Every so often, a right-wing commentator who purports to abhor dishonesty among media elites admits that they’ve been guilty of dishonestly purveying propaganda.
These figures are not marginal.
In the final years of the Bush administration it was Rush Limbaugh, easily the most popular talk-radio host on the right, who responded to GOP losses in Congress by admitting that he hadn’t been leveling with his listeners about their political party. He declared, “I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don’t think deserve having their water carried. Now, you might say, ‘Well, why have you been doing it?’ Because the stakes are high! Even though the Republican Party let us down, to me they represent a far better future for my beliefs and therefore the country’s than the Democrat Party does.”
Then it was Glenn Beck, looking back on his stint as one of the right’s most popular cable-news hosts, admitting to Megyn Kelly in 2014, “I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart,” a reference to his rise to national fame fueled by scrawling unhinged conspiracy theories on chalkboards.
One day in the future, it may be Tucker Carlson, who is perfectly capable of producing high-quality, honorable journalism, apologizing for the damage done by the mercenary pandering that he instead broadcasts on national television, squandering his God-given gifts while disrespecting himself and his audience.
But today, the latest cynical purveyor of misinformation to confess his sins is Alex Marlow, editor of Breitbart, one of the most highly trafficked news and analysis website on the right. He told CNN last week that the publication he runs, reporting to Steve Bannon, wasn’t honest in its coverage of Roy Moore’s Senate campaign. Rather than letting the merits of the race dictate coverage, Breitbart skewed its work and cast doubt on Moore’s accusers to protect President Trump:
Marlow said he had no regrets about Breitbart's coverage of the race and stressed that the nationalist, populist website will not be changing course as a result of it… Until Election Day, Breitbart seemingly did everything in its power to try to discredit Moore's accusers.
Marlow said one of the factors in Breitbart's coverage of the allegations against Moore is that, he believes, the news media was trying to use them to set a bar on sexual misconduct that President Trump cannot match."I think they want to create a standard where President Trump... will not be able to match whatever standard is now in place for who can be a senator," he said. "Based off not any sort of conviction or any sort of admission of guilt, but based off of purely allegations."
"I think that's the playbook here," he added. "And I think it's part of the reason why it was so important for Breitbart to continue our coverage of the way we covered it ... and for Steve in particular to hold the line -- it's not just about Judge Moore, it is not even just about establishment, anti-establishment. It's about what's coming next for President Trump."
Though Marlow concedes that Breitbart made coverage decisions around protecting Trump, before the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore, Breitbart had been hammering the news media for supposedly protecting individuals like Harvey Weinstein. Asked about the view from critics that Breitbart had done exactly that with Moore, Marlow claimed the website has been "much more careful" than other outlets when covering ongoing allegations of sexual harassment and assault, saying the website looks for "a certain level of detail" in allegations. Marlow also stressed that he was personally uncomfortable with the behavior attributed by The Post to Moore, and noted that he did believe the accusations from Leigh Corfman… had "a lot of credibility."
If pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and their less-successful imitators truly abhorred dishonest journalism, or cared to expose those who mislead the rank-and-file conservatives they claim to care about for lucre, they would’ve treated an admission by the most highly trafficked conservative web site that their coverage is dishonest as a major piece of scandalous news. The same goes for websites like The Daily Caller and The Federalist, which ought to inform their readers about corrupt right-wing elites—as best I can tell, none of those sites found this story worthy of much coverage, let alone saw it as a hugely damning indictment that everyone on the right ought to know about.
But conservatives are not wholly without pundits who are willing to risk leveling with news consumers. Here’s Rod Dreher of The American Conservative:
Do you understand this?
Even if they believe that you were sexually assaulted at 14 by an older man, they will continue to destroy your reputation as a way of protecting that older man, because their real mission is to protect Donald Trump — and extremism in the defense of Trump is no vice. Truth, fairness, and ordinary human decency don’t matter. Only winning.
It is useful to know that you can’t believe a thing Breitbart says, because it’s willing to publish fake news that serves its perceived interests. I mean, you knew this anyway, but now you’ve had it confirmed by the editor-in-chief.
And here’s David French of National Review:
I’m sorry, but this is vile.
It’s one thing to test the claims of a person who publicly accuses a Senate candidate of sexual misconduct. That’s fair, and that’s something journalists should do when considering any claim of wrongdoing. It’s another thing entirely to withhold from readers the judgment that an accuser “had a lot of credibility” as part of an effort to protect an entirely different politician from the possibility of future claims.
In other words, Breitbart facilitated the continued persecution of a credible childhood assault victim for purely political purposes. It subordinated fact-finding to its political agenda. It acted not as a journalist enterprise but as a partisan opposition research firm with a quasi-journalistic platform. It exploited the good name of its founder and the trust of its audience to try to drag a probable child abuser across an electoral finish line. It’s clear that Breitbart subscribes to the belief that to make their nationalist omelet they have to break a few abuse-victim eggs.
Marlow, however, seems unrepentant. He claims that “Bannon and Breitbart are the most feared names in politics . . . And you can see it by the meltdown that so many people are having. The joy, the elation, the perception that Breitbart lost.”
This is wrong.
That is the outrage of people whose commentary is rooted in earnestly held conviction more than timid or disingenuous pandering. The grassroots right ought to reward it rather than seeing all intra-right criticism as a failure of tribal loyalty. Alas, they more often elevate men like Limbaugh, Beck, Bannon, and Marlow, even as they loudly complain about being mistreated by media elites.
It’s real progress that commentators like French finally see Breitbart for what it is, rather than considering its enterprise as more or less allied with their own, which was a common approach at National Review to previous right-wing hucksters (Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck both had defenders writing in its pages, helping to fuel the populist excesses and disdain for rigor that helped eat conservatism).
Whether the American right is represented in media by decent people or deplorable hucksters going forward depends in no small part upon who wins the ongoing fight between nihilistic right-wing populists and principled conservatives and libertarians. As the former acknowledge their mendacity, thank goodness a few among the latter are taking notice and forcefully objecting, ensuring that there is at least some consequence for knowingly pushing misinformation. Still, it is sobering to reflect on the fact that many conservative news outlets didn’t consider Alex Marlow’s admissions about Breitbart worth covering at all.