The growing conservative media infrastructure

by | Jul 28, 2017 | Editor's Blog, Media | 9 comments

Back in the 1980s, right-wing radio, led by Rush Limbaugh, drove much of the political debate in the country. Inspired by the Reagan Revolution, AM stations across the country started running conservative commentators who routinely bashed liberals and their policies. Progressives tried to start their own radio network with Air America in 2004. The network launched the careers of Rachel Maddow and positioned Al Franken to run for the US Senate, but it was off the air by 2010.

While conservative talk radio continued to flourish on stations across the country, progressives wouldn’t support a network that reflected and promoted their views. A friend of mine speculated that while the right had angry talk radio, the left had NPR. Public radio might not push an overt political agenda but it reflected liberals’ less confrontational view of American society. Shows like This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion appealed to them more than diatribes about the constant threats to America, especially from its own citizens.

A decade or so after the rise of Limbaugh and company, Republican political operative Roger Ailes started Fox News with a goal of skewing news with a conservative bent. The network essentially turned the right-wing talk radio format into a 24-hours cable news channel. The network came to dominate cable news and it took almost five years before MSNBC challenged the space by hiring a line-up of progressive commentators, starting with the Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Still, Fox News stayed dominant until Ailes left, O’Reilly was booted and Fox became little more than a cheering section for the Trump administration this year. Last week, MSNBC, led by the Rachel Maddow Show, had more viewers on prime time than Fox for the first time in history. One week, though, is a long way from a trend. Like my friend speculated about the public radio audience, liberals have traditionally preferred the more nuanced approach of Newshour and Washington Week on PBS to the vitriol and cynicism of Fox, though clearly that’s changing with the rise of MSNBC.

While more politically informed Democrats were relying on PBS and NPR for their news and information, Republicans were building a propaganda network that reached and informed a base of angry Americans who were getting left behind economically, socially and culturally. GOP electoral messages were reflected in commentary on talk radio and Fox News. Their policy agenda was amplified and promoted by Fox and Friends, Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson.

Democrats and progressives have not successfully built a communications apparatus in traditional media that operates outside the realm electoral politics. They’ve focused instead on a political infrastructure to match organizations like the ones the Koch Brothers have built. The progressive ProgressNow networks counter the grassroots organizing of Koch-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity. These organizations tap into their respective bases and periodically try to influence a news cycle, but they don’t actually produce and filter news the way the conservative talk radio and television networks do.

At the state level, Republicans are building similar networks. North Carolina may be ground zero for an experiment in amplifying news with a conservative tilt. Conservatives have long had the Carolina Journal, the newsletter of the John Locke Foundation that boasts a statewide distribution of 55,000. Now, they’re starting to expand their outreach through new publications and channels to present a conservative take on current events and public affairs.

During the McCrory administration, conservative funders began publishing North State Journal to give the beleaguered Governor McCrory a little good press. McCrory went down in the 2016 election but the North State Journal is still rolling. The paper provides straight news with a slightly conservative tilt and primarily conservative commentary on the opinion page. It’s positioning itself as an alternative to a News & Observer that Republicans think has become a mouthpiece for Democrats. And at least on social media, its profile is rising.

Conservative commentators and journalists are also increasing their presence on public radio and television. Republican political strategist Marc Rotterman now has a weekly show of panelists on UNC-TV. While guests of all political persuasions make up the panels, they’re dominated by conservative law makers, operatives, commentators and journalists.

Over at The State of Things on UNC Public Radio, it seems an increasing number of lunchtime guests come from places like the John Locke Foundation. While the changes are subtle, they reflect the ideological bent of the legislature that helps fund public television and radio. Likewise, on PBS, the late Gwen Ifill, the celebrated journalist and African-American host of Washington Week, was succeeded on the show by Washington Post reporter Robert Costa. While Costa is a solid reporter who shows no signs of bias, he started his career at the conservative publications The Wall Street Journal and National Review, giving Republicans in Congress confidence that a publicly funded show won’t adopt a liberal bias.

In new media, the trends are less clear, especially at the national level. Both the left and right are figuring out how to reach audiences that primarily get their news online. Breitbart, under Steve Bannon, converted the alt-right from a fringe movement into the populist wing of the Republican Party. Conservative journals like the National Review, Commentary Magazine and the Weekly Standard have turned writers like Jonah Goldberg into social media stars. On the other side, and Talking Points Memo provide a take on the news from the center-left with growing readership and influence. Older publications like The Atlantic and The New Yorker also have adapted well and offer a more progressive view of the world. The online space is the new frontier and both sides are working to figure out an environment that’s constantly evolving.

Progressives and conservatives have differing understandings of how to influence the public. Progressives have built some media infrastructure like the Center for American Progress nationally and Policy Watch in North Carolina, but both are targeted primarily to people who already agree with them and the news media. While both are necessary, the rest of the progressive money seems to focus more on electoral victories.

In contrast, conservatives are working to influence the way people see the world, not just politics. They’re establishing an alternative to a mainstream media that they believe covers news from a progressive perspective. They’re using private and nonprofit money to start new channels of communication and using political power to influence programming on public radio and television. They’re not looking just to shape peoples views on politics; they want to influence people’s perceptions of the world we live in.


  1. Scott

    Building a media industrial complex that seeks to alter one’s perception of reality makes perfect sense…how else can Republicans pee on the boots on their working class supporters and get away with saying it’s raining?

  2. pete MacDowell

    This is an important and helpful piece. I like your statement:”…conservatives are working to influence the way people see the world, not just politics.” I wonder if it goes further than that. I get the image that they are after changing people’s character – deep mining hatred, resentment, victimhood, objectification and racism toward the other as ways of powering their pretty vile message. Trump seems the perfect embodiment of the unity of vile character and vile policies. I don’t think our usual modern conceptualization is conducive to seeing that connection and unity. The apparent rise in hate crimes and the “permission theory” seems it may be evidence of that. I think a lot of Germans were really nice people before WW2. I think a lot fewer indoctrinated Nazi’s were.

  3. G. Howell

    And then there’s the religious TV programs such as Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, I don’t know how fervently other religious TV promotes Trump and the GOP, but I catch some of the 700 Club every so often, and it’s extremely political. I wonder if it is considered a tax exempt religious non-profit. It shouldn’t be.

  4. Beth

    And then there’s the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s end-run takeover of established (trusted) local affiliates. Don’t know if they’re in NC yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

    • Max

      They are in the Asheville market, G’boro, Winston-Salem & High Point market, and the RDU market, according to the Sinclair website. They say they own 173 stations with 528 channels in 81 markets.

  5. Norma Munn

    Interesting analysis. I think one sad outcome of this increasing right/left distribution of news is a growing lack of interest in anything identified as right for those on the left or if one is left, for views on the right. (Personally, I dislike those categories, but in this context they seem necessary.). I wish all commentary could become less personalized. It is difficult to listen to or read a viewpoint that contains a lot of vitriol. I doubt I am alone in this reaction.

    • Jay ligon

      People are more complex than the categories of left and right, and most Americans are somewhere in the center.

      The radical right has spent lavishly creating legitimacy for extreme policy positions to move the center rightward.

      For example, The Koch brothers and their cabal of right wingers (not the only players in the arena) have invested billions creating “think tanks” which generate policy positions they endorse. The “scholars” from the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute, to name a couple of the hundreds of think tanks the Kochs fund, find flaws with environmental scientists, economists, education and most pillars of American society using specious methods and dishonest reporting.

      As one observer said: “They are very good at getting on television.” The right has invested heavily in changing the hearts and minds of Americans. When David Koch ran for vice president in 1980 as a Libertarian, his agenda was rejected by nearly everyone in the country. That loss marked the beginning of the long march by the right to alter American politics by infiltrating the media, universities and public life – the infamous Kochtopus.

      Their long-term goal? Dismantle the government and strip away all agencies of government going back to 1900. They are especially interested in removing any controls on air and water pollution because their company is one of the top polluters.

      The right is very specific about what it wants people to think, how they want people to vote and how they want the American political economy to operate. They know what they want, and they know most Americans do not want it.

      Purchasing media to produce propaganda has been a winner for them.

      The left supports individual freedoms and personal choice. It can sound rather squishy. The left wants to be protected from the excesses of monopolistic tendencies of a free economy,

      The right has broadly attempted to reshape the world through a fictitious narrative about what liberals are and what conservatism is. When the narrative runs into facts, the right attempts to get rid of the facts.

      • Morris

        After doing a fair amount of research over the last several years, I find the left’s on-going fascination with the Koch’s somewhat curious. I notice you mention them prominently here.
        While the Koch’s give exclusively to conservative (ie Libertarian) political causes, their actual contributions are quite modest by large donor standards.
        For the 2016 cycle, only one brother (Charles) showed up in the top 100 contributors (source: Open Secrets) at #53 with contributions totaling a tad over $4 million. While a big number to most of us, to put that in perspective the top contributor again this cycle was Tom Steyer at $91 million – all to Democrat and liberal campaigns and causes. In fact there were 31 contributors to Republican and conservative political causes and campaigns who gave more than Charles Koch. Yet no one even mentions them, and few have ever heard of any of them. Perhaps the Koch’s who still own actual businesses with over 100,000 employees stand out for this reason.
        Also interesting if you add up the total contributions to each side from the top 100, the amounts are nearly identical with almost exactly $440 million going to each side.
        I have to say I find 2 of your statements quite contrary to reality:
        “The right is very specific about what it wants people to think…” As someone who has been very socially liberal for decades, today you could say that about either right or left and actually more that seems to be what the left is currently standing for – you are only allowed to think one way (See BLM et. al.).
        And, “The left supports individual freedoms and personal choice…” Again that is a head-shaker. That is pretty much the definition of Libertarianism which you tied firmly to the right in your comments. In fact that statement is what defines most of us Libertarians.

        • Jay Ligon

          You got some bad intel.

          The Koch Brothers are a political juggernaut. Before the 2016 cycle, they had accumulated a war chest of nearly $1 billion. Their political fund exceeded the Democratic and Republican parties.

          While they do not always tell the truth about what they are doing, they told the media in 2016 that they were not happy with Trump. However, you need only to look at the environmental wrecking policy of the White House to realize that they have found a way to forgive him. The hand of the Kochs is all over the Paris Accord and the dismantling of the agencies attempting to protect the environment.

          Open Secrets is not a reliable measure of all contributions to candidates, only those contributions which must be reported. Under “Citizens United,” there are vast pools of dark money that flow into the political system. The Koch brothers are not alone. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is another massive fund of right wing money. But the Kochs have been at it for decades, and the thousands of new dark money conduits are less experienced.

          Dark money, by definition, is hard to trace, and the right opposes campaign finance reform because they believe that the current corrupt system gives Republicans an advantage in fund raising, because it does. Of the top 10 PACs, only two were identified with Democrats. Republicans have tried to outlaw those two.

          My point, though, is not the 2016 race. The money going into right wing causes is not exclusively money donated to particular candidates, although they spend massively on races in all states. After 2010, the Kochs were able to flip 900 seats in state house and senate races. They fundamentally transformed the country. The Koch brothers even invested in Raleigh City Council and Wake County School Board races. Why?

          They are pervasive, massive and continuous.

          The Kochs fund and promote an ideology not just candidates, and they are focused on the long game. They fund university chairs in Economics Departments on the condition that their personal economic philosophy is taught. They have changed the way economics is taught for many college students.

          George Mason University has been awash in Koch brothers cash, and the university has responded by teaching the right wing economic agenda. At first, colleges resisted the overtures by the Kochs by turning down the money, but, over time, other colleges and universities have begun taking money from the brothers and accepting the condition that they teach a form of economics the Kochs endorse.

          Those donations are tax-deductible, though political, as education donations. In this state, the Pope Foundation does the same thing. They fund purportedly educational ventures in exchange for tax deductions, but the dollars go to propagate their economic interests and their personal philosophy. The Popes are always in the front row at the Koch’s annual billionaire fests in which the reshaping of America is planned.

          The Kochs fund think tanks and scholars who promote their world view. These are political ventures, but they are not reported as contributions to the FEC, and they are treated as tax-deductible charitable contributions. The Kochs have used their economic might to change the body of published work on the subject matter they like. They have been patient because they do not focus on a single race; they have created a separate reality. And it has paid off. You will find spokespeople from their think tanks on television almost every day. These spokespeople are the Hydra at the head of the Kochtopus.

          The Kochs fund 300 different think tanks, and they are hands-on managers of these investments. You cannot disagree with the Koch brothers and keep your job at CATO.

          The right is extremely narrow in its focus on what it wants from the United States goverment: low or no taxes and the smallest government possible. It is what Republicans support now, what they supported decades ago and what they will advocate into the future.

          The left and the middle are more complicated. The left comes to the government looking to satisfy a wide range of different demands from different constituencies. The non-billionaires are hoping for quality education, a health care system which works for everyone, pay equity, workers’ rights, minority rights, etc. Each of these interests has a following, but these interest groups are not unified in the same sense that rich people nearly all agree that they don’t want to pay more taxes.

          Incidentally, Libertarians are a hybrid. They are conservative in that they want little or no government intrusion into our lives, but they are like liberals in that they support civil liberties and personal freedom.

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