On Wednesday, not long after Arizona Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to denounce Donald Trump’s media-bashing as “despotic” and “authoritarian,” the president proved him right by releasing his “Highly Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards.” Flake’s earnest speech and Trump’s petty “awards” represent opposing Republican views of the media—but both of them deserve criticism, for different reasons.
Trump’s much-hyped “awards” ended up being nothing but a blog post on the Republican National Committee’s website that listed 10 articles from mainstream outlets allegedly guilty of “unrelenting bias, unfair news coverage, and even downright fake news.” The first item wasn’t news at all, but New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s mistaken prediction on election night in 2016 that the stock market would “never” recover from Trump’s victory. Other items included stories that were misreported but quickly corrected, as when Time magazine falsely reported that Trump removed a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office. What the list mainly demonstrates is that large media organizations sometimes make factual errors, but have a useful process for correcting them.
It’s easy to dismiss the Fake News Awards as just another example of Trump’s clowning. Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider, cautioned that liberals were too quick to frame this silly stunt as an example of an attack on the free press:
But if the Fake News Awards were faintly ridiculous, Trump’s larger pattern of attacking the media, including repeated calls from the White House for journalists to be fired, is deeply disturbing, for reasons that Flake’s speech helped illuminate. As Flake noted, Trump is a purveyor of numerous falsehoods, both trivial (the size of his inaugural crowds) and serious (birtherism, and the claim that the Russian collusion story is a “hoax”). By attacking the media, calling major news organizations the “enemy of the people,” Trump is pursuing a familiar authoritarian tactic of trying to discredit independent institutions that can hold power in check.
“No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence,” Flake said. “No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism, who must constantly deflect and distort and distract, who must find someone else to blame, is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”
There is much to commend in Flake’s speech, and liberals as a whole have been too churlish in dismissing it:
This is a short-sighted objection. After all, Flake can’t be expected to change his ideology simply because he doesn’t like Trump. The more important fact is that he’s using his prominent platform to convince fellow Republicans, particularly in Congress, to hold the president accountable. That should be welcomed, particularly by liberals.
The real problem with Flake’s speech is that it offers only a partial analysis, one that leaves out the reason why Trump’s attacks on the media are effective: They fit into a preexisting right-wing narrative crafted by Fox News. As Matthew Gertz of Media Matters has documented, Trump is caught in a “feedback loop” with Fox News. He often echoes talking points he hears on the network, which itself tries to keep the favor of the president by constantly defending him and attacking other media outlets. This relationship governs much of Trump’s time and shapes his tweeting:
As former President Barack Obama noted in a recent interview with David Letterman, problems such as Russian interference in the election are rooted in a polarized media diet in America. “What the Russians exploited—but it was already here—is we are operating in completely different universes,” Obama said. “If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you, you know, listen to NPR.”
Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media have the same origin. Fox News was created to combat alleged liberal bias in the mainstream media, so Trump is just following the script he learned from the network. No wonder, as Washington Post columnist Daniel Drezner wrote, that Fox News reporters were “super-exited” about the Fake News Awards (they did not receive one, of course).
It’s possible for reality to break through the Republican media bubble. President George W. Bush lost support from his own party as the Iraq war dragged on and the economy went into free fall. But the Republicans who became disillusioned with Bush still continued to watch Fox News. And much of what they saw on Fox—birtherism, climate-change denial, conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton—led Republican voters to become avid fans of Trump, since he was echoing their preferred news source.
The problem isn’t just that Fox News sometimes presents patently false narratives, but that its audience is addicted to it—often to the exclusion of other news sources. As a recent Gallup/Knight poll demonstrates, Democratic voters are split among a variety of news sources they regard as objective, while Fox News has a near monopoly among Republicans:
It’s hard enough for a Republican like Flake to attack Trump, but it’s even harder to challenge Fox News. Trump remains popular among Republican voters thanks to the powerful media bubble created by the network. While it’s possible that extreme circumstances cause Trump’s fan base to shrink, it’s harder to imagine the Fox News bubble bursting. More likely, the bubble will remain intact long after Trump leaves the stage, priming its viewers for whichever authoritarian figures emerge in his wake.