Pressing Issues

Mainstream Media’s Rightward Lurch

"Liberal media” is a myth. Since Trump's presidency, mainstream news has embraced, employed, and laundered conservative propaganda, and it shows no signs of letting up.

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I’ve seen a number of stories in recent weeks about CNN’s supposed shift to a “less partisan” strategy under new CEO Chris Licht. “CNN to dull its liberal edge,” reads a February 26 headline at Axios, and earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Licht “said he wanted to book more Republicans and conservatives on political shows to offer a wider range of viewpoints.”

As a regular (yet reluctant) viewer of CNN and all things media, my exact thought was, “lol wut?” CNN? With a “liberal edge”? Was there a secret liberal version of CNN I’d missed these past years?

CNN? The place that currently or has previously employed the likes of Andre Bauer, Amanda Carpenter, Steve Cortes, Ken Cuccinelli, S.E. Cupp, Paris Dennard, Ben Ferguson, Jonah Goldberg, Alyssa Farah Griffin, Mary Katharine Ham, Scottie Nell Hughes, Sarah Isgur, Jack Kingston, Corey Lewandowski, Jeffrey Lord, Mia Love, Ed Martin, Kayleigh McEnany, Jason Miller, Ana Navarro, Rick Santorum, and J.D. Vance? That’s the media outlet with a “liberal edge”? Why? Because Jim Acosta would occasionally do a bit of grandstanding while interviewing Trump officials (something he also did during the Obama administration)? The place that fired Reza Aslan for criticizing Donald Trump on Twitter and booted Marc Lamont Hill for speaking out against Israel’s policies toward Palestinians? I must be confusing it with something else, because that’s certainly not some sort of bastion of lefty group-think that needs to “dull its liberal edge.”

The truth is that during the 2016 presidential campaign, pretty much every mainstream news outlet began moving to the right. And after Trump won, the quest to “understand” his voters began. Outlets would dispatch reporters to “Trump country,” who would parachute into a diner to interview voters who would affirm over and over that no, Trump’s latest controversy hadn’t changed their minds about the president. “There’s No Boom in Youngstown, but Blue Collar Workers Are Sticking With Trump,” reads a May 2019 headline from the Times. 

The right-wing shift was both relentless and pointless. In 2016, MSNBC rolled out an ad campaign that featured photos of Republican consultant Mike Murphy, George W. Bush–era White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace, right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg, and former head of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele alongside the words: “People might start accusing us of leaning too far to the right.” When the New York Times hired Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens to join the paper as an op-ed columnist, then-Times editorial page editor James Bennet wrote that Stephens’s hiring was part of a broader plan to “bring a new perspective to bear on the news,” and adding that the paper would add more voices to “continue to broaden the range of Times debate about consequential questions.” The following month, Bennet hired Stephens’s Wall Street Journal colleague Bari Weiss.

Okay, I thought. Maybe the rightward lurch of media that followed Trump’s 2016 win will be countered by a leftward correction following his 2020 loss. No such luck, as evidenced by the flurry of right-wing hires at mainstream news outlets following Trump’s loss (former Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Stephen Hayes was hired by NBC, Liberal Fascism author and National Review editor-in-chief Jonah Goldberg was scooped up by CNN, which also hired former Trump aide Alyssa Farrah; and former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was hired by CBS as a paid contributor to, as CBS News president Neeraj Khemlani said, to “make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle,” and saying that it was “a priority because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” and that “a lot of the people that we’re bringing in are helping us in terms of access to that side of the equation”). The truth is that when Republicans win, the mainstream press feels the need to move to the right because they’re out of touch, and when Democrats win, the mainstream press feels the need to move to the right because it’s only a matter of time before Republicans win again. The answer to the millionaires and billionaires making these decisions is always to find an excuse to shift to the right.

But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m alone in thinking that the rightward lurch of the mainstream press is maybe an issue that people should be worried about as Republicans work tirelessly to enact their version of Christian Nationalist–flavored fascism. That’s when I decided to reach out to a few people much smarter than myself.

Wajahat Ali is a former CNN commentator and former New York Times contributing op-ed columnist who is currently writing a column for the Daily Beast and co-host of the “Democracy-ish” podcast. I decided to ask him about the Trump-era slide to the right in the mainstream press.

“Media outlets bend the knee to bad faith right-wing actors and complaints,” he tells me. They are Charlie Brown and the right-wing is like Lucy. They think by appeasement that somehow they will shield themselves from bad faith criticism of being partisan or biased. It’s called ‘working the refs’ in sports, and it works beautifully for conservatives when it comes to media institutions.”

He’s right. “Working the refs” has been a long-standing strategy on the right. The gist of it is pretty simple: Whatever mainstream outlets report, accuse them of being biased against conservatives. If it’s bad news for Republicans, the right will dismiss it as “biased” and “fake news”; if it’s good news for Republicans, it gives the right the chance to say, “See? Even the liberal media says this.” Rinse and repeat. News outlets think hiring more conservatives or adopting right-wing talking points will insulate them from this criticism, but that’s not the game’s goal. The goal is to transform mainstream institutions into outlets that are biased in favor of conservatives, while still claiming that those same outlets are “liberal.” This tactic has been used both against traditional media companies as well as tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Ali argues that these adjustments and responses to criticism are effectively one-way streets.

“I haven’t seen anything close to accommodating liberals,” he adds. “For example, name me the hard-left counter-voice to a Rick Santorum? To Jeffrey Lord? It just doesn’t exist. You don’t see a raging atheist socialist, for example, hired by these networks.”

He goes on to tell me about the frustration of seeing Sean Spicer “having the greatest time of his life” at a Washington party for journalists a few years back.

“This was the same man who aggressively lied to their face as Trump’s press secretary, mocked them, and helped inspire a right-wing mob to see us all as ‘enemy of the people.’ His reward? An invite to the party.”

Media Matters For America research director Craig Harrington (full disclosure: I worked at Media Matters between 2018 and 2021) called the mainstream press’s relationship with the American right “reflexively defensive.”

“When Trump won, the mainstream press bent over backwards to appeal to Trump supporters and include pro-Trump perspectives in their news,” says Harrington. “Even the supposedly liberal outlets like MSNBC lurched to the right, soaking up castaway Republicans guilty of Trump apostasy. After Biden won? The same outlets rushed to hire more conservatives who jumped ship after January 6th.”

What Harrington describes here is one of the reasons I call the rightward shift both relentless and pointless. It’s relentless in the sense that Republicans will forever accuse the press of having a “liberal bias,” but pointless in the sense that no one is actually served by these changes. When you hire so-called “Never Trump” conservatives, as MSNBC did in hiring Nicolle Wallace or CNN did in hiring Jonah Goldberg, you’re certainly not going to convince the right that you’re listening to them, given Trump’s powerful standing among Republicans, and you’re certainly not going to make anyone on the left happy when every three-person panel includes two conservatives and one liberal. The result is that the window of reasonable debate, the Overton Window, will shift to the right, suddenly making what used to be outlandish right-wing ideas feel “moderate” because they’re being compared to the fringes of Trumpworld.

Harrington worries that this will lead the press down a dark path.

“I think the bigger concern going forward, as the GOP slides further into its own extremism, is that the media will chase them down the rabbit hole,” says Harrington, citing examples of mainstream outlets rushing to platform anti-abortion extremists in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“Republican politicians on the Supreme Court made a political decision, and as a result, the mainstream news coverage incorporated supportive perspectives from the right that were increasingly extreme,” he says. “The result of the Supreme Court’s decision is that more women will die during pregnancy and that abortions, which are now safe and regulated, will become unsafe. What news value does hosting a crisis pregnancy center spokesperson contribute when the stark facts are life and death?”

Margaret Sullivan, who works as the Washington Post’s media columnist, offers a slightly different perspective, arguing that this isn’t necessarily a “right” versus “left” issue so much as it’s “the reality-based press” trying, with mixed levels of success, to adjust to the post-2016 world.

“We/they were, indeed, out of touch before Trump was elected,” Sullivan tells me. “And the knee-jerk idea of the Endless Diner Series is one result of that adjustment. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to reach the entrenched Trump true believers with the journalism we do. Many of those true believers have chosen Fox and others of its ilk, and don’t want to hear anything that would challenge that mindset. But many mainstream journalists keep trying—through pointless pandering in diners or through inviting proven liars onto talk shows, or by touting the wonders of the ‘access’ provided by Mick Mulvaney.”

So what does this mean for the public when the right has weaponized claims of bias in service of their political agenda? Nothing good, I’m afraid. There was a time when I believed the media’s 2016 failures—which included a lack of focus on policy, an obsession with hacked and leaked emails, and a tendency to grade Trump on a curve —were genuine mistakes that could and would be corrected before the 2020 contest. I wrote as much back in January 2019. Since I was a child, I thought of the press more as an institution in service to the public than as a business. I no longer believe that, and it seems I’m not alone.

“They’ll welcome fascism with open arms if it gets good ratings,” says Ali.

I know.

“Mainstream media in this country … are fundamentally unprepared for the GOP’s rightward march toward fascism and theocracy,” says Harrington. “They refuse to acknowledge that it is happening, and they accuse you of alarmism and hysteria for pointing out the facts.”

I know.

“I’d like to see a more mission-driven approach that has as its core, the best role of journalism in American society,” says Sullivan. “I do see a few hopeful signs with these democracy desks, et cetera. I hope it’s not too little and too late.”

I know.


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