Stuck in the '90s: Conservative Media Still Defines Itself Against the MSM

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Right-wing outlets often fail to inform their audiences or set an agenda because they're too busy trying to counterbalance liberal coverage.

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Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum acknowledges that "liberals use race as a cudgel more often and more crudely than we should," but goes on to observe that "the problem conservatives have is that this is pretty much the sum total of their take on racial issues: that liberals bring it up too often. When they write about race there's usually a pro-forma 'to be sure' somewhere, but I can't remember the last time I saw a conservative take seriously -- either generally or in a specific case -- the idea that racism against ethnic minorities is still a genuine and important issue in America." He concludes, "If you inhaled nothing but conservative media, you'd think that African-Americans are endlessly pampered; that racial animosity is simply an invention of the 'victim industry' these days; and that the white working class is the real object of oppression."

Is his characterization correct? After years of closely following conservative media it seems true to me. I can't recall a single instance of a conservative publication taking on anti-black, anti-Hispanic, or anti-Muslim racism simply because it seemed like an important issue to tackle. I haven't read or seen everything, of course, and I'm happy to post examples I've missed as an update if anyone can point them out. Presuming I haven't missed much, should we conclude that the right is blind to or ambivalent about those kinds of racism? I actually don't think so. Some conservatives feel that way, of course, but the phenomenon has a different primary cause. Coverage has less to do with racial attitudes than with how conservative media conceives itself.

Most right-leaning media outlets, whether on the radio, newsstands, or the Internet, got their start in a media landscape dominated by the center left. Everyone from William F. Buckley to Rush Limbaugh to Roger Ailes to Andrew Breitbart to Tucker Carlson has self-consciously set out to counterbalance the mainstream media by supplying facts, arguments, and insights absent from its outlets. The impulse was once understandable. When Buckley launched National Review, it made little sense for him to spend scarce time and resources duplicating content that could be found in the pages of The New York Times or on the nightly news.

But it's an impulse that is more and more counterproductive every year, because it no longer makes sense to imagine an audience that is captive to liberalism in the newspaper and on the nightly news -- and that needs its weekly copy of National Review just to give it the rest of the story.

Some people still just read The New York Times in the morning and watch the CBS Evening News after dinner. But other media consumers listen to a bit of sports radio in the morning, tune into Rush Limbaugh for 45 minutes at lunch, check in on The Drudge Report at work, watch Fox News on the treadmill at the gym, and scroll through The Corner at National Review Online before bed. Or to read the New York Post in the morning, scroll through Power Line Blog during the day, and comment at Ricochet at night. That's certainly the kind of information consumer that conservative media is often reaching. They would better inform the audience if more of their sites were ambitiously trying to convey the state of the world, nuances and all, rather than gauging what "the mainstream media" is covering so that its own content can be crafted to counterbalance it. Instead they're producing content derivative of outlets that lots of people ignore.

Do conservatives recall their critique of the liberal media? How can the audience stay informed if all their information has an ideological filter? Of course they develop prejudices about the world that bear less and less resemblance to reality! Alas, the right built a mirror image version of the mainstream media as they perceived it. The indefensibility of that approach is apparent from the Fox News slogan, "Fair and Balanced," for that's the stated ideal. They'd never tag the network, "Biased for counterbalance," even though that's closer to the truth. That would imply a need to seek outside information. This warped emphasis is probably exacerbated by the fact that everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Jonah Goldberg to Bill O'Reilly is an information junkie who spends all day consuming content from the dread MSM, if only to mock its worst fare. 

The right-leaning media's tendency to define itself against the MSM of its imagination skews its content in all sorts of ways. Understanding that doesn't make the constant racial demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh any more palatable. But it puts the mix of coverage seen at National Review or The Daily Caller in a better light. Some of the writers there have a more sophisticated understanding of race in America than you'd think from the mix of facts and analysis they choose to publish. It's just that they're filtering everything through a highly distorting mental process, whereby what they find relevant and worthy of emphasis is shaped by the strangest things. It isn't an exaggeration to say that conservative media professionals are the people in America who pay the most attention to what Al Sharpton, Janeane Garofalo, and the New Black Panthers say.

What an epic fail.

The right built its sites partly because they thought the old model advantaged liberalism. But rather than actually doing the hard work of building their own New York Times or Newsweek -- rather than declaring with a straight face, "here's all the news that's fit to print" (an exaggeration that nevertheless infuses the final product with ambition and breadth, if only so that the folks who produce it can at least defend their lofty self-characterization) -- the right built reactionary outlets with lower professional standards and narrow appeal to an ideologically friendly audience.

The costs are becoming more apparent every year. The conservative media is at its most effective when attacking liberals. But it is utterly inadequate in defining a positive agenda because its breadth and ambition is so narrow. Thwarting liberals using whatever method is most convenient at the moment may be cathartic, but it produces debacles like an embrace of the individual mandate that morphs into an insistence that the individual mandate is creeping tyranny.

It means that although conservatives are adept at showing umbrage at race-baiting, the movement is utterly unable to grapple with the complexity of race in America, and embarrassingly bad at winning over even blacks and Hispanics attracted to some of its insights. Elsewhere in the domestic policy sphere, it so seldom focuses on solving the most urgent problems America faces that the conservative rank and file has no idea what agenda is formulated on its behalf. It is meanwhile content getting ACORN defunded, preserving deficit funded tax cuts, and warding off imaginary plots to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Is it any wonder social and fiscal liberals make advances every year? 

The days of liberal control of mass media is over. They have been over for a long time. There is less cause for complaints about bias than at anytime ever, because there are no gatekeepers anymore to prevent dissenting truths from being aired. Yet in this landscape, conservatives are complaining more about bias, succeeding less at developing a positive agenda, and defining themselves in terms of their ideological opponents so much that the Breitbart family of sites are named for the "big" bogeymen they exist to criticize, and Matthew Continetti is now editing a site that runs headlines like "Registered Dem Killed Trayvon." 


There are a lot of ways these outlets differ from the magazine Buckley launched or from City Journal's bid to transform New York. Perhaps the biggest difference is their lack of ambition. 
The way that conservatives look at Media Matters? That is the way that everyone else looks at depressingly large swaths of the right-leaning media.  
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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