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Right-wing media's dark days

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Right-wing media outlets are struggling. Conspiracy site Infowars may soon be sold as a result of a defamation suit against its owner, Alex Jones. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. There are defamation suits, criminal cases against right-wing sites, not to mention the larger forces challenging all sorts of news outlets. NPR's David Folkenflik and Shannon Bond are here to talk about what's going on. Good to have you both here.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So David, the Alex Jones case is tied to lies that he made about the Sandy Hook school shooting. Run us through some of the other crises happening among right-wing outlets right now.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let me give you a smattering beyond Alex Jones himself. The federal authorities are currently prosecuting The Epoch Times. Its chief financial officer was just arrested. He's being prosecuted by federal authorities for basically alleged financial crimes. Its CEO just stepped down. That's a publication associated with the Chinese spiritual group Falun Gong but swung hard to support Donald Trump.

But some of these other instances I'm going to mention do have very much to do with the content - certain kinds of defamations, lies that were peddled. Salem Media, which has shows on hundreds of radio stations across the country - also put out a book and a documentary called "2000 Mules" about election fraud in the 2020 election - it's completely withdrawn and acknowledged there's no basis for those lies.

Steve Bannon, right now, is headed to jail on contempt of Congress - charges that have to do with his unwillingness to participate with the January 6 investigation by committee on Capitol Hill. And, of course, Fox News, as well as some other outlets - Newsmax, OAN - faced lawsuits by Dominion and Smartmatic, the voting tech companies. Some of these have been settled. Fox News, of course, famously paid close to $800 million to settle Dominion's suit. But some of those cases are still ongoing.

SHAPIRO: And are all these cases having an impact on the spread of lies and conspiracy theories that some of these outlets have promoted?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so let's go back a couple of years. I talked back in early 2022 with folks - this group that sprung up called Protect Democracy, which was - essentially, it's a public interest lawsuit that said there are such egregious lies being peddled about institutions - but also individuals - that they have to go after them. They went after, you know, major outlets, but also individuals such as Rudy Giuliani. Here's what one of those lawyers, John Langford, had to say. He's, again, with Protect Democracy.

JOHN LANGFORD: Our information landscape right now is like the Wild West. Anyone with a YouTube account, anyone with a website, they can go out and reach more people than Walter Cronkite. And in this new frontier, there are a whole set of groups that are just publishing lies. And they're doing it for profit, and they're doing it for personal gain.

FOLKENFLIK: I don't think anyone would say that they have neutralized those lies or related ones being peddled, but at the same time, I think they are having an effect. They're having this financial repercussion that we've just set out a moment ago. And also, you know, you can see a bit of a pull back on those particular lies about the 2020 race.

SHAPIRO: OK. So Shannon, the things that David just described seem pretty unique to right-wing media circles, but a lot of media companies right now are struggling to keep their audiences. Is it any different for right-wing media?

BOND: Yeah, that's right. I mean, there are a bunch of factors going on here affecting the whole industry, including changes at Facebook and Google that are just overall driving less traffic to news as well as, I think, the fatigue that a lot of us feel - right? - with this onslaught of news, you know, ever since, you know, the Trump presidency, ever since 2020 and the COVID pandemic, you know, which had produced big surges in news consumption. And we've seen, you know, that really sort of fall back.

But those trends appear to be even worse for right-wing websites. You know, many of them did rely more heavily on tech platforms to reach their audiences. But as of April, many of these sites have lost more than two-thirds of their readership compared to where they were in the last presidential election, back in 2020. In some cases, it's much worse. Traffic to The Federalist, The Washington Times, the Washington Examiner - their websites all down 90% from four years ago. That's according to analysis of web traffic data by Howard Polskin, who runs a newsletter that tracks right-wing media called TheRighting.

But at the same time, you know, we should note some of these conservative media brands, while they may be hurt in news, they are succeeding in other areas. You know, they're branching out into podcasting and into entertainment even as their news sites are struggling.

SHAPIRO: This is, of course, in the middle of this very close, contentious election year. David, what are you seeing from these right-wing outlets we're talking about?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so, to some degree, you've seen a slowing down of specific lies. You know, Newsmax has kind of stopped certain people in their tracks as they try to go back to some of the old hits. On the other hand, there are more generic ways of approaching this. You see former President Donald Trump increasingly finding his way onto Fox and other outlets large and small. And you're seeing the sort of Trump-friendly folks finding new ways to do it. Let's take a clip here from Maria Bartiromo a little bit earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA BARTIROMO: Republicans are talking about the potential of an election that is tampered with. Republicans are warning that there's a Biden order - executive order - which allows illegal immigrants and felons to vote.

FOLKENFLIK: In a sense, sowing doubt about what's ahead. It's also a heck of a lot harder to defame someone or some institution if you're vague about it and also if it's about the future. I would say water tends to find its level, and things are still going to go out. If you think about Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns an extraordinarily large number of local television stations as there's been a collapse of local news. TV stations are still around. This week, you know, many dozens of its stations pushed the idea that President Biden's age should decide the election, again, you know, setting a tone, even if it's not being perfectly specific about what they're talking about.

SHAPIRO: Shannon, part of your beat is tracking how lies and conspiracy theories go viral. What kind of impact could this kind of diminishment of far-right media outlets have on conspiracy theories about voting this year?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, we've obviously seen many of these sites are, like, the main proponents of these kinds of lies and conspiracy theories and even in some cases where they maybe have smaller audiences. You know, not everyone is reading Infowars or listening to Steve Bannon. You know, they do have a larger impact because there are politicians and influencers and activists who have taken up these claims. And so it means these false claims have a life that goes far beyond these outlets, regardless of the legal or financial challenges they face. I spoke with Brendan Nyhan, who's a political scientist at Dartmouth College. Here's how he put it.

BRENDAN NYHAN: It's dogma among Republican Party elites that the 2020 election was stolen or rigged or somehow suspect, and legal accountability after the fact is not changing that unfortunate reality.

BOND: And he points out, you know, in many cases, the biggest source of these conspiracy theories about 2020 and about the upcoming election this year is the presumptive Republican nominee himself, Donald Trump.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Shannon Bond and David Folkenflik. Thank you.

BOND: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "TONE'S RAP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
David Folkenflik
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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