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Inside The Original Fake News Story

Back when email forwards were Facebook.

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Lies, smears, and whispering campaigns have always been part of the fabric of politics, but if you had to trace this digital era’s "fake news" phenomenon to its roots, you’d go back to the early days of Barack Obama’s campaign for president and the persistent rumor that he was a secret Muslim.

The rumor festered in the fever swamps in late 2006, got a boost from Fox News in January of 2007, and then seemed to fade — only to persist and grow through email forwards and talk radio chatter, to twist itself into a new form as a claim about Obama’s birth certificate, and to lead in a direct if twisted way to the elevation and ultimately election of Donald Trump.

But back in 2007, the Muslim whispers were a specific challenge to two groups: the Obama campaign, and the reporters covering him. And on this week’s NewsFeed With @BuzzFeedBen, I talked to David Axelrod, the chief strategist for that campaign, about the difficult and new decisions we all faced.

Politics was beginning then to be truly shaped by the internet, and it was for many of us the first hint two old rules no longer applied: the notion that news organizations could serve as gatekeepers and suffocate rumors by ignoring them; and that campaigns could keep lies in check by, as they used to say, refusing to dignify them with a response.

“You do get to a point where you make judgments as to whether this is seeping into the public consciousness in a way that is threatening to the enterprise, and you make a decision about whether there’s more to lose by not talking about it than talking about it,” Axelrod recalled.

Back then, reporters spent a lot of time debating the same questions. We’d all gotten the email forwards — many from our friends and relatives outside politics — about Obama’s faith, and talked to Iowans and South Carolinians at political events who had questions about his religion. We also knew it was nonsense, and we were receptive to the campaign’s outrage at any suggestion of writing about the rumor, even to debunk it.

“Our interest was in not ramping up that story by giving it more exposure,” Axelrod said.

The campaign was not particularly pleased, as I recall, when Jonathan Martin and I broke with that convention in Politico in October 2007, to report on the myth about Obama’s faith. We traced the rumor then to a column by the anti-Muslim writer Debbie Schlussel called "Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim."

“I had a lot of readers ask me about Barack Obama and his background, and a lot of them had heard he was a Muslim or thought he was a Muslim,” she told us. “I looked into it, I found out his middle name was Hussein.”

The viral medium then wasn’t Facebook. It was mostly, as Dave Weigel and Chris Hayes noted at the time…email forwards.

Those online rumors had translated in early 2007 into a Fox News report suggesting that Obama had been educated in a “madrassa” in Indonesia.

The campaign responded furiously, and CNN sent a crew to Indonesia that debunked the story. That seemed, indeed, to put the conversation to rest — after all, Obama had written and talked at length of his Christian faith.

But “rather than vanish, the whispered smear campaign appears to have gone underground, and in its purest form: Obama himself, according to a pair of widely circulated anonymous e-mails, is a Muslim,” we reported back in 2007.

Obama himself “found it exasperating,” Axelrod said. “He had written about his faith, he had told his story a lot of times, he found it hard to understand how people could still accept what was patently not true.”

And by November of that year, the campaign had changed its strategy, putting out a fact-checking website — it seemed novel at the time! — that explicitly engaged and debunked the rumors about Obama’s faith.

This was complicated then, as now, Axelrod recalled, by a second consideration: “We didn’t want to dignify the idea that if he was a Muslim that that was something to apologize for.”

The Muslim myth did fade out, replaced seamlessly — if totally irrationally — by whispers about Obama’s birth certificate. And the cycle repeated itself: The Obama White House first ignored the story and discouraged the press from covering it. Then, when Donald Trump brought the ludicrous smear into the national conversation, Obama — and much of the media — went through the same cycle of first attempting to ignore it, then being forced to engage.

“That went on for years,” said Axelrod. Finally, “out of exasperation he said to [White House Counsel] Bob Bauer..., ‘Would someone just get the damn birth certificate.’”

That question of how to handle a viral falsehood is now one of the central ones in journalism and politics. And Axelrod’s own view is that Democrats, in particular, need to be more aggressive — to “intercept these missiles as they’re launched on social” and “be willing to fight very hard when they surface.”

You can subscribe to NewsFeed with @BuzzFeedBen on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you find your podcasts.

To hear the full interview, click the link above, or subscribe to NewsFeed with @BuzzFeedBen on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you find your podcasts.


Transcript

Hi, I'm Ben Smith, the Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed, and this is NewsFeed, where I talk to people at the intersection of tech, politics, and media.

That intersection is right now where all the action is. I think as we saw in this year's election, politics and the media business have really become inseparable, we've elected, essentially a media figure, and entertainment figure, President of the United States.

DONALD TRUMP [clip]: We had tremendous success on The Apprentice and when I ran for President. I had to leave the show, that's when I knew for sure I was doing it. And they hired a big, big movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger to take my place. And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings.

BS: The media political conversation is now really being centrally shaped and driven by tech platforms, whether you're seeing news on Twitter or Facebook, or watching television anchors read tweets aloud.

NEWS ANCHOR [clip]: President Trump is reflecting on Twitter, asking why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into Bill and Hillary Clinton, adding the Trump Russia story is a hoax.

BS: And these tech platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have become totally central to our politics.

For my first interview, I sat down with David Axelrod, probably best known as the political insult who was central to getting Barack Obama elected president, but who is also a once and current media figure. He was a reporter for much of his career and is now the host of The Axe Files, a podcast that's also on CNN. And we sat down in his Chicago office.

And one of the things I wanted to talk to him about was our own experience with what I think, in some ways, was the original fake news story of this political era which was the whispers in 2007 that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and that was a story that in a way has found its straight line to the Birther nonsense and to in some ways the media ecosystem that was one of the many factors that elected Donald Trump president.

DAVID AXELROD [clip]: Again, out of exasperation, I think he said to Bob Bauer, who was the White House Counsel at the time, "Would somebody just get the damn birth certificate?"

BS: And so I asked David about that series of events, about his own role in the campaign which was in part tweeting things that made Hillary Clinton's staff just insane with rage, and about about his own history, his own personal history with Donald Trump.

DA [clip]: "I build ballrooms," he said, "I build the most beautiful ballrooms there are. He says, "You can go down to Florida and look at it, and everybody says that."

BS: And about what he says is one of the real central players in this whole ecosystem which is Fox News. Okay, let's listen to the interview.

Oh gosh, now I need to like do my podcast intro thing, and you've done 120 of these. But I have not.

DA: You'll do alright. I have every confidence.

Welcome to NewsFeed with BuzzFeed Ben. I'm here in David Axelrod's office at the University of Chicago. I noticed I'm surrounded by pictures of Barack Obama rather than of you.

DA: Yeah, he's more photogenic than I am.

I think in the political consulting industry that's kind of unusual. Usually it's you shaking hands with, but I only only see one David Axelrod picture on the wall.

DA: I Do have a shaking hands with the Pope up there and there's one of me with Bruce Springsteen.

There's your wall of fame. Sorry. Maybe you are an asshole. Sorry.

DA: In the corner. But look, I had a wonderful journey with Obama and very few people get the opportunity to have the kind of ride in history that I had. And, you know, I grew up very much steeped in all of this, J.F.K. doing campaigns in New York City, where you and I both come from.

Yeah, you've got a wall full of books behind you, with, I see some Kennedy in there.

DA: Yes, so you know, this is, I'm blessed you know, to have that experience.

And this is this is a show about the intersection of politics, media, technology, things that are intersecting these days. You, right now, you know you came up as a newspaper reporter, became a political consultant, White House official, and are now enter a kind of, and I think we're back to being a media figure. You've got a podcast that's become a television show on CNN, and are still a voice in the ear of a I think of a lot of political figures.

And somebody widely listened to, but the thing I want to start with and the moment I wanted to start with was, is a media question, which was, I was just on your podcast The Axe Files, which everyone should—

DA: Yes, listen, because he was very good.

Some great interviews, with me, with the President of the United States, the former President.

DA: I did him only because I couldn't get you, but so now I'm glad I finally rectified that.

You asked him some questions that nobody else would possibly have asked him.

DA: We're talking about the last President.

The former President.

DA: I would like to do the current President, if he listens to your podcast.

You know, I expect him to. But that is to go back to Iowa in 2007, which was where we kind of first bounced off each other.

DA: Yeah. Yes!

I remember you, hanging out with some filthy hotel lobby in Fairfield or something.

DA: Yes.

Drinking cheap beer and the challenge that from that time that I remember very clearly and that I still think about a lot, was that you would cover political events in Iowa and you talk to people about Barack Obama and they would say, "Isn't he a Muslim?" and and I would, as a reporter, would say, "No, not a Muslim. Christian. Go read his book. He talks about it all the time. It's not even interesting."

And they would say, "No, I think he's a Muslim." And you would hear this constantly, and when you went to the campaign, and when I initially, when I would go to you guys and say, "Hey there's this thing out there that people seem to think that your candidate is a Muslim, and that's clearly part of this," you would, the press staff would say, "It's incredibly irresponsible that you'd even mention that to me, much less consider writing about it."

DA: Yes.

"This is the yellow press, go back into the hole you crawled out of, never even speak these words to me again."

DA: Yes. And yet, you wouldn't go back into your hole.

Well, I did go back into my hole for a bit, because it seemed like it was a very traditional rule in media is that you don't go repeating false rumors.

DA: It is a tough thing, right?

And that was the moment that it felt to me that something, that both the press and the campaign in different ways we're wrestling with this question of what do you do about that? Do you engage it frontally? Or do you just ignore it? And know how I thought about it, I'm curious how the campaign thought about that, how that first came on your radar.

DA: Well, look, we had different interests than you had. Obviously our interest was in not ramping up that story by giving it more exposure.

How did you first encounter it, this notion that, I don't know, that there was some kind of attempt to treat this candidate of yours, Obama, as like alien in some sense.

DA: Well I mean, I think Fox News did a piece relatively early saying that he was educated in a madrassa in, you know, in Indonesia. And, you know, so there were early intimations. And look, when he announced, I was dealing with this way back when he started running for the Senate in Illinois, and he was a state senator, was a friend of mine, longshot. I really had a high regard for him and decided that, you know, I wanted to try to help him. And as we went around to try and persuade the political community that he would be a strong candidate, you know, you heard, a lot of what you heard back was, "Hey, Barack Obama, sounds a little bit like,"—this was in 2002, when we started these conversations—"sounds a little bit like the guy who flew the planes into the building in New York. And, you know people are going to have questions." So you know we dealt with it right from the beginning, but obviously what what creates the energy behind these kinds of things is social media, and, you know, determined campaigns to try and spread these kinds of things.

And the other difficulty for us, frankly, was we didn't want to dignify the idea that if he were a Muslim that that was somehow something to apologize for, that that was badm so that was another bit of awkwardness about the whole thing. But look, even as we sit here today, Barack Obama has to be one of the—perhaps the best known, along with Donald Trump—people in the world, and there's still a few polls in America and it has a very partisan skew, significant number of people who say they believe that he's a Muslim, despite all evidence to the contrary. And that's kind of the reality of the world in which we live.

And did you think about and have conversations about, "Do we not dignify this with a response? At what point do we talk about this? Do we talk to reporters about it?"

I mean I remember it felt like a switch flipped one day, and suddenly you're press staff was saying, "Alright, we're going to talk to you about our strategy for combating these lies, we're going to be open about it."

DA: Yeah, I mean I don't exactly remember what the what the hinge moment was on that, but you do get to a point where you make you make judgments as to whether this is seeping into the public consciousness in a way that is threatening the enterprise, and you make a decision as to whether there's more to lose by not talking about it than talking about it.

But, you know, a lot of what our campaign in 2007 and 2008 was about was a lot of what his speech in 2004 was about at the Democratic Convention was, that was, as he would say, you know, wrapping his story in the larger American story. And we didn't want to take side trips into other issues, what be that race or faith, but you respond to events on the ground. And when things, you know, there was no doubt that opponents were, you know, fueling—maybe not candidate opponents, maybe interest group opponents—but there were people out there clearly kind of spinning that story.

And I think that not new, the idea that people around the opposing candidate are spinning stories. I mean, when I was at the Jewish Forward, there was a story that a candidate who claimed to be Jewish was perhaps Christian. You know like, this stuff, this stuff, and I think every campaign you work on there are people whispering that the candidate has been unfaithful to their spouse.

I mean there's you know whatever the story is, it's being whispered. Did you feel like in '07, that the advent of social media—I'll sort of include e-mail forwards maybe in that social media—had made it harder, had meant that it wasn't just being whispered to reporters, that it was spreading in a different way.

DA: Yeah. There was some of that. At that point I think it still was a lot of what Fox was doing, and you know they could ignite something that would get legs then it was kind of a central gathering place for conservatives, and you know when they did the madrassa story, we saw that as a major issue that we had to deal with. Luckily, CNN, of their own volition, sent someone to Indonesia to actually investigate the story and knocked it down pretty quickly. Fox had to stand down on, it but it was just the beginning.

It wasn't what we see today. I mean you didn't see the sort of manipulation of news that we saw in this last election where, you know some eighteen year old in, you know, some far off places.

Macedonia.

DA: Macedonia, yes, making money by manufacturing stories or others inspired by Russia making up stories. I mean this was the development of 2016, and it may be that it happened incrementally over time and that, you know, Obama had been the target of some of this stuff during his presidency, but back in 2007, 2008, it was still more primitive than that.

Did he laugh it off? Did you laugh it off? Did you think it was ridiculous?

DA: I think—I don't think he laughed it off, I think he found it exasperating that people, you know what he had written about his faith, he had told a story a lot of times, he found it hard to understand how people could still accept what was patently not true. And so, you know, I would say he was more exasperated than amused by the whole thing.

Do you think, the non-Fox media either let those fires burn when they shouldn't have or spread them inadvertently. Do you think the mainstream media, whatever you want to call it, had a role in that, or do you think that was something that happened totally apart?

DA: You know, I think they probably were making the same judgments we were, which is how much is this a meme in the public, and if it isn't a meme in the public, should they be doing the story? So they were going through the same struggles we were, um, but you know I mean, on the Birther story which went on for years in part because of Donald Trump it obviously you know the president would get questions about it at press conferences and so on. I mean ultimately, again out of exasperation, I think he said to Bob Bauer, who was the White House counsel at the time, "Would somebody just get the damn birth certificate?" There was a there was a sense of, "Well, I don't—" Before that I think it was like, "I'm not going to dignify this."

Yeah.

DA: "I'm not going to release that." And then it was like, "This is nuts. Just get it, let's get it out, and get this over with."

Yeah, do you think we've lost the ability to dignify and not dignify things?

DA: Maybe. I think, you know, things fly so rapidly now and from so many different directions, that it's really hard to make good judgments about these things. One of the things that I found difficult, when I was in the White House, and that was, you know, now many years ago, it was like 2009, 2010, even then the media environment was so frenzied that you can occupy yourself every single moment in the White House chasing rabbits down a hole, some crazy story comes out of nowhere, and if you overreact to it or in engage in it too much, you can send the whole day you know or several days headed in—and we're seeing it now. I mean some of, I mean interestingly, in this case, sometimes Donald Trump is the guy who releases the rabbits, and then his team has to chase his rabbits down the hole.

But the hardest thing in the world, when you're either a candidate or particularly the President, is you have a story you want to tell and you've planned it out and you've thought it through, and then something happens that's completely unexpected, and hijacks the story. And so keeping, sort of staying on the road, is a very difficult thing in it's become more and more difficult because of the modern media environment.

Yeah, I mean it feels like there's almost, there's a fairly straight line from the Muslim story to the birth certificate stuff and there are sort of little subdivisions of it around his transcripts and around whether he was born in Hawaii, there's a sort of whole cluster of them, but it feels like it was a pretty straight line. And with the Muslim thing kind of seamlessly, and with the same people, transformed itself into the, "Well, maybe he's not a Muslim, but he was secretly born in Kenya and smuggled here in a basket." I mean it was—

DA: I guess I didn't hear that one. That sounds like a Disney movie.

But at some point, that was the birther story, you do have to come up with a fairly exotic way of getting him here.

DA: Yeah. But, listen, you know, back up for a second, because there is something, there is a bigger thing, and it resulted I think in the election of Donald Trump, which is everything that underpinned those stories was the other, the alien.

Yes.

DA: And, you know, a lot of what drove the Trump candidacy and the power behind it was fear of the other, fear of the alien, alien, and so you know, this is something ,we live in times of revolutionary change in terms of our demographics, in terms of our economy, in terms of our culture.

And technology, too.

DA: And technology is I think driving so much of it. And the result—in fact, my concern about technology, and you're right in the middle of it, is it is churning so fast that it is outstripping our capacity to understand all the implications of it,not just in terms of our politics but our culture, our society, and one of the things that's surely happened is because of the overlay of changes that technology has wrought on the economy and cultural changes that technology has also driven, there's a tremendous backlash out there, and so that is why stories like the Muslim thing, the birth certificate, the other, the alien, found footing, found root.

Playing it back, do you think you screwed up or did the media screwed up and could have cut those things off at the pass, or was this forces outside of our control?

DA: I don't know. I really don't know the answer to that. I honestly think the forces that are driving this are so large. This is not about small, tactical thing. This is about something bigger. You know, and let's be honest, I mean there's always been this strain in our society. You know, my father was an immigrant. And he was a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who came here in the early '20s. A couple of years after he got here, the Congress basically dropped the wall on immigration and he was just lucky to get in a couple of years earlier, but at that time—you read speeches, Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out a speech to me from Henry Cabot Lodge talking about the Irish and the Italians that sounded just like Donald Trump talking about Mexican immigrants.

Right, it's a pendulum that swung before. I did want to talk with you about Trump for a minute. When did you first encounter him? Do you know him?

DA: I do. I encountered him for the first time when I was working in the White House and, I got a call from an intermediary who said, "Donald Trump wants to talk to you," and this person gave me his cell number, and I called him, I guess, and this was—and I've wrote about this in my book Believer. It was at the time of the oil leak in, the in the Gulf, and as you remember, you probably were among the people who were tormenting us for the slow pace at which the—

And there was a livestream.

DA: Unbelievable, somehow we could get a camera a mile down to record the fact that oil was leaking, but we couldn't get anything a mile down to stop the oil from leaking.

Yep.

DA: And this would confound everyone. But we were making good progress—it's actually a great story, Steve Chu, the brilliant energy secretary who had won a Nobel Prize for Physics. I walked into the cafeteria across from the White House one day and he's sitting there and he's jotting something down on a napkin and I said, "What are you doing Steve?" And he said, "I think I figured out how to stop this oil leak."

And he starts explaining it to me—me, who barely got through high school physics — and so I said, "You know what? You better tell somebody who can do something with this, because I'm not that person" and he said, "No, no, you're right, I'm going to run over and talk to them." And it turned out to be ultimately the way we solve the thing, but we were well down the road on act, on acting on Chu's thing, and Trump called and said—it was kind of a familiar pattern that I've come to recognize—and he said "Hey," he says, "You know that guy, that admiral you have running this thing down in the Gulf? He seems like a nice guy"—which we now know is always a preface to some awful slam—he says, "But he doesn't know what he's talking, he doesn't know what he's doing."

And he says, "I know how to run big things." He says, "Send me down there. I can get this oil leak stopped." And I'm like, "This is kinda bizarre." But I said, "Well, Mr. Trump, I think we're close, but if we're not, you know, we should talk about this, but I'll call you back in a week or two." So we get it stopped, I call him back, I said, "You know, we got this stopped." And he said, "Yeah, yeah, I see that," he said. "But I got another thing for you," he says. "I build ballrooms," he says. "I build the most beautiful ballrooms there are," he says. "You can go down to Florida and look at it, everybody says that," he says. "You have these state dinners and you have them in the shitty little tents in the back of the White House," he says. "Let me build a modular ballroom for you that you can put together and take apart that is befitting the White House." I didn't know what to do with this, and I said, "You know that's interesting idea ,I'm going to tell the social secretary to give you a call." Which I did and apparently the call was never made and, he, I think justifiably was pissed about that. But he told the story during the campaign, except there was one line that I don't remember that he does and he said, "And I said I'd pay for the whole thing." That's the one line I don't remember in the conversation.

You don't think he said that?

DA: But uh, and then I said.

And did you think to yourself, "This is the next President of the United States"?

DA: You know, that's funny, never once in those conversations did that occur to me. The night before the famous correspondents dinner where, you know, Obama really took him apart, I was at a dinner party that Michael Bloomberg had in in Washington, and I was sitting next to Ivanka Trump, who I found, by the way, very bright, charming, and then the next day we, the Trump thing happened. But I called him the following week and I said, "Look I have to ascribe this to the mother, but you have a very charming and bright daughter." And he was very responsive to that, and then the last encounter I had with him was when I shaved my mustache off, I did the "slash the 'stache" thing after the election in 2012 to raise money for epilepsy research because I have a child deeply damaged by epilepsy. And this was largely done through Morning Joe, and Trump had made, as you remember, a five million dollar bet that if Obama had produced his birth certificate, that he would get five million dollars to a charity of the President's choice.

Yeah.

DA: So I went on Morning Joe, and said, "We saved you five million dollars, Mr. Trump, if you're watching."

You tweeted it.

DA: Yeah, well, yeah, and I pursued it on TV, and he came up with a hundred thousand, turns out from his foundation, but nonetheless, a hundred thousand for epilepsy research. That enabled me to go to Mark Cuban and say, "You can't let Donald Trump out-do you," and he gave me two hundred thousand for this. And this was very helpful in terms of our achieving our goal on this thing.

So all through this presidential campaign, I think the thing that you know the Clinton people were obviously on edge through the whole thing, it's in their nature, maybe the thing that made the most irate were David Axelrod tweets and comments that she was screwing it up, and 'ole Trump looked pretty good. Did you hear, did you perhaps hear about that from them?

DA: Yes, well not from them, but you know I had enough friends over there that I knew that there was some irritation about it.

Did you just, I mean do you feel like you have some, despite the Birther, his sort of role as the birther king, it always felt to me like you had a kind of sympathy for him.

DA: No, I wouldn't say that at all, in fact I was really—you know I found so much of the his campaign offensive. The tone of it, the sort of willful ignorance at times. It really wasn't that at all; it was a clinical judgment on my part.

I also recognize that he was, you know he, I was among all the brilliant people who said he could never, he'll never get past the summer.

Well, you were a little bit ahead, you wrote a piece, The Obama Theory of Trump.

DA: I did. Ultimately I came around on that, but it was a clinical judgment about what Trump was doing.

Yeah.

DA: And my tweets were clinical judgments about what the Clinton campaign was doing that I thought were wrong headed, and I know that it irritated—and I should say, parenthetically, Hillary Clinton is the paid patron saint of CURE, the organization my wife started to fight epilepsy, was at our first event worked with us on the issue, and you know, and I worked on her campaign in 2000.

So this was not at all personal, other than that I thought that they were, that they were screwing it up, and you know I don't think history will regard that as unfounded concern.

You don't think history is going to blame skeptical David Axelrod tweets on, her defeat on that?

DA: No, and I think history might say, "You know maybe he was right to be skeptical."

And I did wonder, I mean does Trump ever reach out to you for advice?

DA: No. No, I had a conversation, a couple of conversations with Jared during the campaign, because Ivanka had emailed me and said, "Would you talk to him?"

Yeah.

DA: But, I don't expect that, you know, I don't think I'm on the speed dial at the White House, although, again, I'd love to have him on my podcast, I think it'd be fun.

Yeah, I think that would be fun. I saw you tweeted that at him as well.

DA: Yeah, I might pursue it.

You make pretty good use of Twitter.

DA: I do, yeah, I'm embarrassed to say you know, I think he said, he tweeted the thing, I think the thing about like, the most positive thing Donald Trump could say about a person is that they were nice to Donald Trump. Have you noticed that? And he said, he thanked you for your nice words on CNN at one point, which I literally think is the best, the highest praise.

I can't imagine what words they were. But, you know, look, my job on CNN, I feel, is to bring to bear forty years of experience covering politics, being involved in presidential campaigns. And I, you know, I mean they have plenty of people who are there to carry this sort of partisan flame and nobody is confused about what my orientation is, but you know, if the guy does something that looks smart to me, I'll say he did something that looks smart. If he does something that doesn't look smart, I'll say he's doing something that doesn't look smart.

Yeah, and just the last, last thing I wanted to talk to you about, you mentioned Fox before, and they're in the midst of this kind of insane rolling scandal, but I wonder again, just to go back to where we started this conversation with you know, the madrassa story in 2007, the beginning of this kind of long line of smears against Obama, what do you make of Fox News?

DA: Well, first of all, I mean, I've gotten in trouble before on this because it's wildly divergent, you know? Chris Wallace, for example does, I think, a really solid job on his Sunday show, and I used to go on there all the time and battle with him. But I always felt like I got a fair shake from him, and I think he's a genuinely good journalist and there are others there who, who are fine, and you know, fine journalists and do a good job. But, you know then, you know you've got your sort of, you know, your night time line-up that's there to basically, you know, fan some of these stories and do fan some of these stories, and you've got the morning group that seems game for any conspiratorial theory.

And the business model of Fox is very much tied to that so, and it's done pretty well, I mean, let's be honest, they're a consistent huge moneymaker for News Corp, and or whatever it is, I guess it is News Corp. Is that what it's called now?

Yeah, I think it's called that.

DA: Well, but for Rupert Murdoch and his family, they've done very, very well, so there isn't a real impetus to change it. They've not paid a price for any of this, you know, for either, for propagating stories that are, aren't true or for, you know, some of the internal things that we've learned about. You know, I don't think Bill O'Reilly's viewership has suffered any more than Donald Trump lost the election because of the Access Hollywood tape.

Right.

DA: So um, you know, it's—I think it's a fact of life, is what it is.

So what would you tell if you were still in the business? Democrats are navigating this kind of, a media, a pro-Trump media that's, I think, you know sort of rooted in Fox, but actually now kind of sprawling through the Web, and that, I think is, you know, in some ways, the kind of most dynamic new part of new part of the media world.

DA: Well I think you've got to be vigilant. I think, you know, first you have to be prepared to intercept these kind of missiles as they're being launched on social media, and you have to have an early warning system to know when they're coming down the track, and then you have to you know be willing to fight very hard when the, when they surface, but you're not going to shut it down. The one thing I think is that just as the media is more invigorated in other institutions, I think there's more awareness, public awareness now, I think people are paying more attention.

So you know, I think if you've got a B.S. story out there, I think the people who are swayable are paying more attention and are willing to say, "That's a B.S. story, I saw, you known this coverage or that coverage that knocked it down." More than—there was a certain complacency, one reason why parties don't win elections three times in a row is a complacency sets in. And there was a certain complacency that set in among Democrats that allowed the stuff to flourish without as vigorous a response perhaps as there should have been.

I don't think that's the case anymore, so I guess vigilance is what I would advise, and that means vigilance, you know not just in terms of responding to Fox after a story is aired, but watching as the storm clouds gather on social media and going hard after stories when you see them emerge.

Yeah, I do think the audience is getting more sophisticated. I think in someway, that's our bet as well, if we can talk to people about that kind of complicated mess and that they know you're talking about increasingly. When you talk about, when you talk about media. Um, thanks for taking the time David.

DA: Thank you. Good to be with you. Thanks for coming to the Institute of Politics here at the University of Chicago and good luck with this. But not too much—I mean, just don't eclipse The Axe Files. That's all I ask.

You're such a pro. I mean, I'm a mere amateur. Thank you.

Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.

Contact Ben Smith at ben@buzzfeed.com.

BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith hosts conversations on the intersection of politics, media, and technology — and all of 2017's insanity.

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