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Amid Russia Scandals, Conservative Media Provides Air Cover For President Trump

Jul 28, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 5:29 pm

In most conservative media, the Russia story is still fake news even as daily revelations continue to pile up about contacts between Russians and Donald Trump's inner circle.

The tone taken by conservative outlets has had an impact on voters such as the Bauchles from Watkins Glen, N.Y. They believe the whole Russia story is a sham, a political head-fake crafted by Democrats and by the crooked media.

"I don't think there's any basis to it," said Dennis Bauchle, a farmer, during an interview this week.

"You know they're just putting allegations out there all the time and [President Trump] has to run around dealing with all this stuff and he isn't able to do his job," said his wife, Marcia Bauchle.

A big chunk of the country agrees. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, 40 percent of Americans don't believe Russia tried to meddle in the presidential election despite evidence to the contrary provided by the entire U.S. intelligence community. The percentage of Republicans who believe the Russia story is a big deal actually dropped sharply.

Conservative media is one of the big reasons for this disconnect, says Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan.

"A lot of the conservative media has become almost full-time media criticism," Nyhan said.

Outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News, and talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage have crafted a powerful counternarrative, downplaying or discrediting developments in the Russia probe.

"Fox and Breitbart are providing a kind of air cover for the politicians who are standing with Trump right now, helping keep the Republican Party largely solidified behind Trump," said Nyhan.

On a recent show, talk radio host Laura Ingraham described the investigations as a cynical effort by liberals to distract the White House from its agenda. "This is what their game plan is; this is part of the resistance," she said.

Conservative sources frequently describe special counsel Robert Mueller as part of a conspiracy aimed at bringing down Trump.

"Mr. President, fire Mueller," demanded radio host Savage. "He's a political hack. The American people will be behind you. Don't worry about the fake press."

Conservative sources also work hard to discredit mainstream news sources, identifying them as corrupt or biased or part of an active conspiracy. A Pew study released in May found that only 42 percent of Republicans now believe the media should play an active "watchdog" role monitoring politicians. Only 11 percent of conservative-leaning voters believe traditional media sources are trustworthy.

One voice that is considered trustworthy for many conservatives is that of Limbaugh, the radio host who is viewed as sort of the conservative movement's Walter Cronkite.

Limbaugh tells listeners that the Russia probe is part of an effort to delegitimize Trump and his followers.

"Trump voters are never going to fall for this collusion story and are never going to buy into this notion that the Russians rigged it with Trump," said Limbaugh this week. "They're never going to buy into it. Because it makes them illegitimate. And they are not illegitimate. You people who voted for Trump are not illegitimate."

But Nyhan, the political scientist, says the right-wing media universe is bigger and more diverse than it used to be. Some voices and outlets have started asking tougher questions. Shepard Smith on Fox News reacted sharply this month to the White House's evolving talking points on Russia by asking, "Why is it lie after lie after lie? If you clean, come on clean. You know?"

Some conservative outlets have recently broken with Trump, especially over his attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Among the sources critical of Trump was Breitbart News, which has close ties to the White House. Trump has derided Sessions for recusing himself from involvement in the Russia investigations.

When asked whether there was anything that would make them rethink the Russia story, the Bauchles said they would need to hear the news from someone they really trust, such as Limbaugh or Hannity.

They want hard facts, a smoking gun. "They have found nothing after how many months of investigating," Dennis argued.

"Put out facts, not maybe or hearsay – facts, you know?" Marcia added. But she acknowledged that the standard of proof she's looking for is high: "So his son met with Russians? Like, who cares?"

For conservative like the Bauchles, hearing those facts won't be easy given their sources of information. The Bauchles say they have stopped watching Fox News. It's gotten too liberal, they said, and too critical of Trump.

Copyright 2017 NCPR. To see more, visit NCPR.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Conservative media outlets face a dilemma in how to portray Russian influence in last year's election. Many have described the whole story as fake news cooked up by Democrats upset about last year's election loss trying to destroy President Trump. The trouble is that intelligence agencies overwhelmingly found the interference occurred, and bipartisan investigations are looking into possible collusion. All of that is complicating the right-wing narrative. Here's North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: This week, while Jared Kushner was answering questions on Capitol Hill about his contacts with Russians, Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves. The Russia story, Limbaugh argued, is a giant con.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH: Trump voters are never going to fall for this collusion story and are never going to buy into this notion that the Russians rigged it with Trump. They're never going to buy into it because it makes them illegitimate. And they are not illegitimate.

MANN: Dennis and Marcia Bauchle are farmers from Watkins Glen, N.Y. They both voted for Donald Trump and say mainstream news sources are corrupt, so they get a lot of their information instead from Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and other conservative outlets. Marcia shares their view that the Russia story is political sabotage.

MARCIA BAUCHLE: They're just putting allegations there all the time. And he has to run around, dealing with all this stuff - that he isn't able to do his job.

MANN: Dennis nods his head. He says Russia is fake news.

DENNIS BAUCHLE: I don't think there's any basis to it, really.

M BAUCHLE: Hillary has talked to Russians, too. It's like they're both trying to get dirt on each other, just like politicians do.

MANN: There's no evidence the Clinton campaign communicated with Russia. But in conservative media, this confusing, muddled narrative is common. Here's conservative radio talker Laura Ingraham telling her audience the whole thing is a giant head fake by Democrats in the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW")

LAURA INGRAHAM: This is (laughter) what their game plan is. This is part of the resistance.

MANN: In this conservative media narrative, it's widely accepted that special prosecutor Robert Mueller is part of the effort to cripple President Trump. Here's right-wing radio host Michael Savage.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MICHAEL SAVAGE SHOW")

MICHAEL SAVAGE: Mr. President, fire Mueller. He's a political hack. The American people will be behind you. Don't worry about the fake press.

MANN: Brendan Nyhan follows conservative politics and media at Dartmouth College. He says outlets like Fox News and Breitbart have worked strategically since the election to build this counter-narrative, trying to discredit developments in the Russia story even as they've grown more serious.

BRENDAN NYHAN: A lot of the conservative media has become almost full-time media criticism. So you're getting the mainstream coverage refracted out through conservative media and back to you.

MANN: Nyhan describes this narrative as political air cover helping keep Trump's base and Republican lawmakers loyal. But he points out conservative media is more diverse than it used to be. There are voices and outlets who've started asking tougher questions. Here's Shepard Smith on Fox News reacting to the White House's talking points on Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHEPARD SMITH REPORTING")

SHEPARD SMITH: Why is it lie after lie after lie? If you're clean, come on clean, you know?

MANN: This week, some right-wing media, including Breitbart, pushed back hard against the president's repeated attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, warning Trump to leave Sessions alone. I asked Marcia and Dennis Bauchle if there's anything that would give them pause, make them rethink the Russia story. They say they'd first need to hear the news from someone they really trust, someone like Limbaugh or Hannity. They also want hard facts, a smoking gun.

D BAUCHLE: They have found nothing after how many months of investigating?

M BAUCHLE: Put out facts, not maybe hearsay. Facts, you know? So his son met with Russians. Like, who cares?

MANN: Hearing those facts won't be easy. They tell me they've actually stopped watching Fox News. It's gotten too liberal, they say, too critical of President Trump. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BEIGE FINGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.