To ri­ot­ers, me­dia cov­er­age le­git­imized Trump’s claims

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Rep­e­ti­tion of lies and base­less hopes led peo­ple to be­lieve and take ac­tion, ex­perts say.

At the heart of Wed­nes­day’s riot at the U.S. Capi­tol, a des­e­cra­tion of the seat and sym­bol of Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment that left five peo­ple dead, is the base­less claim that Novem­ber’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was stolen. h Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has been the pri­mary prop­a­ga­tor of that myth, seed­ing the ground for many months by boast­ing at ral­lies that the only way he could lose was if the elec­tion were rigged, and later ly­ing that he’d scored a land­slide vic­tory. He ac­cel­er­ated false claims of fraud af­ter his ac­tual loss to Joe Bi­den, cul­mi­nat­ing in a “Stop the Steal” speech that ex­horted fol­low­ers to “show strength” and march to the Capi­tol where Congress was about to cer­tify Bi­den’s elec­toral vote vic­tory. In­sur­rec­tion fol­lowed.

With the U.S. pres­i­dency and a Twit­ter ac­count with nearly 89 mil­lion fol­low­ers – be­fore it was per­ma­nently sus­pended Fri­day – Trump had the world’s big­gest mega­phone to spread his mes­sage of fraud in an elec­tion that ex­perts have said was free and fair. Even his then-At­tor­ney Gen­er­alWil­liam Barr said there wasn’t enough ev­i­dence of fraud to change the elec­tion out­come.

But cru­cially, sup­port­ive me­dia out­lets am­pli­fied his claims, from whole­hearted cheer­lead­ing on News­max and One Amer­ica News

Net­work (OAN) to cred­u­lous ac­cep­tance of gos­samer-thin (and failed) le­gal chal­lenges by Sean Han­nity, among other Fox News com­men­ta­tors. Nearly all of the more than 50 Trump-re­lated elec­tion law­suits have been dropped or dis­missed.

And in the minds of mil­lions, in­clud­ing some of those who sacked the Capi­tol, those out­lets helped le­git­imize the ground­less fraud claims.

Af­ter De­cem­ber’s Elec­toral Col

lege vote, Trump voter Scott Adams, a re­tiree from Re­hoboth Beach, Delaware, told the As­so­ci­ated Press he ac­cepted Bi­den’s win “with reser­va­tions” but said he had heard too much about ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties on Fox News and con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio to trust the out­come. He said he feels the elec­tion was “rigged enough that it should be ques­tioned more,” even if it doesn’t change the re­sult.

Eric Deg­gans, who cov­ers the me­dia for Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio, be­lieves the ri­ots were “stoked by cov­er­age that gave promi­nence and le­git­i­macy to the lies that Trump has been say­ing about whether or not he won the elec­tion and whether or not the elec­tion was stolen from him. And so you see th­ese net­works try­ing to jus­tify it.”

Vol­ume and in­ten­sity can make false al­le­ga­tions per­sua­sive, es­pe­cially when lis­ten­ers get all their in­for­ma­tion from like-minded, Trump-par­rot­ing sources, says Mark Feld­stein, a Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor who worked for two decades in TV news.

“If you have no out­side per­spec­tive, you be­come cap­tive. If you con­sume noth­ing but a diet of poi­sonous lies, even­tu­ally you be­gin to be­lieve them,” he says. Among con­ser­va­tive me­dia en­ti­ties, he places the big­gest onus on the most pow­er­ful one, Fox News, cit­ing its his­tory of en­abling Trump on the “birther” fraud re­gard­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s birth­place and early dis­mis­sive­ness of the se­ri­ous­ness of COVID-19. Elec­tion fraud is “the lat­est lie.”

“There were lots of in­flu­ences (on the Capi­tol mob) be­yond th­ese me­dia. I think they’re part of this, but the more in­flu­en­tial is Fox News and so­cial me­dia, which is an­ar­chic and un­con­trolled. They all have blood on their hands in a moral sense, even if not in a le­gal sense,” Feld­stein says.

In a Fox News in­ter­view Thurs­day, Rep. Dan Cren­shaw, a con­ser­va­tive Texas Repub­li­can, cas­ti­gated mem­bers of Congress and me­dia com­men­ta­tors for of­fer­ing base­less hope that the elec­tion could be over­turned dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

“They’ve been ly­ing to mil­lions. They’ve been ly­ing that Jan. 6 was go­ing to be this big so­lu­tion for elec­tion in­tegrity. It never was go­ing to be,” Cren­shaw said. “They said, ‘ Go fight be­cause ev­ery­thing is on the line.’ And when peo­ple came to fight, they fought Capi­tol po­lice, and now peo­ple are dead.”

Since the elec­tion, al­le­ga­tions of Demo­cratic thiev­ery and high­light­ing of prospects for an even­tual Trump win that wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen have been con­stant in a right-wing me­dia ecosys­tem from con­ser­va­tive ca­ble news net­works to ra­dio hosts Rush Lim­baugh and Mark Levin to fringe web­sites such as Gate­way Pun­dit and The Epoch Times. Some Trump fol­low­ers are in­flu­enced by QAnon, a tan­gle of con­spir­acy the­o­ries mix­ing al­le­ga­tions of pe­dophilia, Democrats and Satan wor­ship.

Matt Gertz of Me­dia Mat­ters for Amer­ica, a pro­gres­sive me­dia watch­dog group, con­nects the mes­sages on Fox, News­max, OAN and other me­dia out­lets to Wed­nes­day’s Capi­tol in­va­sion.

“They said the elec­tion had been stolen from Trump, it was rigged, there was mas­sive voter fraud ev­ery­where,” he said. “It’s a very danger­ous thing to do when none of it is ac­tu­ally true. If you tell enough peo­ple this, some of them are go­ing to be­lieve you and some of them are go­ing to take ac­tion, and that’s what hap­pened here.”

OAN did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment, but News­max is­sued a state­ment say­ing it was “re­port­ing” on al­le­ga­tions “about elec­tion is­sues and ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties,” not con­firm­ing them: “News­max has con­sis­tently stated we are not claim­ing any of th­ese to be true, and we re­ported on ev­i­dence chal­leng­ing th­ese claims. News­max had no in­volve­ment in the rally and of­fered no en­cour­age­ment for the protests, and our re­port­ing on elec­tion claims were no dif­fer­ent than those that ap­peared on Fox News and Fox Busi­ness News, and other news out­lets.”

Fox has been re­fer­ring to Bi­den as pres­i­dent-elect since the elec­tion was called in his fa­vor on Nov. 7, and at times, re­porters and hosts in­clud­ing Eric Shawn de­bunked the claims that had been en­ter­tained on Han­nity’s show and in a Trump ap­pear­ance on “Sun­day Morn­ing Fu­tures.”

But of­ten, prime-time hosts such as Han­nity, a long­time Trump loy­al­ist, be­came clear­ing­houses for con­spir­acy the­o­ries about Demo­cratic elec­tion theft and pro­vided a plat­form for Trump press sec­re­tary Kayleigh McE­nany and others push­ing al­le­ga­tions. In mid-Novem­ber, Tucker Carl­son apol­o­gized af­ter three of four “dead” vot­ers – part of a Trump claim of voter fraud – were found to be alive.

The net­work de­clined to com­ment when asked whether it ac­cepts any re­spon­si­bil­ity for help­ing en­cour­age the be­lief that the elec­tion was stolen, a key mo­ti­va­tor to the ri­ot­ers.

Fox, how­ever, ul­ti­mately fell short of Trump’s de­mand for to­tal loy­alty af­ter it be­came the first news net­work to project Ari­zona for Bi­den (cor­rectly) on Elec­tion Night and Carl­son later asked Trump lawyer Sid­ney Pow­ell for ev­i­dence of the elec­tion fraud, which re­sulted in viewer push­back.

Since the elec­tion, Fox’s ac­tions that have not toed the Trump line have led the pres­i­dent to dis­par­age the topranked net­work and shift to tout­ing the more con­sis­tently ex­treme mes­sag­ing on tiny com­peti­tors News­max and OAN.

News­max uses fealty to Trump as a sell­ing point, as its hosts bash Fox for fail­ing to stand by the pres­i­dent.

Demo­cratic thiev­ery and even­tual Trump vic­tory have been con­stant themes on the two up­start net­works. The mes­sages have been a con­stant drum­beat on OAN, in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple com­men­taries by “Weekly Brief­ing” host Christina Bobb – whom The Daily Beast says was work­ing with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on elec­tion chal­lenges – along the lines of Nov. 19’s “Bi­den Lost. Trump Won’t Let Him Steal It.” Just two days be­fore the Jan. 6 elec­toral vote cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, News­max’s Greg Kelly in­ter­viewed U.S. Rep. Jim Jor­dan, ROhio, about the strat­egy to over­turn elec­tion re­sults.

The clear­est ex­am­ple of the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pres­i­dent and his me­dia syco­phants came Dec. 5, when Trump pro­jected an OAN re­port al­leg­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of hun­dreds of thou­sands of votes on a screen at a Ge­or­gia rally. There’s no ev­i­dence for the claim.

It’s a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship: Trump gets me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions he can cite to try to le­git­imize his base­less claims; they build au­di­ences via pres­i­den­tial tweets and mentions.

News­max’s all-day rat­ings rose nearly six­fold (to 170,000 view­ers, Nielsen says) from the third to the fourth quar­ter of 2020, in­di­cat­ing huge growth af­ter the Nov. 3 elec­tion. How­ever, its au­di­ence was still less than 10% of Fox’s. (OAN is not mea­sured by Nielsen.)

News web­sites have shown traf­fic in­creases post-elec­tion, but the rates of growth on News­ (from 3.6 mil­lion unique vis­i­tors in Oc­to­ber to 13.4 mil­lion in Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to Com­Score) and (1 mil­lion to 2.9 mil­lion) have been es­pe­cially high.

Pro­mo­tion of con­spir­acy the­o­ries isn’t cost-free, how­ever, as Fox and News­max were forced to back­track from out­landish claims un­der the threat of le­gal ac­tion by two elec­tion-tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies. An em­ployee of one of the com­pa­nies sued News­max and OAN.

Even when law­suits and leg­isla­tive ma­neu­vers fail, they can work as a pub­lic re­la­tions ploy. False al­le­ga­tions can be pun­ished by a judge, but Trump and his sup­port­ers can cite mis­trust of elec­tion re­sults by mil­lions of vot­ers to jus­tify con­tin­ued chal­lenges.

“If there is a ques­tion about the votes and if they think that it was rigged, and many peo­ple do be­lieve that, then we need in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and we need to know that our votes count,” “Fox & Friends” co-host Ains­ley Earhardt said Jan. 4. She then ref­er­enced Trump’s false cri­tique about the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of mail-in votes.

Although there was uni­ver­sal con­dem­na­tion of Wed­nes­day’s vi­o­lence, some news per­son­nel and guests tried to de­flect or soften the blame for Trump and the ri­ot­ers.

Fox News an­chors and guests, in­clud­ing Han­nity, Brit Hume and Sarah Palin, sug­gested “bad ac­tors,” left­ist ex­trem­ists and the loosely or­ga­nized, anti-fas­cist (an­tifa) move­ment, a fa­vorite right-wing scape­goat, might have been in­volved. News­max’s Greg Kelly and Sean Spicer brought up an­tifa, too, with Spicer say­ing it was based on “un­cor­rob­o­rated re­ports.” The FBI said there’s “no in­di­ca­tion” an­tifa was in­volved.

Three days later, OANN was still push­ing the bo­gus an­tifa claim, cit­ing fringe web­site Gate­way Pun­dit and even sug­gest­ing Bi­den is to blame for Wed­nes­day’s vi­o­lence.

Some tried to shift the fo­cus away from the ri­ot­ers and Trump’s role in egging them on, ac­cus­ing Democrats and com­pet­ing net­works of hypocrisy in down­play­ing vi­o­lence dur­ing last sum­mer’s Black Lives Mat­ter protests.

Carl­son of­fered a scary pre­dic­tion just hours af­ter the Capi­tol in­va­sion: “What hap­pened to­day will be used by the peo­ple tak­ing power to jus­tify strip­ping you of the rights you were born with as an Amer­i­can,” he said.

On Thurs­day, Fox’s Pete Hegseth tried to play down the in­tent of the ri­ot­ers.

“They weren’t go­ing in there to tar­get in­di­vid­u­als. They were go­ing in there sym­bol­i­cally,” he said, a day be­fore video showed Capi­tol ri­ot­ers chant­ing, ‘Hang Mike Pence!’ ”

Later, Trump’s sus­pen­sion from Twit­ter be­came a fo­cus of con­ser­va­tive me­dia, as it tried to push the riot into the back­ground.

Gertz sees no self-re­flec­tion at Trump-back­ing net­works. “I’m not see­ing any soul-search­ing tak­ing place on their tele­vi­sion shows,” Gertz said. “What­ever they feel deep down, they’re not tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity in any way, and they’re not sug­gest­ing any­one else in­volved in ly­ing to th­ese peo­ple should take re­spon­si­bil­ity. (In­stead), they’re look­ing for new an­gles to keep their au­di­ence fear­ful and an­gry and com­ing back for more.”

 ?? EVAN VUCCI/AP ?? Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump calls on sup­port­ers to head for the Capi­tol to protest the Elec­toral Col­lege con­fir­ma­tion of Joe Bi­den as pres­i­dent on Jan. 6.
EVAN VUCCI/AP Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump calls on sup­port­ers to head for the Capi­tol to protest the Elec­toral Col­lege con­fir­ma­tion of Joe Bi­den as pres­i­dent on Jan. 6.
 ?? JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AP ?? Capi­tol po­lice of­fi­cers in riot gear push back demon­stra­tors who try to break a door of the Capi­tol.
JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AP Capi­tol po­lice of­fi­cers in riot gear push back demon­stra­tors who try to break a door of the Capi­tol.
 ?? JEFF ROBER­SON/AP ?? Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump greets Fox News’ Sean Han­nity at a cam­paign rally in 2018, in Cape Gi­rardeau, Mo.
JEFF ROBER­SON/AP Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump greets Fox News’ Sean Han­nity at a cam­paign rally in 2018, in Cape Gi­rardeau, Mo.

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