The vast field of presidential candidates doesn’t agree on much else, but on this there is broad consensus: The news media has done them wrong.
Democrat or Republican, front-runner or also-ran, almost every candidate has had something critical to say about the media during this campaign. In particular, Donald Trump, whose candidacy owes much to his pervasive news coverage, has repeatedly bitten the hands that have fed him.
Beating on the press is as old as Spiro Agnew’s political career, so there’s nothing new about candidates dishing out an occasional head slap to the media. What’s new in this cycle is the number and kind of attacks — complaints about biased coverage, about hostile coverage, about inaccurate or superficial coverage. Or just not enough coverage.
Everyone seems to be playing:
●Ted Cruz (at CNBC’s Oct. 28 Republican debate ): “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. Everyone home tonight knows that the moderators have no intention of voting in a Republican primary.”
●Bernie Sanders (to CNN, Dec. 24): “You explain to me how a major network on the evening news has 81 minutes of Trump, 20 seconds of Bernie Sanders. Does that make sense to anybody?”
●Ben Carson (to CBS, Nov. 8): “There’s no question I’m getting special scrutiny” from the news media. “Every single day or every other day or every week, they’re going to come out with, ‘Well, you said this when you were 13’ . . . and the whole point is to distract. Distract the populace, distract me.”
●Carly Fiorina (to Fox News, Nov. 11): “News flash: The media is biased. This isn’t anything new. And we just have to deal with it, unfortunately. So, it’s not going to rattle me.”
●Marco Rubio (at the Oct. 28 debate): “The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media.”
Trump’s media-bashing citations are too numerous to list. And while Hillary Clinton has been relatively quiet about the media during this campaign, her husband hasn’t. In defending his wife against criticism of her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, the former president went after both Republicans and the media — a two-fer. “I have never seen so much expended on so little,” Bill Clinton told CNN.
Criticizing the news media “is a hallowed chapter in the presidential candidates’ playbook,” especially among Republicans, said Terence Smith, a veteran journalist (the New York Times, CBS News) and press analyst (PBS) who writes a newspaper column. Even so, he said, “it seems to be a banner year for press-bashing among the candidates. . . . It’s more blatant and frequent this time around.”
A well-honed blast at the media can be “an attention-getting device,” Smith said, and strikes a chord with a candidate’s most devoted followers, especially during a debate. But he’s not sure it’s anything more than an applause line: “Does it resonate equally with the viewing audience and the public at large? Not so much, I suspect.”
On the other hand, the current round of bashing reflects “a genuine anger on the part of a number of Americans” toward the media, said Jane Hall, a professor of journalism at American University in Washington.
Issue No. 1, according to Hall: “If I were a Republican candidate, I’d be outraged about all the [media] attention Trump is getting. There’s genuine frustration that Trump has taken over the coverage.”
Of course, the irony of Trump’s widespread coverage — a recent survey found that he garnered more than twice as many minutes of airtime on the three evening network news broadcasts than the rest of the Republican field combined — is that Trump has been, by far, the most critical of the media. In perhaps a first for a leading candidate, he has called out reporters by name at his rallies and on his Twitter account.
A short list of the media figures Trump has insulted since he announced his candidacy in June includes: CNN pundit S.E. Cupp; Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace; New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski; Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington; Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza; Post columnists Jennifer Rubin, George Will and Charles Krauthammer; MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell; columnist/Fox News pundit Bill Kristol; columnist/TV host Errol Louis; conservative columnists Erick Erickson and Jonah Goldberg; Associated Press political reporter Jill Colvin; and NBC News’s Katy Tur and Chuck Todd.
“He speaks about the media with absolute contempt,” Hall said, “and yet the media can’t get enough of him. It feels like sadomasochism.”
In an era when “trust” in the press remains at historic lows, the media may be “a safe rhetorical devil figure for both parties,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University. While Vatz believes that the news media generally favors Democrats, the press can be attacked for its “selective agenda” from any angle, such as Sanders’s recent complaint that the excessive focus on Clinton’s emails was a distraction from a discussion about poverty in the United States.
“No politician ever lost an election by attacking bias in the media,” Vatz said. Still, such attacks are beginning to have diminishing returns, he said, particularly when the complaints are repeated. Carson and his supporters, for example, complained about media bias, but his lack of foreign policy expertise has been his undoing, Vatz said.
About the only candidate who hasn’t complained about his press clippings of late is former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who remains far behind Clinton and Sanders in Democratic polls. Asked about her candidate’s attitude, O’Malley spokeswoman Haley Morris offered an explanation likely to win him a few friends in the media: “Everyone has a job to do, and Governor O’Malley respects that,” she said.