Inside the GOP's War Against the Media

Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have surged in the polls by both challenging a political establishment and criticizing the media. Rick Wilking/REUTERS

"It's almost an us versus them thing."

That's how Ben Carson described his ongoing feud with CNN over the weekend. Speaking on Meet the Press, the Republican presidential candidate said he hasn't been rattled by journalists raising questions about his past—including claims he makes in his autobiography about getting into West Point and assaulting people as a teenager.

"Every place I go, you know—I go to a book signing, there's a thousand people in line—'Please don't let them get to you. Don't give up. We got your back. We know what's going on. We believe you,'" Carson said.

Carson is leading the charge right now, but he's far from the only one to raise the banner of media bias when confronted with uncomfortable questions. Over the past few weeks, the leading Republican presidential candidates have pushed back against a variety of news outlets, claiming they're left-leaning, morally corrupt and out of touch with average Americans, especially on issues such as the economy and gay marriage.

Whether or not you believe this interpretation, blaming the media has been a GOP tactic for more than a decade. After losing the 1996 election to Bill Clinton, Bob Dole said media bias led to his defeat. He cited the number of journalists in Washington, D.C., who had voted for Clinton, and argued that The New York Times had slanted its coverage to run only negative stories about him. By 2000, the narrative had taken such a hold that George W. Bush referred to the editor of the Times as "a major league asshole."

When Bush took on the French-speaking, windsurfing John Kerry in 2004, the narrative shifted from media bias to media elitism. Republican strategists propagated the idea that the liberal media were too snooty, and Bush, with his Texas drawl and folksy nicknames, became a foil to an opera-going, Ivy League-educated establishment. (Never mind that Bush was born in Connecticut, went to Andover and was educated at Yale, then Harvard Business School.)

The GOP's war against the media seems more pervasive this election cycle, perhaps because two of the leading Republican candidates, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, have put populism and anti-establishment politics at the center of their campaigns.

The following are some of the GOP's biggest battles with the media in the 2016 campaign.

Donald Trump's Feud With Fox

In 2012, Trump became a Fox News darling for his role in spreading the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States. But after the first Republican debate this past summer, he started feuding with Megyn Kelly, one of the network's premier on-air talents, because of her questions about his attitude toward women. When Trump maintained his lead in the polls, the right-leaning network was faced with a problem: Should they renounce their own guy?

Trump ended up in yet another feud with a Fox anchor (this time Bill O'Reilly) and eventually declared his intent to boycott Fox. But the two sides have since made up. Though a rumored meeting between Fox CEO Roger Ailes and Trump apparently never took place, Trump has appeared on several Fox shows since his threatened boycott.

Conservatives generally consider Fox News more trustworthy than the rest of the media, and Trump's status as a ratings driver complicates the relationship—an uneasy alliance—between the mogul and the company. Tuesday's Fox Business Network/Wall Street Journal debate could mark another shift in that relationship, depending on how Trump feels the debate goes.

The GOP's Fight Over Format

There have been ongoing negotiations between the networks and the candidates about debate format. Some of it has to do with logistics—for example, the complaint that the temperatures have been too hot and the debates too long—but there also are indications that the campaigns want to wrest the formats away from the media. For example, the GOP candidates presented demands that the campaigns preapprove onscreen graphics (in case they misrepresent a candidate's record) and get opening and closing statements (so the candidates can control their message and get beyond the "gotcha" questions).

During the last debate, the fiery field of candidates bashed CNBC for asking accusatory questions, and over the subsequent days they all but accused the network's moderators of being on Hillary Clinton's payroll.

Jeb Bush's Feud With Himself

One of the factors that created the "liberal-media-out-to-get-us" movement is the proliferation of 24-hour news. With constant coverage from the campaign trail, the wrong statement can get you in trouble as it plays endlessly on loop, and that pattern can contribute to the narrative that the media is trying to undermine certain candidates.

Jeb Bush has been a gaffe machine this election, and the media have pounced, whether it's "Stuff happens" (in response to a mass shooting) or "We don't need $500 billion for women's health" or "People need to work longer hours" (not quite what he meant, but not the smartest thing to say, considering he used to work for Lehman Brothers).

Bush's reaction to these gaffes has only made things worse. "People need to chill out," he said in response to critics who pilloried him for calling the children of immigrants living here illegally "anchor babies." That was either another misstep for the former Florida governor (the husband of an immigrant from Mexico) or maybe just a poor attempt to snatch some of Donald Trump's nativist supporters.

Ted Cruz Versus Journalism

Conservatives say too many liberals seem to work for news outlets. Whether or not this is true, does it matter? Shouldn't journalistic standards be the main defense against bias?

Ted Cruz doesn't think so. He recently suggested that only reporters who have voted in Republican primaries should be eligible to moderate Republican primary debates. Even Kelly (now apparently the darling of liberal websites The Huffington Post and Salon) scoffed at Cruz's suggestion, asking the firebrand senator whether he would participate in a debate moderated by Tim Russert, who was both a widely respected journalist and a Tip O'Neill campaign aide.

Cruz's idea would perhaps help the Republican Party avoid some scrutiny, but it's not how the news has traditionally worked. In the U.S., the media are supposed to hold people in power accountable, not become their cheerleaders. Accountability, however, isn't Cruz's goal. Whether or not the media indeed are biased against the right, the GOP has effectively used journalists as a popular scapegoat to score points with voters. Attacks on CNBC moderators during last month's debate drew consistent and hearty applause.

Ben Carson's Feud With Reality

The former neurosurgeon has complained about an undue amount of media scrutiny. He bashed a Politico story that reported he made up the passage in his autobiography about getting into West Point. He called CNN's search for sources to corroborate stories about his violent teenage years "garbage" and "a bunch of lies."

Carson thinks he's getting special attention, but the media have given similar treatment to other candidates on both the left and the right. In 2008, Obama faced considerable scrutiny over his relationships with the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright and radical activist Bill Ayers. Trump has been forced to answer a bevy of questions about his personal finances and record in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Jeb Bush can barely get a word in without being reminded that he's related to his brother George W. Hillary Clinton is still answering questions about Benghazi, three years after she took responsibility for the attack on an American outpost in Libya that killed four Americans.

But Carson might actually benefit from waging war on the media. On Saturday, his campaign posted a tweet thanking the "biased media" for spurring a massive fundraising week. He hauled in $3.5 million.