Listening to Newt Gingrich bash the media during Republican primary debates — even going so far as to suggest journalists can’t be fair arbiters and shouldn’t be allowed to moderate them — evokes memories of how long the GOP has been setting up and knocking over this particular straw man.
More amazing, though, is how successful and inoculating the strategy has proven over the last quarter century — and how ill-equipped and inarticulate the media have been in responding to it.
In hindsight, the seminal moment in the modern conservative-media relationship occurred almost exactly 24 years ago, when then-Vice President and presidential candidate George H.W. Bush engaged in a testy, heated live exchange with Dan Rather, CBS News’ reigning anchor. Pressed on his role in the Iran-Contra affair, Bush — prepped by then-consultant Roger Ailes — sniped back at Rather about an embarrassing incident in which the newsman had stormed off the set, leaving CBS with blank air.
Bush spoke the next day about needing “combat pay” for an interview he described as “tension city,” during which Rather clearly lost his cool. Yet the televised fireworks served their purpose: Allowing Bush to pick a fight with a representative of the liberal media establishment, one well known for his tough coverage of President Nixon.
As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, “Bush campaign officials and the vice president himself were ecstatic about Monday’s encounter,” quoting a spokesman who said, “The American people are suspicious of networks and network news anyway because of their power, and Rather is a symbol of that power.”
Ailes went on to build Fox News Channel as a conservative-leaning counterpoint to the major networks on the foundation that informed the Bush-Rather confrontation. Moreover, his network has employed precisely the same playbook as the GOP, cleverly placing the so-called mainstream media in a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.
Fight back against such assaults on their credibility, and journalists reinforce charges they are antagonistic toward conservatives — and, not incidentally, appear defensive. Let the broadsides fly without reacting to them, and they wind up failing to ask or to follow up tough questions.
Various reporters — CNN’s John King and Wolf Blitzer, NBC’s David Gregory, even Fox’s Juan Williams — have faced this during Republican debates, but none performed terribly convincingly. Indeed, the real dismantling of the strategy has fallen to third parties such as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which can be dismissed by conservatives not only as partisan, but as a comedy show. (Granted, even Stewart often finds it difficult to defend CNN, less for being biased than simply inept.)
It’s only fitting, perhaps, that after helping the GOP perfect its media-bashing formula, Rather advanced it again — feeding the worst fears in conservative circles — with CBS’ sloppy report on the second President Bush’s National Guard service. Seizing upon Rather’s involvement with the story — which ultimately hastened his exit from the network — provided ammunition for the GOP in executing its “the best defense is a good offense” routine.
As Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer noted, Gingrich possesses more motive than most politicians to occasionally shoot the messenger: He carries around an inordinate amount of baggage — marital infidelity and congressional censure to name just two — so it’s frequently advantageous for him to change the subject.
Still, his criticism finds an extremely receptive ear among conservatives, as evidenced by Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell applauding Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina as having struck a blow against the despised media, following as it did ABC News’ interview with the former Speaker’s ex-wife.
So what’s the proper answer to these media-bias allegations? Nothing’s foolproof, naturally, but try this one: “Governor/Mr. Speaker/Senator: We’re part of one of the major companies you generally champion, and as a for-profit enterprise, our principal concern is what will generate the most ratings, readers or traffic. So to quote the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank: ‘Sure, some of us are ideologically biased, but we are far more biased in favor of conflict.'”
Alas, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen — or for conservatives to declare a truce in their media war. Besides, for politicians eager to look tough, what better way is there than to take on a heavyweight, even if it’s one with a glass jaw who, conveniently, won’t punch back?