Just after 5 pm on Monday, the Washington Post released a bombshell report alleging that President Donald Trump shared an ally’s “highly classified” information with Russian officials at the White House last week. By 6 pm, Fox News had assembled an “all-star panel” to run the Post’s story through the wringer of right-wing skepticism.
Intentionally or not, it became a master class on political spin.
Cable news has made a business and a spectacle out of our cognitive biases. There’s a popular theory among psychologists that humans developed powers of reasoning not in order to pursue truth, but to win arguments. That’s one explanation for why our minds so naturally leap to deny information we find disagreeable: We aren’t really wired to be objective in the first place.
So whenever big news breaks, and all the talking heads are summoned to spar and swap hunches, the television turns into a real-time window on how people make sense — or nonsense — out of reality.
For those looking for tips on dealing with bad press, here were the three main strategies on display:
1) Magnify doubts about the story
Asked for his “instant reaction,” Fox News’s Brit Hume defaulted to skepticism of the story and its accuracy: “There may be something to it, but remember it is based entirely on anonymous sources,” he said.
This was a theme that dominated Fox News’s coverage of the scandal. How much was the story to be believed if the sources were secret? How are we supposed to take the Washington Post at its word?
Early in the evening, before the New York Times came out with its own confirmation, analysts on rival news networks like CNN and MSNBC also cautioned viewers that the Post’s report hadn’t been yet been widely confirmed. But only on Fox News did people repeatedly imagine reasons to doubt the Post’s sourcing.
Laura Ingraham suggested that the people who leaked the story were Obama loyalists seeking to stir up drama. “I have a feeling it’s the Obama folks and this is more troublemaking,” she said.
The host, Washington correspondent James Rosen, piled on with leading questions. He asked Juan Williams: “Is it possible, Juan, that what we have might be a case where people in the intelligence community opposed to Donald Trump are being tendentious and leaking something to the Washington Post that doesn't quite check out?”
Williams nodded. “When you come to intelligence, we are in a forest of mirrors, a wilderness of mirrors,” he replied.
2) Argue that this isn’t a big deal anyway
Another way to minimize a damaging news story is to downplay it. A common talking point Monday night on Fox News was that, even if Trump had divulged classified information to the Russians, he technically hadn’t broken any laws.
“I don't think anyone is talking about illegalities,” said conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. “The president has the power to declassify anything, anytime he wants.”
On CNN, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr was explaining to readers why the Post’s allegations were so grave: By sharing an ally’s classified information with the Russians, “you could put people and assets at risk overseas — that’s the reason you don’t do this,” she said to Wolf Blitzer.
But meanwhile on Fox News, Krauthammer was telling viewers the opposite. He reckoned that, if anything, Trump had made an innocent mistake — a “slip up” — and that America’s compromised ally would quickly forgive the president. “It's like a three-day story if it's true,” Krauthammer said. “I don't think there's a lot in here. This is the president slipping on a banana peel.”
“We are acting like we're on the eve of World War III with this story tonight,” added Laura Ingraham. “I think this is part of why people are tuning out.”
Fox News then played an old clip of Trump complaining about Hillary Clinton’s email servers, which contained classified information that could have been obtained by hackers. It was a strange, Rashomon moment. As liberals on Twitter were calling Trump a hypocrite for himself volunteering state secrets to Russia, the Fox News host spoke as if it were self-evident that Clinton had made the graver intelligence error.
“Being somewhat sloppy, allegedly” with classified information is “obviously a different proposition than maintaining a private homemade server in your basement when you're the secretary of state for four years,” Rosen commented dryly.
3) Obfuscate, obfuscate, obfuscate
Finally, a trick that always works is to distract and confuse.
Fox News’s James Rosen, for instance, suggested that the Washington Post was the real problem here. “Isn't it possible or conceivable that the publication of the article could do a lot more to enhance the Russians’ understanding of this breach than they enjoyed up until now?” he asked, in a bald-faced attempt to blame the messenger.
By 7:30, Fox News had more or less had enough of the Trump story. It turned to a segment on a fraternity hazing death, and then called up two talking heads to discuss free speech on college campuses, as archival footage of a February 1 student riot at the University of California Berkeley played onscreen.
Tucker Carlson’s show at 8 pm devoted roughly five minutes to the Post’s story before returning to its regularly scheduled lineup:
- a tirade against liberal bias in the media (chyron: “Hate distorts view of reality”)
- a discussion of how liberals stifle free speech at college (chyron: “Liberals melting down and turning violent”)
- and a segment on the “RompHim,” a romper for men. (Carlson: “So it’s a onesie for men?” Guest: “A short onesie for men — I think that’s a key distinction.”)
Anderson Cooper’s 8 pm CNN show, in contrast, stayed on the Trump leak story for the entire hour — recognizing that this by far was the biggest story of the day. (The chyron throughout the show: “Wash Post: Trump shared highly classified info with Russians.”)
More extreme outlets like Breitbart went a step further and tried to spread rumors and misinformation, alleging that agents of the “deep state” (an object of paranoia among the alt-right) had leaked this information to “smear” the president. While the New York Times and BuzzFeed rushed out to independently confirm the Post’s reporting, the Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s right-wing website, focused its attention on trumpeting the denials coming from the White House.
The White House press shop, by the way, might learn something from these right-wing outlets. Last night in response to the Post story, the administration sent out Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to issue a terse, calibrated statement that, as many have pointed out, did nothing to address the actual allegations being made against the president. Mainstream outlets took the statement as a tacit admission that the president had indeed done something wrong.
A more shameless spin master might have emulated Fox News’s Jesse Waters, who last night was a fount of misdirection: “Maybe the Russians were the leakers! Trying to make Trump look bad,” he said.
“No, Trump could have been the leaker! By pivoting the story away from Comey,” joked Greg Gutfeld.
“I seriously doubt he’d want to add more Russia to the mix,” said Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is rumored to be a replacement candidate for current White House press secretary Sean Spicer.