This week has posed a new test for the pro-Trump media — a loose affiliation of news organizations, trolls, and independent journalists — who fight the moment-to-moment battle to defend the president and rally his supporters as he reels among self-imposed crises.
The latest came in the form of a bombshell report from the Washington Post that President Trump disclosed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador last week and, in doing so, may have jeopardized a source in the fight against ISIS.
The pro-Trump media operates as a mirror image of its mainstream counterpart with its own “alternative facts,” audience, and interpretation of truth. And perhaps never has this been clearer than in its response to Monday's news.
Below is a timeline and breakdown of how — in just 17 hours and 4 steps — the Upside Down media flipped the script on a particularly thorny news cycle.
Phase 1 - Quiet Period:
As the Washington Post scoop hit Twitter, the pro-Trump media's most active spaces — 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter — were unusually quiet while waiting to figure out how to respond to the story.
Phase 2: Blaming The Usual Suspects/Dismissal
It took about an hour or so for the first quick takes to appear. As is expected, they touched on familiar pro-Trump media talking points — reflexive plays to the base audience including:
Mainstream Media Malpractice Defense
Basically, an attempt to discredit the Washington Post and its reporting by suggesting that the decision to publish the sensitive information would tip the terrorist organizations and individuals involved.
The Washington Post story notes, however, that it did not publish sensitive details. "The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities," the story read.
Fake News Defense
The Gateway Pundit, a far-right/pro-Trump outlet, also attempted to attack the Post's credibility, suggesting yesterday's report was the 4th false story from the paper in a week.
Hit Piece/Distraction Defense
Gateway Pundit also chimed in — in a separate article — suggesting that the piece was part of a smear campaign.
Anonymous Sourcing Defense
Another staple of the pro-Trump media is to call into question the anonymous sources, such as the ones cited in the Washington Post article. The suggestion: if the sources won't attach their name to the claim, then they have nothing to lose — and thus their credibility is suspect.
It's important to note that anonymous sources are a staple of investigative journalism on highly sensitive stories. While the use of anonymous sources are a contentious issue — Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor of the New York Times, used her column to attempt to get the Washington Post to crack down on its use of anonymous sources — they are used by reporters to unearth deeply sensitive or classified information that would otherwise not come to light.
Also, Jack Posobiec has often cited sources without naming them during his reporting on Twitter.
But the pro-Trump tactic of questioning the anonymous sources plays well with those outside of the media. A March poll by Morning Consult revealed that "half of Americans think it is inappropriate for journalists to cite anonymous sources in their reporting, and many think reporters are simply making up those sources."
Early in the evening, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, spoke to the press and declared the Post story “as reported, is false.”
In the statement — which did not expressly deny that Trump disclosed classified information to Russia — McMaster noted that, "the President did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known." And said that, "two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember it being the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen."
This quickly became a pro-Trump media talking point.
Trump-as-Mastermind/12-Dimensional Chess Defense
On 4chan, anonymous users floated the theory that Trump — ever the mastermind — was planting false information to identify leakers. The suggestion that Trump is continually far ahead of his critics and constantly out-foxing the mainstream media is a common defense of some in the pro-Trump media.
The Deep State Leaks Defense
In the early evening, Breitbart News published a pretty straightforward write-up of the days news with a sensational headline, blaming the leaks on the deep state to smear Trump. The body of the story hardly touches the deep state angle addressed in the headline. The story notes just below the headline that it "is 'unlikely' Trump broke any laws."
Still, the pro-Trump media had yet to rally around a single narrative.
That is, until the Drudge Report weighed in.
By late evening, the Drudge Report — which largely helps set the right-wing media agenda — settled on a narrative, focusing on the White House's inability to crack down on leaks (the story Breitbart wrote).
Drudge has been very critical of White House leaks recently and reportedly expressed his distaste to President Trump during a recent trip to the White House.
After Drudge, the leak angle gained traction. The pro-Trump conspiracy and news site, Infowars, spun the story slightly, suggesting that McMaster leaked the story to save his own job.
Infowars' Alex Jones and Roger Stone argued that the leak "came out of the NSA and not the White House" and that since "McMaster's head is on the chopping block" he "leaked the information to make himself indispensable" to the news cycle — and thus un-fireable.
Across bigger conservative media outlets, the Washington Post story got very little real estate across homepages.
As CNN's Oliver Darcy noted, Fox News pushed the story down well below the splash.
An archive.org rendering of FoxNews.com later in the evening shows that Fox News then changed the headline to reflect the White House's denial of the Post story. "'IT DIDN'T HAPPEN,'" the headline read.
And Newsmax — a site whose CEO, Chris Ruddy, is a close friend of Trump — opted for a similar White House denial headline.
Perhaps most revealing, the One America News Network eventually removed their story about Trump's alleged disclosure of classified information.
Phase 3: Changing The News Cycle
Just before 10:00 P.M., Fox 5 — a Washington D.C. affiliate — posted a report alleging that the murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich "was communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death."
The story said that "Rod Wheeler, a private investigator hired by the Rich family, suggests there is tangible evidence on Rich's laptop." It's since been confirmed by BuzzFeed News that Rich's family did not hire Wheeler as an investigator (a third party did) and that Rich's family rejects the report.
The report was quickly seized upon by some of the biggest pro-Trump outlets, including Breitbart and Drudge.
A number in the pro-Trump media took the report and Drudge's link as confirmation of the long held conspiracy.
Fox News also quickly picked up the story — Wheeler, the private investigator in the Rich case, is a Fox News contributor.
Fox News pundit and personality Sean Hannity also seized upon the story after his 10:00 P.M. show.
Hannity also retweeted a number of unverified links and emails allegedly connecting Rich to Wikileaks.
Pro-Trump Twitter pundits continued to promote the story across Twitter.
Among the more conspiratorial in pro-Trump media world, the Fox 5 report was confirmation of past reporting.
Before long, there were advance allegations that the mainstream media would suppress the Rich news, because it didn't fit its anti-Trump agenda.
By morning, Breitbart was crediting Fox News, not the Fox 5 report.
Phase 4: Close The Loop/ Merge The Dueling News Cycles.
This is perhaps the thing that the pro-Trump media is best at. Here, Infowars' Paul Joseph Watson closes the conspiratorial loop and suggests that the initial Washington Post story was part of a nefarious plot to crowd out the news cycle and distract from the real news of the day — no matter that the Fox 5 report on Seth Rich came hours after the Washington Post scoop.
Here, the pro-Trump media continues to sow doubt and undermine the credibility of the Post and the mainstream media while flipping the script on those who believe that the Seth Rich story was timed to kill a news cycle that was hurting the Trump administration.
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Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
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