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Conservative media’s alternative take on Trump and Russia

  • While CNN, MSNBC and others went wall-to-wall on Trump controversies Thursday, Fox News spent much of the day jumping away to other topics.
  • "It's as if these outlets are reporting on different worlds," said Tom Rosenstiel.
President Donald Trump listens during a joint news conference with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (not pictured) at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 18, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
President Donald Trump listens during a joint news conference with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (not pictured) at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 18, 2017.

The message to Americans from most news outlets this week could not be much more urgent, or clear: President Donald Trump is in big, big trouble.

That's the tone of reports ricocheting around CNN, MSNBC, the big-three TV networks and, importantly, local news stations that still are a dominant source of news for most Americans. It's also the sense splashed across hundreds of newspapers and web sites. In the last week, Politico, for example, has headlined: "Trump scandals threaten GOP agenda" and "Dems escalate talk of Trump impeachment" and — on Wednesday's hiring of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Trump's Russia ties — "Trump's Worst Nightmare Comes True."

That's the dominant narrative out of Washington, but there is another one preferred by many Trump supporters and Americans who disdain the mainstream media. That counter-narrative is being pushed by conservative news outlets — led by Fox News, Breitbart.com and many of like mind — which have focused on attacks against a hyper-partisan press corps, a reputedly embittered former FBI chief, James Comey, and weak-kneed Republicans who are looking to advance their own political prospects.

And right-leaning outlets seldom miss an opportunity to lean away from any discussion of Russia. While CNN, MSNBC and others went wall-to-wall on the latest Trump controversies Thursday, Fox News spent much of the day jumping away to other topics — a U.S. air strike in Syria, the Colombian president's visit to Washington, a deadly runaway driver in New York's Times Square and Trump's stalled tax-cut plan.

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In short, the long-running left-right media divide seems to have widened into an even deeper chasm in the most recent days of the Trump administration.

"On the same day at the same time, it's as if these outlets are reporting on different worlds," said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute and a long-time observer of American political news. "They often report on entirely different stories. There is a surreal quality, as if these worlds have been constructed."

Even as much of TV news remained riveted by the challenges to Trump and the recent appointment of Mueller to look into the Trump campaign's relations with Russia, an afternoon program on Fox invited in right-wing rocker Ted Nugent and ESPN sports commentator Stephen A. Smith. They didn't ignore the news in Washington, but they spent a lot of time on other "red-meat" issues for Republicans, like the surge in immigration arrests under Trump, the problems with immigrant-friendly "sanctuary" cities and the genius of former Fox News boss Roger Ailes, who had died earlier that day.

It's difficult to make generalizations about coverage at Fox and many other outlets, on both the left and right.

On one morning program this week, a Fox anchor acknowledged that the White House's credibility had certainly come into question. Guests on the network routinely bemoaned Trump's lack of focus on tax cuts and other parts of the Republican agenda. And there was another seemingly extraordinary revelation from the network: A column from the executive editor, John Moody, wondering: "Does Donald Trump Still Want to be President?"

Moody argued that Trump had gotten off to a strong start with his immigration clamp-down and a new trade deal with China. But he said Trump had muddied the waters by constantly attacking the press and other perceived enemies.

More typically, Fox and other conservative outlets spent much of the week suggesting that the real news had little to do with Trump's relationship to the Russians or the welter of investigators assembling to examine the commander-in-chief.

ConservativeTribune.com led one afternoon with a story about the possibility that a conservative favorite, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), would become the next FBI director. Other prominent ConservativeTribune stories took potshots at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, including a video of liberals who struggled to explain their love of the former president.

Breitbart.com, whose founding board members included Trump presidential adviser Steve Bannon, did its part by going after Republicans who appeared to be stepping away from Trump.

"Knives Out: GOP Establishment Makes Its Move" read a headline over a photo of one renegade, Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican had been widely quoted from a public appearance, in which he said that the Trump scandals appeared to be taking on the scope of Watergate. The Breitbart take: While McCain had become "a proponent of the Russian election-influence narrative," experts believed there was no case against Trump.

If there was another narrative most routinely deployed on the right it was that the left-wing mainstream media had whipped itself into a lather with no solid evidence to buttress the central suspicion against Trump: that he colluded with the Russian government to defeat Clinton in the 2016 election.

Conservative favorite PJmedia.com took a swipe at liberal stalwart Keith Olbermann, previously of MSNBC and now an Internet commentator, headlining: "ICYMI: Keith Olbermann Had a Breakdown, Wants Trump to Resign."

That mocking tone was also taken up by Fox, where several commentators chastised other outlets for spending so much time on Trump and the Russians. Speaking on Fox's chat-fest, "The Five," on Wednesday, reporter Jesse Watters predicted the left's enthusiasm wouldn't matter. Watters, once a regular on Bill O'Reilly's nighttime talk-show, assured Fox viewers that the Trump challenges were "boring," because "this is a scandal with no video, with no audio, with no sex, with no money, with no dead bodies."

Fox evening anchor Bret Baier made it clear he did not think Trump's troubles could be that easily dismissed, saying the story would be "big… if you have the president asking the FBI director to move away from an investigation." Baier said the White House found itself locked in "a tough spot" and "a chaotic moment."

A major story of the week for news companies across the political spectrum was about the New York Times report that Comey wrote a memo in which he described being asked by Trump to back away from his investigation of Flynn — the former Army lieutenant general whose ties to Russia and other countries have been central to the administration's troubles. Many mainstream outlets said the memo could be a major piece of evidence; perhaps buttressing charges of obstruction of justice.

On the right end of the media divide, the memo was treated skeptically, if not with outright ridicule.

"As far as we know this could have been the collected works of Dr. Seuss," Republican strategist Amy Holmes said on Fox, even as the network reported that it had confirmed that Comey had written the memo. (Crucial in future inquiries: Whether Comey's or Trump's version of their private meeting is deemed most believable.)

"The Five" co-host Greg Gutfeld offered another out for Trump. Even if the president's admonition to Comey is proven, he said, it surely fell far short of arm-twisting. Gutfeld said the president's words (in what has been described as a private-closed door meeting) surely were more like a wish — like someone wishing for a bicycle for Christmas — than an order. "It's a hope," Gutfeld asserted. "It's not a command."

Some cast a far harsher light on Comey, including Commentary magazine editor and columnist John Podhoretz. He compared the former federal prosecutor to the notoriously-vindictive FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover. "I think Comey is a preening popinjay utterly consumed with his own vainglorious pomposity," Podhoretz wrote, among many other pointed remarks on Twitter.

The president's defenders were out in force on social media.

Commentator Laura Ingraham took to Twitter to mock the notion that Comey's mere filing of a memo was enough for many in media "to deem the contents unequivocally true."

Chris Barron, founder of an LGBT group for Trump, also tried to cast a shadow on the Comey memo, saying it was "from an anonymous source about a memo no reporter has ever seen."

Many right-wing web sites also reached a little deeper and darker to discount suspicions of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — abetted by Trump. Their theory is that the memos from inside Clinton's campaign were not hacked by shadowy Russian forces, but instead were leaked by a disgruntled Democratic National Committee staffer.

The staffer they accused of these leaks, Seth Rich, was murdered last summer in an unsolved street crime in Washington, and the non-too-subtle inference in right-leaning media is that malignant Clinton campaign forces knocked him off. The theory has been propped up by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and embraced by, among others, Fox's Sean Hannity. A Fox News regular, Ed Butowsky, arranged to hire a private investigator (also connected to Fox), to help spread the theory.

But Washington police say the murder looks like a botched robbery. Rich's family demanded a retraction, saying the conspiracy theory has been concocted. And the private investigator who initially propped up the theory has completely recanted.

Unfortunately for Trump, first indications are that the American people may be receptive to the ousted FBI chief's point of view. A Monmouth University poll released Thursday found that 59 percent of respondents found it "very" or "somewhat likely" that Comey was ousted to slow down or stop the FBI investigation. Even a majority of Republicans did not accept the official version — that Comey was fired over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

The more critical Trump coverage was winning more viewers, at least in the hothouse competitive world of prime-time cable television news. Fox ranked No. 3 behind both CNN and MSNBC by mid-week, according to Nielsen, a significant departure from the norm for the 25-to-54-year-old demographic during prime time.

There is no way of knowing how long the shift in viewership might last. Experts suggested that Fox viewers were simply turning off the station, because they didn't like the weight of bad news for Trump. The boosted ratings for Fox competitors was likely powered by new viewers, not from Fox loyalists jumping ship, said Rosenstiel of the Press Institute.

And previous political seasons have proven that when news outlets please those out of power — in this case the Democrats — they tend to thrive, Rosenstiel said.

"A lot of this could be anticipated," he said. "Outlets favored by the party out of power will always get a spike in audience."

Fox's leaders aren't likely to panic. The network remains No. 1 in total viewership throughout the day and has an extremely loyal core audience. Both CNN and MSNBC are well behind in the day-long measure.

But news companies that have been casting a critical eye on the president won't back down any time soon. From The New York Times to the Washington Post to CNN, executives say they are being egged on by their audiences, who believe they are doing the tough work of bringing out the truth. Both the Post and the Times have reported substantial increases in online subscriptions since Trump's election.

And they may have received more good news in another finding from this week's Monmouth survey. The poll suggested Americans want to know more — a full 73 percent saying the investigation into Trump and Russia should continue.

Erin Cauchi contributed reporting.