The feedback loop between Fox News, the right-wing media, and President Trump was in full effect Wednesday morning. Fox News kicked off the cycle with a story published on its website, and quickly hyped on its morning programming, based on newly-released text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. The piece focused on a September 2, 2016 message from Page saying that then-President Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing.” Fox connected that statement with the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, implying that Obama was meddling in the investigation for political reasons.
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The story was quickly picked up by pro-Trump outlets like Breitbart and Gateway Pundit, and the president himself weighed in on Twitter, writing, “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!” The text messages in question were released Wednesday by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who also connected Obama’s interest to the Clinton investigation.
But reporting by journalists from other outlets, including the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, soon cast doubt on that interpretation. The Clinton probe wasn’t active in September of 2016, and Obama was scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin days later, when he would raise the issue of Russian meddling in the election. An associate of the FBI employees told the Journal that the text “refers to preparation to brief Mr. Obama about Russian interference in that year’s election.”
The pattern that played out yesterday, involving over-hyped conspiracy theories lacking in context quickly amplified by a pro-Trump echo chamber and reaching the West Wing, is one we’ve see over and over. And this isn’t Johnson’s first appearance in such a story. He previously focused on texts between Strzok and Page about a “secret society” within the FBI, only to back off the claim when it became obvious they were joking. While responsible reporting quickly provided a more plausible explanation for the texts, audiences consuming news from only the pro-Trump echo chamber no doubt came away from yesterday convinced that the “deep state” is out to get the president. The incident is just another example of the challenges posed by a fractured media environment populated with hyper-partisan outlets.
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Below, more on the bombshell that wasn’t.
- Analyzing the right-wing obsession: CNN’s Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the response to Fox News’s initial report, and how it spread like wildfire across the pro-Trump media landscape.
- Inside the Strzok-Page texts: The Wall Street Journal’s Del Quentin Wilber reviewed texts between Strzok and Page, who were involved in an affair, and found distaste for Trump, but no grand conspiracy.
- Bombshell or bunk?: Anderson Cooper addressed the controversy, and referenced Senator Johnson’s history of hyping conspiracy theories.
- “Executive time” extended?: The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani checked Trump’s schedule, and noted that the president was supposed to be receiving a classified intelligence briefing when he tweeted about the “bombshells.”
- Not receiving coverage on Fox: The resignation of White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter following allegations of domestic abuse didn’t rate a mention during Sean Hannity’s primetime opinion show.
Other notable stories
- The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey reports on trouble for Vice. The company missed its 2017 revenue targets by more than $100 million, and investors are getting antsy. The shortfall, Hagey writes, largely stems from the struggling Viceland cable TV channel.
- NiemanLab’s Ken Doctor has a great analysis of what the LA Times sale could mean for the paper. New owner Patrick Soon-Shiong is saying all the right things, but many questions remain unanswered, Doctor writes.
- The #MeToo movement has reached the Medill School of Journalism. The Chicago Reader published a letter signed by 10 former students and employees of Medill professor Alex Klein, alleging workplace abuses including bullying and sexual harassment. Klein responded by categorically denying the allegations and threatening legal action.
- One of the great unknowns of the Trump presidency is getting a fresh examination thanks to a joint ProPublica and WNYC investigation. Trump Inc., a new weekly podcast, will explore the ties between the president and his family business. “More than a year into Trump’s presidency, we still have no way to know whether he is making decisions that place his company’s interests—and profits—ahead of the country’s,” ProPublica’s Eric Umansky and WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein write in their introduction to the series.
- In an era of competing versions of the truth, CJR’s Meg Dalton examines journalistic attempts to rebut the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War. She focuses on the podcast Uncivil, which explores the evolution of the myth, and attempts to debunk it. With white nationalism in the news, it’s a timely effort.
ICYMI: One man’s quest to digitize nearly 50 million pages of newspapers in his living roomPete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.