by Bruce Dunlavy       (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The mainstream news media (MSM) are all “liberal,” says President Donald Trump.

The concept did not originate with him.  For nearly half a century we have heard the drumbeat of that same story from conservative after conservative, president after president.  It’s not new, and those media have not, for the first time, after years of honest reporting, suddenly risen up in a unified left-wing attack on the president.

Anyone who wants to start looking into the origins of this widespread misbelief can turn to the apotheosis of the paranoiac-as-president, Richard M. Nixon.  Shortly after his inauguration in 1969, Nixon found that not every media outlet was going to shill for his programs and trumpet what a great president he was.  Nixon, much like Trump, brooked no opposition.

Nixon of course had a long history (at least back to 1952) of getting someone else to fight his battles and do his dirty work while he pretended to be above the messy and unseemly fighting that is part of politics.  As president, he most often turned for these tasks to his growling, snappish vice-president, Spiro T. Agnew.  In late October, 1969, Nixon gave a televised address in which he called for public support of his Vietnam policy.  He was not pleased with the way network news departments handled it.  On November 13, Agnew gave a speech at the Mid-West Regional Republican Committee Meeting, in Des Moines, Iowa, that can be seen as the genesis of the modern attack on perceived media bias.

In the speech (principally written by Nixon aide Pat Buchanan), Agnew focused on television networks (there were then only three) and their presentation of news. He cited the outsized influence of the “prejudiced” and “hostile” networks and accused them of preparing “instant analysis” in the form of anti-administration attacks to be trotted out after every Nixon appearance, provoking increases in the number of anti-administration demonstrations by reporting on them, and presenting only the opposition side of political debate. “In this search for excitement and controversy,” Agnew asked, “has more than equal time gone to that minority of Americans who specialize in attacking the United States, its institutions, and its citizens?”

A week after the Des Moines speech, Agnew gave another in Montgomery, Alabama, attacking the print media.  It is ironic that in that speech he blasted the agglomeration of information control in the hands of a few media giants who were buying up numerous broadcast and print journalism outlets.  Since that time, such concentration of information sources has only become worse, primarily because of Republican administrations’ relaxation of communications rules. Agnew’s testy relationship with the news media became the defining feature of his political career, which came to a crashing halt in 1973, when he resigned his office after revelations he had brought small-time corruption to a White House better known for big-time corruption.

Since Agnew, it has been a bedrock tenet of conservative orthodoxy that the news media are all left-wing liberals out to deride, criticize, and misrepresent anything they do not agree with.  Never mind that Fox News has outlets everywhere, AM radio is wall-to-wall Rush Limbaugh during the day and Glenn Beck types at night, or that newspapers in non-competitive markets generally follow a pro-business, “booster-boomer” editorial line.

Image credit:

Presidents Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Bush the Younger all took shots at the media suggesting that opposition to presidential policy is an attack on the office of the presidency itself (and, by extension, on America).  Wrapping oneself in the flag and suggesting that criticism is practically treason was around before them, too, but it was really with the Nixon/Agnew “shoot-the-messenger” statements that the “media are liberal” chant became acknowledged policy of the right.

In an earlier post, I suggested we may have had a 75-year “golden age” in which journalism was marked by responsibility and integrity.  That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it was definitely a time when the most important aim of responsible reporting was truth.  That began to change after the Agnew speeches of 1969, and was certainly in decline by the mid-1970s.  Around that time, news media began to worship at another altar, glorifying “balance” more than honest evaluation.

Media outlets found themselves increasingly concerned with providing “the other side of the story” and giving ample opportunity for direct rebuttal by opposition leaders.  It became de rigueur for a president’s State of the Union address – and other major policy speeches – to be followed by a rebuttal from the other party.  Fair enough, I suppose, but it does not make informed analysis by independent observers unnecessary, and should not take its place.

How strange, then, that this effort to achieve “balance” should be accompanied by ever-louder calls to distrust the “lame-stream media.”  Even stranger is that one of the major news outlets has adopted as its motto, “Fair and Balanced,” when it is unquestionably the least balanced of the network news departments.

Early in his administration, President Trump has declared war on the popular media. In the manner of his predecessors, when something goes awry in his White House, the first targets are not the wrong-doers or fumblers, but on those who call them out.  He has quickly adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about anything he doesn’t want to see publicized.

But the job of the press is not to be the president’s cheerleaders or his public relations staff.  The job of journalists is to seek the truth and to shine light into the dark corners. Trump has been not only combative in his relationship with the news media, but made his expectations clear: that it is improper to ask a question he does not want to be asked.  As often noted, this is exactly what an independent press is supposed to do – to ask the questions they don’t want you to ask. Anything else, the saying goes, is just providing public relations.

At his extended press conference on February 15, 2017, the president stated, “I’m not ranting and raving.  I’m just telling you you’re dishonest people.” He acknowledged, “I want to find a friendly reporter,” and he called on 19-year-old Kyle Mazza, who represents no news organization but himself.  The young man lobbed a pointless softball, inquiring about Melania Trump’s role as First Lady. “That is what I call a nice question,” Trump cooed. Mazza later gushed, “I’m so appreciative….the president took time out of his day to answer my question.”

Being nice is not the job of reporters.  Being tough is.  Being persistent is. Being courageous is.  The president says the news media are “The Enemy of the People” – a frightening accusation with totalitarian overtones of “Don’t trust them; listen only to me.”

The news media are there for a purpose, and that purpose is to be the eyes and ears of the public.  It’s a difficult job.  With this president, it is especially difficult because of his apparent lack of concern for facts. As he runs a Gish Gallop that only occasionally brushes up against the truth, the job of reporters (such as George Stephanopolous in this interview) becomes almost impossible as, no sooner than one misleading or downright false statement is uttered, another follows before the first can be challenged.

It’s easy for active, informed journalists and commentators to be discouraged in this climate of “truth is where you want it to be, and the people you should be listening to are those who know and care the least about it.”  Let us hope that honest, responsible journalists don’t give up in the face of abuse and the raging success of the irresponsible.