After patriotism and religion, “attacking the media” is the most popular refuge of the scoundrel.
If there was one thing that all of the candidates in last night’s Republican debate agreed on besides Ronald Reagan’s sainthood, it was this: the media is biased and bad. Ted Cruz, in response to a question about the debt limit, held forth for a full minute on the topic of “why the American people don’t trust the media” (and, when his time was up, complained that he wasn’t given more time to answer the question). Ben Carson brushed off a question about his ties to a shady company by just basking in the audience’s boos of the moderator for being so impolite. Chris Christie called a moderator “rude” for pressing him to answer a question. Marco Rubio, faced with questions about why his hometown paper called for his resignation for failing to do his current job, called the editorial “evidence of the bias that exists in the American media,” and went on to label all the mainstream media “the Democrat’s Super PAC.”
Consider, if you will, the intrinsic absurdity of the fact that the Republican candidates chose to launch their attack on the media on the night that the debate was held on CNBC. CNBC. The channel of angry, wealthy white males ranting about the stock market. The channel, in other words, that most accurately represents the Republican Party. Though the moderators last night may have fumbled a couple of times, they did succeed in asking questions such as: Why is your tax plan based on fantasy? Why do the numbers of your plan not add up? How do you plan to finance the government while also slashing all of the money that the government takes in? Things of this nature. Actual important questions. The mistakes that CNBC made last night were mostly stylistic, not substantive. Getting Republican presidential candidates to explain in detail how, for example, imposing a 10% flat tax or “abolishing the IRS” is not a puerile, juvenile, pandering, dangerous fantasy would have been a certifiable journalistic accomplishment. (Of course, it can’t be done. But they tried!)
These presidential candidates are not honest. Nor are they wise. But they are skilled in political tactics—self-serving dishonesty, mainly—or they never would have gotten this far. They know quite well that answering a question about, say, an economic plan with numbers that do not add up is very hard. But parrying that question by attacking the questioner is easy! It is a very old political formula:
1) Receive hard question.
2) Attack questioner as a biased member of the mainstream media.
3) Move on.
Notice what is missing from this process: answering the question. A simple scam, and one that never fails to work on the American voter. It is the rhetorical equivalent of waving one hand in the air while using the other hand to pick your pocket. Voters hate the media as much as or more than they hate politicians. Most of the political media, in turn, is so timid, craven, and self-loathing that they will, under the guise of political analysis, actually rush to applaud politicians for getting one over on the journalists asking them questions. Members of the media quietly loathe themselves for good reasons; this renders them incapable of standing up for themselves when they are attacked by demagogues for bad reasons.
Meanwhile, the questions still do not get answered.
The irony in all of this is that there are plenty of legitimate reasons to denigrate the mainstream media. But none of those reasons are “they ask too many direct questions about the plainly farcical policy proposals of presidential candidates.” The real problems with the political media—its addiction to horse race journalism, unhealthy appetite for conflict at all else, its tendency to invent storylines out of thin air—are the things that voters like. The general public is ill-informed, easily bored, restless for entertainment, and does not understand economics. When CNBC’s moderators tried to ask straightforward economic questions (even going to the unforgivable extreme of citing math), the American public was well primed to hate the media and all it stands for. That is when the candidates struck.
Hate the media all you want, America. The more you do, the less you know. In the end, we will get the president that we deserve. Unfortunately.