Yesterday Donald Trump spent much of his forty minute press conference hurling insults at reporters. Trump’s performance prompted talk radio titan Rush Limbaugh to marvel, “That was the kind of press conference Republicans voters have been dying to see for who knows how many years.” While Republican politicians have eschewed such performances, Limbaugh and his peers have regularly filled the void. Their diatribes set the stage for Trump’s success.
Many of Trump’s loyalists have long consumed conservative media, and talk radio fans know better than to trust the hopelessly biased mainstream media to tell the truth. If Democrats are the villain in talk radio’s soap opera, mainstream journalists are a close second. By so thoroughly discrediting the messenger, talk radio opened the door for Trump to flourish in spite of an avalanche of negative coverage, numerous broadcast missteps, and revelations about his ever-changing issue positions. Journalists investigate Trump, and his fans dismiss their reporting.
Wisconsin talk radio star Charlie Sykes, a leader in the #NeverTrump movement, acknowledged as much. “We [talk radio hosts] bear some responsibility because we beat on the mainstream media for so long and now there are no credible sources anymore.”
Talk radio’s vilification of mainstream journalists contains a kernel of truth. A liberal cultural worldview shapes reporting in the mainstream media. This sensibility determines what issues reporters focus on, what stories they consider to be newsworthy, and what questions they ask Nonetheless, mainstream journalists attempt to chronicle the news fairly, recounting all sides of the story and accurately conveying what happened and why.
The black and white world of talk radio, however, has no room for this nuance. Instead talkers have spent decades painting mainstream journalists as perfidious finks who labor to advance the evil Democrats and their agenda [picture the political equivalent of the nefarious pro-wrestling manager who inevitably interferes during the climax of a match to smash the hero over the head with a weapon].
Talkers regularly discuss the various ways in which mainstream journalists demolish or diminish conservatives while boosting liberals and Democrats. They illustrate the media’s hypocrisy and utilization of double standards to judge Democrats and Republicans. For good measure, hosts employ barbed nicknames for many top journalists and mainstream outlets, and gleefully spotlight factual errors in mainstream broadcasts and publications.
Limbaugh, has branded the mainstream media the drive by media—conjuring up images of violence, in this case against truth and Republicans. The left-leaning MSNBC, perhaps hosts’ favorite media punching bag, warrants the derisive monikers of PMSNBC and MSLSD from Limbaugh and Mark Levin respectively, each of which aims to evoke a negative image in the minds of listeners.
Dating back to his earliest days on national radio and television [Limbaugh’s national radio show launched on August 1, 1988 and his television program aired from 1992 to 1996], uncovering and interrogating media bias has been a routine feature of Limbaugh’s programs.
For example, on his July 15, 1994 television show, Limbaugh remarked that all three networks provided the same newscast each night. This similarity stemmed from the fact that, “these people are slavish to the Democrats in Congress, slavish to the Clinton administration, for the most part.”
He reminded his viewers that when mainstream commentators attacked him, they displayed their scorn for his audience.
They say that you're an idiot. They say that you people are too stupid and dumb to recognize things for yourself. You can't figure out these complex issues and you really can't figure them out if you're listening to or watching me.
You are dolts, my friends. You are mental midgets. You are glittering jewels of colossal ignorance. These people in the mainstream press look down at you in a condescending, arrogant way.
A few months later, Limbaugh caught NBC’s Gwen Ifil cheerleading for Democrats:
Gwen Ifill used to write for The New York Times. In the incestuous inside-the-Beltway news business, she's been hired by NBC as a reporter and commentator. She debuted on Meet the Depressed' [Limbaugh’s nickname for Meet the Press] Sunday, and as is the duty of all former New York Times reporters on television, it was her job to defend the Clinton administration. And this is how she did on her inaugural appearance.
Ms. GWEN IFILL (NBC News): (From "Meet the Press") Instead, they look like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. They can't get anything through. Now that's not exactly true because, in fact, they've gotten a lot of things through--important things like--I can't think of any right now--important things have been gotten through.
The following summer, he dissected remarks by CBS’ Lesley Stahl that sympathized with a claim by President Clinton that he couldn’t cut through the clutter as media outlets and options sprouted at warp speed. Limbaugh painted the changes in the media landscape as a byproduct of consumer disgruntlement with biased mainstream outlets. He asserted that Stahl’s comments were merely sour grapes at no longer being able to manipulate Americans “because there are other people out there [talk radio and cable talk hosts] who, I think, are actually doing the networks' jobs for them.”
A content analysis of Limbaugh’s program conducted by scholars Kathleen Jamieson and Joseph Capella revealed that he ridiculed the media on 52 separate days between September 3rd and November 11th, 1996.
These anti-mainstream media tropes have remained a fixture in talk radio over the past two decades. After ABC’s George Stephanopolous queried Mitt Romney about whether states could ban contraception in a 2012 Republican debate, Mark Levin exploded, “It is outrageous to me that time would be taken during a national debate where our country is going to hell that this would be a subject front and center. But that’s because Stephanopolous, a hack left-wing Democrat, is trying to sabotage the Republicans as are all of these moderators for the most part.”
This view of the mainstream media has shaped talk radio’s coverage of the 2016 campaign. In late March, Trump provoked a firestorm by asserting to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that if states outlawed abortion, women ought to face punishment for having them. Unsurprisingly, Limbaugh’s analysis of the exchange heaped scorn upon Matthews. He repeatedly dismissed the host as a partisan Democratic hack and “a mental midget.” He observed that “Matthews and all these other left-wingers who are so consumed by their hatred for the right wing and they're so consumed by their own bias and prejudice that they think pro-life equals punishing the woman.”
The following day, Limbaugh returned to the Matthews-Trump interview to summarize that:
yes, he’s [Matthews] trying to trip Trump up on abortion. My point about that is that whole interview was essentially an attack on the Republican Party, not just Trump. It set up a campaign narrative for the Democrats to use against the entire party, not just Trump. It doesn't matter if Trump's the nominee or not.
Scholarly evidence indicates that mistrust of the mainstream media is associated with greater exposure to political talk radio and the internet. Jamieson and Cappella offer evidence from 1996 that regular Limbaugh listeners distrusted mainstream outlets more than non-listeners or listeners to either liberal/moderate talk radio or other conservative political talk radio.
It is difficult to disentangle whether hosts spur their listeners’ mistrust of mainstream reporting, or whether people already suspicious of the mainstream media embrace talk radio as an alternative. Yet, at the very least, talk radio reinforces this perception among its listeners.
The notion of a biased media crucially aids conservatives when confronted with stories or claims that they can’t easily refute on their merits. In these situations, politicians like Trump and their champions wield the club of media bias to hammer the messenger and tarnish the reporting.
As evidenced by Limbaugh’s exploration of Trump’s comments on abortion, media bias also benefits conservative politicians when they stumble in an interview. Their supporters or conservative media personalities can excuse a disquieting answer as the result of an unfair question or an attempt at entrapment.
Instead of defending Trump’s declaration, Limbaugh reminded listeners who started the conversation:
Donald Trump did not bring it up. Ted Cruz didn't bring it up. John Kasich didn't bring it up while eating his pizza in New York City with a knife and fork. Chris Matthews brought this up. It has been my contention all along -- listen to this again -- that it is not Republicans who lead with the social issues; it's the Democrats who do it because they are trying to score points. They've got various tricks that they play, narratives and templates that they want to establish.
Limbaugh referenced Stephanopoulos’ infamous [on the right] contraception question to Romney. He asserted that, in both cases, the questioner badgered the candidate into answering so that Democrats could contend that Republicans wage a war on women.
As such, Limbaugh redirected his audience’s attention away from Trump’s claim, which infuriated both pro-life and pro-choice advocates. Instead, he urged listeners to focus on the dirty tricks employed by Democrats and their allies masquerading as objective journalists. Given that both Stephanopoulos and Matthews are former Democratic staffers, his listeners had ample reason to accept this interpretation.
The proliferation of conservative outlets has even resulted in some conservative media members casting aspersion on the conservative credentials of former gold standards like Fox News, which aided Trump as he feuded with Fox star Megyn Kelly (Ironically, the belief that the network has tilted towards Trump drives most conservative consternation with Fox).
Trump grasps talk radio’s portrayal of the media—recent reporting revealed that an aide fed Trump reports on thousands of hours of talk radio. By frequently lampooning mainstream journalists who cross or criticize him, Trump feeds into the perceptions long held by his fans and voiced by talk radio.
For example, on March 27, Trump tweeted “Wow, sleepy eyes @chucktodd is at it again. He is do totally biased. The things I am saying are correct. - far better vision than the others.” Trump has even jabbed MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who has faced accusations of fawning over the billionaire.
Publications also experience Trump’s Twitter wrath. These attacks further undercut the credibility of their reporting with his supporters, and sync with talk radio’s message on the media. The New York Times, for one, has emerged as a frequent punching bag. On April 24th, Trump tweeted “I am happy to hear how badly the @nytimes is doing. It is a seriously failing paper with readership which is way down. Becoming irrelevant!” Two days later he mused, “How bad is the New York Times—the most inaccurate coverage constantly. Always trying to belittle. Paper has lost its way!”
A mid-May story on Trump’s treatment of women prompted him to trash the Times, tweeting “The failing @nytimes is greatly embarrassed by the totally dishonest story they did on my relationship with women.” He continued, “No wonder the @nytimes is failing—who can believe what they write after the false, malicious & libelous story they did on me.” Weeks later, coverage of Trump’s management style provoked another barrage of caustic tweets targeting the Times.
Trump’s assault on the media resonated with his fans. Admirer Lynette Hardaway asserted to a reporter, “All those provocative words that the media has been trying to use on him for the past nine months, I believe that they’re lies.”
This mistrust explains why the cascade of negative reporting about Trump has failed to dent his support. Instead his backers dismiss it as the byproduct of a biased media determined to destroy his candidacy. After all, they’ve heard for decades that mainstream journalists rank one step below used car salesmen on the ladder of trustworthiness.