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How conservative media stoked baseless election-fraud claims that motivated DC rioters

At the heart of Wednesday's riot at the U.S. Capitol, a desecration of the seat and symbol of American government that left five people dead, is the baseless claim that November's presidential election was stolen. 

President Donald Trump has been the primary propagator of that myth, seeding the ground for many months by boasting at rallies that the only way he could lose was if the election were rigged, and later lying that he'd scored a landslide victory. He accelerated false claims of fraud after his actual loss to Joe Biden, culminating in a "Stop the Steal"  speech that exhorted followers to "show strength" and march to the Capitol where Congress was about to certify Biden's electoral vote victory. Insurrection followed.

With the U.S. presidency and a Twitter account with nearly 89 million followers – before it was permanently suspended Friday – Trump had the world's biggest megaphone to spread his message of fraud in an election that experts have said was free and fair. Even his then-Attorney General William Barr said there wasn't enough evidence of fraud to change the election outcome.  

But crucially, supportive media outlets  amplified his claims, from wholehearted cheerleading on Newsmax and One America News Network (OAN) to credulous acceptance of gossamer-thin (and failed) legal challenges by Sean Hannity, among other Fox News commentators. Nearly all of the more than 50 Trump-related election lawsuits have been dropped or dismissed.

More:'An absolutely disgraceful moment': News anchors express shock at revolting turn at U.S. Capitol

Capitol police officers in riot gear push back demonstrators who try to break a door of the Capitol on  Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

And in the minds of millions, including some of those who sacked the Capitol, those outlets helped legitimize the groundless fraud claims. 

After December's Electoral College vote, Trump voter Scott Adams, a retiree from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, told the Associated Press he accepted Biden's win "with reservations" but said he had heard too much about irregularities on Fox News and conservative talk radio to trust the outcome. He said he feels the election was "rigged enough that it should be questioned more," even if it doesn't change the result.

Eric Deggans, who covers the media for National Public Radio, believes the riots were "stoked by coverage that gave prominence and legitimacy to the lies that Trump has been saying about whether or not he won the election and whether or not the election was stolen from him. And so you see these networks trying to justify it."

Volume and intensity can make false allegations persuasive, especially when listeners get all their information from like-minded, Trump-parroting sources, says Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland broadcast journalism professor who worked for two decades in TV news.

More:Could Fox News lose its grip on far-right conservative viewers to Newsmax, OAN?

"If you have no outside perspective, you become captive. If you consume nothing but a diet of poisonous lies, eventually you begin to believe them," he says. Among conservative media entities, he places the biggest onus on the most powerful one, Fox News, citing its history of enabling Trump on the "birther" fraud regarding former President Barack Obama's birthplace and early dismissiveness of the seriousness of COVID-19. Election fraud is "the latest lie." 

“There were lots of influences (on the Capitol mob) beyond these media. I think they’re part of this, but the more influential is Fox News and social media, which is anarchic and uncontrolled. They all have blood on their hands in a moral sense, even if not in a legal sense,” Feldstein says.

In a Fox News interview Thursday, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a conservative Texas Republican, castigated members of Congress and media commentators for offering baseless hope that the election could be overturned during Wednesday's certification.

"They’ve been lying to millions. They’ve been lying that Jan. 6 was going to be this big solution for election integrity. It never was going to be," Crenshaw said. "They said, 'Go fight because everything is on the line.' And when people came to fight, they fought Capitol police, and now people are dead."

Since the election, allegations of Democratic thievery and highlighting of prospects for an eventual Trump win that wasn't going to happen have been constant themes in a right-wing media ecosystem that ranges from conservative cable news networks to talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin to fringe websites such as Gateway Pundit and The Epoch Times. Some Trump followers also are influenced by QAnon, a tangle of conspiracy theories mixing allegations of pedophilia, Democrats and Satan worship.  

More:Could Fox News lose its grip on far-right conservative viewers to Newsmax, OAN?

Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog organization, connects the messages on Fox, Newsmax, OAN and other media outlets to Wednesday's Capitol invasion.

President Donald Trump greets Fox News' Sean Hannity at a campaign rally on Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

“They said the election had been stolen from Trump, it was rigged, there was massive voter fraud everywhere,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous thing to do when none of it is actually true. If you tell enough people this, some of them are going to believe you and some of them are going to take action, and that’s what happened here.”

OAN did not respond to a request for comment, but Newsmax issued a statement saying it was "reporting" on allegations "about election issues and irregularities," not confirming them: "Newsmax has consistently stated we are not claiming any of these to be true, and we reported on evidence challenging these claims. Newsmax had no involvement in the rally and offered no encouragement for the protests, and our reporting on election claims were no different than those that appeared on Fox News and Fox Business News, and other news outlets."

Fox has been referring to Biden as president-elect since the election was called in his favor on Nov. 7, and at times, reporters and hosts including  Eric Shawn debunked the specious claims that had been entertained on Hannity's show and during a Trump appearance with Maria Bartiromo on "Sunday Morning Futures."

But often, prime-time hosts such as Hannity, a longtime Trump loyalist, became clearinghouses for conspiracy theories about Democratic election theft and provided a platform for  Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and others pushing allegations. In mid-November, Tucker Carlson, now the network's most-watched host, apologized  after three of four "dead" voters – part of a Trump claim of voter fraud –  were found to be alive.

The network declined to comment when asked whether it accepts any responsibility for helping encourage the belief that the election was stolen, a key motivator to the rioters. 

Fox, however, ultimately fell short of Trump's demand for total loyalty after it became the first news network to project Arizona for Biden (correctly) on Election Night and Carlson later asked Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for evidence of the election fraud, which resulted in viewer pushback. (Days later, Hannity gave Powell an unchallenged platform to make claims of "massive corruption" that have been repeatedly rejected in court.)

President Donald Trump calls on supporters to head for the Capitol to protest the Electoral College confirmation of Joe Biden as president on Jan. 6, 2021.

Since the election, Fox's actions that have not toed the Trump line have led the president to disparage the top-ranked network and shift to touting the more consistently extreme messaging on tiny competitors Newsmax and OAN. 

Newsmax even uses fealty to Trump as a selling point, as its hosts bash Fox on the air for failing to stand by the president. Some conservative viewers say they've switched to the smaller network because it's more pro-Trump.

Democratic thievery and eventual Trump victory have been constant themes on the two upstart networks. The messages have been a constant drumbeat on OAN,  including multiple commentaries by "Weekly Briefing" host Christina Bobb – whom The Daily Beast says was working with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on election challenges –  along the lines of Nov. 19's "Biden Lost. Trump Won’t Let Him Steal It." Just two days before the Jan. 6 electoral vote certification, with a Trump path to victory nonexistent, Newsmax's Greg Kelly interviewed U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, about the strategy to overturn election results ("The Mission to Stop a Biden win"). 

The clearest example of the symbiotic relationship between the president and his media sycophants came Dec. 5, when Trump projected an OAN report alleging the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of votes on a big screen at a Georgia rally. There's no evidence for the claim.

Sean Spicer, seen here during his tenure as White House press secretary, hosts a program on Trump-supporting network Newsmax.

It's a mutually beneficial relationship: Trump gets media organizations he can cite to try to legitimize his baseless claims; they build audiences via presidential tweets and mentions.

Newsmax's all-day ratings rose nearly sixfold (to 170,000 viewers,Nielsen says) from the third to the fourth quarter of 2020, indicating huge growth after the Nov. 3 election. Even with the growth, however, its audience was still less than 10% of Fox's. (OAN is not measured by Nielsen.) 

News websites, no matter their political leaning, have shown traffic increases post-election, but the rates of growth on Newsmax.com (from 3.6 million unique visitors in October to 13.4 million in November, according to ComScore) and OANN.com (1 million to 2.9 million) have been especially high.

Promotion of conspiracy theories from Trump and legal advisers Giuliani and Powell isn't cost-free, however, as Fox and Newsmax were forced to backtrack from outlandish claims under the threat of legal action by two election-technology companies. An employee of one of the companies sued Newsmax and OAN.  

Even when lawsuits and legislative maneuvers fail, they can work as a public relations ploy.   False allegations can be punished by a judge, but Trump and his supporters can cite mistrust of election results by millions of voters, cultivated by their own unsupported claims elsewhere, to justify continued challenges.

"If there is a question about the votes and if they think that it was rigged, and many people do believe that, then we need investigations, and we need to know that our votes count," "Fox & Friends" co-host Ainsley Earhardt said Jan. 4. She then referenced Trump's false critique about the unreliability of mail-in votes, "which we don’t trust now because the president doesn’t trust it."

Although there was universal condemnation of Wednesday's violence,  some news personnel and guests tried to deflect or soften the blame for Trump and the rioters.

Fox News anchors and guests, including Hannity, Brit Hume and Sarah Palin, suggested  "bad actors," leftist extremists and the loosely organized, anti-fascist (antifa) movement, a favorite right-wing scapegoat, might have been involved. Newsmax's Greg Kelly and Sean Spicer, the former Trump press secretary, brought up antifa, too, with Spicer saying it was based on "uncorroborated reports." The FBI said there's "no indication" antifa was involved.

Three days later, OANN was still pushing the bogus antifa claim, citing fringe website Gateway Pundit and even suggesting Biden is to blame for Wednesday's violence.  

Some tried to shift the focus away from the rioters and Trump's role in egging them on, accusing Democrats and competing networks of hypocrisy in downplaying violence during last summer's Black Lives Matter protests.

Carlson offered a scary prediction just hours after the Capitol invasion: "What happened today will be used by the people taking power to justify stripping you of the rights you were born with as an American," he said.

On Thursday, Fox's Pete Hegseth tried to play down the intent of the rioters.

“They weren’t going in there to target individuals. They were going in there symbolically," he said, a day before video showed Capitol rioters chanting, "Hang Mike Pence!"

Later, Trump's suspension from Twitter became a central focus of conservative media, as it attempted to push the riot into the background.

Gertz sees no self-reflection, let alone expressions of regret, at Trump-backing networks. 

“I’m not seeing any soul-searching taking place on their television shows,” Gertz said. “Whatever they feel deep down, they’re not taking responsibility in any way, and they’re not suggesting anyone else involved in lying to these people should take responsibility. (Instead), they’re looking for new angles to keep their audience fearful and angry and coming back for more.”