Inside the Right-Wing Media Echo Chamber’s Smear of NBC’s Kristen Welker

Lloyd Grove, Maxwell Tani
·7 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

The smear campaign against Kristen Welker—who is moderating Thursday’s second and final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden—began last Saturday with a hit piece by Trump-friendly New York Post reporter Jon Levine.

“Kristen Welker, upcoming presidential debate moderator, has deep Democrat ties,” screamed the headline, while Levine insinuated that the longtime NBC White House correspondent, a registered independent, must not only embrace the same politics as her parents—generous donors to Democratic causes and candidates—but that she also allows her parents’ beliefs to steer her journalism.

The story, which ignored facts provided by NBC News which contradicted Levine’s thesis, falsely suggested that Welker, also a Weekend Today co-anchor, is a liberal partisan advocate who once “celebrated Christmas at the White House with the Obamas,” illustrated by a photo of Welker posing with Barack and Michelle Obama.

The innuendo that this was evidence of her Democratic Party loyalty was a brazen lie, as Levine must have known, since many New York Post and Fox News journalists, and even Bill O’Reilly and Rupert Murdoch, had attended various Obama White House holiday parties over the years—and even waited in the traditional receiving line to have their pictures taken with the president and first lady.

The story also featured a 2016 video in which Welker advised Hillary Clinton’s then-communications director Jennifer Palmieri on the topic of one of her questions (“I’m going to ask you about Flint,” she said) before a live TV interview—portraying as a seamy political scandal an innocuous and common courtesy from a television journalist to an interviewee.

Welker’s colleagues at rival media outlets also rallied to her defense. “If any other outlet started covering the political donations of *the parents* of folks who work at Fox there would be widespread outrage and rightly so,” CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted about Fox News’ aggressive promotion of Levine’s story. “This is hideous and unjournalistic. And another example of how bad actors use standards against those who uphold them.”

Levine, whose reporting has become increasingly partisan since he moved to the Murdoch-owned tabloid from The Wrap last year, declined to comment to The Daily Beast. Among the facts he was aware of but ignored, according to a person familiar: that Welker and her husband, John Hughes, attended the 2017 media holiday party at the Trump White House; that New York Post reporters had attended every year of the Obama White House press parties; that Welker has been a registered independent since 2012; and that top Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller had praised Welker’s fairness.

While overlooking Miller’s assessment, Levine did manage to include this anonymous quote from a person he described as “senior White House official”: “Anyone who’s ever dealt with Welker knows she’s an activist, not a reporter. The White House press team views her the same way they would AOC or Pelosi if they walked in the office.”

As the Nov. 3 election rapidly approaches, the Post has become a clearing house for Trumpworld’s breathless opposition research dumps, such as the recent dubious yarn about the alleged contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, provided to the tabloid by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Welker is simply the latest target.

“If the corporate right’s goal was to gin up negative stuff on Kristen Welker in advance of the debate among their audiences and their voters, it worked,” said a media executive who asked not to be further identified. “It’s a case study of how effective the right-wing echo chamber is.”

Indeed, Levine’s work quickly burned its way through the Trumpist media echo chamber, jumping like a brushfire from Hot Air to The Blaze to The Washington Examiner to Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter feed to Fox News to the 45th president of the United States.

“Kristen Welker is terrible,” Trump complained in a phoner to Fox & Friends on Tuesday. “I mean she is totally partisan. Her father and mother are big supporters of Joe Biden for a long time. They’re supporters of the Democrat Party.”

The president then compared the 44-year-old Welker unfavorably to C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, whose tweet seeking advice from Trump detractor Anthony Scaramucci—along with his college internships 42 years ago in Biden’s Senate mailroom and Sen. Ted Kennedy’s press office—provoked a barrage of attacks from Trump supporters; when Scully’s claim that his Twitter account had been hacked was exposed as a lie, the public-affairs cable network indefinitely suspended him.

“Kristen Welker is far worse than Scully,” Trump declared during an extended rant. “There are people out there that can be neutral. Kristen Welker cannot be neutral at all.”

The president’s attack—in sharp contrast to his praise for Welker in January when she got the Today show gig (“They made a very wise decision,” he congratulated her during a White House trip to Davos, Switzerland)—naturally elevated the smear to mainstream nonpartisan media outlets such as The Hollywood Reporter and Politico.

Trump’s condemnation of Welker also was at odds with the positive assessment of one of his top campaign aides, Jason Miller, who predicted in early October on Fox News that “she’s going to do an excellent job as the moderator for the third debate. I think she’s a journalist who’s very fair in her approach and I think that she’ll be a very good choice for this third debate.”

Not surprisingly, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade eagerly joined in the Welker-bashing. “This moderator whose parents are Democratic, don’t they check who was a registered Democrat before, who has the most hostile questions possible to [White House press secretary] Kayleigh McEnany or whoever the press secretary is and the president? How does she get picked to be the moderator at this debate? It’s incredible… She is often the most abrasive, most dismissive reporter in all those briefings.”

Fox News star Sean Hannity, meanwhile, mounted a sustained assault during his Monday night show.

“We now have two Biden Democratic moderators in a row, first Scully and now apparently whoever this NBC person is, Kristen Welker, apparently is a big-time Democrat in pictures with her and Obama,” Hannity raged. “Team Trump is making one thing clear, if the moderator doesn’t make Biden answer the tough questions, the president will do it himself. Because we are also learning tonight just how partisan now and how in the tank the NBC News moderator is for Democrats.”

NBC News declined to comment on the controversy generated by the Trumpist propaganda machine. But a person who agreed to be identified as a source close to Welker told The Daily Beast: “I’m at a loss for words at the sheer desperation in trying anything to discredit her ahead of Thursday. Kristen Welker is likely the most straitlaced, even-tempered, respected and respectful journalists in the White House press corps. Her colleagues, the White House, and one of Trump’s most senior advisers, Jason Miller, all know it.”

Elsewhere, the New York Post—the originator of the Welker smear—isn’t taking lightly the criticism of its role as a Trumpist clearinghouse. In one instance, the Post appeared to directly retaliate against Twitter after it took measures against the tabloid for its “potentially harmful” content.

Last week, the social-media giant restricted the Post’s official account, saying the paper’s questionable story about Hunter Biden story violated its policies about sharing hacked material on the platform, and said the paper would need to remove tweets linking to the piece before the publication could regain access to its account.

The move was not well-received among the tabloid’s upper ranks. And so on Saturday, the Post seemed to hit back by publishing a separate story from Levine about some anonymous Twitter employees who expressed their dislike of Trump online.

A source familiar with the situation confirmed to The Daily Beast that back in June the Post was prepared to run a similar story, authored by Levine, listing many of the same anti-Trump tweets that eventually appeared in Saturday’s piece. The piece was mysteriously shelved for four months, only to be resurrected this weekend, just days after Twitter took action against the Post and its content.

—With reporting from Justin Baragona.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.