Republican Representative Kevin Cramer of North Dakota recently sent a letter to top TV executives complaining that “national network news has devolved from fact-based journalism to surreptitious propaganda.” He also threatened congressional hearings to “explore network media bias in coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.”
Cramer, a Trump supporter, may or may not be crazy—but he knows what he’s doing. There’s no truth to his contention that network coverage has been unfair to Trump; quite obviously, the reverse is true. But conservatives learned long ago that there’s no limit to the effectiveness of their “work the refs” strategy, with the networks bending over further and further to placate their demands.
I first used the phrase “work the refs” in my 1992 history of punditry, Sound and Fury. It originated with then–Republican National Committee chair Rich Bond, who justified meritless attacks on the media’s alleged liberal bias as a political strategy. “If you watch any great coach,” Bond explained, “what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
Back then, GOP presidential candidate George H.W. Bush had a decent record supporting civil-rights legislation, which was unusual for a Republican congressman from Texas. Though Bush has moved right trying to keep up with his party’s lurch toward white nationalism, science denial, and malevolent magical thinking, he can’t go so far as to stomach Trump. Neither even can his son George W., whose cavalier anti-intellectualism and ruinous right-wing policies brought the nation and much of the world to the brink of disaster. And yet many in the media, particularly the television networks, treat the lies, hate speech, calls to violence, and outright nuttiness that characterize modern Republicanism as merely one version of the truth, leaving journalists with no greater responsibility than to offer the “other side” the chance to rebut it. This is the fruit of more than 40 years of working the refs.
You may have heard that AT&T hopes to take over Time Warner, which owns CNN. AT&T chief Randall Stephenson has tried to assuage concerns about the deal by saying, “Ensuring the public that CNN remains independent from an editorial perspective is critical.” He even described the network as “an American symbol of independent journalism and First Amendment free speech.”
If only… Under Jeff Zucker, CNN has come to symbolize the collapse of journalistic standards, sacrificing its credibility daily in pursuit of high ratings and ad revenue. Zucker recently went into high dudgeon when hacked e-mails released by WikiLeaks suggested that Democratic National Committee interim chair Donna Brazile, a CNN consultant, had leaked several questions in a Democratic primary debate to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He called these actions “disgusting” and “unethical” and severed the network’s relationship with Brazile. OK, but it was Zucker who masterminded CNN’s hiring of Corey Lewandowski shortly after he physically assaulted a female reporter and was fired as Trump’s campaign manager. Bound by a nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreement with his former employer, CNN’s new contributor was still being paid by Trump and, according to The New York Times, secretly advising him. All this would make it impossible for Lewandowski to offer his honest opinion on anything save the time and weather. Yet Zucker couldn’t have cared less. “It’s really important to have voices on CNN who are supportive of the Republican nominee,” he explained. To which CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter delicately responded: “Television-wise, producer-wise, this makes perfect sense…. Journalistically, there are questions.”