Friday, August 4, 2017

State TV

At least it pissed off liberals
The fever swamps have been with us for a long time.  We are used to lunatic conspiracy theories in places like Infowars.  The line between the radical right and more mainstream outlets has not always been as clear as one might wish.

But it exists.  At least until recently, there were lines that mainstream outlets did not cross.  Fox News might champion Clive Bundy in his standoff with the federal government,  but it could always claim that it was simply concerned about abuses by the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management.  It never went so far as to champion some of Bundy's more radical views, like that the Federal Government had no law enforcement powers at all, and possibly no right to exits.  Fox might play footsy with the birthers, but it stopped short of endorsement.  It might blame ISIS on Obama for his weakness and refusal to confront, but it never endorsed theories that he was a secret Muslim or agent of terrorists.  And the truly nuts-o stuff, like that he nearly nuked South Carolina, was never so much as hinted at.

That was why it came as a shock when Sean Hannity ran a story on Fox that was pure fever swamp.  Seth Rich, a young staffer for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was shot and killed in what appears to have been a robbery gone wrong.  Rumor had been running for some time among the fever swamps that he, and not the Russians, was the true source of e-mails released by Wikileaks, with the implication that he was murdered by the DNC in retaliation.  Vince Foster rides again!  It was the sort of story one expected to see in the fever swamps.  To see it in a mainstream outlet like Fox was a serious shock.

Well now the even more shocking story behind the story has come out.  This story didn't just happen, it was published on orders from above.  The investigator quoted as the primary source in the article has filed suit against Fox, alleging that Fox attributed fabricated quotes to him.  According to the lawsuit, the primary actor in moving the story was Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Republican donor, who had ties to the White House and insisted on having the story published. The suit makes clear that the "investigation" had a foregone conclusion -- that Rich, not the Russians, was behind the release of DNC documents to Wikileaks.  The investigator further alleges that he and Butowsky personally met with Press Secretary Sean Spicer to discuss the story.  He further alleges that Butowsky tested him that Trump himself was reviewing drafts of the story and wanted in published immediately, although the investigator had no direct contact with Trump.  The Fox story never exactly accused the DNC of having Rich murdered, by in saying that Rich had been the source of the e-mails to Wikileaks and that prominent Democrats were covering up the circumstances of his murder, that was the very strong implication.  The investigator also alleges that Fox strongly pressured him to stick to the fabricated quotes attributed to him.  Fox has retracted the story, apparently under the threat of suit by Seth Rich's family.

So, it is fair to ask just how far out of line with accepted norms is this story.  Or, to put it otherwise, just how shocking is it?  Not having any access to journalism in the corridors of power, I cannot give a direct answer, but here is my understanding.

First of all, it certainly is not out of the ordinary for an administration to "plant" a story.  White House officials speak "off the record" or "on background" all the time, intending to be cited.  That amounts to planting a story.  Second, such stories contain large quantities of spin and slant, invariably favorable to the subject.  As for how often news stories begin with a conclusion and work backward to reach it, I honestly could not say.  But what is unheard of is for the White House to plant a completely fabricated story and insist on its publication in the face of all evidence.

Furthermore, it is the well-established practice for news media to publish puff pieces in exchange for access.  And it is the normal practice for new media to consult with government even when publishing a story against government opposition, and sometimes to coordinate in order to avoid damage to national security.  But our mainstream outlets would be outraged at the suggestion of the the White House dictating a story, especially a false one.

During the Obama Administration, right-wing outlets sometimes accused the mainstream media of being "state television."  But now Fox really is moving in that direction.

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