Conservative Media Destroying Conservative Movement?

Treating entertainment as entertainment is one thing. Treating it as news and education is another.

David Frum (again):

Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much. As a tool of political mobilization, it backfires, by inciting followers to the point at which they force leaders into confrontations where everybody loses, like the summertime showdown over the debt ceiling.

Amen and amen.  This is a major problem in US politics at the moment and I see no end to it any time soon.  From a pure business of media perspective, Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes are geniuses:  they found market niches for infotainment (heavy on the “tainment”) and very effectively exploited them.  The problem becomes, however, the talk radio gang and the commentary programmers on Fox News are not in the business of actually providing information.  They are entertainers who entertain via commentary.  While this may be a very effective way of confirming one’s belief that Democrats are clowns, it is a rather lousy way of understanding complex issues of foreign, fiscal, and/or social policy.

Indeed, as Frum notes, it goes beyond the entertainment to something more problematic:

the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.

I think Frum raises a key problem with all of this here:

When contemplating the ruthless brilliance of this system, it’s tempting to fall back on the theory that the GOP is masterminded by a cadre of sinister billionaires, deftly manipulating the political process for their own benefit.

[…]

Yet, for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too,and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base.

I think one can go a step further and state:  elected politicians watch it too.  I used to think that people could tease out the entertainment part of things like Limbaugh (gee, that song making fun of Ted Kennedy is hilarious!) and understand that one was not getting an actual education about politics from him.  Not only do I no longer think that that is the case for most people, I think that the influence of the entertainment over the voter and the elected alike help create real policy problems (like the debt ceiling debate where the rational and the empirical go out the window and simplistic ideology informs actions or elected officials).

Understand:  I am hardly arguing that all of our problems are linked to talk radio.  I am, however, arguing that it is making the political situation worse.

The counter-argument (which has been Rush’s credo for decades “I am equal time”) that the conservative infotainment industry is nothing more than a balance to the dreaded Mainstream Media is nonsense.   And while there is plenty to criticize about mass media in general, there is a marked difference between commentary-based, personality-driven entertainment programming (e.g., Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Beck, Levin, Fox and Friends, Huckabee, etc.) and straight news reporting, even if the reporter might have voted Democratic in the last election.

And let me conclude with: yes, there are liberal/Democratic counter-examples (e.g., Ed Schulz), but it is by no means a balanced problem. If anything: liberal media personalities are not the made leaders of liberal politics the way conservative media personalities are.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Media, US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. ponce says:

    You left out the sad sack wingnut bloggers trying to scape out a living a few pennies at a time by shouting in lockstep with their betters on the fringe right TV and radio stations.

  2. James says:

    While this may be a very effective way of confirming one’s belief that Democrats are clowns, it is a rather lousy way of understanding complex issues of foreign, fiscal, and/or social policy.

    But median Republican-primary voters don’t care about understanding complex issues; they just care about reinforcing their conclusion that Democrats are clowns.

    It’s a political/cultural/media enclave committed to conforming conclusions it’s already made.

  3. James Joyner says:

    As we’ve discussed many times, I think that the talk radio/Fox News thing is a big part of the larger issue: the Permanent Campaign and the resultant turning of politics into a team sport. In my memory, campaigns ended and governing happened. It wasn’t as collegial as some make it out to be but, at the end of the day, a Ronald Reagan knew he couldn’t get anything done unless he got buy-in from a Tip O’Neil. And so compromise was required.

    Now, with minute-by-minute instant analysis, compromise is political suicide because the other party is The Enemy and you can’t appease the enemy. Both sides do it, of course, but the Republicans invented the game.

  4. MBunge says:

    @James Joyner: “a big part of the larger issue: the Permanent Campaign and the resultant turning of politics into a team sport.”

    That is at the root of most liberal carping about Obama. They’d be happier if Obama failed to advance his agenda as long as he failed in the most strident and polarizing manner possible.

    Mike

  5. James says:

    @James Joyner:

    Both sides do it, of course,

    James,

    I’m getting very irritated with the lame equivalency/hang-washing that smart conservatives engage in with confronted with the excesses of their party. Barack Obama has been extremely unequivocal in his willingness to accept all kinds of compromise deals; from healthcare reform, the lame-duck session last year and the debt-limit/deficient reduction proposals that came out of his office.

    There’s a certain point there you need to admit that the politics-as-combat culture has consumed mainstream conservative rhetoric and policy, at that unless more conservatives start speaking out against this kind of unilateralism, the more impossible legislative compromise is going to become.

  6. de stijl says:

    The whole Limbaugh / Ailes strategy is very savvy.

    A large number of partisans are partisans for tribalistic reasons rather than ideological reasons or because of differences between the parties’ policy positions (witness the flip-flop on the national debt and deficit spending before and after 1/19/2009).

    For these people, listening to and watching non-Team Red media is psychologically painful due to cognitive dissonance. It’s much easier to ignore objective reality and get all of your news from a source that you know will not cause you discomfort because they are never ever going to report something that will make your team look bad.

    My mother cannot watch CNN or MSNBC for five minutes without getting upset. (Frigging’ “both-sides-do-it”, milquetoast, POLITICO-on-TV CNN!) Now CNBC is getting close to her Black List now that FOX Business is available on her cable carrier. This is literally true – I checked my watch the last time she visited me.

    For people like her, FOX News is a godsend. And that makes me damned sad.

  7. Liberty60 says:

    Re: “both sides do it” narrative-

    What makes this so devastating, apart from being demonstrably false, is that it give power to the fringe.

    If The Truth is somewhere in between the twin poles, then it only makes sense to be as extreme and fanatical as possible.

    It allows yesterday’s Republican plan to become todays Socialist Menace, yesterday’s bipartisan consensus to be today’s Existential Threat.

    I wonder sometimes if we would have better results if Obama DID propose the total abolition of private property, and settle for letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

  8. @James Joyner: The thing is, I think talk radio helps to crate and enhance the team sport aspect of politics. It is not the sole factor, but both Limbaugh/talk radio and FNC peach the team politicsantra daily. Limbaugh, in particular , has long cast liberals as the enemy.

    24 news and then the Internet are part of the equation as well.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    I used to think that people could tease out the entertainment part of things like Limbaugh (gee, that song making fun of Ted Kennedy is hilarious!) and understand that one was not getting an actual education about politics from him.

    I used to think that way as well. I liked listening to Michael Savage’s screaming rants and thought they were really funny. It never occurred to me at the time that people would actually believe what he was saying. After all, the guy was screaming and ranting.

  10. Fiona says:

    For people like her, FOX News is a godsend. And that makes me damned sad.

    My parents have become those people who mostly watch Faux news and sports. I try to avoid discussing politics (or even current events) with them because they’ve come to live in a closed universe where Faux News isn’t a propaganda arm of the Republican party (plus doing so results in major shouting matches). I don’t know how they manage without their daily dose of Glenn Beck given they don’t have a computer or internet access.

    The nonstop demonizing of liberals (well, basically anyone who’s a Democrat–there really aren’t too many liberals out there) and the constant evocation of fear and righteous indignation creates, for those who buy into it, an atmosphere where compromise of any kind is seen as treason. And yeah, while both sides do it to some extent, the left lacks the major media outlets and the vehemence of “conservatives.” Until the Republican side returns to rationality, I don’t see anything getting accomplished.

  11. Barb Hartwell says:

    Thank Goodness for people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert pointing out their foolishness and making it all worth while. My mother -in law is a faux noise nut and she hates Obama but can not answer why.

  12. Jay says:

    Steven: I think you’re tossing the Rep counterargument too quickly. Obviously Rush is a propagandist. This, unfortunately, does not make his influence worse than any (alleged) pervasive bias in the MSM. Most people (unfortunately not all, as you said), will know what they are getting when they listen to Rush. Most people will not, however, realize that when they were reading the BBC print over the last few years that their news was sanitized of any positive stories from Iraq, for example, which we now know from leaked memos. Omission can be as corrupting as obvious bias.

    My main problem with articles like Frum’s is that they offer no actual proof…only clever, intuitive argument. Being clever and intuitive is not the same as being right, although too often it is all you need to be to succeed in Academia.

    It is too easy to read something like this and then turn on The Daily Show, safe in your knowledge that you know better than conservatives, even if no one has ever actually proved to you that conservatives are being brainwashed (anecdotes of a crazy family member aside). So we have a lot of Lefties watching Left-leaning entertainment that was created to counterbalance Right Wing propaganda. Not a good solution.

  13. Peter says:

    @Jay:
    “… which we now know from leaked memos, …”

    Memos? What leaked memos?

    I remember the BBC as the organization who called out the BS of Powell’s UN presentation while our media was all about going to war.

  14. Lit3Bolt says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Both sides do it, of course”

    This phrase should be enshrined as the ultimate cliched false equivalence, and you should be ashamed for writing it.

    Would you accept this phrase from any of your students?

  15. @Jay:

    Most people will not, however, realize that when they were reading the BBC print over the last few years that their news was sanitized of any positive stories from Iraq, for example, which we now know from leaked memos.

    You are going to have to help me out on that one.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    Fundamental difference between Fox News and Jon Stewart: Jon Stewart has a fake news show that is intentionally funny and that is billed as a fake news show. Fox News is a fake news channel that is unintentionally funny and that touts itself as real news.

    I find it funny in a bang-my-head-against-the-wall kind of way that right wingers actually offer these two as a comparison among equals.

    A new poll shows that people who watch Fox News are actually less informed about objective reality than people who watch no news at all. That, my friends, is quite something to be proud of. (BTW, that was sarcasm in a Jon Stewart kind of way, i.e. true fact delivered (1st sentence) with sarcastic humor (2nd sentence)

  17. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Not to mention Stewart’s show is on Comedy Central and is a half hour long. How many hours a day does Fox News broadcast?

    But I can totally see how someone could equate Fox News and The Daily Show – there’s easily as much entertainment value and news in a half hour of Stewart as there is in 24 hours of Fox News, if not more.

    Ergo, Both sides do it. QED.

  18. Rob in CT says:

    One of the most telling parts of Frum’s article, for me, was the bit about how the bookings on conservative shows came to a screeching halt the moment he went off message.

    And note the message he offered wasn’t “the liberals are right” but rather “the liberals have enough political power right here right now to enact reform. They seem to want bipartisan cover, though, so it would be smart to join in and help craft a less damaging (from a conservative perspective) reform bill. The people who refused to do that should now admit they messed up, since the PPACA passed.”

    THAT got him tossed. The man was arguing TACTICS!

    Frum is a neocon, and that’s enough in my book to literally ignore him on foreign policy. Put that aside. What he’s saying is that he became persona non-grata in the conservative movement, not because of his disasterous neoconservatism, but because he was a little too shrill about having been correct on the GOP tactical engagement (lack thereof) with healthcare reform.

  19. Barry says:

    @Jay: “Most people will not, however, realize that when they were reading the BBC print over the last few years that their news was sanitized of any positive stories from Iraq, for example, which we now know from leaked memos. Omission can be as corrupting as obvious bias. ”

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  20. Barry says:

    My comments on Frum’s piece is that he carefully dodges the fact that the current GOP has deep roots in the ‘Good Old Days’ GOP:

    1) Southern Strategy, with all that that implies, started with Goldwater, who realized that the shift in the Democratic Party left rascist scum with less of a place in it. He recruited them wholesale.

    2) Nixon, whose evil *still* lingers to the present day (Ailes was a Nixon recruit).

    3) Reagan who started a systematic and fraudulent plan to f*ck the majority of Americans over economically, and boosted the Imperial Presidency quite a bit.

    4) Gingrich and the whole 90’s crew – they were the ones who really started the ‘eternal campaign’, with the delegitimization of a Democratic President, and a turning to the worse of political language.

    5) AM Radio, Fox News – created a vicious, savage and extremely dishonest alternate reality. There’s a straight line between those guys decades ago, and those guys now.

    6) Dubya and his crew, notably including Frum. Dubya’s tax cuts were clearly designed to load as much money back onto the rich, with the desired consequences to be inflicted on poor. Dubya’s propaganda was vile, and Frum was a vilemaker.

    7) Last, an oldie but a goodie – Buckley. He wasn’t a moderate, he was an extremist, who knew how to speak all intellectual and suchlike, so as to be palatable. Brad DeLong a while back posted excerpts from his column in the National Review, where Buckley was siding with the worst racist filth, and endorsing violence.

  21. Ted Craig says:

    @James Joyner: Did they? Where’s your proof? Or were they just ascendant when technology made this possible? I suppose stating your opinion as a fact makes it so to you, but how about some specific evidence?

  22. mannning says:

    Let us stipulate that the Permanent Campaign, and the well-fortified party positions are our new way of political life. This implies that the only way to get anything done, virtually anything at all, is for one party to obtain a crushing majority in both houses and a huge plurality win of the presidency.

    Looking at the current situation, I do not see the Democrats in such a position in 2012, although they were very much there just three years ago, didn’t need the participation of Republicans at all in forming legislation, and have managed to put us 3 or 4 trillion dollars further in debt for the cause, so far, out of a 15 trillion dollar national debt. They really do know how to spend!

    I do see the Republicans shaping up to overtake the scene, with perhaps a near veto-proof majority in both houses and a Republican President in 2012. I hope they maintain their fiscal smarts and sharp pencils for the next 8 years, because we are going to need a crew that straightens out our finances post haste, reverses the leadership throughout the government, cancels a raft of Executive Orders, and foregoes the pleasures of spending OPM on boondoggles called “Obamacare”. “stimulus” and “earmarks” as their predecessors have done in record form. Then too, it is to be hoped that we can avoid yet another war with its customary fantastic cash burn rate, but I am not holding my breath.

    If we are to have a Permanent Campaign and Fortified Party Positions, let them be Republican on top this time.

  23. Eric Florack says:

    @James:

    I’m getting very irritated with the lame equivalency/hang-washing that smart conservatives engage in with confronted with the excesses of their party.

    So, Obama hasn’t remained in campaign mode since taking the oath? Please.
    As to the rest; no, it is not ruining the conservative movement. It is rather representing it. The fact of the matter is that the left has had the mainstream media in its pocket for the last 40 plus years. Except in a few small circles, usually among the left, there is no longer any denying that fact. Why does the evening of that playing field bother anybody?

    The only conclusion to draw is that the left doesn’t feel comfortable with actual competition.

  24. Eric Florack says:

    Let us stipulate that the Permanent Campaign, and the well-fortified party positions are our new way of political life. This implies that the only way to get anything done, virtually anything at all, is for one party to obtain a crushing majority in both houses and a huge plurality win of the presidency.

    And why not? The left has had exactly this, on and off, since FDR. We see where that has left us. The one thing that hasn’t been tried, is having real conservatives in all three branches of government. (Notice that I didn’t say “GOP”, since so many of them are not conservatives.) I would suggest an overwhelming majority of conservatives in all three branches of government would be quite successful at turning the situation around. And what and almost permanently, I think, the leftist domination of our government and culture.

    Which, in turn, is precisely why there is such a note of desperation coming from the left, the last six to nine months or so. And that desperation will only get louder as the failures of the Obama administration and the democrats in both houses of Congress become more and more unarguable.

  25. James says:

    @Eric Florack: Eric, there are more important things to do today than try and threadjack a half-week old post. I would like to give my deepest condolences to James here. We do not always share political views, but we do share a name and I cannot fathom the pain he is in right now.

    At any rate:

    The fact of the matter is that the left has had the mainstream media in its pocket for the last 40 plus years.

    This fact exists only in the minds and fever-dreams of the most fanatical conservative partisans.

  26. somercet says:

    This is lame. What was so great about William F. Buckley? Am I supposed to believe, in Frum & Taylors most fevered dreams, that Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh would utter so hideous a mistake as Buckley’s infamous tattooed buttocks remark?

    Thought experiment: I am required to ask a question about society and homosexuality to Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, John McCain or Mitch McConnell on national TV two days before the 2012 elections. You betcha I’ll ask Sarah or Rush before the two Senators. They will be far more coherent and tolerant than either Senator, and that’s just sad.