Cruz, GOP candidates step up complaints about media bias as Iowa approaches

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks during a campaign stop at the Freedom Country Store, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Freedom, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz dismissed the mainstream media as being "almost without exception" liberal Democrats, many of whom support Hillary Clinton, in an interview with Fox News on Sunday.

"Any Republican who's running should not be confused and think that the mainstream media are our friends," Cruz told "Media Buzz" host Howard Kurtz. "They are partisans. They wake up every day fighting for liberal political agendas. The New York Times wants Hillary Clinton to be the next president."

Political communications experts say attacking the media is an effective strategy in a Republican primary, but they questioned the accuracy of Cruz's assessment of the liberal "stranglehold" on the press.

"There is very little cost to a Republican running for president if he or she vociferously criticizes the media," said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. The belief in media bias is widely and strongly held among the Republican base.

A Gallup poll in September found that only 32% of Republicans and 33% of independents have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. Another poll in June found that public confidence in the media only topped that of Congress and big business.

"I don't think he's totally wrong in some of the things he's saying," said Allan Louden, chair of the communication department at Wake Forest University. However, he sees the media's bias as favoring conflict and drama more than promoting liberal ideology.

"They're not mutually exclusive," he added. "Both can be true."

"Bias is a beholder's phenomenon," Louden said. Some media outlets are seen as having a liberal bias, but others have a clear conservative bent, and criticism of the media by politicians is nothing new.

"I deplore, with you, the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them," Thomas Jefferson wrote in an 1814 letter.

George Washington complained to Jefferson about "the grossest and most insidious misrepresentations" of his acts by the press in the 1790s, while Jefferson quietly supported some of those negative publications.

In the Fox interview, Cruz spoke of bypassing the media to speak directly to the people, a tactic that may be successful in the early primaries but experts say would have limitations in a general election.

"The answer is not to whine and complain about it," Cruz said of perceived media bias. "The answer is to do what Reagan did, go over the head of the media, go straight to the American people. That's what we're working to do."

Cruz told Kurtz that three major networks no longer have a "stranglehold on information," and that voters can turn to the Drudge Report, talk radio, and social media for conservative perspectives.

This may be true, but it does not mean the networks and newspapers can be ignored in the long run. A candidate's message eventually needs to go beyond conservative blogs and talk radio into the mainstream if they win the nomination.

"When we get to the general election, then a candidate needs to be thinking much more broadly about winning the independent vote," said Schmuhl, author of "Statecraft and Stagecraft."

Louden is skeptical that a candidate can win over the general public without relying in part on the mainstream media, even with use of the internet and social media, but he believes this election cycle will provide proof one way or the other.

In the Fox interview, Cruz complained about the media allowing Donald Trump to drive the campaign narrative, especially with regard to questions about Cruz's own citizenship and eligibility for the presidency.

"The reporters all followed Donald Trump like cat nip," he said.

The Tyndall Report, which tabulates minutes of media coverage of each candidate on broadcast networks' nightly newscasts, found that 32% of campaign coverage in 2015 focused on Trump, more than all of the Democratic candidates combined.

Data from the Internet Archive's Television News Archive shows that Trump has received more media mentions than any other Republican candidate nearly every day since he announced his candidacy last June.

"Is there bias in the media? Of course there is," Schmuhl said. "It is a bias in favor of conflict, in favor of a good story, and in favor of vibrant personalities. Donald Trump receives so much coverage because he ticks so many boxes for journalists."

"In part," he added, "it is a consequence of having so many candidates on the Republican side that the media have found it difficult to really do justice to each of them."

Cruz has also recently criticized the media for coverage of politicians' children, both his own in a Washington Post cartoon last month and Sarah Palin's in reports about her son's domestic violence arrest.

The candidate used the cartoon, which portrayed his daughters as monkeys and him as an organ grinder, in a fundraising appeal in December, writing, "My daughters are not FAIR GAME." He also posted a cartoon showing the Post and New York Times as Hillary Clinton's "attack dogs."

The allegation that the mainstream media supports Clinton, which Cruz repeated several times in the interview with Kurtz, was one the experts took some issue with.

The Times, in particular, has taken the lead on reporting about Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state that has put her on the defensive for almost a year, often to the dismay of her campaign.

"The blanket criticism of the so-called mainstream media is really a canard," Schmuhl said. "For Sen. Cruz to say that Hillary Clinton is receiving overly biased coverage is a misnomer."

He pointed to the Times coverage of the email issue and of Clinton's paid speeches to financial firms as proof that the paper is not in her pocket.

Cruz, who blasted CNBC's moderators at a debate last fall to the delight of the partisan audience, is not the only GOP candidate targeting the supposed bias of the media.

Frontrunner Donald Trump makes calling out the "dishonest" members of the political media a major applause line in his stump speech, and he often singles out journalists by name to insult them for what he feels is unfair coverage.

One of Trump's many favorite targets appears to be Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who challenged him at the first debate last August over his past offensive comments about women. The potential for another face-to-face confrontation between Trump and Kelly has generated buzz around this week's Fox News debate.

Trump demanded Kelly not be allowed to moderate the event on Twitter, accusing her of a "conflict of interest," a complaint Fox dismissed. The dust-up brought Trump more headlines, though.

"Here's a guy railing at the mainstream media who is getting the lion share of attention from it," Schmuhl noted.

Some have attributed Trump's success in the campaign in part to that extensive media coverage.

Sen. Rand Paul has repeatedly accused the media of trying to silence him by keeping him off of the main debate stage since his polling average dropped below the thresholds the networks had set.

Rick Santorum went on a lengthy tirade against USA Today on Facebook Monday.

"They want to FORCE US from the race, but that's the last thing that will happen because next Monday night at the Iowa Caucus we're going to FORCE THEM to cover us," he wrote. "We're going to FORCE THEM to follow us to event after event after event all across America."

Democratic presidential campaigns have also complained about media coverage, but for different reasons.

Bernie Sanders has criticized the media for giving him very little coverage until recently, while Clinton's campaign has suggested some of her coverage has been unfairly negative.

"I think that Bernie Sanders has a legitimate point to make in that after a great deal of coverage early in the fall the media seemed to forget about him," Schmuhl said. In Clinton's case, however, he said the negative reporting has often been accurate accounts of "unpleasant facts."

Louden also distinguished between Sanders and Clinton's media criticism.

"He attacks them to try to even up the coverage," he said. "She attacks them to try to deflect coverage."

Cruz, meanwhile, is primarily interested in energizing the Republican base that does not trust the media to begin with.

His recent media coverage has eaten into Trump's share of media time, although the widely-discussed endorsement of Trump by Sarah Palin has likely eroded those gains over the last week.

Trump's comments about being able to shoot someone in the street and not lose votes dominated weekend political headlines while Cruz was trying to tout his endorsement by radio host Glenn Beck.

Cruz may hope that his sharp critique of the media will garner more coverage of his candidacy in the critical final week before next Monday's Iowa caucus.

"Going after the press is another controversy, and it's newsworthy," Louden said. "This might be one way that he stays in the news."