Donald Trump went into the 2020 election with some of the worst approval ratings on record for a sitting president. He made virtually no effort to appeal to those who didn’t vote for him. How was he able to remain standing, and how did he even potentially have a chance at a second term even if he lost the popular vote? One big reason is that he and his acolytes had convinced their base that the media can’t be trusted.
As we know by now, whenever the media aired even mildly critical coverage of Trump or those who were supposedly helping him make America great again, the response on the right was some variation of “(noun) (verb) fake news!” Indeed, it’s almost an article of faith among the Republican base that the media can’t be trusted.
If your news diet consists of the likes of Fox News, Newsmax, right-wing social media, and Christian conservative outlets, you probably think that when the mainstream media isn’t making things up, it’s crossing lines that should never be crossed. But there’s one problem—with few exceptions, it’s right-wing media that engages in that very behavior. And while some of those elements are finally answering for the worst of their sins, others are long overdue for a dose of accountability.
Contrary to what Trump and his diehards would have us think, whenever mainstream media outlets make a mistake, those mistakes are usually corrected fairly quickly once caught. A case in point was a 2017 editorial in The New York Times that held 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin partly responsible for a grisly 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona. The Old Grey Lady’s editorial board claimed that just days before the shooting, Palin’s political action committee circulated a map that placed stylized crosshairs on the districts of 19 Democratic House members. The implication was clear—that map was a big reason why one of those lawmakers, then-Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, nearly died that day.
That claim was slammed on all sides of the aisle, prompting the Times to partly retract the editorial within five hours of it going online. All of the inaccurate information was retracted within two days. Despite this, Palin sued the Times for defamation. As near as can be determined, Palin is suing because she didn’t just want the Times to retract, but to grovel. The suit was due to go to trial in late January, but was pushed back to early February after the rabidly anti-vaccine Palin caught COVID-19.
Palin faces tough sledding under current precedent for libel and defamation suits. As a public figure, she would have to prove that when the editorial board greenlighted the initial version of the editorial, it did so acting with actual malice. That is, Palin would have to convince a jury that the editorial board either knew the story was false or published it with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false. Remember, the statements at issue were retracted in almost no time at all in modern media terms. Her only chance of winning is to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court in hopes of making it easier for public figures to win libel suits.
As it currently stands, Palin’s suit betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how media outlets with actual standards work. Indeed, the Times’ quick retraction stands in marked contrast to the behavior of celebrity gossip blog Gawker. In March 2016, Gawker was effectively forced out of business when it was ordered to cough up $140 million in damages to pro wrestler Hulk Hogan for posting a clip of a sex tape of Hogan. While its sister sites (such as sports culture blog Deadspin, tech blog Gizmodo, and feminist blog Jezebel) were sold to Univision at a bankruptcy auction, Gawker itself was shut down that August. Ultimately, Gawker settled with Hogan for $31 million that November.
A number of observers slammed the verdict for its potential chilling effect on freedom of the press, especially after billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel revealed that he had bankrolled the suit. Thiel openly admitted that he wanted to punish Gawker after its now-defunct tech gossip sister, Valleywag, outed him as gay in 2007. Indeed, in a post-mortem about Gawker on its last day of business, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik observed that Thiel’s involvement in Hogan’s suit against Gawker portended “ugly implications for press freedom in light of adversaries with nearly infinite resources.”
At its peak in 2015, Gawker had over 23 million visits per month, making it one of the most visited sites in the world. With that level of popularity, it’s only fair to wonder—why was no one willing to ride to Gawker’s rescue? Granted, potential buyers might have been skittish about having to deal with the massive legal headache of a lawsuit bankrolled by a billionaire. But surely someone with the wherewithal to withstand Thiel’s resources would have rescued Gawker solely on the principle of defending freedom of the press, right?
By then, however, Gawker had lost a lot of goodwill as a result of two instances where its disregard for standards dating back to the days of typewriters and leaflets was exposed for all to see. In 2015, Gawker ran an article that claimed Conde Nast Chief Financial Officer David Geithner, the brother of President Obama’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, was being extorted by a gay porn star and male escort. As the story goes, when Geithner reneged on a deal to meet up with the porn star on a trip to Chicago, the escort went to Gawker and offered to tell all. He supplied copies of text exchanges between himself and Geithner and a selfie that Geithner supposedly sent him.
When the story went live, the criticism came in hard, fast, and from all directions. Most of the detractors argued that it served no public interest to even imply that Geithner was gay. For example, the University of Minnesota’s Jane Kirtley, a media law expert, told The Daily Beast that absent evidence that Geithner gave “preferential treatment to people in the hiring process” or was guilty of sexual harassment, she was “really hard-pressed” to see a legitimate reason for running the story.
But this story had a more fundamental problem than lack of public interest. It was sourced almost entirely from a guy who was extorting Geithner. Specifically, the bulk of the story came from texts provided to Gawker staff writer Jordan Sargent. Despite this, according to Mother Jones, Gawker took only one working day to research, vet, and fact-check the story before it went live.
A number of media experts found the rapid turnaround time for this story extremely problematic. Ken Paulson, former editor-in-chief of USA Today and current president of the First Amendment Center, told Mother Jones that stories that could even potentially wreck someone’s reputation “are typically vetted over a longer period.” Over that time, Paulson added, details could come up that “could give you pause about publishing.” First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams was interviewed in the same article, saying that when there is evidence of blackmail or extortion, it ought to be “a blinking yellow light, or even a blinking red light” to thoroughly vet it before you even consider publishing it.
Gawker’s defense, at the time, seemed to be that the story was true and nothing else mattered. In response to withering criticism—including from Gawker’s own readers—Natasha Vargas-Cooper of Jezebel harrumphed in a since-deleted tweet that in her mind, “if it’s true, you publish.”
The fact that Gawker seemed to justify this story simply because it was true appeared especially tone-deaf a mere four years after the News of the World was forced out of existence due to rampant phone-hacking. Indeed, Gawker’s ethos appeared little different from that of WikiLeaks. By then, we’d known since at least 2010 that Julian Assange’s idea of transparency included releasing unredacted Social Security numbers—and dismissing any potential harm as “collateral damage.”
A mere 18 hours after the story went live, Gawker Media’s six-member managing partnership voted to remove it over the furious objections of Gawker’s editorial staff. But when Gawker founder and CEO Nick Denton delivered the official explanation for removing the post, he proved that he still didn’t get it.
Denton said that the story about Geithner was “true and well reported,” which would have been enough to justify running it “in the early days of the Internet.” However, he said, “Gawker is no longer the insolent blog that began in 2003,” and this meant that potential stories “have to be true and interesting” in order to pass editorial muster. Denton went further in a memo to Gawker’s editorial team, saying that he was “ashamed” to have his name attached to the story, even if “we were within our legal right to publish.”
There are times when what was considered good reporting years ago is patently unacceptable now. For instance, the relentless coverage of Britney Spears in the early 2000s would never be tolerated today given greater awareness about mental health and sexism. But this didn’t even come close to being one of those times. By suggesting that an article that essentially amounted to aiding and abetting extortion would be even remotely acceptable in 2003, Denton made his statement announcing the article’s deletion amount to a non-apology apology. It also casts a pall on the good that Gawker actually did—like turning the hot lights on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s substance abuse, or revealing that Bill O’Reilly used his influence to start an investigation of his ex-wife’s boyfriend.
Soon after the furor over the Geithner article died down, it became even clearer just how serious Gawker’s cultural problem was. In July 2015, Vanity Fair writer Richard Lawson tweeted a mea culpa about his days at Gawker. He admitted that he’d written, on orders from his boss, “baseless posts accusing an actor of raping an ex-boyfriend.” That actor was James Franco.
From 2008 to around 2014, Gawker churned out a series of articles that attempted to out Franco. The first of these articles, penned by Lawson, was a follow-up to a blind item in the New York Post in which an unidentified actor reportedly broke into his former boyfriend’s apartment and violently raped him. In his article, Lawson mused that the three likely suspects were Will Smith, Christian Bale—and Franco.
Soon afterward, Lawson wrote another article suggesting that based on Gawker commenters’ sentiment, “the people” felt Franco was a gay rapist. He then followed that up with a third article suggesting that the “gay rapist” Franco had actually been mentioned by the person who tipped off the Post about the supposed violent attack. If there is any difference between that article and Trump’s penchant for spewing baseless garbage that’s supposedly based on what “many people are saying,” I don’t see it.
Later, other Gawker writers penned articles suggesting that Franco was gay, based on the thinnest reeds of evidence. According to The Daily Beast, this was part of Gawker’s “creepy obsession with outing closeted men.” Granted, Franco is no angel. In 2021, he not only settled a lawsuit alleging that he harassed several students at the acting school he ran from 2014 to 2017, but admitted sleeping with some of his students.
Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that it took more than six years and at least one false start for Gawker to be revived. It returned in the summer of 2021 as a sister publication to women’s magazine Bustle, who bought Gawker’s remains in 2019. One would have thought that given Gawker’s popularity, it would have been revived sooner. However, NPR’s Folkenflik noted that when Univision bought Gawker’s sister sites, it concluded that Gawker itself was “too toxic to touch.”
Given how long it took for Gawker to be revived, any potential white knights must have reached the same conclusion. Who would want to take on an organization that not only believed there was a time where extortion was at all acceptable, but had no qualms about running libel?
Indeed, even as I write this, the articles libeling Franco are still available on Gawker’s website. That contrasts sharply with how the Times handled the initial version of its editorial attack on Palin. Contrary to what she and her fellow deplorables would have us believe, mainstream media outlets have standards—and those that lack standards get culled.
The same, however, can’t be said for some mainstays of right-wing media. For instance, when former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore made a bid for the U.S. Senate seat that came open when Jeff Sessions was tapped as Trump’s attorney general, Breitbart led a relentless smear campaign against the women who claimed Moore sexually assaulted them or pursued improper relationships with them. And it did so even though its editor-in-chief, Alex Marlow, believed at least one of the accusers was credible.
Marlow made this shocking assertion in an interview with CNN’s Oliver Darcy in December 2017, a month after Moore’s narrow loss to Democrat Doug Jones. He revealed that he believed that Moore’s initial accuser, Leigh Corfman, had “a lot of credibility.” Corfman, you may recall, claimed Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 14.
By admitting that he believed Moore’s accusers were credible even as Breitbart was smearing them, Marlow effectively put big, fat asterisks by every story Breitbart ran about the election. Victim shaming is bad enough, but doing so when you have reason to believe a victim is telling the truth is absolutely heinous. It’s even more so considering that Marlow admitted Breitbart went all-in for Moore to protect Trump.
Project Veritas also joined in on this disgraceful campaign. Its ringleader, James O’Keefe, even went as far as having one of his minions, Jaime Phillips, try to plant a bogus story in The Washington Post claiming that Moore had impregnated her. But that story came apart when the Post did some actual journalism and discovered Phillips’ story had more red flags than a lifetime of Alabama football games. Most damningly, Phillips had created a GoFundMe page boasting about her goal to join “the conservative media movement” in exposing “the liberal MSM.”
To pile obscenity on top of insult, O’Keefe revealed in December 2017 that he believed Moore’s accusers were credible. And yet, he felt compelled to smear them because—wait for it—he felt their credibility was “not my subject matter,” and his real goal was exposing “bias in the media.” So the man whose stock in trade is targeting journalists for supposed bias admitted that doing so was so important that he felt compelled to shame victims that he believed were credible. Let that sink in.
To give you an idea how outrageous Breitbart and Project Veritas’ behavior was here, imagine if every news outlet that passed on the prospect of exposing Harvey Weinstein’s depravities had reason to believe Weinstein’s accusers were credible—and yet ran stories effectively calling them liars. It makes Palin’s squawking about the Times’ failure to basically grovel before her look hypocritical as all hell.
Fortunately, at least two other members of the deplorable fever swamp are facing long-overdue accountability. Take InfoWars, for instance. Even after Alex Jones was kicked off mainstream social media and blackballed from smartphone app stores, it looked like he was going to continue his years-long promotion of conspiracy theories and hate speech—albeit with a much reduced audience.
But what may have been the beginning of the end for Jones came in 2018, not long after Facebook and YouTube gave him the boot. Several families of Sandy Hook victims, along with an FBI agent who responded to the shooting, sued Jones for defamation. Specifically, they wanted Jones held to account for his numerous claims that the Sandy Hook victims and survivors were “crisis actors.” These claims have resulted in the survivors being relentlessly harassed and trolled. The family of Noah Pozner, for instance, has had to move numerous times due to the harassment, and now live under high security in an undisclosed location. They have never been able to visit their son’s grave.
A series of legal reversals for Jones and InfoWars culminated in the fall of 2021. That September, a Texas judge issued three default judgments against Jones and InfoWars in two defamation suits filed by Sandy Hook families. The judge had lost patience with Jones’ refusal to turn over documents, and found it egregious enough to conclude that Jones had already lost. In November, a Connecticut judge issued a default judgment in a suit filed against Jones in another lawsuit. While damages will be determined at trial later this year, they are likely to add up to hundreds of millions of dollars—in all likelihood, enough to put InfoWars out of business.
Another fixture of the deplorable fever swamp, Gateway Pundit, may also face extinction after being sued for orchestrating a vicious trolling campaign that falsely accused Georgia election workers of stealing their state for Joe Biden. The two workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, claim that Gateway Pundit started a flood of disinformation that reached all the way to Trump, who attacked Freeman by name in his now-infamous attempt to shake down Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Dozens of bogus stories about Freeman and Moss resulted in death threats, doxing, and kidnapping attempts, among other things. Rather than apologize, Gateway Pundit actually tried to raise money off the lawsuit, netting over $81,000. If there is any justice, though, that fundraising effort will be a futile exercise. Gateway Pundit and its impresarios, the Hoft brothers, ought to get a very hard lesson on why private citizens only need to prove negligence in order to win libel suits.
The Times moves in almost no time at all by current media standards to retract claims about Palin—and yet, Breitbart, Project Veritas, and Gateway Pundit refuse to even attempt to apologize for far worse. What’s wrong with this picture?
The answer to that question is simpler than you may think. For all the caterwauling we hear from the right about the media not having any standards, we have seen instance after instance where the media has shown it actually does. Moreover, whenever elements of the mainstream press show they don’t have standards, they are weeded out. The demise of Gawker is a stark example of what happens when you catapult your way into the mainstream, only to show you have little regard for basic standards of decency.
If we are to remove the tinder from our politics, we must subject the media to the same level of accountability that Gawker faced, and what InfoWars is more than likely to face. As Gawker learned in 2016, that standard ought to apply regardless of political shade. But if Palin and other right-wingers are willing to take off their blinders, they would see that their own side of the media divide is long overdue for a cleaning.