For a movement that seems to be careening past barriers of common sense this year with President Donald Trump in the White House, two recent events caused some members of the conservative media to pull up short and demand some accountability. The startling episodes were last summer's murder of a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer -- and an absurd right-wing conspiracy theory about the attack -- and last week's assault of a reporter by a Republican candidate for the U.S. House.
Rekindling the civil war that broke out during the Republican primary last year when a collective of conservatives rallied unsuccessfully against Trump’s candidacy, the varied reactions to these reports have renewed the widening schism between hardcore Trump loyalists in the media who lean toward the “alt-right” movement and who’ve adopted a troll-first-ask-questions-later form of harassment and the more traditional conservatives who are increasingly aghast at the behavior on display.
“Shameless,” “bizarre,” “morally bankrupt,” “shameful,” “twisted”: Those were some of the descriptors conservative commentators reached for in order to describe other conservative media players in recent days because of their commentary about Rich or Gianforte.
As someone who has monitored the right-wing press for many years, I can’t recall a time when so many GOP-friendly commentators unloaded on fellow conservatives over complaints of unprofessional behavior (rather than over policy disputes.) It’s quite unusual.
Specifically, some of those who called out their colleagues were appalled at how Sean Hannity and Fox News spearheaded a vile media campaign to politicize the death of Rich. The deplorable push of the hollow story was to suggest Rich committed a crime before he was killed by stealing tens of thousands of DNC emails and giving them to WikiLeaks last year, thereby making him a target of political violence.
The ghoulish effort had sinister partisan undertones: If Rich stole the emails, that means the Russians did not. And that would mean there was no Trump/Russia collusion. Or something.
“The conservative mind, in some very visible cases, has become diseased,” announced Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who once served as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Surveying the Rich debacle, Gerson wrote, “The movement has been seized by a kind of discrediting madness, in which conspiracy delusions figure prominently.”
“The age of Trump has corrupted a great many people and shattered norms,” lamented Mona Charen in National Review. (She once served as Nancy Reagan's speechwriter.) “Those whose moral compass has long since been stashed in the bottom drawer defending the indefensible piled on to applaud Gianforte’s thuggishness.”
Not many of the commentators necessarily connected the dots between the Rich conspiracy and the Gianforte assault. But what they did, separately, was detail the aggressive unmooring that’s taken place among key sections within the Trump loyalist media -- the complete abdication of civility in the name of excusing reckless excess.
“This sort of stuff isn’t worthy of baseline value-based behavior, let alone conservatism,” complained Ben Shapiro, the former Breitbart writer who now works at the far-right Daily Wire, referencing reactions to the Gianforte assault.
The Rich and Gianforte episodes provided fairly clear lines of demarcation for the conservative press: Either you support defaming murder victims and causing needless pain to their family for partisan gain, or you don’t. And either you support politicians openly assaulting private citizens, or you don’t.
The fact that either scenario generated robust debate within the conservative movement tells you how grave the situation is in today’s right-wing media.
One key point: The recent awakening on the right seems to be limited specifically to the Rich and Gianforte stories. Meaning, the conservative press, in general, continues to do extraordinary damage to our public debate by constantly spreading misinformation and by regularly defending or dismissing the indefensible from the current White House.
Still, it’s worth highlighting the chorus of condemnations that rose up last week and pondering what it might mean for the unfolding Trump presidency. For now, temperatures are running hot and Fox News has taken a pounding in the wake of the channel’s Seth Rich fiasco.
At The Weekly Standard, John McCormack announced, “Perhaps the worst actor of all in this twisted game of telephone is Fox News host Sean Hannity.”
“The network I once respected as a necessary antidote to liberal media now peddles craven lies and Russian disinformation,” complained Max Boot at Foreign Policy.
Added Jennifer Rubin, a longtime conservative writer at The Washington Post: “Fox’s jaw-dropping unprofessionalism and dishonesty were matched only by its cruelty in subjecting Rich’s loved ones to a grotesque political plot.”
Conservative New York Times columnist and longtime Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens agreed:
Meanwhile, John Podhoretz at Commentary wrote a scathing anti-Hannity column headlined “The Shame of Defaming Seth Rich.”
And then there was the Montana morality meltdown.
After Gianforte threw Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground in front of several witnesses and while the reporter’s tape recorder rolled, Trump loyalists in the press rushed to the Republican's defense. Some even cheered the attack while blaming and mocking the unsuspecting victim.
For some Republican-friendly journalists, that was too much to stomach.
“Too many conservatives are either doubting the event occurred, despite audio evidence and witness testimony by a Fox News crew, or praising Mr. Gianforte for giving the press what it deserves,” lamented former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, who was infamously grabbed by Trump’s campaign manager last year while trying to ask the candidate a question.
“There is never an excuse for a politician to assault a reporter for asking questions,” wrote Jay Caruso at the GOP-friendly RedState. “It’s sad to watch some conservatives wave it away because they don’t like the media.”
“You either uphold certain basic standards of decency or you don’t,” noted Charen after singling out conservatives such as Brent Bozell, Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham for loudly supporting Gianforte’s attack. “Some who call themselves conservatives have shown that they are nothing of the kind. To be conservative is to be honorable. These are contemptible, partisan hacks.”
I don’t often agree with the National Review, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Wire, Commentary, and former Bush speechwriters. But in this case, they’re right to loudly sound the alarm about the very dark place that Trump is leading today’s conservative media.