Meeting with reporters Friday, Ron DeSantis blurted out something every Republican politician knows, but never says: Conservative media does not hold Republicans accountable. “He’s got basically a Praetorian Guard of the conservative media — Fox News, the web sites, all the stuff — they just don’t hold him accountable because they’re worried about losing viewers,” he said of Donald Trump. “And they don’t want to have their ratings go down.”
DeSantis is running through the bitter final days of an immensely disappointing presidential campaign that saw him transformed from the shining knight of the post-Trump party to a punch line. And so he is understandably lashing at at the conservative media, which is now operating mainly as a public-relations vehicle for the candidate who is destroying him.
One unmentioned irony is that a large chunk of this very same conservative-media apparatus used to work for DeSantis. After January 6, when Republicans assumed Trump was radioactive, conservative media set out to wean the base off Trump and get them hooked on DeSantis. “We want to make Trump a nonperson,” Rupert Murdoch wrote to a colleague. “We see [DeSantis] as the future of the party,” a Fox News producer wrote in an email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. For a period of time from after the insurrection to the middle of last year, conservative media promoted DeSantis infomercial-style.
The flaw in the formula was that the dogs weren’t eating the dog food. An infamous clip revealed the moment when the network seemed to realize its miscalculation. Brian Kilmeade, apparently seeking to drum up support for the Florida governor, interviewed a series of diner guests, only to find all of them preferred Trump. At one point, he lunged in desperation toward a woman in a DeSantis T-shirt, only for her to say she was undecided between the two.
And so last summer, Fox News and the rest of the conservative media gave up on DeSantis and resumed promoting Trump. The reason is exactly as DeSantis said: They didn’t want to alienate their audience and lose market share by telling the audience anything bad about its hero.
If you corner a professional Republican, they will admit Fox News is not a news network as it is traditionally defined, but mainly a partisan messaging vehicle in the guise of a traditional broadcast format. What they will say is that the mainstream media is also biased, so it’s fair. That belief is heavily exaggerated — the mainstream media may suffer implicit bias from the overwhelmingly left-of-center cast of its staff, but it is trying to follow traditional norms of objectivity. There’s no executive at CNN or the New York Times deciding which candidate to promote and then planning coverage together.
In public, Republicans will pretend that conservative media is fair and balanced, or maybe is just finding stories the liberal media ignores. They won’t admit that Fox News will never admit to its audience when Republican leaders lie and cheat. Maintaining that pretense is a core element of conservative-movement discipline. It’s a measure of DeSantis’s anger and humiliation that he finally broke the Republican omerta.