Sean Hannity, king of conspiracy theories, won.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the Congress member who orchestrated this drama, won.
They successfully made the entire news cycle revolve around a memo that alleges the FBI is out to take down President Trump, while hinting that the bureau had a mutually beneficial relationship with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. They successfully distracted us from news that Trump tried to fire FBI special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating his ties to Russia.
The temptation will be to say Fox News did this. After all, they peddled this conspiracy theory, the president bought into it, and that’s how it commanded our attention for a week. But we have to confront how it was also the lead story on virtually every news website and every news broadcast. The mainstream media played its part in allowing this story to fester, grow, and dominate.
We can see this in the chyron data of the top three cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. When we compared how often they read “Nunes memo” or “fire Mueller” in the past week, it wasn’t even close:
This isn’t the first time mainstream media has been party to the proliferation of a conspiracy theory. We’ve been here before: the Uranium One conspiracy; the allegation that Clinton colluded with Russia; the theory that the DNC killed a staffer who was supposedly the source of the email leak; the stories about the “deep state” trying to undermine Trump; and even Pizzagate.
Those stories won too.
We know the playbook of these right-wing propagandists: They inject these conspiracy theories into America’s nervous system, understanding that the stories, or even just portions of them, will draw attention from media, even if it’s to debunk them. But for the public, that very reaction ends up muddying what is actually going on in Washington. The whole process ends up sowing distrust in media. That’s how the conspiracy theorists win.
It’s easy to see the right-wing conspiracy formula on Fox News
Right-wing leaders and conservative media have used this formula time and again when they need to distract the president’s base from the unflattering news coming out of Washington. A few months ago, when I analyzed Hannity’s show, it was apparent that he ramped up his conspiracy theory rhetoric when the prevailing storylines about Trump threatened his presidency:
I also looked at how Fox News ramped up coverage of Clinton conspiracies when Mueller started to indict high-level Trump campaign officials:
FoxNews.com and Breitbart.com also ramped up conspiracy theory coverage shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, which superpowered the Russia story.
And we know the right will use the formula again, because there are dozens of conspiracy theory saplings, growing away on the internet and in the heads of the movement’s leaders. In fact, the roots of the Nunes memo go back six months or maybe even a year, even though it was only last month that it was picked off the vine and injected into news cycles.
But other media outlets can’t help but get in on the right-wing conspiracies
Yes, Fox News, the White House, and some congressional Republicans are creating an alternate reality of Washington and the Trump administration.
But as the rest of the media tries to make sense of the spectacle, these conspiracy theories end up completely dominating news cycles. Making these storylines mainstream doesn’t work unless CNN, MSNBC, the nightly shows, the morning shows, and even Saturday Night Live engage seriously with the topic. And they do, time and again.
A few months ago, I wrote a data-driven piece about Hannity, saying he serves as a megaphone for these conspiracy theories. But it’s hard to ignore the amount of conspiracy talk on other shows — MSNBC Live, CNN’s New Day, Anderson Cooper 360, Morning Joe. A huge portion of their coverage was based around conspiracy theories as well:
To be sure, those shows didn’t push conspiracies. But they gave massive amounts of attention to them. And that’s all the conspiracy needs: immense attention that muddies the issue and confuses the public.
The justification for the mainstream coverage is that these conspiracy theories are real threats because a seemingly large and prominent contingent of people believe them — our president, Congress members, and television hosts with massive followings.
This memo totally vindicates “Trump” in probe. But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2018
#ReleaseTheMemo ! https://t.co/8SpV9CkI3i— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) January 31, 2018
Sometimes they see something trending on Twitter or Facebook and use that as an indication that a conspiracy theory has become mainstream, which means it needs to be covered and debunked. After all, if there is a massive disinformation campaign that confuses Americans, it is the media’s responsibility to react with accurate, clarifying information. This is despite report after report showing that these social media numbers can be manipulated — that users can be bought and bots can be made to give a false sense of how big a story really is.
To the media, that’s the conundrum: To not cover a conspiracy at all, and not separate fact from lie, is a dereliction of our duty. But to cover the conspiracy, even critically, is to give it life.
The Nunes memo is insulting to journalism
I understand the fear that not covering these stories actually plays into the narrative of right-wing conspiracy theorists, who have convinced a massive audience that the mainstream media can’t be trusted. The fear is especially real in a time of failing trust in media.
But if we take a step back, one thing becomes clear: Coverage of the Nunes memo, especially in the past week, was a journalistic failure.
A Congress member, with the help of right-wing media and organized technological efforts, created a pseudo-event with the promise of new information at the end of it. The president pushed this misinformation effort. The campaign took valuable resources away from the coverage of actual crises, actual suffering, actual problems. Eventually, we learned we’d been led down this road for nothing — and when we pointed out it was nothing, the Congress member and president doubled down and tried to convince us it was the treasure they’d been describing all along.
It would be one thing if this were the first time, but it’s not. Time and again, mainstream media is enamored of the spectacle, to the point that much of the news is observing it and trying to make sense of it. There is a real conundrum in how much to cover these conspiracy theories, and how to do it. But eventually, we will get real, hugely consequential information — and the true indicator of whether the conspiratorial right has won will be whether the media can get the public to listen to that signal amid all the noise.