UPDATE: Check out reaction from some of the chief Weiner-defenders below the break.
The so-called Weinergate scandal provided a true spectacle of media bias and conspiracy theorizing. While there was certainly plenty of good reporting throughout, many opted to take Rep. Anthony Weiner's claims at face value and search for other culprits or scapegoats.
Others devised more malicious theories about why a lewd picture had appeared on the congressman's Twitter feed. It was Andrew Breitbart's attempt to gin up another bogus story, or a coordinated effort by conservatives to provide cover for Clarence Thomas. These wild theories actually gained quite a bit of traction among liberals online, and even a few mainstream personalities.
We know now, by Weiner's own admission, that they were all nonsense. So with the facts readily available, it's worth reviewing some of the dominant narratives that pervaded media coverage of the scandal.
Nothing to see here. Move along, people.
This was the preferred line for Weiner apologists in the mainstream, since it didn't require any elaborate conspiracy theorizing, but rather some simple, old fashioned denial.
CNN held some of the most hard-hitting interviews with Weiner, but some at the channel seemed bent on downplaying the scandal. Shortly after the story erupted, CNN's legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin appeared on air to dismiss it all as an overblown distraction. "To turn it into something more than a mild prank, hack, whatever you want to call it, seems really excessive," Toobin said. "I just don't think it's a big deal."
The channel's top media critic, Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz, chimed in with his own - seemingly contradictory - story-denial: "To twerps [he meant tweeps] demanding I cover Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal: Whole thing appears to be faked. Sometimes it pays to wait for the facts," Kurtz said on Twitter.
That was perhaps the most telling non-sequitur of any media comment on the scandal: Kurtz called for his critics to wait for the facts, immediately after presuming the whole thing was some sort of hoax. If only he himself had waited for the facts.
Ironically, a number of CNN reporters - most notably Dana Bash - helped keep the story alive with a great deal of quality work. But while those reporters were out doing their jobs, others at CNN were casting doubt on the narrative that was emerging as a direct result of the channel's reporting. If that's not a perfect microcosm of the media's troubled approach to political news generally, I don't know what is.
The vast right wing conspiracy
The "it's a coordinated plot to take down Weiner" line mostly originated in the blogosphere, but made its way into the mainstream via some of the usual suspects, such as The View's Joy Behar. "Somebody is out to get [Weiner], apparently," Behar theorized. And of course, it was "because they don't like his politics."
Behar took the more general anti-Weiner conspiracy line, but there were also two prominent offshoots of that theory: the "Andrew Breitbart is the antichrist" offshoot, and the "cover for Clarence Thomas" offshoot. The former was more likely to crop up among television personalities.
CNN's Toobin toed this line as well, telling Anderson Cooper: "In [Weiner's] defense, I think we do need to point out that the person behind this was Andrew Breitbart, who has made a practice of targeting Democrats, Shirley Sherrod most notoriously of all, and his stories tend to fall apart on close inspection." Toobin seemed to be suggesting that there was nothing to this story, but that Weiner himself was perpetuating it through poor interview performances.
Far-left MSNBC host Cenk Uygur also channeled the left's anti-Breitbart fervor, telling the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis: "Breitbart is a proven liar… Why would anybody take this fool seriously?"
Breitbart was, as usual, a favorite target of the nutroots as well. He garnered headlines such as "Yet Another Andrew Breitbart Smear Falls Apart" from Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, and "Breitbart to use SEX SMEAR on Rep. Anthony Weiner" from a Daily Kos blogger (who updated the headline with the now-ironic addendum: "Easily Debunked FRAUD").
Meanwhile, others at the Kos conspiracy factory were cooking up a theory that this was all an attempt to silence Weiner's calls for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from any case involving Obamacare. As one blogger there put it (h/t Matthew Shaffer):
Congressman Anthony Weiner was stalked, set up, smeared, and this was coordinated to protect Clarence Thomas from scrutiny…And now this gang, this conservative media mafia, has done a hit on a U.S. Congressman…carefully timed to protect corrupt Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from scrutiny.
Politico's Ken Vogel, while not endorsing this conspiracy theory, threw fuel on the fire with a tweet that seemed to suggest that Thomas would benefit from the scandal. Others were more explicit, echoing the Kos comments above.
The mysterious hacker
All of the attempts to downplay the scandal focused on Weiner's claims that his twitter account was hacked, or somehow manipulated. It seemed that for every major media personality who questioned the consistency or likelihood of Weiner's hacking claims, there was one who accepted those claims at face value (see Toobin's contribution above).
The more wild theories, of course, originated once again in the left wing blogosphere. Supposed experts in digital imaging and forensics claimed to have proof that the fateful photo tweeted from Weiner's account had been manipulated, possibly by Andrew Breitbart himself.
One left-wing blogger was able to demonstrate vulnerabilities in the photo service that Weiner had used to send the picture in question. The evidence even had some conservatives wondering whether the account had, in fact, been tampered with. But since Monday's circus-like press conference, the same blogger has absolutely refused to admit what Weiner himself has admitted.
Referring to Weiner's claim that he had sent the picture to Gennette Cordova, intending for it to be a direct message, the blogger said that he "wouldn't believe that part if Weiner personally called me up and insisted."
What can you say to that? If someone is so convinced of Weiner's innocence that he won't even believe the congressman's confession, than a true assessment of the facts and acknowledgment of the possibility of wrongdoing was never possible in the first place.
And that has really been the modus operandi of many on the left throughout this entire scandal. Either there was some plot to bring down Weiner, or he was hacked in an apparent "prank," or the whole thing was just a distraction from real issues (or all three).
Make sure you check out Matthew Shaffer's roundup of reactions from some of the lead perpetrators mentioned in this piece. Here's an excerpt:
The Daily Kos posted a news item about Weiner’s press conference, but did not mention their earlier posts implicating Andrew Breitbart and others. They seemed disgusted by the idea of apologizing. “The f***ing media wants Weiner to apologize to Andrew Breitbart…What a******s,” the post read.
Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs kept arguing that Weinergate was fabricated by Andrew Breitbart as late as last Friday. In the final minutes before Weiner’s press conference he wrote in response to readers demanding that he apologize for implicating Breitbart: “Not a freaking chance. If Weiner admits to sending the pictures in question, I’ll be surprised and disappointed, but I’m never going to apologize.” An accurate prediction. Afterwards he wrote, “Here’s my offer to the wingnut blogs and to Andrew Breitbart: I’ll be happy to apologize to the Fraud King, just as soon as he apologizes to Shirley Sherrod, Planned Parenthood, and ACORN, for smearing them with dishonestly edited videos. Which I don’t expect to ever happen.”
Click through to the post at NRO for more.