Fascists expertly exploit the free press: Media rush to rehabilitate reputations of Trump's regime

Kellyanne Conway is back and using the media to shamelessly promote herself for a role on Trump's campaign

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 27, 2023 5:50AM (EST)

Donald Trump gestures to Kellyanne Conway after addressing his supporters and celebrating his Presidential win at his election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City on Nov. 9, 2016. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Donald Trump gestures to Kellyanne Conway after addressing his supporters and celebrating his Presidential win at his election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City on Nov. 9, 2016. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

There is no such thing as "the liberal media." 

That is language concocted by the Republican Party and right-wing consultants with the goal of bullying the American news media into being compliant and subservient to the "conservative" agenda.

And they were remarkably successful in achieving that goal.

Decades later it is now an accepted "fact" among America's political class, the general public, and the mainstream news media itself that there is such a thing as "liberal bias" in the news industry. The enduring myth of the "liberal media" is one of many examples of how the American right has successfully weaponized language with a propaganda campaign to shape the country's political terrain in their interests.

Republicans have marketed themselves as defenders of "freedom." In reality, they are authoritarians who support a range of policies that limit human and civil rights.

The Republican Party has created a brand that is based upon "family values." This is fiction. The policies and ideology of the modern GOP are centered upon gutting the social safety net and ending the county's already very weak and still developing social democracy. If they are successful in that agenda, the overall well-being of American families will be greatly diminished.

The "conservative" movement staunchly claims to be "pro-life." This is not true. Their policies and ideology have actually shortened the lives of the American people as seen with health care, gun violence, the global climate crisis and environment, the COVID pandemic, and social inequality more generally.

Former Rep. Newt Gingrich is one of the main architects of the strategy that allowed the Republican Party to win the language wars and the central role of the myth of "the liberal media" in that outcome. In 1995, the media watchdog group FAIR explained how:

Since winning control of Congress, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.) has constantly complained about "destructive" and "negative" coverage from the "liberal elite media."… In fact, the new speaker of the House—who once described his goal as "reshaping the entire nation through the news media" (New York Times, 12/14/94)—has given a great deal of thought to the media and how to manipulate them. One Newtonian axiom is "fights make news" (Boston Globe, 11/20/94). Another skill he has taught to Republican candidates through his political organization, GOPAC, is how to create a "shield issue" to deflect criticism…

But the clearest expression of Gingrich's philosophy of media came in a GOPAC memo entitled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control." Distributed to GOP candidates across the country, the memo's list of words for Democrats and words for Republicans was endorsed by Gingrich in a cover letter: "The words in that paper are tested language from a recent series of focus groups where we actually tested ideas and language." Next time you hear Gingrich complain about media focusing on the negative, refer back to these lists.

In a widely cited 2003 essay at The Nation, media critic and author Eric Alterman said the following about the myth of "the liberal media":

Move over to the mainstream publications and broadcasts often labeled "liberal," and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal dominance becomes. ….

I could go on, but the point is clear: Conservatives are extremely well represented in every facet of the media. The correlative point is that even the genuine liberal media are not so liberal. And they are no match–either in size, ferocity or commitment–for the massive conservative media structure that, more than ever, determines the shape and scope of our political agenda.

In a careful 1999 study published in the academic journal Communications Research, four scholars examined the use of the "liberal media" argument and discovered a fourfold increase in the number of Americans telling pollsters that they discerned a liberal bias in their news. But a review of the media's actual ideological content, collected and coded over a twelve-year period, offered no corroboration whatever for this view. The obvious conclusion: News consumers were responding to "increasing news coverage of liberal bias media claims, which have been increasingly emanating from Republican Party candidates and officials."

The right is working the refs. And it's working. Much of the public believes a useful but unsupportable myth about the so-called liberal media, and the media themselves have been cowed by conservatives into repeating their nonsensical nostrums virtually nonstop. As the economist/pundit Paul Krugman observes of Republican efforts to bully the media into accepting the party's Orwellian arguments about Social Security privatization: "The next time the administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media–fearing accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of 'balance'–won't report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they'll report that some Democrats claim that it's brown."

In the real world of the right-wing media, the pundits are the conservatives' shock troops. Even the ones who constantly complain about alleged liberal control of the media cannot ignore the vast advantage their side enjoys when it comes to airing their views on television, in the opinion pages, on the radio and the Internet.

In total, the mainstream news media is inherently "small c" conservative. As a social institution it prioritizes making money and is averse to change. As such, the American mainstream news media also serves an agenda-setting and boundary-enforcing function that sets limits on the "approved public discourse." In that role, liberal and progressives are routinely silenced out of deference to "conservative" and right-wing voices – however extreme the latter may be.

Because the mainstream news media are aligned with the powerful as a class, they prioritize having access to them in what is a parasitic and symbiotic relationship. In practice, this meant that access to the powerful — especially for DC beltway journalists — is more important than bold truth-telling and consistently speaking truth to power. The conservative nature of the American news media and its institutional bias towards "normalcy" helps to explain why it has been so unable to properly pivot and adapt to the realities of the Age of Trump, rising neofascism, and the country's ongoing democracy crisis. Thus, the continued habit of using obsolete norms such as "bothsideism," an overempahsis on "horserace coverage," an obsession with political personalities instead of systems and power, and an amplification of the controversy of the day instead of on fundamental issues.

One of the most dangerous examples of how the media has been conditioned by the right through the myth of "liberal bias" is how it is now helping to launder the reputations of several Trump regime members and other Republican fascists. In a very high-profile example of reputation laundering, The New York Times — which is routinely attacked by right-wing media for committing the "crime" of "liberal bias" (a baseless and absurd claim) — recently featured a guest opinion essay by former Trump regime advisor and propagandist Kellyanne Conway. Her Times op-ed contained Trump political pornography such as this:

Donald J. Trump shocked the world in 2016 by winning the White House and becoming the first president in U.S. history with no prior military or government experience. He upended the fiction of electability pushed by pundits, the news media and many political consultants, which arrogantly projects who will or will not win long before votes are cast. He focused instead on capturing a majority in the Electoral College, which is how a candidate does or does not win. Not unlike Barack Obama eight years earlier, Mr. Trump exposed the limits of Hillary Clinton's political inevitability and personal likability, connected directly with people, ran an outsider's campaign taking on the establishment, and tapped into the frustrations and aspirations of millions of Americans.

Some people have never gotten over it. Trump Derangement Syndrome is real. There is no vaccine and no booster for it. Cosseted in their social media bubbles and comforted within self-selected communities suffering from sameness, the afflicted disguise their hatred for Mr. Trump as a righteous call for justice or a solemn love of democracy and country. So desperate is the incessant cry to "get Trump!" that millions of otherwise pleasant and productive citizens have become naggingly less so. They ignore the shortcomings, failings and unpopularity of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and abide the casual misstatements of an administration that says the "border is secure," inflation is "transitory," "sanctions are intended to deter" Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine and they will "shut down the virus." They've also done precious little to learn and understand what drives the 74 million fellow Americans who were Trump-Pence voters in 2020 and not in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In her New York Times audition for a job on Trump's 2024 presidential campaign, Conway also wrote:

A popular sentiment these days is, "I want the Trump policies without the Trump personality." It is true that limiting the name-calling frees up time and space for persuasion and solutions. Still, it may not be possible to have one without the other. Mr. Trump would remind people that it was a combination of his personality and policies that forced Mexico to help secure our border; structured new trade agreements and renewed manufacturing, mining and energy economies; pushed to get Covid vaccines at warp speed; engaged Kim Jong-un; played hardball with China; routed ISIS and removed Qassim Suleimani, Iran's most powerful military commander; forced NATO countries to increase their defense spending and stared down Mr. Putin before he felt free to invade Ukraine.

When it comes to Donald J. Trump, people see what they wish to see. Much like with the audio debate a few years ago "Do you hear 'Laurel' or 'Yanny'?," what some perceive as an abrasive, scornful man bent on despotism, others see as a candid, resolute leader unflinchingly committed to America's interests.

There were thousands of comments on the New York Times website in response to Conway's column and the publication's decision to allow her such a privileged platform. Based on a cursory review, a good many, if not most of these comments were negative. The Times even featured one such complaint in a letter to the editor:

A diversity of opinions and perspectives is a fantastic goal, and one reason I've been a longtime subscriber. Generally speaking, your opinion guest essays are well written and thoughtful and provide a point of view that makes one examine a topic with fresh eyes.

The opinion from Ms. Conway is not that.

Time and again she employs sloganeering to sling arrows at Democrats and non-Trumpists in an attempt to burnish the reputation of her former boss.

She continues to attempt to turn neighbor against neighbor by perpetuating the othering of Trump detractors and the denial of Mr. Trump's and her attacks on voting, democracy and simple decency.

Hers is not another "opinion"; it is carefully crafted and intentional spin to appeal to people's sense of grievance and to reaffirm the lies and misinformation they are so ready to believe.

Her inclusion in your paper diminishes the quality of debate, and galvanizes a person America would be better off forgetting.

Conway is representative of a larger pattern where such leading news media outlets as the New York Times, CNN, CBS, NBC and others are deciding to amplify and provide a platform for Trumpists, Republican-fascists, and other right-wing anti-democracy voices. They are doing this behind the cover of "fairness" and "balancing" when in reality such a decision is based on fear, profit-maximizing, and strategically positioning themselves to be in good favor with the Republican Party, "conservatives" and other anti-democratic forces as a type of insurance policy and security blanket for what promises to be a very perilous and unsettled future.

In an essay at Medium, journalist and author Wajahat Ali warns that "Even in the face of increased threats and a failed coup, too many journalists in mainstream media outlets will continue to pave the road toward fascism with their 'both sides' coverage." He continues, "Access journalism is a parasitic relationship. Some of these journalists are like small remoras, or shark suckers, who attach to sharks to get to their destination. If they were riding the shark in JAWS, they'd write an article blaming the townspeople for forcing the shark to eat them":

There's a class of journalists belonging to legacy outlets and corporate media who are incapable of shedding their antiquated, toxic skin and adapting to the changing political and cultural landscape where disinformation, white supremacist conspiracy theories, and right-wing stochastic terrorism is the norm. Instead, they chase the North Star, which isn't the truth, but rather access to power, ratings, and a path toward personal success….

Instead of bending the knee to right-wing intimidation, platforming their lies, mainstreaming their hate, and engaging in "both sides" nonsense to create the fiction of symmetry in an utterly asymmetrical reality, these political journalists need to be biased in favor of the truth and democracy.

Ultimately, the American mainstream news media needs to engage in a type of personal inventory and critical self-reflection about its role in democracy and failings (and successes) in the Age of Trump and beyond.In short, it must do better as it strives to live up to the ideals of the Fourth Estate in a democracy. A big step in that direction would be refusing to participate in the reputation laundering and rehabilitation of Trump's regime members and other neo-fascists and enemies of democracy in today's Republican Party and larger right-wing and "conservative" movement.

If the American mainstream news media does not do this necessary and hard work it is just contributing to its own legitimacy crisis and lack of trust among the American people, which in turn means aiding the Republican fascists and other enemies of a free press and democracy.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Crisis Kellyanne Conway Media Republican Party