In the same way that Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was annoyed that Rush Limbaugh has used the open of her “My City Was Gone” for decades, the headline borrows from Hynde (who once suggested promoting animal rights by blowing up a McDonald’s) for Rich Lowry:
For many Republicans, what matters most about Donald Trump is that he’s demonstrated resolve against the enemy — not the Islamic State or the Taliban, but the media.
The media has become for the Right what the Soviet Union was during the Cold War — a common, unifying adversary of overwhelming importance. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, religious conservatives and libertarians could agree that, whatever their other differences, godless communism had to be resisted. This commitment was the glue of the GOP coalition, and the basic price of admission to conservatism.
The Right’s hostility toward the media is long-standing. In fact, no one has improved on what Spiro Agnew said in a famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in November 1969, or even really said anything new.
Agnew complained that after President Richard Nixon gave a televised speech, his words were instantly subjected to “querulous criticism.” He pointed out that the media is in a bubble, living “in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City.” And he wanted to limit the power of this “small and unelected elite.”
Trump’s insight was basically, “What if every day were like that?” After witnessing the fate of two candidates who got savage coverage in the general election, despite being a media darling in the case of John McCain and being an earnest, well-meaning man in the case of Mitt Romney, Republican voters were ready for harsher stuff.
Trump had long had his own problems with the media, namely that it wasn’t nearly favorable enough to Donald Trump. With his talents as a showman, his taste for combat and his instinct for what energizes an audience, he was ideally suited to transfer his long-developed personal sensitivity to slights from reporters to the ideological realm of Republican presidential politics. In large part, he rode his mutual enmity with the media to the White House.
It remains a lifeline. Most commentators saw Trump angrily saying indefensible things about Charlottesville at the news conference last week; most Republicans saw him gamely standing his ground in front a group of braying reporters. At his rally in Phoenix, Trump upped the rhetorical ante and used the media’s lack of credibility to try to undermine the critique of his Charlottesville remarks.
It helps him that the press is, indeed, worse than ever before. As the media environment has fractured, organizations feel less obligation to try to cultivate a broader audience. And as politics becomes more culturally charged, the divide between the heartland and the coasts where the media lives and works becomes important.
Then there’s the reaction to Trump himself. Since he is genuinely outrageous, especially to coastal sensibilities, the media feels justified in its unremittingly harsh coverage.
The war with Trump also serves the twin goals of self-referentiality and ratings. CNN at times appears to be a network devoted to covering things that the president says about the network. Prior to Trump’s rally in Phoenix, CNN relentlessly promoted the event. Then it broadcast the whole thing and devoted the rest of the night to commentators pronouncing themselves outraged and dismayed. At the end of the day, what had really happened? Nothing much, but at least something entertaining had filled the air.
Jeff Jacoby adds:
As a lifelong conservative, I know all about liberal media bias — all the more so, since I have worked for daily newspapers (first as an editorial writer, then as a columnist) for three decades. It’s a fact of life that I have written about and spoken about often. And opinion polls have long confirmed that Americans perceive most news media as tilting overmuch to the left.
On that much, no argument: Conservatives and Republicans have long had good reason to feel aggrieved by a journalistic elite that isn’t friendly to conservatives and Republicans.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story — not with Trump waging war against the media with a degree of bitterness unprecedented in its intensity. I’d add three points:
1. It is commonplace for critics to lecture journalists about their obligation to cover the news fairly. Rarely is it noted, especially by politicians, that freedom of the press — a liberty explicitly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights — is not contingent on media objectivity. The First Amendment protects the freedom of journalists to practice their profession as they see fit. It imposes on them no obligation to protect or defend the president’s interests. On the other hand, presidents do have an obligation toward the press. Trump, like the 44 chief executives who preceded him, swore a solemn oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution — including the Bill of Rights that empowers the news media Trump despises. Whether Trump likes it or not, defending freedom of the press is part of his job description. When he uses his bully pulpit to demean the press, to insult journalists, or to threaten retaliation against media outlets he doesn’t like, he isn’t just being inimical. He is violating, or at least undermining, his oath of office.
2. Yes, media bias can be infuriating — and yes, at most news organizations it is often inescapable. To its credit, the profession upholds accuracy and objectivity as a theoretical standard. To its discredit, that standard is often flouted by journalists who don’t realize how skewed their outlook is, since most of their colleagues share the same set of views. Still, I can’t help marveling sometimes at the self-righteousness of non-journalists who would never dream of applying to themselves the political standard they want the press to live by. Politicians fume that the media shouldn’t take sides in a controversy, yet when have politicians ever practiced scrupulous evenhandedness? Political consultants don’t feel obliged to be fair to players on all sides. Neither do campaign volunteers. Neither do voters. Impartial fairness is a virtuous ideal, and the press could do a lot more to live up to it. But let’s face it, nobody else does. Especially those who whine the loudest about media unfairness.
3. Intense media animus didn’t keep Donald Trump from winning the GOP nomination and the November election. This may strike my fellow righties as heresy, but I wonder if conservatives and Republican don’t get more worked up about liberal media bias than they should. The press reviled Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, yet both were re-elected in massive landslides. Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans’ “Contract with America” were mercilessly skewered in the media, but that didn’t prevent a sweeping GOP takeover in 1994. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans were inundated with negative coverage; yet those were the years when Republican pickups at every level left the GOP stronger than it had been in 80 years.
There’s no denying that, as Lowry writes, conservatives and Republicans have for years bewailed the unfairness of the mighty liberal press. Yet when it comes to influencing how America votes, there’s also no denying that the liberal press has never actually been all that mighty.
If victimization is unbecoming for liberals, it’s unbecoming for conservatives too. Learn how to deal with the media, as Gov. Scott Walker has (to the teeth-grinding frustration of liberals).