The Media

What Will Right-Wing Media Say if the Supreme Court Leaker Is a Conservative?

A thought experiment.

Sean Hannity gives a thumbs up in front of cameras, with a building facade behind him.
Sean Hannity at the 2020 Republican National Convention Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

On Monday night, hardly an hour after Politico had published a bombshell story reporting that the Supreme Court had provisionally voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, Fox News guest Alan Dershowitz offered a theory of who had leaked Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to the press. “I think this was leaked by a liberal law clerk who is trying to change the outcome of the case,” Dershowitz told Sean Hannity.

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“Let’s stay with your theory, because it’s a fascinating one,” said Hannity, and for the rest of the night, Fox News guests were happy to oblige. “I think this is plainly an attempt by the left to try and change the outcome in this case and corrupt the process, and the court must not allow that to happen,” said Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. “This was leaked to set off Defcon 1 among liberals,” said pundit Joe Concha. “[Liberals and the left] were ready with the politics the second this thing dropped in Politico,” said Laura Ingraham. “It was almost like they had it planned ahead of time.”

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[Read: Why the Supreme Court’s Leak Investigation Is a Sham]

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Between Monday night and now, the right has spun this theory into gospel. The leaker, they believe, was obviously a liberal clerk at the court, and some outlets have even gone so far as to name certain individuals whom they believe to be likely suspects. (There is no evidence to support any of these claims.) But what will happen if it turns out that the leaker was a conservative? There are plenty of people, including Slate’s own Jeremy Stahl, who have suggested that it would have made just as much sense, if not more, for a conservative to leak the draft, perhaps as a means of locking in “squishy” votes on the court’s right flank.

If we assume that it’s likely we will eventually find out who leaked Alito’s opinion to Politico, and if we are willing to entertain the prospect that the leaker was a conservative, then an obvious question arises: How might conservative media respond to this news? I’ve been professionally monitoring right-wing television for Slate for years now, and as such I find it sort of depressing that I feel very capable of answering this question. I’ve identified five distinct possibilities for the angle that conservative pundits will take if it turns out that the leaker is in their ideological corner, and have ranked them from least to most likely.

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5. Admit they were wrong and vow to do better next time. Just kidding! This entry is the “joke” entry in this list, because we live in strange times and could all use a good laugh now and then. In general, the lions of right-wing media do not admit fault or error unless they are compelled to do so by a lawsuit. Voluntary mea culpas are seen by their audiences and their ideological patron as a form of weakness, even and especially when an error is a clear and obvious one. It is now in vogue to instead double down on the initial, incorrect interpretation, and to support it with the kind of baroque theorizing better suited to a self-published spy novel. Which brings us to the next item on the list …

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[Read: Actually, It’s Perfectly Rational for Republicans to Be Furious About That Supreme Court Leak]

4. Call it fake news and keep looking for the “real” leaker. The fact that it would be both embarrassing and delusional to blithely assert the falsity of an independently verifiable news item just because it happens to be inconvenient to the far right’s preferred worldview would not in any way stop many conservative news outlets from making that choice anyway. (For reference, see “2020 presidential election, the.”) It is entirely possible and unfortunately plausible that, in the event an allegedly “liberal” news outlet reports that the Dobbs leaker is a conservative clerk or justice or confidante, some right-wing outlets and pundits will insist that the story is fake, devised and disseminated by the left in tandem with antifa in order to throw the right off the scent of the real leaker. This tactic is more likely to be used on the margins of conservative media than by Fox News, which does have a fairly substantial news division that, believe it or not, exerts a mildly moderating influence on its coverage, at least relative to its conservative cable counterparts found further down the dial. If denial is the play, I think it’s much more likely that your average Fox News pundit will do something like this …

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3. Claim that the leaker is not actually a real conservative. It’s very possible that, if it turns out that the leaker is, say, a conservative clerk, many right-wing pundits will leap immediately to the conclusion that the leaker is not actually a conservative. This option is the more refined version of the preceding one, insofar as it doesn’t require the pundit to completely depart from reality a la the MyPillow guy. Instead, all that it takes is the willingness to turn viciously on some clerk that nobody’s ever heard of, which for coal-hearted right-wing ambitionists is a move that’s both fun and easy. False flag! Deep state plant! RINO! Crisis actor! These meaningless terms roll easily off the tongue, and they are actually deeply meaningful to those Trumpists whose entire political identity comes from investing their whole hearts into meaningless terms. While this trick would be harder to pull off if it turns out that the leaker is, say, one of the Trump-appointed justices, it wouldn’t be impossible: Look at how quickly the right turned on Liz Cheney. In that case, though, there’s also another option …

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2. Reverse course and hail the leaker as a hero. This option is not the same thing as an admission of error. On the right, a sudden, drastic reversal of opinion rarely requires any reckoning at all with the initial opinion—in part because cognitive dissonance is part of the DNA of right-wing cable news, and in part because short-term memory is not really a thing anymore for many members of these networks’ core demographics. If it turns out that the leaker was unassailably conservative, and if it turns out that the leak was meant to ensure that Roe v. Wade is actually overturned, then it would be the easiest thing in the world for Fox News and its counterparts to turn on a dime, set aside all of their yelling about the norms of the Supreme Court, and laud this person as a principled actor who did what was necessary to save countless unborn lives. This will happen to a certain extent if it turns out that the leaker was a conservative, and I think it is very, very likely that we would hear this out of the mouths of some of the very same people who are now cosplaying as John Marshall. But I think it’s more likely that right-wing cable news will instead do this:

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1. Move onto some other topic and never mention the leaks again. Dr. Fauci! Sleepy Joe Biden and his shifty son Hunter! Critical race theory! “Groomers!” There’s always something or someone else for the right to bemoan and demonize. Conservative media relies on constant outrage in order to motivate its low-information audiences to donate to, vote for, and occasionally storm barricades in support of Republican candidates and causes—many of which do not actually poll that well with the general public. If the Dobbs-leaker discourse proves no longer effective in that regard, then I’d call it an even-money chance that the right will set it aside and instead find some other avatar to embody the alleged decline and fall of Christian values, the nuclear family, and the United States of America. Godspeed!

Read more of Slate’s coverage on abortion rights here.

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