Anti-Media Sentiment in American Conservatism: A History

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Since Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, coverage of his norm-shattering, truth-bending, and institution-deriding rhetoric has utterly consumed the media landscape…

Over the past four years, President Trump has waged a metaphorical war on the free press, the very tenet of democracy that functions to hold his office accountable. Through late-night tweetstorms, press conferences, and official statements, Trump has repeatedly undermined the legitimacy of the press. He routinely vilifies its institutions, casting upon them a colorful array of monikers including “biased,” “phony,” “dishonest,” and most frequently, “fake news.” Despite the decisive loss of his recent re-election bid, Trump’s base of indefatigable MAGA fans — so named for his ubiquitous campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” — has continued to grow. Spreading along with Trump’s popularity is the longstanding parable of pervasive liberal bias in the media. As a result, many Americans with dwindling faith in traditional journalistic institutions have turned to the right-wing media conglomerate. To fully understand the impact of this phenomenon, academics must contextualize Trumpism within the history of anti-media sentiment and the rise of modern conservatism in America. This study uses the lens of presidential rhetoric to trace the emergence of anti-media sentiment from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump.

The method for undertaking this study will focus on rhetorical analyses of two major speeches: “Responsibilities of Television” by Richard Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew, and “Remarks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference” by Donald J. Trump. This study will include relevant historical and policy analysis to delineate the history of anti-media sentiment in the conservative movement. Section I will touch upon necessary historical context that underlaid the inception of the movement, namely, the leadership of media activists who were dismayed by perceived liberal media bias and founded influential conservative publications Human Events, The National Review, and others. Section II will focus on the rhetorical analysis of Spiro Agnew’s speech and an exploration of how the Nixon administration disrupted the broadcast industry to bring conservatism mainstream. Section III will contextualize the controversy and repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine. Critically, it will detail how this decision precipitated a surge in conservative talk radio, ultimately providing a platform to the second generation of media activists. Section IV will connect the emergence of conservative talk radio to the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump and will analyze his 2017 CPAC speech through a rhetorical framework. Using this combination of rhetorical and historical analysis, I argue that President Donald J. Trump is not an anomalous phenomenon, but rather a symbolic culmination of populist conservatism that has grown increasingly detached from reality and can be traced back to the anti-media sentiment promulgated by the Nixon administration.

Part I: Seeking a Microphone, They Started a Movement

Many historical summaries inaccurately contend that the inception of modern American conservatism took place under the Reagan Administration, following the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The reality is far more nuanced. Modern conservatism, alongside the anti-media sentiment that distinguished it, emerged from circles of intellectuals and ideologues as early as the 1940s. These unconventional thinkers hailed from the American Midwest and South — far from the bastions of elite Northern liberalism where the press and broadcast news industries were centered. Clarence Manion, Henry Regnery, and William Rusher, hailing from Henderson, Kentucky; Hinsdale, Illinois; and Chicago respectively, were some of the most influential voices and are widely considered to be “founders of the conservative movement.” They were staunch opponents of the New Deal and loudly advocated against core tenets of post-war liberalism, bipartisanship, and containment. Frustrated by an absence of affirming voices in the mainstream media, Regnery, a successful publisher, funded the establishment of conservative newspaper Human Events as early as 1944.

A decade later, following months of silence, President Eisenhower condemned the fallacious red-baiting conduct of Senator Joseph McCarthy by praising his senatorial censure. For Rusher, this moment represented the Republican establishment taking a spineless stance against communism and caused him to lose all hope in the party and leave for good. Eisenhower’s later decision to invite Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to the United States caused further outrage, serving as a nail in the establishment coffin for many conservatives. While a handful of conservative-friendly media outlets existed by that time, Manion, Regnery, and Rusher were still angered by the resistance of the mainstream press and broadcast news media to lend airtime to their views. As historian Nicole Hemmer writes in her book on the origins of conservatism, these early conservative “media activists” took matters into their own hands, funding and pioneering various new media outlets throughout the fifties, and garnering enthusiastic supporters. Around this time, Regnery made a deal with William F. Buckley, ardent conservative author and McCarthy supporter, who founded the National Review. The Regnery Company invested in publishing and promoting the Review, which quickly gained influence as the standard-bearer of conservatism. “Originally intent on building mouthpieces,” Hemmer writes, the media activists “ended up building a movement.”

At the core of the media activists’ shared ideology was the novel concept of liberal media bias. These lines of argument were powerful because, in one fell swoop, they undercut the legitimacy of the establishment media and invalidated arguments against conservatism. Hemmer describes how the burgeoning conservative movement “taught a generation of conservatives to reject nonconservative media and to seek out right-wing news sources. In the process, they made this habit of conservative media consumption part of what it now means to be a conservative in America.” Objectivity had been a cornerstone of journalism since the 1920s, and since then, the industry prided itself on adhering to standards of selflessness, factual accuracy, fairness, and deference to institutional authority. But the conservative media activists’ cries of liberal media bias sparked a reckoning within the journalism industry, causing some to question whether adhering to ideological balance as opposed to objectivity was actually the morally superior position.

Central to this debate was the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Fairness Doctrine, a 1949 policy requiring licensed radio and television broadcasters to present issues of public importance in an honest, equitable, and balanced manner. This was passed to overturn the previous Mayflower Decision of 1941, which had legally prohibited radio programs from broadcasting editorial observations about news or politics on the air. Eight years later, the Fairness Doctrine recognized that total suppression of political opinion on the radio ran counter to First Amendment principles. Instead, the Fairness Doctrine considered the philosophies of 19th-century political theorist John Stuart Mill, who argued that more speech is better for democracy, as long as both sides of a debate are presented for public consumption. As such, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to provide fair coverage representing opposing views and functioned to stifle ideological imbalance on broadcast radio and television.

As the conservative media activists gained influence, they grew frustrated by the Fairness Doctrine’s restrictions. In official statements attempting to clarify the policy, the FCC had inadvertently only flagged “controversial” topics typical of Southern and conservative broadcasters, who in turn felt personally targeted by the policy. An FCC statement issued in 1963 emphasized the importance of lending airtime to “the views of the leaders of the Negro and other community groups” and specifically chided programs presenting themselves under the labels of “Americanism”, “anti-communism”, and “pro-states’ rights.” In addition, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had both openly condemned “super patriots” and voiced concerns about ideological extremism in the press, which stoked concerns of state-sponsored censorship. Conservatives felt that the doctrine had a “chilling effect” on political discourse because radio broadcasters were forced to interview one liberal for every conservative they hosted on the air. The obvious consequence to such a restriction, conservatives rightly argued, was that radio stations defaulted to ideologically moderate editorial news coverage. By the media activists’ standards, even the ideological center of American politics was plagued with liberal bias, thus the industry practices promoted by the Fairness Doctrine disproportionately censored their perspectives. By the end of the 1960s, Hemmer argues, “conservative broadcasters of all stripes were convinced that media bias was a construct protected and promoted by liberal policymakers and a major threat to the right’s ability to stay on air.”

Armed with increasingly influential newspapers and radio shows, the media activists fortified the conservative movement throughout the sixties. They had attracted the support of several Republican senators, and notably, encouraged outspoken conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to announce a bid for the 1964 Presidential Election. Despite its support from the muscle of the conservative media machine, Goldwater’s campaign ultimately went up in smoke, resulting in a landslide loss to incumbent Lyndon Johnson in addition to overwhelmingly progressive victories in down-ballot races. On the morning after the election, The New York Times declared that Goldwater’s “pulverizing, catastrophic defeat,” was an emphatic indication of America’s condemnation of McCarthyism and fringe, far-right politics. The conservative movement, it appeared, was destined to decline. For a while, this appeared to be the case — investors lost faith and pulled funding, radio license holders canceled talk shows citing ambiguous FCC guidelines, and prospects looked bleak under the Johnson administration. By 1969, however, upon the election of Richard Nixon to the Presidency, the tides turned once again.

Part II: Nattering Nabobs of Negativity

Nixon’s moderate Republican roots and support of Eisenhower’s attempts to negotiate with Khruschev had landed him firmly outside the media activists’ circle of allies. As their home-grown conservative movement teetered on the edge of oblivion, its leaders decided to make amends and support Nixon in a last-ditch effort of revitalization. Above all else, the media activists wanted to fulfill their goals of fundamentally reshaping the press and broadcasting industry. Nixon had, after all, stumped with Goldwater, hired conservative Pat Buchanan as a speechwriter, and extended a peace offering to the media activists by way of meeting with Rusher of Human Events and other influential conservative leaders. As Hemmer writes, “for the former Vice President, the electoral victory meant vindication for 1960 and 1962. For conservative media, it meant unprecedented opportunity.” While Nixon’s foreign policy deeply disappointed conservatives, he was personally invested in working alongside the media activists to disrupt the broadcast industry.

Despite owing much of his early success to favorable press coverage, Nixon had a longstanding hatred of journalists. After narrowly losing the 1960 general election to John F. Kennedy, Nixon blamed the press. He never shook the sense that the industry was “out to get him.” Nixon’s vows to avenge this loss manifested in a covert, systematic campaign to delegitimize the press during his presidential tenure. This anti-media campaign included both explicit threats and subtly designed rhetorical strategies. The former were often leveraged against investigative journalists in the form of revoking press licenses, violent threats, and even an assassination attempt. The latter focused on promoting anti-media messaging designed to inoculate the public against the President’s harshest critics. Nixon’s anti-media tirade was unprecedented and influential, and many historians trace the political polarization plaguing contemporary American society back to Nixon’s war on the media. The following sections of this study will analyze the rhetorical and authoritative strategies leveraged by the Nixon administration to compel flattering coverage and orchestrate a cultural shift in perceptions of the press.

One key component of Nixon’s anti-media campaign was authorizing the CIA to wiretap the phones of journalists and political adversaries without obtaining warrants. While this practice was not wholly unprecedented — the Kennedy Administration had established an illegal CIA domestic surveillance program called Project Mockingbird that had included one comparable instance of press surveillance — Nixon made wiretapping journalists’ phones the new norm. Infamously, the administration aggressively targeted investigative journalist Jack Anderson, a notorious Washington muckraker whose column “The Washington Merry Go Round” ran in hundreds of newspapers nationwide. Anderson had a place at the top of Nixon’s list of political enemies, which is no turn of phrase — there was an actual “master list” compiled by Presidential Counselor Charles Colson, which served as an extension of the shorter “enemies list,” and comprised the internal campaign commonly referred to as the “Political Enemies Project.” The purpose of this project, according to Nixon’s White House Counsel John W. Dean, was to use “the available Federal machinery to screw [the administration’s] political enemies.”

And screw its enemies the administration did. During Anderson’s journalistic investigation of the Nixon administration’s conduct during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War (reporting later recognized with a Pulitzer Prize), CIA Director Richard Helms authorized the wiretapping of Anderson’s phones. In a last-ditch attempt to quash Anderson’s relentless muckraking and divulgence of government secrets, Nixon’s Special Counsel Charles Colson ordered two of his subordinates to target Anderson for assassination. In his book Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture, media studies professor and journalist Mark Feldstein references recently unearthed National Archive tapes documenting the assassination plot. Nixon’s aides allegedly “plotted to destroy Anderson by planting forged evidence…spreading false rumors about his sex life and that of one of his associates…[and] assassinat[ing] Anderson by either putting poison in his medicine cabinet or exposing him to a ‘massive dose’ of LSD by smearing it on the steering wheel of his car.” Presumably, the LSD tactic was designed such that Anderson would hallucinate while driving and be killed in a car crash. While the assassination was thwarted after several involved staffers were arrested in connection to the Watergate scandal, the plot provides a shocking illustration of the animus between the Nixon administration and the journalists who would ultimately prompt his political collapse.

In addition to targeted threats towards journalists, the Nixon administration employed rhetorical strategies designed to erode the public trust in traditional press outlets. This aspect of the anti-media campaign required a much more subtle implementation. Nixon was advised not to speak freely about his disdain for the press because the success of the war effort hinged on maintaining public support, which was still largely influenced by traditional news networks. In private, however, Nixon made no efforts to conceal his animosity. In private conversations with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Thomas H. Moorer, and Assistant National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Nixon stated the following:

“Never forget, the press is the enemy… The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy…Write that on the blackboard 100 times and never forget it. It’s the enemy. So we use them, at times…They know they’re out of touch with the country. It kills those bastards. They are the enemy, and we’re just gonna continue to use them…”

“The press is your enemy…now, never act that way…give them a drink…treat them nice…but don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”

One specific rhetorical strategy that emerged was the idea of substituting the terms “the press” and “the media.” In the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Schudson explains that the term “the media” in regards to the journalistic press, didn’t exist in the American vernacular before Nixon. The administration strategically introduced and promoted the term with the goal of eliminating the term “the press,” which was the more commonly used and dignified-sounding alternative. In Before the Fall, former Nixon speechwriter William Safire described the intent behind this maneuver: “The press became ‘the media’ because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation, and the press hated it.”

Throughout the fall of 1969, a surge of anti-war protesters descended upon Washington. Nixon responded by delivering his infamous “Silent Majority” speech, which outlined his plan to end the war on American terms while maintaining global credibility through the strategy of “Vietnamization.” As Campbell and Jamieson write in Presidents Creating the Presidency, a key feature of wartime rhetoric is its deliberative structure, in that “every element in it proclaims that the momentous decision to resort to force is deliberate…constructing a chronicle or narrative from which argumentative claims are drawn.” Nixon’s speech aimed to legitimize his continued use of force in Vietnam and portray his ego-driven motivations for achieving victory as secondary, stating:

“Some put it to me quite bluntly: This was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson’s war to become Nixon’s war. But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election. I had to think of the effect of my decision on the next generation and on the future of peace and freedom in America and in the world.”

Another key component of wartime speech, as Jamieson explains, is rallying the audience “to unanimity of purpose and total commitment” to the war effort, in the form of a “call for unity.” Existing rhetorical analyses of this speech draw attention to its emphasis on the call for unity as a central strategy aiming to consolidate public opinion around the war effort. Nixon’s speech also appealed to national pride, encouraging “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans” to support the pursuit of a peaceful, honorable victory. Nixon concluded, “Let us be united for peace. Let us be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” Despite the raging anti-war effort, public response to Nixon’s silent majority speech swayed overwhelmingly positive. A Gallup Poll survey carried out in the wake of the speech indicated that 77% of Americans supported Nixon’s policy in Vietnam, his approval ratings rose to 68%, and the reaction of Congress to the speech was also highly favorable.

On the other hand, anti-war activists saw through this messaging and remained critical of Nixon’s war strategy. Progressives expressed concern that “Vietnamization” was a publicity stunt meant to disguise the ongoing war as a constructive step towards conflict resolution when in reality, nothing was slated to change. Others expressed frustration that the President was allowing a seemingly never-ending war to persist, causing thousands of additional and unnecessary American deaths. Many prominent journalists, news anchors, and other members of the media industry shared this perspective, which resulted in a chasm between public opinion and the tone of coverage of the Silent Majority speech. Several high profile news programs dissected the strategy presented in the speech in a negative light, broadcasting this cynical perspective into the homes of millions of Americans.

Evidently, Nixon had a vested interest in maintaining public support around his war strategy. Significant loss of public support could provoke domestic instability, delegitimize the United States on the international stage, and increase the likelihood of Nixon going down in history as having lost the war. Worried that this onslaught of media criticism might skew public perception, Nixon felt compelled to lash out against the press. However, many strategists close to the president expressed concern that having Nixon personally deliver a speech deriding the well-established American press could hurt his chances of gaining the support of moderates. As a result, Nixon sent Vice President Spiro Agnew to deliver the remarks.

On November 13th, 1969, Agnew was dispatched to make this speech at the Midwestern Regional Republican Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Commonly referred to by the title “The Responsibilities of Television,” the speech would go down in history as a groundswell of anti-media sentiment in modern American conservatism. While its significance is partially symbolic — as discussed, anti-media sentiment among conservatives had been simmering for years — this marked the first time a presidential administration made an official statement explicitly disparaging the American press.

Agnew’s speech can be aptly categorized as a judicial as well as a deliberative speech. It employed deliberative rhetoric underscoring the importance of winning the war and persuaded audiences to question the legitimacy of the media. To accomplish this, Agnew zeroed in on the stark contrast between the public reception and media coverage of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” address given ten days prior. He name-dropped individual journalists and news anchors who criticized the speech, leaving no ambiguity as to which outlets the administration had taken issue with. Agnew repeatedly asserted that “Americans have the right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a Presidential address,” largely responding to the “instant analysis” broadcast segments commonly aired immediately after political speeches. Members of the Nixon administration felt that these segments overstepped ethical boundaries by shaping public perception of speeches before they had time to “sink in.”

Later in the speech, Agnew used several metaphors to characterize what he viewed as the dangerous, monopolistic influence of TV networks. He compared them to “presiding judges in a national trial by jury,” and then described their influence as “equal to that of local, state, and Federal Governments all combined.” Infamously, Agnew described the upper echelons of the media industry as “a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by Government.” This rhetoric evoked visceral emotional responses by emphasizing the contrast between average Americans and this “privileged circle of elites.” Agnew also characterized their opining as “not objective analysis, but the liberal pap of the New York-Washington echo chamber. And every night, 40 million Americans tuned in, imbibing bias and mistaking it for neutrality.” This combination of deliberative and judicial rhetoric delivered a moral verdict that the press, hidden behind a guise of rectitude, posed dangerous threats to American values and freedom of thought.

As Campbell and Jamieson argue in Presidents Creating the Presidency, presidential war rhetoric seeks to “justify to Congress and to the citizenry their exercise of war powers.” As previously stated, both Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech (and, to a lesser extent, Agnew’s response) were paradigms of this. The authors argue that a second focus of presidential wartime rhetoric is the appeal for national unity. In contrast to Nixon’s speech, Spiro Agnew’s response wholly and intentionally excludes this element of traditional wartime rhetoric. As the Vietnam War dragged on through the 1960s, it exacerbated political polarization, with anti-war protesters on the left and patriots and presidential loyalists on the right. Agnew’s speech reflects the toxic polarization characterizing this era of American politics. When crafting Agnew’s “Responsibilities of Television” speech, speechwriter Pat Buchanan likely considered the public’s glowing approval of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, which indicated that the administration already had everyone they needed in their corner. Agnew’s speech capitalized on the politically polarized moment to foment discord between Nixon’s supporters and the anti-war movement. In this way, Agnew’s speech revealed the administration’s decision to abandon wartime precedent by choosing divisive over unifying rhetoric.

In addition to the instant gratification and short-term strategic benefits of undermining the President’s loudest critics, Agnew’s speech functioned as a match to the tinderbox of anti-media sentiment that the activists had had in the works since the 1950s. Agnew proceeded in his newfound role as Nixon’s media attack dog, and his speeches elevated the conservative media war from the fringes of American politics into the mainstream. The public responded positively to Agnew’s “Responsibilities of Television” speech, in “nearly a 3 to 1 ratio” according to The Ithaca Journal. Even the left-leaning Washington Post acknowledged that the tenor of broadcast media warranted re-evaluation. Agnew’s speech influenced Americans of all political leanings, catalyzing sentiments that would burgeon into a fervent distrust of the press among conservatives, moderates, and New Leftists alike. In this sense, Agnew’s speech created a fertile cultural climate for a new media regime to take root, and conservative media activists jumped at this opportunity.

As media cynicism gained traction among the electorate, the Nixon administration formalized an official, three-pronged plan to firmly entrench conservative perspectives within the media landscape. The first was launching persistent attacks on the legitimacy of the establishment media by publicizing quantitative studies claiming to prove liberal media bias. The second was growing the accessibility and influence of ideologically conservative news coverage by supporting the establishment of new conservative media outlets all over the country to join ranks with National Review, Human Events, and others. The third and final strategy was funding conservative media watchdog groups aiming to leverage FCC regulations to advocate for “objective journalism” as a backdoor to secure more airtime for conservative counterarguments.

The first strategy — providing quantitative evidence demonstrating liberal media bias — was spearheaded by TV Guide writer Edith Efron, who published a book claiming to have proven the existence of liberal distortion in the broadcast media. The News Twisters used the frameworks set by the Federal Communication Commission to delineate bias. Previously instated FCC policies laid out the definition of unbiased news coverage, describing it as that which “selects and broadcasts contrasting and conflicting views on the major political issues — regardless of their truth or falsity,” prioritizes content through a nonpartisan selective process, and presents all sides of arguments in an “equal” and “equally forceful” manner. Using the proportionate distribution of praise as her metric of objectivity, Efron designed and conducted a study that she claimed provided evidence in support of liberal bias in broadcasting.

Efron’s study was the first, albeit rudimentary, study to employ sentiment analysis of news coverage to quantify media bias. Her methodology consisted of coding the sentiment of various verbal descriptors as “for” or “against”, then watching hours of prime-time news broadcasts aired on ABC, CBS, and NBC during the election cycle, and finally tallying the amounts of negative and positive coverage each candidate received. The study concluded that Nixon’s coverage was only 8.7% positive, whereas his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, received an even mix of positive and negative coverage. Efron was correct in her statement that such a gaping discrepancy illustrated that major broadcast news networks had overwhelmingly favored Humphrey. Indeed, this skewed selection ran counter to the guidelines set in the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine — a policy that conservatives had long criticized for its ambiguity and “chilling effect” on controversial political speech broadcasted via the radio. Efron, however, saw in her findings an opportunity to use the Fairness Doctrine as leverage to secure a more equal representation of conservative viewpoints in the media. In the discussion portion of her book, Efron delivered this scathing rebuke:

“If Richard Nixon is President of the United States today, it is in spite of ABC-TV, CBS-TV and NBC-TV. Together they broadcast[ed] the quantitative equivalent of a New York Times lead editorial against him every day — for five days a week for the seven weeks of his campaign period. And every editorial technique was employed on three networks to render the pro-Nixon side less “forceful” than the anti-Nixon side. Indeed, to speak of “forceful” pro-Nixon opinion is impossible. It does not exist.”

Efron’s study was the first to quantify the slippery concept of liberal media bias, and her findings provided conservatives with ammunition for waging their ongoing media war. In asserting that liberal bias violated the Fairness Doctrine, Efron made a compelling argument that conservatives should leverage the policy to garner more sympathetic treatment by the broadcast media. Despite her rudimentary methodology and lack of scientific expertise, the book was immensely popular — though this was partially due to a morally dubious scheme devised by the President. The Nixon administration had determined that popularizing a book that claimed to prove liberal bias would benefit their political agenda, so Nixon ordered Chuck Colson to make the book a bestseller. White House staff reportedly spent $8,000 buying copies of the book in an effort to vault it onto the New York Times best-seller list. It worked, and the book’s newfound recognition caused it to surge in popularity, stoking fear and cynicism into the minds of scores of conservatives.

The administration’s second strategy, funding conservative media watchdog groups, was another crucial component of their anti-media campaign. These groups were established to spearhead the initiative to counteract the liberal media bias exposed by The News Twisters. Leading the charge was Accuracy in Media (AIM), founded by Reed Irvine and funded by the Nixon administration among other influential conservative coalitions. Despite conservatives’ animosity towards the FCC, these watchdog groups calculated better chances of advancing political objectives by arming themselves with Fairness Doctrine guidelines. With a slew of new, conservative Nixon appointees seated on the board of the FCC, watchdog groups’ complaints were given a fast track. Over the course of the Nixon administration, groups like AIM filed hundreds of complaints against liberal-leaning news coverage as a means of pressuring broadcasters to lend more airtime to conservative viewpoints.

The efforts of the Nixon administration in tandem with the new conservative media research coalition ultimately paid off. In 1971, CBS launched a radio show starring conservative ideologue Phyllis Schlafly, and its television broadcast division launched “Point/Counterpoint” which featured recurring debates between conservative commentator James Kilpatrick and liberal journalist Nicholas von Hoffman. Even The New York Times began allocating space for conservative perspectives in its editorial section. While the final days of his presidency were mired in controversy, Nixon’s campaign against the American press was massively successful. The subtle rhetorical strategies, fearmongering, brute-force threats, strategic committee stacking, and funding of sympathetic research and advocacy organizations successfully revitalized the wavering conservative movement. Nixon made a lasting impact on American perceptions of the media, the consequences of which resonate louder than ever today.

Part III: The Birth of the Modern Conservative Media Conglomerate

In the aftermath of Watergate, restructuring the American broadcast media industry was, understandably, not leading the list of executive branch priorities. During the economic conditions of the 1970s and era of Reagan’s Religious Right of the 1980s, the media activists’ newspapers and radio stations struggled to maintain financial stability and popular support. While Reagan was an ardent reader of both Human Events and The National Review, the newly elected, exceedingly popular president had bigger fish to fry than catering to the whims of far-right conservatives. In May of 1981, he appointed free-market Reaganite Mark Fowler as Chairman of the FCC. An ardent proponent of small government, Fowler targeted the Fairness Doctrine from his first day in office. The doctrine’s ambiguous language and piecemeal structure invited a myriad of compelling arguments for its repeal.

Fowler and his supporters argued that the Fairness Doctrine was both outdated and likely unconstitutional. As previously detailed, the doctrine was initially passed in 1949 as a means of ensuring that the small number of licensed radio stations in operation provided a balanced range of editorial opinion. The scarcity of radio licenses at the time meant members of the public might have difficulty seeking a range of ideological perspectives in the absence of a regulation mandating balance. In the forty years since then, however, the number of radio broadcast licenses had quadrupled. Opponents of the doctrine argued that the vast number of radio programs in 1980 was inherently reflective of a diversity of thought, and much like the press, should enjoy comparable freedom from government regulation. They also argued that the Fairness Doctrine was an example of overly broad government regulation of political speech and ran directly counter to the First Amendment.

The debate over the fate of the Fairness Doctrine united disparate groups in favor or against repeal. Proponents of the doctrine hailed from the political far-left and far-right, including Phyllis Schlafly, Ralph Nader, Exxon-Mobil, the NAACP and ACLU, conservative and liberal media watchdog groups, and more.” This eclectic assemblage overwhelmingly believed that the structure of the media marketplace inadequately protected their freedom of expression, and thus, government regulation was essential. Arguing in favor of repeal was a significantly smaller coalition composed of small-government Reaganites, free speech advocates, and The National Association of Broadcasters, among others. This group argued that the Fairness Doctrine was bad for business because it drained the resources of broadcasters who were forced to seek out alternative perspectives on every issue, and consequently elicited a “chilling effect” on political discourse.

Despite strong support from the public and Congress as well as confusion around whether the FCC was even authorized to repeal the doctrine, the FCC passed the “Fairness Report” on August 7, 1985. The report declared that the Fairness Doctrine no longer served the public interest and was likely unconstitutional, stating “the Fairness Doctrine — in stark contravention of its purpose — operates as a pervasive and significant impediment to the broadcasting of controversial issues of public importance” and that Congress should “reverse course, and head ballistically toward liberty of the press for radio and television.” The FCC left the decision up to Congress, which ultimately decided to codify the Fairness Doctrine into law against the FCC’s recommendations. In June 1987, the Fairness in Broadcasting Act passed both the House and Senate by overwhelming margins. At this pivotal moment, decades of American history could have been radically changed, yet President Reagan intervened. Despite the doctrine’s substantial conservative support, Reagan vetoed the Act over its potential conflicts with First Amendment jurisprudence, defending his decision confidently: “They can hang me for 32 things, this is just number 33. I think this is the right thing to do, period.”Absent enough votes in the Senate to override Reagan’s veto, the Fairness Doctrine was never codified into law, and on August 4th, 1987, it was officially repealed by the FCC.

The implications of the Fairness Doctrine repeal cannot be overstated. One can make a compelling case that if it was still in place today, American society would be entirely transformed, though it’s difficult to know exactly how. Most historians agree, however, that the repeal was an influential factor in the rise of conservative talk radio in the nineties, alongside “a constellation of forces” including “satellite technology, deregulation, and a sense among many Americans that the mainstream media was not adequately addressing their interests.” Throughout the nineties, the airwaves exploded with new radio programs centering ideologically conservative perspectives. Former FCC Commissioner Mimi Dawson explained the phenomenon by noting that liberal factions of the electorate already felt represented by mainstream radio and television networks, whereas for conservatives, the repeal marked an opportunity to stake newfound claims to the airwaves without the fear of license revocation hanging over their heads.

A year after the repeal, conservative ideologue and radio host Rush Limbaugh’s show was nationally syndicated. Two years after the repeal, The Rush Limbaugh Show was tallying an average of 900,000 listeners every 15 minutes. An early partnership with media mogul Roger Ailes produced a television equivalent of the show, which was bought by television stations in every state in the country.As a rough-around-the-edges college dropout hailing from rural Missouri, Limbaugh catapulted to popularity among conservatives due to his strikingly profane and provocative rhetorical style. Over the course of his thirty-plus-year career in radio, Limbaugh has made racist generalizations about Black people and homophobic comments about members of the LGBTQ+ community. He regularly voices misogynistic rhetoric, promotes conspiracy theories including birtherism, pronounces sexual consent optional, and has argued that white people shouldn’t feel guilty about slavery. Limbaugh’s flagrant disregard for political correctness and human decency normalized a more extreme version of insult politics, the impacts of which are still felt today.

In Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment, Jamieson and Cappella argue that The Rush Limbaugh Show, Fox News, and the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal comprise the modern-day conservative media establishment. Their commentators have assumed the role of America’s second generation of media activists, following in the footsteps of Clarence Manion, Henry Regnery, William Rusher, William F. Buckley, and their colleagues during the fifties and sixties. Jamieson and Cappella assert that modern conservative media activists use rhetorical strategies popularized by their predecessors to insulate their audiences from liberalism. They argue:

“These conservative media create a self-protective enclave hospitable to conservative beliefs. This safe haven reinforces the views of these outlets’ like-minded audience members, helps them maintain ideological coherence, protects them from counterpersuasion, reinforces conservative values and dispositions, holds Republican candidates and leaders accountable to conservative ideals, tightens their audience’s ties to the Republican Party, and distances listeners, readers, and viewers from ‘liberals,’ in general, and Democrats, in particular.”

The new conservative media conglomerate’s propagandistic control tactics, insular communities, and popularity have successfully entrenched conservatism into the Republican base. In doing so, it has cemented the specious indictment of liberal media bias into the minds of its audience members. According to the Brookings Institution, a 1973 survey conducted by the General Social Survey indicated that 13% of Democrats and 16% of Republican respondents stated having “hardly any” trust in the media. In 2018, those numbers jumped to 28% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans. Academic analyses of the media landscape, however, have found minimal evidence of liberal media bias. In fact, Jamieson and Capella’s meta-analysis of 59 studies found no liberal bias in newspapers and “measurable but insignificant” bias in news magazines and television news. This glaring chasm between conservative perception of the media and reality has only widened, as evidenced by the polarization plaguing the present-day political climate in the United States.

Part IV: The Mainstream Fake News Media

Throughout his 2016 electoral campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump relied on his outsider status, entertainment background, and impertinence to maneuver ahead in the polls. Tossing insults left and right, the candidate was able to secure more airtime than many of his opponents. One particularly infamous example of such comments included his racist assertion that Mexican immigrants were rapists bringing crime and drugs over the U.S. border. On another occasion, following the first Republican primary debate, Trump complained about Megyn Kelly’s harsh questions and quipped that she must have been menstruating. The candidate made scores of similarly controversial and offensive statements throughout the campaign, each time prompting liberal outrage as well as criticism from independents and moderate republicans. Despite this, Trump’s approval ratings seemed to surge with each precedent he shattered. Outside of the American elite, mainstream media, and political establishment, Trump’s conduct was praised — namely by Americans who felt estranged from conventional politics and found Trump’s anti-establishment, populist rhetoric refreshing, relatable, and empowering. Namely, by those whose worldviews had been influenced by consumption of a genre pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes (Fox News), and Rupert Murdoch (News Corp) — the second generation of media activists and puppeteers of the conservative media machine.

While Trump’s crude rhetorical tendencies predated the second wave of conservative media activism, there is no doubt that this transformation of the American political sphere shaped his political style. Regarding the genre of political rhetoric that emerged from the mid-90s, historian Robert Self stated “any action or rhetoric was justified, and any compromise was a betrayal.” As Limbaugh commandeered talk radio, Ailes catapulted Fox News to prominence as the most-watched TV network, and Murdoch’s reliably conservative Wall Street Journal editorial section became the new conservative standard-bearer, their movement gained traction in Congress following the 1995 Republican takeover. Conservative politicians and entertainers often joined forces to accomplish their mutual goals. As an entertainer and businessman whose appearances on various conservative media programs catapulted him to political prominence, Donald Trump was no exception, and his rhetorical signature was heavily influenced as a result. A recent op-ed in The Washington Post drew a direct line from Limbaugh to Trump, asserting “there may be no single person who has injected more hate into American public discourse in the last few decades than Limbaugh…it is not an exaggeration to say that Limbaugh made the Trump presidency possible.” In this sense, Trump’s ascendance can be understood as the exclamation point on a tradition of conservatism and populism that was fueled, in large part, by the conservative media.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump was regularly described as a “populist”; an inaccurate label given his New York City upbringing, Ivy League education, and exorbitant inheritance. Despite his privileged background, Trump leaned into this characterization and designed his campaign to appeal to the forgotten and politically disinclined common man. In convincing this demographic that the millionaire real estate broker and entertainer was “just like them,” Trump’s rhetorical signature was his secret sauce. According to historian Michael Kazin’s definition, populism is a language — one “whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”

As a consequence of his populist exploits, the President has leaned into “insult politics” — a variant of “attack politics” popularized during populist George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. Historian Robert Self describes insult politics as “politics of the ‘little guy’” using “norm-breaking language” as a political strategy “to be perceived as fighting the alleged elite or establishment” and differentiate oneself from the political status quo. Trump regularly coins insulting, catchy monikers for his political opponents and institutions he abhors, including “Crooked Hillary”, “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Little Marco,” and countless others. Through his late-night Twitter rampages, jibes made during press conferences, and official public statements, President Trump has elevated insult politics to a new extreme and succeeded in consolidating support on the conservative and populist right.

In a recent article, political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson delineates the precise nature of President Trump’s rhetorical signature, how it contrasts with precedents set by virtually all previous American presidents, and its implications for the nation. In essence, rhetorical signature is defined as an encapsulation of the stylistic patterns, central arguments, and idiosyncrasies that characterize a President’s speech as well as how they impact governance. Jamieson describes Trump’s rhetorical signature as “norm-shattering” and defines its five central characteristics as spontaneous, Manichean, evidence-flouting, accountability- dodging, and institution-disdaining. Whether Trump ascended to the White House because of his rhetorical style or despite it can’t be known. Nonetheless, the election of a President with such an unexpurgated and media-despondent rhetorical signature is a symbolic culmination of the modern conservative movement that this research project has set out to define.

Most often, this rhetorical framework is illustrated in the President’s Twitter rants during odd hours and comments made in press conferences or during his rallies, which seem to be his preferred modes of communication. This preference in and of itself is precedent breaking, given that his predecessors almost exclusively relied upon formally scripted statements and speeches when communicating with the public. While social media platforms were popular during the previous administration, former President Barack Obama spent considerably less time on Twitter and adhered more closely to convention when it came to the medium, frequency, and content of his speech. However, when President Trump has given official speeches, they have also followed in the conservative media activist tradition of employing “insult politics” and undermining the legitimacy of the press.

One particularly fitting example of this was the President’s speech at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in the first full year of the Trump Administration. This speech contains prime examples of each “cluster” defined in Jamieson’s rhetorical framework, which will now be addressed one-by-one. The first element is spontaneity, which is not typical of scripted speeches for formal occasions such as CPAC. However, just minutes into the speech, the President veered off script and began engaging with side comments made by the crowd of his enthusiastic supporters. At one point, the crowd erupted in a burst of applause that prompted the President to launch into the following tangent about “the dishonest media”:

“Sit down, everybody. Come on. (Applause.) You know, the dishonest media, they’ll say he didn’t get a standing ovation. You know why? No, you know why? Because everybody stood and nobody sat, so they will say he never got a standing ovation, right? (Applause.) They are the worst…So — sit down. (Laughter.) Donald Trump did not get a standing ovation. They leave out the part, they never sat down. They leave that out…”

While the President’s muddled speech patterns make parsing the meaning of these lines difficult, one can deduce he is narrating the audience’s behavior to ensure their positive response goes on the record for journalists to report. While the President makes his distrust of the “totally dishonest media” crystal clear, these comments indicate his need for the press to validate his popularity in their reporting. This behavior is a fascinating parallel to Nixon’s attitude towards the press, dissected in detail in Section II of this study. Like Trump, Nixon took personal offense to negative coverage and privately alluded to a pervasive feeling that the media was “out to get him.” In contrast to Nixon, however, Trump’s spontaneous tangents — even in scripted, official speeches — often cite liberal media bias and “unfair treatment” with repeated conviction.

The second aspect of Jamieson’s framework is Manichaeism, defined as “a dualistic religion that offered salvation through special knowledge of spiritual truth…[and] taught that life in this world is unbearably painful and radically evil.” By this, Jamieson is alluding to the President’s habit of characterizing the state of the country — in particular, societal developments linked to the Obama Administration or congressional Democrats — as evidence of the nation’s apocalyptic demise. Trump’s campaign strategy can be distilled into this premise alone, with the infamous “Make America Great Again” slogan positioning Trump as the country’s sole chance of salvation. Trump’s propensity towards Manichaeism is apparent in the CPAC speech when he describes the state of domestic infrastructure as being in “total disrepair and decay,” Obamacare as “a failed health care law that threatens our medical system with absolute and total catastrophe,” economic regulations as “crushing,” the military as “very, very depleted,” and his administration’s plan to “totally eradicate the evil [of ISIS] from the face of the Earth.” However intentionally, this extreme and prophetic language evokes strong pathos in the President’s base, further entrenching his position as the savior of conservative, populist America.

Jamieson’s third and fourth observations cite Trump’s proclivity for flouting factual evidence from “institutional custodians of knowledge” and dodging accountability when proven wrong. His reliance on questionably sourced partisan hearsay is illustrated by one particularly bizarre section of the CPAC speech. Around two-thirds of the way through the speech, the President referenced a comment he had made the previous week about an incident in Sweden that had never occured. TIME Magazine had clarified, reporting “Fox News host Tucker Carlson ran a segment that evening about a filmmaker who claims crime surges in Sweden are linked to immigrants in the country. Trump often repeats what he sees on cable news.” The President later confirmed that he had, in fact, been referencing Carlson’s broadcast. Despite the factual inaccuracy in both Carlson’s and the President’s statements, Trump proceeded to state the following during his CPAC speech a week later:

“Take a look at what’s happening in Europe. I took a lot of heat on Sweden. And then a day later, I said, has anybody reported what’s going on? And it turned out that they didn’t — not too many of them did…The people over there understand I’m right.”

This provides an illustrative example of the President’s tendency to rely on factually dubious stories broadcast by the conservative media establishment, repeat them in public statements, and when caught, deflect blame and distract. The clear gap in the President’s logic is that the media failed to report on the incident because it didn’t happen. Instead, the headlines cited Trump’s incompetence for parroting content generated by the conservative media, which likely displeased the President given his sensitivity towards negative press. To compensate, he killed two birds with one stone by undermining the legitimacy of the press and glossing over his blunder in a single breath.

The fifth and final element of Trump’s rhetorical signature is his relentless undermining of institutions — namely, the “rigged” election system, “so-called” individual judges within the justice system, and, most relevant to the topic of this study, the “fake news” media. Trump’s incessant fixation on the news recalls the first generation of conservative media activists, who made proving the existence of liberal media bias their lifelong pursuit. The CPAC speech was no exception — in it, the President referred to the press on no fewer than 23 occasions. At certain points, Trump attempts to extend his credibility by arguing that he doesn’t despise the press as an institution, stating “I’m not against the media…I don’t mind bad stories if I deserve them…I am only against the fake news media or press.” However, the President proceeded to make several statements in direct conflict with this view, notably through his critique of anonymous sourcing:

“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake. (Applause.) A few days ago, I called the fake news “the enemy of the people” and they are…Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said nine people have confirmed. There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. And I said, give me a break. Because I know the people. I know who they talked to. There were no nine people. But they say, nine people, and somebody reads it and they think, oh, nine people. They have nine sources. They make up sources.”

By using the strategy of deriding popular media institutions, Trump is taking a page straight from the handbooks of Buckley, Manion, Regnery, and Rusher. Specifically, Trump bolsters his credibility by citing the important role of a free press in a democratic society, but then decries media outlets that disseminate views incompatible with his own as “fake,” “dishonest,” and “enemies of the people.” This has a compounding effect on the already-insular, virtually untouchable foundation of the conservative media establishment by reinforcing the view that no externally-originating information can be trusted. Trump takes this one step further in his CPAC speech by claiming that his supporters, as regular citizens mostly spared of the wrath of investigative journalism, are unable to fully understand the scope of the media bias issue. Instead, the President urges, his supporters just have to trust him:

“There are some terrible, dishonest people, and they do a tremendous disservice to our country and to our people. A tremendous disservice. They are very dishonest people, and they shouldn’t use [anonymous] sources…You have no idea how bad it is, because if you are not part of the story — and I put myself in your position sometimes, because many of you, you’re not part of the story, and if you’re not part of the story, then you sort of know. If you are part of the story, you know what they’re saying is true or not…”

Trump’s 2017 CPAC speech is a paradigm of the rhetorical signature that imbues his official statements, comments made in press conferences, and tweets. It illustrates his tendency to employ divisive, apocalyptic, pathos-evoking rhetoric to consolidate his base of supporters. In excluding traditional calls for unity and deriding the media, Trump’s CPAC reflects the rhetorical strategies leveraged in Spiro Agnew’s 1969 “Responsibilities of Television” speech. With nearly half a century separating them, both speeches abandoned precedents of presidential rhetoric, instead choosing to foment division and advance their political agendas. As central tenets of these agendas, both Nixon and Trump made undermining the media their prerogatives — although critically, Nixon dispatched subordinates to make statements denigrating the media, whereas Trump makes routine public statements to express these views.

In addition, Trump’s reliance on insult politics is relevant to this study because it is inextricably linked to his habit of disparaging the media. More often than not, the President employs insult politics as a means of attention-seeking, which successfully enables his anti-media rhetoric to resonate more profoundly in the minds of his supporters as well as gain traction in the press. Trump’s norm-shattering propensity towards name-calling and insults can be traced back to the vacuum left by the Reagan FCC’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which set in motion the establishment of the conservative media conglomerate and popularized conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh. In these ways, Trump’s CPAC speech is not only a perfect case study of the rhetorical framework Jamieson defines, but also represents the zenith of a conservative movement that originated as early as the 1950s, was popularized under Nixon, rose to prominence thanks to the second generation of conservative media activists, and has culminated in the election of a loose-lipped reality television star to the highest office in American government.


Why does tracing the historical underpinnings of Trumpian rhetoric warrant a thirty-plus page research paper? This author holds a firm belief that has become increasingly obscure in the “post-truth” age: words matter. By shattering norms of presidential rhetoric to an unparalleled degree, Trump has consecrated “spontaneous, Manichean, evidence-flouting, accountability-dodging, institution-disdaining” insult politics from the highest office in the land. He has undoubtedly normalized such conduct in American minds, and perhaps even glorified it in the psyches of his supporters, which could have destabilizing effects on domestic politics for decades to come.

Just one year into the Trump administration, Jamieson astutely referenced the tendency for rhetorical signatures to predict governance, suggesting Trump’s impulsive, unprecedented, and morally dubious rhetoric could reasonably predict a similarly chaotic government administration. No doubt, the history books written about this presidency — ushered in by an independent investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to a Russian election interference campaign, marred by the third presidential impeachment in United States history, a global pandemic, historic job losses, and ending in a hostile transfer of power — will mirror Jamieson’s predictions. This study traces anti-media rhetoric during the rise of the modern conservative movement from its dawn under Nixon to its zenith under Trump. With half a century between them, these two men engaged in more convention-shattering than any of their predecessors by waging war on the American press. Perhaps not coincidentally, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump will be remembered for pushing the ethical boundaries of the presidency more than any others in modern history.

This research paper was submitted as the final assignment in an upper-level communications seminar taught by David Eisenhower at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

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I mostly write about tech policy, freedom of expression, and equity in the digital world. –––––––––––––––– COMM + CS @ Penn

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