On Saturday night former President Donald Trump declared that he was the victim of a scandal “far greater” than Watergate. He called for criminal prosecutions and “reparations.” He said “in a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death.”
Trump’s statement made no sense – except to the Fox audience base that badly wants it to be true.
Four days later, Trump-aligned media outlets are still amplifying his bogus message far and wide and ranting about the circumstances of his 2016 election win over Hillary Clinton. Tuesday’s cover of the New York Post portrayed “HILLARY THE SPY.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page said “Trump really was spied on.” Fox hosts have called it a “bombshell” dozens of times.
The actual court filing at issue is much less newsworthy than the explosion of false claims that have ricocheted from it. Reporters who went down the rabbit hole to examine the evidence found something very different from what Trump and his media allies said. That should have been the end of it — but instead the careful reporting became fodder for commentators to allege a media cover-up. That’s why it is worth examining this as a media phenomenon and an example of how talking points are spread by a massive media apparatus and shared by millions of consumers.
The anatomy of a right-wing talking point
The talking points all stem from this: On Friday night, as CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Evan Perez explained in a Monday article, special counsel John Durham “accused a lawyer for the Democrats of sharing with the CIA in 2017 internet data purported to show Russian-made phones being used in the vicinity of the White House complex, as part of a broader effort to raise the intelligence community’s suspicions of Donald Trump’s ties to Russia shortly after he took office.”
The accusation was couched in what Polantz and Perez described as “vague, technical language” in a court filing. It was not accompanied by any indictments or other prosecutorial steps. But pro-Trump media outlets noticed the filing and started to share it on Saturday.
The fact that this supposed “bombshell” had been buried in a motion related to claims about attorneys having a conflict of interest, and not an indictment, was the first sign that the story was not what right-wing outlets said. The second was that the initial stories never actually went beyond the technical language to explain what purportedly happened.
But the ideological outlets that blew the filing way out of proportion weren’t incentivized to apply journalistic analysis to the filing. They were incentivized to do the opposite.
Among Trump loyalists, Durham’s investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe is a shot at vindication. Right-wing TV and radio shows regularly hype Durham as a hero who is trying to right the perceived wrongs of “Russiagate.” Key word: Perceived. Even though government and media investigations confirmed dozens of links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the candidate welcomed the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump boosters insist the issue was a “hoax” that was hyped by media outlets and intelligence officials to hurt Trump.
So in this pro-Trump media bubble, any scrap of information that supports the “hoax” hypothesis or the idea that Trump was right when he said he’d been spied on, no matter how irrelevant or incomplete, is turned into a big story.
In this case, the “entire narrative appeared to be mostly wrong or old news,” Charlie Savage of The New York Times concluded in a point-by-point news article on Tuesday.
But the frenzied chatter by Trump cheerleaders asserted otherwise. And incendiary talk, not news, is what drives right-wing outlets like Fox.
Trump’s Saturday night statement alluding to death penalty crimes cemented the weekend’s right-wing storyline. On Sunday morning Fox ran an inaccurate banner on TV that said “Durham: Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid tech company to ‘infiltrate’ Trump servers to link Trump to Russia.” But that’s not what the court filing asserted. And even though the banner had the word “infiltrate” in quotes, the filing did not actually include the word.
Before normal news outlets even began to write about the court filing, Fox’s abnormal operation ran a Sunday afternoon segment titled “MEDIA IGNORES DURHAM BOMBSHELL.” That segment, coupled with Fox’s massive coverage, inadvertently showed what was really going on. Fox’s networks mentioned Durham at least 30 times over the weekend, 80-plus times on Monday and 55 times on Tuesday, according to TVEyes data. Almost all of the coverage was political talk driven by hosts and guests, not news reporting by correspondents.
Through all the hype by Fox and social media, it became canon on the right: This was a major story, a scandal dwarfing Watergate, and the only possible reason other outlets hadn’t covered it is that they were part of a cover-up.
In reality, in-depth reporting with context and nuance takes time; slapdash stories and opinion columns barely any time at all. But the absence of reporting created an information vacuum that Trump allies filled with conspiracies and wild accusations. And once reporters did follow up and and debunk those accusations, that stirred even wilder claims about the media colluding with Democrats.
Philip Bump of the Washington Post said, of the Republican complaints about a dearth of Durham coverage, “It’s a sign of the strength of the pro-Trump/Fox News bubble that this is seen not as a reflection on the merits of the story but of a grand conspiracy.”
This happens because, as many former Fox staffers have admitted, the network (and others like it) needs enraging content to keep people watching.
What the rest of the media is saying
At times it seemed like MAGA media was trying to “will” a scandal into existence. “DURHAM REPORT ROCKS POLITICAL WORLD,” one of the banners on One America News proclaimed.
To the extent that was true at all, it was only true among Trump’s closest political allies, not the GOP as a party or the political system as a whole. The talk had a snake-eating-its-own-tail quality, as Aaron Rupar, the author of a Substack newsletter called Public Notice, observed on Tuesday.
“Republicans like Marco Rubio go on TV and give voice to the same lies about Clinton and spying that are being pushed by hosts, Rupar tweeted. “Hosts are then able to cover these comments as news, further legitimizing the story within Fox News’s warped propaganda framework.”
The media machine also works across mediums. Conservative media websites write about the most incendiary comments made on TV. Trump’s communications operation sends out articles and statements to its mailing lists. His family members and marketers share reinforcing memes and messages on social media.
MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan tweeted on Tuesday, “You do have to admire the rightwing media echo chamber’s ability to weaponize even the most hyped-up of stories (John Durham filing!), misrepresent & distort it, and then push it out with a relentless message discipline on cable and online that liberals could only ever dream of.”
Take the 7 p.m. hour of Fox on Monday: This was an “insurrection,” host Jesse Watters said, while one of the banners beneath him said “HILLARY IS THE REAL INSURRECTIONIST.”
Watters was engaging in a grown-up version of the schoolyard taunt “I know you are but what am I?” and he’s far from the only one. Trump and his allies have sought to diminish the actual insurrection on January 6, 2021 by labeling other events as insurrections. They have employed the same tricks with the term “coup.” Watters’ guest Sen. Ron Johnson claimed Trump suffered “an internal coup” during his presidency.
“The primary co-conspirator is the mainstream media,” Johnson said, prompting Watters to say “this is much worse than Watergate. I know they like to say that on other channels… but this actually is.”
Watergate has been invoked more than 50 times on Fox since Saturday, according to TVEyes data. Sean Hannity even showed footage from the film “All The President’s Men.”
Writing for The Times, Savage observed that right-wing conspiracy theories “are often based on a misleading presentation of the facts or outright misinformation. They also tend to involve dense and obscure issues, so dissecting them requires asking readers to expend significant mental energy and time – raising the question of whether news outlets should even cover such claims. Yet Trump allies portray the news media as engaged in a cover-up if they don’t.”
This loop continued into Wednesday across right-wing TV. “Left-wing media dismissing the latest filing” was one of the lead stories on Newsmax’s 2 p.m. program on Wednesday. A guest on the program, GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, assailed Clinton and said “this makes Watergate look like child’s play.”
Norman uttered the exact same line on One America News on Tuesday evening. So did Hannity over on Fox. As always, Hannity urged viewers to keep watching by promising more bombshells to come: “This is just the beginning.”