As President Donald Trump stares down an impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine scandal, his allies in right-wing media can’t seem to get their stories straight. From arguing that everything is totally normal to accusing former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden of corruption to defiantly defending Trump’s behavior itself, Trump’s right-wing media allies are making an extraordinary number of sometimes-contradictory arguments all coming to the conclusion that he did nothing wrong (or if he did, it wasn’t really that bad).
Fox host and occasional Trump adviser Sean Hannity said that the president had “a sworn duty, a constitutional duty” to ask Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter. Hannity’s Fox News colleague Gregg Jarrett has also said that if Trump had not asked Ukraine to investigate Biden, it would have been “a dereliction of his constitutional duty.” Fox News contributor Andrew McCarthy said it’s “not only normal, it’s entirely appropriate” for Trump to ask Ukraine for help. Hannity has also argued that the real story is about the previous administration’s corruption, a position also floated by NBC News and MSNBC contributor Hugh Hewitt as well as Rush Limbaugh.
Some right-wing media figures employed another defense, saying evidence shows that there was no quid pro quo in Trump’s demand for Ukraine to investigate Biden. This line of argument has been championed by Fox News’ John Roberts, Melissa Francis, and Pete Hegseth, among others. Even if there was a quid pro quo, it’s not like there would be anything wrong with that, argued Fox Business’ Stuart Varney, Fox News’ Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, and Fox guest Joe DiGenova. Yet another popular defense of Trump involved attacks on the original whistleblower who disclosed content of Trump’s phone call. Fox & Friends co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy initially tried to brush off the whistleblower’s complaint on a bogus procedural ground. On Hannity, guest Victoria Toensing baselessly claimed the whistleblower was connected to billionaire George Soros. Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs and Trump administration official Stephen Miller (among many others) pushed the conspiracy theory that the whistleblower was a “deep state” operative trying to “overthrow” Trump. The Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman questioned the concept of whistleblowers, brushing off the complaint as just secondhand information and a mere “objection to policy.” Fox’s Geraldo Rivera called the whistleblower “a punk who's snitching out the president's phone calls to a foreign leader.”
It’d be easy to write these arguments off as just panicked flailings, but combined, they may actually may make for an effective defense.
In 1994, an anthropologist named Eugenie Scott coined a term for a debate technique: the Gish Gallop. Named after creationist Duane Gish, Scott described the Gish Gallop as “spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate.” The Gish Gallop’s effectiveness lies in the way it puts the opponents immediately on defense, rendering them unable to advance their own arguments without first having to devote time and energy into refuting a series of falsehoods. To not refute false claims, no matter how little sense they make or how obviously false they may be, could be interpreted as an acceptance of their underlying truths.
The rapid-fire, scattershot responses to Trump’s Ukraine scandal from right-wing media outlets are their own form of a Gish Gallop. Glenn Beck posted a rambling 51-minute rant explaining what he viewed as the “timeline” of corruption involved in the Ukraine scandal. Rather than addressing the issue at hand -- that Trump has openly admitted to soliciting help from foreign countries to harm a political opponent -- Beck’s convoluted video went off in a series of tangents involving Soros, Hunter Biden, and WikiLeaks.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani uses this technique to perfection in his TV appearances. Given the opportunity, he’ll ramble endlessly, often breaking off into vaguely related asides and contradicting things he said just moments before. He uses lots of words to say very little. While one could argue in support of putting him on air and letting him talk himself into a corner, that argument becomes muddied once you view what he does as a Gish Gallop.
Similarly, The Federalist has published more than 50 articles about Ukraine since September 23. Among its arguments for Trump’s innocence are that it was actually the Democrats who colluded with a foreign government during the 2016 election, that this entire scandal exposes only that the Biden family is corrupt, that the whistleblower can’t be trusted because he contacted a House aide before filing his complaint, that members of the “deep state” made suspicious changes to a whistleblower complaint form, that anti-Trump members of the press are just lying because they’re not happy with the outcome of the 2016 election, and finally, that sure, Trump did it, but it’s not like it’s a crime or anything. (Of course, The Federalist is far from alone in pushing most of these arguments.)
There’s a lot of baseless speculation and downright false information in those articles, and it’s certainly possible that the people writing them know this. The goal, as in any Gish Gallop, is to make debunking bad information a Sisyphean task while overloading the public with useless information in order to confuse them.
The Daily Show’s Michael Kosta satirized this approach in a video riddled with intentionally nonsensical lines like, “What about Eric Holder’s Hulu password? Malia Obama’s Venmo history? Oh, hey, Jay-Z visitor logs? Fake birds. Soros funded weather modification turbines? Did that ever cross your mind?” The video is good for a quick laugh while being only slightly more ridiculous than reality.
Whether employed on purpose or accident, the technique can work. That’s even more reason for mainstream outlets to make sure they aren’t playing into the hands of propagandists.
There’s reason to believe that Fox News, a source for so much of this obfuscation, is succeeding as a reality distortion field for conservative voters. An October 3 USA Today/Ipsos poll found that while non-Fox viewers support impeachment by a margin of 51% to 31%, Fox viewers oppose it 71% to 17%. As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz wrote last month, this is why Fox News exists:
Forty-five years ago, President Richard Nixon resigned. His impeachment at the time seemed almost certain, as key Republican senators had signaled they would no longer support him. But Nixon’s acolytes did not blame their president for his gross corruption and mind-boggling criminality. Instead, they blamed the press -- the “enemy,” as Nixon had described it -- for hounding him out of office.
Richard Nixon didn’t have Fox. Donald Trump does. And that may make all the difference. That’s no coincidence -- it’s what the network was created to do.
This is a precarious moment for political media. Fox News and other right-wing blogs and radio shows exist to push propaganda. But more reputable, more mainstream media outlets can avoid serving as yet another platform for propagandists to Gish Gallop their way through the discourse.
In the article in which Eugenie Scott coined that term, there’s one piece of advice that stands out:
Before you accept a debate, consider if what you are about to do will harm the cause more than promote it. Many scientists justify the debate by saying, "creationists will claim that scientists are afraid to debate them." So what?
Her point is worth remembering -- in the context of formal debates as well as cable news panel discussions.