David Frum: The Conservative Media Is Killing Conservatism

David Frum

David Frum

Once again the right-wing media/entertainment complex has reported rumor as truth. This time, according to David Frum in his new National Post column, the mistake is overshadowing real world concerns about Chuck Hagel’s nomination to Secretary of Defense:

On February 7, a conservative news site, Breitbart.com, posted this breathless news:

“On Thursday, Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed that one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called ‘Friends of Hamas.’”

If true, that would be staggering information. But, of course, the story rapidly proved not to be true. There is no such group as “Friends of Hamas” operating in the United States. (Actual “friends” of Hamas, which is a terrorist group, usually make some effort to go incognito.)

The story reported by Breitbart.com had originated as a joke by Dan Friedman, a reporter for the New York Daily News.

“On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: ‘Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed?’” Friedman explained. “Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the ‘Junior League of Hezbollah, in France’? And: What about ‘Friends of Hamas’? The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically.”

Now if Breitbart News was the only right wing outlet to report this, no big deal. They report dubious stories all the time, and only appeal to a niche segment of gullible news consumers. However, this fabricated story did not quietly die in the backwaters of right wing media:

Unfortunately, it was not only a single website that pounced. The story quickly traveled up the Internet food chain. It was repeated at NationalReview.com, and from there made the leap to talk radio and Fox News — repeated, to be sure, usually with caveat words such as “allegedly,” but repeated all the same.

To Frum, this sort of thing is killing conservatism. How can conservatives be taken seriously when their representatives in the media, not to mention their political leaders, fall for this sort of thing?

I’d also add that David Frum does not support Chuck Hagel as Secretary of  Defense. He begins his column laying out legitimate reasons why, in his opinion, Hagel is not qualified for the job. However, this story is not about Hagel. Its about the sloppy, stupid lies coming from right wing media. Because of a sloppy, stupid lie, real concerns about Hagel’s qualifications are now overshadowed. The right wing media’s stupidity is now the dominant story, as opposed to whether or not Hagel is the best man for the job.

In addition to regular columns at The National Post and CNN, David Frum also writes an outstanding blog at The Daily Beast.


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19 Responses to David Frum: The Conservative Media Is Killing Conservatism

  1. This is why people, especially journalists and politicians, need to be careful with hyperbole. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the tone of voice and suss out sarcasm – in text, it can be nearly-impossible; on the phone, it can be tricky (and sometimes it’s hard to tel even in-person).
    This is basically a story of how a joke turned into conspiracy that was lapped up not just by Breitbart and sites like it that are known for peddling bullshit – the crazier, the better and more attention they’ll give it – but by politicians who are supposed to be serious and taken seriously, especially on matters governing our country.

    This isn’t simply a matter of lazy media fact-checking. It’s also politicians who eagerly jumped on the “Friends of Hamas” bandwagon because it provided an easy pretext to obstruct. (Not necessarily all who opposed/oppose the Hagel nomination, but some like Ted Cruz just loved this shit because it was easy – reality be damned.) And if you fall for something like this, it’s hard to recover from the embarrassment of admitting that you were wrong, so for some like, again Cruz, it’s a preferred path to just double-down instead. And even when the media catches up on its fact-checking and rebuts the whole thing as a hoax, they don’t have to backtrack or offer comment because their base will do it for them – the evil liberal media argument.

    As far as journalists go, regardless what outlet we work for, I think we get comfortable thinking that if we use words like “allegedly” and “reportedly,” it’ll be okay if the story was wrong or all bullshit. It’s not, because when it’s something big or controversial, few audiences will focus on the adverb, and more will focus on the actual allegation. I mean this is classic rumor stuff. “Supposedly.” “I heard.” Ya know?
    This is also why we don’t like to use anonymous sources – because it’s harder to track and verify, and harder to keep accountability for all involved.
    Whenever this “Friends of Hamas” thing went public, the media present should’ve asked a simple question. “How do you know this?” If they just mentioned an aide telling them, follow up with “How did he/she find out?” The whole story could’ve been debunked much faster if the threads were connected leading down to a hypothetical what-if snarky remark over the phone. (Well, I’m sure Breitbart and co. would’ve pushed on ahead with the allegations regardless, but I’m still hopeful that Fox News would at east have tapered off it.)

    • I’m glad to get your perspective on this as you’re pretty much the only real journalist I know. How does this crap get by professional editors? Is has to be more financial than ideological, right?

      • Well, sites like Breitbart (or WorldDailyNews and such) are glorified blogs that exist to push right-wing fringe ideas and mindsets, so editors of those well-developed websites may be professional, but they’ve got axes to grind and agendas to push. Much like my blog is pushing a leftist agenda because as its only creator and author, those are my views so I’m going to promote them.

        Kinda went long on this reply, so here it is in a short nutshell: Diversify your news. Watch local. And evaluate your sources even more critically when they’re online.

        Now, on to my daily diatribe:

        Looking at professional news outlets like Fox News on the right or MSNBC (is it NBCNews now? I keep seeing it either way), it’s a mixture of both financial and ideological. They know they have certain audiences who will eat up and regurgitate anything they give them. The ideology makes money in that way. So the ideology will be promoted. Doing this forfeits them of a whole swath of people, of course, because a liberal will likely abhor watching Fox News and a conservative would sooner scratch his or her eyes out than listen to Rachel Maddow. But they’re popular enough with their commentary – and there’s a key word there. A lot of it is commentary. Rachel Maddow, love her, agree with her on almost everything, but she’s a commentator.

        On these cable news networks, the commentary label is not promoted much because they don’t want people to just think “oh well this is just another asshole with an opinion of his own, what do I care?” So it’s news but crafted in a slant. There’s good pieces of journalism on both sides. But there’s also a deal of selective reporting and script-writing that will more likely advance a certain world view that goes into it.
        The cable networks have the benefit of not having much other programming to get in the way of the 24-hour news cycle, so they go on and on and on and just cycle the shows throughout the day, occasionally with breaking updates and a ticket at the bottom to keep quick-burst updates fresh all day long.

        The local affiliates (local Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC) have daytime talk shows, reality TV shows, sitcoms, etc. filling a good chunk of the day, however. So they behave differently. Local news not only has to be more localized to be relevant to the audience, but they have a much shorter news hole to work with. Morning newscasts can last two hours but much of the others – the midday and evening – only last one hour, minus sports and minus commercials. So they don’t have time to bullshit around with commentary and slants.

        I interned at the Chicago affiliate of Fox in 2009. Not at all as conservative as national Fox News. Yet I recall one of the executive producers being majorly pissed off when higher-ups somewhere decided they wouldn’t cut into regular programming for Obama’s first inauguration. So sometimes it filters down but rarely into the local.

        This is the true value of maintaining local news. You’re more likely to get “pure” news from your local newspaper, TV or radio stations for that reason, because there’s so much less time and room to maneuver in and bother with bias (and radio stations syndicate national commentators including Rush Limbaugh, while newspapers all have an Opinion/Editorial page or spread with the local editor’s take and syndicated columnists of all stripes). But that also means this “pure” news is severely constrained. Local editors and producers struggle for time and space with national stories, much less goings-on around the world.
        Cable news, on the other hand, has time all day, all night (the night usually being a recycle of the day’s shows). Compared to the one-hour bursts three times a day on local TV stations, that’s an eternity. When they’re more blatant with their bias, though, and more actively promote certain eccentricities and extremes, that’s when they lose their credibility as news sources. Sometimes they cut the cancer, like MSNBC did after Keith Olbermann violated company policy regarding political contributions or Fox News did recently knocking Sarah Palin off its rolls, other times they let it fester to feed the hungry masses with blood-red meat.

        If MSNBC put on radical-left, nearly-communist folks on its prime time slots, its credibility on news would sink like a stone and even liberals and progressives would abandon it soon. But Fox News has had less such qualms because, in part, it’s worked the past few years. There are good reasons, laid out in this article you posted, that people talk of a Fox News bubble or right-wing bubble that some on the left sneered finally popped during Karl Rove’s meltdown on Election Night. Nobody talks of an MSNBC bubble because it may be slanted but while people like Rachel Maddow are clearly on the progressive side, they simply don’t push or promote conspiracy theories and ideas that are just way “out there.” David Frum is not a liberal or progressive. Yet as a conservative, who also served in George W. Bush’s White House, even he can find less to speak ill of about the more left-leaning media like MSNBC than he can about right-wing sources like Fox News. That’s telling.

        Fox News and MSNBC have their slants but that’s not their main crime, in my opinion. It’s the branding of their commentary as solid, straight news which subtly promotes the idea for viewers that they are the alpha and omega of what’s really going on in the world. So it’s no wonder that large groups of people watch nothing but MSNBC; and large groups of people watch nothing but Fox News. They’re subtly being told, and many unfortunately allow themselves to be sold on this simplistic view, that if you watch anything BUT Fox News or MSNBC, you’re not getting the real deal. It’s not just “we’re better at it than they are.” It’s “we’re the only ones who do it at all.” That’s a mentality even competing news networks should not propagate, but it’s also one that individuals themselves are responsible for staying away from.

        In college, I dormed with two conservatives who were for the most part quite mainstream, sensible and sane – but they watched nothing but Fox News, so I had my fair share of exposure, and I wasn’t impressed by it at all. And since I studied journalism, it’s a given that I know quite a few journalists my age – I mean they were among my core group in undergrad. While recognizing that there can be and is solid journalism to be found on Fox News, few even see it as a credible news source. That speaks volumes.
        From the big three cable news channels, CNN is by far the most moderate but it’s also the one that is struggling most domestically. I try to get my news and potential blog pieces from a variety of sources, but sadly Fox News is not one of them, and for good reason.

  2. I’m uneasy with the “left-right” continuum. In general, I don’t care for labels. Silver has a recent piece addressing key definitions. I hope to read it soon. Maybe he’ll convince me that it makes sense.

  3. The media is too lazy to fact check (i.e. Manti Two)

  4. Great piece Josh ! The fact that we don’t have a secretary of defense is very troubling. Either he is confirmed or not. This is so ridiculous.

  5. Reblogged this on Real Talk and commented:
    Great piece by Reason and Politics

  6. john zande says:

    I never wish ill on anyone, but i have to say when i heard Breitbart was dead i thought the world was a better place for it. Seems his right wing conspiracy crap continues, though.

    Did you catch the recent “news” from batshit crazy Erik Rush? Apparently Obama is going to declare all Christians mentally ill…. go figure! (links below)



    • Ha! That is awesome. I just read his article and wow… I understand why this guy would worry about being labeled as mentally ill… and it’s not because he’s supposedly a Christian, it’s because he’s actually mentally ill. His article reads like Richard Dorner’s manifesto.


      • john zande says:

        Good article! With all these Harvey references floating around could it be some of these nuts read my article? I doubt it, but i’m allowed to dream 🙂

      • Wow! Obama isn’t a Christian, he’s an atheist. No, wait! He’s a Muslim… and a Marxist. Yes, that’s it! He’s a Muslim-Marxist atheist… and a totalitarian… and a negrophiliac.

        Back in the 60’s, the only way we could get as “high” as Erik Rush seems to be is by taking psychedelics.

  7. Is this a disregard for journalistic integrity by the conservative media, intellectual incompetence in the extreme right-wing, or just pure old fashioned McCarthyism?

    • Depending on the outlet, I’d say all of the above. They love to stoke the confirmation bias of their viewers and readers. Its all about triggering the pleasure center by telling people, “you’re opinion is right.”

      If you were a conservative who only watched Fox News and listed to AM radio, you’re pre-existing beliefs would be reinforced over and over and over, without the slightest bit of self reflection.

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