Fallen idols: 7 darlings of the liberal press who fell from grace

Michael Avennati is the latest progressive icon to be idolized by the media before underwhelming supporters or facing legal troubles.

Published: December 7, 2022 7:34pm

Updated: December 8, 2022 11:15pm

Anti-Trump lawyer Michael Avenatti's 14-year prison sentence caps a stunning years-long fall from grace right before the public's eyes. He's hardly alone.

In recent years, the mainstream media has spent significant time doting on and promoting several high-profile Democrats and anti-Trump figures who went on to disgrace themselves, often finding themselves in serious legal trouble, or losing their luster in other ways.

These figures were heralded as "rising stars," great statesmen, potential future presidents, and groundbreaking visionaries only to lose influence and often be accused of misconduct, if not charged with or convicted of outright crimes.

Here are seven examples of such prematurely anointed onetime media darlings:

1. Michael Avenatti

Avenatti rose to fame while representing Stormy Daniels, a porn star with whom former President Donald Trump allegedly had a liaison. An uninhibited critic of Trump, he predicted the 45th president wouldn't "serve out his term" due to the alleged dirt he was trying to publicize.

As a result of his bold predictions and blunt attacks on Trump, the lawyer became a regular guest on both late-night and daytime shows in 2018. He was especially a fixture on CNN and MSNBC, where according to one study he made 230 combined appearances over the course of a year.

Journalists hailed Avenatti for talking tough and posing "an existential threat to the Trump presidency," even dubbing him "the savior of the republic."

Many media outlets — including CNN, Politico, and New York magazine, among others — pushed the idea of Avenatti running for president as a Democrat in 2020.

But then Avenatti's actions caught up with him. in June, he was sentenced to four years in prison for defrauding Daniels, following a July 2021 prison sentence of two and a half years for attempting to extort millions from sportswear company Nike.

Separately, he pleaded guilty in June to multiple counts of wire fraud in connection with taking money from his clients. He also admitted to obstructing the IRS' attempt to collect millions in tax revenue owed in connection with his law firm's purchase of a coffee company. Avenatti on Monday received a 14-year prison sentence for those crimes.

2. Sam Bankman-Fried

Sam Bankman-Fried, the now-bankrupt founder and former chief executive of cryptocurrency giant FTX, has received fawning media coverage over the past two years.

Vox, for example, hailed him as "an uncannily sharp altruistic billionaire." The New York times touted the "crypto emperor," noting how he always wore shorts and was "studiously disheveled." Bloomberg Markets praised the one-time billionaire him for "wanting to give his fortune away."

Then FTX collapsed and filed for bankruptcy last month. An estimated one million FTX customers and other investors are facing combined losses worth billions of dollars due to alleged misuse of the money by company leadership. A recently filed court document showed FTX owes its 50 biggest creditors nearly $3.1 billion. The companies' total liabilities are estimated at more than $10 billion, as against roughly $1 billion in assets, according to media reports and court documents.

Bankman-Fried is facing allegations that he secretly transferred billions of dollars from FTX to another one of his firms, Alameda Research, which also filed for bankruptcy. He hasn't been charged with a crime but may reportedly be charged with fraud.

Amid such reports, Bankman-Fried has denied knowingly committing fraud. "I did not ever try to commit fraud on anyone," he recently told the New York Times, adding he "didn't knowingly commingle" FTX customer funds.

The disgraced crypto mogul also said last week on ABC's "Good Morning America" that he had no knowledge of "any improper use of customer funds" but admitted to not spending time and effort trying to manage risk on FTX.

Still, Bankman-Fried, a megadonor to Democrats, has continued to receive positive press coverage from prominent media outlets. Many observers in the crypto community have lambasted the coverage for glossing over key aspects of the FTX collapse in "puff pieces."

3. Stacey Abrams

After Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 Georgia governor's race and refused to concede, saying it was not "a free and fair election," she became a star not just among fellow Democrats but also among the establishment media.

The Washington Post ran a 2020 profile describing her as a "runway supermodel ... summoning her inner actress." The story included a picture portraying Abrams as a superhero with a cape.

An article in the New York Times, meanwhile, explained how Abrams was "making politics a little less fake."

The media was covering Abrams, a black woman, as if she was "celebrity news," presenting her words as fact and "just seeing her as an archetype of demographics," according to journalist Zaid Jilani.

Last month, however, Abrams once again lost — this time handily — in Georgia's gubernatorial race. The result came after a federal judge ruled against a voting rights organization founded by Abrams, Fair Fight Action, which had filed a lawsuit to make changes to the state's election system, arguing that it suppresses voter turnout.

"Although Georgia's election system is not perfect, the challenged practices violate neither the constitution nor the [Voting Rights Act] VRA," the judge wrote.

Weeks later, news reports revealed that the law firm of Abrams' close friend and campaign chairwoman received $9.4 million from Fair Fight Action in 2019 and 2020 as part of its legal fees in pursuing litigation.

Fair Fight Action maintained the suit served an important role in drawing attention to voting inequities.

4. Andrew Cuomo

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and lockdowns were in full force in 2020, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo became the star of the Democratic Party.

The governor's candid daily press briefings and forceful action to shut down New York earned him national acclaim. President Biden even called him the "gold standard" for governors. 

Members of the media praised Cuomo and compared him to Winston Churchill in writing. Journalists also pushed the prospect of Cuomo running for president. Some even called him the "acting president."

Cuomo received an Emmy award "in recognition of his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and his masterful use of television to inform and calm people around the world." He used the momentum to publish a book touting his "leadership" during the pandemic. The book contract gave the governor a seven-figure pay day.

Behind the scenes, however, a series of events was taking place that led Cuomo to resign from his office in disgrace.

In March 2020, Cuomo issued a directive for nursing homes to accept elderly patients with COVID-19. Thousands of people subsequently died in New York's nursing homes.

Cuomo's administration radically underreported the number of deaths due to COVID-19 in nursing homes. Last January, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a damning report showing the extent of the damage. 

Months later, James released another report concluding that Cuomo sexually harassed at least 11 women, including current and former employees. The report also found that Cuomo oversaw a workplace culture "rife with fear and intimidation."

Cuomo adanamtly denied the allegations, saying, "I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances."

Cuomo resigned last August. On her first day as governor, Cuomo's successor Kathy Hochul acknowledged the state had suffered nearly 12,000 more deaths from COVID-19 than Cuomo told the public.

In September, Cuomo alleged James had evidence that undercut his accusers' claims and asked the state's Supreme Court to investigate her.

5. The Lincoln Project

In late 2019, several prominent Never Trumpers — including cable news pundits Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson and lawyer George Conway, among others — founded the Lincoln Project, a political action committee dedicated to vilifying Trump.

The principals of the Lincoln Project routinely described Trump as an autocratic threat to America, once calling him the "greatest threat to the safety and security of Americans" on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The group released other ads suggesting Trump was suffering from a disability and unfit for office, depicting him as a murderous monster from a fairy tale, blaming him for every death caused by COVID-19, deriding him as "America’s worst president," stoking fear that he'd stay in office for a third term and become a dictator, and dehumanizing senators who supported him as parasites that "drink the lifeblood of their hosts."

Such ads won the Lincoln Project praise from the media. The New Yorker complimented the group's "edgy tweets," and the Washingtonian called it "one of the signature political groups of the 2020 race."

"God bless the folks at @ProjectLincoln," tweeted Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin.

CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer wrote the group "has shown the way by directly supporting Biden's candidacy."

Following President Biden's inauguration last January, however, Lincoln Project cofounder John Weaver was accused of sexual harassment by over 20 young men, including minors. The Lincoln Project, meanwhile, was accused of protecting him, with reports claiming the other principals were made aware of the allegations weeks after the group was founded. They countered that they knew nothing about the alleged predatory behavior.

Weaver said he believed the messages were "consensual mutual conversations" and came out publicly as gay.

The group also came under scrutiny for raising tens of millions of dollars and channeling much of that money to consulting firms owned by two of the group's cofounders and funneling some to its advisory board members.

Reports also shed light on a "toxic" workplace at the Lincoln Project.

Conway backed calls to shut down the group, although the group still remains politically active, but with less influence.

In October, Lincoln Project principal Reed Galen addressed the group's past troubles, indicating he and his colleagues are only looking forward.

"I'm not so sure we have something to prove this time," Galen told Vanity Fair. "The work speaks for itself. If people think we're bad people, it's still a free country, you get to think whatever you want. We don't spend any time thinking about them. We've got a job to do."

6. Harvey Weinstein

Disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence after being convicted of a criminal sex act and third-degree rape during a 2020 trial in New York. (His attorneys have appealed the conviction.) He's also awaiting jury deliberations in a second sexual assault trial that could result in 60 years to life in prison, plus an additional five years, if he's convicted. Weinstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

But before a wave of sexual assault allegations against Weinstein became public in 2017, he received glowing coverage in the media.

"Mr. Weinstein had his own enablers," wrote Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times in 2017. "He built his empire on a pile of positive press clippings that, before the internet era, could have reached the moon. Mr. [David] Carr wrote in a 2001 New York magazine profile of Mr. Weinstein, of whom he was an astute observer: 'As the keeper of star-making machinery, Weinstein has re-engineered the media process so that he lives beyond its downsides.'

"Every now and then, glimpses of his nasty side spilled out, like when he placed the reporter Andrew Goldman in a headlock and dragged him out of a party in 2000. Someone who was involved in that altercation, Rebecca Traister, wrote in New York's The Cut on Thursday that it didn't get the media attention it deserved because 'there were so many journalists on his payroll, working as consultants on movie projects, or as screenwriters, or for his magazine.'"

Earlier in 2017, before the sexual assault allegations came to light, the Los Angeles Press Club gave Weinstein its "Truthteller Award," calling him an example of "integrity and social responsibility."

The allegations against Weinstein also became a problem for Democrat politicians, many of whom had received significant donations from the movie producer and political megadonor.

7. Jeff Zucker

Jeff Zucker resigned as the president of CNN earlier this year after acknowledging that he had failed to disclose a romantic relationship with another senior executive at the network. Critics accused Zucker of transforming CNN from "a liberal news outlet to a blatant tool for leftist politics."

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