This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The headlines are starting to get to me. On Townhall, there’s “Brutal Fact Check: 'Four Pinocchios' for Ocasio-Cortez on Ludicrous Single-Payer Healthcare Claims.” Over at Twitchy: “People are wondering why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t getting the Dan Quayle treatment.” The slightly more respectable National Review warns, “AO-C Is Not A-OK.” Hannity.com reports, “CORTEZ: Renewable Energy Will Lead to ‘Economic, Social, Racial Justice’ in the USA.” The Independent Sentinel, a website that claims to “report the news the media won’t,” exhorts, “Alexandria O-Cortez Wants Her 'Green New Deal' to Morph Into Marxism.”
These are only a few of the articles you run into when you dedicate yourself to reading an entire day’s worth of right-wing coverage of incoming New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, probably the most viral politician to emerge from last month’s midterms. She hasn’t done anything particularly newsworthy in the past day—definitely not enough to warrant wall-to-wall stories—but she’s reached the point where everything she does, or doesn’t do, can inspire outrage and thinkpieces and clicks. Hence Twitchy’s odd post complaining about how no one compares to her former Vice President Dan Quayle, and Breitbart’s uncritical coverage of her pledge to pay her interns $15 an hour.
There are plenty of reasons that people can’t stop talking about Ocasio-Cortez—for a young progressive millennial like myself, her journey from New York City bartender to a political icon makes her a relatable beacon of hope in these dark political times. For the right, she’s alternately enraging and terrifying. A young outspoken Latina who proudly identifies as a Democratic Socialist and already has the sharpest social media presence in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez has become a full-blown right-wing media obsession. Per NewsWhip’s Jonathan Barnes: “Right leaning publishers have written over 10x the articles about @Ocasio2018 than their counterparts on the left since June 2018. Engagement numbers are staggering also.”
To see what that coverage looked like in real time, I read as much right-wing AOC coverage as I could for 24 hours. On Wednesday, when I started this project, conservative outlets were particularly excited about a factual error in one of Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets—another excuse for an article about her, yipee! Driving this coverage was what Townhall called a “brutal fact check” on Ocasio-Cortez's following tweet about a very real scandal at the Pentagon:
But while the scandal was real, she flubbed some of the details. As the Washington Post explained, “the specific line about the missing $21 trillion comes from research by Mark Skidmore, an economics professor at Michigan State University.” The number actually refers to “the sum of all transactions—both inflows and outflows—for which the Defense Department did not have adequate documentation.” It’s a statistic that points to the Pentagon’s sloppy accounting practices, but it doesn't mean that the Defense Department wasted $21 trillion. Guy Benson, a Townhall contributor who was writing about Ocasio-Cortez for the second time this week, found this Post quote “devastating”:
Let’s put $21 trillion in context. The entire national debt is $21.8 trillion. According to the Congressional Budget Office, total defense spending from 1998 to 2015 was nearly $9 trillion. The CBO estimates $7 trillion in defense spending from 2019 to 2028. In other words, completely defunding the military for the next decade would yield only one-fifth of $32 trillion. That’s a much better way of illustrating the cost of Medicare-for-All.
Benson concludes his post by imploring his conservative colleagues to “limit their criticisms to AOC's worst ideas” and “resist the temptation to empower her through superficial and petty mockery.” Considering Townhall has mentioned Ocasio-Cortez on their website tens of thousands of times, I’m not sure they’ll take his advice.
Along those lines, in Hannity.com’s piece on Ocasio-Cortez saying “100% renewable energy as the vehicle to truly deliver and establish economic, social, and racial justice in the United States of America,” the writer barely even criticizes her claim, calling her statement “bizarre” but not explaining why. In another Hannity.com post written hours later, the headline screams, “DOUBLE TROUBLE: Al Gore Says Ocasio-Cortez’ ‘Green New Deal’ Will Help ‘Create Jobs,’” which briefly details Gore’s support of the green new deal proposal without any criticism attached. It’s as if Hannity’s blog is so confident that its readers are against AOC that they’re beyond explaining why they think she’s bad. It also conveniently dodges the need to make an actual argument.
Fox Business, on the other hand, took a more aggressive stance. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the face of Democratic socialism, and since her brain is as empty as the promises of unfettered statism I am absolutely fine with that,” Lisa Kennedy Montogomery wrote in an op-ed about the $21 trillion tweet blunder. “My problem isn't with how Ms. Ocasio-Cortez looks or what she wears or how she talks. It's that she's been thrown so many softballs that leftist interviewers are getting group rate Tommy John surgery.” This underscores how the intense focus on Ocasio-Cortez from the right isn’t particularly driven by what she says—though everything she says seems to generate at least one article—but something else. What is it about her that drives the right to distraction?
Benson actually attempted to answer this question earlier this week, writing, “She wasn't randomly plucked from relative obscurity by right-wing writers or pundits for sport; she was elevated by a mainstream media that loves covering, and sympathizes with, rising liberal stars.” This is the “they started it” school of right-wing thought: Right-wing commentators realize they’re obsessed, but they blame their obsession on their lefty opponents.
What's going on here can be summed up in that old adage: “Haters make you famous.” Benson does make a salient point when he notes that Ocasio-Cortez “pays a fair amount of attention to her righty detractors,” which definitely fuels their infatuation.
The media in general, but specifically on the right, thrives on having an antagonist to denigrate. Before Ocasio-Cortez hit the scene, Fox News was obsessing about Hillary Clinton's email scandal and Obama's (apparently erotic) official portrait. But it's 2018 now, and although a poll on Hannity.com asks readers whether they think Hillary Clinton should run again in 2020—which would honestly be a dream for the right—the former secretary of State and Obama are old news. Ocasio-Cortez is a young woman of color from New York City who proudly identifies as a socialist—perfect grist for the right-wing media mill. She also does occasionally screw up, which gives conservatives ammo, but those articles attacking her ultimately end up elevating her profile. It's a funny sort of a cycle: The more she's attacked the more famous she is, the more worthy she is of attack.
Just imagine what will happen when she runs for president.