Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: United States Attorney’s Office, District of Connecticut
the national interest

John Durham and the Right’s Media Paranoia

They don’t understand how the press is supposed to work.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: United States Attorney’s Office, District of Connecticut

The conservative movement is obsessed with the power of the mainstream media, yet it has no idea how it operates. The tragic mismatch between obsessive and subject is currently on bright display through a furor over the latest missive from John Durham.

Last Friday night, Durham — who was appointed special counsel by the Trump administration to prove Trump’s allegation that he was the target of a deep state conspiracy during the Russia investigation — issued another set of charges insinuating that various bureaucrats had treated Mr. Trump very unfairly. The right immediately leapt to very dark (and, as we will see, very wrong) conclusions about what this filing showed:

Almost immediately after that, they turned to a more interesting subject: Why wasn’t the mainstream media covering this? They knew the answer, of course. It’s because the mainstream media is controlled by liberal Democrats who deliberately cover up stories that make their team look bad.

“One characteristic of Russiagate bombshells is that the mainstream press simply doesn’t cover them,” editorialized National Review. David Harsanyi lambasted “The Media’s Blackout on Durham Revelations.” “The way liberal outlets completely ignore this shows the bubble in which liberals live,” proclaimed Glenn Greenwald. “The failure of these other media outlets to cover it is only a reflection of their own complicity in the corruption of the regime and how they will do whatever it takes to control and keep power,” said Mollie Hemingway.

The list goes on and on and on, but here is one more example that is particularly instructive. Howard Kurtz, a Fox News media reporter, announced, “It’s absolutely stunning that virtually all the major newspapers and the other networks are absolutely determined to ignore this story.”

If you knew anything at all about the mainstream media, you realized immediately this hyperventilating response had no contact with reality. Durham dropped his filing on a Friday night, when reporters, like most people, are ending their workweek. More importantly, Durham has an established history of floating allegations that disintegrate upon inspection. The last time he did this, Durham got the mainstream media to quickly amplify his charges before subsequent reporting showed how weak they were.

That’s a “fool me once” trick. So now, appropriately, the media is going to perform its due diligence and look into Durham’s charges rather than echo them in credulous headlines.

Sure enough, the mainstream news has begun reporting on the filing. Here’s CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Somehow, despite its absolute determination to ignore the story, the mainstream media has wound up producing several reports covering it. The flesh is weak.

These stories completely debunk the erroneous Fox News coverage that prompted all the right’s complaints. The charges in the filing — an alleged conflict of interest by a technology executive — fell far short of the broader conspiracy Durham is insinuating. (This is in keeping with Durham’s pattern of using minuscule criminal allegations to make sweeping but unsubstantiated allegations — I described his last filing as a “Hannity monologue wrapped around a parking ticket.”)

More damning, Fox News botched even the limited charges Durham did make. The word “infiltrate,” which Fox News put in its headline in quotation marks, does not appear anywhere in the filing, and is instead the characterization offered up by Trump stooge Kash Patel.

So why was the right so convinced the mainstream media was ignoring the Durham report in a sinister plot to mislead its own audience, when there was a far more plausible explanation available?

The answer is that the right has spent years nurturing a conspiratorial view of liberal media bias. Like sports fans who complain about bad officiating, conservatives focus obsessively on biased stories against the Republican Party while ignoring biases that run the other way. And while I’d agree that there is an imbalance between stories favoring the left and stories favoring the right, and that this imbalance has grown over the last couple decades, it simply does not work anything like the way conservatives imagine it does.

The conservative media is reverse-engineered to reproduce what conservatives think the liberal media is: partisan operatives devising a political message that will gin up their own side and presenting it as “news.”

It is a mark of how deeply the right has internalized these premises that even Kurtz, whose literal job is to report on the media, genuinely persuaded them that the mainstream media was refusing to cover Durham. The unexciting reality that the mainstream media was going to wait until Monday to report Durham’s hazy allegations was not one they could imagine, because it is premised on following conventions of journalistic objectivity that they can’t fathom.

John Durham and the Right’s Mainstream-Media Paranoia