As always, with Donald Trump, it all comes back to media coverage. On Saturday, less than 24 hours after his key adviser, Steve Bannon, left the White House — just the latest in a string of high-profile departures — Trump tweeted that Bannon would be a “tough and smart new voice at @BreitbartNews…maybe even better than before. Fake News needs the competition.”
Competition is one way of putting it. Perhaps more accurately another way would be: inspiration.
Breitbart is not a lonely corner of the internet where the vision Bannon (who has returned as the sites editor) has of the world will be isolated and unheard; rather, it’s the key node in an increasingly influential network of right-wing websites that will push the stories and theories that surface on its pages into the mainstream news cycle — right where Trump, and everyone else, will see them.
That’s exactly what happened in 2016.
This time last year, in the weeks following the Democratic National Convention, the Trump campaign started raising questions about the Clinton Foundation’s potential influence on the State Department — the so-called ‘pay-to-play’ scandal. On August 10, Trump referenced emails obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch, saying, “a couple of very bad ones came out and it’s called pay-to-play and some of these were really, really bad — and illegal. If it’s true, it’s illegal. You’re paying and you’re getting things.”
Research from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society shows, allegations of ‘pay-to-play’ had, in reality, been around as early as April 2015, following the release of a book called Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, by Breitbart senior editor at large, Peter Schweizer.
And that book release was key to what happened a year later.
The New York Times reviewed Schweizer’s book, and in so doing, repeated its central claim: that the State Department under Hillary Clinton signed off on the sale of a Canadian uranium company to Rosatom, the Russian atomic agency — thus giving it control of one-fifth of all uranium production in the U.S. — because of alleged donations flowing into the Clinton Foundation.
A crucial detail of the story wasn’t revealed until the tenth paragraph of the Times piece: “Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown.” (Snopes, the online debunking site, has concluded the story of the quid-pro-quo is false.)
In 2016, Breitbart pushed the spurious story again.
“On the eve of the Democratic Convention, on July 23, Breitbart launched the movie version of Schweitzer’s Clinton Cash, a version edited to appeal to supporters of Bernie Sanders,” the Berkman Klein Center report states. The accompanying Breitbart story about the film “emphasized that ‘The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC News, and other Establishment Media have verified and confirmed the book’s explosive revelations.”
That is, the story — questionable to begin with — was now recycled, aimed at a new audience, and with the added weight of what appeared to be professional mainstream media reporting.
In the weeks following Breitbart’s re-upping of the story, the online conservative news sphere gave it more attention, regularly referencing back to the Times for added credibility. The story eventually wound up back in mainstream media coverage toward the end of August after Bill Clinton, under increasing pressure from the allegations, announced the foundation would stop accepting foreign donations if Hillary were elected president.
Crucially, stories from traditional major outlets at the time of Bill Clinton’s announcement further framed the issue as Breitbart and others on the right wanted, leading with the insinuation of corruption, “rather than with the absence of evidence of actual wrongdoing,” the report states.
It would be easy to dismiss this case as another example of how ‘fake news’ affected the 2016 election, but there is more to it than that.
“The critical lesson of this chapter of the Clinton Foundation story is that the manipulation was not a result of Facebook fake news or the fragmentation of public discourse,” the report states. Just the the opposite, in fact. Because most Americans don’t get their news from right-wing Facebook sites, it was crucial for people like Bannon and others on the right to “frame a story that was attractive enough for mainstream media to cover, and to cause mainstream voters to doubt Hillary Clinton’s integrity.”
This is what Bannon means when he says — as he did less than 24 hours after departing the White House — that he is “going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.” It means he will use Breitbart, and its platform within the right-wing news ecosystem, to push stories consistent with his worldview into the mainstream again — which was not something he could do from inside the White House.
‘Fake news’ has for the Trump team always been news that has not reflected their agenda. Breitbart, especially under Bannon, has the power to change that.
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