Conservative Media Smokes a Crack Pipe
A look into how the Fake News soup got made.
Happy Friday to all of my beautiful babies. It is February 11th, and we are turning the corner on winter. Every groundhog in the country has been murdered by Bill de Blasio, the cold weather is fading, and the days are getting longer. We climbed up Mount Doom, we yeeted the ring right into that fiery-ass abyss, and now we are on our way down back to the Shire where we are going to drink brews and smoke crack. Spring is coming.
Everyone take a moment while my wife shakes her head at that paragraph, and then let’s get into what I am going to call a Crackal, i.e., a Jackal about crack pipes.
There were definitely bigger stories this week, but I thought this would be a helpful exercise in explaining a few things about the media in general, and conservative media specifically.
On Monday, the Washington Free Beacon published a piece with a pretty nutty headline: “Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity.” If you aren’t familiar with the Beacon, it is a conservative website based in D.C.
Off the bat, I want to say this very clearly: They do get some scoops and they do some solid reporting. But there should be a heavy emphasis on some, because the Beacon was explicitly founded with the intent of engaging in “Combat Journalism.” Basically, its founders believed that since left-wing media companies lie and engage in partisan journalism, they should too. All of this is actually in its founding statement. It’s important to view the entire “crack pipe” story through this prism.
OK, so all of that out of the way, here is what went down: On Monday, the Beacon published their story, which said that - through a grant program put together by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) - the Biden Administration was going to pay 30 million dollars to varying organizations who combat substance abuse in different states. Here is the money quote from the Beacon’s report:
The Biden administration is set to fund the distribution of crack pipes to drug addicts as part of its plan to advance "racial equity." The $30 million grant program, which closed applications Monday and will begin in May, will provide funds to nonprofits and local governments to help make drug use safer for addicts. Included in the grant, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, are funds for "smoking kits/supplies." A spokesman for the agency told the Washington Free Beacon that these kits will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and "any illicit substance."
That first sentence is a cracker: Crack pipes and “racial equity” all in one package. It almost writes itself! But here is the craziest part: In the story, the Beacon said that they contacted HHS and asked them about the crack pipes being sent out and HHS confirmed it. That is a huge scoop, and good reporting! “The Biden Administration Admits that it Will Spend Taxpayer Money on Crack Pipes!” That would have been my headline.
After the Beacon published this report, conservative media ran with it, and Fox News talked about it up and down every broadcast. By Tuesday afternoon, it was everywhere on conservative websites and TV.
Some non-conservative websites initially posted factchecks of the article, which pushed back on the “racial equity” part of the story, since that wasn’t explicitly in the grant document itself. But there was still a lot of murkiness in the actual “crack pipes” allegation until the Biden Administration categorically denied the report on Wednesday and said it was false. They clarified that distributing “crack pipes” was never part of the plan, and that every grant applicant had to abide by local and state law, many of which explicitly prohibit using crack pipes as a part of harm reduction.
At this point in the story, it was sort of “choose your own adventure:” Did the Biden Administration formulate a plan to placate the hard left’s view on “harm reduction” only to backtrack when they realized 90% of Americans don’t think you should give crack pipes to crack addicts? Maybe! This is believable because:
The Biden Administration going hard-left to appease the Democratic base and then realizing that hard-left ideas aren’t popular with normal Americans is a weekly occurrence in the Administration.
The Free Beacon got a statement from someone in the Administration confirming their report (this will become relevant below, I promise), so it sounded accurate.
“Harm reduction” is a belief that has become more popular in both Republican and Democratic Administrations, because a lot of experts think that because some people who struggle with substance abuse are going to use substances anyway, it is better to give them clean supplies to use instead of sharing things like, syringes, which can lead to the spreading of disease. The Trump Administration presumably believed this when they sponsored a needle exchange program back in 2019.
All that said, by about Thursday, this ceased to be a “choose your own adventure” story and it quickly became, “The Washington Free Beacon totally got this wrong.”
On Wednesday night, the author of the Beacon’s story responded to the Administration’s denial of his report, and said a follow-up story would be coming:
When the Beacon published their update, it became pretty clear that they had not, in fact, gotten a confirmation of their story with HHS. The Beacon provided more details about their conversations with HHS, and neither the word “crack” nor “pipe” is seen attributed to a government official.
Early Thursday, a reporter for the Daily Beast contacted the HHS official who was the Beacon’s source and hoooooo man, things were not good:
The Daily Beast confirmed that the claim—that a Health and Human Services spokesperson confirmed that smoking kits funded by the program “will provide pipes”—is false. The agency said the spokesperson never made or confirmed that claim, and it provided documentation to corroborate that version of events. […] According to the emails, the reporter never mentioned pipes. The HHS representative confirmed that the reporter “never asked about pipes” in any communication. […] The spokesperson added that the reporter also “omitted the information shared with him about the grantees needing to comply with federal, state, and local laws—the very language that would prohibit crack pipes.”1
Roger Sollenberger - who wrote this up for the Daily Beast - spoke more plainly on Twitter:
Early Friday, Glenn Kessler from The Washington Post also read the emails between HHS and the Beacon and confirmed Sollenberger’s reporting.
So, the entire story got debunked in about threeish days. It turns out that no one in the Administration said anything about crack pipes; that “smoking kits” do not always contain glass pipes and must comply with local laws; and that racial equity wasn’t even a primary component of the grant.
So, what did we learn from this? Apparently nothing, because Fox News was still running with the story even after all these corrections came through:
Ted Cruz was still making crack pipe jokes on Thursday night:
Jake Sherman @JakeShermanNEW @SenSchumer letter on canibus legislation. https://t.co/2lnZvUI0er
In an exchange with Kessler (linked above), the Beacon even conceded that crack pipes weren’t mentioned by HHS. But the paper still hasn’t corrected its reporting, and I probably wouldn’t expect them to, in the same way that I expect Fox News to repeatedly bring up crack pipes all throughout 2022.
It’s here where we pivot back to the Joe Rogan controversy from last week. I swear this has a point, but after all the backlash against Rogan for his misinformation about COVID,2 he released an apology video, that was actually kind of good:
In this Instagram video, Rogan “apologizes” for failing to properly vet guests like Robert Malone and Peter McCullough, and talks about changes he will make to his booking policy. It’s not a bad apology (or even one at all, really), but Rogan still makes a few crucial mistakes. Leaving aside obvious things like Robert Malone did not invent mRNA and that McCullough isn’t some highly respected expert on vaccines (he’s a cardiologist who has been chastised by the University he’s affiliated with), Rogan makes a few claims:
The problem I have with the term misinformation, especially today, is that many of the things that we thought of as misinformation just a short while ago are now accepted as fact. Like, for instance: Eight months ago if you said, ‘If you get vaccinated you can still catch COVID and you can still spread COVID,’ you would be removed from social media. They would ban you from certain platforms. Now, that’s accepted as fact. If you said, ‘I don’t think cloth masks work,’ you would be banned from social media. Now, it’s openly and repeatedly stated on CNN. If you said, ‘I think it’s possible that COVID-19 came from a lab, you’d be banned from many social media platforms. Now that’s on the cover of Newsweek.3
This is directly related to what I am talking about in this piece: Because it doesn’t seem like Rogan reads anything that contradicts his beliefs, he seems to think that the media reported all of these things (or that social media would ban you for saying them), in the same way that a Fox News viewer will believe that the Biden Administration paid for crack pipes.
This blends weird, anti-COVID media and conservative media together, but both sources routinely make bold claims like, “Every single scientist told us masks worked great,” and pin that statement on the media, blaming them for pushing a false narrative. The actual truth of the matter is that cloth masks still work, but they just don’t work as well as other masks. That was true in June of 2020, and it is true right now:
What that chart shows is that wearing a cloth mask is better than wearing nothing, while wearing surgical mask is better than wearing a cloth mask, and wearing an N95 is best.
That has been true throughout COVID, although it became especially relevant during the spread of Omicron, which is more virulent. But experts, early on, advised us that masks would not end the pandemic. Here is Michael Osterholm - currently on Biden’s COVID response team - in June of 2020 on masks:
[The general public] should be made aware that [cloth] masks may provide some benefit in reducing the risk of virus transmission, but at best it can only be anticipated to be limited. Distancing remains the most important risk reduction action they can take. ... The messaging that dominates our COVID-19 discussions right now makes it seem that—if we are wearing cloth masks—you're not going to infect me and I'm not going to infect you. I worry that many people highly vulnerable to life-threatening COVID-19 will hear this message and make decisions that they otherwise wouldn't have made about distancing because of an unproven sense of cloth mask security.
I’m using Osterholm on purpose because Rogan had him on his show in March 2020 and he talked for three damn hours about COVID. How does he not know what Osterholm said? How does he not know that media outlets everywhere were writing about breakthrough infections in the summer of 2021?
The reason he doesn’t know these things is because Rogan is sucked into a media death loop, and it’s the same one that will have conservatives believing in July of 2033 that Joe Biden spent 30 million dollars on crack pipes. Conservative/alternative media invents narratives and/or straw men, attributes those narratives to the mainstream media, and then they knock them down and say, “See? You can’t trust the mainstream media.”
Meanwhile, they never revisit their false stories about crack pipes, or that the FBI was behind January 6th, or that Donald Trump might have actually won the 2020 election. Fox News somewhat infamously rarely issues corrections and they really don’t need to: When your audience doesn’t care about what’s true or what isn’t, then what’s the point of actually telling them?
The fundamental difference between the mainstream media and conservative media is that the mainstream produces journalism (with all its flaws), and conservative media produces a product. People who are sucked into conservative media generally don’t want to be informed; they want to consume. It is a lot easier to watch a 30-second clip on Fox News that confirms all your priors than it is to read an 1000-word Glenn Kessler factcheck in The Washington Post.
To be clear, the Left also gets sucked into its own brand of epistemic closure. There are more recent examples, but the best one I can think of is, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” This slogan - which is still used by some Black Lives Matter activists - came about after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson. A witness had said Brown had his hands up while he was shot.
A Department of Justice investigation found that that wasn’t the case. Every other witness corroborated the officer’s version of events: That Brown charged him and tried to take his gun. DNA evidence backs that up, as well as ballistics reports. A lot of people on the Left probably still believe the original narrative that surrounded the story, in the same way the conservatives will believe a story about crack pipes. But here is the key difference: The Washington Post - as mainstream of an outlet as you can get - did an entire piece debunking the narrative:
I think mainstream media has a lot of issues and they do a really poor job in a lot of ways, but I always have to ask myself, what’s the alternative? Is it conservative media, which is - at least - partially responsible for a hoard of COVID deaths among the unvaccinated? Or that never corrects itself when it gets something wrong? Or openly admits in court that no reasonable viewer would accept what their hosts say as fact?
If that’s the choice, I will take mainstream media every time.
So, Should-Reads™ is important this week, mostly for this piece. It is the absolute best summary on Russia and Ukraine that I’ve read.
Donald Trump stole documents from the White House and the Department of Justice is looking at him for it. Big story, but what legal trouble is not experiencing right now?
Another piece on Putin.
This is insane: The CIA may have been conducting surveillance on American citizens in a domestic program. This is bombshell news, but it broke late Thursday evening, so there is definitely more to come.
This piece on how conservatives got almost everything wrong on COVID is relevant to this Jackal.
As a heads up, the Jackal will be taking a break for Presidents’ Day Weekend, so I won’t be with you next week. Enjoy your weekend and don’t forget to buy someone a crack pipe for Valentine’s Day.
A quick note about the language here: A lot of pieces that involve other media outlets or specific reporters use the phrase “the reporter” instead of using the actual reporter’s name. This has been a practice for a long time, but it is especially courteous in the Internet age because you don’t want a reporter’s first page of Google search results to be pieces bashing them for alleged inaccuracies.
Worth noting that he had to do two apology videos, after a compilation of him using the n-word surfaced on social media. I’ll just say this: While it’s hard to defend that stuff, the fact that all this stuff came just before a Spotify earnings call; that it was slowly released one day at a time; and that it very much appeared to be coordinated, are all things that make you go….HMMM.