Last June as I was live-blogging three hours of pre-recorded primetime FOX News shows, I saw a segment that accused the President of the United States of treason.
In that segment, Sean Hannity and former Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that Barack Obama had given up a CIA operative to the enemy for nefarious purposes. They did not claim that this story was breaking news; indeed, they referenced FOX’s own earlier coverage of Obama’s treachery.
If this is the first time you are hearing of this story and are concerned that such a bombshell could escape even your peripheral media vision, worry not: It never happened. As I noted back in June, by fishing around FOXNews.com I discovered that the story had been initially reported and then debunked weeks earlier on FOX’s own website. The source of the story was an off the cuff anti-Obama remark made to a reporter by Rep. Steve King (R-Iow); King recanted the remark soon after. Despite the fictitious nature of the story, after this segment I saw Obama’s alleged treason covered extensively throughout the right wing media machine, even though it had been debunked by its very source.
But hey, that’s just a one-shot kind of thing, right?
As I wrote on Sunday, the most surprising part of the week leading up to the election was the degree to which the entire conservative media fell for its own propaganda, to the point of openly mocking those pointing to data that ran counter to their narrative. They had promised their audience with ever-increasing intensity that the country hated Obama just like they did, despite all the evidence to the contrary; when those walls came tumbling down, they looked truly and sincerely gobsmacked.
Looking back on the stories that the right wing media machine pushed hard during the general election, it’s hard to come to the conclusion that the make-believe story of Obama’s treason is an exception in today’s conservative media; instead, I believe it has become the rule. As I said in my previous post, if we review those stories we see that they each have three have common elements:
- Each story is crafted to fit into the narrative that Obama is an evil socialist and fascist tyrant, who because is working with our enemies to intentionally destroy America.
- Though based on some kind of true event, each story as reported is completely fictitious to the point of absurdity. What’s more, those reporting on them knew or should have known at the time that they were fictitious.
- In each case, the fact that the mainstream media is not covering these fictitious stories is held up as proof that the stories must be true, regardless of how absurd they sound.
Tomorrow I’ll be writing on stories relating to Obama’s terrorist sympathies, including how the right wing media machine turned the Benghazi attack into a story about how President Obama ordered the abandonment of his own people – even while simultaneously reporting on the story about how he didn’t. Later in the week I will be writing a wrap-up detailing why all of this actually matters more than conservatives think it does. I’ll make my final pitch that movement conservatism’s growing dependence on a media machine that values ratings and ad revenue over electoral success is a genuine and unprecedented threat to the GOP’s long-term success. But today I’d like to take a moment and focus on the Big Story covered by the right wing media machine over this past summer:
Barack Obama is coming with United Nations forces to take away your guns, so that you will be powerless to stop them when they begin to dissolve America.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the United Nations has been (slowly) working on a way to curb arm sales to fragile countries that either have strong terrorist ties or are run by warlords. After a decade of back and forth negotiation, the admittedly less-than-perfect fruit of that labor is the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.
The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a UN sponsored agreement that looks to both limit and regulate certain types of international arms sales to nations that are considered “high risk” to the international community. Specifically, it restricts the sale of large arms shipments to countries that meet one of the following criteria:
- Countries purchasing arms to enact policies counter to ‘humanitarian law’ (e.g.: for the purpose of genocide)
- Countries purchasing arms to facilitate terrorist activities
- Countries violating UN embargoes or other charter obligations
- Countries looking to adversely affect regional stability
- Countries that would use the arms to “impair poverty reduction.”
- Countries looking to purchase arms for the express purpose of exporting them to other countries that violate one of the above conditions
Unlike most treaties that focus only on large-scale military arms, the ATT would include sales of all weapons – including rifles, shotguns and handguns. It in no way restricts American citizens from owning or purchasing firearms; the only parameter where it affects American citizens from selling arms is in those instances noted above. Which is not to say that there will be no impact on the United States.
The international conventional arms trade is actually big business. Because so much of the trade is done on black markets, it is impossible to know what the exact import/export figures are. However, we do know that between 2001-10 the United States, which is the largest manufacturer of conventional arms, has legally exported over $60 billion worth of them. It is estimated that Russia has exported $56 billion in arms during that same period; in 2011-12 it is estimated that annual Russian arms exports have increased by over 25%. Not surprisingly, most of the customers for these sales are countries that have fragile states and/or are often associated with terrorist activities: India, Algeria, Greece, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia are all among the top destinations for these arms exports.
These sales statistics alone provide arguments for and against the ATT. After all, if the United States is the leading exporter and manufacturer then we risk the largest potential economic hit. As we are working our way out of a recession, this impact could be larger both economically and politically than it would be at other times. On the other hand, it is patently ridiculous to argue that the arms from these sales will not end up in the hand of terrorist organizations that target either the United States or its allies.
All of this creates a bit of a thorny choice for the United States. After all, the UN’s interests do not always overlap with US interests. There is, too, the reverse of the argument that what we call terrorists others call freedom fighters – that is to say, by signing the treaty we might well leave future foreign rebels we might have rooted for in the lurch. And anytime you have oversight of a $400 billion industry, you have the probability of some kind of corruption.
But perhaps the biggest knock against the ATT is that its actual potential effectiveness is highly questionable. Nations signing the treaty do agree to create internal laws that reflect the treaty guidelines; however there is no mechanism to counter a participant’s legislative body’s refusal to do so. And even if a country does pass these laws, there is no enforcement mechanism of any kind. So for example, if an Italian gun manufacturer is caught selling arms to a warlord in Africa and the Italian government does not wish to intervene, nothing happens. The treaty is one that relies on the honor system, and is therefore (like so many UN “solutions”) largely symbolic.
Any of these (and no doubt other) arguments might be reason enough for the United States to forgo signing on to the ATT. If so, then using the treaty to question the White House’s wisdom is certainly a valid and (perhaps) compelling strategy. From the point of view of the conservative media, however, tackling the treaty on its actual merits is fraught with complications.
For one thing, the conservative media spent most of the past decade championing the Bush administration’s argument that rolling back civil rights for its own citizens was necessary in the war on terrorism. Because of this it looks really, really bad to suddenly come to the defense of the “rights” of warlords and terrorist-friendly states arms in that same war. In addition, the inconvenient truth that international terrorists and warlords often use weapons made by American manufacturers is one that makes the media machine’s audience uncomfortable. (See Fast & Furious Scandal, below.)
But more important is that covering the treaty on its actual merits does not fit in with the narrative conservative media’s audience tunes in to see reported. As noted above, the treaty does have potential flaws. But none of these flaws follows the narrative of Obama as evil usurper out to destroy America – and that’s the narrative that brings viewers, listeners and page hits. No, if the story of the ATT is to be told at all by the right wing media machine, it needs to have its facts changed entirely to give it more star power.
In early July of this year, FOX News’s Megan Kelly reported on concerns by critics that the ATT was a Trojan horse; it’s real purpose, according to these critics, was to allow UN troops to come into America and take away the guns of private citizens – by force if necessary. And, since several “wingnut” bloggers had indeed made such accusations (albeit without evidence), I suppose it was kind of true that “critics had concerns.”
Once that story was aired, the floodgates opened. Other FOX hosts began covering the story, often referencing Kelly’s story. Throughout the month of July and the first weeks of August, other than the election it was the Big Story on FOX, Limbaugh, Beck, Drudge, the Daily Caller, and just about every other fringe or mainstream arm of conservative media. It is instructive, then, to go back and take a look at Kelly’s report.
The report, aired on July 3, was a joint interview of two “experts” on the treaty. The first expert was Larry Pratt, Executive Director of Gun Owners of America. (For those not familiar with the GOA, it is the pro-gun lobby endorsed by Ron Paul on the basis that the NRA is too soft on gun rights.) The second was KT McFarland, former speechwriter for Casper Weinberger. Here is that interview, which is about five minutes in length:
If you took the time to watch the interview, there are probably three things that really jump out at you.
The first is that Megan Kelly specifically sets this up as a story that the president is going to use the UN to strip away Americans’ second amendment right to bear arms. Indeed, the tagline shown throughout the interview is NEW CONCERNS U.N. ARMS TREATY COULD INFRINGE ON U.S. CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS. (You might also notice that despite the intended purpose of this treaty, at no time does anyone use the word “terrorism.”)
The second thing is that although Kelly asks each of the experts how a treaty on international arms exports will eliminate the second amendment, there is no discussion from either on this subject. Rather we see Kelly ask the question, and Pratt and McFarland talk about other subjects.
But it’s that third thing that jumps out at you that I most want to highlight. In their non-responses, each FOX expert actually refutes the story Kelly is trying to cover. Pratt notes – correctly – that any part of the treaty that actually might do what Kelly suggested would be null and void and therefore unenforceable. McFarland notes – correctly – that the treaty can’t do what Kelly suggests because it has no enforcement mechanism. Indeed, the fact that is an “honor system” is the very argument she uses to delegitimize the entire ATT.
Did you catch that?
The FOX report that opened the floodgates to more than a month’s worth of reporting by the right wing media machine that Obama and the UN are coming to take your guns was… a FOX report explaining how Obama and the UN are doing no such thing.
Similar “reporting” could be found in the conservative media’s covering of the Fast & Furious scandal.
As I noted back in June, Fast & Furious was actually a scandal that needed to be investigated. F&F was part of a large-scale coordinated strategy by the ATF that began in the Bush administration; the plan was to sell a staggering amount of arms to Mexican drug cartel foot soldiers, and then follow the guns all the way back to the kingpins. It should have thrown up all kinds of red flags. Aside from being a seemingly bats**t crazy plan, the first rounds of the project prior to F&F were entirely unsuccessful – and yet F&F was still given the green light. That much money, wrapped up in guns, effectively disappearing as part of a drug operation stinks of corruption. An investigation was warranted, if for no other reason to show that that whole thing really was above board. To make matters worse, the White House has been less than forthcoming with its own documents on the subject.
But again, reporting on the facts of the story was problematic for the conservative media. After all, the arms-sale sting program had started during the Bush years. In addition, if there were widespread corruption it was most likely at the level of various agencies’ US border patrols – and in the conservative media narrative people guarding the border are the good guys. But more than that, the story of the Obama administration fighting the Mexican drug cartels (even if it was being reported that he wasn’t doing it very well) wasn’t what the audience was tuning in to see.
Which is why throughout the summer, F&F was tied by right wing media machine to the ATT. The story that was reported was that President Obama was purposefully arming the cartels so that violence would escalate and Americans would be killed. Then, the story went, Americans would be so afraid of guns that they wouldn’t put up a fight when Obama came to take them.
If you want to know where the evidence is linking Obama to this plot, save your google-fu. There is none. Even those that have stepped into the media machine to claim this is Obama’s plan (such as House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa) freely admit there is not even circumstantial evidence that suggests this is the case. What there is, however, is the narrative that Obama is out to destroy America – and the “proof” that since the mainstream media isn’t reporting that Obama is coming to take away your guns it must be true.
By most accounts that I have seen, the timeline for Obama’s nefarious plan to strip Americans of their arms was supposedly immediately after his reelection. It will be interesting – and telling – to see how the conservative media handles this story come February, as the knocks on doors from jack-booted thugs fail to ring throughout American homes.
Maybe it will be similar to what happened the morning of November 7: Maybe they will collectively sit open-mouthed, shocked that their second-amendment rights are still intact. Maybe they’ll go back and figure out where they went wrong, and adjust accordingly. Maybe they’ll start reporting on the actual facts of stories and use those facts to craft a better narrative, as opposed to crafting facts to better fit the narrative.
Or, maybe those who perpetuated those stories will just sweep them under the rug. Maybe they will ignore everything they got factually wrong, since they always knew it was lie anyway. Maybe instead of focusing on how wrong their loony theories were, they’ll focus on the fear and anxiety that those loony theories fostered, and maybe they’ll devise new ways to capitalize on those emotions. The degree of damage they do to the GOP’s credibility will be regrettable, yes, but hey – they don’t paid to win elections, they get paid to sell ads.
Come February and beyond when black UN helicopters fail to pepper our skies, the right wing media machine is going to play out one of these two scenarios. I know which scenario I’d bet they’ll choose
Republicans should ask themselves if they’re really so willing to take that bet.