Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned several times that Steve Bannon likes to brag about being smarter than liberals. He probably also thinks he’s smarter than the folks in our mainstream media—and he might be right about that. During the run-up to the 2016 election, he played them like a fine-tuned machine.

That is the conclusion one reaches when reading a section of the recent report by the Berkman Klien Center at Harvard titled, “Partisanship, Propaganda and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 Presidential Election.” They provide lots of interesting insights into our current media environment, like the fact that, as Kevin Drum noted, fake news is mostly a right-wing phenomenon.

To get the essence of how Bannon played the mainstream media, you have to go to page 104 of the report and read the section titled: “Dynamics of Network Propaganda: Clinton Foundation Case Study.” Here is a basic timeline of what happened:

Prior to April 2015

The Government Accountability Institute (GAI), which is run by Steve Bannon and funded by Robert Mercer, commissioned Peter Schweitzer (who works for both Breitbart and GAI) to write a book that will purport to demonstrate that the Clinton’s manipulated their foundation and Hillary’s role as Secretary of State to enrich themselves. When the book is published, its title is, “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.”

April 2015

Prior to the book’s publication in May, Bannon, Schweitzer and GAI worked with the New York Times to publish an extensive piece based on the research materials in an advance copy of the book, titled, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal.” As the Berkman Klein report states:

Buried in the tenth paragraph of the story was this admission: “Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown. But the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors.” Needless to say, it was the clear insinuation of corruption in the headline, not the buried admission that no evidence of corruption was in fact uncovered, that made the April 2015 story one of the Times’ most tweeted stories during the summer of 2016.

For the next year, coverage of “Clinton Cash” and the NYT article are mostly limited to right wing news sites. But the Times article provided legitimacy to other claims Schweitzer made in the book.

July 2016

On the eve of the Democratic Convention, Breitbart launched the movie version of Schweitzer’s “Clinton Cash” that would be available via youtube. The report describes it as edited to appeal to supporters of Bernie Sanders.

The Breitbart story emphasized that “The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC News, and other Establishment Media have verified and confirmed the book’s explosive revelations that Hillary Clinton auctioned State Department policies to foreign Clinton Foundation donors and benefactors who then paid Bill Clinton tens of millions of dollars in speaking fees.” Breitbart approvingly embraced Time magazine’s report that it was “aimed at persuading liberals” and “likely to leave on-the-fence Clinton supporters who see it feeling more unsure about casting a vote for her.”

August 2016

Stories about the Clinton Foundation begin to spike across all media platforms, including the Washington Post on August 22nd and the Associated Press on the 23rd. The report documents what the WaPo article shared in common with the original “Clinton Cash” article in the NYT.

Just as the New York Times had done with the Uranium One story, the Washington Post here led with the insinuation of potential corruption—a much juicier angle—rather than with the absence of evidence of actual wrongdoing, and then it buried that truthful concession deep in the middle of the story.

They also provide this quote that pretty well sums up the AP story.

As one critic of the AP story put it the morning after the story came out: “The State Department is a big operation. So is the Clinton Foundation. The AP put a lot of work into this project. And it couldn’t come up with anything that looks worse than helping a Nobel Prize winner, raising money to finance AIDS education, and doing an introduction for the chair of the Kennedy Center. It’s kind of surprising.”

Here is the report’s summary of these events:

Right-wing media must harness broader parts of the ecosystem to achieve their strategic goals. In this case, they kept the story alive with several distinct media “hits”—the release of a book while offering careful “exclusive” access to major newspapers; a film; multiple releases of email dumps; and responses by political actors to these media events. Right-wing media succeeded in pushing the Clinton Foundation to the front of the public agenda precisely at the moment when Clinton would have been anticipated to (and indeed did) receive her biggest bounce in the polls: immediately after the Democratic convention.

With that story in mind, it is interesting to go back to what Joshua Green wrote about how Steve Bannon weaponizes a story.

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…

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.

As we all witnessed (and was documented right here at the Washington Monthly), that weaponization of the “Clinton Cash” story became the fodder for Trump’s “Corrupt Hillary” claims and was embraced by many Sanders supporters.

Following Steve Bannon’s exit from the White House, a lot of people have focused on his return to Breitbart News, and rightly so. But as we’ve already heard, he’s making plans once again with the billionaire Robert Mercer. So I’d also keep my eye on the Government Accountability Institute. Only Trump’s most die-hard supporters will buy what Bannon is selling on Breitbart. Either the mainstream media learned their lesson about getting played by Bannon in 2016 or they didn’t. To the extent it is the latter, it is very possible that he’ll be playing them again via the lesser-known GAI.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.