US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Calling out liberal media bias is a rite of passage for Republican candidates. Red meat for the conservative base, cries of media bias also act as a defensive shield, a way of playing the media referees so they'll go a bit easier on the candidate. Donald Trump was acting in this tradition on Thursday night, when he lashed out at the moderators of the first Republican debate. Only this media criticism came with a twist: The target of his complaints was Fox News.

"I really enjoyed the debate tonight, even though the Fox News trio, especially Megyn Kelly, was not very good or professional!" Trump tweeted several hours after the debate. On Friday afternoon, still fuming, he added, "@FoxNews you should be ashamed of yourself. I got you the highest debate ratings in your history & you say nothing but bad..."

Yet, while this attack was brandished as further evidence of Trump's atypical campaign, he is not the first Republican primary candidate to attack Fox News for liberal bias. Indeed, conservatives have been going after parts of their own media for decades, internal battles that reflect how deep the right's sense of embattlement — and concern over ideological purity — runs.

During the 2012 election, candidates vying for the anti-Romney (and anti-establishment) vote aimed their arrows directly at Fox News. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum complained about Fox's pro-Romney bias, grumbling that Mitt Romney "has Fox News shilling for him every day." Newt Gingrich echoed the charge a month later, slamming Fox News for "bias" and "distortion."

Santorum and Gingrich, insurgents attempting to topple the establishment favorite, were seeking to tap into the same well of discontent that Trump so effectively marshals: the populist conservative base that distrusts the Republican establishment and the media outlets they believe shore up that establishment.

Only in the past few decades have the populist conservative base and establishment conservative media grown powerful enough for their battles to spill onto the national debate stage. But such battles have defined the modern conservative movement from its earliest days, highlighting the tensions between conservatives who worried about ideological purity and those who sought a pragmatic route to political power.

Consider the case of the John Birch Society. A semi-secret anti-communist organization, the Birch Society had provided the early conservative movement's most diligent foot soldiers ever since its founding in 1958. But in 1961, the national media discovered the Birch Society and unearthed its founder Robert Welch's claim that President Dwight Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." Journalists of the era delighted in using the Birch Society as a way to discredit what they alternately called "the radical Right," "ultra conservatives," and "superpatriots."

Worried about the effect such extreme statements would have on the political viability of the conservative movement, National Review publicly distanced itself — and all "responsible conservatives" — from the Birch Society. In both 1962 and 1965, National Review ran editorials denouncing Welch and ultimately the Birch Society, on the grounds that the society was harming the wider conservative movement. Welch's excesses, the editors argued in 1962, had allowed the press to use the Birch Society "to anathematize the entire American right wing." Thus to be a Bircher was to hurt the conservative cause.

Populist conservatives immediately struck back, accusing National Review of being insufficiently conservative. Supporters cut their donations; readers cancelled their subscriptions. Among these was Phyllis Schlafly, who in 1962 was just beginning to make her name as a right-wing activist. Explaining her cancellation, she wrote, "I cannot support a magazine which joins the pack of anti-anti-Communists in their organized campaign … to divide and destroy the anti-Communist effort in America."

The magazine's founder, William F. Buckley, Jr., received special condemnation from the conservative base. A. J. Heinsohn, a long-time conservative activist and Birch Society member, accused Buckley of abetting "the Communist cause," using "the Communist technique of character assassination and falsification." Concluded Heinsohn, "What a sad day it would be for America if dedicated, knowledgeable, anti-Communists were driven from the fray by a callow egocentric and his stable of former Communists."

Despite these denunciations, in the end, National Review gained influence while the Birch Society lost it. Romney won, and Gingrich and Santorum lost; Fox News will outlast Donald Trump's eccentric candidacy. But conservative populists will continue to comprise an important part of the base, seeking to pull both conservative media and the Republican Party further to the right. And as long as they remain a vocal constituency, there will be space for Republican politicians to court their votes by attacking Fox News.

This article was originally published in US News & World Report