The Republican trick to spin straw into gold

By Mark Jacob

You may remember the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin,” starring a gnome-like character who could spin straw into gold.

That magic trick is nothing compared to what Republicans are doing today.

The right wing takes something worth less than straw – bogus allegations – and feeds it into its own spinning wheel – Fox News and Newsmax. That leads to opinion polls showing many Americans believe the bogus allegations. Then MAGA politicians point to those polls as evidence. After all, the polls are full of numbers, and numbers look like facts. A lot of people believe it, there must be something to it, right?

Well, no, but that’s the modern way to spin straw into gold.

There are plenty of examples of this scam working, most prominently Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was stolen. The Republican lies weren’t even good lies. It was supposedly a plot by Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, even though Chavez had been dead for seven years. Or Italian satellites were switching votes. Or Georgia election volunteers were masterminds passing around thumb drives, even though in reality they were only sharing a ginger mint. Team Trump lost in court more than 60 times but kept lying, inspiring a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol and creating the pretext for the fake-electors scheme.

And the Republicans are still leveraging those lies, trying to make voting more difficult in the guise of “restoring voter confidence.”

News media play into the straw-spinning when they fail to aggressively confront those lies. The New York Times, for example, is often uncomfortable saying Trump lies and prefers to say he has a “casual relationship with the truth.” Or the Times says he’s “famously blustery,” as if his fraudulent behavior is just an amusing personality quirk. Now-fired CNN boss Chris Licht reportedly told his producers to avoid the term “Big Lie” because he thought it was too close to the Democrats’ messaging. Even though it was a completely accurate way to describe what was happening.

The campaign to impeach Joe Biden over the behavior of his son Hunter is another Rumpelstiltskin situation where “feelings” and “strong suspicions” are being fed into the right-wing propaganda machine to produce poll results that can be pointed to as validation. There’s a reason why ambitious MAGA Rep. James Comer isn’t showing us his alleged evidence of misconduct by the president but instead keeps citing the polls.

Here again is a situation where journalists aren’t framing the news in a useful way for the American public. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and others have noted that many reports bury the fact that Republicans have come up with no evidence that Joe Biden benefitted from his son’s business activities. Citing a recent Washington Post story, Rosen wrote: “The lack of evidence is almost an afterthought, paragraph 17 of 23.”  

Right-wing disinformation has created a captive audience utterly distrustful of legitimate journalism. Yet if the mainstream media don’t fight back – if they’re not advocating for the truth as passionately as the right wing is advocating for lies – how can we expect the American public to arrive at the truth?

We can’t stop the right wing from spinning its fairy tales. But when major media soft-pedal the facts, there’s a greater danger that people will see straw as gold. Or at least fool’s gold.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.