Donald Trump loves to lambaste the media, but he’s a pure product of the media. Since the financial turmoil that overtook his real estate empire in early 1990s, his major business has been cultivating his brand, in selling the idea that he’s a genius businessman so he can license his name. “Trump,” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias notes, “is a true celebrity: a person who’s famous primarily for being famous. He earns a lot of money, but his income derives from the fact that he hosts a television show, not from skill at building and running companies.”
In his triumph as the Republican nominee, Trump received invaluable aid from one particular branch of the media: the right-wing noise machine that caters to the conservative faithful. While Trump might have been criticized for his bigotry and lies by liberal and centrist outlets, he continued to be lionized and defended by the likes of Fox News’ Sean Hannity, the Drudge Report, and Breitbart. The chairman of the latter website, Steve Bannon, was tapped this week to be the CEO of Trump’s campaign, thereby consecrating the union of right-wing media and Republican politics.
One salutary byproduct of Trump’s rise is that some in conservative media are having second thoughts, taking stock of how their own bad habits have enabled an unfit demagogue to become their party’s standard-bearer. For liberals, these self-assessments are especially gratifying since they vindicate longstanding critiques about how conservatives media caters to the worst instincts of the Republican base, thereby creating a right-wing bubble that’s immune to the truth.
There’s got to be a reckoning on all this. We created this monster. And look, I’m a conservative talk show host. All conservative hosts have basically established their brand as being contrasted to the mainstream media. So we have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media. And by the way, a lot of it has been justifiable. There is real bias. But, at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.
As Sykes notes, conservative’s discrediting of the mainstream media has caused many Republican voters to distrust factual criticisms of their candidates. “We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers,” he said.
Matthew Sheffield, editor of the online journal Praxis, makes a similar point in an article in National Review. Sheffield argues that Democrats are far more likely to pay attention to critiques of their own candidates that appear in the mainstream press: “Smart Democratic strategists know that if a scandal is a problem to their unaffiliated sympathizers in the press, it is something worth taking seriously.”
In contrast to liberals who take seriously criticism made from outside sources, conservatives have created a bubble that allows noxious ideas and politicians to flourish:
By and large, conservatives have no such positive feedback loops. Instead, the Right’s media monoculture has created negative feedback loops whereby people with little political acumen like Mark Levin, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck are able to fill Republican voters’ heads with nonsensical ideas like planning to shut down the government with no backup plan or electing fewer GOP officeholders in pursuit of more “pure” ones, primarily because they grossly overestimate the number of conservatives in America. It is poetic justice that many of the same people who pushed these naive positions and strategies saw their own imbecilic noise machine turned against their preferred presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, in this year’s Republican primaries.
It’s heartening that conservatives like Sykes and Sheffield recognize there is a problem. As it is with addicts, honesty is the necessary first step. But the problem remains: How can this “imbecilic noise machine” be fixed? Sheffield makes some vague gestures to the idea that the donor class might want to invest in a more honest conservative media. But, even if they did that, there’s no evidence that such a media would find an audience.
Despite the skimpiness of Sheffield’s proposal, it’s possible to outline a reform agenda that could fix conservative journalism:
1. Conservative pundits need to become more intellectually honest and not knee-jerk in dismissing mainstream outlets as inherently biased. A moratorium on the whole cliché of liberal media bias would be in order.
2. Relatedly, nurture young writers with an eye to encouraging them to have mainstream careers, not just futures as conservative pundits. There have been a few good journalists to emerge out of the conservative media—notably former National Review reporter Robert Costa, now at the Washington Post. But all too often, the incentive structure is for talent to stay within the conservative cocoon.
3. Conservative media needs to invest in long-form, deep-dive reporting that focuses on policy and not just electoral politics. Currently you never see conservative outlets do articles like Mother Jones’s celebrated report on private prisons. Investigative reporting is expensive, but conservative outlets need to convince their donors that it will be good for the intellectual health of the movement in the long run. Of all the conservative outlets in existence, the Washington Free Beacon is the best at prioritizing reporting, but isn’t known for doing long-form journalism.
4. Be more open to unorthodox and contrarian ideas, especially ones that criticize conservative conventional wisdom. Given the current fracturing under Trump, it’s possible we’ll see more infighting in the conservative press, which would be a healthy development.
Will these reforms work? It’s hard to know. Will they happen? That’s even more unlikely. But given its current crisis, the conservative media has little to lose in trying.