The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The conservative war on the mainstream media hit a new phase at the GOP debate

How the candidates jousted with the CNBC moderators (Video: Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)
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The Republican Party's relationship with the media reached an inevitable new stage during the debate on Wednesday night. Thanks in part to CNBC's clumsy handling of the event and in part to the long-term and increasing rejection of traditional media on the right, presidential candidates were able to skate past legitimate critiques by claiming bias — with the audience enthusiastically cheering them on.

Three moments in particular were worth picking out.

Most obvious was Ted Cruz's have-you-no-shame upbraiding of the questions asked by the network's moderators. Asked about his opposition to the budget deal being finalized in Washington this week, Cruz went another direction. "[L]et me say something at the outset: The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Cruz said, to applause. "This is not a cage match. ... How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?"

Pollster Frank Luntz, who regularly moderates focus groups of debate-watchers during these events, found that Cruz's rhetoric worked -- big time.

Cruz's reply was particularly remarkable for what happened next. He was complaining about CNBC's having ignored issues, after all, in response to a question about an issue. When moderator Carl Quintanilla pointed that out to him, noting that he only had a limited time to answer, Cruz brushed him away, until fellow moderator John Harwood moved to someone else. "So you don't actually want to hear the answer, John?" Cruz asked -- after spending his allotted time intentionally avoiding answering the question. But the audience loved it.

Then there was Donald Trump's rejection of moderator Becky Quick's question about his dismissal of Mark Zuckerberg for the Facebook mogul's position on immigrant visas (and Marco Rubio's support of same). "I was not at all critical of him. I was not at all," Trump said. Flustered, Quick showed weakness. "Where did I read this and come up with this that you were..." she said, before being cut off. "I don't know," Trump said, moving in for the kill. "You people write the stuff." The audience loved it.

Quick might have been unprepared for this response because of where the claim was made. It wasn't CNBC who wrote it, or any member of the media. It was -- and still is -- on Trump's campaign Web site.

Quick raised that point later and Trump unapologetically offered a reply. But by that point, it was clear which side the audience was on.

When Ben Carson denied having a business relationship with a nutritional supplement company called Mannatech, despite those ties being well-reported and obvious, Quintanilla pressed him on it. The audience booed. "See?" Carson said. "They know."

To some extent, CNBC opened the doors for critique through its handling of the event. It started late, prompting mockery online, and the three moderator line-up meant that there was no clear guiding hand, resulting in an often-confused response to candidates going over time or demanding to be heard.

But Republican candidates casually ignoring media criticism is a long time in the making. Cruz's complaints about the nature of the questions could as easily have applied during the second debate sponsored by CNN, where the moderators directly sicced the candidates on one another. Or at the first debate, on Fox News, when each candidate was asked a challenging question out of the gate, resulting in the infamous Trump-Megyn Kelly spat. That they were reserved for a weaker and weakened CNBC is not terribly surprising.

Earlier this year, we noted that trust in the media had hit an all-time low in the United States. That distrust is not evenly distributed; Republicans and independents are far more distrustful than Democrats.

Democrats, Pew Research found last year, trust media outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times -- meaning that Democratic candidates are less likely to start battles with those institutions.

Conservatives distrust those outlets more than they trust them. There's one popular outlet that they do trust, of course: Fox News. Fox News is consistently the most-watched cable news network, but often itself refers derisively to the "mainstream media" -- of which it is objectively a part. Fox News straddles a line drawn by Rubio later in the debate when he said that a newspaper editorial calling on him to resign his position in the Senate was "another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement." (Rubio later called the mainstream media "the ultimate Super PAC" on behalf of Democrats -- presumably not including Fox in that group.)

[ The media empire strikes back ]

The "fair and balanced" mantra of the network is regularly mocked by the left as downplaying the network's obvious conservative tilt. But within the spectrum of media outlets, Fox is playing a role that conservatives think is necessary -- treating them fairly and balancing out everyone else. Fair and balanced -- which makes it trusted and popular, likely at the expense of other networks.

In the year 2000, when Fox hadn't yet broken out as the most popular network on cable news, Republicans were six points more negative than Democrats in their trust of media. By 2005, after Fox News's ascent, they were 39 points more negative -- though that gap has narrowed to about 23 points this year, which is precisely where it was in 1997. Trust overall is lower.

Over that same time period, the media on the whole has shifted. In a world that's centered on the Internet and its always-changing idiosyncrasies, major outlets (including The Washington Post and Fox News) now mix hard reporting with analysis and opinion more than was once the case. The Post produces a lot of articles every day, some percentage of which will anger someone, somewhere -- and perhaps prompt them to write us off as hopelessly partisan in one direction or the other. Things I have written with the goal of being amusing have probably caused readers to view the entire Post -- including our excellent reporting -- with skepticism. I'm part of this shift.

However the cause-and-effect of Republican skepticism about the media works, it's clearly to the benefit of Republican candidates in a way that it isn't for Democrats. The role of the media is, in part, to hold people in positions of power accountable. Three decades ago, that was easier, because the media held most of the keys to reaching voters. Candidates have embraced social media because it allows them to offer information and rebuttals without having to go through an intermediary filter -- a filter which might pass along that information with some footnotes. But that's a different degree than what happened on Wednesday night, in which Carson and Trump's claims could be dismissed as media nonsense, despite not being nonsense at all.

The Republican Party is having a tough 2015. The preferred presidential candidates of its establishment are trailing Trump and Carson by wide margins. The speaker of the House simply gave up, unable to handle the raucous conservatives he was asked to manage -- conservatives egged on by the broader grassroots conservative movement. And so RNC Chairman Reince Priebus came down on the side of the base in the war against CNBC. In a statement, Priebus criticized the network, saying that the party's "candidates did their best to share ideas for how to reinvigorate the economy and put Americans back to work despite deeply unfortunate questioning." (CNBC's clumsiness also allowed the RNC to help redirect candidate anger from its preparations in another direction.)

Priebus's statement is a defense of Rubio, yes -- but it's also a defense of Trump and Carson's much more indefensible comments. The party isn't going to hold its candidates accountable, for obvious reasons. The candidates ignored the media's attempts to hold them accountable on Wednesday -- in part because the effort to do so was clumsy and offered by a cable network with a relatively small footprint. Even Fox News though has repeatedly blinked in its staring contests with front-running Donald Trump.

So who's left?