The Media Today

A pro-Trump website’s scoop drives a governor to the brink

February 4, 2019

Over the weekend, an explosive scoop pushed Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor, to the brink. A source alerted a journalist to a racist photo, on Northam’s page of an old medical school yearbook, showing one individual in blackface, and another in the white robes and hood of the Ku Klux Klan. Strikingly, it wasn’t a local paper or powerhouse investigative newsroom that got the goods; nor was it a prominent right-wing media player like Fox News or Breitbart. Instead, it was Big League Politics, a relatively obscure pro-Trump website, that broke the story that drove a national news cycle through the weekend.

Since Trump burst onto the political scene, sites like Big League Politics have been notable not for their reporting, but for their role driving an increasingly muddy, and increasingly fragmented, news ecosystem. According to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, Big League Politics has, in its short existence, “reliably boosted Trump, attacked Democrats and liberal figures, and written many articles promoting a discredited conspiracy theory popular among far-right conservatives about the murder of a young Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich in 2016.” While some among the wave of sites that fit this profile give the impression of being run out of Trump obsessives’ bedrooms, others have significant partisan or financial heft behind them. As Farhi notes, Big League Politics’s owners include consultants who have worked for far-right Republican candidates like Corey Stewart, in Virginia, and Roy Moore, in Alabama.

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Patrick Howley, the 29-year-old Breitbart and Daily Caller alum who edits Big League Politics, told Farhi that “a concerned citizen, not a political opponent,” brought the yearbook photo to the site’s attention. Nonetheless, Farhi reports that someone from Northam’s medical school cohort appears to have volunteered the tip in response to Northam’s comments, during a radio interview last week, around a state bill aiming to ease access to third-trimester abortions. Critics accused Northam of justifying infanticide for children born after failed abortion attempts. Although Northam strongly denied that that was what he had meant, some conservative outlets have since paired the abortion remarks with the racist yearbook scandal. Ben Sasse, Republican senator for Nebraska, did likewise on Fox.

Over the weekend, right-wing commentators also alleged Democratic Partyand mediahypocrisy around the photo. Fox’s Laura Ingraham decried “a double standard”: “If this had been a Republican with that photo, he’d never be seen again, [he’d] probably have to change his name and move to South America,” she said. These remarks, and others like them, were disingenuous. A cavalcade of senior Democrats, in Virginia and on the national stage, called on Northam to resign. The national news media, for its part, has quickly and aggressively pursued the story—arguably more so than it did last month after Steve King, a far-right Republican, lamented that white supremacist and white nationalist had “become offensive” terms. (King is not in South America but is still in Congress, where he represents Iowa.)

Major outlets were quick to verify the yearbook photo, and report Northam’s admission, later on Friday, that he was in it. And they held Northam’s feet to the fire when, on Saturday, he U-turned and said the photo wasn’t of him, after all, and that he would not be resigning his office. Questioned by journalists at an extraordinary press conference in Richmond, Northam acknowledged that he’d previously dressed up as Michael Jackson (but only used “just a little bit of shoe polish” on his face) and seemed set to prove he could moonwalk until his wife, standing next to him, warned him not to.

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The story dominated the news cycle yesterday—even though new developments were thin on the ground until, in the evening, word broke that Northam had met with his staff to consider his options, including resigning. Northam’s resignation may, indeed, be imminent. But if he chooses to stick it out, it will become harder for the media to keep the spotlight on the story, as previous scandals involving, for example, Greg Gianforte, King, and, of course, Donald Trump have proven. Our present, polarized moment may have boosted accountability journalism, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s diminished actual accountability. Pro-Trump websites that muddy the truth for partisan ends have played their part in that.

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Below, more on Ralph Northam:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.