The unifying principle of the right-wing smear campaign against the student survivors of the Parkland massacre is that they are puppets of larger, nefarious forces. The attacks first gained prominence on Monday on the pro-Trump blog Gateway Pundit which claimed, without any evidence, that student David Hogg was a pawn of the FBI and was “merely reciting a script” in media interviews. By Tuesday, as the initial attacks gained support from Donald Trump Jr. and a former congressman, Gateway Pundit escalated the attacks, suggesting Hogg and other students were crisis actors recruited from the school’s theater department by far-left groups controlled by George Soros. Similar outlandish claims went viral on Facebook.
“[M]any of these other students are being used as marionettes by the far left and deep state because they were able to run out of a building. There is no credibility there and it’s disgusting to watch,” Lucian Wintrich, who authored the pieces for Gateway Pundit, told The Wrap.
A more polite version of the same smear quietly made its way to Fox News.
On Fox News’ The Five, Greg Gutfeld dipped his toe in by offering some “advice” to the students. “You’ve got to beware of when other groups co-opt your protest,” Gutfeld warned. Then, mirroring the argument of Gateway Pundit, Gutfeld decried the involvement of “far left” groups in a rally the students are organizing in Washington next month. “If you are a protester, you have to maintain an independence,” Gutfeld said, objecting to the participation of Women’s March organizers. Joining forces with like-minded groups, of course, is a fundamental tactic of political organizing. But in an effort to discredit the students’ activism, it has turned into something nefarious.
Later on Fox News, host Martha MacCallum asked one of her guests, Mollie Hemingway, an editor at The Federalist, what she thought about the suggestion that the students who survived the Parkland massacre had been “co-opted.” Hemingway said there has been “some unfortunate media handling of these traumatized children.” She was not, however, criticizing Gateway Pundit. Hemingway said that the students are being used “to enact a gun-control agenda” and “shut down debate.” MacCallum, however, rejects Hemingway’s suggestion that the students are being co-opted.
Perhaps the best example of the way Fox News approaches the smear was on Tucker Carlson, Fox New’s 8 p.m. host. Carlson begins by talking about a “huge controversy online” that he says he is “hesitant even to weigh in on” about the protests being organized by the students. Carlson starts by saying that “all of us feel terrible.”
But then Carlson pivots to note that “all of a sudden you’re seeing these kids involved in calls for very specific pieces of legislation.” Carlson, switching to the passive voice, says “the allegation has been that they are in some way in contact with organized anti-groups” and notes that the people making those allegations “have been denounced as immoral and heartless.” Carlson, in the middle of this attack on the students states, “for the record,” that he is “certainly not” attacking the students. But Carlson says he thinks that these allegations raise “interesting questions about how we make our law.”
Carlson’s guest, Dan Bogino, agrees. After some boilerplate about how the students voices “should be heard,” he then switches gears dramatically and blasts the media for paying attention to “a teenager’s expertise in supply-side control measures for guns.”
“Tucker, let’s be candid. They probably have not studied a very complicated layered issue,” Bogino said. He suggested that, instead, the media should quiz students about how they “missed the signs” that Cruz, the Parkland shooting suspect, was a threat.
Carlson then bookends these attacks by saying that “as the father of four” the last thing he would ever do is attack the students.
The segments reveal how Gateway Pundit fits into the right-wing media infrastructure. The wild and outlandish claims could not be made, in whole cloth, on Fox News. But by creating a “huge controversy,” Wintrich and others give more mainstream conservative voices, like Carlson, both an excuse to extend the attacks and position themselves, relatively speaking, as responsible. Gutfeld is not accusing the students of being crisis actors but simply providing them with advice.
But the overall thrust of the argument is the same. Fox News viewers are being told that these students are being co-opted by nefarious forces and should be ignored. It is a more polite smear, but it is intended to bring people to the same conclusions for the same reasons.