On Wednesday morning, President Trump took to Twitter to denounce a NBC News report that he had called for a “nearly tenfold increase” in the country’s supply of nuclear weapons.
“Pure fiction, made up to demean,” Trump wrote, and then came back a more incendiary followup: “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” Several hours later, he told pool reporters that “the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write” was “frankly disgusting.”
As many commentators noted, Trump’s musing about revoking a broadcaster’s license was both startling in a country where freedom of the press is protected by the Constitution, as well as impractical given the way that the Federal Communications Commission regulates broadcasters.
But on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers found the discussion amusing.
“I would suggest that NBC News should have to report all of their expenditures to the FEC as an in-kind contribution to the Democratic Party,” Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, quipped outside the men’s restroom adjacent to the House chamber. “There are probably few things in life more incontrovertible than systemic left-wing bias in the media. The bias is spectacular, and for the president to point that out — it should be an obvious recognition on all our parts.”
For many Republicans, elected officials and otherwise, Trump’s hostility towards the press has been a breath of fresh air. The notion of a leftward slant in the U.S. mainstream media is nothing novel — Barry Goldwater’s campaign was deprecating the “Eastern Liberal Press” back in 1964 — but many conservatives believe this bias has reached a fever pitch over the last few years: particularly with regard to Trump.
In conversations with TIME on Wednesday, a number of Republican lawmakers dismissed concerns over Trump’s assaults on the media as hyperbolic. “He’s got the right to free speech, too,” Rep. Ron Estes from Kansas told TIME. “With the fake news that’s out there — and granted, it doesn’t always come from NBC — it’s worthwhile to have a chance about what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Several congressmen seized on the opportunity to denounce what they said were the prevailing trends in American journalism: a shift away from fact and towards commentary; a widening partisan chasm between liberal and conservative viewpoints. Others opted to speak out against specific outlets that they said failed to consider report the news fairly.
“I think the movement is towards opinion journalism as opposed to true, pure journalism that tries not to take a side,” Rep. Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican, said.
“If I walked down this hallway and asked, I don’t think I’d find one media person who voted for Trump, and he got 45% of the national vote,” Rep. Dave Brat, a conservative Virginia Republican, told TIME in the Capitol Building on Wednesday. “Commentary has replaced the news. It’s always something about what Trump tweeted this morning, or some gotcha piece from the Washington Post — it’s relentless.”
“They’re a perfect example, by the way,” he continued, getting excited. “If you want me to weigh in against one entity, you can ask the whole Virginia delegation — we won’t hardly speak to the Washington Post anymore. We don’t think they do news at all. They don’t even do opinion pieces — they do hit pieces. We’re just fed up with it. They come out and attack Republicans, and they don’t ask the same questions of Democrats.”
Others took a more pragmatic view of things.
“The media is all about getting the next click, or the next view. We need to have a moment of clarity and honesty: it’s not about the news, it’s about revenue,” Rep. David Schweikert, an Arizona Republican, said. “It’s a societal crisis that we’re in. People feel they’ve been taken advantage of, and so many people just go to sites or information sources that simply give reaffirmation of what they already believe. We are so completely siloed.”