I came to hate the term “false equivalence” back in 2008 when fans of MSNBC would come after me on social media for saying that the channel’s star, Keith Olbermann, was as bad for the country as Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“False equivalence,” they would insist and then lecture me as if I did not know what the term meant.
I believed then and believe now that Olbermann was as reckless and dangerous from the left as Hannity was from the right at that time. But the bombastic Fox host has gone onto new heights of partisan recklessness since Donald J. Trump became president. And he’s now one of the ringleaders of a right-wing messaging loop that has been in overdrive the past three weeks in attacking the FBI with a narrative that paints the agency as led by members of a “deep state” within government intent on destroying the Trump presidency. That campaign is seen by some as an attempt to discredit Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
And “false equivalence” is the term for a mistake some of us are making today when we talk about there being two different ways of seeing the world, depending on what cable channels and media we get our information from on this story.
There are different ways — as different as black and white — in seeing the world depending on whether you get your political news and analysis from Fox News and Breitbart News or CNN and The New York Times.
But when we state it that way, it also sounds as if the two ways are comparable, perhaps even equal. They most definitely are not.
One narrative today is crafted by platforms that have become political weapons for the Trump administration, while the other is largely the function of news organizations operating under traditional journalistic standards, like The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times or CNN. One is propaganda, the other journalism. Not understanding that difference is one of the reasons so many are confused about where to go for information they can trust.
The distinction might be more important than ever for Americans, because for the first time since the end of World War II, at least, we have large media outlets with the word “news” in their titles in political league with the White House, aiding in its messaging campaigns while operating without journalistic restraints.
We’ve seen the contradictory versions of political reality in sharp focus in the debates surrounding the release of text messages between FBI attorney Lisa Page and senior bureau official Peter Strzok and what has come to be called the Nunes memo, a document alleging FBI animus toward Trump. The memo contained classified information presented to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes.
The California congressman and his Republican colleagues voted to make some of the information public. That information included an allegation that the FBI obtained a warrant to wiretap phones at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign without revealing that the source of their information was a former British spy who had been hired by the Clinton campaign to dig up dirt on Trump.
The White House and some Republican members of Congress were clearly expecting it to hit like a bombshell when they released it on Feb. 2. Hannity said it “was Watergate times a thousand.” But it felt more like a dud to those who looked at the information with any objectivity.
In some ways, though, that didn’t matter. The steady drumbeat for weeks leading up to the release had already taken hold with those buying into the narrative of a corrupt, partisan FBI. To them, the Strzok-Page emails and Nunes information were proof of a “deep state” conspiracy at the bureau and Department of Justice. Its goal: to take Trump down at any cost. The deep state is stealing your democracy.
On Jan. 23, Hannity told viewers, “The constitutional violations are severe and historically unprecedented in this country. You have deep state actors using and abusing the powerful tools of intelligence we give them to protect this country.”
Lou Dobbs, host on the Fox Business Network*, took a step higher on Jan. 24 saying, “It may be time to declare war outright against the deep state and clear out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department. Yes, I said the rot. The FBI and the DOJ have broken the public trust by destroying evidence, defying oversight and actively trying to bring down the Trump presidency. Tonight, there are new concerns that anti-Trump FBI officials formed even a secret society at the FBI to subvert the president after his election.”
As if that wasn’t far enough out there, InfoWars host Alex Jones took the rhetoric to another level on Jan. 25, replaying Dobbs and voicing his admiration for him.
“You ask my opinion, some of the best and most hard-hitting information is on Fox Business, and Lou Dobbs is a total patriot,” Jones said. “I just have to thank Lou Dobbs for his courage. It is time to declare war, because they’ve already declared war on us. And now they’re cornered rats. As I keep saying, we've reached the most dangerous point right now because the walls are closing in.”
By Feb. 2, the day of the release of the Nunes memo, Hannity was telling his radio audience flat-out that Mueller’s FBI investigation was an “attempt at a coup and an attempt to unseat an elected president.”
Hard to believe, but it got worse this week as the president and members of the Senate joined in.
On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a what he called an interim report saying that text messages between Page and Strzok showed interference by President Barack Obama in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Without going too far down the rabbit hole, let’s just say that if it was true, it would support Trump’s longtime claim that the FBI probe of Clinton was “rigged.”
This is the same Johnson who made and then was forced to back off his claim that there was a “secret society” out to get Trump within the FBI. He based that claim made Jan. 25 on a misinterpreted Page-Strzok text message and the word of an unnamed “informant.” His words and actions reminded me of another Wisconsin Senator, Joe McCarthy, who in the 1950s claimed government agencies were infiltrated by secret societies and Communist cells. McCarthy used unnamed informants, too.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday Fox News and other right-wing outlets like the Drudge Report went with Johnson’s claim about Obama involvement in the Clinton probe. And by 11:10 a.m., 10 minutes after the latest Fox News segment on the texts, Trump tweeted: “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!”
Later in the day, the claim was debunked. The text message that Johnson and Fox had seized upon involved Page’s texting Strzok that President Obama wanted “to know everything we’re doing.” While Johnson suggested that was everything the FBI was doing on the Clinton probe, it actually meant everything the FBI was doing in its investigation of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The Clinton probe had already closed.
That’s some messaging loop with a senator, the president, Fox, Breitbart, Drudge and InfoWars involved — all pounding the same narrative of corruption in the FBI. No president has ever been involved with the media to that extent. While McCarthy ran wild in the 1950s, GOP President Dwight Eisenhower had virtually nothing to do with him.
I am starting to fear that legacy media, which seeks to gather and report factual information whether or not it fits any particular narrative, might not be able to compete with that kind of messaging juggernaut.
You have to go pretty far into the weeds to understand what the Strzok-Page texts might or might not really mean. And most of us don’t watch TV — the place the majority of Americans still cite as the primary source of political information — with that level of concentration.
We follow familiar narratives, like the one that says, “There’s a secret society in the FBI trying to take down the president.”
I haven’t lost faith in fact-based journalism. But it is being sorely tested these days by the power of an unprecedented government-media messaging machine put in place since President Trump took office.
This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly referred to the Fox Business Network.