In the three months leading up to Election Day, at least 46 Republican congressional candidates tweeted the terms “fake news,” “fake,” “dishonest,” “liberal media” or “enemy of the people” to negatively describe the media, according to an analysis from the Duke Reporters’ Lab.
On Aug. 28, Steve Sebelius tweeted out a report his TV station had recently aired about Danny Tarkanian, son of the legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and the Republican candidate for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District.
8NewsNow, the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas where Sebelius co-hosts a political news show, had obtained documents showing Tarkanian was accused in 1994 of illegally signing a customer up for long-distance phone service.
Tarkanian denied the allegation and fired back on Twitter with a familiar insult.
“King of Fake News for liberal left @SteveSebelius,” he wrote. “Third time in 3 campaigns the liberal hack has run false stories to hurt my campaign.”
Tarkanian attacked Sebelius five more times on Twitter in the months leading up to the election, trying out multiple nicknames for his new foe.
King of Fake News for liberal left @SteveSebelius . Third time in 3 campaigns the liberal hack has run false stories to hurt my campaign. Sebelius forced to write retraction by his boss in local newspaper for 1 of his lies. His lie didn’t hurt me as I won by 8% in 2016 primary. https://t.co/w4f8GNDAud
— Danny Tarkanian (@DannyTarkanian) August 28, 2018
“There goes Steve Se-Biased again,” said one tweet.
Sebelius wasn’t sure how to handle Tarkanian’s attacks when they first started rolling in. He believed he had always treated the candidate fairly. Every time a new report surfaced, he asked the campaign for a statement or offered to have Tarkanian on his show.
“I kind of struggled with how to respond because obviously you don’t want to become the story,” Sebelius said. “You want to report the story.”
Tarkanian went on to lose the election to Democrat Susie Lee. But he emerged as an outspoken critic of the reporters covering him, employing the same type of bash-the-press rhetoric that helped elevate President Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office.
Tarkanian wasn’t the only conservative candidate to pick up Trump’s rhetoric, however.
The 2018 midterm elections saw Republicans across the country model their treatment of the media after Trump, who routinely denounces news coverage, news organizations and journalists as “fake news” and “the enemy of the American people.”
The Reporters’ Lab at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy scraped the personal, professional and campaign Twitter accounts of more than 900 general-election candidates from both parties who ran for Congress in 2018, recording all references to “fake news,” “fake,” “dishonest,” “liberal media” and “the enemy of the people” between Aug. 6 and Nov. 6.
In the three months leading up to Election Day, at least 46 Republican candidates used these terms on Twitter to negatively describe the mainstream media, its personnel or its coverage. Of these 46 candidates, only 14 won their races.
The biggest imitators of the president’s rhetoric were Tarkanian and Corey Stewart, the Senate candidate in Virginia who called himself “Trump before Trump was Trump.” Both tweeted these phrases to criticize the media more than 20 times in the three months before the election.
A small number of Democrats flipped the script, hurling the “fake news” epithet in their own tweets at the likes of Trump, the White House and Fox News.
But the majority of Democrats who employed this language did so to stand up for the media. We counted more than 50 Democrats and at least three Republicans who used the same terms to defend the press against charges that it is “fake news” or the “enemy of the American people.”
The spread of anti-media rhetoric comes as the president has frequently denounced the media on Twitter and during press conferences and interviews. Trump first tweeted about “fake news” in December 2016, according to a separate analysis from the Reporters’ Lab. He started using the term regularly in January 2017 after Buzzfeed published the Steele dossier, a collection of memos filled with unverified claims about his personal and financial ties to Russia.
The president hijacked the term’s meaning, too. “Fake news” had become a household expression in 2016 for describing the viral circulation of made-up information, but Trump has used it to denounce reports, reporters and organizations critical of his administration.
Trump’s rhetoric reached new levels of hostility on Feb. 17, 2017, when he first tweeted that the media is “the enemy of the American people,” a charge he has repeated often, despite intense backlash from journalists and members of both parties.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
“Complaints about the media, especially by Republican politicians, have been around a long time, but never to this degree,” said Joseph Graf, professor of political communication at American University.
Trump’s press-bashing has turned his supporters against the media and emboldened some to act on their animosity. His rally-goers have made a habit of harassing the press, lobbing insults, curse-words and chants such as “CNN sucks” at reporters covering them.
This anger has translated to violence, too. On June 28, a gunman entered the office of Maryland’s Capital Gazette and killed five reporters. Two months later, the FBI charged a California man for a series of phone calls threatening to kill employees at The Boston Globe. And in October, someone sent a mail bomb to CNN’s New York offices.
“It’s very hard to draw a direct line between language and something that happened, but the rhetoric is definitely creating a charged atmosphere,” said Ann Cooper, professor of international journalism at Columbia Journalism School and the former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom advocacy group.
The CPJ, which has historically focused on press freedoms abroad, launched a new website after Trump’s election to monitor the United States. “Pre-Trump, this site didn’t exist because it didn’t need to exist, and now it does,” Cooper said.
The blame for this “charged atmosphere” is usually cast on Trump, whose attacks on the media have been accused of inciting violence against journalists. But several Republicans also used similar bash-the-press language on Twitter when running for office in 2018.
“Congressional candidates adopt this rhetoric because they think it works, and because their party leader is making these charges,” Graf said.
Presidents often repeat messages they hope will stick. Trump’s “fake news” epithet has seeped into public discourse much like other famous campaign slogans, such as Barack Obama’s “Yes we can,” said David Rodhe, a professor of political science at Duke University.
“They say these things in order to plant them in the public mind and would like to see them used in the public discourse,” Rodhe said.
It’s too early to see all the effects of this media-bashing, but its spread could mean more threats against individual journalists and news organizations, Cooper said.
The rhetoric could also sink the public’s already-declining trust in the media and in government. According to a September report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation, more than nine in 10 Republicans say they’ve lost trust in the media over the last several years. Slightly more than 40 percent of Democrats say the same.
“Even if the language does go away, the effects won’t,” Rodhe said. “If we believe the language has led to a decline in trust of the media … of the government and politicians, people may stop using those terms, but they’re not going to go back to having more faith in those institutions.”
That could lead to even more gridlock between politicians in Washington, Rodhe said.
Local news outlets are especially vulnerable to the effects of Republicans’ anti-media rhetoric, said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of American University’s Women and Politics Institute and an Emmy-winning journalist. Newspaper circulations have been shrinking since the dawn of the Internet, forcing many organizations to lay off their reporters.
“It’s a double whammy to have journalism undermined and underfunded at a local level,” Fischer Martin said.
Forty-six Republican candidates tweeted terms such as “fake news” and “enemy of the people” to negatively describe the media, but many more candidates also used the word “fake” to characterize other people and events, such as the sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh and special counsel Robert Mueller.
Other subjects called “fake” in the tweets we looked at included Democrats, political ads, bombs, immigrants, social media accounts, science, history, polls, charities, outrage, IDs and pie.
The spread of Trump’s media-bashing tactics may make the outlook for journalists seem bleak, but experts we consulted said there would always be a seat for reporters at the table.
Graf noted that even as Trump regularly disparages the media as “fake news,” he also seeks the approval of the very outlets he rebukes, such as The News York Times. The same may be true for the congressional candidates who have adopted his strategy. And given that only 14 of these candidates won their races, it’s possible future campaigns will decide the press-bashing doesn’t help.
But for journalism to rebound and withstand the barrage of attacks, reporters from competing organizations will have to unite, said Cooper, the former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. That’s what the CPJ tells journalists in countries where press freedoms are under siege.
“Part of the strategy here is to divide journalists,” she said. “It’s not going to help anybody if journalists start talking behind other journalists’ backs.”
For Sebelius, the Nevada reporter labeled the “King of Fake News” by congressional candidate Danny Tarkanian, part of the trick for journalists is to get thicker skin. “Your job is to do the best you can and then defend your work,” he said. “Not yourself, but your work.”
“You have to get past that defensiveness,” Sebelius added. “My role is not to boo back or shout back, but to keep doing the job as best you can do it, and that’s what I try to do.”
Bill McCarthy is a senior at Duke University and a staff writer with PolitiFact North Carolina at the News & Observer in Raleigh. Asa Royal, a fellow senior at Duke University, contributed to this report. Both are student researchers at the Duke Reporters’ Lab, a center for journalism research led by PolitiFact founder Bill Adair and Mark Stencel.