From all the recent hand-wringing about “fake news,” you would think that the hand-wringers had never stood in a supermarket checkout line, surrounded by 72-point headlines about alien abductions and miracle cures. Fake news has been around as long as real news, as any historian of early modern Europe can tell you (Renaissance readers gobbled up stories about women giving birth to rabbits, and men from Africa with faces in their chests). Social media has certainly transformed how fake news circulates, speeding up its circulation and extending its reach and impact. The temptation to blame many of our current ills on it—and by extension, on Mark Zuckerberg—is understandable. But the hand-wringing has in fact distracted attention from a much more important problem involving the American media. That problem is not fake news but the continuing delegitimization of real news by American conservatives. This delegitimization has been taking place for a long time (as The Nation’s Eric Alterman has meticulously reported, and as even some conservative media figures have admitted), but during the past year it has taken a frightening new turn. If the mainstream American news media are to have any hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic results—both for themselves and for American democracy—they need to change how they report on American politics, and on the ideological apparatchiks they continue to describe, misleadingly, as “journalists.”
Anyone masochistic enough to tune into Rush Limbaugh regularly will soon recognize a strange pattern in his rants. Limbaugh has an extremely long list of enemies, all of whom he paints as mortal threats to the American republic. But there is one absolutely constant enemy, whom he mentions in every single broadcast, without fail. It is not Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. It is not the “Democrat party.” It is not even the federal government. It is the mainstream news media, whom he accuses of extreme liberal bias and hatred of America. In every single show, contempt oozing out of his voice, he flagellates mainstream media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, or the major broadcast networks. He collectively labels them “drive-bys,” comparing them to drive-by shooters. And his strategy has been followed by virtually the whole of the conservative media machine, from fellow radio hosts like Mark Levin and Michael Savage, to television personalities like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, to pundits like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. If some hapless liberal caller to a conservative radio show, or some hapless liberal guest on a Fox News program, dares to support an argument by invoking a story from The New York Times, he or she is likely to be met with contemptuous laughter. In this milieu, the Times has no more credibility than The National Enquirer at a scientific conference on extraterrestrial life. A conservative radio talk-show host, Charlie Sykes, who opposed Trump in the election, puts it this way: “We have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media…. At a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.”
It is important to recognize that if the conservative media machine has delegitimized real news for their audiences, it is not in the service, at least not primarily, of peddling so-called “fake news.” There is a real dividing line between figures like Limbaugh and Hannity on the one hand, and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who describes the Sandy Hook massacre as a hoax, and claims that Barack Obama is literally a demon (yes, literally). Generally, the Limbaughs and Hannitys will not even come out and state forthrightly that Obama is a Muslim, although they hint at it, and their audiences almost certainly take this idea for granted. They do not accuse Hillary Clinton of abducting children to serve as sex slaves. Again, what is now being labeled “fake news” is not the real story.
What the conservative media machine does, in tandem with its delegitimization of real news, is much more dangerous. Its leaders take any story that, however glancingly or speculatively, throws doubt upon the patriotism, honesty, or competence of public figures they dislike, and immediately cast it as the greatest outrage in American history. They return to it as often as possible, greeting every new revelation, however tiny or questionable, as a smoking gun. Just for the Obama administration alone, the list of such scandals is almost endless: “Operation Fast and Furious”; the IRS auditing scandal; the supposed “ransom” paid to Iran as part of the nuclear deal; the loans made to the Solyndra solar panel company; alleged misdeed involving the Secret Service, the General Services Administration, and the EPA; Benghazi (Benghazi!); and of course Hillary Clinton’s e-mail. Anyone relying on The New York Times for news over the past eight years would have seen little of genuine importance in most of these stories, and little to challenge the conclusion that Barack Obama has presided, by historical standards, over a virtually entirely scandal-free administration. Anyone relying on Rush Limbaugh or Fox News would have seen in them a pattern of corruption and malevolence unmatched in American history, and one which the untrustworthy mainstream media deliberately covered up. This is not “fake news.” It is a blatantly ideological distortion of real news. But, as Charlie Sykes has noted, because of the delegitimization of real news sources, the machine’s audiences simply do not, for the most part, believe it when any mainstream media outlet seeks to correct the distortions.
The machine has been operating in this way for many years, as Alterman and others have detailed. But since the election, the delegitimization of real news has taken a new, dangerous twist. It has now become clear that faithful followers of Limbaugh, or Fox News, will not only immediately discount any mainstream-media story that reflects badly on politicians or policies they like, no matter how well sourced and substantiate; they will consider the story itself yet another reason to support those politicians and policies, and will quite possibly believe the opposite, simply as a matter of principle. Polling data suggests that even during the election, the revelations about Trump’s failure to pay federal income taxes, and then the Access Hollywood tape, failed to significantly affect his support within the Republican base. The stories were unquestionably true, but that was less important than the fact that they were reported in the mainstream media (broken, in fact, by The New York Times and The Washington Post, respectively). By definition the stories demonstrated the power and extent of the dark liberal conspiracy against America, making Trump’s victory even more important for the Republican base.
Even more striking are the reactions to the new revelations about Russian interference in the election. Limbaugh, with his usual keen instinct for turning his opponents’ tactics against them, has played off the recent mainstream media obsession and labeled the story “fake news.” Of course, from Limbaugh’s perspective, any story broken by The New York Times should be considered fake news until proven otherwise. Most other conservative media stars have reacted in the same way, and as a result, a distressingly large number, not just of Republican voters but of the Republican office-holders in thrall to them, have been entirely incapable of taking seriously even the possibility that a foreign power deliberately interfered—perhaps decisively—with an American election. Indeed, one poll has shown that since the election, Vladimir Putin has actually gained popularity among Republicans. The liberal hand-wringing about “fake news” has helped the conservative media machine, in this regard, because it has provided yet another useful, and widely used catch phrase with which to discredit the mainstream media.
The implications of this shift for the incoming Trump administration are frightening. Even entirely blatant corruption, and blatant violations of the Constitution are likely to be dismissed as “fake news” by the conservative media machine. Reports in the mainstream media will be denounced as part of a nefarious plot by liberals to destroy the administration (and, by extension, America), and could well intensify Trump’s support. Criticism by Democrats, and attempts to hold Trump accountable, will be treated as grievous attacks on American democracy, justifying extraordinary—and perhaps extra-constitutional—responses.
Unfortunately, up to now the mainstream media has shown absolutely atrocious instincts in responding to this phenomenon. Above all, they have simply failed to acknowledge and report adequately on the role that the conservative media machine now plays in American politics, and the way it has delegitimized real news. Consider the fact that in the month before the election, The New York Times mentioned Rush Limbaugh in eleven stories. Eight of these were opinion columns of one sort or another, and one was a magazine story on Hillary Clinton. Just two were news stories, neither of which focused on Limbaugh himself. But Limbaugh has about 13 million listeners. While his influence has waned somewhat over the past few years, conservative politicians still quail in fear of his disapproval. He has more influence on American politics than nearly all American elected officials. He played a non-negligible role in the presidential election—in large part because of his ability to convince his listeners to distrust any revelations about Donald Trump that appeared in The New York Times. Did he not deserve more coverage than the Times gave him?
Unfortunately, the mainstream media still tends to treat figures like Limbaugh, Hannity, and Coulter as “conservative commentators,” as if they were nothing more than slightly rabid versions of William Safire, or right-wing counterparts to Nicholas Kristof and Maureen Dowd. The term suggests a tidy equivalence between left and right, in which each side has its own flock of columnists, radio hosts, and television personalities. But Limbaugh and company are not “commentators,” who might have an ideological slant, but who can also be expected to think through each issue they tackle on its own terms, with due attention to verifiable facts. They are ideologues, who concoct their broadcasts and columns with the sole goal of advancing the fortunes of their own ideological camp in what they openly describe as an apocalyptic conflict to save America. They make no pretense of thoughtfully weighing the pros and cons of the issues they discuss, and never—ever—acknowledge that the other side could have a point.
It is long past time that the mainstream media acknowledge that whatever equivalency once existed in American political life between liberals and conservatives has long since disappeared. The point is not so much that the conservative movement has turned extreme, although of course it has. The point is that the conservative media machine, and a majority of Republican officeholders, up to and including the president-elect, now form part of a coherent, united ideological apparatus that has fought with enormous success to capture the principal levers of power in this country, and that attempts systematically to discredit and demonize anyone who opposes it. It has become an illiberal (in every sense of the word) political party of a sort the United States has never before known, one that bears striking similarities to fascist and communist parties that operated within democratic societies in the 20th century. And the members of it who work in broadcast studios and so-called newsrooms are not journalists. They are the party’s media arm, full stop. They should be treated as such.
The mainstream media today is unfortunately in a very weak position vis-à-vis this party. Nothing that appears in the Times or on CNN can now make much of an impact on the people who live within the party’s steel-walled ideological bubble—including a very large proportion of Trump voters. As noted, new revelations, however damning and sensational, are more likely to intensify their support for Trump than to weaken it. But reporting on this party as a party, as an ideological apparatus, can still have an effect. Figures like Limbaugh and Hannity benefit enormously from the perception among their listeners that they are just commentators. In a grotesque, and enormously effective, act of projection, they denounce liberals for being what they themselves actually are: a ruthless ideological movement that cares nothing for verifiable facts. This self-representation is not challenged nearly enough by the mainstream media, which continue to portray these figures as journalists and commentators, rather than as ideological apparatchiks—indeed, as members of a conservative Nomenklatura. At the very least, the mainstream media should be identifying them as such, and fighting back far more vigorously against the conservative media machine’s delegitimization of real news. It should be reporting on Limbaugh and Hannity, Savage and Levin, Ingraham and Coulter, as often as it reports on the Republican “Freedom Caucus,” and it should respond systematically to their delegitimization of real news. When so-called conservative “commentators” attack The New York Times, the gray lady should not act as if responding to them is beneath her dignity. This tactic has not worked, to say the least. The Times should be covering the charges as part of the ideological battle now being waged in America, and it should be responding to them. So should The Washington Post, and CNN, and the rest of the mainstream media. If they don’t, then in the end, they could be signing their own death warrants.