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Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, politicians take aim at the press

Why We Wrote This

Antagonism between elected officials and journalists is nothing new. But in the Trump era, candidates have gone from complaining about bias to attacking and delegitimizing media – a trend experts say has worrying implications for democracy.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, (R) of California, gives reporters an update about the ongoing Russia investigation March 22, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Representative Nunes has taken out a two-minute ad accusing the Fresno Bee of 'colluding with radical left-wing groups.'

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In a recent meeting with President Trump, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger raised concerns about the dangers posed by the president’s “anti-press rhetoric.” Days later, Mr. Trump retweeted a video of supporters chanting “CNN sucks!” while the outlet’s Jim Acosta reported live from a Florida rally. Trump’s strategy of discrediting the media serves several purposes, observers say: It offers a quick way to deflect negative news reports, and it riles up the GOP base. Increasingly, it’s seeping into the playbooks of other officials. California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes recently ran a two-minute ad accusing his local newspaper, the Fresno Bee, of colluding with “radical left-wing groups” to vilify him. As the tactic becomes more common, experts say it could intensify an already stark partisan divide and contribute to a growing sense that the media can’t be trusted. “We’ve crossed a line – and I’m not sure when it happened – from criticizing media bias to delegitimizing all media,” says former conservative radio host Charlie Sykes. “If we no longer believe that there is some sort of objective truth that we can then debate and discuss, how can we run a society? How can we hold politicians accountable?”

The campaign ad, at first, seems unremarkable. California Rep. Devin Nunes (R), standing outdoors in a crisp blue shirt, details his service to his district and the nation.

But about 20 seconds in, the ad pivots. The House Intelligence chairman accuses his local newspaper, the Fresno Bee, of colluding with “radical left-wing groups” to vilify him. He criticizes its coverage of a scandal involving a Napa Valley winery in which Congressman Nunes is an investor, and calls the Bee’s reporting “a textbook example of fake news.”

“It’s fine for the Bee’s band of creeping correspondents to go after me,” he adds, “but it’s wrong for them to drag a family company through the mud.”

For a politician to complain about his hometown paper’s coverage is nothing new. Nunes, however, not only aggressively pushes back against what he characterizes as unfair reports, he also appears to have spent significant campaign money attacking the paper itself. The ad has aired on television and radio as well as online, and came just months after the congressman launched his own “news” website, The California Republican, paid for by his campaign committee. The congressman declined a request for an interview.

It’s an example of how much President Trump’s strategy of discrediting the media is seeping into the playbooks of other elected officials and candidates, as a way to deflect negative news coverage and energize base voters. Just this week, Mr. Trump retweeted a video of his supporters at a rally in Florida chanting “CNN sucks!” while the outlet’s Jim Acosta reported live from the event.

This came on the heels of a meeting between the president and New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, in which Mr. Sulzberger raised concerns about the dangers Trump’s “anti-press rhetoric” poses for journalists and for democracy. Trump later tweeted: “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of fake news being put out by the media and how that fake news has morphed into [the] phrase, ‘Enemy of the people.’ Sad!”

Other Republicans have taken up the “fake news” banner:

  • Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin used the hashtag in tweets attacking the Courier-Journal, after it reported on an ethics complaint over the purchase of the governor’s home.
  • Idaho state Rep. Priscilla Giddings earlier this year called for a state version of the president’s “Fake News Awards.”
  • Former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore leveled the claim against The Washington Post last year after the paper reported that he was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Kimberlee Kruesi/AP
Idaho Republican state Rep. Priscilla Giddings sits at the Capitol in Boise on March 1, 2018. The Idaho lawmaker urges her constituents to send in submissions for her 'fake news awards' during the legislative session. Officials at all levels of government are now using the term 'fake news' as a weapon against unflattering stories and information that can tarnish their images. Experts on the press and democracy say the cries of, 'fake news,' could do long-term damage by sowing confusion and contempt for journalists, and by undermining the media's role as a watchdog on government and politicians.

The tactic is popular because it works. Voters, especially those on the edges of the political spectrum, already distrust the press, and publicly panning reporters poses little risk for officials. Thanks to social media and the internet, candidates can deliver their own narratives to voters without having to rely on established news outlets. Indeed, strategists from strongly conservative areas say politicians are often better served criticizing the media than fostering good relationships with reporters.

Still, some experts say going after the media in this way is intensifying an already stark – and problematic – partisan divide and contributing to a growing sense among the American public that nothing reported in the mainstream media can be trusted.

“A world where people don’t know what to trust or don’t believe that facts can be impartially presented – that undermines the core premises of what makes a democracy work,” says Sam Gill, an executive at the Knight Foundation who co-authored a series of reports on public trust in the news media.

‘The go-to bloody shirt’

Politicians have long had a fraught relationship with the press. What Trump has done differently, according to analysts, is that he doesn’t just say the media are presenting stories slanted against him; he insists they’re making stuff up. 

“He’s really trying to tell Americans: ‘This is false, this is manufactured propaganda, this should be ignored,’ rather than saying, ‘Here’s my side of the story,’ ” says David Greenberg, who teaches history of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “That’s a categorical difference.”

For Trump and others, attacks on the media offer a quick way to shut down debate and discussion – and rile up the base, says Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host. “It’s the go-to bloody shirt,” he says. “When all else fails, attack the media. It will always be an applause line.”

Nunes’s broadside against the Fresno Bee is particularly striking because the paper has actually endorsed the congressman every year since 2003 – as the paper’s editorial board points out in an op-ed refuting each of Nunes’s claims. But for politicians like Nunes, newspaper endorsements may be of increasingly limited value. 

“Half the time when [a local publication] makes an endorsement or recommendation, it’s a condemnation for the candidate,” says Phillip Peters, a school board member and conservative activist in California’s Kern County – which, like Fresno, is heavily agricultural and far redder than the state’s coastal enclaves. “I hear people say, ‘Well this newspaper’s supporting this guy. I don’t want anything to do with him.’ ”

Some political consultants tell their clients to just avoid talking to the media as much as possible. “Why take the risk of dealing with a media corps that might not treat you fairly when you can tell your story unfiltered?” says Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican strategist in Southern California.

Of course, Democrats are also willing to undercut media credibility when it suits them. Like Nunes, Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Bob Menendez of New Jersey have both put up websites meant to look like legitimate news outlets, but that are actually campaign sites financed by their supporters.

“We’ve crossed a line – and I’m not sure when it happened – from criticizing media bias to delegitimizing all media,” Mr. Sykes says. “If we no longer have shared facts, if we no longer believe that there is some sort of objective truth that we can then debate and discuss, how can we run a society? How can we hold politicians accountable?”

The push for profits

To be sure, the press holds some responsibility for its own credibility issues. The rise of 24-hour cable news and then of social media has fueled a tendency to focus on political drama and scandal, as media companies struggle to attract consumers and advertisers. “News organizations are more under threat by [industry trends] than politicians criticizing the press,” says Tim Groeling, who researches political communication and new media at UCLA.

Political polarization has also reinforced a notion that any media that doesn’t clearly reflect the values of a consumer’s political party is biased or wrong. More than half of Americans today say they can’t name an objective news source, the Gallup/Knight Foundation survey finds. Two-thirds of Republicans who say they can name an objective news outlet cite right-leaning Fox News.

“So much is driven by partisan affiliation,” says Mr. Gill. “We have a side, and we view everything – including the news – through the prism of what side we’re on, instead of determining the facts and interpreting them.”

Still, Gill notes that a major takeaway from their report is that Americans still believe the news media is crucial to democracy. And despite the verbal – and sometimes physical – assaults against reporters, local and national news outlets continue to report on abuses of power and hold officials accountable at all levels.

Some Republicans warn that antagonism toward the press, if taken too far, could backfire by alienating some voters. “When you devolve into a shouting match, that only endears you to more fringe people,” says Mr. Peters.

“The media’s never going to go away,” adds Matt Rexroad, a GOP consultant based in Sacramento. “My hope is ... if I’m fair with them, then they’ll be fair with me.”

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