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, Vox.com 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.