“A giant fog machine”: how right-wing media obscures Mueller and other inconvenient stories

A former right-wing radio host explains how conservative media became a “safe space.”

The news that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort ought to dominate headlines in every corner of the media world.

But if the past week or so is any indication, conservative media is likely to spend most of its bandwidth covering a fake conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton gave Russia 20 percent of our uranium as secretary of state.

President Trump called the bogus Clinton uranium deal a “modern-day Watergate.” A few days later, FoxNews.com amplified Trump’s charge in an article with the headline “Hillary Clinton’s ties to Russian uranium deal largely ignored by anti-Trump media, and other media disasters.”

The conspiracy is false, but that’s not really the point. The point is to muddy the waters, to divert attention from actual scandals. This is something conservative media is uniquely good at. The question is, why? Why is conservative media so much better than liberal media when it comes to making its preferred narratives stick?

To answer this question, I reached out Charlie Sykes, a leading conservative radio host in Wisconsin for nearly three decades. A vocal critic of Trump, Sykes eventually walked away from his show after alienating some of his pro-Trump listeners.

I asked Sykes, the author of the 2017 book How the Right Lost Its Mind, how right-leaning media is able to construct alternate realities for its base, and why it succeeds in ways liberal media does not.

“The conservative media has done a really great job of convincing conservatives that they’re under siege,” he told me. As a result, “the conservative media has become a safe space for people who want to be told that they don’t have to believe anything that’s uncomfortable or negative.”

Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.


“The conservative media is a giant fog machine”

Sean Illing

Obviously the news Monday was bad — for Manafort, for Trump, for the Republican Party. But will any of it matter to Republican voters?

Charlie Sykes

Well, we’ve been asking that for the last year and a half. How many times have we thought, “Well, this is going to be the breaking point.” So far, I think the answer is no. But also, I think what you saw is how serious this investigation is, how deep they’re going to go, and the possibility that they may come up with lots of stuff that we did not anticipate. There’s still a question mark there, I suppose.

But look, the conservatives’ resistance to negative information is truly awesome.

Sean Illing

Is that protective bubble impenetrable?

Charlie Sykes

That’s the question. I honestly don’t know whether it’s impenetrable, but it hasn’t been penetrated so far, and I don’t see any sign of cracks to it. This is the problem with an alternative reality silo that really does completely shape scenarios. If you’ve been watching over the last seven days, the conservative media is presenting an entirely different universe of facts and narratives than you would get anywhere else.

It is two different worlds right now.

Sean Illing

What does the conservative world look like right now amid all the news about the Mueller investigation? What are they selling?

Charlie Sykes

It’s what I’d call whataboutism on steroids. The narrative is that the Russia investigation is not only a hoax, but that the real story is Hillary Clinton and that we ought to be going back to Hillary Clinton’s emails and Hillary Clinton’s collusion with Fusion GPS and Hillary Clinton’s alleged non-scandal with Uranium One.

These were the tactics used to great effect during the campaign: Trump would face an allegation and deflect it by turning it back on his opponent. That appears to be the playbook right now, and the conservative media is happily complicit in this.

No matter what happens with Trump, no matter how overwhelming the evidence against him, it’s always, “What about Hillary?” or, “What about the liberals?” or, “What about the Dems?” They treat this like a battlefield, and it’s always about defending their side no matter what.

Sean Illing

Is it about getting people to believe things that aren’t true, or is it about overwhelming the conversation with bullshit in order to distract from what’s actually happening?

Charlie Sykes

That’s a really good question. The essence of propaganda is not necessarily to convince you of a certain set of facts. It is to overwhelm your critical sensibilities. It’s to make you doubt the existence of a knowable truth. The conservative media is a giant fog machine designed to confuse and disorient people.

Which, from Trump’s point of view, is a win.

Sean Illing

To borrow a question from John Oliver, does anything matter anymore?

Charlie Sykes

I don’t know. This is what a post-truth culture looks like. This is what post-factual politics mean. I think we’re coming to grips with the full implications of that. Now, having said that, we are moving into the realm of the legal process, which does take facts more seriously, which does take lies more seriously. And you wonder whether that’s going to start sowing doubts.

To think that it will, however, is to bet against everything we’ve seen so far.

Why conservatives are so good at peddling alternate realities

Sean Illing

But it seems like the echo chamber is airtight, no?

Charlie Sykes

I was thinking about why it’s so effective. Part of it is that the conservative media has done a really great job of convincing conservatives that they’re under siege, and that they’re victims and that there’s this effort to bring down their guy. So the resistance is so strong to anything that poses a threat. It’s not just a set of facts. It’s an emotional reaction to these kinds of stories.

I’m sure you watched the way Monday morning played out. How incredibly fast the spin went out that the Manafort indictment was not about Trump, not about the collusion, that it was a complete nothingburger that had nothing to do with Russia whatsoever.

And that lasted for about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, until the next shoe drops. Then there was the Papadopoulos thing. But it seemed like there was no period in which they were rocked back on their heels by the fact that we actually have indictments of some major players in Trumpworld.

It’s like it never happened in the conservative world.

Sean Illing

In the safe space that is conservative media, it kind of didn’t happen, right?

Charlie Sykes

Many Trump voters get virtually all of their information from inside the bubble. I mean, there was a time when you would get the conservative point of view, but it was a counterpoint to what you heard elsewhere. Now the conservative media has become a safe space for people who want to be told that they don’t have to believe anything that’s uncomfortable or negative. A safe space where they’re convinced that Hillary Clinton is the real criminal, that the Clinton scandals are what we really ought to be following.

What’s remarkable, and what I’ve never seen before, is the way that Trump sends out the dog-whistle signals to the media, which picks up themes with almost Pavlovian enthusiasm. He’ll tweet out, “The real scandal is Hillary,” and suddenly you’ll see it explode across conservative media, starting with Fox News, but other outlets as well.

I mean, when is the last time you saw a president with that kind of an ability to shape and deflect criticism?

Sean Illing

I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this. But I want to linger on a point you just made, which is really important. The persecution mania on the right, the victim mentality that conservative media preaches, has engineered a base that is primed to dismiss uncomfortable facts as attacks on their identity. This is something that has been happening long before Trump entered the arena, but it seems like Trump is only possible because of this conditioning.

Charlie Sykes

That’s absolutely right. And again, that suggests that a lot of this is very emotional. It’s a visceral resistance. It’s a visceral loyalty. Mere facts have a hard time penetrating something like that, because it’s an attack on a member of your tribe. It’s an attack on a member of your family.

The details are less important than the fact that you’re being persecuted, you’re being victimized by people that you loathe and fear.

How conservative media changed conservatism

Sean Illing

I’m not a conservative, and anyone who follows my work knows that. And I readily admit that there are partisan media outlets on the left as well. But I still find myself wondering why conservatives have an easier time constructing and spreading fantasy narratives. Do you think it has something to do with the conservatism itself, or is it something else entirely?

Charlie Sykes

It’s an interesting question. I have to say that this does feel new in some degree. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, there really was not much of a conservative media. That was before almost all the modern conservative media infrastructure. There was no Fox News when Reagan was president. There was no Breitbart.com, and yet a lot of conservatives think that was the golden age of conservatism without the media.

Sean Illing

So what happened?

Charlie Sykes

Conservative media has changed the nature of conservatism. It’s changed the thought leadership rather dramatically. But going back to your points, as we’re getting a little bit deeper here, there is that paranoid string, there’s a paranoid thread that’s run through politics, including conservative politics, for a very, very long time.

I think you saw the weaponization of that in 2016.

Sean Illing

You say conservative media has changed conservatism. Has it killed it?

Charlie Sykes

That’s certainly possible. I mean, look where we are right now. What is conservatism right now other than anti-liberalism? People like Rush Limbaugh have essentially acknowledged that. He used to call his show “The Limbaugh Institute for Conservatism” and now it’s “The Limbaugh Institute for Anti-Leftism” — or something like that.

I’m not sure we can identity what’s left of conservatism other than a hatred for leftism.

Sean Illing

I still wonder why the liberal media hasn’t had an equivalent effect on the left. Any theories?

Charlie Sykes

I think the left has had less success in hermetically sealing off their base from other sources of information — that’s a major factor.

And look, this is deeply unfashionable for me to say as a conservative, but I think the education gap is not irrelevant. I used the term Vichy Republican the other day to describe Republicans who are basically collaborators, and I was a little taken aback by the number of people who had no idea what I was talking about.

Sean Illing

David Frum had a great line a while back. I may be butchering it a bit, but it was something to the effect of, “We thought Fox News worked for us, but it turned out that we worked for Fox News.”

I took that to mean that Fox has redefined conservatism by redefining what the base pays attention to, what it cares about. Consequently, you have Republican politicians who now reflect those changes in the base.

Charlie Sykes

That’s exactly right. Frum has another line about that. He said something like, “Republicans have a crisis of followership.” The Republican leadership in Congress sees all of this. They’re horrified by it. But they’re not willing to do anything about it because their base won’t allow it.

Sean Illing

Let’s wrap this up by circling back to the Mueller story. How do you see this playing out in the coming weeks and months in conservative media?

Charlie Sykes

I think this is going to be a test of the strength of that bubble, and we’re going to see how far the conservative media is going to go in providing that kind of air cover to Donald Trump. I wish I could say I was optimistic, but based on past experience, I’m not.

And by the way, most of the conservative media will justify their support for Trump on the basis of conservative issues. They’ll say, We’re backing him because of the judges, or because of tax cuts. But what you’re going to see is that they’re going to support and rationalize the corruption that has nothing to do with any of those conservative values or ideas.

I think the next several months will go a long way in defining conservatism.