How Right-Wing Media "Hoaxified" Cassidy Hutchinson
I didn't like Peter Alexander's tweet, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he and his reporting weren't the problem here.
Testifying before the January 6th Committee on June 28, former Donald Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson made waves by describing a conversation she had with U.S. Secret Service Assistant Director Tony Ornato and Bobby Engel, Trump’s chief of security.
“Tony described him as being irate,” she told Congress. “The president said something to the effect of, ‘I'm the effiing president; take me up to the Capitol now,’ to which Bobby responded, ‘Sir, we have to go back to the West Wing.’ The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel. Mr. Engel grabbed his arm, said, ‘Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel.’”
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This was hardly the most important aspect of Hutchinson’s testimony, but it was the portion that seemed to catch the public’s attention. That day, Hutchinson testified that Trump White House Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows had warned her that “things might get real, real bad on January 6,” she testified that Trump had pushed to have metal detectors at his January 6 rally and at the Capitol taken away, and she testified that Trump’s White House lawyers were aware that certain language in his speech (such as his urging of the crowd to “fight for me”) could put him in legally shaky territory. Still, the steering wheel anecdote – which was told as a way to illustrate that yes, Trump wanted to go to the Capitol, and yes, he was extremely upset that he didn’t get to go – is what stole the show.
Journalists cannot control which bits of information pique the public’s interest, especially when covering an event that is being televised, live-streamed, and live-tweeted. Hutchinson’s anecdote about Trump reaching for the steering wheel is a perfect example of this. And now I’ll illustrate how those one-off moments can get weaponized by bad actors.
For months, I sat frustrated with a single tweet. Shortly after Hutchinson’s testimony, NBC’s Peter Alexander, the network’s chief White House correspondent, tweeted the following:
Immediately, I knew what would follow. Conservative outlets, desperate to find anything they could use to deflate Hutchinson’s bombshell revelations, seized on Alexander’s reporting. That night, Fox News host Sean Hannity opened his show by urging his viewers to disregard anything they heard that day from Hutchinson, citing Alexander’s tweet.
Likewise, conservative outlets like The Washington Times, the National Review, the Daily Caller, and Breitbart ran stories that cited Alexander’s tweet to make the point that Hutchinson couldn’t be trusted or that she was lying. Fox News media reporter Joseph Wulfsohn accused MSNBC of downplaying Alexander’s scoop in its coverage of the hearing. The right wanted to find a weak point in Hutchinson’s testimony. In succeeding, they were able to “hoaxify” the entirety of what she said that day.
And while Alexander’s tweet irritated me, as it became immediately apparent how Trump apologists and right-wing commentators would use it, there’s more to that story – even just on Twitter. Yes, there is every reason to believe that Trump loyalists in the USSS would deny the story, even going so far as to claim a willingness to testify under oath. But to his credit, the next morning, Alexander had some additional reporting that offered some much-needed clarity, including an on-record source from USSS to back him up.
The core claim made by Hutchinson was that Ornato told her that Trump was irate, demanding to be driven to the Capitol, and going so far as to try to physically grab the steering wheel. She never claimed to know whether or not that event actually happened, just that she was told by Ornato that it happened. The focus on the specifics of what did or didn’t happen in the car functioned as a distraction from the larger, more important point that yes, Trump was “irate and demanded they drive to the Capitol,” as Alexander’s tweet on June 29th noted.
The frustration I had with Alexander’s first tweet, it turned out, wasn’t actually a problem with what he posted.
Rather, it was a frustration born out of years of seeing how adept conservative media outlets and right-wing activists have gotten at exploiting even the smallest inconsistencies – real or perceived – to nullify narratives that don’t mesh with their own beliefs.
When Democrats rolled out their Green New Deal framework in 2019, conservative media zeroed in on a joke left in a draft version of an FAQ document that said, “We set a goal to get to net-zero rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.” The point of the joke was that “zero emissions” is an impossibility while “net-zero emissions” through investments in new technologies was an achievable large-scale goal. Still, that line fueled the conservative media attack against the resolution, and it led to a host of false narratives about what was contained within the 14-page proposal. On his show, Hannity took to claiming that supporters of the Green New Deal wanted to abolish combustion engines, ban meat, and build a bridge between Hawaii and the mainland U.S. None of that was true, but it made for an effective line.
Capitalizing on gaffes and inconsistencies is a normal thing in the world of politics, but I don’t know that mainstream journalists or the general public have come to terms with just how good the right has gotten at convincing a very large portion of the voting population that reality is whatever they want it to be. Mainstream journalists cannot control what others will say about their work or how it will be used, but perhaps it is time to take the right’s reality-distortion-machine into account when sharing news that seems likely to function in that way.
Sadly, this is an essay that doesn’t come with any answers, though I do hope it’ll inspire others to think about the role journalism plays in the right-wing media ecosystem. Now, of course, I’m not arguing that Alexander should have sat on his reporting, nor am I suggesting that there are magic words he could have used that would have prevented Fox News from using that reporting for partisan gains. I’m simply suggesting that maybe it’s time to take the right’s ability to draw these types of stories out into account when considering best practices for reporting on social media.
I actually do think that Alexander should have sat on his reporting, for the very simple reason that it is not news. Tony Ornato, Bobby Engel, et al being "prepared to testify under oath" isn't news. It's BS. The members of the Jan 6 Committee would be thrilled to hear the sworn testimony of Secret Service agents, so those agents should put up or shut up. More importantly, and more germane to the theme of this newsletter, Peter Alexander should remember that he is a journalist, and not a PR person for the Secret Service.
All that said, if I am off the mark on this, and anyone thinks that there was some news value to Alexander's initial report, I am open to listening.
Journalists definitely should consider how what they publish may be misinterpreted by (or disinterpreted for) a larger audience. They can only do so much, though. People are still lining up to support Trump and a Republican Party which has all but conceded its disdain for minority groups and/or the poor. This is to say it isn't solely on the press to address a broken political infrastructure.