Lawmakers have complained about the coverage they’ve received from the press since the inception of the country. But in the past few months, some on Capitol Hill have taken their criticism to new heights—offering blistering critiques of stories they dislike and personally singling out and fighting with individual reporters whom they view as biased. And they’re doing it all in real time.
It is a strategy Donald Trump honed and perfected during his 2016 campaign and has continued to deploy well into his first term. And although senators lack the same zeal and bite as the president, the posture is similar.
In recent months, many GOP lawmakers have repurposed their Twitter accounts into platforms for media criticism. Perhaps no one has been as dutiful about it as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has dedicated a good deal of time nitpicking various aspects of media coverage in the Trump era.
Rubio provoked local criticism for a tweet lamenting that some media outlets printed the F-word, and said reporters were giving too much air time to people like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He tweeted that many Republicans who want to criticize Trump refuse to do so because they’d rather not side with “the media.” He has criticized a Mother Jones reporter, an opinionated GQ correspondent, and CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
“I’ve seen media bias firsthand. But vast majority of reporters try to be fair & professional. Very few act like Acosta does,” Rubio wrote. “He regularly showboats to make himself the story. Instead of reporting the news he wants to be the news Revoking his WH pass gives him spotlight he craves.”
Rubio belongs to a younger generation of lawmakers that uses Twitter to stay hyper-engaged in the political conversation as it takes its twists and turns. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) does, too. The Arkansas Republican is regarded by many as one of the GOP’s top attack-dogs and has used his personal Twitter account to lament the quality of editors in modern newsrooms as well as to go after television anchors, Capitol Hill reporters and national media outlets he believed weren’t giving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh a fair shake. He posted memes joking about the media’s coverage of the Supreme Court confirmation process, and often repeated a talking point calling reporters the “media wing of the Democratic party.”
But it’s not just the younger Republican senators who have decided to take on side gigs as media critics. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, got into a Twitter spat last month with CNBC reporter John Harwood after Harwood criticized the Texas senator for sharing an article from a right-leaning news site implying that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was inciting violence.
Democratic lawmakers have offered their share of media criticism, too, but usually in the context of going after Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets like Fox News for presenting a right-leaning outlook of the news; or lamenting that other outlets feel compelled to manufacture artificial debates.
Republican lawmakers, by contrast, have targeted the broader “mainstream media” more aggressively and personally, adopting Trump’s framework that the press is, fundamentally, an enemy of conservatism. Both Rubio and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—the formerly anti-Trump South Carolina senator who has long been a reliable quote-generator for political reporters—have backed up Trump’s claims that the journalists who cover the White House are biased against the president.
For conservatives, the notion that the press corps is liberal-leaning is self-evident. But they have come to view the media’s conduct in the Trump era as definitive proof of those inherent biases. In particular, they point to the coverage of Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation fight. The uproar over the sexual-misconduct allegations against the then-federal judge brought pro-Trump and never-Trump conservatives together in their anger toward the Fourth Estate as journalists dredged up and published various misconduct claims against Kavanaugh.
“Conservatives (and Republican members) felt that members of the media, and a few outlets in particular, were so eager to run with new accusers that normal editorial vetting standards went out the window,” a senior Republican congressional aide, granted anonymity to give a candid assessment, told The Daily Beast. “And when there were holes in stories, or blatant bad behavior from Senate Democrats, those same members of the media were suddenly silent. So in many cases you had [senators] feeling like they had to play that role and make sure the full story was being told.”
Cotton, Rubio, Graham, Cornyn and others spent days berating the press for its perceived bias. Even Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chairman of the committee that oversaw the confirmation hearings, took time to berate the media for its editorial choices. The strategy appeared to work. In a number of states with close Senate races, coverage of the Kavanaugh confirmation process galvanized Republican voters who thought the now-justice was being treated poorly.
“You’re only an effective media critic if you target what deserves criticism, not necessarily attacking the media monolith as a whole,” the senior GOP aide noted.
Representatives for Rubio, Graham, Cornyn and Cotton did not respond to requests for comment about the newly aggressive media-criticism strategy.
Democrats, perhaps sensing that Republicans were trying to work the refs, have also veered into the media criticism act more directly as of late, often to criticize the coverage decisions made by newsrooms. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), perhaps one of Capitol Hill’s most prolific and consistent Twitter users, has lambasted reporters—without calling them out by name—for focusing on the entertainment aspect of the Trump presidency. Most recently, he took an implicit jab at the press for its coverage of Kanye West’s visit to the White House, and said “the media got played” by Trump’s focus on the migrant caravan in the final days of the 2018 campaign.
Schatz, a rising star within the Democratic party, often directly addresses issues that he views are distractions from what Democrats want to be focusing their attention on, especially in the run-up to the midterm elections—chief among them, health care.
More recently, the Democratic old guard has begun chiming in. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who is set to become speaker of the House in the new Congress, recently told The New York Times Magazine that journalists give Trump too much attention.
“I think the press loves him. All day on TV—and I don’t even watch TV, except sports. But he says somebody had a horse face—all day we hear about that. We hear about Kanye West, all day. You just give him all day!” Pelosi said.