Conspiracy theories present a unique challenge for reporters. On the one hand, as journalists, we care about accuracy and fact-checking and the bright line between things that are true and things that aren’t. Conspiracy theories send our debunking instincts into overdrive. On the other hand, if you’ve read the essential work of political scientist Brendan Nyhan, you know that the mere effort of trying to correct a falsehood can lead to that falsehood becoming more deeply ingrained. So talking about conspiracy theories requires a light touch, for those of us in the ol’ mainstream media. The best thing any of us can do, when taking on this fraught subject, is to tread with caution.
Or, alternatively, you can throw caution to the wind and just kinda type whatever you want! Death is coming, eat trash, be free!
It would seem that The Associated Press ― in a piece that suggests there is a desperate need for adult supervision over there! ― has opted to take this latter approach. Written by Ken Thomas and Lisa Lerer, the article, “Welcome to the Trump-Clinton conspiracy election,” posits that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both slinging a lot of baseless innuendo at each other this election cycle, and suggests that the two candidates share a comparable amount of blame for dragging political discourse down into a hell-vortex of fringe lunacy.
But let us consider the AP’s brief against each candidate.
Donald Trump, the news service points out, was “a leader of the so-called ‘birther’ movement” and has been darkly hinting about “a mysterious ‘illness’ afflicting” Clinton. (About that: Trump and his allies have been making hay out of a concussion Clinton sustained in 2012, and the subsequent discovery of “a blood clot in a vein in the space between [her] brain and the skull,” as the AP notes. There’s no evidence that Clinton has made anything other than a full recovery, but Trump and his minions insist that because Clinton needs to use the bathroom and sleep sometimes, this is proof of some fundamental malfunction.) The AP didn’t mention the time Trump hinted that the president of the United States sympathizes with ISIS, or his charming habit of insisting that Clinton is going to steal the election. But, you know, it could have, because those are also things he’s said.
As for Clinton, she stands accused of using the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.” This happened in 1998, which the AP somehow fails to note. More currently, the AP cites Clinton’s speech this week about Trump forging a common cause with the so-called “alt-right” and their “divisive and dystopian view of America.” The AP also notes that the Clinton campaign “frequently points to Trump’s ties to Russia.”
Hillary Clinton did once attempt to make the case that she was the target of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” It wasn’t her best moment. She was coming to the defense of her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, amid accusations that he’d had an affair with Monica Lewinsky and tried to cover it up, which ― whoops! ― it turns out had totally happened. As a result, the whole “vast right-wing conspiracy” thing eventually became a punchline, as it should have.
(It is, of course, also true that the Clintons have for years been routinely accused of murdering people. So perhaps it would have been safer for Clinton to say that she was the target of conspiracists, rather than a conspiracy.)
But I’m curious, here. Regarding the claims that Clinton has more recently made about the Trump campaign ― which ones, exactly, aren’t true?
Because birtherism, from top to bottom, is a willful fantasy. And the idea that Clinton has some hidden, debilitating illness is much the same. In fact, you have to give birthers a little credit: Those weirdos at least attempted to marshal evidence for their claims. It wasn’t good evidence, but the birthers at least understood the importance of “evidence” as a concept. You can’t really say the same for the #HillarysHealth people.
On the other hand, when Clinton suggests that Trump’s own vision has attracted the so-called “alt-right” movement, this isn’t some conspiracist fantasy ― it’s just the truth. That the “alt-right” movement has a particular ardor for Trump has been apparent to everyone who has reported on the matter. That Trump frequently tries to stoke their affection for him is equally easy to spot.
One wonders: What does The Associated Press think about all of this? Because it seems like only days ago that some media organization took a thorough look at the online activity of various Trump staffers, and discovered the same sort of casual, meme-centric racism and Islamophobia that is the alt-right’s stock in trade.
Who reported that story? Oh, yes! It was The Associated Press.
It’s also absolutely true that Trump has observable ties to Russia. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was literally Russia’s PR man in Ukraine, where he worked to prop up former Ukrainian President Viktor Vanukovich for years. This is simply a literal fact, one that actually helps explain why Manafort is no longer Trump’s campaign manager.
Trump’s affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his campaign’s ties to the Putin regime, are not some surreal contrivance that the Clinton campaign dreamed up. These things have been observed and commented upon and dissected by a whole range of people in the media. The New York Times reported on Trump’s statements on the Baltic States and the protection they receive from NATO. The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post noted the mysterious change in the GOP platform that watered down the party’s previous hard line on Putin. All of these oddities, and more, have been puzzled over by writers such as Franklin Foer, Jonathan Chait and Julia Ioffe. Here is the requisite Voxsplainer on the matter, with links to additional reporting.
Again, one has to wonder about what The Associated Press has to say about this. Well, on Aug. 18, they said:
A firm run by Donald Trump’s campaign chairman directly orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling political party, attempting to sway American public opinion in favor of the country’s pro-Russian government, emails obtained by The Associated Press show. Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law.
And a day later, they said this:
The sudden resignation Friday of Donald Trump’s campaign chairman put renewed emphasis on revelations about his past work on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russian political leaders, including his firm’s role directing a covert Washington lobbying operation that would have required him under federal law to disclose his efforts to the Justice Department.
Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign amid scrutiny of his Ukrainian work — but others involved in the once-secret influence campaign remain working for Trump in senior roles, including Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates.
So, eye dee kay, that seems pretty interesting! It’s certainly not proof that “Trump is a shill for Putin,” as Thomas and Lerer’s story puts it, but it seems like any responsible journalist would recognize the Trump-Putin relationship as something at least worth raising an eyebrow at.
Let us duly note that Thomas and Lerer spend the bulk of their piece discussing Trump’s various activities. Which makes sense, because they can’t not do that. Between Trump and Clinton, Trump is the only candidate to have actually done what The Associated Press alleges ― i.e., degrade himself and all of us by pumping conspiracy-theory poison into this White House race. The piece would have been better titled, “Welcome to the Trump conspiracy election, you know, the one where Donald Trump is fomenting all these conspiracies.” (Remember how Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK, or something?) It could have left Clinton out of the accusation entirely.
Or maybe it would have been more advisable to write nothing at all. Let’s observe this section of the AP story, which examines the way the Clinton health conspiracy emerged from the Trump campaign and took root in the media (emphasis mine):
When the accusations made their way into a recent Trump foreign policy address, in which he said she “lacks the mental and physical stamina” to fight Islamic State militants, Clinton’s campaign felt they had to respond.
Her team put out a statement from Dr. Lisa Bardack, an internist who proclaimed Clinton in “excellent physical condition and fit to serve as president of the United States.” Bardack had said in 2013 that testing showed “complete resolution” of the concussion’s effects, including double vision, which had led Clinton to wear glasses with special lenses, further fueling rumors.
Fanned by right-wing media sites, like Breitbart, the rumors occasionally break through onto cable news and other mainstream media.
Fun fact: Those rumors also occasionally break through onto cable news and the mainstream media when they are fanned by The Associated Press.
Normally, the way I’d explain how this happened is to point out that at legacy organizations like the AP, political reporting is hamstrung by the need to studiously cram “symmetry” into every story, even where none really exists. The governing principle of such journalism holds that if you accuse one side of something, you must endeavor to implicate the other side in similar fashion, no matter how difficult the ensuing leaps of logic. “One side” can never be said to have “done it.”
But if I’m being honest, I think that something far more nefarious is at work at The Associated Press. Seeing as this new piece takes many facts that have been objectively reported by AP writers and presents them as erroneous and/or suspicious, I fear this article represents an attempt, on the part of Ken Thomas and Lisa Lerer, to undermine The Associated Press’ reputation for responsible journalism from the inside.
Looks like I caught them just in time. You’re welcome, AP!
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.