Media

Some Conspiracy Theories Are More Equal Than Others

The New York Times building in New York City (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
For the New York Times, it’s fine to question the money and influence behind advocacy groups—but only if they’re right-wing.

In the United States, left-wing megadonor George Soros tends to be resented by right-wingers for his massive funding of leftist protest movements and the Democratic Party. Conservatives have launched polemics against Soros and his Open Society Foundations over what he and his admirers call “democracy building” but that they see as a radical agenda that undermines the freedoms of the liberal order. The New York Times casts such polemics in a sinister light. An October 2018 feature described a campaign of “vilification” of Soros that had moved from “the dark corners of the internet and talk radio to the very center of the political debate.” What complicates matters is that Soros has been the focus of anti-Semitic invective, especially in his native Hungary, where he has been a tenacious opponent of the Viktor Orban government.

Some on the right have tried to link activists working to defeat Donald Trump in 2016 and to derail the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice to Soros’s billions. As the Times presents it, those efforts were inherently illegitimate, even if the activists did in fact get funding from one of Soros’s foundations. Anti-Trump and anti-Kavanaugh were simply liberal causes; questioning the funding and organizing behind such causes amounted to conspiracy-mongering rooted in hatred and hostility to democracy.

Yet when right-wingers took to the streets in recent weeks to protest coronavirus lockdowns as a violation of their civil rights, the Times took a page out of the same anti-Soros playbook. Its coverage of the demonstrations, rather than analyzing their merits or lack thereof, was aimed at casting doubt on their legitimacy. Recalling its coverage of activists who opposed the passage of Obamacare a decade ago, the newspaper’s focus was on those who provided funding and legal support to the demonstrators. A front-page headline read, “The Quiet Hand of Conservative Groups in the Anti-Lockdown Protests”; an op-ed titled “Who’s Behind the ‘Reopen’ Protests,” by Lisa Graves, appeared the same day.

According to Graves, the notion that the lockdown protests were spontaneous or the product of frustration on the part of ordinary Americans who believe that federal and state governments have overreacted to the pandemic was spurious. Graves is identified as the head of an outfit calling itself “True North Research,” a left-wing group that is silent about its own sources of funding, and as “the curator of KochDocs.” The demonstrations, she avers, can be traced back to the Koch family and other libertarian and conservative funders.

The Times’ news article was a bit more equivocal in that it acknowledged that the anti-lockdown protests were “organized by local residents and are framed primarily against what they view as government overreach.” But, like Graves’s op-ed, the news story is focused on establishing links between the demonstrators and conservative donors and political operatives. Both items also drew parallels between the recent protests and the Tea Party movement, which tried to mobilize grass-roots pushback against the Obama administration’s health-care reform and other liberal projects.

Whether or not the lockdown protests are justified is a matter of debate. Some of those who turned up to protest used rhetoric or displayed signs making inappropriate analogies between the lockdowns and Nazi Germany. It’s also true that the calculus by which democracies balance individual rights against the efforts of government to deal with national emergencies like war or a pandemic is always murky. While some of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency orders seemed excessive and arbitrary — such as forbidding state residents to visit their second homes or banning the sale of gardening supplies — there was still a good argument to be made in favor of strong measures to prevent a public-health catastrophe.

At the heart of the Times’ coverage is a refusal — or an inability — to see the issue from the point of view of ordinary Americans. It should not be that difficult to understand that people simply want to be allowed to go back to work and provide for their families, or that they believe, as many have put it, that the cure is worse than the disease. Many of the same people are appalled by big-government interference in their lives, confiscatory tax policies, and nanny-state policies.

The irony is that left-wingers like Graves, who are given a platform by the Times and claim to speak for the interests of working people, have no patience for blue-collar Americans who do not share their political worldview—especially those who support President Trump. That Trump has encouraged the protesters illustrates his ability to identify with these people, even if his tweets in their favor flatly contradict administration policies.

Instead of covering the protesters as people deserving of respect for exercising their First Amendment rights, and offering viewpoints by more sympathetic observers, the Times dismisses the protesters’ concerns, essentially demonizing them as a pack of extremists or the cat’s-paws of, in Graves’s words, a “well-funded right-wing infrastructure willing to devalue human life in pursuit of its political agenda.” To put it plainly, to attack the lockdown protesters by suggesting that they’re manipulated by conservative masterminds is to peddle a conspiracy theory—albeit one that speaks to liberal prejudices.

The Times and its liberal readership are oblivious to the hypocrisy. If it’s sinister for conservatives to question the money and influence behind liberal advocacy projects, then it’s not right to delegitimize advocacy supported by conservatives either.

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