Even before former FBI Director James Comey testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, we got a taste of what the storylines would be on right-wing news sites.
In response to Comey’s prepared statement, released a day earlier, the pro-Trump spin was that it exonerated President Donald Trump because Comey told him he wasn’t personally under investigation — something Trump had repeated time and again.
But after Comey’s testimony, a few other storylines began to emerge. The one with the most traction was that Comey leaked his memos to the media — a narrative President Trump tweeted a version of early Friday morning. The other was that Comey was concerned former Attorney General Loretta Lynch tried to meddle in the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton.
Here’s the Blaze, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller:
Meanwhile, on the New York Times and Washington Post, the narrative was sharp and cohesive: Comey wanted a special counsel after Donald Trump lied and tried to “derail” the FBI investigation into his campaign’s connection with Russia.
We analyzed the coverage of the Comey testimony on the front pages of the Times and the Post, and compared it with coverage on several right-wing sites — Breitbart, Fox News, the Blaze, and the Daily Caller. We created a program to screenshot their websites once every hour.
What we found were two very different, major storylines.
One makes Trump out to be right all along: There is no Russia collusion, Trump was never under investigation, Democrats tried to interfere with the Clinton email investigation, and Trump was right to fire Comey because he’s a leaker.
The other was about an FBI director concerned that a president who didn’t understand boundaries would lie — and that he ultimately did lie.
Visualizing the two different types of coverage is quite striking:
What right-wing sites did and not cover
The most important aspect of Comey’s testimony was that he perceived that Trump tried to get him to drop the investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
It’s the piece of the testimony that does the most to further the case that Trump may have attempted to obstruct justice. Both the Washington Post and New York Times drove this point home.
Last June, when news broke that Bill Clinton had met with the head of the Justice Department Loretta Lynch in the midst of the Clinton email investigation, the right-wing sites we analyzed ran several stories pointing out that, at the very least, that meeting looked really bad — and at worst signaled that the Clinton campaign was interfering with the investigation.
Comey echoed their concerns about the credibility of the Clinton email investigation. He said that concern specifically played a role in his decision to publicly criticize Clinton and her aides for their poor handling of classified information.
The update to this narrative was a major storyline on right-wing sites in the day after the hearing. But several things can be important at the same time, and ranking objectively higher in terms of importance was Comey’s testimony that the sitting president might have tried to interfere with an investigation. Still, equal treatment of these stories wasn’t to be seen.
Comey’s credibility: a subplot
To most viewers, including the senators on the committee, Comey portrayed himself as extremely credible. He documented his interactions with Trump right after they happened and he answered questions precisely and qualified any speculation.
But on Breitbart, Fox News, and the Blaze, one of the primary storylines was about pushing back against that portrayal. Some coverage focused on Trump’s lawyer saying Comey wasn’t telling the truth. But the bulk of this line of coverage centered on a storyline about Comey “leaking” his memos through a friend to the media.
To be sure, this “leak” is very different from the FBI leaks that Trump and even Comey himself have been worried about for months. But nevertheless, it made it seem like Comey was part of this larger “deep-state” conspiracy to undermine the president’s powers.
Framing all information as partisan
We’ve done a few of these pieces comparing right-wing media to mainstream media, and we can continue to draw out these differences. But perhaps the most dangerous part of the right-wing media’s coverage is that it frames all information as partisan.
In the Comey case, there was information that reflected poorly on Democrats and information that reflected poorly on Trump, and they both help us get a better understanding of what happened.
But these right-wing sites often treat new information as a resource to move the ball toward the conservative side, or a force that pushes backward and has to be neutralized — whether it’s tainting credibility or just ignoring the story.
Vox’s Brian Resnick touched on this phenomenon recently, writing about a study about what politically charged information does to the brain:
The brain processes politically charged information (or information about strongly held beliefs) differently (and perhaps with more emotion) than it processes more mundane facts. It can help explain why attempts to correct misinformation can backfire completely, leaving people more convinced of their convictions.
Seeing these storylines, side by side, it’s clear that right-wing news sites encourage their readers to view information as a means to a partisan end — or to view it as their political opponents trying to skew the truth for their partisan ends.