“His politics have been guided by platform metrics,” reflected Andrew Gauthier, who was a top video producer at BuzzFeed and later worked for Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign. “You always think that evil is going to come from movie villain evil, and then you’re like — oh no, evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior that is fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms.”And so Mr. Gionet’s story isn’t quite the familiar one of a lonely young man in his bedroom falling down a rabbit hole of videos that poison his worldview. …
In 2004, Hillary Clinton was in the Senate and Christopher Ruddy had some making up to do. He was, back then, best known as “the Inspector Clouseau” of the Vince Foster case — a New York Post reporter who had popularized the baseless theory that Mrs. Clinton’s friend, who committed suicide in 1993, had been murdered.But it now seemed possible that Mrs. Clinton might run for president, and Mr. Ruddy laid it on pretty thick. Mrs. Clinton was doing “a remarkably and surprising good job for NY as Senator,” he wrote to a mutual friend, former Mayor Ed Koch of New …
Dr. Li-Meng Yan wanted to remain anonymous. It was mid-January, and Dr. Yan, a researcher in Hong Kong, had been hearing rumors about a dangerous new virus in mainland China that the government was playing down. Terrified for her personal safety and career, she reached out to her favorite Chinese YouTube host, known for criticizing the Chinese government.
Within days, the host was telling his 100,000 followers that the coronavirus had been deliberately released by the Chinese Communist Party. He wouldn’t name the whistle-blower, he said, because officials could make the person “disappear.”
By September, Dr. Yan had abandoned caution. She appeared in the United States on Fox News making the unsubstantiated claim to millions that the coronavirus was a bio-weapon manufactured by China.
Overnight, Dr. Yan became a right-wing media sensation, with top advisers to President Trump and conservative pundits hailing her as a hero. Nearly as quickly, her interview was labeled on social media as containing “false information,” while scientists rejected her research as a polemic dressed up in jargon.
Her evolution was the product of a collaboration between two separate but increasingly allied groups that peddle misinformation: a small but active corner of the Chinese diaspora and the highly influential far right in the United States.
Each saw an opportunity in the pandemic to push its agenda. For the diaspora, Dr. Yan and her unfounded claims provided a cudgel for those intent on bringing down China’s government. For American conservatives, they played to rising anti-Chinese sentiment and distracted from the Trump administration’s bungled handling of the outbreak.
Both sides took advantage of the dearth of information coming out of China, where the government has refused to share samples of the virus and has resisted a transparent, independent investigation. Its initial cover-up of the outbreak has further fueled suspicion about the origins of the virus.
An overwhelming body of evidence shows that the virus almost certainly originated in an animal, most likely a bat, before evolving to make the leap into humans. While U.S. intelligence agencies have not ruled out the possibility of a lab leak, they have not found any proof so far to back up that theory.
Dr. Yan’s trajectory was carefully crafted by Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese billionaire, and Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to Mr. Trump.
They put Dr. Yan on a plane to the United States, gave her a place to stay, coached her on media appearances and helped her secure interviews with popular conservative television hosts like Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, who have shows on Fox. They nurtured her seemingly deep belief that the virus was genetically engineered, uncritically embracing what she provided as proof.
“I said from Day 1, there’s no conspiracies,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview. “But there are also no coincidences.”
Mr. Bannon noted that unlike Dr. Yan, he did not believe the Chinese government “purposely did this.” But he has pushed the theory about an accidental leak of risky laboratory research and has been intent on creating a debate about the new coronavirus’s origins.
“Dr. Yan is one small voice, but at least she’s a voice,” he said.
The media outlets that cater to the Chinese diaspora — a jumble of independent websites, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts with anti-China leanings — have formed a fast-growing echo chamber for misinformation. With few reliable Chinese-language news sources to fact-check them, rumors can quickly harden into a distorted reality. Increasingly, they are feeding and being fed by far-right American media.
Wang Dinggang, the YouTube host contacted by Dr. Yan and a close associate of Mr. Guo, appears to have been the first to seed rumors related to Hunter Biden, a son of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. A site owned by Mr. Guo amplified the baseless claims about Hunter Biden’s involvement in a child abuse conspiracy. They were picked up by Infowars and other fringe American outlets. Mr. Bannon, Mr. Wang and Mr. Guo are now all promoting the false idea that the presidential election was rigged.
Big technology companies have started to push back, as Facebook and Twitter try to better police content. Twitter permanently banned one of Mr. Bannon’s accounts for violating its rules on glorifying violence after he suggested on his podcast that the heads of the F.B.I. director and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, should be put on pikes.
But such mainstream notoriety has only bolstered their anti-establishment credentials. Mr. Wang’s YouTube following has nearly doubled since January. Traffic for two of Mr. Guo’s websites soared to more than 135 million last month, up from fewer than five million visits last December, according to SimilarWeb, an online data provider. Many conservatives who claim Facebook and Twitter censor right-wing voices are also flocking to new social media platforms such as Parler — and Dr. Yan, Mr. Wang and Mr. Guo have already joined them.
Dr. Yan, through representatives for Mr. Bannon and Mr. Guo, declined multiple requests for an interview. So did Mr. Wang, citing The New York Times’s “reputation for fake news.”
In a statement sent through a lawyer, Mr. Guo said he had only offered “encouragement” for Dr. Yan’s efforts “to stand up against the C.C.P. mafia and tell the world the truth about Covid-19.”
“I would gladly assist others seeking to tell the world the truth,” he said.
Finding a platform
As the new year began, Mr. Wang was doing what he did best: attacking the Chinese Communist Party on YouTube. He railed against China’s crackdown on Muslims and pontificated on the U.S. trade war.
Then on Jan. 19, he suddenly shifted to the emerging outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. It was early in the crisis, before the lockdown in the city, before China had disclosed that the virus was spreading among humans, before the world was paying attention.
In an 80-minute show devoted to an unnamed whistle-blower, Mr. Wang said that he had heard from “the world’s absolute top coronavirus expert,” who had told him China was not being transparent. “I think this is very believable, and very scary,” he said.
Mr. Wang, who was a businessman in China before moving to the United States for unknown reasons, is part of a growing group of commentators that have emerged on the Chinese-language internet. Their shows, which mix punditry, serious analysis and outright rumor, cater to a diaspora that often does not trust Chinese state media and has few reliable sources of news in its native language.
Since starting his program several years ago, Mr. Wang, who broadcasts under the name Lu De, has emerged as one of the genre’s most popular personalities, in part for his embrace of outlandish theories. He has accused Chinese officials of using “sex and seduction” to entrap enemies, and urged his audience to hoard food in preparation for the Communist Party’s collapse.
His January show on the unnamed whistle-blower combined the same elements of fact and fiction. He called his source, later revealed to be Dr. Yan, an expert, but greatly exaggerated her credentials.
She had studied influenza before the outbreak, but not coronaviruses. She did work at one of the world’s top virology labs, at the University of Hong Kong, but was fairly new to the field and hired for her experience with lab animals, according to two university employees who knew her. She helped investigate the new outbreak, but was not overseeing the effort.
The episode caught the attention of Mr. Bannon, who said he started worrying about the virus when China began locking down. Someone, he didn’t say who, pointed out the show and translated it.
A few months later, Mr. Wang suddenly told Dr. Yan to flee Hong Kong for her safety, he explained in later broadcasts. Mr. Guo, his primary patron, paid for her to fly first class, he added.
On April 28, Dr. Yan quietly left for the airport. Her family and friends panicked but could not reach her, said Jean-Marc Cavaillon, a retired professor of immunology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who has known Dr. Yan since 2017. A missing persons report was filed in Hong Kong.
Two weeks later, she resurfaced in the United States.
“I’m currently in New York, very safe and relaxed” with the “best bodyguards and lawyers,” Dr. Yan wrote on WeChat, in a screenshot seen by The Times. “What I’m doing now is helping the whole world take control of the pandemic.”
A media makeover
After Dr. Yan arrived in the United States, Mr. Bannon, Mr. Guo and their allies immediately set out to package her as a whistle-blower they could sell to the American public.
They installed her in a “safe house” outside of New York City and hired lawyers, Mr. Bannon said. They found her a media coach, since English is not her first language. Mr. Bannon also asked her to submit multiple papers summarizing her purported evidence, Dr. Yan later said.
“Make sure you can walk people through this logically,” Mr. Bannon recalled telling her.
Mr. Bannon and Mr. Guo have been on a mission for years to, as they put it, bring down the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr. Guo, who also goes by Miles Kwok, was a property magnate in China with ties to senior party officials, until he fled the country about five years ago under the shadow of corruption allegations. He has since styled himself as a freedom fighter, though many are skeptical of his motivations.
Mr. Bannon, who patrolled the South China Sea as a young naval officer, has long focused much of his energy on China. During his time in the White House, he counseled Mr. Trump to take a tough approach toward the country, which he has described as “the greatest existential threat ever faced by the United States.”
Mr. Guo’s deep pockets and Mr. Bannon’s extensive network have given them an influential platform. The two men set up a $100 million fund to investigate corruption in China. They spread conspiracy theories about the accidental death of a Chinese tycoon in France, calling it a fake suicide orchestrated by Beijing.
By late January, they were both acutely focused on the outbreak in China.
Mr. Bannon pivoted his podcast to the coronavirus. He was calling it “the C.C.P. virus” long before Mr. Trump started using xenophobic labels for the pandemic. He invited fierce critics of China to the show to discuss how the outbreak exemplified the global threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr. Guo began claiming that the virus was an attack ordered by China’s vice president. He circulated the same claims on his media operation, which includes GTV, a video platform, and GNews, a site that features glowing coverage of Mr. Guo and his associates. He released a song called “Take Down the C.C.P.,” which briefly hit No. 1 worldwide on the Apple iTunes chart.
The men have continued to target the Chinese government even as they battle their own legal woes. Mr. Guo is reportedly under investigation by U.S. federal authorities over fund-raising tactics at his media company. Mr. Bannon, who was arrested this summer on Mr. Guo’s yacht, is facing fraud charges for a nonprofit he helped set up to build a wall along the Mexican border.
In Dr. Yan, the two men found an ideal face for their campaign.
On July 10, she revealed her identity for the first time in a 13-minute interview on the Fox News website. She said that the Chinese government had concealed evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. She accused, without proof, professors at the University of Hong Kong of assisting in the cover-up. (The university quickly rejected her accusations as “hearsay.”)
“The reason I came to the U.S. is because I deliver the message of the truth of Covid-19,” she said.
She made no mention of Mr. Guo or Mr. Bannon, by design.
“Don’t link yourself to Bannon, don’t link yourself to Guo Wengui,” Mr. Guo on his own show recounted telling Dr. Yan. “Once you mention us, those American extreme leftists will attack and say you have a political agenda.”
After the first Fox interview, Dr. Yan embarked on a whirlwind tour of right-wing media, echoing conservative talking points. She said that she took hydroxychloroquine to ward off the virus, even though the F.D.A. had warned that it was not effective. She suggested that the World Health Organization helped cover up the outbreak.
Those interviews were amplified by social media accounts proclaiming allegiance to Mr. Guo. They translated her appearances into Chinese, then posted multiple versions on YouTube and retweeted posts by other pro-Guo accounts.
Some of the accounts have tens of thousands of followers — of a dubious nature. Many have multiple indicators of so-called inauthentic behavior, according to an analysis by First Draft, a nonprofit that studies misinformation. The analysis found that they were created in the past two years, lacked background photos and had user names that were jumbles of letters and numbers.
Collectively, the followers created online momentum for the conservative media world, which in turn re-energized the pro-Guo accounts. “The two are filtering and feeding off of each other,” said Anne Kruger, First Draft’s Asia Pacific director.
In early September, Dr. Yan met with Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University who had floated the possibility that the virus was the product of a laboratory experiment. Dr. Lucey said Dr. Yan’s associates, who set up the meeting, wanted to find a credible scientist to endorse her claims. “That was the only reason for bringing me there,” he said.
For more than four hours, Dr. Yan discussed her background and research, while one of her associates, whom Dr. Lucey declined to name, impatiently walked in and out of the room. He said that Dr. Yan appeared to genuinely believe that the virus had been weaponized but struggled to explain why.
At the end, the associate asked Dr. Lucey if he thought Dr. Yan had a “smoking gun.” When Dr. Lucey said no, the meeting quickly ended.
Days later, Dr. Yan released a 26-page research paper that she said proved the virus was manufactured. It spread rapidly online.
The paper, which was not peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal, was posted on an online open-access repository. It was backed by two nonprofits funded by Mr. Guo. The three other co-authors on the paper were pseudonyms for safety reasons, according to Mr. Bannon.
Virologists quickly dismissed the paper as “pseudoscience” and “based on conjecture.” Some worried that the paper — laden with charts and scientific jargon, such as “unique furin cleavage site” and “RBM-hACE2 binding” — would lend her claims a veneer of credibility.
“It’s full of science-y sorts of terms that are jumbled together to sound impressive but aren’t supported,” said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins University who was among several authors of a rebuttal to Dr. Yan’s report.
Other misinformation about the pandemic has also emphasized supposed expertise. In the spring, a 26-minute video that went viral featured a discredited American scientist accusing hospitals of inflating virus-related deaths. A July video showed people in white coats, calling themselves “America’s doctors” and suggesting that masks were ineffective; the video was removed by social media platforms for sharing false information.
On Sept. 15, a day after her report was published, Dr. Yan secured her biggest stage yet: an appearance with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Mr. Carlson’s popular show has frequently served as an influential megaphone for the right.
Mr. Carlson asked if Dr. Yan believed Chinese officials had released the virus intentionally or by accident. Dr. Yan did not hesitate.
“Of course intentionally,” she said.
The clip went viral.
Footage of their interview racked up at least 8.8 million views online, even though Facebook and Instagram flagged it as false information. High-profile conservatives, including Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, shared it on Twitter. When the Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelist supporter of Mr. Trump, posted about Dr. Yan on Facebook, it became the most-shared link posted by a U.S.-based Facebook account that day.
Lou Dobbs, another Fox host, tweeted a video of himself and a guest discussing Dr. Yan’s “great case.” Mr. Trump retweeted it.
Dr. Yan was welcomed by an audience already primed to hear her claims. A March poll found that nearly 30 percent of Americans believed the virus was most likely made in a lab.
“Once Tucker Carlson picks it up, it’s not fringe anymore,” said Yotam Ophir, a professor at the University at Buffalo who studies disinformation. “It’s now mainstream.”
Fox News declined to comment.
Weeks later, Mr. Carlson said on his show that he could not endorse Dr. Yan’s theories. Regardless, he welcomed her back as a guest to detail her latest claim: Her mother, she told him, had been arrested by the Chinese government.
The Chinese government often punishes critics by harassing their families. But when The Times reached Dr. Yan’s mother on her cellphone in October, she said that she had never been arrested and was desperate to connect with her daughter, whom she had not spoken to in months.
She declined to say more and asked not to be named, citing fears that Dr. Yan was being manipulated by her new allies.
“They are blocking our daughter from talking to us,” her mother said, referring to Mr. Guo and Mr. Wang. “We want our daughter to know that she can video-chat with us at any time.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed research.
By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men allied with the president gathered at a house in McLean, Va., to launch one.
The host was Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations man close to President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. The guests were a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and a former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
Mr. Herschmann knew the subject matter they were there to discuss. He had represented Mr. Trump during the impeachment trial early this year, and he tried to deflect allegations against the president in part by pointing to Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. More recently, he has been working on the White House payroll with a hazy portfolio, listed as “a senior adviser to the president,” and remains close to Jared Kushner.
The three had pinned their hopes for re-electing the president on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s named Tony Bobulinski. Mr. Bobulinski was willing to go on the record in The Journal with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president.
The Journal had seemed to be the perfect outlet for a story the Trump advisers believed could sink Mr. Biden’s candidacy. Its small-c conservatism in reporting means the work of its news pages carries credibility across the industry. And its readership leans further right than other big news outlets. Its Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, recently remarked at a virtual gathering of Journal reporters and editors that while he knows that the paper often delivers unwelcome news to the many Trump supporters who read it, The Journal should protect its unique position of being trusted across the political spectrum, two people familiar with the remarks said.
As the Trump team waited with excited anticipation for a Journal exposé, the newspaper did its due diligence: Mr. Bender and Mr. Beckett handed the story off to a well-regarded China correspondent, James Areddy, and a Capitol Hill reporter who had followed the Hunter Biden story, Andrew Duehren. Mr. Areddy interviewed Mr. Bobulinski. They began drafting an article.
Then things got messy. Without warning his notional allies, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now a lawyer for President Trump, burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of the McLean crew’s carefully laid plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — but containing some of the same emails — to The New York Post, a sister publication to The Journal in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s complicated claim that the emails came from a laptop Hunter Biden had abandoned, and his refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which alleged but could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.
While the Trump team was clearly jumpy, editors in The Journal’s Washington bureau were wrestling with a central question: Could the documents, or Mr. Bobulinski, prove that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s lobbying? Or was this yet another story of the younger Mr. Biden trading on his family’s name — a perfectly good theme, but not a new one or one that needed urgently to be revealed before the election.
Mr. Trump and his allies expected the Journal story to appear Monday, Oct. 19, according to Mr. Bannon. That would be late in the campaign, but not too late — and could shape that week’s news cycle heading into the crucial final debate last Thursday. An “important piece” in The Journal would be coming soon, Mr. Trump told aides on a conference call that day.
His comment was not appreciated inside The Journal.
“The editors didn’t like Trump’s insinuation that we were being teed up to do this hit job,” a Journal reporter who wasn’t directly involved in the story told me. But the reporters continued to work on the draft as the Thursday debate approached, indifferent to the White House’s frantic timeline.
Keep up with Election 2020
Finally, Mr. Bobulinski got tired of waiting.
“He got spooked about whether they were going to do it or not,” Mr. Bannon said.
At 7:35 Wednesday evening, Mr. Bobulinski emailed an on-the-record, 684-word statement making his case to a range of news outlets. Breitbart News published it in full. He appeared the next day in Nashville to attend the debate as Mr. Trump’s surprise guest, and less than two hours before the debate was to begin, he read a six-minute statement to the press, detailing his allegations that the former vice president had involvement in his son’s business dealings.
When Mr. Trump stepped on stage, the president acted as though the details of the emails and the allegations were common knowledge. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not,” he told Mr. Biden at some point, a reference to an ambiguous sentence from the documents.
As the debate ended, The Wall Street Journal published a brief item, just the stub of Mr. Areddy and Mr. Duehren’s reporting. The core of it was that Mr. Bobulinski had failed to prove the central claim. “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden,” The Journal reported.
Asked about The Journal’s handling of the story, the editor in chief, Matt Murray, said the paper did not discuss its newsgathering. “Our rigorous and trusted journalism speaks for itself,” Mr. Murray said in an emailed statement.
And if you’d been watching the debate, but hadn’t been obsessively watching Fox News or reading Breitbart, you would have had no idea what Mr. Trump was talking about. The story the Trump team hoped would upend the campaign was fading fast.
The gatekeepers return
The McLean group’s failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation — a far cry from the coordinated “disinformation” machinery feared by liberals.
But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.
It has been a disorienting couple of decades, after all. It all began when The Drudge Report, Gawker and the blogs started telling you what stodgy old newspapers and television networks wouldn’t. Then social media brought floods of content pouring over the old barricades.
By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn’t control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides. Television networks all but let Donald Trump take over as executive producer that summer and fall. In October 2016, Julian Assange and James Comey seemed to drive the news cycle more than the major news organizations. Many figures in old media and new bought into the idea that in the new world, readers would find the information they wanted to read — and therefore, decisions by editors and producers, about whether to cover something and how much attention to give it, didn’t mean much.
But the last two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it, even between an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal suggesting Joe Biden had done bad things, and a news article that didn’t reach that conclusion.
Perhaps the most influential media document of the last four years is a chart by a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Yochai Benkler. The study showed that a dense new right-wing media sphere had emerged — and that the mainstream news “revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set.”
Mr. Bannon had known this, too. He described his strategy as “anchor left, pivot right,” and even as he ran Breitbart News, he worked to place attacks on Hillary Clinton in mainstream outlets. The validating power of those outlets was clear when The New York Times and Washington Post were given early access in the spring of 2015 to the book “Clinton Cash,” an investigation of the Clinton family’s blurring of business, philanthropic and political interests by the writer Peter Schweizer.
Mr. Schweizer is still around this cycle. But you won’t find his work in mainstream outlets. He’s over on Breitbart, with a couple of Hunter Biden stories this month.
And the fact that Mr. Bobulinski emerged not in the pages of the widely respected Journal but in a statement to Breitbart was essentially Mr. Bannon’s nightmare, and Mr. Benkler’s fondest wish. And a broad array of mainstream outlets, unpersuaded that Hunter Biden’s doings tie directly to the former vice president, have largely kept the story off their front pages, and confined to skeptical explanations of what Mr. Trump and his allies are claiming about his opponent.
“SO USA TODAY DIDN’T WANT TO RUN MY HUNTER BIDEN COLUMN THIS WEEK,” the conservative writer Glenn Reynolds complained Oct. 20, posting the article instead to his blog. President Trump himself hit a wall when he tried to push the Hunter Biden narrative onto CBS News.
“This is ‘60 Minutes,’ and we can’t put on things we can’t verify,” Lesley Stahl told him. Mr. Trump then did more or less the same thing as Mr. Reynolds, posting a video of his side of the interview to his own blog, Facebook.
The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.
We should have known it, of course. Many of our readers, screaming about headlines on Twitter, did. And Mr. Trump knew it all along — one way to read his endless attacks on the establishment media is as an expression of obsession, a form of love. This week, you can hear howls of betrayal from people who have for years said the legacy media was both utterly biased and totally irrelevant.
“For years, we’ve respected and even revered the sanctified position of the free press,” wrote Dana Loesch, a right-wing commentator not particularly known for her reverence of legacy media, expressing frustration that the Biden story was not getting attention. “Now that free press points its digital pen at your throat when you question their preferences.”
On the other side of the gate
There’s something amusing — even a bit flattering — in such earnest protestations from a right-wing movement rooted in efforts to discredit the independent media. And this reassertion of control over information is what you’ve seen many journalists call for in recent years. At its best, it can also close the political landscape to a trendy new form of dirty tricks, as in France in 2017, where the media largely ignored a last-minute dump of hacked emails from President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before a legally mandated blackout period.
But I admit that I feel deep ambivalence about this revenge of the gatekeepers. I spent my career, before arriving at The Times in March, on the other side of the gate, lobbing information past it to a very online audience who I presumed had already seen the leak or the rumor, and seeing my job as helping to guide that audience through the thicket, not to close their eyes to it. “The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it,” my colleague John Herrman (also now at The Times) and I wrote in 2013. In 2017, I made the decision to publish the unverified “Steele dossier,” in part on the grounds that gatekeepers were looking at it and influenced by it, but keeping it from their audience.
This fall, top media and tech executives were bracing to refight the last war — a foreign-backed hack-and-leak operation like WikiLeaks seeking to influence the election’s outcome. It was that hyper-vigilance that led Twitter to block links to The New York Post’s article about Hunter Biden — a frighteningly disproportionate response to a story that other news organizations were handling with care. The schemes of Mr. Herschmann, Mr. Passantino and Mr. Schwartz weren’t exactly WikiLeaks. But the special nervousness that many outlets, including this one, feel about the provenance of the Hunter Biden emails is, in many ways, the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience.
I’d prefer to put my faith in Mr. Murray and careful, professional journalists like him than in the social platforms’ product managers and executives. And I hope Americans relieved that the gatekeepers are reasserting themselves will also pay attention to who gets that power, and how centralized it is, and root for new voices to correct and challenge them.