There is alive in the land an organized campaign to discredit the American press. This campaign is succeeding. Its roots are long. For decades, the Republican coalition has tried to hang together by hating on elites who claim to know things, like: “What is art?” Or: “What should college students be taught?” Or: “What counts as news?”
The media wing of this history extends back to Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. It passes through Spiro Agnew’s speeches for Richard Nixon in 1969, and winds forward to our own time through William Rusher’s 1988 book, The Coming Battle for the Media, the growth of conservative talk radio in the 1990s, and the spectacular success of the Fox News Channel, which found a lucrative business model in resentment news, culture war, and the battle cry of liberal bias.
Donald Trump is both the apotheosis of this history and its accelerant. He has advanced the proposition dramatically, from undue influence—Agnew’s claim—to something closer to treason, in which journalists have become “enemies of the people.” Instead of criticizing “the Media” for unfair treatment, as Agnew did, Trump whips up hatred of it. Some of his most demagogic moments have been attacks on the press, often by singling out reporters and camera crews for abuse during rallies with an atmosphere of menace.
Nixon seethed about the press in private. Trump seethes in public, a very different act. But his transformation of the right-wing media complaint goes beyond these lurid performances. It starts at the top, with the president’s almost daily attacks on “fake news,” and his description of leading institutions—The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC—as failing and corrupt. Contempt thus has two places to settle.
At the bottom of the pyramid is an army of online trolls and alt-right activists who shout down stories critical of the president and project hatred at the journalists who report them. Between the president at the top and the base at the bottom are the mediating institutions: Breitbart, Drudge Report, The Daily Caller, Rush Limbaugh, and, especially, Fox News. [Continue reading…]