Why Conservatives Love Trump's Attacks on Journalists
Over the past five days, the White House chief strategist called the press the “opposition party” and threatened to destroy it, the press secretary barred major news outlets from a press gaggle while opening the door to right-wing outlets, and the administration announced it would be giving a plum Oval Office interview to a Breitbart.com reporter considered among the administration’s most sycophantic media boosters.
The Trump administration’s press strategy is clear: delegitimize mainstream news organizations, especially those that produce critical reporting that jeopardizes its efforts, while lifting up unabashed propaganda outlets.
And his fans love it.
“I want you all to know we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake!” President Donald Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.” His supporters responded to Trump’s six-minute attack on the press with laughter, cheers, and chants of “USA! USA!”
While some conservative media figures are speaking out against the Trump administration’s efforts to manipulate coverage and damage the institution of the press, many more can’t get enough of the way he treats journalists with utter contempt and grinds them into the dirt.
And those opinions are mimicked by their audiences. Seventy-three percent of Republican voters approve of the way he talks about the media, according to a recent poll. Nearly four out of five trust President Trump more than the press to tell the truth.
But those views are wildly out of step with the rest of the American public, which overwhelmingly disapproves of Trump’s conduct and trusts him less than the media.
This divide is the result of extremely successful efforts by Republican activists, politicians, and conservative media outlets to convince conservatives that the mainstream press is liberal and deceitful and that only avowed right-wing sources can be trusted to provide the facts.
Those attacks first boiled over at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which followed weeks of vitriolic criticism against the press by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and his supporters. Goldwater had been widely castigated by columnists and commentators for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, generating a backlash from activists who believed (quite accurately) that reporters had taken sides against segregation over the previous decade.
As conservatives triumphed over the moderates who had controlled the party for decades and installed the Arizona senator as the party’s nominee, activists raged at and even assaulted the purportedly liberal press. Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s exhortation from the podium to “scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” drew wild applause and jeers from the crowd.
This anti-press animus would enter the White House with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. As Mark Feldstein detailed in June:
Just a few months after [Nixon’s] election, he dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to launch a public assault on the “small and unelected elite” of journalists who held a “concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.” Nixon publicly said that he hadn’t heard Agnew’s speech. In fact, he had privately approved it word-for-word ahead of time, chortling that it “really flicks the scab off.”
In addition, Nixon invited top broadcast executives to the White House and told them that “your reporters just can’t stand the fact that I am in this office.” Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler declared that all of the TV networks were “anti-Nixon” and would “pay for that, sooner or later, one way or another.” Another top adviser, Charles Colson, told the head of CBS News that Nixon’s administration would “bring you to your knees” and “break your network.”
“The press is your enemy,” Nixon told Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a private meeting in February 1971. “Enemies. Understand that? . . . Now, never act that way . . . give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”
Given his criminal activity, Nixon was right to fear the press. The dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward eventually forced his resignation -- giving conservatives a new data point in their grievance against the media.
As conservative politicians lashed out, conservative activists tried to build their own outlets. A central premise of such outlets was that they were needed because, as Agnew claimed, the press was irreparably liberal.
Two decades before Roger Ailes founded Fox News and began building it into a conservative media juggernaut, the former Nixon aide served as news director of the fledgling Television News Inc., a conservative news outlet that claimed nonpartisanship but was funded and led by right-wingers.
But TVN was unable to find an audience, bled millions of dollars, and lasted only a couple years. And as Republican presidents racked up victories in the years to come, the impetus behind purely right-wing outlets -- outside of a handful of conservative magazines and journals that largely served elite audiences -- dissipated.
But in 1992, Bill Clinton unseated President George H.W. Bush, whose campaign spent its final months urging supporters to “Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.” Clinton’s victory unleashed a new, grass-roots-focused wave of right-wing talk radio hosts, led by Rush Limbaugh.
These radio hosts provided conservative news, opinion, and talking points to a broad audience, while simultaneously targeting individual Democratic lawmakers for defeat. They were an alternative news source that sought to delegitimize both the new administration and the press that covered it. The result was the “Limbaugh Congress” of 1994, which made the radio host an unofficial member of the House Republican caucus.
Two years later, Fox News was founded. Its “fair and balanced” mantra implicitly suggested that the network’s competitors were not. And the hosts and anchors have spent the last two decades making that subtext text, attacking other journalists and media outlets on a regular basis and constantly suggesting, as Agnew insisted decades before, that the press consists of untrustworthy liberals.
In Fox’s wake, new outlets like Breitbart have risen, all seeking to mimic Fox’s success in attracting conservative audiences by condemning the rest of the press. The result has been plummeting trust in the press among Republicans.
Once that effort was complete, the stage was set for Trump’s ascendance.
“The conservative alternative media, and I'm part of that, grew up and I was very proud of that and I assumed that what we were doing was informing people, making people smart, giving people factual information, telling them the other side of the story,” conservative radio host Charlie Sykes said last year. “And unfortunately what's happened is it has morphed into this alternative reality whereas Joan says, we live in these different silos. And having discredited the mainstream media, now what do we have? We have the InfoWars, we have the Breitbarts, we have the Drudges, in which information is passed, things that that bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever.”
Trump and his advisers are trying to crystalize those changes. They want to convince as many of their supporters as possible that only Trump can be trusted. And after years of conditioning from this decades-long campaign, they have frighteningly little work to do.