We analyzed the coverage of Breitbart’s and Steve Bannon’s decision to cut ties with a former contributor, Paul Nehlen, after the outlet said Nehlen “made a series of anti-Semitic and pro-white supremacist comments” on Twitter. It seems there are two stories here: One attempts to expose the hateful nature of Nehlen’s comments, and the other tries to expose inaccuracies made by outlets that reported the first story. Both approaches are constructive in principle, but their execution reinforced some of the problems the outlets tried to point out. Here’s a look at the coverage and where it fell short.
Describing Breitbart’s role with opinion and spin
CNN, Newsweek and The Guardian originally reported on Breitbart’s and Bannon’s decision to distance themselves from Nehlen. The outlets pointed out that Breitbart had published coverage that was supportive of Nehlen’s candidacy in the 2016 Republican congressional primary. However, they did so by using opinion and spin (subjective, dramatic language), rather than strictly using data.
For instance, The Guardian said Breitbart had “aggressive pro-Nehlen coverage,” and CNN said it was “extremely favorable” and “highly supportive” of him. Newsweek also referred to Nehlen as “a favorite” of Bannon’s. None of these descriptions provide measurable data about Breitbart’s relationship with Nehlen, nor which of his views the outlet supported or didn’t.
The outlets also suggested Breitbart and others (including President Trump and Republican lawmakers) were wrong to support Nehlen in the past, implying a type of guilt through association. This perspective could bias readers against the outlet and those individuals, rather than encouraging an open evaluation of Breitbart’s previous support of Nehlen and the actions it took after his comments on Twitter.
Newsweek provided the most data about Nehlen’s apparent sympathizers and the people he follows, but then drew an incriminating correlation by writing:
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran several political campaigns as both a Democrat and a Republican in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but Nehlen’s apparent open embrace of Jewish conspiracies currently puts him in a league of his own on the far-right end of the spectrum.Juxtaposition is a slant technique that brings together sometimes unrelated facts, implying a relationship instead of directly stating it. Is Nehlen a current or former member of the KKK? Not seemingly. In a Dec. 20 article, Newsweek wrote that Nehlen “regurgita[ted]” a “white supremacist meme that was initially promoted by the likes of David Duke.” If this correlation is what Newsweek was alluding to, it wasn’t clear in this article.
A LOT of ‘very fake news’
According to Breitbart’s article, CNN inaccurately wrote that Breitbart and Bannon distanced themselves from Nehlen “in the last 24 hours,” when a Bannon representative had tweeted on Dec. 19 that “Bannon didn’t know [about Nehlen’s comments]; he does care; he sure as hell doesn’t think it’s a good thing.” CNN later corrected this by writing they “have recently moved to distance themselves from him.”
Breitbart noted that CNN’s update accompanying the correction “does not note that inaccurate information was pulled out of the article …” and that both a CNN journalist’s and Newsweek’s reference to Nehlen as Bannon’s “favorite” was a false allegation. All of this is useful for Breitbart to point out, as it signals instances of inaccuracy and opinion in news reporting. However, Breitbart didn’t take the high road. Instead, it used spin, dishonorable opinion and questionable reasoning to criticize and possibly discredit CNN. Here are some of the highlights:
Again, Breitbart had some valid points with which to inform the public, as did the other three outlets. However, the use of opinion, spin, questionable logic and dishonor (in Breitbart’s case) reduced what could have been informative, responsible reporting to an inter-media quarrel.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News