Who Profits Off ‘Fake’ News?

John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Eliot Bakker Freelance Writer
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With the major news outlets competing ferociously for new scoops to rubbish the Trump administration and provide fodder to the Russia investigations, even veteran reporters have been getting sloppy. That is the main takeaway from The New York Times’ new feature on the CNN’s handling of its flubbed Russiagate reporting from back in June. In case you don’t remember, “the most trusted name in news” had to retract an entire article about Anthony Scaramucci’s supposed ties to a Russian bank.

It was clear just how badly CNN’s new investigative team had fouled up the story when the network fired three people, including a Pulitzer Prize winner they’d poached from the Grey Lady. Amazingly, the NYT’s story unveils how the competition to see who can embarrass the White House most (and most quickly) reached inside CNN itself, with the Washington bureau and the investigative unit battling over scoops. CNN has supposedly cleaned itself up since then (really?), but other outlets are still making the same kinds of mistakes.

The most recent is NBC News, which ran an article on September 1st which used the bombastic headline “Manafort Notes From Russia Meet Refer to Political Contributions” and claimed Paul Manafort’s notes from the infamous Trump Tower meeting mentioned “donations” and “Republican National Committee” in “close proximity.” One small problem: they didn’t. NBC corrected itself, but not before pouring some more gasoline on the fire of speculation surrounding that meeting and what happened there.

Of course, as with any scandal, interested parties are playing off the general firestorm for their own ends. The most obvious beneficiaries are the mainstream media themselves, which has profited tremendously from playing off Trump. It’s not exactly difficult. The journalistic community writ large has already decided that they are fundamentally against the Trump White House, no matter what the administration does. As time goes on, they are becoming less circumspect about it: Glenn Thrush’s Twitter feed is not afraid to be perfectly straightforward in its contempt for Trump.

Major news outlets are rolling in money thanks to their reporters’ biting antagonism. Take the NYT: in the second quarter of this year, digital revenue alone brought in $407 million for the paper. The same goes for cable news and especially MSNBC, which has managed to legitimately compete with Fox for just about the first time ever. More than a few individual reporters and producers have turned anti-Trump online activism into enormously successful personal branding exercises. The most famous among them is probably Kyle Griffin, an MSNBC producer that has turned tweeting out other people’s stories into 243,000 followers.

Other profiteers include people like Louise Mensch, who writes and shares fake news on her Patribotics blog and uses Twitter to get it to her 267,000 followers (a list that includes major journalists, editors, and news outlets). Telling people to see a Russian spy in every corner has worked out pretty well for Mensch. Her conspiracy theories are influencing lawmakers on the Left while she gets to keep working on Rupert Murdoch’s dime. As the Russia investigations drag on, Mensch and her fellow travelers will become increasingly influential and their work will continue to bleed over into the mainstream media.

Another interested party in this ruckus, though, may be the people we hear the least from: special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigative team. Mueller has said very little about his work in public over the past few months, but they’ve already been warned about not using leaks to up the pressure on their main targets. Paul Manafort may have caught a bit of a break with the NBC story, but he’s been Target 1A for Mueller for months now.

To see why Paul Manafort has come under so much media scrutiny since the inauguration, it’s important to understand what game Mueller and his team are playing. They seem to be treating Trump/Russiagate as a mob-style investigation, and the former G-Man apparently thinks Trump’s former campaign chief can be flipped into a source of information on bigger fish. In addition to having his house raided, Manafort has had to weather having all his old laundry aired in the mainstream media.

A lot of the “revelations” surrounding Manafort have nothing to do with Trump or the election, but they serve Mueller’s purposes in embarrassing and isolating his man. They’ve done their fair share of collateral damage as well. Months before CNN’s botched Scaramucci story, the Associated Press reported Manafort had allegedly inked a contract with the Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska to lobby on behalf of Vladimir Putin’s government for $10 million a year.

The only problem? No trace of this contract has turned up, and Deripaska is now suing the AP for running an unfounded slight on his reputation. Even as the suit makes its way through the courts, the unsourced and unsubstantiated accusation has made its way into further coverage–like the The Wall Street Journal‘s story on the onetime business relationship between Manafort and Deripaska.

At this point, Deripaska never having been associated with Russia’s alleged interference isn’t the point. The mainstream press can ride this story to sell copy, and a Russian name is enough to cast Manafort in an ominous light. It serves Mueller’s purposes well, adding to Manafort’s public troubles and reminding him of the investigative microscope he’s under.

There’s no telling how the Mueller probe or the competing investigations on Capitol Hill will turn out, but “Russiagate” has helped Trump do more to stimulate at least one industry—the news industry—than any other president in recent history. As much as the mainstream media enjoys piling on, they’ll eventually realize just how tied their fortunes are to the president whenever the White House stops giving them juicy stories and they go right back to failing.