We’re experiencing these historical events very differently.
The past week of Trump scandals for people reading mainstream news outlets has gone something like this: President Trump fired the FBI director who was investigating his campaign’s connection with Russia — and then the next day, Trump shared classified information with Russian officials.
But on conservative news outlets, the narrative was very different. It was about an FBI director whose firing was long overdue, and a liberal media desperate to take down Trump.
To pinpoint exactly how this played out for a reader visiting only conservative-leaning sites, we analyzed the front pages of Breitbart.com and FoxNews.com and compared them with NYTimes.com. We wrote a program to screenshot the front pages of these sites every three hours after the Comey firing using the Wayback Machine’s internet archives.
And here’s how the past week of scandals played out:
That means the conservative media narrative went something like this:
- Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for his mishandling of the Clinton investigation and his stubborn insistence on continuing the Russia investigation despite no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
- The liberal media drove this narrative to take down Trump, who only wanted the investigation “done properly,” and then started to question Trump’s mental stability.
- The “deep state” leaked classified info to the Washington Post. Plus, Trump has the right to disclose classified information to Russians, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster agrees.
- Comey is getting revenge with memos that reveal Trump asked him to shut down the investigation into his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
My colleague Jeff Guo watched Fox News for an evening and has a brilliant piece on how Fox News covered Trump sharing classified information with Russian officials, which explains how some of this happens. But here, I want to focus on two strategies that create these splintered memories.
The first is the context that conservative media just sidesteps; this obfuscation allows an audience to form a different account of events.
The second is the role of additional characters in these storylines — specifically the “liberal media” and Democrats colluding to manipulate the public.
Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: Right-wing media is creating coherent alternate storylines with different characters and different context — but a narrative that competes with contextual facts that support a more accurate story. Even amid some of the most troubling presidential news in decades, a huge portion of this country is having a very different experience of these events, and repeating it over and over. Our collective memories — and, in turn, our shared culture — are being splintered.
One way to form an alternate storyline: by ignoring context
Let’s focus on the Comey firing here.
The New York Times stayed laser-focused on how Comey wanted to expand the Russia investigation just days before his termination. This framing falls in line with reporting from several other outlets, as well as Trump’s interview to NBC saying that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.
But Breitbart and Fox News removed that context from their coverage.
Breitbart only mentioned the Russia investigation to reiterate that Trump’s connections with Russia — or lack thereof — were a settled matter. The big red “enough about Russia” summarizes their coverage.
Fox News barely mentioned Russia. Instead, it focused on Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation and who would replace Comey — and then ultimately pivoting to other stories to lead the site on Thursday, May 11, before coming back to focus on Trump saying he supports a Russia probe “done properly.”
These are fundamentally different stories. One is about a president who is interfering with an investigation, and the other is about an FBI director whose firing was a long time coming.
It’s quite disconcerting when a major piece of context is missing from your understanding of a story. This is a literary technique many TV shows use to keep the audience on their feet. (Game of Thrones comes to mind.) But in this case, the reveal might never come. After all, according to a poll, two in three Republicans still believe Comey was fired over the Clinton investigation.
The additional character in the right-wing storyline: the liberal media
The major player in right-wing media is the villainous “liberal media.”
If you happened to stumble upon on some other news source, you could connect the dots and perhaps believe Trump wanted to muzzle the FBI probe. But the character of a liberal and manipulative media — in cahoots with the Democratic Party — helps resolve the dissonant information. These stories essentially serve as a vaccine against other information.
When the Washington Post broke the story about Trump revealing classified information to Russians, the headline on Breitbart was about the Post — and how it was colluding with the “deep state” to leak information:
Breitbart ran a piece during this news frenzy quoting conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who said on Newsmax TV that the media is the “opposition party.”
“There is a cultural left and a political left and a media, if you will, [that] are a conglomerate,” he said. “They were determined to break and bring down Nixon from the day he was nominated. … And the same forces, similar forces, are trying to break and bring down Trump.”
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said the mainstream media’s reaction to the Comey firing was “media hysteria.”
And in covering the interview where Trump admits to firing Comey over the Russia investigation, Breitbart’s headline was about how NBC’s Lester Holt interrupted Trump nine times in two minutes.
It is coherent with the storyline that the media is colluding with Democrats to obscure information from the public. While news was spreading about Trump sharing classified information with Russian officials, Fox News and Breitbart focused on a story about DNC staffer Seth Rich leaking material to WikiLeaks before he was killed — a story that Rich’s family refuted, and that other outlets didn’t cover.
There’s been plenty of ink spilled about how “fake news” is affecting current discourse, but something more disturbing is happening: We’re experiencing different realities of the same event — and that reality is solidified every time these alternate storylines are repeated.