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

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. 

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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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