The latest bogus scandal about 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren shows that the right-wing media echo chamber is kicking into high gear for this election season, and it reveals the playbook these bad-faith actors will use to trap mainstream media into making the same old mistakes.
In the last week, right-wing media have been teaming up in an attempt to cast Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, as a liar by pushing irrelevant information they claim refutes an anecdote she talked about in her 2014 book and has often shared on the campaign trail.
Warren has recounted that, in 1971, she lost her job teaching special education in a New Jersey public school after she became visibly pregnant. At the time (and even today), pregnancy discrimination in the workplace was common. The Supreme Court had not yet ruled that some approaches to pushing people out of teaching jobs for being pregnant were unconsititutional, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act wouldn’t be passed in Congress for another seven years.
In recent days, right-wing media have claimed Warren was lying and was not actually fired because of her pregnancy. The central claims circling through the conservative echo chamber do not actually disprove her story, though.
They’ve offered minutes from a school board meeting showing Warren’s teaching contract was renewed that year and then later that the board accepted her resignation, but Warren has been clear that her contract was renewed months before she was visibly pregnant and that her job was given to someone else later in the pregnancy. And they’ve pointed to a 2007 interview in which she describes her short public school teaching career and does not mention being fired as evidence it didn’t happen. But they are failing to understand the historical context around pregnancy discrimination, the nuances between being blatantly fired and forced to leave in other ways, and the reality that those impacted by such discrimination may not always want to share the details. (In fact, Warren and her campaign have clarified she began to open up about the experience more as she became a public figure.)
So they’ve got nothing. But this episode is a harbinger of what’s to come this election cycle: fake, scandalous blog post after blog post cycled through the right-wing ecosystem until something sticks. As Paul Waldman wrote in The Washington Post:
This is a process of trial and error: Throw out a hundred fake “scandals” and see which one captures people’s attention, then hammer it again and again in the hope it will become all people think of when they think of the Democrat. If there’s something actually scandalous there, that’s great, but if there isn’t, that’s okay, too. … Between now and next November, they’ll float a hundred more stories like this one.
This is undoubtedly true and inevitable; the right-wing echo chamber was designed for it. It’s both coordinated enough to coalesce around a single narrative and fragmented enough to make a story look like it's garnering organic viral media attention. The end result is the story reaches different audiences: from the boomers watching Fox News to the Never Trumpers who still don’t like a Democratic alternative to the younger folks who are Very Online.
What's worse: The echo chamber is large enough in size and scope to create a swirl of stories that can con mainstream outlets into covering the claims under a false veneer of “both sides." That ultimately leads audiences into thinking exactly what the right wants them to think, or at least leaves an impression that things are more questionable than they actually are.
The smear followed a clear pathway through the right-wing media echo chamber
The spurious conservative counternarrative about Warren’s story was tested on social media and pushed to the usual outlets that are willing to publish just about anything, with zero proof. And then it was elevated by conservative outlets with reputations as more legitimate news sources. Each piece of the echo chamber had its own part to play.
This is a well-worn pathway at this point and one that will continue to mobilize at any chance to push an attack on a 2020 presidential candidate, especially one viewed as a substantial threat to President Donald Trump. (It’s likely not a coincidence this story emerged just as Warren has begun to surge in polls.)
Here’s how it happened.
The argument that Warren hadn’t mentioned her firing in a 2007 interview made its right-wing media debut on a blog called The Script on October 2. The blog cited a tweet from a writer for Jacobin magazine, and then pointed to various retellings by Warren over the years where she did not explicitly say she was fired. Ben Shapiro’s website The Daily Wire picked up the claim and published its own article the same day, citing The Script. Shapiro then promoted the piece to his substantial social media following.
A handful of right-wing clickbait sites picked up the story the following day, and the story also got its first bit of attention from a more reputable-seeming (sort of) Never Trumper outlet: the National Review.
On October 5, Mediaite published an article detailing the right-wing claims about the 2007 interview alongside video of the interview itself. The article was headlined “WATCH: Elizabeth Warren Lied About Losing Public School Teaching Job Because She Was ‘Visibly Pregnant.”
A second wave of larger right-wing outlets then latched onto the claim, citing Mediaite (which lent an air of nonpartisanship to the story) or the video it published: FoxNews.com, Breitbart, Town Hall, and others. (The Daily Caller also posted an article about the interview on October 5, though it cited only The Script.) These pieces were all simultaneously circulating through the conservative social media world; the Fox News online article alone received over 78,000 Facebook interactions according to the CrowdTangle monitoring service.
Another string of outlets posted articles citing or linking to the Fox News piece, further amplifying the story and spreading it to their own social media audiences. Niche right-wing outlets that focus specifically on anti-abortion rhetoric also seized on the claims. Right-wing and anti-abortion media outlets often rely on such spin to manufacture outrage against various Democratic presidential candidates.
On October 7, The Washington Free Beacon added a new element to the story: It cited minutes from two meetings held by the city’s Board of Education at the time. The Free Beacon argued that the minutes were further proof Warren had lied about her firing because the board had voted to extend her teaching contract in April of 1971 (before she was visibly pregnant) and because the meeting minutes two months later showed the board had “accepted with regret” her resignation from the job. (It is highly unlikely that public school board meeting minutes would state that Warren had been fired for being pregnant.) Nevertheless, the Free Beacon article spurred another round of posts from the conservative echo chamber, including The Daily Wire, Breitbart, Conservative Opinion, and Hot Air, and amplification from at least one right-wing political action committee.
The story also ginned up enough right-wing media fervor to make the jump to conservative cable. According to Media Matters’ internal database, Fox News has discussed Warren’s pregnancy discrimination anecdote in at least 24 segments from October 7 through publication time. (MSNBC has covered it twice, and CNN once.)
Another crucial part of this playbook: goading mainstream media into playing along
Eventually, so many right-wing outlets were devoting space to repeating the claims that some mainstream media outlets began covering it, framing their stories around “just asking questions.” The right knows that mainstream outlets have, at this point, been subjected to so many bogus attacks for not covering “both sides” of a story that they are eager to jump on any chance to prove they’re unbiased -- often actually leading to bias toward conservative bullshit.
After the Free Beacon published the board of education meeting minutes (which, again, do not refute Warren’s account), CBS published a longer piece digging into the so-called discrepancies in her story. It cited both the 2007 interview and the meeting minutes -- and used the passive voice multiple times (“Warren’s changes in phrasing … have sparked questions”) to paint the story as valid and widespread rather than squarely originating in the right-wing fever swamps.
As media critic Margaret Sullivan noted, the CBS article acknowledged additional historical corroboration showing that Warren’s experience was typical for the time, and even cited two retired teachers from the same school who said that being pushed out while pregnant was an unspoken trend. It also included an explanation from Warren about why her retellings in the past hadn’t always focused on the discrimination: Her rise in public life caused her to open up more about her experiences.
Yet the CBS headline was framed as though Warren alone “stands by” her account in the face of legitimate contradictions -- thereby feeding into the flames stoked by the right-wing blogosphere. Other headlines from mainstream outlets that borrow this frame sent the same message to readers scrolling through their feeds.
Absent taking the bait wholesale, mainstream media also run the risk of doing a disservice to readers by simply failing to provide crucial context. In this case, that means not just the context of where these claims originated or how they line up with reality, but also the historical moment in which Warren’s story takes place.
Any mainstream coverage of this story ought to frame it as an easily identifiable tactic of the right and should offer statistics about the continuing prevalence of pregnancy discrimination. According to The New York Times, “The number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been steadily rising for two decades and is hovering near an all-time high.”
Besides, workplace discrimination (of all kinds) is rarely spelled out in a black-and-white, clearly illegal way. In this instance, there were plenty of unspoken messages, norms, or practices that were not as simple as blatantly firing someone, but they still amounted to job loss or unfair treatment because someone was pregnant. As Sullivan wrote, “If there is a scandal here, it’s how — in the bad-faith media world — narrowly presented facts without sufficient context can do unfair harm. They can and will be weaponized, falsely regurgitated and twisted beyond recognition.”
To ignore these realities and present this latest Warren smear in a vacuum is to give the right-wing figures exactly what they want: a convenient sound bite and a lingering air of suspicion in the public consciousness. It would also confirm, once again, how easily their echo chamber can be mobilized to game the system.