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Donald Trump and the Rise of Alt-Reality Media
Donald Trump and the Rise of Alt-Reality Media
You think the truth took a hit last year? It’s about to get worse. A lot worse.
Earlier this year, I argued that the Conservative movement did not merely have a Donald Trump problem—it had a Media problem. As Trump slouched toward the nomination, he was backed by a conservative media that had successfully created an alternative reality bubble around his candidacy. When Trump claimed that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey had celebrated the attacks on 9/11, for instance, callers to my show lined up to provide supporting evidence the only source of which was an echo chamber of partisan bloggers; listeners chimed in with evidence they had seen on Facebook linking Ted Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination. Of course, we know the origin of that “evidence” was the National Enquirer. Crowd-sourcing has its limits.
As a #NeverTrumper, I had hoped that the election would prompt a moment of reckoning and introspection, not merely about conservative values but also the role of the conservative media. As someone who has spent much of his career promoting conservative values on my radio show, I was depending on it.
Clearly, that is not going to happen now. In fact, it’s going to get a lot worse.
Trump’s victory means that the most extreme and recklessly irresponsible voices on the right now feel emboldened and empowered. And more worrisome than that, they have an ally in the White House. For years, Rush Limbaugh has gibed about what he calls the “state-controlled media”—the fawning liberal news outlets that Limbaugh has long decried for their lack of critical coverage of President Barack Obama—but we may be about to see what one actually looks like—an alt-reality news outlet operating from within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The new media will not only provide propaganda cover for the administration, but also direct the fire of a loose confederation of conservative outlets against critics and dissenters. Already, Fox’s Sean Hannity has urged Trump to freeze out the mainstream media and talk directly to the nation.
The “fake news” that we are now obsessing over is only the latest leading indicator of the perils of our new post-truth media/political world. Indeed, what we learned this year was that the walls are down, the gatekeepers dismissed, the norms and standards of journalism and fact-based discourse trashed.
All of this was a long time coming. For years, conservatives criticized the bias and double standards of the mainstream media (and much of that criticism was richly deserved). Over the years, I used my own radio show on many occasions to call out the many failures of the liberal media. But the cumulative effect of the attacks was to delegitimize those outlets altogether and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information. The media’s rather dramatic failure to get the election right this year has made it only easier for Trump’s supporters to ignore anything that happens outside the right’s bubble.
So what is this brave new conservative media going to look like? Probably more like Alex Jones than National Review. The appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as chief adviser to the president-elect was the new regime’s implicit imprimatur on the new conservative media. But perhaps the most revealing moment was Trump’s reported call, on the Monday after the election, to Infowars’ Alex Jones to thank him for his support in the campaign.
Jones is not your garden-variety conspiracy theorist. He is a 9/11 truther, who believes the U.S. government conspired in the attacks to justify the creation of a police state. He has suggested that the government also may have been behind the bombings in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, and at the Boston Marathon, which killed three. And he has repeatedly suggested that the Sandy Hook shootings were a “hoax,” “synthetic” and “completely fake.” He also thinks the government wants to “encourage homosexuality so people don’t have children” and said that Hillary Clinton was “a frickin’ demon and she stinks and so does Obama.”
Jones has claimed that he has 5 million daily listeners to his radio shows, which he simulcasts on his website and extends through his YouTube channel. The Drudge Report routinely links to his stories. “I think Alex Jones may be the single most important voice in the alternative conservative media,” says Trump whisperer Roger Stone, who describes the conspiracy theorist as “a valuable asset” who will “rally the people around President Trump’s legislative program.”
When he called recently, the newly elected president of the United States promised Jones to return to his show. The Washington Post called the promise “an extraordinary gesture for an incoming president whose schedule is packed with calls from world leaders and the enormous task of overseeing the transition.” Perhaps more disturbing was the realization that the president-elect listens to this guy.
It’s possible that a Trump loss would have led to an exorcism of the worst elements of the conservative media. But they saw Trump’s victory as their victory too. The newly weaponized conservative media genuinely believe that they have changed the paradigm of media coverage. In the new alt-reality bubble, negative information simply no longer penetrates; gaffes and scandals can be snuffed out, ignored, or spun; counternarratives can be launched. Trump has proven that a candidate could be immune to the narratives, criticism and fact-checking of the mainstream media. This was, after all, a campaign in which a presidential candidate trafficked in “scoops” from the National Enquirer. And got away with it.
No wonder “fake news” could flourish in this environment.
“Honestly,” Paul Horner, one of the creators of fake news, told the Washington Post last week, “people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore—I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
So when, three days before the election, a fake news site posted: “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead,” the story went viral, getting 560,000 shares on Facebook alone. Similar bogus stories were shared millions of times during the campaign. But this didn’t happen in a vacuum: Such stories fit easily into a media ecosystem that embraced an Alex Jones.
As a part of the conservative media, I had a front row seat to the flood of emails, tweets and Facebook posts that passed on stories about “black crime,” the people murdered by Hillary Clinton, and lurid stories about the “true nature of Islam.” In July, when Breitbart News published a story reporting that an anti-Trump protester had been paid $3,500 to disrupt a Trump rally, it was shared by dozens of listeners. When I pointed out to some of them that the story was clearly bogus (Breitbart cited a report on ABC News, but the link was to a clearly fake website), many simply refused to accept the information. In the alternative reality bubble of the right, such stories circulated with a furious velocity, often immune to any attempt to correct the record.
Now, one of the icons of this alt-reality media sits at the right hand of the new president. The self-described Leninist, who wants to “destroy the state,” has bragged that under his leadership Breitbart had become, in his own words, a “platform for the alt-right,” a movement associated with the darker corners of the right, including white nationalism and anti-Semitism. Under Bannon, Breitbart and its satellites have not hesitated to use their clout to attack other conservatives who have been insufficiently enthusiastic about embracing Trumpism. Specifically, Bannon declared it was his mission to destroy Speaker Paul Ryan and, even after the public detente between Trump and Ryan, his old website continues to relentlessly attack the conservative speaker.
This may suggest that the role of the new right media—which includes talk radio, websites like Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and dozens of ScamPacs—is to keep dissenters in line. The media outlets function best when the dial is set at outrage, and since they are too deeply invested to be outraged at any failures or reversals from Trump world, the anger will inevitably be focused on attacking the left and launching purges of the saboteurs and dissenters on the right. (Keep in mind the role that Goldstein, the archetypal “enemy of the state,” played in Orwell’s 1984.)
Of course, Breitbart is not omnipotent. The site failed spectacularly in its attempt to beat Ryan in August’s GOP primary. But other, less powerful Republicans might fear risking a similar attack, knowing that Bannon can call out the flying monkeys and trolls of the new media against them. That was always a potent weapon, but now that one of the most aggressive godfathers of the movement has an office in the White House, the stakes have been dramatically raised.
In the past, the White House has had to be concerned about a more or less adversarial media, but we now have a president who will be able to call upon a passionately loyal alternative media to attack his enemies and provide air cover in adversity. Hannity made his role in this alternative media clear when he recommended that Trump fundamentally alter the White House’s relationship with the independent media. “So until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold,” he said, “they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility, of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.” This from someone who gave regular advice to the Trump campaign.
But what about the rest of the conservative media? One of the early tests will be when Trump pushes costly new entitlements or a deficit-busting stimulus, or when the inevitable Trump conflict of interest scandals erupt. Skeptics in the conservative print media (National Review, Weekly Standard, Commentary, Wall Street Journal) will mix praise with censure.
Don’t expect the same from the rest of the right media. We are already seeing the pivot from hosts and outlets who had insisted that because the election was a “binary” choice they had to downplay Trump’s flaws and instead attack Clinton. But, they promised, after the election they would hold Trump accountable. And, surprisingly, after Trump backed off his pledge to prosecute Clinton, Breitbart ran a headline calling it a “broken promise.” But whatever their pledges of independence and skepticism, the centrifugal forces of the newly emboldened right media are already proving too strong.
For the most part, conservative talkers quickly fell into line defending Bannon and ignoring Jones. At the conservative website Hotair.com, writer Jazz Shaw not only defended Trump’s pick of Bannon, but also lashed out at Trump critic David French, whom, Shaw writes, “makes sure to work in the buzzword ‘alt-right,’ as so many other Never Trumpers continue to do.” He then dismisses concerns about the white nationalist movement, saying that the term was “ dredged up from the gutters of the internet and injected into the common parlance as a tool to smear Trump.” (Actually, the alt-right is quite real, as its leaders will tell you themselves.)
But Shaw’s larger point is that Trump critics now need to fall in line, stat. Before the election, critics of Trump were accused of trying to elect Clinton. But the narrative has already evolved. If conservatives continue to criticize Trump now, Shaw writes, “you are working to defeat the GOP agenda and advance the Democrats and the Social Justice Warriors.” And he sets out the terms of the purges to come: “And if that’s the case you are no longer momentarily estranged friends. You are, to borrow the title of a truly awful Julia Roberts movie, sleeping with the enemy” [emphasis in the original].
Days later, I tweeted out a link about Trump and Alex Jones: “Daughter of Sandy Hook victim asks Trump to denounce radio host.”
Texas-based talk show host Mark Davis, who occasionally fills in for Limbaugh, tweeted back at me:
Radio host dogs #Trump to accede to absurd request to denounce another radio host. #CopingTrumpsGrudges
As we’ve learned, predictions are risky, but it seems unlikely that Trump will, in fact, disavow Jones anytime soon. Drudge will continue to link to his conspiracy theories; they will continue to be posted on hundreds of thousands of Facebook pages; talkers will provide defenses and rationalizations; and the lines between fake news and reality will get even thinner. And the social media attacks on conservative dissenters will only escalate in intensity.
Welcome to the media in the Age of Trump.
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