NEWS CLIP We begin tonight with the brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband Paul Pelosi
NEWS CLIP Investigators say David de Pape had zip ties and duct tape when he broke into Pelosi's home on Friday. He told police he wanted to hold the speaker hostage and, quote, break her kneecaps.
NEWS CLIP Our officers observed Mr. Pelosi and the suspect both holding a hammer. The suspect pulled the hammer away from Mr. Pelosi and violently assaulted him with it. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Within hours of the break in, the Internet was seething with false narratives and ludicrous lies, like the attacker and his victim were both in underwear. Or there were two hammers and there was broken glass outside the shattered window. And worst of all, it was a sexual rendezvous gone wrong. On Fox News, though, at least initially, the story was covered as just another example of the perceived left wing weakness on crime. In other words: business as usual.
FOX NEWS Crime does not discriminate. Rich or poor, black or white, city suburbs. It’s everywhere. It’s the number one issue in this country and I think what democrats need to do…. it’s a wake up call.
TUCKER CARLSON What happened to Paul Pelosi is not so unusual anymore. Attacks by the mentally ill homeless — they're a feature of life in our cities. In fact, of every part of this country controlled by the Democratic Party. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER But according to Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, a liberal watchdog organization that monitors right wing media, the focus on crime didn't last long.
ANGELO CARUSONE Within 48 Hours, just two days – Fox changed from their large crime narrative to a conspiracy theory that you shouldn't believe that this was an actual attack that was motivated by politics.
MICAH LOEWINGER Carusone says that while there are daily outrages in the right wing media, the Pelosi attack story is one we should pay attention to. He told me how it all started.
ANGELO CARUSONE Shortly after the attack, there was a local TV affiliate in California that had reported that the assailant was wearing only their underwear. That report was quickly retracted, and it was not confirmed by either outlet, but it did exist in print for a really short period of time. That one nugget started to then percolate across parts of the online fever swamp. So that's message boards, Telegram, some other messaging apps – you know Truth Social, Parler. They start to cede the ground that something is off here.
MICAH LOEWINGER And Paul Pelosi was wearing pajamas. So that image of a man attacking him in his underwear and the man being attacked, you know, basically in his PJs, that kind of indicated what.
ANGELO CARUSONE They took the reports about Paul Pelosi's call to 911 where he described the attacker as a friend — because he remembers in the bathroom, he was trying to be very cryptic about it. And he was speaking in code to the 911 dispatcher in hopes that they would send law enforcement over. People picked up on that and pointed to the fact that that was another thread of evidence that they had known each other, that they had had a friendship because he described them as a friend. What they really made the argument about is that it was a Grindr hookup gone awry. That they had had previous interactions and a history. So all of those different threads start to then get seeded around the ground within the first few hours of this happening. And then you get publications like The Santa Monica Observer or people like Dinesh D'Souza who take these ideas that are percolating out there and turn them into stories. You know, you can't share a bunch of random posts from a message board thread. Fox News can't do anything with that. You can't echo various threats, but what you can echo is a story.
MICAH LOEWINGER Tell me how Fox News people like Tucker Carlson came to cover the event.
ANGELO CARUSONE What Tucker did was reflect back to his audience the stuff that had already reached pretty heavy scale within the larger right wing media. He didn't fact-check it. He didn't push back on it.
TUCKER CARLSON Local KTVU investigative reporter Evan Sernoffsky, for example, initially reported that De Pape was quote, found in underwear when police arrived. Today's Sernoffsky made a specific point of retracting that claim. Well, okay, fair enough. But you can't blame people watching all of this at home for thinking that maybe there's something weird going on here. [END CLIP]
He became a validator for the very idea that there was more here to the story, which in turn, encourages people or gives them permission structure to ignore the facts and to latch on to one of these alternative conspiracy theories. And why I think it matters is that Fox News accepted the election results in 2024 for ten days before they turned on a dime and did 774 segments over the following two weeks in late November attacking the election results, undermining them, concocting conspiracy theories about dominion and a whole range of other voting machines and results. And the reason why they made that turn is because they couldn't sustain not being in that position anymore. Their audience had been saturated with these lies and these ideas, and at some point, because they were getting so much pressure from their own audience to talk about what had become their reality, they started to engage in it. They started to echo back to their audience the very thing that they wanted. It took ten days the last time for them to do that. Tucker — he had less than 48 hours.
MICAH LOEWINGER And then there was Elon Musk, who questioned the facts of the story through his own Twitter account by retweeting an article from The Santa Monica Observer titled, quote, "The Awful Truth: Paul Pelosi Was Drunk Again and in a Dispute with a Male Prostitute Early Friday Morning.”
ANGELO CARUSONE He's citing that article because he himself is just a creature of this consumption pipeline. That was one of the most traffic articles in right wing circles in the 20 hours or so before he shared it. Even though he took that down, it doesn't matter because now the predominant narrative on Fox News is:
FOX NEWS There's no security. Where are the cameras?
FOX NEWS Where's the body cam video? Where's the security video?
FOX NEWS Police came to the door. Someone else opened the door. Who opened the door?
FOX NEWS The glass appears to be broken outward.
FOX NEWS What about the broken glass?
FOX NEWS What was that about?
FOX NEWS It doesn't add up. [END CLIP]
ANGELO CARUSONE All these basic things that they can keep perpetuating the idea that maybe there's much more to that story than people want to believe.
MICAH LOEWINGER What about Republican politicians? I mean, they know Nancy Pelosi. I mean, as members of Congress, they must understand the gravity of somebody breaking into the home of one of their colleagues. What have they said?
ANGELO CARUSONE They've either not said anything super contradictory to the conspiracy theories or they've engaged in them. And that to me — it's not one in the same, but they're certainly closer than just getting out there and saying this is absolutely horrible and reinforcing the truth, but they can't because it's politically sensitive. Just like with the election denial, the echo chamber, the broader right wing media is able to saturate the audience, either with total misinformation and fabrications or extremism, or hop them up on something that their own base gets consumed by it. And that puts them in a position to either be, you know, the next Liz Cheney, right. Or to, at best, just say nothing and hope that nobody pressures you into endorsing the lie or the conspiracy. And that is the best that we can hope for right now from a lot of them. And then you see some examples of the worst. Clay Higgins, who's a congressman, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, Republican member of Congress, one of the things that he did, for example, is he sent out this post where Nancy Pelosi puts her hands on her forehead and the comment that he had that he made, it wasn't even like he was just posting in. He actually thought this up himself, which was…
MICAH LOEWINGER Let me read it: "that moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn't make it to your fundraiser."
ANGELO CARUSONE Yeah, sure he took it down after he posted it because he got pressure and the blowback. But I would say that this is where they're at these days. Right. You know, they'll get just as much blowback if they were to go out there and say that this was actually just somebody that got radicalized. One of the things that Fox News in particular, but the larger right wing echo chamber does is they say the reason why the media wants to claim this person is a conservative or right-leaning or was radicalized is because the second we validate that, they're going to tell us that we can't say this stuff anymore. They're going to crack down on us, they're going to come after us. So in a way, what they do to buttress their lies and their extremism is to then set up the conditions whereby if any Republican leader were to step up and say what is plainly true, that what they're actually then accused of is somehow giving ammunition or fuel to Democrats to then turn around and silence them.
MICAH LOEWINGER Part of me is kind of numb to this. Part of me is deeply shocked. And in our editorial meeting, we were debating the question of whether or not this indicates something is getting worse — that no one is saying, ‘hey, let's pump the brakes on these conspiracy theories because there's a human toll to this stuff.’ Are things getting worse?
ANGELO CARUSONE I'm with you on the fatigue and the numbness to it. That is a natural thing. It's called, you know, calluses. If you do the same work over and over again, your hands or the part you use tends to get calloused. That's how we adapt. That's a part of living in this atmosphere right now where the stimulation and the intensity is so high. So I'm not surprised about the numbness and I feel it, too. What I would say, though, is that what happened with the Pelosi stuff was just a couple, you know, fringe people just sort of doing what comes to them naturally. But because that stuff tapped into that pretty well running ecosystem and infrastructure right now. It took off. And this wasn't on purpose. This was just an accident. What happens when this infrastructure that has been optimized and designed specifically to do nothing but attack the election to undermine the results is operationalized after the vote. That to me, is really what this is about. And so I am numb to the Paul Pelosi thing, too. I'm numb to a lot of the extremism. But I'm also mindful of the fact that what we're experiencing is just a little bit of an engine that is pretty much ready to roar.
MICAH LOEWINGER Angelo, thank you very much.
ANGELO CARUSONE Thank you.
MICAH LOEWINGER Angelo Carusone is the president and CEO of Media Matters.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.