NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—On Friday, during his speech at CPAC, self-described First Amendment fan Donald Trump railed against the “dishonest media” for what seemed like the 34,299th time. Predictably, the crowd booed loudly at the press, including at the reporters typing away at laptops in the back of the hall. Of course, Trump’s deliberate attacks against a free press undermines American democracy—as Sen. John McCain as pointed out, “it’s how dictators get started,”—but what was especially strange about the speech at CPAC was that several of boos came from within a hall cordoned off for credentialed reporters.
When the spray-tanned apparition launched into his tirade against members of “dishonest media,” a blogger from Right Side Broadcasting Network screamed, “The New York Times!” The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray overheard someone in the press pen yell, “CNN Sucks!” Jezebel news editor Gabrielle Bluestone spotted another member of the media putting on a Make America Great Again hat (he quickly removed it after she started filming). In another panel, when introducing UK politician and Brexit leader Nigel Farage, Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam opened by asking the crowd to boo for the media—a group which he is inarguably a part of. The booing was too soft, so he egged the crowd on, saying, “You can do better than that.” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the former head of said website, called the media “the opposition party.” To my knowledge, though, Breitbart still has “News Network” in its name.
It’s not news that the largest political conference of the year attracts conservative press. Nor is it news necessarily news that, at CPAC, where the National Rifle Association’s NRATV counts as credentialed press, some bloggers would fawn over Trump. Plus, CPAC is dangerously flirting with the “alt-right” white supremacist movement and has been bedfellows with Breitbart for years. But Trump, the first sitting Republican president to speak at the conference since Ronald Reagan, has infused new energy into CPAC. Practically the entire administration attended: Kellyanne Conway hit the stage, Bannon made a rare public appearance, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech, and fake terrorism expert Sebastian Gorka toured CPAC’s conservative media circuit like a celebrity walking the red carpet. CPAC has become Trump’s Kingdom, and the cheering members of the press corps are his loyal jesters.
During his speech, Trump, who once pretended to be his own spokesperson, defined “fake news” as a story with unnamed sources. He delivered the comments after CNN sourced anonymous senior White House officials in a report about the the White House requesting the FBI to publicly condemn media reports about links between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. He declared the press as the “enemy of the American people,” and then issued a vague threat against reporters: “I say it doesn’t represent the people, it doesn’t tell the never will represent the people, and we’re going to do something about it because we have to go out and have to speak our minds and we have to be honest.” Later that afternoon, the White House banned the BBC, Politico, CNN, and the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed from its press briefing, even though back in December, the very man who barred the press, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, said barring press is something a “dictatorship” does. Other mainstream outlets like ABC and CBS were allowed in, as were conservative outlets like One America News Network, the Washington Times and Breitbart. Conspiracy theory site InfoWars is now cozying up to the White House, too.
Though every president has to spar and negotiate access with the president, Trump’s anti-media rhetoric and shake-ups are more severe than any former president—including Nixon. Throughout his campaign, Trump insulted dozens of individual reporters. He threatened to sue the New York Times for reporting on sexual assault allegations against him and in May said, “The political press is among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever met.” As president-elect, he blocked the press pool from traveling to meet with Barack Obama and did not brief reporters on calls with foreign leaders from Russia, Israel, Egypt, and elsewhere. He proposed kicking press out of the White House for briefings, but later walked that back. No respectable media professional could support such an attack on free speech and limits on transparency.
Maybe it’s not a big deal that some irrelevant conservative writers are cheering for the destruction of an institution that they feel doesn’t represent them. But this election has shown that they’re not so irrelevant. As the White House delegitimizes the media writ-large, it is propping up these conspiracy theorists, fringe rightwing platforms, and lobbyists with access and power once reserved for major press institutions. In Trumpistan, Fuck the News! is a rallying cry to be led by the press itself, and at CPAC, I started to watch that happen.