NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — The mainstream media has long been a favorite target for derision at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But in 2018, a full year into the presidency of a man who rose to power attacking the media, attacks on the media were everywhere.
Trumpism has fully enveloped CPAC. It’s a political movement that depends on having enemies to attack, but in 2018, when Republicans control every branch of the federal government and most state governments, those enemies are in short supply. While several speakers made half-hearted mentions of Barack Obama, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton—sparking chants of “Lock her up”—the real venom was reserved for the press.
The attacks started early in the day on Thursday, with National Rifle Association (NRA) spokeswoman Dana Loesch telling the crowd that “many in legacy media love mass shootings,” adding later that networks “love the ratings” following tragedies.
Another speaker encouraged the audience to turn around and “wave goodbye” to the hundreds reporters stationed in the back of the room, saying the industry was experiencing a “slow death.”
Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer for the Daily Wire, closed out the conference on Thursday with a speech railing against the media, again focusing on coverage of the recent deadly school shooting in Florida. Shapiro charged that the media are “intentionally dividing the country to promulgate the gun-control agenda” and called the reporters “vile.”
“When you sit there and stand there and you suggest that we do not care about dead children because we do not mirror what you want us to think, that is because you’re acting like vile human beings,” he said, without citing which media outlets supposedly made such claims. “It is disgusting to suggest that we do not care about children who died.”
The audience cheered and clapped as Shapiro lashed out at the media, and at one mention of the press, an audience member turned around and glared at the TV cameras in the back of the room with both thumbs turned down.
CPAC attendees gleefully repeated these lines in interviews with TPM.
Rutger Dole, a 22-year-old student from Indiana, said that Shapiro was spot on when he called the media “vile.”
“I think based on recent events and just this past two years, vile is a pretty accurate way of describing it,” Dole told TPM Thursday afternoon. “The blatant manipulation of facts, of — manipulation of what is true, is vile, and I don’t like seeing it on either side, but it’s especially prevalent on the left.”
Dole acknowledged that Loesch’s charge that the media loves shootings was perhaps a bit “too provocative” but said that she was just trying to emphasize that the media is exploitive of mass shootings. He told TPM that “Fox News is less polarizing than the left-wing mainstream media” and that the media is “manipulating people, especially with this recent tragedy.”
Just a few minutes into his keynote speech at CPAC Friday morning, President Donald Trump chastised the press corps sitting in the back of the room, saying throughout his speech that the media would twist his words in their headlines. Trump also claimed that the media would support him some day if only because he improves their ratings.
“All those horrible people back there, they’re going to support me,” Trump said, pointing to the back of the room where the press was gathered.
At the mere mention of the media, audience members let out boos.
CPAC attendee Jeff Johnson, 60, told TPM Thursday that Trump has not gotten a “fair shake” from the media.
“The people writing the stories, writing the headlines, they’re liberal Democrats who hate us, who hate these people, who hate Republicans. There’s more hate spewing out of CNN and MSNBC. It is unreal,” Johnson told TPM.
Several of the speakers focused on the main cable news networks like MSNBC and CNN, with some directing their ire at the platform of television cameras in the back corner of the room, as opposed to other reporters sitting with laptops and cellphones. The frustration with cable news echoes Trump’s constant attacks on Twitter while he watches television coverage of his administration.
Johnson told TPM that he “can’t listen to CNN anymore,” calling the network a “smear machine.”
Dole said that CNN used to be “neutral” but that network has “gone off the deep end.”
Timothy Finn, 58, has attended CPAC for seven years and arrived this year in an American flag track suit. His patriotic garb was reminiscent of past eras of CPAC, when the Tea Party movement was in full force. This year, the crowd was peppered with red “Make America Great Again” hats, and Finn told TPM Thursday that the energy at the conference was different.
“It seems like it’s downplayed a little bit,” Finn told TPM, lamenting that conservative mainstays like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and former Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) were absent.
Back in 2008, President Barack Obama got “shellacked” at CPAC, Finn said.
Without a clear enemy in elected office anymore, the conference-goers and speakers instead funneled their energy at the dreaded “mainstream media.”