Discover more from Nothing New Under the Sun
"The Media" (Television #2)
The rise of right-wing media stems from years of conservative claims that mainstream media sways leftward.
Rage Against the Media Machine
One of the themes of James T. Patterson’s history of the postwar United States is how the political consensus, known as “postwar liberalism,” was challenged by changing voter coalitions and dynamic public problems. As Americans navigated an era of advancements within mass media, incentive structures simultaneously developed within civic life that allowed for ideologues and elected representatives to use mass communications to control their active base voters.
There is nothing new about this occurrence (especially in the post-printing press side of history), however, the rise of sophisticated visual media has been received differently by various political persuasions.
Patterson writes about how conservatives often felt “the media” was antagonistic to their political goals and character. He reflects on this in Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore:
“In the 1970s, liberal Democrats in the North, having backed civil rights, civil liberties, entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and other federal government social policies, solidified their strength among intellectuals, graduate students, teachers, artists, musicians, actors, and writers. A great many professionals and professors, including increasingly large majorities of those who taught at prestigious colleges and universities, joined them. While these liberal elites were relatively insignificant numerically, many were articulate and politically active, and they received attention in the media.”
TLDR (too long didn’t read): Patterson points out that liberal Democrats were not a large portion of the country’s population in the 1970s, but had a comparatively large megaphone. This phenomenon can be argued when considering Republican successes utilizing “silent majority politics” in this nascent era of conservative governing.
“Silent majority politics” can be defined as a political strategy that operationalizes social desirability bias within the body politic by emphasizing strategies that assume most people silently take right-wing positions that they would rather not publicly portray. With this in mind, it is also true that most of the population is not wealthy, does not have significant amounts of free time to consider the depths of their political beliefs (plus pages of public information), and is not as educated (or surrounded by intellectual social pressures) as many of the politically active people in dense economic corridors, for example, “BosWash” (Boston to Washington D.C) or “Chi-Pitts” (Chicago to Pittsburgh).
The differing makeup and expectations of the two coalitions may be one of the logical connections that one can make when deciphering why conservatives have historically blamed the “liberal media” for their shortcomings. It has been strikingly clear that the GOP has evolved into exploiting the educational deficits in today’s society by choosing to fearmonger and simplify. This was not always the case but was an unfortunate component of a larger project to maintain a center-right coalition that now included middle-American voters, most but not all White, who also do not benefit from policies meant to enrich and secure the landed elite.
Though too, we live in an age where both sides of the political spectrum accuse the media of improper guardrails and ethics. Therefore, it is important to understand why Fox is being given the spotlight regarding a larger problem of sensationalism that induces a dangerous amount of “mean world syndrome” and indifference in the United States.
Firing Line was the television show hosted by National Review founder, William F. Buckley Jr. This public intellectual was considered to be the preeminent conservative of his time and is still heralded as a scholarly titan by many contemporary right-leaning thinkers and philosophers. But Buckley has his fair share of controversial opinions, especially towards problems facing the LGBTQIA+ community in his time.
Most savagely, he advocated for marking HIV/AIDs patients during the height of the epidemic. This was problematic for many reasons including laundering attitudes from the darkest moment in human history. Buckley would retract the idea and make tacit allusions to it in health crises in the future. It serves as a major black mark on his legacy.
Everyone detected with AIDS should be tatooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.
You have got to be kidding! That's exactly what we suspected all along! You are calling for the return of the Scarlet Letter, but only for homosexuals!
Answer: The Scarlet Letter was designed to stimulate public obloquy. The AIDS tattoo is designed for private protection. And the whole point of this is that we are not talking about a kidding matter. Our society is generally threatened, and in order to fight AIDS, we need the civil equivalent of universal military training.
The solution also reflects a larger homophobic impulse that guides most leaders.
Still, Buckley backtracks on some of his stances that didn’t age well. And despite everything, he was willing to engage in public intellectual activity that exposed his ideas to new and different ones.
One talent Buckley harnessed was his debate skills. They were showcased on his television show Firing Line:
Firing Line is the longest-running public affairs show with a single host in television history and that is another testament to Buckley. He debated a variety of guests. The programming was hosted by a conservative, but a liberal usually asked closing questions. To an extent, it could be trusted to serve the public with an energized and authentic debate between differing ideas regarding urgent community problems.
Buckley’s program aired until the day after Christmas in 1999.
In retrospect, the Buckley version was leaving the airwaves as the industry transformed into a much more fragmented (and monstrous) version of itself, leading to incentive structures that created a grotesque race for ratings even if it means expelling authenticity at all costs.
Robin Williams’ Genie of the Lamp does an impression of William F. Buckley:
That slow dripping sound is not from the faucet but instead from the media reporters dropping story after story about the Fox “News”-Dominion fight.
America is learning about the way Fox producers and hosts treated their audience with contempt despite stating otherwise on the air.
The nation is also seeing how the little amount of journalism being done there is marginalized in an effort to push conspiracy storylines that excite the audience.
These toxic incentive structures at Fox act as a speedway for the beliefs and assertions that instructed people to illegally enter the Capitol building on January 6, 2021.
Unfortunately, this was the natural evolution of Fox.
It began as a Roger Ailes project that reeked of Nixon-era grievances toward the media. Fox’s role is to dress up as pretend journalist, while instead, amplifying the fabrications and/or conservative framing that will eventually be repeated by mainstream media sources. Fox adds the gloss to a distracting shiny object that Republicans will shoot into the sky with the goal of flooding the airwaves and confusing under-served voters while forcing both-siding journalists into an uncritical stasis.
Of course, there are many who believe they are doing real journalism, and some actually are. But for what’s it worth, the death of local news funding and outlets also allows Fox to produce good-feeling local segments in the midst of that vacuum. In the bigger picture, and in a holistic sense, Fox was always a stealthy propaganda outlet meant to elevate Republicans in public life. The Trump effect just made the quiet part out loud.
So, the reason I reflect on the way conservatives have complained about media bias in recent history is to suggest that people aren’t always consciously acting on an affirmed agenda. This is especially true for people who aren’t inside the realm of power brokers as often as the Tucker Carlsons and Laura Ingrahams of the world.
Fox is powered by politicized attitudes toward journalism as a trade. And to be fair, “the media” is intrusive and hyperbolic. For many conservatives, the mainstream media features a regional bias and thus frames rural and less dense areas (and lifestyles) in an unfair manner. For others, the mainstream media is quick to frame conservatives as bigots (or elitists) and thus contributes to recruitment, framing, and demographic issues that the conservative movement has when portions of it attempt to reach minorities. On the other hand, media has become a lot more fragmented (from race and gender to educational and intellectual appeal). In recent years, people can tend to patronize sources that look and think like them.
Lastly, the loudest and most out-front media jobs (and trends) can tend to sway toward younger audiences as there will always be “new media.” Development and innovation naturally thrive on debunking and mocking older institutions or practices. We experience this a lot as a nation where innovative renewal is in the civic and economic DNA.
But on the other hand.
The mainstream media can be highly conservative. It is owned by people with levels of wealth, networking, and influence that favor Republican policymakers. As a business, media companies thrive on certainty and market pressures. For example, the recent changes at CNN suggest a larger trend in media calling for interests to cater to disaffected conservative audiences they may never get back. To that point, cable television is a dying industry altogether with lots of Quixotic moments.
All of these reasons are just a sliver of why it is difficult to critique entire multifaceted industries.
Whether warranted or unwarranted, conservatives criticize the media for having a liberal bias and that implicitly gave Fox an ever-expanding license to push ethical lines with a sense of justice or retribution attached.
Just like with the larger conservative movement, right-leaning academic observations about a dynamic nation undergoing awe-inspiring transformations devolved into tribal grievances and stale, and offensive, sloganeering.
Fox is the epicenter of this degeneration as conservatism becomes a mass-produced, commodified, and thoughtless brand.
Nothing New Under the Sun with Steward Beckham is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.