This is the second installment of "Whoa, If True," an occasional look at the conspiracy theories that migrate from the wilds of the Internet to the well-covered tundra of presidential campaigns.
On Friday afternoon, in a segment about the retirement of Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Rush Limbaugh cast doubt on the official story of the Democratic leader's gruesome facial injuries. Reid kept saying that he had wounded himself and damaged his right eye when a piece of exercise equipment broke. Not so, said Limbaugh.
"I don't believe for a minute that whatever happened to Harry Reid has anything to do with an exercise machine unless somebody repeatedly threw him into it," said Limbaugh. "Harry Reid looks like and is acting like—and now with this announcement, behaving like—somebody who may have been beaten up. Nobody... I've never seen anybody have an accident with an exercise machine that ends up suffering symptoms much like Harry Reid's for as long as Harry Reid has."
Not for the first time, Limbaugh had expressed something that other conservatives had only whispered. In January, the blogger John Hinderaker, a member of the Powerline collective, asked "what really happened" to Reid. "He looks like he has been in a fight, and not with an elastic band," wrote Hinderaker. "Some are speculating that he had a run-in with Las Vegas underworld characters. There is zero evidence for that."
On Saturday, Hinderaker felt compelled to follow up that analysis ("typically the first thing that comes up on Google") and negate the "zero evidence" claim. "A friend of mine was in Las Vegas a week or two ago," wrote Hinderaker. "He talked to a number of people there about Reid’s accident, and didn’t find anyone who believed the elastic exercise band story. The common assumption was that the incident resulted, in some fashion, from Reid’s relationship with organized crime. The principal rumor my friend heard was that Reid had promised to obtain some benefit for a group of mobsters. He met with them on New Year’s Day, and broke the bad news that he hadn’t been able to deliver what he promised. When the mobsters complained, Reid (according to the rumor) made a comment that they considered disrespectful, and one of them beat him up."
Hinderaker did not quite endorse the theory. All he knew was that "it is a more likely story than the elastic exercise band yarn," and that the national press "refused to investigate the cause of his injuries."
Over the weekend, as Matthew Yglesias has recounted for Vox, the "mobsters probably beat up Reid" theory migrated from the water cooler to the mainstream. "It’s pretty obvious from the photographs that somebody beat the bejesus out of the soon-to-be-former senator from Nevada," wrote Michael Walsh in PJMedia. "Has any journalist looked into the specifics of Harry Reid's exercise equipment accident?" asked Washington Examiner reporter Byron York.
The theory that Reid was attacked, and covered it up with an embarrassing story, is confirmation bias at its finest, relying on a few popular conservative assumptions about the media. One: That members of the media are lazy. Two: That members of the media cover up for Democrats. Three: That the media has avoided covering Reid's interactions with the mafia, because of reasons one and two.
None of this is compatible with how the story was actually covered—though the timing, around 2014's elongated New Year's holiday, meant that the political media was a little less busy than usual, and if anyone has asked for medical records, no one has published them. According to Reid's office, on New Year's Day 2015, the senator was using a resistance band when it broke. The morning after, Las Vegas Sun reporter Amber Phillips was out with a story, quoting Reid's office, which noted that the leader's security detail had taken him to the hospital. Twenty-one days later, in his first public news conference since the incident, Reid acknowledged "rumors" about what happened but repeated the story of "those large rubber bands" breaking and sending him face-first into "these cabinets."
There is, indeed, no evidence that mobsters actually broke through Reid's security detail and worked him over. But there is evidence that reporters were asking questions.
"Here's what I was able to piece together from people who should know," says Jon Ralston, a Nevada reporter who has covered Reid for years. "Reid is a fitness nut. He had just moved into his new Vegas house, and didn't have a place to do his band routine. So he attached it to something in his bathroom, which was a very dumb thing to do, it turns out. The whole mobster thing is just insane. Not just because there is no evidence, but it makes no sense."
If one were inclined to cross-examine Reid, he might focus on the slight differences in how the objects that hurt him were described. Phillips referred to "exercise equipment," Reid referred to "cabinets," and Ralston referred to "something in the bathroom." Yet in every story, Reid's equipment broke and he hurt himself.
"Every major news outlet in the country covered the accident and a lot of very aggressive reporters asked a ton of questions about what happened," says Adam Jentleson, Reid's spokesman. "But clearly they're all in the tank."
All jokes aside, the people who cover Reid can't understand what makes his story so incredible. Not all injuries are dignified. Far from it—the columns of "oddly enough" news brim with tales of men paralyzed by dumbbells, drowned by swimming pools, or sucked into hot tubs. The "what really happened?" question about Reid assumes that a man who has never tired of telling the story of his near-miss brushes with mafia justice would cover up the story of how he survived a brutal attack—and instead, had to go on TV telling people his "big rubber bands" broke. It would be like Clark Kent telling colleagues that he was out of the office when Superman visited because, well, he had to empty his colostomy bag.
Why, for Limbaugh et al, is the cover-up story believable? It's because they assume the media might prefer to cover a ridiculous story than to expose the corruption they're sure Harry Reid is guilty of. The problem: They haven't done as much work to prove that as reporters did to verify what actually happened to Reid—or as much work as reporters have done, over the years, to vet Reid's finances and associations.