It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly when Republicans began to scapegoat the media — I’d vote for 1962, when Richard Nixon lashed out after failing to win a gubernatorial race — but one thing we know for sure is that, in all the years since, they’ve distilled their low art to a fine whine.
What a bore it was, on Wednesday night, to hear the latest crop of Republican presidential candidates bleat their displeasure with “the mainstream media” (formerly known as “the liberal media”). What a convenient way to obsfucate, evade, and lie with impunity. Naturally, the credulous cheerleaders in the audience chewed the red meat with ravenous pleasure — which was why the candidates media-whined in the first place, because this is primary season and they’re jonesing to wow The Base.
And what a farce that was, because, in truth, the candidates got off easy. The questioners at CNBC — which is hardly a liberal bastion; a CNBC commentator’s ’09 rant gave birth to the Tea Party — failed to fact-check Carly Fiorina’s latest lie (“92 percent of the jobs lost during Barack Obama’s first term belonged to women” — actually, it was one month), and they failed to correct Chris Christie’s lie that the Social Security trust fund could be depleted within seven or eight years (it’s actually 20). And luckily for the candidates, they were rarely pinned down about their core fiscal delusions. They all profess to be upset about the income gap between rich and poor, but their tax-cut plans are heavily tilted to the rich (big surprise), thus exacerbating the gap.
By my count, there were four attacks on the “mainstream media.” I won’t soil this space by repeating them all. But to give you a flavor, this one came courtesy of Ted Cruz:
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match! And, you look at the questions: ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”
And the peanut gallery went berserk.
Which meant that Cruz didn’t need to answer the legitimate question that he’d just been asked: Congress and the president had just forged a budget deal that raises the budget ceiling, erases the threat of a government shutdown, and pleases the financial markets — a deal that Cruz opposed. Therefore, the moderators wanted to know, “Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?”
See how the game works? When cornered, commence media-whining.
But perhaps the worst whiner was frontrunner Ben Carson, who’s so over his head that he needs an oxygen tank. It happened when the good doctor was asked about his longstanding ties to a company that peddles medical snake oil.
The question: “[There] is a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a 10-year relationship. They offered claims they could cure autism, cancer. They paid $7 million to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why?”
Carson’s answer: “I didn’t have any involvement with them. That is total propaganda, and this is what happens in our society.”
Actually, what happens in our society, all too often, is that politicians shamelessly lie. It’s not “total propaganda” that Carson had a long affiliation with this snake-oil firm. It is, in fact, the truth — as documented by The Wall Street Journal and National Review — neither of which qualifies as Duh Librul Media. He did promotional videos, he appeared on their website, he lauded the company in a PBS documentary. In fact, National Review was so appalled by his debate answer that the conservative outlet is newly assailing his “bald-faced lies” and “blatantly lying.”
And Donald Trump whined exquisitely when he was asked why he had attacked Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. (Zuckerberg wants more immigrant visas for high-tech workers, and Trump doesn’t like that.) Problem was, Trump insisted that he had never attacked Zuckerberg, that it was just something the media made up (“You people write the stuff”). But later, the CNBC questioner pointed out that Trump’s attack was featured on Trump’s own website. Did Trump apologize and credit the media for its accuracy? Nah.
Did the CNBC moderators ask some silly or needlessly provocative questions, perhaps hoping to gin up the ratings? Absolutely. It’s all part of the game. Like when Cruz was asked, “You have a toxic relationship with GOP leaders in Congress …. How can you win in 2016 when you’re such a divisive figure?” Or like when John Kasich was goaded to attack a rival on stage: “Gov. Kasich, I know you don’t like to talk about Donald Trump.” Or when Trump was goaded to attack Jeb Bush: “Gov. Bush has called your [immigration] remarks ‘extraordinarily ugly …. Talk to him directly.”
Wait a second — oops! Those three questions were posed to the candidates during their first debate. By moderators who worked for the sponsoring media outlet: Fox News.
Gee. Why didn’t Cruz and the other whiners lash out at “the media” that night? Why was it OK for Fox News to pit them against each other? How come they didn’t scapegoat Fox News for conducting a “cage match”? As if we don’t know. When the goal is to woo conservative voters during Republican primary season, it would be bad politics to whine about Fox News. But it’s great politics to whine about the “mainstream media,” even when it’s playing the same ratings game as Fox News.
This is just what right-wing politicians do when they need an enemy. We saw the same thing nearly half a century ago when Nixon dispatched Spiro Agnew, his vice presidential attack dog, to bark at the moon. Four years later, lest we forget, Agnew had to cop a plea to avoid jail on a corruption rap — thanks to a case that investigative reporters had helped to unearth. In the end, that scoundrel’s media-whining came to naught. He won’t be the last.