The media today: At CPAC, media-bashing hides a deeper agenda

The tightening of the Russia investigation and the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, made for an emotive backdrop to this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicked into gear in Maryland on Thursday. Yesterday’s programming started in viscerally anti-media style—the first panel of the day discussed “An Affair to Remember: How the Far Left and the Mainstream Media Got In Bed Together”—and didn’t get any friendlier from there.

In a widely covered speech, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch typified this pugnacious tone. At CNN’s Parkland town hall the night before, Loesch had ventured a conciliatory note as she faced survivors of the massacre and relatives of victims. At CPAC, that conceit was gone. At one point, Loesch eyeballed the reporters at the back of the room and told them they “love” mass shootings because “crying white mothers are ratings gold.” At a different moment, she thundered, “We will not be gaslighted into thinking that we’re responsible for a tragedy that we had nothing to do with.”

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Bashing the mainstream media has always pushed conference-goers’ buttons—as commentator Ben Shapiro reminded the press from the stage, “We didn’t like you guys before [Trump].” The added fire and brimstone this time around could easily be seen as part of a defensive crouch. The extraordinary students of Parkland have shifted this country’s gun debate into uncommonly dangerous territory for firearms advocates, and as the conference unfolded yesterday, news broke that an armed sheriff’s deputy had done nothing to prevent the shooting—just as the president and many CPAC speakers doubled down on the efficacy of tightened school security. Almost simultaneously, new indictments hit former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.

But Loesch and other speakers’ tones were subtler than bunker-mentality anger. Their strategy was twofold: gut-punch the media with an iron fist, but also offer folksy bromides to “average, everyday Americans” watching at home (“We’re parents, too,” Loesch said. “Don’t you think our kids deserve the same protection as our celebrities?”). This sort of divide-and-rule politics—besmirch the media’s motives, then convince wavering listeners that you’re the sympathetic voice of reason—once made Trump stand out among Republican politicians. Now it’s the go-to game-plan across more mainstream parts of the right.

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This year’s CPAC feels like a solicitation to Americans to leave the mainstream press behind altogether and embrace sources that advance a different agenda. Shapiro proudly noted that his Daily Wire website has decided not to name mass shooters, since studies have shown that doing so could inspire copycats—drawing a marked (if disingenuous) contrast with other news outlets. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, meanwhile, promised to expand his organization’s media operations, including its in-house TV channel, “to make our message just as accessible as NBC, The New York Times, and the rest of the so-called national news media.” The press should note these words, as well as the venom CPAC exposed them to. In the middle of a pummelling, it can be easy to forget that the blows are not an end in themselves, but the first salvo in a much wider war.

Below, more from CPAC:

  • “They said ‘burn her’”: On a later panel, Loesch told Sean Hannity she was called names and physically threatened at the CNN town hall Wednesday. She also attacked the network for what she deemed exploitative treatment of shooting survivors.
  • More in common?: In The New York Times, Michael Grynbaum has a round-up of the anti-media invective that marked CPAC’s first day: “This annual gathering is usually a moment to hammer out what divides the fractious conservative movement. What it has revealed so far is what unites it: contempt for ‘#fakenews’ and the journalists that….Shapiro memorably described as ‘advocates of leftism, masquerading as objective truth-tellers.’”
  • Did you change or did I?: The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin says mainstream conservatives should sweat what CPAC reveals about the direction of the right. “CPAC has always been ‘out there,’” she says. “Now the rest of the GOP is, too.”
  • Fall from grace: After ruling the roost at last year’s CPAC, Breitbart’s influence is visibly diminished this year, write CNN’s Tom Kludt and Oliver Darcy. Former Breitbart staffers Shapiro and Sebastian Gorka are giving star turns, however.
  • Trump vs. CNN (again): It’s not strictly CPAC-related, but the president in a tweet accused CNN of scripting a Parkland survivor’s question ahead of Wednesday night’s town hall. CNN strongly denied the claim, which had been circulating online, and on Fox, all day. “There is absolutely no truth to this story—and we can prove that,” CNN said.


Other notable stories

  • For CJR, Mathew Ingram looks at the structural problems behind online fake news. “‘Computational propaganda’ doesn’t just piggyback on social platforms; it is baked into the DNA and the business model of companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. And it’s going to take more than an algorithm tweak to get rid of it,” he writes.
  • Also for CJR, Bill Grueskin highlights a structural problem of a different kind: the culture of impunity around newsroom harassment, particularly at NPR, where an internal investigation found serious flaws in the handling of allegations against former top editor Michael Oreskes.
  • The New York Times has this nice piece on a double trailblazer: “Maribel Vinson is a revered name in American figure skating. She was a three-time Olympian, a bronze medalist behind the gold medalist Sonja Henie and an exacting coach who trained hundreds of young talents before dying in a plane crash in 1961. But she had another distinction that is almost forgotten: Maribel Vinson was the first female sportswriter at The New York Times.”
  • After CJR wrote about the student journalists of Parkland this week, a journalism teacher at the Sacramento State Hornet newspaper got in touch to share how student reporters at that school fought back against “unconstitutional” proposed restrictions on campus media production.
  • And I wrote about the unusual case of the Chesapeake Bay Journal—a free environmental newspaper that’s using the First Amendment to win back its funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. The Journal says the EPA cut its grant because it published stories that were critical of officials, which could be a big legal problem for the government.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.