required round-the-clock security detail — including during a trip to Disney with his family; rented a cheap room from an energy lobbyist’s wife for part of last year; and defied orders from the White House in order to give huge raises to two of his favorite aides. Pruitt is currently under investigation by the EPA’s inspector general and the House Oversight Committee.

Pruitt commented on the controversy over his lodging last year for the first time Tuesday, telling the Examiner that he was “dumbfounded” that it was considered controversial. He claimed the lobbyist had no business before his agency and mentioned that he had several ethics officials look at the lease, claiming his rent — $50 a day — was market value. Pruitt also alluded that living there was a difficult time for him because he was “living out of a suitcase.” 

“You know, I was living out of a suitcase for the first four or five months I was here,” he said. “My wife was not here. My children were not here. My wife was back at home in Oklahoma until my kid went to college and my child went to law school. So we were actively trying to find a place to live and I was literally living out of a suitcase.”

Several news outlets reported on Tuesday that Pruitt was under an informal review by the White House and that the environmental chief could be on his way out.

But, according to the White House, President Donald Trump called Pruitt on Tuesday to reassure him that he wouldn’t be fired, despite reports that the negative news coverage “eats at” Trump. 

Trump told reporters Tuesday “I hope” Pruitt was going to be great, a possible sign that Trump may be distancing himself from the embattled administrator, despite being publicly impressed with Pruitt’s regulatory rollback efforts. 

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After the Democratic-backed Wisconsin state Supreme Court candidate pulled off a double-digit victory over her GOP rival on Tuesday evening, Gov. Scott Walker warned his state that a “blue wave” of the “Far Left” was imminent in November and encouraged Republicans to “counter it with optimism and organization.”

“Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI,” Walker tweeted Tuesday evening. “The Far Left is driven by anger and hatred — we must counter it with optimism and organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters and win in November.”

In a second tweet Walker claimed “big government special interests” were planning to “target” him as he faces reelection for a third term next fall.

In Tuesday’s election, liberal candidate Rebecca Dallet easily defeated the more conservative Michael Screnock, who was backed by Walker, though the state’s high court elections are suppose to remain non-partisan. According to the Journal Sentinel, Dallet trounced Screnock 56 percent to 44 percent, a victory that chips away at conservative control of the court and hands liberals their first victory on an open court seat in more than two decades.

“People are tired of what’s been going on in our state in terms of the money coming in to buy these elections and people spoke out tonight,” Dallet told the AP Tuesday.

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Self-professed conservative martyr Bill O’Reilly attempted to evince his post-Fox News relevance again on Monday by joining the tiff between Fox News host Laura Ingraham and a high school student who survived a mass shooting.

On his “No Spin News” website, O’Reilly asserted that the advertiser fallout that Ingraham’s show has experienced since she mocked David Hogg for not getting into college, was directed by “shadowy radical groups” and professed the “same thing happened to me.”

That tweet was ill-advised and Laura has apologized,” he wrote Monday evening, before promoting an interview with conservative pundit Bernard Golderberg on his show that night. “But know this: The sponsor boycott is not some spontaneous uprising by companies. It is being directed by powerful, shadowy radical groups who want Laura Ingraham off the air. Same thing happened to me.

Fox News said Monday that it still supports Ingraham and her show, despite criticism over a tweet she posted last week, in which she mocked Hogg for not getting into four colleges in California. Hogg has gained a sizable Twitter following in the past month, becoming a vocal advocate for gun control legislation after 17 of his peers and teachers were killed by a former student who opened fire at his high school.

Hogg tweeted a list of Ingraham’s advertisers and told his followers to ask the companies to drop their support of “The Ingraham Angle.” At least seven companies pulled their ads, and Ingraham swiftly apologized in a tweet, but Hogg said he didn’t accept the apology.

Hogg responded to the latest ridicule from a full-grown adult on Monday evening, by telling MSNBC that he didn’t “have any shadowy figures” behind him.

“I’m just a kid that uses Twitter,” he said.

O’Reilly’s not the only conservative to suggest Hogg and his peers are disingenuous in their response to the massacre. Far-right groups and some conservatives have criticized Hogg and his classmates in recent weeks, claiming the students are “crisis actors” or being paid by the left to speak out.

O’Reilly himself claims he was ousted from his high-profile gig at Fox News because of the mainstream media and liberal groups who wanted to silence his conservative voice. O’Reilly was pushed out of Fox after advertisers dropped his show amid reports that he had been entangled in multiple lawsuits and paid several multi-million dollar settlements to women who accused him of sexual harassment.

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham still enjoys the full support of her network, despite widespread criticism and advertiser fallout over her treatment of a student survivor of the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.

According to a statement Fox News Co-President Jack Abernethy gave to the Los Angeles Times on Monday, the network has no plans to drop Ingraham’s 10 p.m. EST show “The Ingraham Angle.”

“We cannot and will not allow voices to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts,” Jack Abernethy, co-president of Fox News, said in his statement to the LA Times. “We look forward to having Laura Ingraham back hosting her program next Monday when she returns from spring vacation with her children.”

Ingraham has lost advertisements from at least seven different companies in the past week after she mocked high schooler David Hogg for not getting into four colleges in California.

Hogg, a senior in high school, has become one of the most prominent student voices advocating for gun control legislation since 17 people were killed in a shooting at his high school in February. The far right has labeled Hogg and several of his classmates as “crisis actors” and accused them of being paid to spread a gun control message by the left.

In a tweet last week, Ingraham mocked Hogg, prompting him to tweet a list of her advertisers, asking his followers to press the companies to drop her show. Ingraham offered an apology, but only after several companies pulled their ads and even used the apology to promote the “Ingraham Angle.”

Hogg told CNN he did not accept her apology.

Ingraham is currently taking a week off for Easter, she told viewers on Friday. A Fox News spokesperson told TPM over the weekend that it was a previously scheduled vacation.

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The White House is conducting a provisional review of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt amid reports of his unprecedented travel and security expenses, as well as new reports about his D.C. lodging, according to overnight reports Monday from The Wall Street Journal, CNN and Politico.

Both CNN and the WSJ reported, citing White House officials and people familiar with the matter, that the move is simply a review of the situation, not a formal probe and that Pruitt’s job is not in jeopardy — for now. The inquiry is meant to “dig a little deeper” into the allegations, a White House official told the WSJ.

Politico reported that Chief of Staff John Kelly at one point considered firing Pruitt, but Kelly reportedly now prefers to wait until an upcoming inspector general’s report into Pruitt’s travel expenses is released.

While the review is a sign that the White House may be unhappy with reports of Pruitt’s spending — which a CNN source said “eats at” Trump — his job is likely safe for now because Trump is pleased with Pruitt’s regulatory rollbacks, according to all three reports.

“From advocating to leave the Paris Accord, working to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and WOTUS, and cleaning up toxic Superfund sites that have been languishing for decades, Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told CNN in response to inquires about the reported review.

The review signals the White House might be reaching its wit’s end with Pruitt’s negative press.

Pruitt has consistently come under fire for reports of his excessive travel spending, which have totaled more than $150,000 in his first year, prompting the inspector general investigation and a probe from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Pruitt has also made unprecedented changes to his security detail, requiring round-the-clock service because of an apparent uptick in threats made against him. Just last week, ABC News reported that Pruitt rented lodging — at the rate of $50 a night — owned by a prominent energy lobbyist for several months last year.

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Jill McCabe, who is married to fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, broke her silence about her husband’s ousting — just hours before he was set to retire — and defended herself and her family from President Trump’s attacks in a Washington Post op-ed published Monday.

Now that I can speak on my own behalf, I want people to know that the whole story that everything is based on is just false and utterly absurd,” she said. “Despite everything, we are closer than ever. Andrew and I have amazing children and a support network that knows who we truly are. We will not allow ourselves to be defined by a false narrative.”

As an emergency room pediatrician, McCabe outlined her decision to run for state office in 2015, a move that was presented to her by then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam after she was quoted in a local newspaper, talking about the need for Medicaid expansion in Virginia.

Before she made the final decision to run as a Democrat on the Medicaid platform, the couple took pains to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest that could arise from Andrew McCabe’s work and her political bid. Andrew McCabe, a “reliable Republican,” consulted with the ethics department at the FBI and did not participate in any aspect of her campaign, she said, save taking one family photo wearing a campaign t-shirt.

But those efforts have fallen on deaf ears, she said. Trump has used her acceptance of $675,000 from the state Democratic Party and other groups connected to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe as the cudgel to attack Andrew McCabe and his handling of the probe into his former opponent Hillary Clinton. Clinton and McAuliffe are longtime friends, which Trump seized on as defense of his claims that Andrew McCabe and FBI leadership were biased in their investigation into Clinton’s use of private email as secretary of state, which culminated with no criminal charges against her.

“I made the decision to run for office because I was trying to help people,” McCabe wrote. “Instead, it turned into something that was used to attack our family, my husband’s career and the entire FBI. … Andrew’s involvement in the Clinton investigation came not only after the contributions were made to my campaign, but also after the race was over.”

McCabe lost her state legislative bid and wrote Monday that she has no intention of running for office again.

Mere hours before Andrew McCabe was set to retire last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired him because he “lacked candor” and allegedly made an “unauthorized disclosure to the media.” Andrew McCabe has vehemently denied the allegations and has suggested that Sessions’ decision was meant to hobble his credibility and prop up Trump’s baseless claims of an anti-Trump bias within FBI leadership. 

Read McCabe’s full op-ed here.

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Russian bots have reportedly latched on to Fox News host Laura Ingraham in her crusade to mock a high school student who survived the massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month, according to Hamilton 68, a website that tracks the unfurling of Russian disinformation on Twitter.

Over the weekend, the use of the hashtag “#IstandwithLaura” jumped 2,800 percent in 48 hours, The Washington Post was first to report Monday. The Post also cited the website, which tracks 1,500 different political propaganda bots, found that Ingraham’s, Fox News’ and the high school student David Hogg’s Twitter accounts were in the top six Twitter handles being tweeted by Russian-linked accounts over the weekend.

Russian Twitter bots have been spreading false information about the Florida high school shooting since it happened last month, when a 19-year-old former student opened fire at the high school, killing 17 people and injuring dozens. Student survivors like Hogg have since been advocating for tighter gun legislation and even organized a national school walk out and a march on Washington, D.C. to push for gun control policy.

Far-right conspiracists have seized on the students and their focused message, claiming the high schoolers are “crisis actors” or being paid by left-leaning groups. Ingraham last week tweeted a story from The Daily Wire, mocking Hogg for getting rejected from four colleges in California, including UCLA.

Hogg responded by tweeting the names of the companies that advertise on Ingraham’s Fox News show, calling on his Twitter followers to tell the companies to pull their advertisements from the show. Ingraham later offered an apology for her tweet, but that didn’t stop at least seven companies from pulling their advertisements from “The Ingraham Angle.” Hogg called Ingraham a “bully” during an interview with CNN and said he didn’t accept her apology.

Ingraham said Friday that she would be taking a week vacation for Easter, a break that was previously scheduled, a Fox News spokesperson told TPM this weekend.   

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Former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing, have not lost the President’s ear, despite conflicts of interest that blocked the couple from joining President Donald Trump’s legal defense against the Russia probe.

“Victoria and I are playing the roles of lawyers on television and real life,” diGenova told WBAL News Radio on Monday. “We’ve spoke with the President several times since our respective statements last week and we continue to chat with his lawyers and with him.”

The White House announced earlier this month that Toensing and diGenova would join Trump’s legal team, but days later the couple countered the White House, saying they couldn’t join the President’s defense because of conflicts of interest regarding previous clients.

DiGenova has been vocally opposed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and has propagated theories of a rampant anti-Trump bias within the FBI.

On Monday, he called deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein a “disgrace” for the “unauthorized act” of appointing Mueller.

“I have no respect for the man,” he told WBAL. “He has taken away, from a dully elected President of the United States, over a year of his presidency, by his foolish and cowardly act— an unauthorized act of appointing a special counsel. … I think it is a disgrace.”

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