It has, somehow, been a terrific week for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Sure, one of the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct shared new evidence of their relationship, which she says began when she was 17. But still, he won the support of the Republican National Committee and the president of the United States. Once again, he’s leading in the polls over Democratic candidate Doug Jones. The vast majority of Trump supporters in Alabama don’t believe the allegations several women made against him that he assaulted them when they were teens. (And some do believe the allegations, but are willing to make excuses.)
In a week when two Democrats — John Conyers in the House and Al Franken in the Senate — have been forced to resign because of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, Moore finds himself in a position to possibly win on December 12, sending him to the United States Senate.
There are some key differences in Moore’s case. Voters must choose between sending a Republican or a Democrat to the Senate, not whether to oust a Republican and replace him with a new one. Some of Moore’s supporters are doing so simply because he happens to be a member of the GOP. And to be fair, Moore is running 25 points behind a typical Alabama Republican.
Still, his rise is remarkable. And one reason for it is the complexities of a right-wing media apparatus that rests on a foundation of partisan rage.
Conservative media spreads conspiracy theories
While many conservatives have rejected Moore’s candidacy, far-right media sites are doing Moore a big favor: They’re giving voters an alternate version of reality so they don’t have to admit they support someone accused of child molestation.
Notably, the website Breitbart, run by Steve Bannon, went so far as to send two reporters to Alabama to discredit Roy Moore’s accusers. (Their big scoop was laser-focused on the length of a telephone cord.) Gateway Pundit, a Trumpist conspiracy-minded outlet, has been “reporting” on handwriting analysis of Moore’s signature in an accuser’s high school yearbook performed by someone who is, notably, not a forensic handwriting analyst.
Outlets like Infowars claimed that Moore’s accusers’ stories had been “debunked” because of a tweet by a random Twitter user who also seemed incapable of remembering how many Purple Hearts he had won. Those articles have been shared on Facebook and Twitter thousands of times, including by Roy Moore’s wife, Kayla Moore.
(For its part, Fox News has been decried by the Moore campaign for spreading “fake news” despite being largely supportive of Moore, with campaign staffers going so far as to “manhandle” two Fox News photojournalists at a rally last week.)
Charlie Sykes is a former conservative radio host based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the author of the recently published book How the Right Lost Its Mind. He told me, “At some point, the conservative media — and this happened actually relatively recently and relatively rapidly — became not a counterpoint, but an alternative reality silo. It went from being, ‘Hey, here's the other side of the story,’ to, ‘Here is a unified structure with its own reality, its own arguments, and a different-colored moon.”
He added that Moore’s Senate run was the Platonic ideal of an echo chamber in action on the right. “The Trump campaign was certainly a dramatic example, but this is almost a reduction to absurdity. Okay, what if you had a guy who is just way out there. You know, bizarre, [spouting] conspiracy theories. He's accused of molesting children. Now, would you be able to create an intellectual environment, intellectual with quotes on it, in which people would feel comfortable supporting him? Yes, they are.”
Conservative media wasn’t supposed to be an alternate reality
Conservative media was intended to be a supplement to mainstream outlets, to offer a different perspective on the news and events of the day. In 2012, conservative pundit and Fox News host Tucker Carlson described his website, the Daily Caller, as “the balance against the rest of the conventional press.”
And yet in an era of omnipresent social media and weaponized partisanship, and, of course, an era prominently featuring Donald Trump, conservative media outlets have fomented the creation of not just differing perspectives but a media infrastructure built on entirely different facts, where readers will disbelieve deeply reported stories from the Washington Post and find confirmation of their views in publications that, for instance, air claims supporting the existence of a child slave colony on Mars. And in its fervent support for Moore, conservative media may have reached its political zenith — and its moral nadir.
In 2017, you can spend your entire day surrounded by media entirely tailored to your political beliefs. “It’s one thing to sit and watch Bill O'Reilly at night or listen to Rush Limbaugh on your car,” Sykes said. “It's something different when you wake up in the mornings and everything you see from your Facebook feed to your email to every website you go to is hammering away on parallel themes.”
Ben Shapiro agrees. “The internet in general has reduced the number of gatekeepers. That comes with some real benefits, and it comes with some real costs. I mean, it comes with the benefit of having ‘a thousand flowers bloom,’ and more voices, not fewer. It comes with the cost [that] when there are more voices, that means there are more people to listen to who aren't actually doing solid thinking, or who are willing to put out bad theory without vetting it.”
Shapiro is a popular (and controversial) conservative pundit and the creator of the Daily Wire, a conservative news site launched in 2015 following his exit from Breitbart during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Note: I wrote about Shapiro for the New York Times opinion section.)
Shapiro told me part of the reason for conservative media’s particular vulnerability to, for lack of a better term, “fake news” is that the concept of “conservative” media is still relatively new. “On the left, there was all this established, mainstream media that's been literally a century in the making. On the right, most of conservative media really only crops up around [the birth of] talk radio, at best.” He added jokingly, “To a certain extent, I feel like with conservative media, you have to give us a little while to sort it out.”
Both Sykes and Shapiro pointed to a fundamental misunderstanding regarding discussions of media bias within conservative media audiences: When they say the media is biased against conservative viewpoints, they don’t mean the media is always wrong.
“The conservative media's focus on the flaws in the mainstream media opens the door to discrediting everything that comes from mainstream media, in a way that actually undermines truth,” Shapiro told me. “There's a difference between me saying something like, ‘ABC's Brian Ross got the news wrong the other night, and that was really bad,’ and Trump saying, ‘Everything that comes from ABC News is now fake news, and anything that I label fake news is untrue.’"
Sykes agrees, but added that some conservative media outlets had given up challenging bias and resorting to “delegitimizing anything that is not in [the] conservative echo chamber bubble.”
Conservative news consumers like the bubble
And that seems to be what audiences for conservative media outlets largely want: a bubble.
Sykes told me, “The conservative media audience really wants conservative media to be a safe space for them. They want, they really demand, a constant diet of affirmation.”
It’s the outgrowth of the idea that the mainstream media, a.k.a. MSM, isn’t to be trusted. Shapiro said he feels he’s contributed to the blanket anti-MSM phenomenon by not being specific enough in his criticisms. “When I was saying CNN lies or CNN doesn't tell the truth, I was assuming that people knew I was saying, ‘When they lie, they lie.’ And they lie more often than I would like, right? But not everything that CNN ever says is a lie. ... I don't think I ever intended to basically say, ‘Everything that mainstream news says is not true.’”
When I talked to Sykes, he referred to conservative media as the “alligator in the bathtub” that had grown massively out of control. I asked him if, as someone who was once very much a part of conservative media, he ever felt responsible for its growth. “Well, yes,” he said. “I think that a lot of people did, and this would be a moment for a lot of people in conservative media to step back and say, okay, whether you saw this coming or not, clearly we may not have understood what the conservative movement really was that was motivating it.”
Shapiro said that what conservative audiences want most of all is to fight back: against liberals, the media, and everyone else. “I think [an outlet like] Breitbart is responding to the feeling of the base that you never back down from any allegation, and that every allegation, unless it's proved beyond a reasonable doubt, must be taken as false because of the bias of the media. And even if it's proved, well, the other side is guilty. That's always the secondary fallback argument, is, ‘Even if it's proved, they're not getting rid of Al Franken.’”
Moore wins when the MSM loses
In mainstream media, the conversation about the need for greater transparency and fairness in journalism has been ongoing. But in conservative media, that moment has not taken place.
Instead, conservative media outlets have decided that it’s better to placate an angry base than to challenge it. And that, in Shapiro’s words, “tends to let a lot of moral horses out of the barn, in any era.” As angry audiences demand news that conforms to their views, many conservative outlets give it to them, even if they need to rely on a random, nonfact-checked tweet to do it.
So even though many conservative writers, like National Review contributing editor Jonah Goldberg, have decried Roy Moore’s extremism, they are not the voices getting traction. Goldberg described Moore in October as “a twice-disgraced former judge who believes 9/11 was divine retribution for our sins and an anti-Muslim bigot who can’t quite bring himself to rule out the death penalty for homosexuals.” This week, he described the RNC’s renewed support for Moore as “morally obscene.”
The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan V. Last wrote on December 1 that not only could supporting Moore set the fight to end abortion in America back years, but it would introduce a “rot” into the GOP that would never go away.
But conservative writers and journalists who won’t support Moore (or Donald Trump, for that matter) are punished for it — by their own readers. Shapiro, for one, will be appearing alongside Donald Trump Jr. at a conference aimed at conservative college students later this month, but when he spoke out against then-candidate Trump during the campaign, Trump supporters — many of whom likely considering themselves conservatives — flooded his Twitter mentions with anti-Semitic drivel. And they’re doing the same over Moore.
In short, conservative media isn’t in charge of the conservative base. Instead, the base has taken control. And Roy Moore’s Senate race proves that conservative media is just trying to hold on for dear life.
Correction: Ben Shapiro launched the Daily Wire in September 2015 prior to leaving Breitbart in March 2016.