Donald Trump is trying to keep his options open on Roy Moore, but the president has already helped him in one significant way: His two-year campaign against the mainstream media — in this case The Washington Post — appears to be the key to Moore’s survival strategy.
Not too long ago, a story that quoted four women by name and at length, with some friends and family members corroborating aspects of their accounts, would have been taken at face value. But now, in Moore’s telling, the Post, which published the allegations on Thursday, is engaging in its own crusade to drive him out of the race.
The portrayal of a mainstream media outlet as a political actor — not just reflecting a liberal bias in choosing stories but actually promoting “fake news” — draws heavily on Trump, according to journalism observers.
“It does seem it’s a strategy out of the playbook, both in terms of attacking the media and responding forcefully to allegations that have been made,” said Tim Franklin, a senior associate dean and professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “They’re even using the same language in a lot of ways. In his speech on Saturday, Roy Moore called it ‘fake news,’ which is one of the president’s familiar refrains.”
Former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon famously described the media as “the opposition party,” and Trump, as he has hammered away over the past two years, as candidate and president, does seem to have effectively politicized the press — and in some cases, facts themselves.
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll from last month found that nearly half of voters, 46 percent, believe that the media makes up news stories about Trump and his administration. But how respondents answered that question depended heavily on their political affiliation: Seventy-six percent of Republicans said the media fabricate stories, compared with just a fifth of Democrats.
And so, just as surely as some people Republicans in Alabama will swear off Moore, reporters have also tracked down example after example of people who say they don’t believe The Washington Post. All of those accounts are anecdotal, of course, and the true impact of the accuser’s allegations won’t be known until Election Day, Dec. 12.
“It’s tougher for a typical Alabamian to believe The Washington Post than it is to believe The Gadsden Times or The Birmingham News,” said Chris Roberts, an associate professor at the University of Alabama’s school of journalism who worked for nearly two decades as a reporter in the state.
“I study credibility,” he continued, “People tend to believe local people more than they tend to believe outsiders, particularly in a much more politicized debate about what truth is or whether truth matters, depending on what your political beliefs are … I think it coming from The Washington Post makes it easier to dismiss.”
Roberts lamented how shrinking local news resources made it less likely that an Alabama news outlet would have gotten the story. The increasing nationalization of the press, combined with increasing partisanship, likely paved the way for Moore’s defense.
At a Veterans Day appearance on Saturday, Moore denied the claims in the Post story, saying, “This article is a prime example of fake news. An attempt to divert attention from the true issues that affect the country, like health care, military readiness, tax reform or national debt.”
In another political appearance on Sunday, he threatened to sue the Post.
“The Washington Post published another attack on my character and reputation because they are desperate to stop my political campaign. These attacks said I was with a minor child and are false and untrue — and for which they will be sued," he said.
His strategy of fighting back by attacking the press might not have worked as well in the pre-Trump era, Franklin, the Northwestern University professor, said.
“I think it’s becoming more possible today than it ever has been, because of how partisan it is, because of the echo chamber effect and the filter bubble society that we increasingly live in,” said Franklin, a former top editor of The Baltimore Sun, among other papers.
But not all Republicans are persuaded by Moore’s denials and attempts to blame the Post. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made no reference to the Post in simply declaring that he believes the women who are making accusations against Moore. Many other mainstream Republicans, who weren’t completely sold on Moore in the first place, have signaled their concerns about the allegations, as well.
The Post reporters who wrote the original story on Moore’s accusers seemed to anticipate the type of blowback that Moore has engaged in — and went to great pains to inoculate their story against any criticism. The reporters explained in the article how they started working on the story their methodology, and how they approached each of the women who accused Moore of wrongdoing.
Bill Grueskin, a Columbia School of Journalism professor who previously served as one of The Wall Street Journal’s top editors, said he couldn’t recall a story that had so carefully explained how it came to be and bullet-proofed itself. It’s like the reporters had “this checklist of how people tried to disparage or diminish a story about a politician,” Grueskin said, and “checked off each one to make sure it wouldn’t apply in this case.”
“It’s a brilliant move, and it’s something I would want to teach here at Columbia Journalism School,” Grueskin said. “The Republican political establishment that you would expect to come to Moore’s defense has been basically left open-mouthed. They don’t have the kind of tools in their toolbox they would normally use to diminish a story like this.”
What’s different now, though, is that there’s a bulwark outside the traditional Republican Party backing up Moore. Even as the establishment Republicans have abandoned Moore, Breitbart News and its leader, Bannon, have doubled down on him, attacking the Post’s credibility.
From the jump, Breitbart has sought to discredit the Post, publishing a story with Moore’s denial before the Post even put out its original story. Its headlines have focused on how the Post’s editorial page — which is unrelated to its news coverage — endorsed Moore’s opponent. On Friday, the site published a story headlined, “EXCLUSIVE — Mother of Roy Moore Accuser: Washington Post Reporters Convinced My Daughter to Go Public.”
Persuading a source to go on the record is a standard journalistic practice. The Post had explained how it did just that in its story, but Breitbart portrays the reporters as engaging in “activist behavior.”
Over the weekend, Axios reported that Breitbart was sending two reporters to Alabama to attempt to further discredit the Post. And Bannon explicitly tied the Post’s reporting on Trump to its reporting on Moore. “The Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped that dime on Donald Trump is the same Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped the dime this afternoon on Judge Roy Moore,” Bannon said Thursday at a fundraiser in New Hampshire.
And so, Moore fights on, even as another woman accused him of sexual assault in a news conference on Monday.
“It is kind of hard to believe,” Grueskin said. “You’d think most people who are in this position would drop out the next day.”