Following CNN's Republican Party primary debate last week, the conservative site NewsBusters, which exists to bash the press for its supposed liberal bias, quickly published a piece focusing on the debate moderators' prime-time performance. No doubt NewsBusters was furious with CNN, right?
Recall that last November, following a raucous Republican debate hosted by CNBC, Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell released a scathing critique of the moderators, insisting they were dripping with contempt for the GOP candidates and trying to throw the election to the Democrats. (Bozell's group publishes NewsBusters.)
So what was the collective sin of the CNN moderators last week? According to NewsBusters, they had failed to press Donald Trump for a response regarding documented claims that a reporter had been manhandled by Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager, at a public event.
NewsBusters was also upset that the alleged assault had received minimal time on the network evening newscasts: "The main broadcast networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC largely remained silent on Lewandowski's alleged actions toward a female reporter until Thursday."
It's true: Following a Republican debate, the conservative NewsBusters pointed out that the media wasn't paying sufficient attention to a news story that reflected poorly on the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
And with that, we're officially through the looking glass, to the point where conservative critiques of the campaign press now read like Media Matters essays: Journalists are too soft on Trump, rewarding him with too much airtime and allowing him to dictate access ground rules.
This Trump campaign has produced all kinds of regrettable firsts this season (regular outbursts of violence at rallies, for starters). But one of the strangest twists has to be the fact that some conservatives who have spent generations denouncing the press for being unfairly critical of Republicans have now completely flipped the script.
Grasping at conspiratorial straws in an effort to explain away Trump's control over Republican voters and the media's apparently soft treatment of a prominent Republican politician, conservatives remain convinced the "liberal media" is still out to get the GOP. Only this time, the press is torpedoing Republicans by ... being too nice to the Republican front-runner.
Convinced that Trump is not a true conservative and that he's a surefire loser in November, more and more conservative commentators are desperate to derail his nomination. So they're demanding pundits and reporters sharpen their knives when covering the Republican front-runner; that they tell The Truth about Trump and reveal him for the phony they insist he really is.
NewsBusters has also objected to networks not covering news that the Trump campaign had given press credentials to a prominent white supremacist and underplaying the controversy over Trump University.
There's obviously deep irony in these newfound complaints. It was just five months ago that the conservative media revolted against CNBC for hosting its allegedly biased Republican debate. Beating the "liberal media bias" drums quite loudly, critics pounced on the network because moderators were unfair to the candidates, including Trump. So it's a bit disingenuous to now blame that same press simply because lots of Republican supporters are suddenly freaking out about Trump's likely nomination.
Meaning, conservatives can't just unring the "liberal media bias" bell. Republican-friendly critics have told the press, in no uncertain terms, that when it comes to presidential campaigns, lay off our guy -- or else. (Because of the CNBC fracas, the Republican Party yanked NBC's sponsorship for a subsequent debate.)
Well, this year, the press has too often laid off Trump (and even indulged him), and now lots of conservatives, for purely political purposes, wish the press had moved sooner and more aggressively to properly vet him.
The anxious right-wing press is belatedly discovering that its reckless campaign over the years to berate the political press comes with a price; that trying to defang the media means that when suddenly, during a truly bizarre campaign season, conservatives want a famous Republican vetted, there's nobody around to do it.
And to date, the in-depth vetting just isn't happening. "If Donald Trump were to become president, he is the first person I know of who would be in the White House in modern times with deep, continuing associations with mobsters, con artists, drug traffickers, convicted felons -- gratuitously involved with these folks," author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston recently told Huffington Post. "That deserves enormous inquiry."
Think back to last year and the conveyor belt of endless press investigations into Clinton Foundation finances, and then compare that to media investigations into Trump's possibly unseemly business connections. Notice the difference?
And yes, some Republicans and conservatives (including NewsBusters) still see liberal media bias at play in Trump's coverage. The theory goes like this: The media want Trump to be the Republican nominee because they think he'll lose in November and the press wants another Democrat in the White House.
That's why Ted Cruz recently suggested some reporters were sitting on Trump bombshells but not planning to publish or air them until Trump has won the GOP nomination. (Cruz: "The media knows Donald can't win the general, that Hillary would wallop him.")
And Marco Rubio also criticized the Trump coverage for not shedding enough light on the candidate's past. "He's being treated with kid gloves by many in the media, in the hopes that he's the nominee," said the candidate before he suspended his campaign.
But even considering that conspiracy theory, the truly remarkable media complaint from conservatives is that Beltway press is going too easy on the Republican front-runner.
Talk about a message with bipartisan appeal.