Understanding The Implications, Ctd

by Conor Friedersdorf

Unlike Kevin Drum, I think I understand why Rich Lowry is surprised that so many Republicans in this Fox News panel think Barack Obama is a Muslim – it isn't that he's unaware of the efforts in conservative media to imply otherwise; it's just that he is esconced in a subculture of conservatives who don't take that stuff seriously, and he falsely imagines that the rank-and-file on the right are all similarly disposed, even though the information they'd need to make that judgment is constantly withheld from them.

It's easy to understand how Lowry might make that mistake. Think of National Review's contributors. I don't really know who he interacts with day to day, but let's say that in the course of a week he converses in person or electronically with Kevin D. Williamson, Daniel Foster, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jonah Goldberg, Mark Krikorian, John Derbyshire, and John O'Sullivan. Or if you like, check out the guest speakers on the last National Review cruise. These are almost all media savvy people. Without imputing a particular view to any one of them in particular, a healthy percentage would privately advise a young protege that populist right-wing media figures aren't to be taken seriously as intellects or information sources – they're entertainers who are useful in firing up the base, and after all, this is politics. I think it's safe to surmise that Lowry would be deeply embarassed, even among fellow conservatives with whom he interacts socially, if they thought he  believed that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim.

What I'd like to persuade Lowry is that the Fox panel that surprised him is the inevitable consequence of the conservative movement's relationship with populist entertainers. In order to avoid criticizing ideological allies, or upsetting readers, or alienating powerful figures, magazines like National Review and The Weekly Standard avoid leveling with their audience. The staff's true opinion of cable news and talk radio personalities is seldom expressed – there are notable exceptions – save those few staff members who act as their sycophants, who are permitted to freely and regularly voice their opinions.

Everyone who has spent any time among conservative movement staffers in Washington DC or New York City knows what I'm saying is true: that many of them privately express low opinions of various right-leaning entertainers that they'd never state publicly. This non-aggression pact has its benefits for the movement. But one of the costs is how it skewers the information available to rank-and-file conservatives, people whose jobs don't involve media or politics, and who accrue less insider savvy as a result. Sure, some of these people approach cable news and talk radio with the same attitude as insiders. But as I've said on many occasions, a lot of them aren't in on the joke. If only as a show of loyalty to their most trusting conservative readers, I think movement magazines should let them in on the joke! That's essentially what Lowry is doing here, when he backs up Bill Kristol in his feud with Glenn Beck. But Lowry and I both know that Beck's absurdities are no more egregious than lots of other stuff that gets a pass at National Review and The Weekly Standard – or if you prefer, that Beck's inanities have been going on for years now, and this stand is quite tardy at best.

Unlike Kristol, whose intellectual honesty is suspect for all sorts of reasons, Lowry seems to me like a well-intentioned person whose own journalistic output is miles better than the worst of what's published at NRO. He desserves credit for bringing a lot of exceptional, heterodox writers there, something that wasn't ever required of him. But I have a fundamental disagreement with what I take to be his attitude toward the conservative movement. To me, the right is suffering because too many  voices who know better are complicit in the fiction that populist right-wing entertainers are trustworthy. And the failure to criticize these people – to hold them to any decent standard – means they behave more badly than they might in an alternative conservative movement where more honorable communicators held them to account.

In August, Pew published a survey finding that "a substantial and growing number of Americans say that Barack Obama is a Muslim, while the proportion saying he is a Christian has declined," and that "the view that Obama is a Muslim is more widespread among his political opponents than among his backers. Roughly a third of conservative Republicans (34%) say Obama is a Muslim." It's that third that isn't in on the joke. In fact, "when asked how they learned about Obama’s religion in an open-ended question, 60% of those who say Obama is a Muslim cite the media." Isn't that compelling evidence of what I've been saying – that parts of the conservative media are misleading their audience about the truth?