the national interest

Without Media Accountability, Republicans Will Govern Like a One-Party State

Photo: John Raoux/AP

Last week, the Florida Republican Party held its annual Sunshine Summit, which was marked by a new policy: The mainstream media was not permitted to cover the event. Instead, the only “news” would be transmitted through conservative-approved sources. “We in the state of Florida are not going to allow legacy media outlets to be involved in our primaries,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis said. “I’m not going to have a bunch of left-wing media people asking our candidates gotcha questions.”

The next day, the Washington Post published a detailed reported story on the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank whose scholars have supported the Trump administration’s efforts to secure an unelected second term. The Institute’s president, Ryan Williams, replied on the record that he saw no need to explain any of this. “The Claremont Institute,” he wrote, “is not interested in participating in the fiction that the Washington Post is a legitimate media outlet, or that its chronically discredited journalists are dispassionate fact-finders intent on bringing their readers objective news.”

As long as it has existed, the right has loathed the news media. Figures like Joe McCarthy and Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used the tactic of pointing to alleged media bias to discredit reporting that challenged their lies. But, as David Freedlander noted, the right’s war on independent media is reaching a new stage of blanket refusal to acknowledge its legitimacy.

It’s difficult to analyze this subject without forming a view on the underlying question of the media’s bias, and there are few questions more subject to bias than the subject of media bias itself. My view is that the mainstream media does have an overall liberal lean, and that it has grown over time, as legacy media brands have hired staff from newer online organs that have no tradition of objectivity. But those changes have made their strongest mark in the coverage of culture and lifestyle, while political news has mostly retained its traditional character.

Whether the news media treats the Republican Party more or less harshly than the Democratic Party is a question that can’t be measured, and which most people settle by resorting to anecdotes. Partisans cling to examples of the media treating their side unfairly, with especially noxious examples hauled out of storage to be gazed at repeatedly, like cherished family heirlooms.

For the purposes of my argument here, I’d like to bracket it. The only point I need to make is that the mainstream media does routinely report critically on the Democratic Party. If you are watching CNN or reading the New York Times, you have encountered a steady stream of articles questioning whether Joe Biden is too old for the job, noting high inflation, pummeling the Afghanistan withdrawal, and so on. Whether you believe this level of criticism is excessive or insufficient is a matter of perspective, but the clear fact is that it exists.

Nothing like this exists within the conservative media. The communications apparatus of the conservative movement was established with the goal of advancing the right’s political interests. Its organs often borrow superficial conventions, like bylines and the inverted-pyramid structure, to create the simulacrum of a traditional news medium. But the people working in these institutions understand they are working for the conservative movement, not on behalf of the public’s right to know. Their approach to malfeasance by their side is to ignore, distort, or change the subject to some agreed-upon sin by the enemy (a practice called “whataboutism”).

The rise of Donald Trump intensified the bubble effect in the conservative media. His famous boast that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue without losing any support reflected his grasp of the conservative base’s imperviousness to facts. Trump understood that he could maintain his base without engaging with external reality at any rational level; reporting that made him look bad was simply “fake news” by definition.

And yet, paradoxically, Trump is more accessible to the mainstream media than his successors for party leadership. He continues to grant periodic interviews to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, even as he rails against them. Trump’s career was shaped by a fruitful partnership with the mainstream media. He burst onto the scene by manipulating the New York Times into publishing a profile misleadingly presenting his father’s wealth as his own, setting into motion a self-fulfilling image as a business tycoon that itself became his main marketable asset. Trump never fully gave up his belief that he could exploit the mainstream media’s attention. As the only Republican who built his career on puff pieces in the mainstream media, his idiosyncratic fondness for it is bound to die off as he passes from the scene.

The attitude that is bound to succeed him is the kind displayed by Republicans like Doug Mastriano, whose staff has physically blocked reporters from accessing his events. DeSantis has thrilled conservatives by broadcasting his belief that mainstream news reporters are left-wing activists whom he treats as the enemy.

DeSantis’s decade-old manifesto, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers, provides a revealing glimpse into his views on the media. The book’s primary theme is an argument that the Constitution does or should not permit left-of-center governments to enact policies that redistribute resources from the rich to the poor. But a secondary theme coursing through his argument is contempt for the media. The Obama administration is DeSantis’s main target and the case study for what he sees as an existential threat to the republic. News stories and commentary compose the bulk of the research DeSantis conducted.

The method he uses is brutally simple. Every story that casts Obama in a negative light is grist for his argument against Obama. Every story that casts him in a positive light is grist for his argument against the news media. He has turned his brain into a sorter that places every piece of news about Obama into either a box labeled “Obama is bad” or a box labeled “media is biased.” This happens to reveal the fundamental methodological flaw that renders conservatives unable to temper their critiques of the media (which, again, is not altogether imaginary) with any appreciation for its constructive role.

The DeSantis method has become the state of the art in conservative handling of independent media. DeSantis hardly ever faces questions he would rather not answer. He is gobbling up cash from billionaires and building a presidential-campaign apparatus without exposing himself on even basic subjects like “What is your domestic platform?” and “Did Joe Biden legitimately win the 2020 election?” He is instead enjoying a gusher of coverage in the conservative media that is indistinguishable in tone and content from the messages produced by his own staff.

To the extent he faces news coverage that discomfits him, DeSantis rules it out of bounds categorically. Last month, the Post reported that his spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, had violated the law by failing to report that she had represented a foreign politician and failing to register as a foreign lobbyist. DeSantis called the story a “smear piece,” yet failed to challenge any of its factual claims:

“I am not deterred by any smear piece from these legacy media outlets. The only reason they’re attacking her is because she does a great job, and she’s very effective at calling out their lies and their phony narratives. And so, whenever they’re smearing somebody, you know that person is over the target, and so they’re scared of that. I would be much more concerned with my press secretary if the Washington Post was writing puff pieces about her.”

The tone of the conservative response was captured by the Fox News treatment of the episode, which ran under the headline “Gov. Ron DeSantis to WaPo, ‘legacy media’ after ‘smear’ attempt: ‘We don’t care what you think anymore,’” and which transmitted a glowing account of DeSantis’s attacks on the Post without noting that the story was completely true. The exchange may have advanced rather than harmed DeSantis’s presidential prospects.

Pushaw’s failure to register as a foreign agent is hardly the sort of mistake that ought to doom a candidacy. What matters about the episode is the direction, not the scale. A candidate should have an incentive not to be the subject of an accurate exposé about a high-ranking staffer’s legal violation, rather than an incentive to use such stories to burnish his credentials as an enemy of the enemy of the people.

The incentive structure that is now in place allows Republican politicians to escape any accountability whatsoever. The only “journalists” they deem legitimate are ones who are functionally working for them. They communicate to their base through a news echo chamber that grants them almost unlimited right to violate ethics, norms, or their own promises. The elimination of any standards — except, of course, loyalty to conservative ideology — has an inevitable effect on the quality of their governance. The GOP will function in power like the ruling party in a one-party state. The results under Trump’s presidency were merely a sign of what is to come.

The Unaccountable GOP Will Govern Like a One-Party State