The process of conservative myth-making in the age of the Internet has become breathtakingly fast, as was demonstrated over the weekend in response to an ugly bout of violence at an Alabama Donald Trump rally. On Saturday afternoon, a white crowd at a Birmingham rally mobbed a black man who had shown up to protest the rally and to promote the Black Lives Matter movement. This was witnessed by at least two reporters, one working for the Washington Post and another working for CNN, which also got video of the fight.
"At least a half-dozen attendees shoved and tackled the protester, a black man, to the ground as he refused to leave the event," David Mark and Jeremy Diamond wrote. "At least one man punched the protester and a woman kicked him while he was on the ground." This is borne out by the video, which is confusing at points---it was filmed in a crowd---but definitely shows Southall flailing about in a crowd of people that are swarming him while Trump himself yells to throw him out.
But less that 24 hours after the incident happened, the right-wing media was already in full don't-believe-your-lying-eyes mode. As Callum Borchers at the Washington Post reports, multiple right wing "news" sites are already spinning conspiracy theories about how that wicked liberal media is lying to you about what happened. According to Breitbart, the mob of people surrounding this man are, at best, acting in self-defense. (Because we're meant to believe that people who are afraid of Syrian orphans run towards perceived danger as an act of self-defense.)
At Rise News, the claim is, "Many in the crowd told the man to calm down and told him that all lives mattered." While it is technically true that "all lives matter" was stated, if you watch the video, it's clear that it's not exactly being used to soothe anyone, but is something that some white dude is screaming over and over and over at Southall, clearly to push the notion that Black Lives Matter is somehow opposed to white people.
And so on and so forth: As Borchers lays out, the narrative starts with the assumption that it's preposterous to believe there might be a few racists lurking in a crowd of anti-immigration fanatics living in the same city that, 50 years ago, was setting police dogs on crowds of civil rights protesters. Once you buy that premise, it's really not much a leap to start denying that what you are seeing---a bunch of white people swarming this BLM protester---is somehow "self-defense" or anything but what it clearly is.
This story goes beyond your typical case of partisans arguing about who started what, and really crosses the line into a nascent conspiracy theory. To believe the right-wing spin on events, you have to not only disregard the only reasonable interpretation of the video footage, but the testimony of at least three separate journalists. That's not just paranoid, but melting-steel-beams territory.
Is it all that surprising, though? For decades now, the right has really been honing the claim that the media is secretly liberal and that any news coverage that makes conservatives look bad is not the result of conservatives doing things that look bad, but about this widespread liberal media conspiracy. This corrosive myth has all sorts of negative effects, including the fact that many mainstream media outlets fail to interrogate Republicans as much as they should, out of fear of being slapped with the "biased" label.
But the past few months have shown how all-encompassing the "liberal media bias" framework really is. The widespread belief that the media is out to get conservatives is the single most compelling reason for the success of both the Trump and Carson campaigns, as any negative press coverage they get, as demonstrated by this incident, simply gets chewed up and regurgitated as evidence not that the candidates suck, but that the people reporting on them are lying and distorting what they say. Often by, you know, directly quoting the candidates themselves.
(It is true that Carson seems to be collapsing right now, but that's not because he thinks the Egyptian pyramids are grain silos, a story that was easily excused by the "liberal media is just picking on him" framework. It's because he fails to compel the right-wing base on foreign policy issues.)
This, in turn, creates a real problem for mainstream media outlets, which become acutely aware of how much "liberal media" backlash they'll get unless they handle Republicans with kid gloves. As Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money pointed out Monday morning, Trump went on ABC's "This Week: and told an ugly and racist tale about something that did not happen:
There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down. And that tells you something. It was well covered at the time, George [Stephanopoulos]. Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.
Trump may come across as an idiot a lot of the time, but this quote shows how clever he can be. He deftly employs the "liberal media bias" framework, packaging this lie in the claim that it's actually a truth that is being suppressed by the omnipotent forces of political correctness, who are protecting pro-terrorist types for nefarious, if obscure, reasons. This serves as a warning shot to Stephanopoulos, a reminder that should he aggressively confront Trump about telling racist tall tales, anything that Stephanopoulos says will immediately be written off by conservatives not as evidence that Trump is lying (which he is), but that Stephanopoulos is out to get Trump. It's a real heads I win, tails you lose situation.
As this incident in Birmingham shows, there isn't really any limit to what truths can be hand-waved away by invoking this conspiracy theory. Conservatives see what they want to see, and anyone who sees it differently is just a super villain, out to get them because they are out to get them, that's why.
This is depressing news for journalists, both of the mainstream and more liberal variety. People who refuse to see reality no matter what are a bummer, no doubt.
But journalists should also see this moment as a liberating one. Look, if they're not going to believe you with two solid statements from eyewitnesses and video evidence, they are never going to believe you. It's clear that the "liberal media bias" narrative will be applied to any story that makes conservatives look bad, regardless of the solidity of the evidence.
So stop trying to please them. It's clear the only real way to stop the squawking and crying and false accusations of "liberal media bias" is to start lying on behalf of conservatives. Anything short of that, and the crybaby routine, complete with conspiracy theories, will continue. You can't win this game, so why even play? It's time for journalists to start tuning out conservatives complaining about "liberal media bias" and "political correctness." Those are nonsense words used to justify conspiracy theories, and should be treated with the contempt they deserve. Instead, report the facts and when the right goes ballistic, remind yourself that they're no better than anti-vaxxers and people who think the government faked the moon landing, and their crank theories don't deserve the attention it takes to block them on Twitter.