Charlie Sykes

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  • Yes, Fake News Exists On The Left -- But It's Being Overblown

    Blog ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    The weaponized fake news stories that have emerged of late are certainly not confined to just one end of the political spectrum and are dangerous to political discourse regardless of partisan tilt. But a recent spate of articles trumpeting the so-called “rise of progressive ‘fake news’” omits the context necessary to understanding why the right-wing fake news ecosystem is so uniquely destructive, and in doing so collapses the collective understanding of fake news into a trite and distracting argument about “both sides.”

    During the presidential campaign, fake news purveyors -- by and large right-wing, hyperpartisan fringe websites -- unleashed a blizzard of politically motivated lies packaged as legitimate news largely designed to undermine Hillary Clinton and boost Donald Trump. The onslaught of fabrications was effective: Fake news stories outperformed real ones on Facebook in the final campaign stretch, and most Americans who saw fake news during the election believed it.

    But as it becomes clearer how and why right-wing fake news stories proliferated and succeeded, media outlets are now beginning to document an ostensible “uptick in fake news … with a distinctly liberal bent,” as The Guardian’s Sam Levin describes it, and to compare it to the flood of conservative fake news stories shared during the election.

    The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer similarly writes that progressives have recently embraced fake news just like “conservative Facebook users [shared] stories that had nothing to do with reality” during the election, in what Meyer calls a “funny reversal of the situation from November.” And a BuzzFeed article claims that progressive “alarm, paranoia, and genuine outrage” are ushering in an increase in “ the left’s own distinct brand of the online phenomenon known as fake news.”

    Some examples these outlets point to indeed fit the mold of weaponized fake news and are cause for concern. There are also other recent cases of unsubstantiated claims rocketing through the liberal blogosphere. Yes, fake news-purveying websites that cater to progressive audiences do exist and do, as BuzzFeed contends, “undermin[e] legitimate causes for outrage on the left.”

    But these and other outlets hyping the rise of progressive fake news point to what The Atlantic calls a liberal “panoply of wishful thinking” as evidence of the nascent trend of fake news on the left. Included in their examples is the famous bunch of “rogue,” anti-Trump Twitter accounts and a series of conspiratorial Medium posts about an impending coup d'etat; neither of which fits within Media Mattersoperational understanding of fake news, which is clearly and demonstrably fabricated information deceptively packaged as legitimate news, and is either motivated by profit or ideology. BuzzFeed highlights a parodical story about Trump’s “plan to turn the USS Enterprise into a floating casino,” which comes from an explicitly satirical website. Satire, though damaging when weaponized politically, is in its most basic sense also not fake news. The Guardian points to several-months-old fake news stories as evidence that progressive fake news is a post-election phenomenon.

    But weak examples notwithstanding, this all-too-common lunge toward “both sides do it” analysis not only muddies the understanding of what fake news actually is, but also more critically ignores or even whitewashes how and why fake news on the right thrives in a way that it never could on the left.

    Essentially, there is a larger conversation here than “the rise of progressive ‘fake news’” -- one in which the story isn’t how the fake news universes on the left and right are the same, but rather how they are different. Conflating right-wing, hyperpartisan fake news with left-wing “wishful thinking” glosses over both the vast infrastructure of fake news on the right and the audience pool that cultivates, enables and validates it.

    The Right-Wing Media Infrastructure Enables Conservative Fake News In A Way The Left Doesn’t

    Conservative fake news flourishes because of the right-wing media infrastructure -- both mainstream and fringe -- that has been cultivated for over a decade. A vast constellation of fake news-purveying websites have long lived in the dark corners of the internet, and mainstream conservative news outlets have fomented a toxic alternate reality in which venomous lies can and do thrive -- neither of which the left has.

    Fake news is fertile on the right because of the sea of lies that have been fed to conservative audiences all throughout President Barack Obama’s administration. Years of misleading, out-of-context, unjustified, racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical, and outright false attacks on Obama and the left by the right-wing noise machine have, naturally, paved the way for weaponized conservative fake news to take hold. 

    That’s why a fake news story about Obama banning the pledge of allegiance in public schools can take off -- because in the context of Fox News and other conservative media outlets bellowing for years that Obama was anti-American, that story simply makes sense to the conservative masses. The left has no such equivalent to the might of the right’s loudest conservative voices or the warped worldview they have sold their audiences.

    Moreover, the coalition of extreme right-wing websites like Infowars, Drudge Report, The Gateway Pundit, LifeZette, and Breitbart that serve as bridges between the radical fringes of the internet and the conservative mainstream media are long- and well-established, which consequently helped facilitate the spread of fake news into the mainstream during the election. These direct pipelines by which lies slide from obscurity into the mainstream also do not exist on the left.

    The sophisticated level of coordination among right-wing fake news purveyors also enables fake news -- and the left does not have a similar set of complex and coordinated pathways. Fake news stories on the right typically don’t grow organically; rather, fake news purveyors create a facade of credibility by all publishing the same untrue stories on their sites. Thus, when a dozen right-wing sites are reporting the same lie, its chance of going viral, piercing the mainstream, and being noticed by public figures grows.

    This far-reaching, enduring infrastructure that both creates and boosts conservative fake news took years to build and has credibility in the eyes of millions of political observers. It would be misguided to suggest that progressives have created a similar ecosystem at all, let alone in the last three months.

    Conservative Audiences Believe -- And Right-Wing Giants Validate -- Fake News In A Way That Democrats Do Not

    Comparisons between left- and right-wing fake news that fail to examine the media consumption habits of the Republican base and those (including the president of the United States) who enable fake news on the right are also insufficient.

    Trump is a serial liar. But more than that, he is one of the loudest, most powerful purveyors of fake news around, who both feeds into and draws from the fake news universe. Democrats have no such validating figure.

    Since his election, Trump has peddled false claims about widespread voter fraud; an immigration ban instituted by Kuwait; and thousands of bikers traveling to D.C. for his inauguration. Before November 8, Trump came to be known as the “King of Whoppers” for his unmatched, unrestrained, and disturbing penchant for lying about any issue, great or small. Not to mention that Trump sources his lies regularly and terrifyingly from disreputable fake news purveyors like Alex Jones, Roger Stone, and Russian state-sponsored media.

    Supported by a cadre of aides who also propagate fake news, including social media director Dan Scavino and Brad Parscale, Trump himself has become one of the greatest validators of fake news and, relatedly, a prominent catalyst in the breakdown of objective truth. As debunking site Snopes’ editor Brooke Binkowski emphasized in The Atlantic:

    [T]here’s no equivalence between the falsehoods coming from the American left and the right in the past two weeks. Individual Democrats on Facebook may cling to pleasant stories and wishful thinking, but the Republican White House press secretary spouts off lies beneath the presidential seal.

    Additionally, by repeatedly attacking credible news outlets as “fake news,” Trump is attempting to redefine “fake news” in his own terms. Conflating honest mistakes in reporting with fake news (which, to be sure, are clearly distinct issues) helps Trump degrade the Fourth Estate, which, in effect, helps chip away at the biggest barrier to his efforts to gaslight his way through his presidency. Trump’s appropriation of the term “fake news” also effectively validates the worst fake news purveyors out there -- because if The New York Times is fake news, then who isn’t?

    So, when the person carrying the mantle of the Republican Party unabashedly spouts nonsense and bullshit, the idea that “both sides do it” becomes moot.

    Trump’s success in peddling fake news largely stems from the way that conservatives seek out and digest their news. With a greater tendency than liberals to believe false information that plays into their own confirmation biases (facilitated, as aforementioned, by the bitterly hostile alternate reality the right-wing media has created for its base), conservatives are essentially primed to receive fake news in a way that liberals are not.

    As documented by The Washington Post, psychologist John Jost of New York University found that liberals are “slightly more predisposed to think critically than conservatives,” and Stefan Pfattheicher of Ulm University “found that individuals who identified as more conservative were more likely to be duped by nonsense than liberals.” As the Post explains:

    Conservatives may be perfectly able to do the kind of critical thinking and cognitive exploration that would lead them to be more skeptical of nonsense and fake news -- they just choose not to, preferring instead to seek out information that allows them to make quick decisions that reinforce their existing views.

    Take it from one of the most prolific fake news creators, Paul Horner, who claims that “Donald Trump is in the White House because of me”: “Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it.”

    And, as conservative commentator Charlie Sykes wrote in The New York Times, conservatives have been “conditioned to reject reporting from news sites outside of the conservative media ecosystem,” which in turn “essentially destroy[ed] much of the right’s immunity to false information.”

    So yes, fake news does exist on the left. Progressive fake news is dangerous and misguided, and Democrats should absolutely not try to build a parallel fake news universe for the sake of electoral success. But the burgeoning media hype about “lefty” fake news is being oversold, and it’s glossing over the reality of the multifaceted conservative media ecosystem at large, which is unique and unmatched in the way it encourages and rewards right-wing fake news. Myopic, one-to-one comparisons of left- and right-wing fake news stories are leading us to miss the forest for the trees.

  • Politico: Conservative Radio Host Laments Right-Wing Media’s Role In The Rise Of Trump

    Charlie Sykes: “I Feel Dumber Every Time I Listen To Sean Hannity"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Politico’s profile of conservative Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes captured the civil war that is raging within right-wing media over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, with Sykes excoriating the “alternative reality bubble” pushed by pundits like Sean Hannity and fringe news sites like Breitbart.com.

    Sykes, a conservative radio host who has been anti-Trump from the beginning, blames right-wing media for the rise of the reality TV star, saying conservative media figures such as himself have “fed this faux outrage machine." He explained that “talk radio’s attack on mainstream-media bias has backfired, because its listeners now dismiss legitimate media fact-checking as untrustworthy.” The August 21 Politico article noted that Sykes regrets his own role in sowing a “racist, anti-Constitutional, maybe even fascistic” “vein of thinking” that is parroted by his audience:

    Since last year, the most influential political talk show host in Wisconsin has found out just how hard it is to be a #NeverTrump conservative on right-wing radio. Ever since Sykes began denouncing Donald Trump on the air—which he does just about every time he talks about the presidential election—he’s strained his relationships with the listeners of his daily radio show.

    Sykes’ many arguments with listeners over Donald Trump’s serial outrages have exposed in much of his audience a vein of thinking—racist, anti-Constitutional, maybe even fascistic—that has shaken Sykes. It has left him questioning whether he and his colleagues in the conservative media played a role in paving the way for Trump’s surprising and unprecedented rise.

    [...]

    [O]n this Friday in August, Sykes is juggling his many conservative roles—radio host, thinker, translator of Wisconsin political mores for the outside world. Young reporters from Vice and Milwaukee Public Radio interview him about his book’s argument that spiking student debt isn’t worth it. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and NBC political reporters ask him about the Ryan-Nehlen race and whether Trump will endorse Ryan. Meanwhile, he’s wrestling with his listeners, from whom he is feeling increasingly estranged.

    “I am dealing with the daily flood of emails on how we’re never going to listen to you anymore,” Sykes says. Longtime listeners write him to say conservative talk radio should criticize Hillary Clinton and not Trump.

    “If I lose listeners, that’s a price I’ve just got to pay,” he says. He’d rather say what he really thinks than fall in line with other broadcasters’ embrace of Trump. “I feel dumber every time I listen to Sean Hannity. I don’t want to be that guy.”

    [...]

    “Talk radio made itself relevant by beating up on other Republicans, vilifying other Republicans,” he says. “It fed this faux outrage machine that raised expectations unrealistically”—for instance, asking why Congress didn’t repeal Obamacare, though Obama’s veto pen made it mathematically impossible. Later, he would tell Business Insider’s Oliver Darcy that talk radio’s attack on mainstream-media bias has backfired, because its listeners now dismiss legitimate media fact-checking as untrustworthy.

    Sykes warns his listeners to step outside the “alternative reality bubble” of Breitbart.com and other right-wing websites. Part of his audience thinks he’s sold out, he complains, because he won’t parrot dubious claims they’ve read on such sites. “A lot of the conservative talk shows around the country embrace almost whatever comes over the transom,” he says.

  • Conservative Media Fight Over David French Trial Balloon

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who has long advocated for a third party alternative to the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, announced his desire to recruit National Review writer David French as his chosen candidate. French’s coworkers and some core Never Trump figures supported the possible candidacy, while many other right-wing media figures called it “embarrassing” and “preposterous.”

    The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol Pushes National Review's David French To Enter Presidential Race

    Wash. Post: "David French Is Urged To Enter Presidential Race As Independent." On May 31 The Washington Post reported that Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, sought to recruit National Review writer David French as a third-party conservative presidential candidate. French has not stated whether or not he will run:

    Tennessee attorney David French, who in recent years has become a prominent right-wing writer, is being urged by some conservative leaders to make a late entry into the 2016 presidential race as an independent candidate, according to two people close to him.

    William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard magazine and a former Republican White House official, is at the fore of the draft effort. A group of well-known evangelical leaders and GOP operatives is also involved in the discussions, the people said, requesting anonymity to discuss private conversations. 

    [...]

    When reached by phone Tuesday, French’s wife, Nancy, declined to comment. David French did not respond to multiple calls and emails over the past weekend. [The Washington Post, 5/31/16]

    Some Never Trump And National Review Figures Support A French Candidacy

    National Review: "French Is Preposterous? This Year?" National Review blogger Mona Chen defended Bill Kristol's selection of French for a third party bid, calling for "an honest man in this contest." Chen asserted that since “the Democrats are about to nominate a woman who may be indicted” and the Republicans “a reality star who knows nothing of policy, but ... threatens to undermine" the GOP itself, French has a viable opportunity to enter the presidential race:

    Twitter tittered with a combination of contempt and amusement yesterday when word leaked that it might be our own David French who is considering an independent run for president. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” — that great “herd of independent minds” — the same tone prevailed (except for Mark Halperin, who noted that much would depend upon whether French could get financial backing). Mika Brzezinski scoffed that Bill Kristol needed a vacation, and the assembled crew were unanimous that French lacks the stature to enter the race. 

    In any normal year, they would certainly have a point. But look around people. This is the year when the Democrats are about to nominate a woman who may be indicted. The Republicans are nominating a reality star who knows nothing of policy but excels at schoolyard taunts, and threatens to undermine the one party that, until recently, stood (broadly) for the Constitution. But David French is out of his league? French is a graduate of Harvard Law. While Trump was bedding married women and allegedly defrauding strivers who signed up for Trump University, French was earning a bronze star in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He’s a major in the US Army Reserve. He’s a bestselling author of, most recently, The Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore and countless brilliant articles. He is past president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and has worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice. [National Review, 6/1/16]

    National Review Editor Jim Geraghty: “If A David French Candidacy Gets All Of America To See The Alt-Right Clearly, He’s Done A National Service.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]
     

    Talk Radio Host Charlie Sykes: “David French Is A Class Act, Would Be An Impressive Candidate.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

    RedState's Leon H. Wolf: "French ... Will Easily Get My Vote." RedState.com writer Leon H. Wolf wrote that French “will easily get my vote over any of the options that are currently on the ballot.” Even though Wolf conceded that French has little realistic chance to win, he asserted that he will never “bow before the con man who bragged that I would support him even after he destroyed my party.”

    I guess some are determined not to give French a shot on the basis that he can’t possibly win. Personally, I could not care less. A realistic chance of anyone who deserves the office winning left the building a long time ago.

    I don’t have a duty or obligation of any kind to vote for a candidate who might win. The only duty I have – to myself or anyone else – is to vote for the candidate who is most deserving of my vote. Hell, by the time election day of 2008 rolled around, McCain had no chance, and we all voted for him, didn’t we?

    If French really does run, he will easily get my vote over any of the options that are currently on the ballot, in addition to my help gathering signatures and whatever spare money I can afford. Not only will he deserve it, but I won’t submissively tuck my tail between my legs and bow before the con man who bragged that I would support him even after he destroyed my party. [RedState.com, 6/1/16]

    Erick Erickson: “I’d Gladly Vote For David French Over Either Hillary Clinton Or Her Donor Donald Trump.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

    Erickson: “I’d Be Happy To Participate In The #FrenchRevolution.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

    Daily Caller's Matt Lewis: “I Will Vote For David French … But We Could Probably Hold Our Convention In A Phone Booth.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

    Ben Shapiro: “Voting For David French Over Hillary And Trump Would Be The Easiest Call Ever.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

    Others In Right-Wing Media Ridicule The "Embarrassing" Potential Candidacy Of French

    Hot Air: Bill Kristol Is "Now Pulling Fans Out Of The Stands To Play QB." Conservative blogger Allahpundit ridiculed Kristol's choice of French in a May 31 blog post on HotAir.com:

    This was who he had in mind with that much-hyped tweet this weekend that had everyone wondering if Romney had reconsidered? An … NRO writer? Trump fans are forever deriding #NeverTrump as a “movement” consisting of, like, six guys at National Review and the Weekly Standard. And now here we are.

    [...]

    As it turns out, Kristol actually touted French as a potential independent candidate in a piece published in the Standard just a few days ago. No one put two and two together this weekend, though, presumably because, um, no one thought he could possibly be serious.

    [...]

    There’s a sense that, having exhausted everyone on the team’s depth chart, you’re now pulling fans out of the stands to play QB. I’m not sure either what the value is in picking a conservative challenger to Trump who’s even less well known than Gary Johnson is. [HotAir.com, 5/31/16]

    Breitbart News: “It’s Likely This Will End Up In The Ash Heap Of Kristol’s History Of Inaccurate Positions.” Breitbart News dismissed Kristol’s selection of French, writing in a May 31 post that “it’s likely this will end up in the ash heap of Kristol’s history of inaccurate predictions”:

    Kristol created a media firestorm after tweeting that an “impressive” third party candidate would run with a “real chance.” If David French is all Kristol can come up with, it’s likely this will end up in the ash heap of Kristol’s history of inaccurate predictions. [Breitbart News, 5/31/16]

    Guy Benson: French Candidacy “Will Represent An Embarrassing Fizzle For A ‘Never Trump’ Movement That Once Seemed Potent. Or At Least Relevant.” Townhall political editor Guy Benson called French’s selection by Kristol an “embarrassing fizzle” for the Never Trump movement in a May 31 post:

    And the grand reveal is...National Review writer David French? And it's not even confirmed? Don't get me wrong: French is a decorated Iraq war veteran, a strong writer, and a principled conservative whose stalwart commitment to religious liberty is admirable, even if one disagrees from time to time. … He's an impressive man. The impressiveness of his team -- if this presidential run ever actually comes to pass -- remains to be seen. But the notion that a relatively little-known writer could parachute into this race at such a late juncture and have a prayer of winning even a single state is, frankly, preposterous. 

    [...]

    So with due respect to the potential candidate, and with strong sympathy for its most prominent backers, I must say that if the French report proves accurate, it will represent an embarrassing fizzle for a 'Never Trump' movement that once seemed potent. Or at least relevant. Instead, it will have roared in like a lion after Indiana, then trotted impotently and inexorably toward the political abyss ahead of California. [Townhall, 5/31/16]

    Hot Air's Ed Morrissey: "I Like And Respect David, But This Can’t Be Right.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

    Morrissey: A French Candidacy Is “Like Picking George Will To Pitch For Your Fantasy Baseball Team.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

    NY Times Columnist Ross Douthat: “Both David French And Bill Kristol Will Be Mocked If French Is The #NeverTrump Candidate.”

    [Twitter.com, 5/31/16]

  • WI Radio Host Talked #NeverTrump With Bill Kristol, Then Immediately Ignored Sen. Ron Johnson’s Trump Support

    Blog ››› ››› DANIEL ANGSTER & SALVATORE COLLELUORI

    Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes, who loudly denounced Donald Trump’s campaign during the state’s primary and who has committed himself to the “Never Trump” cause, did not bring up the presumptive Republican nominee when interviewing Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who has pledged his support to Trump. Just minutes before hosting Johnson, Sykes interviewed Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and discussed drafting a third party candidate.

    Sykes gained notoriety for his resistance to Trump ahead of the Wisconsin primary. Unaware of the host’s resistance to him, Trump sparred with Sykes on his show a week before the primary in an interview that Politico called a “#NeverTrump radio buzzsaw.”

    Sykes introduced Kristol on the May 16 edition of his radio show as being “more 'Never Trump' than me if that’s possible.” The two discussed the possibility of drafting a third party nominee with the hope of stopping a Trump presidency. Sykes also brought up a Breitbart.com article that labled Kristol a “renegade Jew” for seeking to derail Trump’s campaign.

    Later in the show, Sykes hosted Sen. Johnson, whose Senate seat is viewed as vulnerable, especially with Trump as his party’s presumptive nominee. Over the weekend, Johnson said he was "sympathetic to someone like Mr. Trump" and tried to make it clear he was not endorsing Trump, but rather pledging support to the GOP nominee.

    Despite Johnson’s recent comments, Sykes never asked Johnson about his support of Trump as the presumptive nominee -- nor did he mention Trump’s name during the interview.

    As the Associated Press reported on April 4, GOP strategists have advised vulnerable senators to “keep it local” in their interviews and comments going into the election season, a strategy that was seemingly deployed by Johnson during his interview with Sykes. Johnson and Sykes talked about Johnson’s “Right To Try” legislation, which deals with terminally ill patients using experimental drugs, and his Democratic opponent Russ Feingold's criticism of Johnson for linking his Senate race to 9/11.