How Steve Bannon Weaponizes a Story

Thanks to a prompt from Jeet Heer, I went back and read Joshua Green’s profile of Steve Bannon that was published last fall – before he became Donald Trump’s campaign manager. In light of the news that the FBI’s probe into the Clinton Foundation was primarily based on the book Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, it places Bannon right at the heart of the story that is currently unfolding.

Most people are aware of Bannon’s affiliation with Breitbart News, where he was the former executive chairman before joining the Trump campaign. But Green focuses on the less well-known aspect of Bannon’s work – as co-founder and executive chairman of the non-profit Government Accountability Institute (GAI), where Schweizer currently serves as president.

As befits someone with his peripatetic background, Bannon is a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde figure in the complicated ecosystem of the right—he’s two things at once. And he’s devised a method to influence politics that marries the old-style attack journalism of Breitbart.com, which helped drive out Boehner, with a more sophisticated approach, conducted through the nonprofit Government Accountability Institute, that builds rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then partners with mainstream media outlets conservatives typically despise to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience. The biggest product of this system is the project Bannon was so excited about at CPAC: the bestselling investigative book, written by GAI’s president, Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash

Here is the key to how that works:

What made Clinton Cash so unexpectedly influential is that mainstream news reporters picked up and often advanced Schweizer’s many examples of the Clintons’ apparent conflicts of interest in accepting money from large donors and foreign governments.

Green goes on to describe a front-page story in the New York Times based on one of Schweizer’s claims just prior to the book’s release. Three months later, Bannon brags that, “We’ve got the 15 best investigative reporters at the 15 best newspapers in the country all chasing after Hillary Clinton.” Here’s the hook:

Time-strapped reporters squeezed for copy will gratefully accept original, fact-based research because most of what they’re inundated with is garbage. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” says Bannon. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”

The reason GAI does this is because it’s the secret to how conservatives can hack the mainstream media. [Wynton] Hall has distilled this, too, into a slogan: “Anchor left, pivot right.” It means that “weaponizing” a story onto the front page of the New York Times (“the Left”) is infinitely more valuable than publishing it on Breitbart.com…

When that is accomplished, the focus shifts back to right wing sites:

Once that work has permeated the mainstream—once it’s found “a host body,” in David Brock’s phrase—then comes the “pivot.” Heroes and villains emerge and become grist for a juicy Breitbart News narrative. “With Clinton Cash, we never really broke a story,” says Bannon, “but you go [to Breitbart.com] and we’ve got 20 things, we’re linking to everybody else’s stuff, we’re aggregating, we’ll pull stuff from the Left. It’s a rolling phenomenon. Huge traffic. Everybody’s invested.”

That is the story of how Bannon works – he’s come right out and said so. One would hope that mainstream media outlets would take heed of this and recognize that they are getting played by someone who has also been pretty forthright about his ultimate agenda: to establish a nationalist movement in this country that is a dream come true for the alt right.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .