The so-called mainstream media is once again under fire from conservatives — and the organizational apparatus of the Republican Party — which, like a football team that feels the referees are unfair, is threatening to only play its games on its home field. The question is whether these publicly vented gripes are really a winning game plan, however cathartic they might be.
Of course, assertions about liberal bias in the media have been a longtime staple of the right, fueling the growth of more sympathetic media outlets, from Fox News Channel to conservative talkradio to websites like Breitbart and Drudge. Still, Republicans have always found it necessary to go into what they view as the lions’ den, engaging traditional news outlets — from the New York Times to the network divisions and CNN — while continuing to register their displeasure.
The decision by the GOP to pull out of a scheduled debate on NBC marks a particularly pointed shot across the bow, one that reflects both distrust of that organization — due in part to its affiliation with MSNBC – and what seems to be an even more us-against-the-world mentality that has grown during the past seven years.
What’s changed? The election of Barack Obama — a president many on the right still see as incompetent at best, and illegitimate at worst — has pushed conservative partisans into another level of indignation about media bias. The clear enthusiasm Obama’s candidacy generated in media circles — thanks to his groundbreaking status as the first African-American president — has raised the level of anger from unhappy to, in certain quarters, something closer to unhinged.
There is, certainly, a self-serving component to some of this. Fox News’ marketing genius has been to position itself as the alternative to liberal media, the place where conservatives can get a fair shake. The same goes for personalities like Rush Limbaugh, who regularly insist that their shows are lonely islands of the unvarnished truth.
The question for Republicans, as this latest media war escalates, is how much of that is mere posturing versus a genuine decision to avoid outlets that they deem unfriendly. Because while Fox News or Limbaugh are obviously hugely successful within their worlds, limiting one’s message to only that subset of the electorate that vigorously agrees with you hardly sounds like a winning strategy.
It should be noted, too, that NBC hasn’t been alone in being a target of ridicule. Witness the response to George Stephanopoulos’ ill-advised donation to the Clinton Foundation, leaving the former Clinton administration operative turned ABC News anchor vulnerable to charges of having his thumb on the scales tilted toward his old team.
As noted, part of this is just theatrics. To extend the football analogy, Republican howling about the media not only plays well with the base (or its fans), but also keeps the pressure on news folk to endeavor to be fair — and potentially put them on the defensive — in the same way a coach will work the officials during the course of a game, hoping for the benefit of the doubt on a call later.
One can understand why Republicans would push to make sure they have a level playing field. Still, the new phase of this relationship indicates a shift that, in the long term, doesn’t look like it will be to the GOP’s advantage. Because ultimately it seems harder to win if you simply decide to take your ball and go home.