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Not Subject to Debate: The GOP's Hostility to the Media Is Self-Defeating

Robin Beck/AFP/Getty

It’s too much to say that Ted Cruz won the last Republican debate, but he undeniably won the debate about the debate. In the middle of the GOP gabfest, the Texas senator lashed out at the CNBC moderators, complaining: "The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media. This is not a cage match.”

Cruz’s counterpunch set the stage for an push by the other GOP candidates to impose greater restriction on journalists at future debates, an effort that has now apparently failed. But the debate over "bias" in the debates is still resonating, and Cruz stirred the pot by following a familiar pattern. For the past 50 years, Republican candidates ranging from Barry Goldwater to Newt Gingrich have found that the one of the surest ways to rile up the base is to pick a fight with media, which many GOP voters seem to hate more than even the Democratic Party. This venerable strategy of media-bashing has paid off in all sorts of dividends, giving the party not only a convenient foil but also forcing the media outlets on many occasions to change their coverage and even their staffing. Yet in making alleged liberal media bias their great foe, conservatives have increasingly created a right-wing bubble for themselves which makes them unable to talk to a broader audience—and could come back to haunt them in next year's general election. 

Conservatives didn’t always hate the media. The idea of a “liberal media” is a relative recent innovation in conservative thought compared to more time-tested tropes like nationalism and celebrations of business success. Right-wing Americans tended to see the news media as their champion during the New Deal era, when the Republican Party had a weakened national presence while ideological opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s policies was most clearly articulated by powerful press barons as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Medill Patterson, and Robert R. McCormick. Newspaper columnists like Westbrook Pegler and George Sokolsky—known for their attacks on FDR, labor unions, and alleged communist infiltration of the government—were widely viewed by conservatives as lonely, heroic muckrakers fighting against a corrupt regime. The comic strip Little Orphan Annie, created by ardent Roosevelt-hater Harold Gray, often featured heroic newspaper editors and reporters fighting against nefarious liberal politicians and devious social reformers.

A small trickle of conservative media criticism emerged after World War II when magazines like Human Events and National Review started arguing that elite publications like The New York Times and Time magazine were insufficiently anti-communist. But the minor current of conservative complaints about liberal media bias became a full flowing river with Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964. Because he floated divisive proposals about rolling back Social Security and using nuclear weapons, Goldwater met with an unusually polarized press. Conservatives interpreted the hostile reaction Goldwater sometimes received as proof of a liberal bias. It was perhaps more accurately the product of a centrist bias, the same middle-of-the-road stance that also made the press suspicious of the anti-war movement and the Black Panther party later in the 1960s. But Goldwater used his battles with the press to stoke the fires of right-wing passion. In the unsuccessful negotiations to set the rules of the 1964 presidential debates, which ended up not taking place, Goldwater insisted that reporters not be allowed to ask questions. “You fellows are looking for news, but not necessarily education,” Goldwater complained. “We are trying to educate.” Goldwater was in effect the original Ted Cruz.

As historian Nicole Hemmer notes in an essay for the volume Barry Goldwater and the Remaking of the American Political Landscape (2013), Goldwater’s whine reverberated throughout his campaign and the conservative movement. Goldwater’s press secretary gave reporters who flew with him gold pins reading “Eastern Liberal Press.” David Brinkley, then an NBC News anchor, recalled the 1964 Republican conventions as so seething with hostility toward the press that journalists needed to be protected from physical attacks. “The delegates were really hostile and threatening to us,” Brinkley said. “Threatened us with physical harm. We had to get bodyguards. And we had to sneak into the hotels and sneak out.” After Goldwater’s defeat, National Review editor Frank Meyer argued that the “mass communications networks, solidly in Liberal hands, is even more formidable an opponent than conservatives had thought.”

Conservative politicians successfully continued to mine the rich vein of anti-media hostility. In the late 1960s, Vice President Spiro Agnew became one of the most popular figures on the right when he attacked the media for being “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “effete corps of impudent snobs.” Agnew’s words were written by William Safire, who later became a New York Times columnist, a prize gig he earned in part because the Times was stung by the accusation that it had a liberal bias. Safire’s career illustrates one of the boons of the anti-media narrative: It’s a way of playing the refs to get the media to move to the right. 

Yet if media-bashing has its benefits, it has also locked the American right into a tight mental bunker. Distrusting the mainstream media as too liberal and putting their trust on sources like Fox News, American conservatives have increasingly taken on the characteristic of a sect where the members share an arcane language and mythology which they have trouble discussing with the outside world. This explains why interactions with the press are so fraught. And as Trump proved in his conflict with Megyn Kelley, some GOP candidates can’t even handle questioning from Fox News. 

A striking example of the conservative bubble's effect came in the 2012 debate, when Mitt Romney thought he had scored a devastating point by saying that President Obama didn’t call the Benghazi massacre "terrorism" until 14 days after the event. Romney’s brief moment of triumph was quickly and devastatingly deflated by the moderator and CNN reporter Candy Crowley, who noted that Obama had used the phrase “act of terror” the day after the massacre. One way to understand that moment is to realize that Romney’s understanding of Benghazi was entirely formed by the right-wing version events offered by outlets such as Fox News, where it is an article of faith that the Obama administration lied about the massacre. As a result, Romney simply wasn’t aware of key facts that went against the right’s narrative.

If Romney lived in a right-wing media bubble about Benghazi, the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls also inhabit a universe where the unchallenged shibboleths of the right-wing media hold sway. In the three debates so far, we’ve had such unappetizing moments as Carly Fiorina fabricating a story about a non-existent Planned Parenthood video she claims to have seen, Marco Rubio falsely claiming that Hillary Clinton “got exposed as a liar” during the Benghazi investigation, and Donald Trump brazenly denying words that he had actually used (that Mark Zuckerberg is Rubio’s “personal senator”). Only in the last case was the false claim challenged by moderator during the debate itself—but in a general-election debate, that's far less likely to happen. The very eagerness of Republicans like Rubio to relitigate the Benghazi case, depite Romney's failure to make hay of it in the last election, is itself evidence that many Republicans have never left the bubble.

The conservative media bubble is not only hermetically sealed, it is also shrinking. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Byron York has suggested that National Review might be too anti-Trump to have any of its writers participate in future GOP debates. The conservative war against the liberal media started with National Review berating publications like The New York Times, now ends with National Review itself sent into exile for daring to criticize the Republican front-runner. The snake has started eating its own tail. 

Republican candidates can continue to fire up the base with media-bashing, but ultimately it comes with a cost. A party that can’t handle outside questions will become increasingly beholden to its own self-deceptions, preaching ever more loudly to the faithful few but losing the ability to convert outsiders. Cushioned inside a right-wing media cocoon, it becomes easier to accept ideas like climate denial. Attacking the media and creating a safe space in the right-wing media might make Republicans feel more comfortable, but it does little to aid the party’s ability to argue with opposing ideas or even, in extreme cases, engage with reality at all.