Conservatives waged war on the media for decades, and the media won. Far from spelling the end of the mainstream press, Trump’s election gave the national, professional mainstream media a moment and a mission that has produced a golden age of journalism. The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Daily Beast, the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and MSNBC are expanding their audiences and prospering like never before.
The inverse of the ETTD curse has been a blessing for the national media, as reporters have rediscovered a commitment to working sources, breaking news, and kicking down doors to get stories. Trump combines uniquely newsworthy behaviors: a constant flirtation with the edges of the law; a clown-car administration staffed by the corrupt, the creepy, and the craven; and a temperament better suited to an asylum than to the Oval Office.
For decades, the rallying cry on the right was “But the liberal media!” It was the quickest route to explaining any failing on the right flank of our politics. Failure to repeal Obamacare? Liberal media. Americans’ stubborn love of Medicare and Social Security? Liberal media. The cancellation of Firefly? Liberal media. Duh.
“If only we could overcome the liberal media monoculture, the truth and strength of our ideas would finally break through” was the spoken and tacit assumption in every battle. “If only we could really be heard on economic matters, on foreign affairs, and on race, the Republican Party and conservatism would finally get a fair hearing in the minds of the American people” was a common argument. It wouldn’t have to be a zero-sum game of replacing one set of biases with another; the rightness of our ideas would carry the day.
Uh huh. How’d that work out?
Yes, the mainstream media often deserves a kick in the ass so hard they would reach orbital velocity for their professional missteps, insularity, ideological blinders, vast self-regard, and occasional outright malice against conservatives. Yes, they make mistakes large and small, every day. Reporters and editors have every human flaw and weakness that everyone else has. There are ideological bad actors in the media, as in every other institution.
However, as a justification for every one of Trump’s failings, reveling in their misery falls wildly short of the mark. A movement that once took pride in its intellectual rigor and was graced by the ideas of Burke, Hayek, Weaver, Friedman, Kirk, and Buckley today views the feces-flinging by Breitbart and in a constellation of kook-right conspiracy sites that would make Lyndon LaRouche blush as highbrow conservative commentary.
It’s not an argument for mainstream media malpractice, Obama, Clinton, social justice silliness, George Soros, or the Pentaverate to say that imitating the worst behavior of the press doesn’t exactly honor the ideals we claim to serve or elevate the conservative message. Instead, it makes a mockery of our ideas if we believe a Trumpcentric media monoculture is a positive outcome and that screaming “Fake news!” is a substitute for advocacy and argument.
Yes, in 2008 the press lost their damn collective minds. The first Obama campaign benefited from a tidal wave of largely uncritical adulation. The superlatives flowed in a ridiculous, flowery stream of praise that bordered at times on the creepy. Yes, “the One” was a media absurdity. I remember emailing a reporter this snarky note after reading one of her pieces: “Are you practicing writing ‘Mrs. Katherine Obama’ in loopy script in your mash book?” (Name withheld to protect the embarrassed.)
They spoke and wrote about Obama in terms so glowing and so toadying that it was easy to caricature the journalist class of 2008 as a group of fangirls squealing and fainting at his every utterance. That nearly mindless rah-rah remained a constant element in Obama’s coverage until he walked out of the Oval Office. Conservatives rightly mocked it, but the smarter types recognized it as an example of the normative power of media and pop culture. The two had combined in one fell swoop to overcome Barack Obama’s thin résumé, his lack of experience, and questions about his ideological underpinnings. Donald Trump wasn’t the first celebrity president. Yes, the press treated Hillary as Her Majesty the President-in-Waiting Glass-Ceiling-Shatterer-for-the-Epoch and ignored her terrible campaigns and clunky persona and the defective-robot affect she displayed on the campaign trail.
That’s no excuse for the coverage of the 2016 Republican presidential campaigns or of this presidency, where coverage was driven by Infowars and Breitbart. Trump fans aren’t looking for up-the-middle coverage; they’re looking for partners in the fake news explosion that helped Trump win the election. If being a Republican means buying into stories so obviously, barkingly insane that they sound like Roger Stone’s conspiracy rantings after a three-day meth bender, then we don’t have a political party; we have an inpatient mental health facility. To remind you once again, a meaningful fraction of Republicans believed that Hillary Clinton was running a global child sex and cannibalism ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant.
If conservative media is to mean something outside the narrowest confines of the base, it needs to be honest, direct, and critical of our failings. Conservatives who legitimize the creepy authoritarianism, unalloyed racism, and apocalyptic religious and cultural war fantasies on the pages of Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and the dog’s breakfast of other Trump fan “news,” they’re not building conservatism. They’re creating a filter bubble as wrongheaded and as dysfunctional as the one they imagine exists at The New York Times or MSNBC.
Good journalism ought to matter on the right and not fall into the slavish corruption of basic journalistic practices in service to the preferred narrative. Good writing and reporting ought to matter. As for my friends in the mainstream press, you’re not off the hook. No matter how much Republicans claim to hate the media, let’s be very clear: without the active participation of the mainstream media in the Greatest Scam on Earth, Donald Trump wouldn’t be president. The mainstream media helped elect him through its constant attention to his every utterance.
Why did they do this? Didn’t they hate Trump and love Hillary? Sure, quite a few thought he’d be easy meat for Hillary in the general election, but as with everything, money explains most of their behavior. Finally, the networks had a presidential election that had all the draw of professional wrestling and all the heat of a table-flipping, hair-pulling reality-television show. CNN president Jeff Zucker had produced Trump’s The Apprentice and knew good television when he saw it.
Rupert Murdoch had already pushed Fox into a position where it would net more than a billion dollars, but CNN had long lagged behind Trump State Television’s profits. In 2016 CNN’s ratings and gross profits spiked sharply higher, crossing the $1 billion mark for the first time in its 36-year history.
Donald Trump, as heinous as he is as a person, a leader, and a president, is must-see television, and American cable networks made several billion dollars proving that Americans love reality television, the more vulgar and loud the better, even when the fate of the nation is involved.
From EVERYTHING TRUMP TOUCHES DIES: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever by Rick Wilson. Copyright © 2018 by Rick Wilson. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.