Lies, damn lies, and media: Right-wing repetition of debunked narratives reshapes reality

The conservative press stays untethered from the truth by design

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

On February 7, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Green New Deal resolution in the House and Senate, respectively, and conservative media lost their collective mind. If passed, the 14-page proposal would commit Congress to exploring ways to achieve a set of lofty goals related to the environment and economy. The Green New Deal calls for a significant infrastructure investment through a 10-year national mobilization and jobs program similar to those carried out during World War II and as a result of the original New Deal.

Achieving these ambitious goals would undoubtedly be one of the most significant undertakings by the federal government in U.S. history. That said, the Green New Deal resolution is just a starting point, largely symbolic in nature. It is a nonbinding resolution, not a bill, and it cannot go on to become a law. This distinction is what makes the factually unhinged response from conservative media so stunning.

During the February 7 edition of Fox News’ Hannity, host Sean Hannity railed against the resolution, calling it “one of the most dangerous, impractical, misguided, economically guaranteed-to-be-devastating plans ever championed by any American politician.” The next day, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt claimed that the resolution banned airplanes and that “you have to take a train now.” Co-host Brian Kilmeade added, “Bad news for cows. Time to slaughter all of them quickly because of their propensity for gas,” referencing a misconception that the Green New Deal included some sort of ban on cattle. The Federalist’s David Harsanyi appeared on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle to claim that the plan would “cost $25 bazillion” to implement. During a Fox & Friends appearance, climate-denying blogger Marc Morano claimed that the resolution would effectively ban meat, another blatant falsehood. On Twitter, conservative columnist for The Hill and Trump campaign advisory board member Madison Gesiotto suggested that the Green New Deal would ban cars.

These false claims seem to have been based on a draft FAQ document mistakenly posted to Ocasio-Cortez’s website containing the line, “We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.” Though the line appeared to be just a bit of wry humor about what would be possible in the 10-year span, it became an extremely common right-wing talking point against the resolution.

On February 12, and PolitiFact posted blogs debunking the wild and false claims about cows and airplanes, noting that neither of these items appear anywhere in the actual resolution itself. In a rational world, this would have marked the end of these false narratives; we do not live in a rational world, however. As recently as July 22, Hannity was still claiming that the Green New Deal would result in “no more combustion engines, no more airplanes, no more cows.” Hannity has made this claim many times since February -- the July 22 segment was the 11th Fox News reference to this discredited point in this month alone.

There’s a really simple reason why the conservative press lies about something so provably false: It works.

A March poll from the Green Advocacy Project illustrated just how powerful right-wing media, and Fox News in particular, can be in shaping the narrative around controversial issues. According to its polling data, 69% of Republicans said they’d heard “a lot” about the Green New Deal. For Democrats, that number dropped to just 36%. Fox News viewers heard the most about the Green New Deal, with 81% of people who primarily got their news from the channel responding that they’d heard “a lot” about the resolution. This general trend also appeared in a separate survey conducted by Data for Progress, a progressive research organization.

This makes perfect sense. Right from the start, Fox News dominated cable news coverage of the Green New Deal. A Media Matters analysis of Fox News’ coverage of the resolution from February 7-11 found that the network ran 34 segments about the plan on its prime-time shows, often with extremely hyperbolic framing. MSNBC ran eight segments during that time period, and CNN had only three. That same analysis found that just 14 of Fox’s 34 segments even included mention of the words “climate” or “global warming,” and of those, six included dismissive or skeptical comments from hosts or guests about climate change. The majority of Fox coverage was riddled with misinformation and presented with a mocking tone. Network nightly news has been virtually silent on the resolution through the first six months of 2019, and while all five major Sunday morning political talk shows covered the topic during their February 10 episodes, it was mostly discussed in terms of a political horse race.

Fox’s negative and factually inaccurate coverage likely explains another finding in the Green Advocacy Project survey: 93% of Fox News viewers “strongly oppose” the Green New Deal, as compared to 80% of Republicans as a whole. Among Democrats, just 4% say they “strongly oppose” the resolution.

Through repetition, Fox and right-wing media hijacked any hope Green New Deal-backers might have had for the public to understand what was actually in the resolution. Since the conservative media’s goal was to shore up opposition to the very idea of the Green New Deal, it didn’t matter that the message being sent was a lie rooted in a misunderstood joke.

This strategy of creating a false narrative around progressive policies goes back years.

The tactic is simple: Create a narrative that paints progressives (or their policies) in a bad light by misreading or misinterpreting something they said. In the case of the Green New Deal, conservative media seized on the “farting cows” FAQ document.

Another recent example of the strategy came from Virginia. After days of right-wing media agitation over New York’s progressive abortion bill, a video of Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam clumsily answering a question about a similar Virginia bill added more fuel to the fire. Conservative media falsely claimed that Northam was endorsing "infanticide" and repeated that message in hopes that it’d take hold. According to at least one recent poll, this ploy might actually be working.

Going back further, the health care debates of 2009 and 2010 provided right-wing media with plenty of opportunity to give this approach its biggest test yet. In July 2009, conservative commentator Betsy McCaughey made the absurd false claim that the health care bill then being considered in the House would “absolutely require” Medicare beneficiaries to attend end-of-life counseling every five years where they’d be told “how to end their life sooner.” In reality, the House bill gave Medicare enrollees the option of advance care counseling sessions to discuss, for instance, living wills, health care proxies, and “do not resuscitate” instructions (and would have reimbursed them for the expense).

McCaughey’s claim bounced around the conservative echo chamber, being discussed on Hannity and Laura Ingraham’s radio shows and getting play during Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. McCaughey wrote op-eds spreading these lies in the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. PolitiFact called the claim a “ridiculous falsehood,” but the narrative had been set.

Within weeks, this lie had a name: “death panel.” In an August 7, 2009, Facebook post, Republican former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.” None of this was true. Fox News, which had already been treating this long-since debunked claim as fact, began using Palin’s “death panel” terminology. If the idea was to sow chaos and confusion, the “death panel” smear was a wild success. 

In September 2009, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 41% of Americans believed that if the bill became law, “senior citizens or seriously-ill patients would die because government panels would prevent them from getting the medical treatment they needed.” Sure, this claim was a lie so utterly baseless and egregious that PolitiFact named it “Lie of the Year” for 2009. But years later, it endures. A 2016 Public Policy Polling survey found that nearly 30% of Americans “still believe the Affordable Care Act contains a death panel provision.”

There is no left-wing equivalent of the right-wing media ecosystem -- at least not one using the same cutthroat strategy (or at the same scale).

What makes right-wing media so powerful is the seemingly unending quantity of airtime and column inches to make its case. In 2009, Andrew Breitbart’s released a series of heavily edited videos featuring conservative activist James O’Keefe. O’Keefe filmed himself trying to solicit business advice for an underage human trafficking ring from ACORN, a community organizing outfit that had long been a thorn in the side of Republicans for its voter registration efforts.

In “How ACORN Was Framed: Political Controversy and Media Agenda Setting,” a 2010 paper published in Perspectives on Politics, authors Peter Dreier and Christopher R. Martin explain how “opinion entrepreneurs,” influencers like O’Keefe who straddle the lines between activist and opinion journalist, sank the organization:

Wired magazine noted that Breitbart is a person who “rams [his talking] points into the popular consciousness. In 2009, in anticipation of releasing the now-infamous videos targeting ACORN offices, Breitbart “deployed an army of 200 bloggers to write post after post about Acorn, giving the story momentum that once would have required a swarm of media outlets to achieve. Fox News ran several segments on the first day alone.”

ACORN had no comparable network of opinion entrepreneurs. Although ACORN was accused of being the main cog in a radical leftist network, it had little or no routine access to the mainstream media. Nor was there a left-oriented, progressive echo chamber counterpart with a comparable capacity to inject its message into the mainstream media. ACORN had no full-time media staff person and no full-time attorney in its national office. Put on the defensive, it was unable to mobilize its allies to serve as opinion entrepreneurs on its behalf. … Thus ACORN was left to speak on its own behalf and lacked the capacity to do so effectively, as evidenced by the media’s failure to give ACORN’s perspective in the majority of stories.

O’Keefe’s videos bounced between right-wing blogs and received play on Fox News until, as Dreier and Martin wrote, the story “finally proved irresistible for the mainstream news media.” The story was covered in the The Washington Post and The New York Times, on MSNBC, and more. By covering the story as it was written on conservative blogs, these outlets gave it a veneer of credibility that could then be used to rebut critics. For instance, a 2009 Slate column pushed back on Media Matters’ criticism of the videos by invoking the mainstream coverage the story received:

But Media Matters is wrong. Independent news organizations, including the Washington Post, the New York Post, and the Baltimore Sun, are chasing the ACORN story not because they’ve been bamboozled by the Breitbart exposé but because the dress-up stunt has pointed them toward what could be fertile grounds for wrongdoing.

Those outlets had, in fact, been bamboozled by Breitbart. Unfortunately for ACORN, the O’Keefe sting was far from the only attack it had faced -- the organization had baselessly and repeatedly been accused of committing voter fraud. Though it was eventually vindicated after an investigation later that year, by then it was too late. The O’Keefe stunt was, perhaps, the final straw. With its allies gone and its funding run dry, ACORN shut down in 2010. It didn’t matter that the stories told about the organization were built on lies. The effect was real and the right’s goal was achieved.

Media Matters is dedicated to fighting this kind of misinformation, but it’s going to take a much less gullible mainstream media and an ongoing effort from progressives to successfully counter the lies and misinformation repeated ad nauseam by right-wing media.

The 2020 election approaches, and with it, an extremely coordinated conservative media movement with an utter disregard for the truth if it advances its agenda. Progressives need to stem the tide of misinformation. It’s not enough to hope that disinformation simply fades from the news cycle because as we’ve seen time and again, it won’t.