I’ve devoted much of my professional life to the study of political campaigns, not as a historian or an academic but as a reporter and an analyst. I thought I’d seen it all, from the bizarre upset that handed a professional wrestler the governorship of Minnesota to the California recall that gave us the Governator to candidates who die but stay on the ballot and win.
But there’s a new kind of campaign underway, one that most of my colleagues and I have never publicly reported on, never fully analyzed, and never fully acknowledged: the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media.
Bashing the media for political gain isn’t new, and neither is manipulating the media to support or oppose a cause. These practices are at least as old as the Gutenberg press. But antipathy toward the media right now has risen to a level I’ve never personally experienced before. The closest parallel in recent American history is the hostility to reporters in the segregated South in the 1950s and ’60s.
Then, as now, that hatred was artificially stoked by people who found that it could deliver them some combination of fame, wealth, and power.
Some of the wealthiest members of the media are not reporters from mainstream outlets. Figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and the trio of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham have attained wealth and power by exploiting the fears of older white people. They are thriving financially by exploiting the very same free-press umbrella they seem determined to undermine.
Much of the current hand-wringing about this rise in press bashing and delegitimization has been focused on the president, who—as every reporter in America sadly knows—has declared the press the “enemy of the people.” But, like much else in the Trump era, Donald Trump didn’t start this fire; he’s only spread it to a potentially more dangerous place.
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The modern campaign against the American press corps has its roots in the Nixon era. President Richard Nixon’s angry foot soldiers continued his fight against the media even after he left office.
Roger Ailes, who went on to help found Fox News, was the most important of those figures. His sustained assault on the press created the conditions that would allow a president to surround himself with aides who argue for “alternative facts,” and announce that “truth isn’t truth.” Without Ailes, a man of Trump’s background and character could never have won. Roger Ailes was the godfather of the Trump presidency.
Nixon’s acolytes blamed the press for drumming a good man out of office. From their perspective, his crimes were no different from the misdeeds of the Kennedys or Lyndon B. Johnson—but only Nixon was held to account. Did they blame this on Nixon? On the voters? No, they blamed the stars of the Watergate drama, the heroes of All the President’s Men. They blamed the media.
Enter Roger Ailes. He first made his name by taking credit for Nixon’s rise in Joe McGinniss’s campaign book, The Selling of the President 1968. Ailes was a media genius who understood better than most how to use television to move people. There’s a fine line between motivating people through TV messages and simply manipulating them. Ailes’s gift, and the secret to his success, was his comfort in plunging across that line and embracing the role of TV manipulator.
He made his name as a political TV-ad man, one of the pioneers of the field, but he couldn’t help dabbling in news and talk. As a network programmer, Ailes excelled at matching a mood with an audience. From Mike Douglas to Limbaugh to, later, Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly, Ailes had a gift for promoting engaging, smart, man-of-the-people talkers.
In the early ’90s, while he was president of CNBC, Ailes had a hunch that an evening lineup catering to a culturally conservative audience would thrive. He wanted to give his theory a chance, but he was passed over for the leadership of the network’s new channel, MSNBC. Enter Rupert Murdoch. The mogul bought into Ailes’s theory, and in 1996 they launched Fox News with the slogan “Fair and balanced.”
From the very beginning, Ailes signaled that Fox News would offer an alternative voice, splitting with the conventions of television journalism. Take the word balanced. It sounded harmless enough. But how does one balance facts? A reporting-driven news organization might promise to be accurate, or honest, or comprehensive, or to report stories for an underserved community. But Ailes wasn’t building a reporting-driven news organization. The promise to be “balanced” was a coded pledge to offer alternative explanations, putting commentary ahead of reporting; it was an attack on the integrity of the rest of the media. Fox intended to build its brand the same way Ailes had built the brands of political candidates: by making the public hate the other choice more.
Ailes’s greatest gift as a political strategist lay not in making his clients more electable, but in making their opponents unelectable. His last formal presidential campaign was in 1988. Then–Vice President George H. W. Bush was on his way to defeat when Ailes helped orchestrate a devastating campaign against Michael Dukakis, exploiting a series of superficial issues that touched many voters’ cultural beliefs and fears about everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to furloughs for violent felons. Ailes helped destroy Dukakis by making him seem an other to many Americans.
Fox News adopted a similar strategy, rarely showcasing its own reporting or journalism. There are some great journalists at Fox, including Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shep Smith, but it’s not an organization that emphasizes journalism. Instead, Ailes created an organization that focuses on attacking the “liberal media” whose “liberal bias” was ruining America. Almost any big story that was potentially devastating to a conservative was “balanced” with some form of whataboutism. The Ailes construction has been so effective that these days, I often get mail from viewers who say: Now that you’ve focused on all of President Trump’s misdeeds, you are biased if you don’t dedicate the same amount of time to Hillary Clinton’s misdeeds. It seems completely lost on this segment of the population that one person is the leader of the free world, and the other is a retiree living in the suburbs of New York City. Because journalists report on new and controversial ideas all the time, it’s not uncommon for us to be accused of championing an idea—think of same-sex marriage—that some members of our audience find objectionable. Letting folks know that a movement is afoot, and documenting its successes and failures, is our job. But Ailes exploited the public’s lack of knowledge of journalistic conventions, portraying reports about social change as advocacy for such change. He played up cultural fears, creating the mythology of a biased press.
Reporters, I fully acknowledge, bring their own biases to their work. The questions they ask, and the stories they pursue, are shaped by things as simple as geography. I grew up in Miami; I follow Cuban politics more closely than many other Americans did. As a result, when I covered the White House, I was more likely than my colleagues to ask questions about Cuba. A New York–based reporter may approach reporting on guns, or on evangelical Christianity, differently than a reporter in Pensacola, Florida.
The charge of media bias can encompass a great many different problems. Critics, for example, may be pointing to the way that certain journalists pay more attention to some issues than to others, or complaining about the unquestioned assumptions reflected in journalists’ work. These are real issues, and most journalists labor to correct them. At the other extreme, critics may be accusing journalists of having deliberately and consciously shaped their reporting to serve some political end. That sort of overt bias is far rarer. Ironically, the best example of this kind of bias airs regularly in prime time on Fox News.
But this was the genius of Roger Ailes. He didn’t sweat the nuance; he exploited it. Errors of omission and commission, inadvertent inattention and willful disregard, unconscious assumptions and deliberate distortions—Ailes collapsed all of it into the single charge of bias.
And what did we reporters do in the face of this cable onslaught that would eventually turn into a social-media virus and lead us to the election of the most fact-free presidential candidate in American history? Nothing.
We did nothing, because we were trained to say nothing. Good reporters know that they have to let the chips fall where they may, and that criticism comes with the gig. We know that the loudest squealers are usually the ones we’ve exposed doing something untoward—and that eventually they’ll get theirs.
“Don’t engage” is a phrase I’ve heard internally at NBC over the decade I’ve been here. And “Don’t engage” was a mantra that I actually believed in. I embraced it. On most days, I still want to believe that eventually, the truth will matter. That eventually, folks will see through the silly name-calling and recognize good reporting.
In fact, we not only failed to defend our work in real time from this onslaught; we helped accelerate the campaign to delegitimize the American press corps. From unforced errors by high-profile anchors to the biggest missed news story of the 21st century—the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—we have handed critics some lethal ammunition. There’s not a serious journalist alive who hasn’t had one of those “gulp” moments when you realize that you really messed up. But serious journalists correct the record, serious journalistic organizations allow themselves to be held to account, own up to mistakes, and learn from them so they can do a better job the next time. I’m fully aware that some entity will try to tarnish this piece simply because I work at a news organization that, yes—gasp—has made mistakes. Here’s what comforts me: The record is there for all to see. The same can’t be said for the manipulators who aren’t playing by any set of serious journalistic rules.
The American press corps finds itself on the ropes because it allowed a nearly 50-year campaign of attacks inspired by the chair of Fox News to go unanswered.
If you hear something over and over again, you start to believe it, particularly if the charge is unrebutted. The Trump team now keeps pounding this message, compounding the challenge. And the president faces little penalty with his voters, no matter how disparagingly he talks about the press corps; it’s precisely what Ailes conditioned them to believe.
For me, idle death threats are now the norm. (I don’t take them seriously, because if I did, I’d never feel at peace.) But forget the personal animus or safety issues reporters now face. American democracy requires a functioning press that informs voters and creates a shared set of facts. If journalists are going to defend the integrity of their work, and the role it plays in sustaining democracy, we’re going to need to start fighting back.
The idea that our work will speak for itself is hopelessly naive. Fox, Limbaugh, and the rest of the Trump echo chamber have proved that. Meanwhile, even in Ailes’s absence, Fox seems more comfortable than ever pushing the limits of responsible behavior by a supposed news organization. It recently allowed a sitting state attorney general to co-host a show for three days. The network effectively gave a GOP candidate for Florida governor nearly unfettered access to its airwaves during his primary campaign, providing a more significant boost than any super PAC can offer. The fact that so few viewers batted an eye shows how conditioned they have become to the network’s unique ethical standards.
Does this mean that other cable-news networks should follow Fox News’s lead and become advocates? That’s not the answer. Newspapers did this in the early 19th century, when they operated as arms of the political parties. And while American democracy survived, the polarization of the early republic produced threats, brandished weapons, and even open violence on the floors of Congress with shocking regularity.
Instead of attacking rivals, or assailing critics—going negative,in the parlance of political campaigns—reporters need to showcase and defend our reporting. Every day, we need to do our job, check our facts, strive to be transparent, and say what we’re seeing. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’ve seen a nearly 50-year campaign to delegitimize the press, and I’m saying so. For years, I didn’t say a word about this publicly, and at times I even caught myself drawing false equivalencies because I was afraid of being labeled as biased. I know that stating the obvious will draw attacks, but I’ve also learned that the louder critics bark, the more they care about what’s being reported.
I’m not advocating for a more activist press in the political sense, but for a more aggressive one. That means having a lower tolerance for talking points, and a greater willingness to speak plain truths. It means not allowing ourselves to be spun, and not giving guests or sources a platform to spin our readers and viewers, even if that angers them. Access isn’t journalism’s holy grail—facts are.
The truth is that most journalists, in newsrooms large and small across the country, are doing their best each day to be fair, honest, and direct. These values are what Americans demand of one another, and it should be what they demand of their media. The challenge for viewers and readers is this: Ask yourself why someone is so determined to convince you not to believe your lying eyes.