Doing It For Durham
The Media Research Center aggressively hyped claims by right-leaning special counsel John Durham that suggested the Hillary Clinton campaign was spying on Donald Trump -- then got mad that the hype was fact-checked and found to be factually lacking.
By Terry Krepel
In practice, the Media Research Center's true name is the Right-Wing Talking Point Manufacturing Center. One story the MRC particularly wanted to manufacture right-wing talking points about was the filing by special counsel John Durham suggesting that Hillary Clinton's campaign was spying on the Trump White House.
The MRC has been trying for a while to force non-right-wingers to take Durham's minor filings seriously; in September, Nicholas Fondacaro hyped as a "massive development" the relative minor development of Durham indicting lawyer Michael Sussmann on a charge of lying to the FBI. By contrast, one observer noted that "Durham struggles in the text of the indictment itself to explain why Sussman’s lie matteredwhich is important in a false statement case because the false statement’s materiality is an element of the offense," and he points out that "the evidence that Sussmann lied at all is weak."
A couple weeks later, Fondacaro complained that the non-right-wing media wasn't sufficiently covering Durham's latest move in the case, while touting how Fox News host Bret Baier "anchor Bret Baier made the story a priority." Of course, Fondacaro isn't going to tell you that Baier, like himself, "made the story a priority" because he's paid to push right-wing agendas and it might adversely affect his job if he did not make his news report Trump-friendly and Hillary-hostile. Indeed, it seemed everything Durham did was a "massive development" to Fondacaro.
When the latest Durham story dropped, the MRC was so desperate to push it outside of its right-wing bubble that it cranked out a whopping 41 posts that referenced Durham in just six days, between Feb. 13 and Feb. 19.
Kevin Tober set up the basic narrative in a Feb. 13 post centered on a common MRC complaint, that non-right-wing media won't immediately embrace its partisan narratives without question:
On Saturday evening, recently released court papers from Special Counsel John Durham's investigation showed that former Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussman paid a tech company to infiltrate computer servers at Trump Tower and the White House while Donald Trump was President in order to somehow tie him to Russia.
By contrast, Tober praised Fox News' "MediaBuzz" for lavishing attention on the story.
The "why won't the non-right-wing media cover this right-wing story we're hyping" theme was the focus of several MRC posts over the next few days:
But when those non-right-wing outlets finally paid attention to the story and saw it for the nothingburger it was, the MRC got mad about that too. Alex Christy huffed in a Feb. 15 post:
On Tuesday morning, MSNBC finally got around to covering Special Counsel John Durham's latest filing that revealed Democratic operatives obtained internet data from the Executive Office of the President and other Donald Trump-related entities in an attempt to spin the Russian collusion narrative. Meanwhile, CNN had only its second mention of Durham.
Kyle Drennen got mad at NBC's Chuck Todd for accurately pointing out how the story is a product of the right-wing media bubble:
On his MSNBC show Tuesday afternoon, MTP Daily host Chuck Todd acknowledged the bombshell news from the John Durham investigation but promptly attempted to dismiss evidence of the Hillary Clinton campaign spying on Donald Trump as just something being promoted by “the right-wing echo chamber.” He later sneered: “Sometimes facts get in the way of a good meme.”
Christy returned to complain that the story got mentioned on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show, but only "to mock those who actually care about the allegations."
Even MRC Latino writer Kathleen Krumhansl joined Team Durham, lashing out at coverage on a Spanish-language channel she didn't like:
Four days after special counsel John Durham revealed new findings in the investigation into the Trump-Russia collision, which states that close associates of Hillary Clinton were monitoring internet traffic at Trump properties and the White House in order to create a “narrative,” CNN En Español broke the Spanish-language media's silence with a report that downplayed the news as same-old-same-old material hyped by the conservative media.
Krumhansl went on to whine about how some "stories were reported on for weeks on end despite there being no evidence whatsoever to support them. For example: Trump's taxes and the 'suckers and losers' hoax, just to name a few." We don't recall the story of Trump allegedly calling members of the military "suckers and losers" to have been covered for "weeks on end" -- or that it was ever definitively proven to be a "hoax." (It's unproven at best.) And Trump himself is responsible for the media attention given to his taxes because of his adamant refusal to publicly release them like every other president and presidential candidate over the past 40-plus years.
Offended by balanced coverage
When non-right-wing media started noticing the story -- and going against right-wing wishes by reporting both sides of it -- the MRC got mad. Kyle Drennen spent a Feb. 17 post complaining that NBC committed journalism by -- gasp! -- asking for comment from Clinton:
On Thursday, NBC’s Today show finally noticed the bombshell development from Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign spied on Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as president. However, the Democratic Party shills at the network immediately turned to Hillary Clinton and attorneys for her former campaign aid Michael Sussmann who has been indicted for lying to the FBI to try to knock down the explosive story.
Curtis Houck grumbled the same day:
Deadline: White House provided MSNBC late Wednesday afternoon with only the third mention of the bombshell revelation from Special Counsel John Durham on alleged spying against the Trump campaign and early presidency, but they predictably used 16 minutes and 10 seconds to dismiss it as “dangerous disinformation” peddled by “right-wing media.”
On Feb. 18, Fondacaro took part in this narrative:
On Thursday, NBC Nightly News broke the evening newscast silence regarding the bombshell findings from Special Counsel John Durham showing that a lawyer for the 2016 Clinton campaign was involved with spying on Donald Trump. Not only did they break the network blackout, but they stepped up to the plate and defended both Hillary Clinton and campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann.
Fondacaro is not going to mention that the matter Sussmann allegedly lied about had nothing to do with what he's supposed to be investigating, and the charge is based on the testimony of a single witness who has made conflicting statements that undermine Durham's charge against Sussmann.
Fondacaro went on to assert that a statement by Sussmann's lawyers that "the data collection ended even before former President Trump took office when Barack Obama was president" meant they "tacitly admitted their client was monitoring Trump" -- but it also disproves the MRC's above-cited earlier reporting, which asserted that monitoring was done of "the White House while Donald Trump was President." Fondacaro also nitpicked Jackson's reporting to distract from the nothingburger-ness of Durham's filing:
Jackson also noted that the filing stated that the tech executive who gave Sussmann the information was “‘exploiting his access’ to that White House data to search for ‘derogatory information’ on Mr. Trump.” But according to her, that somehow meant “[t]he court filing does not allege a crime related to hacking. It also doesn't say anything was illegally spied on.”
As if Fondacaro isn't playing word games to deflect valid criticism of Durham's filing and the right-wing hype of it.
A Feb. 18 post by Alex Christy noted only in passing that Durham himself "has distanced himself from conservative reaction to his filing" -- which should have been evidence enough for the MRC to dial it down a bit -- then complained that MSNBC's Joe Scarborough noted this fact.
Later that day, Fondacaro returned to yet again toss the misogynist "cackling coven" smear at the ladies of "The View," going on to whine that they think Clinton has a case to sue Fox News for defamation over false reporting on the Durham filing:
The cackling coven known as The View has been following the lead of ABC News all week and ignoring the filing of Special Counsel John Durham against Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann. But the ladies couldn’t help themselves on Friday after their queen, two-time failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lash out at Fox News for reporting on the story. The panel cheered her on as they urged her to sue for “defamation.”
Fondacaro is clearly not going to admit that the original MRC narrative that Hillary was spying on Trump in the White House was false.
Meanwhile, Houck spent a Feb. 18 post gushing: "NewsNation (formerly WGN) has spent the past year and a half as a genuine, substantive outlet based in professional and unbiased journalism. We saw the latest example this week as, between Monday and Thursday, NewsNation’s evening shows spent 36 minutes and 16 seconds on the bombshell filing from Special Counsel Robert Durham into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe." Houck didn't mention that NewsNation is run and staffed by former Fox News executives and personnel -- chief among them being Bill Shine, who also worked in the Trump White House -- since that would put the lie to his claim that NewsNation offers "professional and unbiased journalism." Still, Houck also laughably complained that NewsNation "treaded close to CNN and NBC territory" by noting the false takes in right-wing media on the filing.
In the MRC's bubble, right-wing narratives can never be criticized as wrong, even if they are.
Jeffrey Lord turned up the whataboutism in his Feb. 19 column:
Recall that the media spent the bulk of the Trump presidency raving about Trump-Russia “collusion.” Or as Fox’s Tucker Carlson would mock: “Russia, Russia, RUSSIA!” Finally the Mueller report appears and reveals what most Americans of common sense not infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome knew from the beginning- the whole story was fiction. Made up. Fabricated.
Actually, the media pointed out that the filing was a nothingburger and that right-wing media falsely hyped it (the claim that Hillary was spying on Trump as president being chief among those false claims).Also, the Mueller report did, in fact, find that the 2016 Trump campaign had numerous meetings with Russian operatives as well as Russian operatives on the payroll.
Christy wrote in a post the same day: "On Friday’s edition of The 11th Hour on MSNBC, host Chris Jansing derisively claimed that the reason why Republicans were talking about the latest filing from Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation is because the GOP just wants to fire up its base and raise money." Christy didn't dispute the assertion.
A Feb. 21 post by Scott Whitlock whined he familiar MRC lament that non-right-wing outlets wouldn't cover the Durham story like Fox News did:
Just over one week ago, a bombshell broke in the world of politics. But if you got your news solely from the networks, you might have missed it. On Friday, February 11, Special Counsel John Durham alleged in a court filing that the 2016 Clinton campaign effectively spied on the Trump campaign to push a Russian collusion narrative.
Whitlock didn't disclose the fact that the Examiner and Times are right-wing outlets, so of course they would jump on the story. He also lauded the Wall Street Journal -- which has similar (and similarly undisclosed) right-wing bias -- as "a prestigious media outlet that is actually covering the Durham claims."
The next day, Bill D'Agostino made a video of what the networks "deem[ed] to be more newsworthy than the explosive filing." He didn't mention the fact-checks and debunkings those networks did of right-wing media coverage.
Also on Feb. 22, Christy returned to whine that Seth Meyers said mean things:
NBC Late Night host Seth Meyers returned from his Olympics-induced hiatus Monday night to talk about Special Counsel John Durham’s latest filing that showed Hillary Clinton campaign associates sought to access web data in order to spin a Trump-Russia collusion narrative. However, for Meyers, that was not the real story. The real story has been the reaction of Fox News.
Christy retorted with an Olympic-level piece of whataboutism: "Even if Durham has distanced himself from some of the reactions, that still does not absolve Clinton World and the media of spinning a false narrative that resulted in the Mueller probe."Again, the narrative about the Trump campaign canoodling with Russian operatives was not false, and if Durham himself thought right-wing coverage was inaccurate and overwrought, that's on right-wing media -- of which the MRC is a part.
Then, suddenly, the MRC dropped the story -- a strange move if it was really as "explosive" as it claimed it was. It has been mentioned only twice since then: once in a March 10 post by Curtis Houck in one of his Jen Psaki-bashing sessions, and in a March 2 post by Nicholas Fondacaro complaining again about the "cackling coven" at "The View," which was "joined by Democratic Party princess Chelsea Clinton, who was treated like royalty as they all gushed over her opinions about the address, lawsuits against former President Trump, and how her mother, Hillary Clinton 'took on Fox News' after they reported on how her campaign spied on Trump."
Actually, Fox News' coverage has been debunked and arguably does leave it open to lawsuits, but Fondacaro won't tell you that -- he's getting paid not to.
The case of Tim Graham
There's one other key narrative-manufacturing player: MRC executive Tim Graham, who pushed the narrative in his own unique way.
For his Feb. 14 podcast, Graham repeated the MRC's whining over non-right-wing not immediately covering the Durham filing, touting how Fox News jumped on it, then grumbling that it was being dismissed as "a Fox News story." Graham then cheered that "Durham's enough of a pro that his team is not loaded with a bunch of liberal partisans who then can leak hourly to other liberal partisans at MSNBC or CNN or the New York Times or the Washington Post -- you know, the quote-unquote objective media seeking the quote-unquote truth." Graham didn't admit that Durham seems to have his own right-wing partisans apparently leaking to their fellow-right-wing partisans at Fox News, et al. Then, as if to prove this unspoken point, he ran a clip of Mollie Hemingway ranting about it at Fox News -- neither or whom he identifies as the partisan conservatives they are.
Graham rehashed a lot of this for his Feb. 16 column, whining that "While the networks spent more than 2,600-plus minutes on the Trump-Russia narrative, they’ve done next to nothing on Durham. ... To the media elite, Durham’s probe is only useful to the 'right-wing media wormhole.' Facts don’t come first. The truth isn’t more important than ever." Graham lives in the "right-wing media wormhole," so it's a bit rich to hear him complaining about the label -- and he's certainly not going to admit that what he's serving up is a narrative as well. He rehashed all this again in his Feb. 16 podcast.
Graham used a Feb. 17 post to whining that CNN's Brian Stelter accurately called out the attempt by the right-wing media -- including the MRC -- to aggressively hype the Durham filing:
When the liberal media aren't ignoring the John Durham probe, they're "reporting" on it by suggesting it's the newest pile of overwrought MAGA propaganda. CNN's covering it by letting Brian Stelter cry "HOAX" at Fox News and other conservative outlets.
At no point did Graham refute anything Stelter said -- he just played the usual MRC whataboutism. And on top of that, he effectively confirmed that right-wing media have created the narrative of how the media won't cover the Durham story to the MRC's satisfaction.
Graham spent his Feb. 18 column pretending to be aghast that right-wing media claims about the Durham filing were being fact-checked and found wanting, and that fact-checking somehow proves what a "threat" Durham is:
This is the threat that Durham represents. He is exposing that everything the Clinton campaign did here was to politicize national-security agencies, sharing their smears with the FBI and the CIA to spur spying on Trump advisers, to inflame media coverage, and then to taint the judicial process through the Mueller team, where 11 of 16 prosecutors were Democrat donors. Five of them were Hillary donors.
Again, Graham doesn't prove any of this fact-checking wrong, nor does he admit that his fellow right-wing media denizens deviated from the facts in overhyping the story. His goal is to portray the "liberal media" as evil and the right-wing media as victims.
Similarly, a Feb. 18 post by Graham complained that fact-checkers pointed out the holes in the right-wing media narrative on Durham, again mostly by playing whatboutism, weirdly complaining that they "seized on words that Fox News used that sounded like active verbs meant to sell a story -- in this case, that Team Clinton paid to 'infiltrate' the Trump orbit":
This on some level assumes that liberal media outlets never used more colorful words to describe Mueller findings. They have an energetic tendency to check the hype in conservative media articles, not liberal media articles.
Yet again, Graham did not disprove the fact-checks; instead, he whined about "nitpick[ing]" and complained about "misleading words in headlines" being singled out, but he didn't explain why they shouldn't be.
Graham devoted yet another podcast to the Durham filing on Feb. 18, this time focused on Vanity Fair covering the other side of the story by -- gasp! -- talking to Hillary Clinton, whining in the writeup: "Hillary and her glossy-magazine enablers don't want anyone to focus on how desperately they tried to tie Trump to Russia both during the election and then afterward." Given that the Trump campaign had dozens of contacts with Russian operatives and his onetime campaign manager had contacts with a Russian spy, it wasn't very difficult -- or counterfactual -- to do.
Graham was still at it in a Feb. 20 post, trying to spin away Durham's own statement trying to decouple himself from media coverage of his filing, insisting that "his actual argument said something different, distancing himself from anyone overstating or understating his filing."
Of course, Durham is still distancing himself from right-wing overhype. He then rehashed claims about the filing from right-wing activist Andrew McCarthy, whose partisan leanings Graham did not disclose. He concluded with one last bit of whataboutism: "The Times really thinks they didn't run "blaring outrage" and "grievance-stroking headlines" about Trump?"
Meanwhile, Graham really thinks all the whataboutism he has been spewing is distracting people from the fact that he's trying to cover up for getting the story wrong in order to manufacture a narrative. That's the state of "media research" at the MRC these days.