We're seeing what it looks like when a huge chunk of America doesn't trust major news organizations.
Left: Donald Trump, photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty; Right: Roy Moore, photo by Wes Frazer/Getty
Donald Trump did not run his presidential campaign solely against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Instead, he waged war on the mainstream media, which made a convenient target for a demagogue hungry for one. The gaggle of national press following Trump everywhere he went in 2015 and 2016 included lots of reporters from Washington, DC, and New York City, and their stories often focused on the nastiest parts of his speeches, or insisted on fact-checking his many false statements. At his raucous rallies, these journalists were confined to the media pen, where it was easy for Trump to call them out as the nearest personification of America's (and his own) elite establishment enemies. His supporters would oblige with boos and insults directed at the confined journalists, who endured months of hostility from Trump, his staff, and angry fans.
For decades, Republicans had claimed, sometimes fairly, that they got unfair coverage from a liberal press. But this was something else. On the final day of the campaign Trump called the media "dishonest" and said the "New York Times is a total lie" while the crowd chanted "CNN sucks!"
Trump hasn't moderated this language since becoming president. His former chief strategist Steve Bannon—now back to his old gig running Breitbart—made sure the New York Times printed his quote about the media being the "opposition party." Trump himself called the press "the enemy of the American people" in February, and a very early 2020 reelection ad over the summer attacked specific journalists. All of that media bashing has had an effect: Last month, a poll found that 46 percent of American voters—and over three-quarters of Republicans—believed major news organizations fabricated stories about the president and his administration.
We're only now seeing the effects of Trump's unprecedented war on what he calls "fake news" and others just call news. And the biggest beneficiary of it to date could be Roy Moore.
Moore, the far-right Christian conservative candidate for the Senate in Alabama, has been accused by several women of pursuing them sexually when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. One said he touched her inappropriately when she was just 14, and on Monday, the latest accuser, a woman named Beverly Young Nelson, said he attacked her and she feared he would rape her. Moore has pushed back against the allegations, while not categorically denying he went out with teens. But what's notable is how much he's borrowing from Trump's playbook: He's aggressively denouncing not just the women but the paper that broke the first story about his sexual conduct, the Washington Post. On Sunday, he called that article "fake news" and threatened to sue the Post; in a fundraising email that redefined chutzpah, he reassured supporters the accusations were the work of "the Obama-Clinton Machine's liberal media lapdogs" and turned the charges into a chance to ask for money.
A great many Republicans and conservatives have refused to back Moore up. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believed Moore's accusers and added the candidate should step aside. Several writers at National Review who were already uncomfortable with Moore's fringe views have attacked him and emphasized the credibility of the allegations.
But outside of establishment circles—where Moore was never popular—the air, at least until Monday, was thick with Moore defenders. Alabama Republican officials largely stood behind him clutching a variety of arguments and excuses. Far-right publications repeated pro-Moore talking points, and Bannon reportedly sent a pair of Breitbart reporters to Alabama specifically to discredit the women from the Post story. (Breitbart also published a preemptive defense of Moore after the candidate apparently leaked a letter from the Post to the right-wing site.) One recent poll of Alabama voters showed Moore falling behind his Democratic opponent Doug Jones, but also found that 29 percent of respondents were, incredibly, more likely to vote for him in the wake of the accusations.
All of this is the logical end-point to the anti-media feeling stirred up by Trump. If journalists are all liars and out to get Republicans—particularly those on the hard right—then the stories they print are simply lies. In fact, if the stories accuse a conservative of wrongdoing, then he must actually be doing something right to draw their ire. And if subsequent reporting seems to buttress those allegations, as it has in Moore's case, it's just more lies.
Everyone has a tendency to believe things we want to hear and disbelieve the things we don't. Liberals are often too credulous about whatever the hot new anti-Trump story is, and bad information and partisan bias are endemic across the political spectrum.
But while the country's biggest, most-resourced news organizations have made plenty of errors over the years, they have almost never invented stories. The Post's original Moore story was a model of scrupulous journalism that confirmed the women's accounts as much as possible, with the reporters speaking to more than 30 people. And the major publications break stories that are damaging for both parties, unlike purely ideological outlets like Breitbart. Clinton's use of personal email as secretary of State, which became a major cudgel used against her in 2016, was originally broken in 2015 by none other than the New York Times.
There is a big leap between calling journalists unfairly slanted against a certain party and calling them liars. Or there used to be, anyway—Trump and his allies like Moore have made that leap so many times, it's now routine. And a significant number of people believe their beloved politicians over the press. "This is not normal" is by now a cliche, but, well, it's not.
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