Since Tuesday’s ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, TV viewers have heard waves of journalists slam House Republicans as radicals and extremists who lack the capacity for governance. A look through the NewsBusters archives shows that’s exactly what viewers heard after Republican Speaker John Boehner stepped down eight years ago.
This week, as NewsBusters’ Kevin Tober documented, the media blamed McCarthy’s fall on “a handful of hard-right members of his own party” (ABC’s David Muir) or a “far-right faction” (CBS’s Norah O’Donnell). And over on PBS’s (taxpayer-subsidized) NewsHour, anchor Geoff Bennett pointed the finger at “a handful of hard-right Republicans.”
Such slogans — “hard-right,” “hardline,” “far-right,” “ultra-conservative,” etc. — are meant to separate conservatives from what the media would consider the respectable mainstream of U.S. politics. As editors Tim Graham and Curtis Houck explained on the NewsBusters podcast on Wednesday, you don’t hear journalists talk that way about even the wackiest Democratic politicians.
It sounds familiar because it is. Eight years ago (September 25, 2015), then-House Speaker John Boehner, announced he was quitting Congress, triggering a leadership contest among Republicans. Exactly as is happening now, journalists used the moment to portray conservatives as on the radical fringe of American politics. (I’ve put the egregious labels in all caps so they’d stand out better.)
“Speaker of the House John Boehner, 13 terms in Congress, announcing that he is stepping down at the end of the month, accelerating his plan to step down at the end of the year under pressure from THE FAR RIGHT of his party,” NBC anchor Lester Holt intoned during live coverage of Boehner’s resignation that Friday morning.
“Mr. Speaker, you made no secret of your frustration with some members of your FAR-RIGHT FLANK and some outside groups,” CBS’s Nancy Cordes asked Boehner at his press conference that day. “You’ve used words like ‘knucklehead,’ and some other words we probably can’t use on television. Had you just had enough…?”
“Clearly, Boehner has tried not to be a zealot,” CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein argued on CNN Newsroom that afternoon. “And who has driven the agenda that has now forced him to resign? The ZEALOTS of his party. And THOSE ZEALOTS ARE WINNING the soul of the Republican Party.”
The next morning on ABC’s Good Morning America, reporter Mary Bruce told her audience that Boehner had “clashed with UNRULY HARDLINE CONSERVATIVES.” On CBS This Morning: Saturday, the network’s senior political editor Steve Chaggaris explained that “HARDLINE TEA PARTY CONSERVATIVES” were “threatening [a] government shutdown in the Planned Parenthood fight.”
“Even as he [Boehner] tried to appease members with repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act or to defund Planned Parenthood, more ABSOLUTIST CONSERVATIVES were not satisfied,” claimed New York Times reporters David Herszenhorn and Jonathan Martin in a September 28 front-page article.
After Boehner quit, the next step was to find a new Speaker. Then-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was seen as the most likely candidate, until he dropped out of the race on October 8. Once again, reporters used the moment to trash conservatives. According to correspondent Jon Karl on ABC’s Good Morning America the next day, McCarthy had “failed to win over the group of FAR-RIGHT HOUSE CONSERVATIVES.”
Over on CBS This Morning, Nancy Cordes said McCarthy was opposed by “the same 40 HARDLINE CONSERVATIVES who wanted to unseat the current Speaker, John Boehner.” That night on the CBS Evening News that night, Face the Nation host John Dickerson opined about a potential bid by 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to become Speaker: “The reason he wouldn’t want this job is that he is more like [Boehner and McCarthy]….He is not like THE ULTRA-CONSERVATIVES.”
By October 21, however, Ryan’s campaign for the Speaker’s job was well underway. “Paul Ryan now says he’s willing to run for Speaker of the House, but with conditions,” ABC’s Tom Llamas announced on Good Morning America. “Ryan wants Republicans to unite behind him by Friday, including the FAR-RIGHT members of the party.”
“That turns the tables on HARDLINE CONSERVATIVES who were hoping to extract concessions from their next Speaker in exchange for their support,” CBS’s Cordes crowed that same morning.
On World News Tonight that evening, ABC’s David Wright described the Freedom Caucus as “Tea Party members who BEDEVILED Speaker John Boehner.” On NBC October 22, Today co-host Savannah Guthrie pronounced the Freedom Caucus as “the HARDLINERS in the House.”
An MRC study at the time examined all 82 ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news stories about the House of Representatives between September 25 to October 23. It found network reporters used a total of 35 extremist labels such as “far right,” “ultra-conservative,” etc. to disparage House Republicans.
At the same time, the study found “no such labels of any House Democrats during the four weeks we reviewed, and a Nexis search of the network morning and evening news shows found only one American politician, Vermont socialist and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, has been called ‘far-left’ this year.”
That’s the same language we heard from the media this week: You’ll never hear about radicals or extremists among House Democrats, but House Republicans are a dysfunctional and dangerous gang of kooks.
It sounded so familiar, because we’ve heard this story before. And my guess is that we’ll hear it again before long.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.