You’ve read a lot about the Republican war on what Donald Trump calls fake news. But here's the thing: For many Republicans, it's a phony war too.
While Trump spews bile and a narrative-hungry Twitter machine looks for evidence of a trend, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are emphatically not on board with the president’s attacks and are, indeed, openly supportive of the free American press.
“I love the media!” exclaimed GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, when BuzzFeed News finally managed to extract him from the gaggle of reporters that follows him almost everywhere he goes.
“I mean, y’all are real people, and I’m a real person and you’ve got a job to do and my thing is, provide you access, provide clarity, be direct, be honest, and trust in the integrity of the reporters that are covering you,” Meadows, who speaks often of his close relationship with Trump, went on. “And I’ve not been disappointed by 98% of the reporters that I get to work with.”
In a series of interviews on the topic over the last two weeks, Republicans were careful to note that their support for the press goes beyond mere collegiality to a recognition of the news media’s constitutional role.
“The Founding Fathers had it about right: A free press is a good thing, not a bad thing. And politics is rough and tumble, dealing with the media’s a bit rough and tumble, but I don’t think it’s sinister in any way. Actually I think it’s helpful,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told BuzzFeed News.
“They ask questions, that’s their job; they report stories, that’s their job. Part of our job is to try and educate our constituents and the public and the media on at least what it looks like on this side,” he added.
“This is public work,” echoed Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei. “So the fact that you can come up and ask me about it like, well, it is public work. Therefore, you need to answer those questions.”
For all their diligent tweeting and little-watched Facebook Live broadcasts, the reality for American politicians who aren't television celebrities is that they live their public lives largely through, and with, the media. From governor’s mansions to city halls to state houses to here in the Capitol, day-to-day reporting affords reporters and lawmakers nearly unfettered access to one another. They wander the same hallways, take the same elevators, and frequent the same bars, and the limits to conversation are primarily willingness to talk.
Indeed, hundreds of House members have more day-to-day contact with the working press than most other Americans, and despite their sometimes legitimate complaints about bias or mistakes, Republican lawmakers say they respect the press in a way that doesn't always come through in the social media storm.
“I like you guys,” said Tom Rooney, a Republican congressman from Florida. “I’ve always, you know, sort of been of the mindset that you guys have jobs, you guys have families, you guys have got to put food on the table too.”
The relationship can also be, if reporters are doing their jobs, antagonistic to the point of hostility. The most extreme example of this was two months ago, when Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte — then a candidate — physically assaulted a reporter and unleashed a verbal tirade for everyone to hear when a reporter asked him about the CBO score on the new health care bill. Gianforte apologized — but not until midway through his victory speech after he had secured a seat in Congress.
Some on the right cheered Gianforte’s violence — at his election night party in Montana his supporters made clear they believed he had nothing to apologize for; in his campaign war chest, donors made clear in that final 24 hours that they backed his action; and some on the alt-right vacillated between questioning the accuracy of the story and applauding the outcome.
Gianforte’s attack launched a thousand thinkpieces on the Republican Party’s alleged slide into authoritarianism, especially in conjunction with another incident two weeks earlier in which a reporter was arrested in the West Virginia Capitol after questioning Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Republicans on the Hill weren’t exactly Gianforte’s harshest critics — most did condemn the use of violence generally, though few were explicit about the issues raised by attacking a reporter — and there was no dancing around the fact that their priority was to keep the seat in Republican hands regardless.
But on both the campaign trail and in the Capitol, Gianforte’s action was an extreme exception, not the rule. “Last night I made a mistake and I took an action that I can’t take back, and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did and for that I am sorry. I should not have treated that reporter that way and for that I am sorry,” he said at his victory night party, after his spokesman had initially blamed the reporter's "aggressive behavior" for the incident.
it can be hard to distinguish between the historical and healthy adversarial relationship between politicians and the media and some deep new shift. Republican grievances about unfriendly coverage and coastal bias are not new, and helped spawn an increasingly active and influential right-leaning media. Democrats, led by figures like Bernie Sanders, have recently revived a deep suspicion of the media. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio — at war with his City Hall Press — recently referred to “the mega-concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few” as “dangerous to the democratic process."
And yet: The reason anyone is talking about this, the reason it doesn't seem crazy to quote members of Congress affirming the First Amendment, is the media personality in the White House who is doing all he can to undermine trust in journalism: “The Fake News.” “Garbage journalism.” “The dishonest media.” “The opposition party.”
And many Republican voters have embraced this view.
“I hear from people back home, ‘you stand with Trump, we don’t believe all the fake news,’” Texas GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold told BuzzFeed News.
“We’ve got to find the right press and flip ‘em off,” a woman excitedly told her husband as they arrived at Gianforte’s election night party 24 hours after he’d assaulted a reporter. Her message when she returned later: “I was a flight attendant for 16 years, but at least my job had some good qualities. I would rather be a flight attendant than you assholes.”
And in that context, it's perhaps remarkable how little buy-in to this anti-media campaign there is on Capitol Hill — beyond the usual (and bipartisan) tactic of attacking reporters when you get caught doing something bad. Instead, some Republicans feel they’ve gotten caught in the crossfire of a war between the White House and the media.
One House GOP aide said the current tenor of the political environment had made their local press more difficult to deal with, saying that at a moment where House Republicans were under such intense scrutiny, a three-person protest outside a district office was likely to be made into a big enough deal to make the local news.
“That veneer of objectivity is not as important as it once was because the times are so exceptional,” the aide said.
The result, the aide said, is “a more combative and adversarial relationship than it has been in the past.”
Others said they are frustrated by the way the media lets the president’s deliberate provocations drive the news cycle — and how the president uses his Twitter feed to commandeer it — rather than focusing on legislation.
“The tax reform we’re working on is the biggest thing that’s gonna happen in my political life. And for every question I get on that I get a dozen on a tweet,” an exasperated Arizona Rep. David Schweikert told BuzzFeed News, in a week where reporter questions focused largely on reaction to Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with people linked to the Russian government.
“Are we in this weird world where actual work doesn’t have payoff in current media?” Schweikert went on. “Flare, shiny objects, snarkiness is news now. Not actual work. And have we finally reached the pinnacle of the dumbing down of the conversation? So the political discourse as arbitrated by the news media, now — ‘If it’s complicated, screw you. Give me, can you say something inflammatory or stupid or can you take a dumb picture.’”
The effect of that dynamic has been an incentive to avoid the national press that wants to talk about whatever it is Trump said most recently and a return, some legislators and aides said, to speaking to the local reporters who speak directly to their constituencies.
“What’s more important to us is just making sure that we’re kind of feeding the beast back home, getting on local reports,” said one House GOP aide whose member represents a safe Republican district.
“I’ve got five TVs in my office. A day doesn’t go by I don’t want to throw my shoe at one of the televisions,” said Farenthold, who feels there is a deep anti-Trump bias within the media. Asked why, given that, he still keeps talking to the media, Farenthold says he’s changed his focus.
“My job is to communicate with my constituents and one way to do that is through the media," he said. "I can tell you I’m almost always a yes to my local media and I’m not canceling things to do national media anymore. I used to cancel things to do national media. Now if it fits in my schedule I’ll do it — and if it’s a topic I know about."
For lawmakers, there’s also no illusion that they can live without the press. The president will get quoted everywhere no matter what he says or where he says it. But as one of 435 or one of 100, most House and Senate figures don’t have that luxury — they need reporters as much as we need to talk to them. Reporters want to talk to the principals doing the legislating and deciding what will get written into law.
Some are more press-friendly than others. Meadows is rarely seen without several reporters surrounding him asking him about anything and everything. On Thursday afternoon he walked over to reporters to express mock surprise that no one had any questions for him as he exited an elevator. Cole is another one who can be relied upon to answer questions on nearly any topic.
Still, not all lawmakers are so chatty with the press. Many decline hallway interviews, especially on particularly loaded issues. It’s a bipartisan phenomenon — Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren eschews hallway interviews altogether, a position so well-established at this point that she moves through the Capitol all but ignored by reporters.
But for Republicans in particular, the 2016 campaign and the new presidential administration it ushered in created some new disincentives to engage with reporters.
It’s inspired some lawmakers to be less talkative in the hallways.
“I would say that the hysteria that exists out there daily, weekly, just makes it less appealing to go and do a lot of DC-based press,” said the House GOP aide whose boss represents a safe Republican district. “Right, I mean, like, why get into the fray?”
With Trump, Congress, and the health care legislation stunningly unpopular, one Republican staffer said, attacks on the media are both a useful last resort and a hindrance to Republicans being able to legislate.
“They assume that [reporters’] intention is to get them, catch them saying something to undermine their efforts, and I don’t think that is effective for Republican legislators to get their message out because they’re so defensive, and I don’t think that lets reporters tell their story accurately,” said a third House GOP aide.
The result, the aide said, limits Republicans’ ability to convey their own message, for instance, to sell a health care bill.
“It’s easier to say the media’s dishonest,” the aide said.
Alexis Levinson is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Alexis Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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