The Fox Cycle: From bogus right-wing attack to mainstream news

As more and more media outlets follow Fox News' lead in covering the manufactured New Black Panther Party/Department of Justice (DOJ) scandal, Media Matters offers three case studies of previous bogus right-wing attacks that, with help from Fox News, went mainstream before being debunked.

The New Black Panthers and the pattern

Fox News aggressively promoting spurious allegations against DOJ. Taking a cue from right-wing blogs and The Washington Times, Fox News has spent the past week aggressively promoting allegations that the Obama Justice Department dropped voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party due to racial considerations.

The charges are being leveled by J. Christian Adams, a GOP activist and former DOJ attorney who was hired to the Bush DOJ by Bradley Schlozman, a political appointee who was ultimately found to have improperly politicized DOJ hiring. Adams admits to lacking firsthand knowledge of some of the events, conversations, and decisions that he cites to advance his accusations. Also, Adams' allegations are undermined by the fact that the decision to not pursue criminal charges against the New Black Panthers was made by the Bush-era DOJ (for which Adams worked); further, the Obama DOJ obtained judgment against one of the defendants.

Despite holes in story, other media outlets follow Fox News' lead. In a July 1 article, the Associated Press also advanced Adams' story, with a report largely based on claims Adam made on “Fox News earlier.” Adams is identified as “a former Justice Department lawyer” who “is accusing his ex-superiors of ignoring white voters' rights and creating a systematic 'one-way' approach in which only minorities are protected.” On July 7, CNN hosted Adams to rehash his unsubstantiated accusations, referring to the discredited GOP activist as a “whistleblower.” On July 8, CNN covered the story on multiple programs, with segments on the allegations on CNN Newsroom and Campbell Brown

New Black Panther story following a familiar pattern. Fox News' embrace of Adams' accusations against the Department of Justice are in keeping with a pattern observed in previous instances in which a bogus story has jumped from the conservative fringe to the mainstream media:

1. Right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts, and other conservative media outlets start promoting and distorting the story.

2. Fox News picks up the story and gives it heavy, one-sided coverage.

3. Fox News and conservative media attack the “liberal media” for ignoring the distorted story.

4. Mainstream media outlets eventually cover the story, echoing the right-wing distortions.

5. Fox News receives credit for promoting the story.

6. The story is later proven to be false or wildly misleading, long after damage is done.

This same pattern has played out several times before, with some variations. Three prominent examples from the past two years are the ACORN videos, Barack Obama's “relationship” with William Ayers, and the “Climategate scandal.”

The ACORN videos

With the assistance of Andrew Breitbart and Fox News' Glenn Beck, conservative activist and filmmaker James O'Keefe caused an uproar by posting videos depicting himself and Hannah Giles soliciting advice from employees of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) on how to set up an underage prostitution ring. The story was picked up first by Fox News and then the mainstream press, and eventually led to Congress voting to strip ACORN of federal funding and the organization ceasing operations. Later inquiries determined that the videos, which had been heavily edited, did not show any criminal behavior.

Breitbart's posts ACORN videos. On the morning of September 10, 2009, O'Keefe posted the first series of videos to Breitbart's According to O'Keefe: “Hannah Giles and I took advantage of ACORN's regard for thug criminality by posing the most ridiculous criminal scenario we could think of and seeing if they would comply -- which they did without hesitation.”

Fox News devotes massive amounts of coverage to ACORN videos. Beginning on September 10, 2009, Fox News -- led by Glenn Beck -- devoted significant resources to covering the ACORN videos story. On September 10 alone, Fox News aired no fewer than 17 separate segments on six different programs regarding the videos. This level of coverage had been foreshadowed by Beck, who hinted at the videos' existence on September 9, telling his audience, “Trust me. Everybody now says they're going to be talking about health care. I don't think so. Tomorrow you will see an exclusive -- stuff on tomorrow's program.”

Beck kicks off conservative complaints about lack of media coverage. On September 11, 2009, Beck complained on his Fox News show that the “mainstream media” were ignoring this “huge” story:

BECK: This story was so huge, so huge, I wondered last night, how many in the media are going to cover it? Well, we watched. Let's take a look here. Let's just take this story by the numbers. Since yesterday morning until about noon today, how many times did the mainstream media outlets cover the ACORN story? What a surprise? Coming in at number one, FOX, 19 times, at least 19 times. CNN, how many times? Whoa! Three, three, wow. ... How about MSNBC, how much did they cover the ACORN scandal? Zero. ABC, how many times did ABC cover it? Zero. What do you say, CBS? Oh, zero. NBC, how many times did they cover this story? New York Times, this is a good one, huh? You could get a Pulitzer Prize. One.

Conservative media critics singled out ABC News and then-World News anchor Charles Gibson for not reporting on the ACORN videos.

Mainstream media outlets begin reporting on ACORN videos. The New York Times published a story on the ACORN videos on September 15, 2009, reporting: “Conservative advocates and broadcasters were gleeful about the success of the tactics in exposing Acorn workers, who appeared to blithely encourage prostitution and tax evasion. It was, in effect, the latest scalp claimed by those on the right who have made no secret of their hope to weaken the Obama administration by attacking allies and appointees they view as leftist.”

The CBS Evening News first reported on the ACORN videos on September 15. NBC's Nightly News and ABC's World News first reported on the ACORN videos on September 16.

Media reporters, pundits credit Fox News for ACORN coverage. On the September 20, 2009, edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, host and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz suggested that Fox News “stampeded” the rest of the media in covering “the ACORN uproar”:

KURTZ: All right. Let me get a break here. And when we come back, the ACORN uproar. Fox News jumps all over those undercover videos showing ACORN employees trying to help a phony pimp and his phony prostitute. Were the rest of the media late to this burgeoning scandal?


KURTZ: Let me turn now to the broader question on the role of Fox News. Let's put up the cover of Time magazine. The cover boy this week is Glenn Beck; the headline “Mad Man.” And he did not talk to the magazine for this. And we talked, last week on this program, Chris Cillizza about the Van Jones story, also pushed by a Fox White House adviser who resigned for saying and doing controversial some things; now the ACORN story. Do you have the feeling that mainstream or establishment news organizations are being stampeded by Fox?

On September 20, 2009, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote:

It's tempting to dismiss such gimmicks. Fox News, joined by right-leaning talk radio and bloggers, often hypes stories to apocalyptic proportions while casting competitors as too liberal or too lazy to report the truth.

But they're also occasionally pumping legitimate stories. I thought that was the case with ACORN and, before it, the Fox-fueled controversy that led to the resignation of White House environmental adviser Van Jones.

On September 26, 2009, then-New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt remonstrated the paper for its response to the ACORN videos, writing that the Times “stood still” on the story and quoted managing editor Jill Abramson saying that the paper has “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio.”

The ACORN story falls apart. Subsequent investigations into the ACORN videotapes revealed that they had been heavily edited to remove exculpatory material, and that O'Keefe and Breitbart had falsely claimed that ACORN employees in “almost every single office” had assisted them in setting up child prostitution rings. In fact, several of the ACORN employees involved in the videos either refused to help O'Keefe and Giles or contacted the police following their meeting with the duo.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes investigated the videotapes and “cleared ACORN of criminal wrongdoing” after determining that O'Keefe and Giles had “edited the tape to meet their agenda.”

An independent review conducted by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger (D), who was hired by ACORN to conduct an inquiry in part into the videos, found that “some of the advice and counsel given by ACORN employees and volunteers was clearly inappropriate and unprofessional, we did not find a pattern of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff; in fact, there is no evidence that action, illegal or otherwise, was taken by any ACORN employee on behalf of the videographers.”

In April, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. released a report on the “severely edited” ACORN videotapes which found that “some members of the community organizing group ACORN engaged in 'highly inappropriate behavior,' but committed no violation of criminal laws.”

William Ayers

During the 2008 presidential campaign, reports surfaced that then-candidate Barack Obama knew and had had limited interactions with fellow Chicagoan William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground group, which in the 1970s had bombed several government buildings. Right-wing bloggers and Fox News' Sean Hannity seized on the story, embellishing Obama's contacts with Ayers in order to paint him as a “radical.” Obama's “relationship” with Ayers eventually reached a national audience during one of the Democratic debates. It wasn't until months later that the media documented Obama's largely tangential links to Ayers, debunking the right-wing myth.

Right-wing bloggers attack Obama-Ayers links. Conservative bloggers seized on two media reports to attack Obama's links to Ayers. On February 15, 2008, Bloomberg News reported that “Obama could face questions about his relationship with William Ayers,” noting that Ayers “donated $200 in 2001 to Obama's Illinois state Senate campaign and served with him from 1999 to 2002 on the nine-member board of the Woods Fund.” On February 22, 2008, Politico's Ben Smith reported that in “1995, State Senator Alice Palmer introduced her chosen successor, Barack Obama, to a few of the district's influential liberals at the home of two well known figures on the local left: William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.”

Based on these articles, right-wing bloggers began attacking and distorting Ayers' links to Obama:

  • Commentary's John Podhoretz: “But here's a thought experiment. What if John McCain had visited the Unabomber's cabin? Or had been photographed with Terry Nichols? Or had stopped off at David Duke's house at some point because he was gathering support and donors?” [“Obama's Ayers,” 2/22/08]
  • Stop the ACLU: “Obama does some nice double talk and condemns the actions of the Weather Underground, however he remains good friends with two of them that remain unrepentant for their actions.” [“Obama's Terrorist Friends,” 2/23/08]
  • Right Wing Nut House: “I am talking about the extent of the candidate's ties to domestic terrorists from the 1960's and how the American people might feel about their future president paling [sic] around with someone who set off bombs as a member of the group Weather Underground and to this day refuses to apologize for it.” [“Obama and the Radicals: Soulmates?” 2/23/08]
  • Human Events' John Batchelor: “Will the four horsemen of Mr. Obama's November, Rezko, Ayers, Rashidi and Auchi, lead to a similar defeat for the spectacular candidacy of Barack Obama?” [“The Obama Files,” 2/25/08]

Hannity picks up Ayers story. Hannity seized on the Ayers story soon after, and mentioned Obama's links to Ayers on an almost daily basis for weeks afterward.

From the February 27, 2008, edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: Bob Beckel, I want to ask you about William Ayers. If you recall, he admitted that he was involved in the bombings of New York City police headquarters in 1970, the Capitol building in 1971, the Pentagon in 1972. We have a report out today, ABC News via the New York Sun that he donated to the Obama campaign. We have a report out, that Obama visited his home as, quote, “a rite of passage when launching his political career in the mid-1990s.” His spokesman -- Barack Obama -- said, “Yes, they're friendly. They know each other.” Does the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party have any business being friendly with and potentially accepting donations from a man that admits that he blew up and helped plan and set a bomb at our Pentagon?

From the February 28, 2008, edition of Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: There is the issue of this guy from the Weather Underground, this guy Bill Ayers. This is a guy that admits to being part of the bombing with the Weather Underground of the New York City police headquarters in 1970, our Capitol building in 1971, the Pentagon in 1972. And it was reported by Jonah Goldberg, who will be here tomorrow night, that as a right of passage, Barack Obama visited him when launching his political career in the 1990s.

When asked about it this week of whether or not they had a friendship, Barack Obama's spokesperson admitted that, in fact, they were -- that they did have a friendly relationship. This is a guy who is admitting to bombing our Pentagon, and was part of a group that declared war on the United States. I'm sitting here thinking as an outsider, if I'm Hillary Clinton, that's a big issue for the American people in a post-9/11 world.

From the March 9, 2008, edition of Hannity's America:

HANNITY: William Ayers is a guy that was with the Weather Underground, a group that admitted to bombing our Pentagon, bombing our Capitol Building, bombing New York City police headquarters, said as recently as 2001 he regrets he didn't go further. A group that declared war against the United States.

Barack Obama met with him when he started his political career in the 1990s and he also went on to say about William Ayers that he is friendly with him. You look into that camera and you tell me why a presidential candidate should get away with being friends with an admitted terrorist.

Hannity complains about lack of media coverage. Soon after he began flogging the story, Hannity began attacking the media for ignoring it.

From the April 9, 2008, edition of Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: Well, the philosophy -- because they declared war against the United States. And the philosophy was -- the Weathermen philosophy was kill all the rich people. Ayers summed -- these are Ayers' words: “Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home. Kill your parents. That's where it's really at.” And he's unrepentant.

KARL ROVE: Right, well, and they attacked -- they attacked, as I recall, police facilities, military facilities, U.S. government buildings. And they did so in a manner without apparent regard for human life.


ROVE: I mean, I think -- I don't recall that people were killed or injured, but that was not the -- that wasn't the intention. They wanted to create violence and blow things up.

HANNITY: Karl, I first interviewed Jeremiah Wright in March of 2007. And I stayed on the issue. And it took almost a year for the mainstream media to pick up on the story, and it became a big story. Do you believe at some point somebody in the mainstream media is going to examine this relationship that Barack Obama's campaign claims is friendly?

From the April 15, 2008, edition of Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: But Doug Schoen, this is the problem. A new narrative has emerged. And it is Michelle Obama's comments. It's these comments in San Francisco. It's the unrepentant terrorist, Bill Ayers. We've been covering on this program. The mainstream media has ignored it. It's him attending the Million Man March. Why did he attend the Million Man March?

Stephanopoulos talks to Hannity, asks Obama about Ayers. On the April 15, 2008, edition of his nationally syndicated radio program, Hannity interviewed ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, who was set to co-moderate the Democratic presidential debate the following day. During that interview, Hannity suggested to Stephanopoulos that he ask Obama about his “association with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist from the Weather Underground.” Hannity continued:

HANNITY: When asked about it by the Politico, [Obama campaign chief strategist] David Axelrod said they have a friendly relationship and that they had done a number of speeches together and that they sat on a board together. Is that a question you might ask?

Stephanopoulos responded to Hannity: “Well, I'm taking notes right now.”

That same day, Stephanopoulos had appeared on The Steve Malzberg Show, a conservative radio program broadcast out of New York City. Malzberg also suggested that Stephanopoulos ask Obama about Ayers: “How could a man running for the presidency of the United States possibly have anything to do, or have anything but disdain, for a man who did what he has done to this country?” Stephanopoulos responded: “That's a damn good question.”

During the April 16 debate, Stephanopoulos asked Obama:

STEPHANOPOULOS: [F]irst a follow-up on this issue, the general theme of patriotism in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers -- he was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He's never apologized for that, and, in fact, on 9-11, he was quoted in The New York Times saying, “I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.”

An early organizing meeting for your state Senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?

Stephanopoulos later denied that Hannity had influenced his questioning: “We have been researching this for a while. ... Part of what we discovered is that Sen. Obama had never been asked directly about it, even though it's being written about and talked about and Republicans are signaling that this is gonna be an issue in the general election.”

Hannity, on the April 16, 2008, edition of Hannity & Colmes, credited Stephanopoulos for his “tough questions” to Obama: “Finally, the media asked him about Bill Ayers, which we have been pointing out.”

Boston Globe: Ayers story shows how blog chatter becomes news. In an April 18, 2008, Boston Globe article, Joanna Weiss wrote:

The sudden national focus on the connection between the Democratic presidential hopeful and a Vietnam-era radical named William Ayers -- a onetime fugitive from justice who told The New York Times, “I don't regret setting bombs” -- set the political world abuzz. The news that Obama held a campaign event at Ayers's home in 1995, and served with Ayers on a Chicago community board, was either damning or innocuous, a worthy disclosure or a sure sign of the decline of political journalism.

But the Obama-Ayers story itself is a case study in the ways that news jumps between blogs and traditional media, the lingering power of network news, and the persistence of Internet conspiracy theories. In fact, it was hard yesterday to tell which got more scrutiny: the link between Obama and Ayers, or the link between ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Sean Hannity of Fox News.

Months later, New York Times throws cold water on Obama-Ayers story. On October 3, 2008, months after the debate made the Ayers story national news, The New York Times published an in-depth look into the links between Obama and Ayers. The Times reported that “the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers”:

At a tumultuous meeting of anti-Vietnam War militants at the Chicago Coliseum in 1969, Bill Ayers helped found the radical Weathermen, launching a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and United States Capitol.

Twenty-six years later, at a lunchtime meeting about school reform in a Chicago skyscraper, Barack Obama met Mr. Ayers, by then an education professor. Their paths have crossed sporadically since then, at a coffee Mr. Ayers hosted for Mr. Obama's first run for office, on the schools project and a charitable board, and in casual encounters as Hyde Park neighbors.


More recently, conservative critics who accuse Mr. Obama of a stealth radical agenda have asserted that he has misleadingly minimized his relationship with Mr. Ayers, whom the candidate has dismissed as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood” and “somebody who worked on education issues in Chicago that I know.”

A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know both men, suggest that Mr. Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Mr. Ayers, 63. But the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.”

After then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin alleged that Obama “palled around” with “terrorist” Ayers, the Associated Press reported on October 5, 2008, that Palin's “reference to Obama's relationship with William Ayers, a member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground, was exaggerated at best if not outright false. No evidence shows they were 'pals' or even close when they worked on community boards years ago and Ayers hosted a political event for Obama early in his career.”


Climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in Britain revealed in November 2009 that hackers had illegally accessed a university server and stolen thousands of private emails, which were then released publicly. Conservatives immediately seized on the messages, taking them out of context to accuse the scientists of lying about global warming and claiming that the emails undermine the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change. Long after the “Climategate” smear wound its way through the media, two independent investigations cleared the scientists of wrongdoing.

Conservatives promote “Climategate” smears. Not long after the hacked emails were released, conservative bloggers and media figures began attacking the climate scientists and the science of global warming:

  • Rush Limbaugh: “By the way, folks, I want to give you a website to go to when you get a chance. It's called Something fascinating has happened, and I was first alerted to this today by our official climatologist, Dr. Roy Spencer. A hacker has gotten into the computers at Hadley CRU. That is Britain's largest climate research institute. They are a huge proponent of global warming. ... I don't know if the jury's still out on that, but more and more people are picking up on this. The whole thing as we've -- I've instinctively known this from the get-go 20 years ago. The whole thing's made up.” [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 11/20/09]
  • Atlas Shrugs' Pam Geller: “How hard will the corrupt activist media work to bury this explosive story? Many of us have exposed the hoax of climate change as revealed by legitimate, responsible scientists for years, but still the elites rob us blind and torment us with legislation, regulation on 'the greatest threat facing humanity' (akbar!).” [“Global Climate Change Hoax: The Greatest Fraud in Human History,” 11/20/09]

Fox News becomes “Climategate” central. The “Climategate” smears quickly jumped to Fox News, which assumed the leading role in promoting the story. Several Fox News personalities attempted to obscure the fact that the emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia, instead referring to the messages as “leaked,” “revealed,” or “uncovered.” Fox News reporters and commentators alike promoted falsehoods and distortions:

  • Glenn Beck: “This is what appears to be going on behind the scenes and literally trillions of dollars of policy decisions are being based on what these guys are telling us. If your gut said, 'Wait a minute, this global warming thing, it sounds like a scam,' well, I think you're seeing it now. We told you this was going on, without proof, because we listened to our gut. You'd never believe me, but once again, here we are with yet another brand new reality.” [Glenn Beck, 11/23/09]
  • Sean Hannity: “Now we find out that this institute, in fact, was hiding from the people of Great Britain and the world the fact that climate change is a hoax, something I've been saying for a long time. Why would they try to hide it if there wasn't another agenda?” [Hannity, 11/24/09]
  • Fox News correspondent James Rosen: "[Rep. Darrell] Issa and others also referenced 'Climate-gate,' the scandal that has rocked the scientific world with revleations that some leading proponents of global warming have manipulated findings, sought to suppress contradictory evidence, and destroyed more than 150 years worth of raw climate data." [Special Report, 12/8/09]

Media conservatives pressure broadcast networks to cover “Climategate.” As Fox News' coverage grew more intense, conservative groups began complaining that other media outlets were not covering “Climategate.” The Media Research Center mounted a campaign to pressure the broadcast networks to cover “the great and growing Climategate scandal,” issuing press releases marking the days that had elapsed since the “scandal” broke.

Networks eventually cover “Climategate,” propagate misinformation. All three of the broadcast networks eventually covered “Climategate,” and all three helped to spread the right-wing smears upon which the story was built:

  • On the December 9, 2009, edition of ABC's World News, correspondent David Wright reported that the emails show scientists using a “trick to hide the decline in temperatures.” In fact, the “trick” mentioned in the emails referred to tree-ring data, not actual temperatures, and several scientists said that the word “trick” was being taken out of context and made to sound deceptive and incriminating.
  • On the December 4, 2009, edition of NBC's Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams asked: “Have the books been cooked on climate change?” Reporter Anne Thompson said the emails “show climate scientists massaging the data” but offered no evidence to support that claim.
  • On the December 5 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, anchor Jeff Glor asked: "[D]id some scientists fudge the numbers to make climate change look worse than it is?" CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier claimed that the emails “have cast doubts on the very science” of climate change and asserted that the emails “seem to show that some of the world's top experts decided to exclude or manipulate some research that didn't help prove global warming exists.” Dozier ignored evidence contradicting this assertion.

Independent investigations clear scientists involved. On July 1, The Washington Post reported on a June report released by a committee of scientists, assembled by Penn State in the wake of the email theft, to investigate whether one of the scientists involved in “Climategate,” Michael Mann, had engaged in “research misconduct.” According to the Post:

The Investigatory Committee, after careful review of all available evidence, determined that there is no substance to the allegation against Dr. Michael E. Mann, Professor, Department of Meteorology, The Pennsylvania State University.

More specifically, the Investigatory Committee determined that Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scolarly activities.

The decision of the Investigatory Committee was unanimous.

On July 7, the Associated Press reported that an “independent British report into the leak of hundreds of e-mails from one of the world's leading climate research centers has largely vindicated the scientists involved, a finding many in the field hope will calm the global uproar dubbed 'Climategate.' ” According to the AP:

The inquiry by former U.K. civil servant Muir Russell into the scandal at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit found there was no evidence of dishonesty or corruption in the more than 1,000 e-mails stolen and posted to the Internet late last year. But he did chide the scientists involved for failing to share their data with critics.

“We find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt,” Russell said. “But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness.”

Russell's inquiry into the scandal is the third major investigation into the theft and dissemination of the e-mails, which caused a sensation when they were published online in November, right before the U.N. climate change conference at Copenhagen.