October 17, 2017—Jackie Calmes, White House editor for the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau, discussed the evolution of conservative media and its relationship with the GOP, and the challenges of covering the White House, during a visit to the Shorenstein Center. Calmes also discussed the historical roots of conservative media, its messaging about race, funding and advertising for conservative outlets, and more. Below are some highlights from her conversation with Nicco Mele, Shorenstein Center Director, as well as the full audio and video. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.
Calmes was also a Joan Shorenstein Fellow in spring 2015, and wrote a paper on conservative media, “They Don’t Give a Damn about Governing”: Conservative Media’s Influence on the Republican Party.
The GOP’s inability to govern and the role of conservative media
“[Republicans] have exposed, after nine months, the fact that they have been over-promising for over seven years, and that the things they were promising were always unachievable, but they were thrown out there as red meat, encouraged by conservative media. It included first and foremost repealing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, balancing the budget while also having big tax cuts, and repealing on day one DACA…none of those things have been done, nor I would say, [will] they be done.”
“You take something as basic to Republican ideology as tax cuts. First of all, I’m not going out on a limb to say there will be no tax reform. They cannot do it. There will be tax cuts at some point, but even that won’t be easy because it’s going to come at the expense of another promise they’ve always made, which is fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets…you’re going to have the people like Corker who have served notice that if it adds a penny to the deficit, they won’t be for it.”
“Mark Levin, the famous conservative radio talk show host, right before Boehner was forced out as Speaker of the House…was complaining that Republicans in Congress were voting for things like, as he put it, continuing resolutions, increases in the debt limit, and a budget bill. Well, what he was describing were the only must-do pieces of legislation that any Congress faces. This goes to the over-promising—that Republicans shouldn’t be voting for those things is to say, alright, we might as well shut down the government and default.”
“There is going to be, by December 8, a crisis, because that’s when the [continuing resolution] expires. The debt limit won’t be a problem until into the new year, but the Republican Party, as a result of these forces, is not a governing party, and Republicans will tell you that.”
Why President Trump is not an “aberration”
[Trump] is the direct result of forces that were underway for two decades.
“The topic of my paper came about from a luncheon discussion with Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican Majority Leader, when he was despairing of his party’s increasingly rightward drift, and complaining that conservative media was a big part of it…I was surprised by how many of the Republicans I interviewed were willing to…fess up to this feeling that they were, as one put it, creating a monster. They had this tiger by the tail that was turning and devouring them.”
“Every time someone suggests that Trump is an aberration, I say no—he is the direct result of forces that were underway for two decades. You mentioned Bannon, and what Bannon’s doing now to find opponents for Republican candidates—he was doing that three, four, five years ago. He was doing it from Breitbart. At the time Donald Trump brought him into his campaign, he was fresh off an effort at Breitbart to foment a leadership challenge to Paul Ryan. This was so unheard of at the time—that the nominee of the party would bring into his campaign someone who was, from his perch in conservative media, trying to unseat the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, but that’s where we are.”
“[After] the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans for the first time in 40 years won total control of Congress…Rush Limbaugh was so prominent in helping them to win that they made him an honorary member. That shows you a real difference between now and then, which is that conservative media was in cahoots with the Republican leadership; now we see they’ve gone completely opposite.”
Divisions within conservative media
“Conservative media is not monolithic. It’s shown in 2012, 2016, 2008, they never have been able to form around one single presidential candidate in the Republican Party…so there is a difference of opinion, and Trump has really split the ranks, for the very reason you get at, which is, how do you hew to the principles of the party, or do you play to populism.”
The challenges of covering the Trump White House
Do not become inured to him, do not become inured to his tweets or anything else about him.
“It is truly unlike anything any of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes, and if we could bring back the dead they would say the same thing. I thought I had left daily journalism at the end of 2016, when I left The New York Times…I decided to go back [to journalism] in part because I knew that a lot of the reporters covering Trump are young, they’ve never covered any other presidential campaign, nor any other White House. I got this offer from the LA Times to be a White House editor…I’ve covered three presidents, I’ve covered Washington for 33 years, I’ve seen these evolutions, I’ve seen trends, and I am a student of history, so I thought, people like me should be in the game, so I took the job. That said, there are some days…the constant negativism is wearing.”
“We have this debate as to whether we should be covering his tweets like we do. I fall in the camp of saying yes we should. This is a unique window into the mindset of the president of the United States…I tell the reporters I have, ‘Do not become inured to him, do not become inured to his tweets or anything else about him.’ Because if we do, we are lowering the bar. We have got to maintain the same high bar for him that we maintain for every other president, no matter how many times he distracts us.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Jessica Colarossi.