Conservatives Reap the Whirlwind of Their War on the Media

For years, Republican politicians have attacked the mainstream press. With Roy Moore’s Senate bid, they’re facing the consequences.

Roy Moore greets supporters on November 11 (Marvin Gentry / Reuters)

All news is “fake news”—at least if you’re a diehard Roy Moore supporter.

With sexual misconduct allegations continuing to mount against the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, Moore has defied calls to drop out of the race by advancing an audacious conspiracy theory—that partisan fabulists in the mainstream media are working with his enemies in the political establishment to wage a nefarious smear campaign against him. Not long ago, such claims likely would have backfired. But in the Trump era, anti-press sentiment has reached a fever pitch on the right—something candidates like Moore are eagerly exploiting.

Moore has not directly denied many of the specific allegations. Instead, he has sought to cast himself as the victim of a witch hunt and sow just enough doubt in the stories to muddy the waters in voters’ minds.

“Their only response to this is really to find other villains in the process to take the heat off of them,” said the Republican strategist John Brabender, a former Rick Santorum campaign adviser. The two villains they have chosen are The Washington Post and other mainstream outlets, to “discredit the messenger,” Brabender said, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment, “to make the point that this is really just elitist establishment figures who never wanted Roy Moore.”

“From a pure strategy standpoint that is logically where you would go,” Brabender said. “That is the only way you could survive this.”

Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host, said Republican voters have been conditioned over years of right-wing media consumption to reflexively reject any news that challenges their worldview. “These alternative-reality silos—not only do they reinforce an ideological message, but they can be impenetrable,” he said.

Sykes admits that he was once part of the problem. When he hosted his popular Milwaukee-based radio show, he routinely devoted airtime to bashing the press—calling out perceived partisanship, and telling listeners that they couldn't get the full story by reading the papers. While Sykes stands by many of his critiques, he eventually grew alarmed by the hyper-skepticism his audience began to exhibit. By the middle of last year’s election, he said, he couldn’t even cite stories from The New York Times or The Washington Post on the air without listeners dismissing them as untrustworthy.

In Alabama, Sykes said, a “nightmare scenario” is unfolding. “You have credible journalism being attacked and ignored amid a flood of misinformation and bizarre propaganda,” he said, adding that his compatriots in the conservative media who are horrified by Moore need to grapple with their own culpability. “I think we should be horrified by the monster we helped create.”

Of course, conservatives have been complaining about bias in the news media for decades. "You have to remember the 1964 GOP convention—Goldwater delegates screaming at the media—to get a little sense of how deep and how long the hostility legacy exists," said Newt Gingrich. "It has just gotten steadily worse and can be seen as a deepening chasm."

But in recent years, conservatives’ culture war on the press has escalated dramatically—culminating in 2016 with Trump winning the nomination while ridiculing journalists by name from the stump. "The war between Trump and the news media, and his willingness to take them head on more than anyone since Goldwater, has solidified his base while making it harder to reach moderates who are fed a daily diet of hostility by the media,” Gingrich said.

Trump’s rise brought right-wing mistrust of the media to new heights, as Trump first mocked the media on the stump as a candidate, then kept the reporters covering his campaign in press pens at rallies, and now calls any story he doesn’t like “fake news.” There has been a shift—once, the media was just biased; now, many Republican base voters believe it is actually fabricating stories. A Politico/Morning Consult poll last month showed that 46 percent of all voters believe the media make up stories about Trump, including 76 percent of Republicans.

“The trust in the media was already at a low point and by Trump constantly going after the media, it’s further eroded faith in the media and has actually activated people to be against it,” said the Republican strategist and former RNC spokesman Doug Heye. “That’s part of the tribalism we see in our politics, the erosion in all capital-I institutions.” Heye recalled being at a George H.W. Bush rally in 1992 and seeing a bumper sticker that said “Annoy the media, vote Bush”—a message that seems almost quaint now.

“What Trump has done is he’s personalized it and activated it to where people think the media’s going after Trump, but by going after Trump the media’s going after them,” he said.

An increasingly atomized and diverse news media has meant that consumers have more control than ever about what news sources they pay attention to. And the rise of conservative talk radio in the 1990s and conservative online media over the last decade has built a conservative media ecosystem outside of which many voters don’t stray.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, argue that members of the press are the ones to blame for the loss of credibility now on display in Alabama. “They were soft on President Obama, and they were brutal on Donald Trump,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary. “You put those two together, and people logically conclude that the press goes easier on Democrats than it does on Republicans.”

Fleischer has called on Moore to drop out of the race, and said the reporting on the candidate’s alleged history with adolescent girls has been “solid.” But he doesn’t fault Alabama voters for being suspicious. “I’m very sympathetic to the conservative point of view that the press can’t be trusted,” he said. “I understand that. And I wish the press was more introspective about what they did to bring this upon themselves, instead of just dismissing [conservatives] as loonies.”

Similarly, Heye noted that in recent years the Duke Lacrosse scandal and a discredited Rolling Stone article about campus rape have engendered doubt in the media’s reporting on assault claims.

It remains to be seen whether Moore’s strategy of demonizing the media will be enough. But so far, his core supporters appear primed to disregard what they’re reading in the news.

At a press conference on Thursday given by religious activists supporting Moore, organizers requested that the media not ask questions about the allegations. When reporters did anyway, supporters berated the press, BuzzFeed reported, telling them, “You were told not to ask about that” and, “You make me sick.” Moore’s wife Kayla posted a link to her Facebook page on Wednesday of a contact form the campaign has created for people to report “inappropriate news organization contact.” And someone posing as Washington Post reporter Lenny Bernstein placed automated phone calls offering people money for information about Moore.

People are “opening their eyes, they’re seeing we’ve been led down the road by the establishment, the establishment Republicans, the fake news,” said Dean Young, a friend of Moore’s who said he has become chief strategist on the campaign. “Trump really helped people see that we’ve been lied to for a long long time, we’ve been led around like a bunch of sheep.”

The Alabama-based Republican consultant David Mowery said that though there was an automatic tendency to dismiss reporting from national outlets like the Washington Post, reports by local outlets could hold more weight there., for example, broke the news of another Moore accuser on Wednesday.

“The more it’s local media and not the Washington media, I think it becomes less of a tenable argument,” Mowery said. “I’ve seen people on my Facebook feed saying I know these women, they’re real, this happened.”

There are some segments of the national media, though, whose support Moore appears to need to stay viable. When Sean Hannity delivered a 24-hour ultimatum to Moore on Tuesday night, saying he would rescind his endorsement unless Moore explained himself, the campaign scrambled to meet the Fox News host’s demands. By Wednesday night, Hannity made clear he was not ditching Moore—much to his supporters’ relief. “I don’t know what effect that would have had,” Young said. “We sure are glad that Sean Hannity did not pull his endorsement.”

Though Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon has privately discussed whether to continue backing Moore, the site has stayed the course. For much of the day on Thursday, the site’s homepage was mostly devoted to new allegations of sexual misconduct against Democratic Senator Al Franken.

“People need to understand the value of third-party validators,” said the Republican consultant Rick Tyler, a former Ted Cruz campaign spokesman. “Otherwise it begins to look like a banana republic pretty quick. You’d have to really believe in grand conspiracies for this thing to work.”