The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We should take the pro-Trump media machine very seriously

(Evan Vucci/AP)


President Trump’s supporters believe that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is “unethical,” “desperate,” “partisan” and “a liar.” That is one of the key takeaways from a focus group that Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart held Tuesday night in a Milwaukee suburb, which was attended by The Post’s Philip Rucker.

Those who voted for Trump said again and again in various ways that the Mueller probe is a witch hunt. As one woman put it: “This investigation’s ongoing because people aren’t happy that Trump is in power and they’re looking for any way to get him out.”

Now keep that in mind as we turn to this important piece by Axios’s Sara Fischer on “the rise of the pro-Trump media machine.” The key takeaway:

Pro-Trump media is spreading across the U.S., disseminating Trumpian rhetoric about fake news and mainstream media bias through every medium.

As Axios notes, Bill O’Reilly — who was forced out of Fox — may soon broadcast again in prime time at Newsmax TV, which is owned by close Trump friend Chris Ruddy, giving Trump “another media ally to disseminate his talking points.” Other examples:

Radio: Executives at Salem Radio, the parent company of some of the most popular conservative talk shows, pressured radio hosts to cover Trump more positively, according to emails obtained by CNNMoney.
Broadcast: Sinclair Broadcasting, the largest owner of local TV stations, has drawn criticism for its ‘must-run’ editorials and scripts — peppering local newscasts with pro-Trump talking points — but continues the practice.

Meanwhile, a recent New York magazine story painted a startling picture of just how deeply in thrall Trump is to Sean Hannity and Fox News: He talks to Hannity pretty much every night, and his view of the Mueller probe is deeply shaped by Hannity’s nonstop propaganda about it, which relentlessly bombards millions with the message that the investigation is nothing but a “Deep State coup” that has corruptly failed to prosecute the real criminal, i.e., Hillary Clinton.

When negative news about President Trump breaks, Fox News often talks about anything else, including cheeseburger emojis and aggressive pandas. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

One key point raised by Fischer is that this evolving effort is animated by the explicit goal of setting up a media ecosystem that will function as an alternative to the big news organizations, which are increasingly moving toward subscription-based models and may have more liberal-leaning audiences.

It’s hard to tell just how pervasive this all is. But one imagines that more reporting in coming weeks will flesh out just how far the reach of this alternative information ecosystem extends. The story of the rise of Fox News and the right-wing media — particularly the talk radio universe — is an old one, of course. But one has to ask whether this is all creating new levels of information polarization, particularly given the president’s unprecedented demonization of the mainstream news outlets and his ongoing efforts to actively promote pro-Trump propaganda outlets like Fox News and others.

This directly intersects with several big ongoing stories in our politics right now. The first is the basic question of whether mainstream journalists are adequately reckoning with just how hostile Trump — and many of his allies and supporters — are to their fundamental institutional role, their values and their mission. The failure of many reporters to admit that Michelle Wolf was absolutely right about this White House’s level of bad-faith dishonesty, and about the challenges that creates for good-faith journalism, revealed that in many respects they are not adequately reckoning with the real problem here, which is that in the Trump era, their mission of objective truth-seeking is inevitably going to be divisive and alienating to millions of his voters.

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After all, majorities of Republicans now see the media as “the enemy of the American people.” And as Fischer’s reporting indicates, this alternate information ecosystem is actively amplifying Trump’s efforts to obliterate public faith in the media’s institutional mediating role in our democracy. If we learn more about its reach, that should shed more light on that deeper problem.

The second big story this intersects with is the coming confrontation between Trump and Mueller.

Interestingly, last night’s focus groups outside of Milwaukee found that while Trump voters think Mueller is conducting a witch hunt, they nonetheless don’t think Trump should try to remove him. So there are at least some limits to the clout of this alternate media universe’s persuasive powers. But if Mueller finds serious or even criminal conduct, it is extremely likely that this alternate information ecosystem will play a critical role in Trump’s efforts to rally his supporters on his behalf and against Mueller and his findings. That could in turn make it less likely that Republicans act on them — and more likely that Trump escapes accountability.

In that coming confrontation, Trump’s ability to rely on an extensive media network that will back him to the hilt no matter what gives him an advantage that President Richard Nixon did not have during the climax of Watergate. As Fischer’s reporting indicates, we don’t really have a clear sense of just how extensive or influential that network really is. And we don’t have any idea yet what this really means for the country over the long term.

* WOMEN SCORE BIG: The big story of last night’s primaries, reports The Post, is that women won a bunch of Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania, in districts they are now heavily favored to win:

Democrats Chrissy Houlahan, Mary Gay Scanlon and Madeleine Dean were nominated in districts that Democrats are favored to win in November. In another district Democrats are aggressively contesting, they nominated Susan Wild. All told, Democrats nominated seven women for the House in Pennsylvania. Republicans nominated one.

These are the candidates Pennsylvania Dems wanted. It was a step toward possibly flipping at least three districts in Pennsylvania, where the redrawn map is key to winning the House.

* DEMS SHOW BIG TURNOUT EDGE: Another important takeaway out of the primaries in Pennsylvania:

With nearly 90 percent of precincts reporting, Democrats had cast nearly 100,000 more votes than Republicans. In Erie County, where Republicans saw one of their most dramatic surges in 2016, Democrats cast 5,000 more votes than the GOP.

For all the talk about Trump’s supposedly rising approval rating, keep an eye on this disparity in enthusiasm.

* TRUMP’S NAFTA REWRITE MAY BE POSTPONED: The Wall Street Journal reports that negotiators are unlikely to reach a deal on a renegotiated the North American Free Trade Act in time for a congressional vote this year, as Trump had hoped. And:

Meanwhile, GOP senators from agricultural states also began meeting with Mr. Trump. They discouraged him from pulling out of the agreement, warning him that such a step would set up a confrontation with Republicans in Congress and potentially hurt the party in the midterm congressional elections, especially in farm states.

Trump has threatened to rip up NAFTA if he doesn’t get a new deal, and now he might not. But if he makes good on his threat, it could hurt the GOP in the midterms.

* TRUMP’S NORTH KOREA HOPES ARE SCRAMBLED: North Korea just sharply criticized South Korea’s military drills and flatly stated that if the White House demands disarmament, it could nix coming talks with Trump. CNN’s Stephen Collinson comments:

The warning delivered a jolt of reality, underscoring that despite weeks of positive steps by North Korea and Trump’s gusher of praise for Kim, the process of negotiating with the inscrutable state remains as treacherous as ever. … The comments appeared to be a direct repudiation of statements by top Trump administration officials that North Korea must accept the total and irrevocable elimination of its nuclear arsenal …

Hopefully Trump will surprise us, but it’s hard to imagine that he has the subtlety to navigate complicated setbacks like this one.

* DEMS HOPE TO GAIN GROUND IN THE SOUTH: NBC News reports that Democrats are bullish about their chances of making headway in the South — in gubernatorial contests:

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who leads the Democratic Governors Association, told NBC News that the party sees a rare opportunity to win Southern states this year, noting that governors can separate themselves from the national party … Democrats … think they have a chance this year in governor races in states like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina.

If so, that would be a big deal, because in the near future, much of the policy action is going to be on the level of the states.

* TEACHER STRIKES MOVE TO NORTH CAROLINA: Teachers will be striking in North Carolina today. Some numbers that explain why:

Teacher salaries in the state currently sit at $47,985 on average, per the National Center for Educational Statistics — down from $51,506 in 2010. In 2017, the state spent $6,115 on average per pupil — one of the lowest spending rates in the country.

North Carolina is the sixth state to see such strikes this year. Teachers were inspired by success elsewhere — indeed, they are striking even though it’s illegal there and required them taking personal time off.

* AND TRUMP FILES FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: Rather than seek an extension, Trump did file his financial disclosure form with the Office of Government Ethics Tuesday, reports the Associated Press:

Trump’s disclosure … is being closely watched to see whether it will disclose the $130,000 paid to porn star Stormy Daniels on his behalf by his attorney Michael Cohen. … Ethics experts say that if that money isn’t disclosed, Trump could be in violation of ethics laws for failing to disclose a reportable item, a violation for which others have been prosecuted.

If Cohen made payments to others and Trump assumed that debt, he’d have to report those, too. We should get to see these forms after they are reviewed.