You couldn’t miss it. Arriving in Cleveland for the 2016 Republican National Convention, visitors found themselves staring at an enormous white billboard, slapped across the top of a tall concrete building in the city’s bustling downtown, screaming a simple directive: “DON’T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA!”
The signage—black letters against a white backdrop, save for “LIBERAL MEDIA” in bloody red—was ample around town the week of Donald Trump’s coronation in Cleveland. It was carried on top of taxicabs; projected with lights onto a sleepy city building; and held on posters behind live cable news broadcasts throughout the week. The message paired splendidly with Trump’s remarks in accepting the GOP nomination. “Remember, all of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want are the same people telling you that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight,” he said. “No longer can we rely on those elites in media and politics who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”
But the displays in downtown Cleveland weren’t paid for by Trump’s campaign, or the Republican National Committee, or an affiliated super PAC. They were a victory lap of sorts for conservative activist Brent Bozell and his advocacy group, the Media Research Center—one of the most active and best-funded, and yet least known, arms of the modern conservative movement. It was as if the billboard was announcing that the right’s decadeslong jihad against the mainstream press had reach its apogee in Trump, a candidate who made vicious rhetorical attacks on journalists a staple of his raucous campaign events, railed about the “crooked” and “lying media” in nearly every debate, and even went after individual reporters by name.
It remains something of a myth that Vietnam and Watergate shattered Americans’ innocence and launched an era of institutional mistrust. As of 1986, Gallup was finding that 65 percent of Americans still felt a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the press. The next year, inside a rickety townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, the Media Research Center—or MRC—was born. Its mission was simple: Highlight examples of alleged bias from the nation’s major news organizations and hold them accountable. Bozell, born into right-wing royalty—the nephew of National Review founder William F. Buckley, and son of Brent Bozell Jr., Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter and the ghost-writer of his book, Conscience of a Conservative—had not yet distinguished himself in the conservative movement. That would soon change. Over the ensuing decades, with the assistance of tens of millions of dollars from prominent Republican donors, the MRC moved to the front lines of America’s culture wars, relentlessly assailing what it viewed as a godless, condescending, out-of-touch national media—and systematically chipping away at its credibility in the minds of voters. The results were manifest: 30 years after that 1986 survey, as Trump steamrolled his way into the White House, Gallup released new numbers showing confidence in the press at all-time low of 32 percent. Among Republicans, it was just 14 percent. [Continue reading…]
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