The past few weeks of political news coverage have been dogged by Republican-fueled pseudo-scandals: allegations of deleted text messages, a “secret society” in the FBI, and a classified memo alleging misbehavior at the FBI.
In each case, congressional Republicans promised news outlets they were uncovering bombshell evidence of wrongdoing on the part of President Donald Trump’s critics at the FBI.
In each case, news networks spent countless segments repeating Republican allegations and investigating their truthfulness.
And in each case, the allegations turned out to be bogus.
These stories all have a happy ending. The truth came out, eventually. Fact-checking prevailed.
But if you look at these stories as red herrings — as pseudo-scandals meant to provoke news outlets in such a way that reinforced Republicans’ animosity towards the FBI — news networks fell for a cynical trap.
These stories highlight traditional media’s vulnerability to trolling. Politicians like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who hype bogus allegations against political opponents, will often be rewarded with wall-to-wall news coverage, interviews, and media speculation. If those allegations turn out to be false, research shows that many viewers will still be influenced by the false information even after stories are debunked.
That’s created a news environment that rewards politicians who are willing to temporarily stake their reputations in order to bait news networks.