The nation is embroiled in a vituperative debate over Indiana adopting and then amending a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In little time, a relatively obscure legislation became a nationwide hot-button topic, with politicians outraged, corporations lodging boycotts on the state, and social media turning into an all-caps shout-fest.
And it is manufactured entirely by the media.
You need only to look at some of the loudest opponents to the Indiana passage to note dim reactionaries working off of marching-orders. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a travel ban to Indiana over the issue, yet his scheduled trip to human rights-addled Cuba is still on the calendar. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy also blasted the new law, seemingly oblivious that his own state not only has its own RFRA law, but one that is possibly more strict. Corporate outrage has been no less self-aware. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for one, expressed his opposition to the supposed hostility to gays the law could represent, yet he appears unbothered that Saudi Arabia made homosexuality illegal and Iran executes gays—he’s opening stores in both locales.
This pitchfork-and-torches hysteria is precisely what the media intended, and 2015 is proving to be a year heady in the manufactured narrative category. It is not a surprise stating the press has an agenda, but what has been on display in just the first three months of this year is a clear frontal assault by the press to get manipulated storylines and fabricated narratives in the public discourse, all with an eye of the 2016 elections.
Voters Don’t Care, But the Media Does
Before this current outrage of the week, we have seen headlines spring up like tire-deflating road spikes in routine fashion. Rudy Giuliani was persona non grata when he questioned President Obama’s patriotism. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was a headline when he passed on answering a question about evolution. Sen. Ted Cruz faced confounding outrage because he was subscribed to Obamacare. Each of these surround issues which barely concern voters, yet the press treats each one as trenchant and disqualifying.
This is the media crafting a narrative in real time. They might mold an existing story—Giuliani gave a speech and the press attempted to transfer his words onto the entire GOP. Sometimes they create it out of whole cloth—Walker was challenged by a reporter asking a non-sequitur evolution question while giving a trade speech…in London. The press will even contradict themselves to make a point: after the media spent years of praising Obamacare, why would they think it’s Cruz being on the plan be bad?
In this era of creative reporting, the news consumer must busy himself with fact-finding, contextualizing data, and discovering fully transcribed quotes—things the press used to supply. The good thing is that new-media outlets allow us to combat these scripted news events with the needed factual arsenal. It is also helpful to detect when the media is erecting the framework for news narratives. We can do this by analyzing an example of a successfully dissembled media smear. First, however, to understand the methodology we should a look at the blueprints of a previously constructed storyline.
From Racism to Bigotry
The frenzy over the Indiana RFRA law bears numerous identical support structures to one of the successful media-crafted stories in recent years. This nation has been steeped in racial conflict for quite a few years, and the touchstone of the recent movement was George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon Martin. We are all aware of the numerous media manipulations in that story, but there is a largely bypassed detail lost in all the shouting: how the press built this story from the ground up.
This is not to say the shooting was not significant, only that there was specific intent to erect this into a cleaving racial issue on the national stage. I first noticed this when the story broke out the weekend of March 10, 2012. Wading through the growing wave of reporting of the “white on black” shooting as it spread nationwide, I had a question: Why are people raging about this shooting in a small community in northern-central Florida from two weeks earlier, on February 26?
Therein lies the framework. When Martin was gunned down, it initially remained a very local story, covered for only a couple of days. The family, unhappy that Zimmerman was not being charged, made contacts in legal circles. Eventually, two people of note became involved in the episode. Natalie Jackson was an activist lawyer who worked in the Seminole County area. To aid their efforts she contacted Ryan Julison, who was not a lawyer. Julison is a publicist, and he can be credited as the one who crafted the script for the media to follow.
In an early interview about the shooting publicity with the Washington Post, Julison commented on the press in general. “Oftentimes, it seems like the media likes to follow instead of going first,” he said, concerning his efforts. “They want to wait and see someone else do the story, and then they get in line.” Julison began a concerted effort to get media outlets to begin covering the shooting. Eventually Reuters ran a lengthy wire piece, then CBS “This Morning” did a segment about Martin’s death. This kicked off the media maelstrom, and Julison stayed with the evolving story as it picked up steam.
In early April, in an interview with “The Today Show,” Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, gave a candid account of her interpretation of the shooting: “I believe it was an accident. I believe that it just got out of control, and he [ Zimmerman] couldn’t turn the clock back. I would ask him, did he know that that was a minor, that that was a teenager and that he did not have a weapon? I would ask him that I understand that his family is hurting, but think about our family that lost our teenage son.”
Fulton’s comments—heartfelt as they were—flew directly against the case being made in the media about what happened that evening in February. Julison hastily arranged for media outlets to receive a retraction from Fulton, who would now state, “Zimmerman stalked my son and murdered him in cold blood.” The media did not explore this sudden U-turn in testimony, pleased instead to allow for the outrage narrative to continue. This paralleled how the press did not explore the previous connection Julison had to Zimmerman.
We now know there were many inconvenient facts the press had to discount to keep up the through-line of racial tension in the Martin shooting story. One of those contradictions was the backstory where the supposedly racist Zimmerman (protected as a white man by the racist police force, as early reports would contend) had previously championed the cause of an African-American homeless man. That individual, Sherman Ware, was a victim of brutality by local police, and Zimmerman had taken an outspoken role on behalf of Ware against the local police.
The media not only bypassed this Zimmerman involvement, they completely failed to disclose another deeply significant detail. In that case against the Sanford police, the same Natalie Jackson who later represented the Martin family also represented Ware, and he also had an official spokesman—the same Ryan Julison. This means the two primary forces behind the smear campaign targeting Zimmerman knew Zimmerman intimately—his Hispanic background, and his work on behalf of a black victim.
The media played right along with these two activists, teaming to craft a narrative and spark a national outrage. Little surprise to hear Julison describe the events to the Post in this fashion: “All of these things worked perfectly. They came out in just the right sequence for us.”
The press today is exhibiting numerous similar examples in their coverage of the Indiana RFRA passage as seen in the Trayvon Martin saga. There is the sudden blanket coverage, demonization of key players (Gov. Mike Pence, primarily), discounting of fundamental facts (it is Democrat legislation and dozens of states have similar RFRA laws), and calls for activist action (various boycotts). The advantage for news consumers now is that by following their playbook this we can combat this narrative. In fact, there is an exemplar we can follow.
Attacking the Media Smear Framework
Most following news and politics are aware of the practice called the Friday Document Dump. This happens when bad news gets released late on a Friday, counting on light reporting, and even lighter news reading, through the deflated weekend news cycle. The hope is the information will be lightly regarded, or even forgotten, by Monday. The press has recently used an alternative to this practice to entrench items to become crafted into manufactured stories.
This starts with online media outlets generating a story on or near Friday. Once established, more legitimate news outlets can spread these somewhat salacious reports on Saturday, maybe avoiding culpability by reporting the coverage and not the story itself. By Sunday, the media talk shows get in on the action by describing all the “activity” on the story the past few days, and by Monday op-eds and other articles can come out about what has become a “real” story. Social media churns the story at each stage.
While not hewing exactly to that weekend timeline, in each case of the GOP candidate stories listed earlier you can track how they mostly followed this path. But we can learn from this by looking at one failed attempt at this method and how it was defeated before it became a sensation.
On Friday morning, February 27, political lightweight site Jezebel posted a piece written by Natasha Vargas-Cooper. The headline declared that Walker wanted colleges to stop reporting sexual assaults. This risible charge was based on looking at state budgets in Wisconsin. Among a number of budget cuts, Vargas-Cooper found what she calls “a non-fiscal bombshell.” Amid the budget hatcheting is her claim that a provision said universities would no longer have to take any action regarding sexual crimes that transpire on campus. Her summation: “Under Walker’s plan, university employees who witness a sexual assault would no longer have to report it.” Quite dastardly indeed; and an immensely asinine conclusion to make.
Now any thinking individual with the slightest amount of introspection would step back from this and wonder “why?” This is hardly a platform a candidate would expect to garner positive attention—“I saw that institutions would not have to report crimes” is not a talking point likely to attract votes. Vargas-Cooper, however, possessed no such introspection. She did not even exhibit journalistic curiosity. She found a line-item in a state budget proposal, assumed the worst of the individual making the proposal, and posted her hit piece. The story was then followed up by another accusatory article at The Daily Beast later Friday afternoon.
However, before the narrative barn-raising could move on to the second stage, facts came blowing in and shattered their timbers. Conservative blogger Brian Cates helped to ruin the event by responding with some cursory yet contradictory background details that were not exactly beyond the skill set of an intrepid reporter. As most familiar with the story now know, the University of Wisconsin had actually asked Walker to cut the sex crimes reporting, as reported in USA Today. Federal regulations already require schools to report on these crimes, so Wisconsin’s law was a burdensome redundancy.
It gets worse. Here the press wants to paint Walker as a pro-rape demon because of arbitrary budget cuts to the “beloved university system” (Vargas-Cooper’s description). In truth, he removed redundant red-tape, by request, from an already thorny issue. Additionally, as reported in The Capital Times, the governor’s last budget increased funding for sex-crime victim services, and his new budget had even more spending for those victims.
These, as they say in media boardrooms, are uncomfortable facts, and what is revealing is that just as the media was about to take this circus on the road they plowed into a dropping garage door. The reactions and comments by the players reveal exactly the mentality behind this drive to frame a story. You can see that, even when initially caught in their fabrications, both outlets felt they could skirt accountability.
First, Jezebel ran a brief correction, at the bottom of the initial story:
[Editor’s Note: After Jezebel ran this item yesterday, a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin came forward—over two weeks after the budget was released—to clarify: the University requested that Gov. Walker delete the requirements because efforts were redundant with their compliance of the Clery Act. . . ]
Note the wording attempts to lay some responsibility on the university for not being timely with all the details. This was not, in other words, their reporter’s fault for not checking these facts. . . nor in her failing to contact the Walker camp, nor the university. As Cates said of this journalistic sloth: “20 seconds of Googling would have cleared up what was going on here, but it was apparently more important to some to rush a piping hot new Walker smear out the door before doing any due diligence.”
By early Saturday morning, after Jezebel altered the piece once confronted with the truth, Vargas-Cooper was hardly conciliatory. On Twitter, she lashed out at critics, suggesting Jezebel’s wan correction should halt any criticism and ridiculing anyone taking the side of the facts by calling them “Walkerites.” She attempted to sidestep responsibility by suggesting all she had done was report what was in the budget, and any misinterpretation would be blamed on nuance. She even tried to declare Walker was himself to blame for the poor “optics” of the story—more claims that topple faster than a Jenga tower on a dryer during the spin-cycle. (Descriptions of Walker as “insane,” and a “werewolf,” appeared nowhere in the government documents, but are in her article.)
Also, I’m not gonna apologize for reporting what was in the budget. Because that was in the budget. Ask your gov. to apologize for bad optix
— Natasha VC (@natashavc) February 28, 2015
The Daily Beast also tripped in its zeal to join in the hectoring chorus. While Cates and others were driving the facts home, The Daily Beast continued to pimp its version of the story late Friday afternoon. The site promoted the piece by saying the story about Walker’s alleged move “is causing him big trouble,” despite it having been fully disproven within hours.
Clearly, the intention from both sources was to push the story throughout the weekend, but social media and conservative news portals quickly picked up on the facts. Once The Daily Beast got around to correcting the story on Saturday, it too sounded as if it could dodge accountability. It certainly expected quick dismissal of the prevarication.
CORRECTION AND RETRACTION: A Daily Beast college columnist at the University of Wisconsin based this article off a Jezebel posting which was incorrectly reported. Jezebel updated their post on Saturday with the following after USA Today published a story debunking Jezebel’s account and clarifying Gov. Scott Walker’s position.
Note that the outlet is not to blame, but a Daily Beast “college columnist” who based this on a ridiculous source is at fault. That the site published this provably false story, and kept promoting it, shows it had the narrative in place all along. The Beast was left to scramble and adjust on the fly. However, these meek attempts to appear journalistically responsible while passing off the accountability did not stick. Ultimately both Jezebel and Daily Beast had to issue secondary corrections by Saturday afternoon. Thus, the propaganda reel melted in the projector during the preview trailers.
The biggest takeaway from this fiasco is that it illustrates the paradox where we find ourselves in relation to modern news outlets. Tenets of journalism—researching, fact-checking, sourcing, obtaining full quotations—now combat what news producers foist onto the public. The good news regarding the bad-newsmakers is that it can be extremely effective.