The Media Today


October 6, 2023
Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to the media on the steps of the Capitol after his motion to vacate the Office of the Speaker passed on Tuesday, October 3, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

“So am I speaker yet or what?” On Wednesday, Matt Gertz—a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group—asked that question on X (formerly Twitter) after his near-namesake Matt Gaetz, the Trumpy Republican congressman from Florida, filed a motion that led to the removal of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House of Representatives. With his tweet, Gertz continued a running joke of his, based on the similarity of his name and Gaetz’s; the pair are often mistaken for each other on X, where Gertz is bombarded every time Gaetz does something controversial (which is often). Gaetz, by contrast, was fully serious in ousting McCarthy—with the help of hard-right Republicans and every Democrat—though the House GOP does now look like a joke.

Gertz and Gaetz are bound by more than their names: for years, Gertz has written about the intersection of right-wing media and politics, where Gaetz has built his career. In April 2021, Gertz told CJR’s Ian W. Karbal that he considered Gaetz to be a member of the “Fox caucus”; since the summer of 2017, Gaetz had been on Fox weekday shows more than three hundred times. As I noted for CJR back then, Gaetz’s combined appearances added up to nearly fifty hours. He was on TV so much that he installed a studio in his father’s home, and reportedly considered quitting Congress to become a host on Newsmax. 

In my piece, I quoted from a book that Gaetz had recently written: “The hairdressers and makeup ladies and cameramen pick our presidents,” he observed. “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” This week, following the Gaetz-driven ouster of McCarthy, CNN’s Oliver Darcy made the case that Gaetz is so desperate to make news that he does so at the expense of governing. The Speaker vote was “another reminder that the once-sought-after prestigious posts in government, such as the speakership, are no longer the real centers of power in Washington, or politics at large,” Darcy wrote. “The gravity actually rests in the hands of high-profile media personalities—many of whom are not incentivized by unity and compromise, but feed off conflict and division. And these media personalities have birthed and empowered people like Gaetz.”

True enough—but we should be careful not to imagine this moment as a sharp departure from some halcyon recent past. Back in 2021, I contrasted a tough burst of coverage of Gaetz—who, at the time, was reported to be the subject of a federal sex-trafficking investigation (he was never charged)—to contemporaneous coverage of John Boehner, the former House Speaker, who was also in the news, for writing a book. Boehner lamented that his party had been taken over by a right-wing media culture that made celebrities of fringe novices, while casting himself, at least implicitly, as a serious old-school legislator. Many political reporters seemed to fall for this self-portrayal. To me, it seemed disingenuous: Boehner was complicit in the rise of modern right-wing media culture, throwing red meat to Fox and boosting his radical members on numerous occasions. (The tweets I’ve seen this week imagining Boehner reveling smugly in the current House dysfunction suggest that this lesson has still not been absorbed.)

I had feared that McCarthy, on his way out, might sell the press a similar self-mythology to distance himself from the Gaetzes of the world—and he did try, huffing, at a valedictory press conference, about the integrity of the “institution.” I was pleasantly surprised that most of the coverage I saw avoided the obvious trap. It noted, for example, how McCarthy pandered to his most extreme colleagues by voting to overturn the 2020 election and opening an impeachment probe into Joe Biden. Prior to McCarthy’s ouster, Margaret Brennan, of CBS—hardly a media rabble-rouser—laughed in his face when he blamed Democrats for the current dysfunction in the House. As Speaker, McCarthy lived by the Fox News talking point. He died by it, too.

It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that as McCarthy and Gaetz went to war with each other, Fox and the broader right-wing media ecosystem squabbled over whose side to take. As Gertz observed, ahead of the vote to oust McCarthy, Fox News “basically stayed out of the McCarthy-Gaetz fracas.” In the days since, a number of Fox hosts and contributors have lambasted Gaetz as irresponsible: Trey Gowdy accused him of having a “crush” on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic representative; Mark Levin called him a “POS demagogue”; Jeanine Pirro said she was “furious” about the whole mess. Dagen McDowell, of Fox Business, compared Gaetz to “that toddler that we’ve all seen at the family barbecue eating toilet paper, shoving Cheerios up his nose to get attention.” Brian Kilmeade said (presumably without irony) that Gaetz does not want to govern, but rather “to fill in on other networks, put on headsets, and do podcasts.”

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This past weekend, CNN’s Jake Tapper accused Gaetz of “looking for clicks and likes and Fox hits.” Gaetz replied, “You might want to check Fox. I haven’t been hitting there as much recently.” Indeed, Gaetz is less associated with Fox than he used to be. These days, he is perhaps more involved in the Steve Bannon caucus: per the New York Times, the pair strategized for weeks about ousting McCarthy. On Wednesday morning, Gaetz appeared on Bannon’s podcast, War Room, where Bannon declared a “tectonic plate shift here in the imperial capital” and called Gaetz a “hero.” 

Look past the infighting, though, and you see a wider media ecosystem on the right that has done much to land the GOP—and the country—in its present predicament. As Gertz told Karbal in 2021, “What we’ve seen over the years is a fusion of these two spheres—the world of Republican politics and the world of right-wing media have become one and the same.” Yesterday, Gertz pointed out that, since 2017, Steve Scalise, the early favorite to succeed McCarthy, has appeared on Fox nearly three hundred times. Scalise’s main rival, Jim Jordan, has appeared nearly twice as many times—more than any sitting member of Congress. You can read Karbal’s Gertz interview here.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.