Early yesterday morning, Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart and the Trump campaign, was drinking coffee on the deck of a $35-million yacht off the coast of Connecticut—as populist rabble-rousers are wont to do—when federal agents came on board and arrested him. Bannon stands accused of defrauding hundreds of thousands of people who gave money to We Build the Wall, a fundraising organization that claimed to help Trump prevent passage across the US-Mexico border. Prosecutors allege that Bannon put nearly $1 million from the initiative to personal use. (He pleaded not guilty.) The team that arrested Bannon included inspectors from the United States Postal Service, an agency that has been in the news a lot lately. “There has been a meme going around USPS social media forums for weeks with photos of mail trucks/mail boxes with the caption ‘This Machine Defeats Fascists,’” Motherboard’s Aaron Gordon, who has covered Trump’s recent assaults on the USPS, tweeted. “Never thought it would be so literal.”
In addition to Bannon, law enforcement officers also arrested Brian Kolfage, a military veteran and amputee who created We Build the Wall, and two other alleged co-conspirators, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea. As BuzzFeed and NBC News have previously reported, Kolfage, like Bannon, is a right-wing media entrepreneur; he wrote for TheBlaze, then ran fake-news sites with names like FreedomDaily and WoundedAmericanWarrior, which he used to spread conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, and others. FreedomDaily shut down in February 2018, when it was sued by a liberal on whom the site had blamed the murder of Heather Heyer, who was slain during a white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville; in their indictment of Bannon, Kolfage, et al, prosecutors listed a bank account in FreedomDaily’s name as a possible recipient of funds from We Build the Wall. Other right-wing media darlings were involved, too, including Kris Kobach, Erik Prince, David Clarke, and Curt Schilling, the Red Sox pitcher turned ESPN pundit turned bigoted memesmith turned Breitbart contributor turned conservative talk-show host. Donald Trump, Jr. was a booster of We Build the Wall, as were personalities on Fox News; Laura Ingraham called it “a story of the can-do American spirit in action.” (There’s no suggestion that these figures knew of any wrongdoing, and none of them has been indicted; a rumor spread yesterday that Schilling had been indicted and arrested, but he has since denied it.)
Bannon was arrested four years and four days after he joined Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as its chief executive. As Joshua Green reported in his 2017 book, Devil’s Bargain, Bannon was influential in Trump’s rise for two main reasons. Trump’s dark campaign agenda drew heavily on Bannon’s worldview, and Bannon, over many years, had created a professional network of anti-Clinton websites and groups that attested to her malign intent. Bannon’s insight, Green argues, was in understanding that to be effective, the Clinton-is-evil narrative needed to reach beyond the outraged fever swamps of right-wing media. Bannon and his allies successfully injected tales of supposed Clintonian corruption—the “Uranium One” story, which made A1 of the New York Times, for example—into the bloodstream of major outlets’ campaign coverage, and nourished a pattern of false equivalence between Clinton and Trump. We all know how that worked out.
Since then, Bannon has fallen (several times) from the president’s grace, Breitbart has lost much of its cultural influence, and the Trump project is on the ropes. It’s tempting to see Bannon’s arrest as the culmination of his career and tempting, on such terms, to juxtapose it with yesterday’s other big story—Joe Biden’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, which took as its major theme the “end of this chapter of American darkness.” Figures tied to Trump and Bannon have tried desperately to do to Biden exactly what they did to Clinton—accusing him (without evidence) of crooked dealings in Ukraine; casting him as frail and mentally deficient—but unlike in 2016, neither smear has really stuck in the reality-based press. Biden’s performance at the convention was widely praised, including on Fox News, where many hosts have been singing the Biden-is-infirm line for months. “I thought he blew a hole—a big hole—in that characterization,” Chris Wallace said, after the speech.
Bannon’s brief reappearance in the news cycle, in other words, has underscored how much his profile has diminished since 2016. These days, the Trump campaign has neither Bannon nor a Bannon stand-in and, unlike with Clinton, he lacks a long-stewing Biden conspiracy narrative to ladle out. Still, we should be careful not to downplay Bannon’s enduring influence on our media and politics. Many of the tactics he helped pioneer remain effective—and the mainstream press still, all too often, falls for them. This week, Laura Loomer, an Islamophobic troll, won a Republican Congressional primary in Florida, and Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart star who Bannon discovered, emceed the victory party. Yiannopoulos, like Bannon, is yesterday’s man. But we still live in an information climate that they did much to create. The Bannon narrative may not end with his arrest. It may still end in darkness.
Below, more on Bannon, the election, and right-wing media:
- Yacht buddies: The yacht on which Bannon was arrested belongs to Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese billionaire who, like Bannon, is a fierce critic of the Chinese government. Earlier this week, Brian Spegele, Sha Hua, and Aruna Viswanatha, of the Wall Street Journal, reported that the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating GTV Media Group, a company linked to both Bannon and Guo that raised more than $300 million in a private offering this year. Investors in the company allege that they never received any official documentation. GTV denies any wrongdoing.
- Innocent until proven guilty: Yesterday, New York’s Olivia Nuzzi criticized the headline on a Times editorial that, Nuzzi felt, presumed Bannon’s guilt in the wall scheme. Josie Duffy Rice, the president of criminal-justice site The Appeal, agreed with Nuzzi. “It doesn’t matter how despicable someone is, don’t do the prosecution’s job for them,” she wrote. “Media’s insistence on treating the accused as guilty is one of its most destructive tendencies.” (ICYMI, Duffy Rice contributed to CJR’s recent magazine on the election.)
- Hostile takeover: Yesterday, ads for the Trump campaign ran prominently on the homepage of the Washington Post. Glenn Kessler, who leads the paper’s Fact Checker team, noted that the ads link out to YouTube videos that make an array of false claims. Critics including Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, reacted furiously to the ads and wondered whether the newsroom had been given a chance to veto them. Others, including Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton, countered that letting journalists vet ads is a bad idea.
- “Hoax”: Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, will soon be out with Hoax, a book about Fox News in the age of Trump. Yesterday, Vanity Fair published an excerpt detailing Sean Hannity’s extraordinary influence over the president. “Hannity counseled Trump at all hours of the day; one of his confidants said the president treated Hannity like Melania, a wife in a sexless marriage,” Stelter writes. “Arguably, he treated Hannity better than Melania. Hannity’s producers marveled at his influence and access.”
- Clicker: For Jane Rosenberg’s courtroom sketch of Bannon during his arraignment yesterday, click here.
Other notable stories:
- Last month, the Trump administration told hospitals to stop sharing data on COVID-19 cases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to share it instead with a private contractor of the Department of Health and Human Services. Journalists and experts smelled a coverup—the CDC had been making the data public—but HHS officials insisted that the data would still be published in a timely fashion. So far, that (surprise!) hasn’t happened. Now, the Wall Street Journal’s Robbie Whelan reports, HHS is doing a U-turn, and will hand back the responsibility for collecting hospital data to the CDC.
- Yesterday, Gannett, the biggest news publisher in the US by circulation, released a demographic breakdown of its staff. Its workforce is 46-percent female and 22-percent BIPOC; those figures fall, respectively, to 41 and 18 percent within Gannett’s news division. (Individual Gannett-owned papers published their own diversity data; one, the Fort Collins Coloradoan, is 100-percent white.) In a statement, executives pledged that Gannett would become “as diverse as the country” by 2025. They also vowed to assign 60 reporters to cover racism and inequality in education, housing, the environment, and other areas of society.
- In other local-news news, the San Francisco Chronicle named Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, a managing editor at the Washington Post, as its new editor in chief; he succeeds Audrey Cooper, who left the Chronicle for WNYC. Elsewhere, the Minneapolis Star Tribune profiles Pam Bluhm, the longtime office manager at the Chatfield News, in Minnesota, who “singlehandedly resurrected” the paper after its prior owner shut it down, in March.
- For CJR, Tim Schwab assesses the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s prolific funding of news outlets and initiatives, and asks how that funding has influenced coverage. “Gates’ generosity appears to have helped foster an increasingly friendly media environment for the world’s most visible charity,” Schwab writes. “Today, the foundation is most often the subject of soft profiles and glowing editorials describing its good works.”
- In recent days, companies including Epic Games have feuded with Apple over the financial terms of its app store. Now Digital Content Next—a lobbyist group representing outlets including the Times and the Post, which currently pay Apple a 30-percent cut of subscriptions sold through its apps—has demanded a better deal. The Journal’s Benjamin Mullin has more.
- Digiday’s Max Willens assesses how travel publishers, including Condé Nast Traveler and BuzzFeed’s BringMe, have weathered the pandemic. “For the past several weeks, audiences have begun to come back, some of them lured by content that is more focused on safety or staycations,” he writes. “And advertisers that paused campaigns, rather than canceling them, in the spring, are starting to talk about new campaigns.”
- For CJR, Mairav Zonszein spoke with Or-ly Barlev, a journalist and activist in Israel who has relentlessly covered recent protests aimed at forcing Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s scandal-plagued prime minister, to resign. “I’m not interested in being branded a ‘protest leader, protest princess, protest queen, protest icon,’” Barlev told Zonszein. “I’m an independent journalist who has no part in organizing or leading this protest.”
- And Noah Berger, a photographer with the AP, captured horrifying images of the wildfires raging in California. The most apocalyptic of the photos shows flames licking a sign that encourages mask-wearing and social distancing at a senior center. The Napa Valley Register has a gallery of Berger’s work.