The Right-Wing Media Non-Conspiracy

Today's (actually, yesterday's) important article about the media comes from The American Prospect's friend Ben Adler, in the Columbia Journalism Review. It's a nuanced exploration of the dynamics within the conservative media and how they affect Republican politicians. Here's an excerpt:

While there are undeniable heavyweights, like Limbaugh, in the conservative media machine, this swift discipline doesn’t happen as the result of a top-down directive. It is more accurate to think of the conservative media ecosystem as a giant circular feedback loop. Conservative talk radio's rise in the late 1980s and early 1990s begat the creation of Fox News in 1996. Conservative blogs in turn arose in the last decade. Bloggers and their commenter communities listen to talk radio and watch Fox News, while Fox and radio hosts read conservative blogs, websites, and newspapers such as The Washington Times and New York Post. Thus conservatives in print, online, and on-air create and promote each other’s memes. The course of the right-wing obsession at a given moment, from the "Ground Zero Mosque" to Herman Cain, is often bottom-up as much as it is top-down.

This is really, really, important to keep in mind—and the same thing applies on the left as well. Partisans tend to view the other side's message machine as a hierarchical, smoothly functioning system of commands given and commands followed. The other day I heard Rush Limbaugh go on for an extended period about how the roots of the contraception kerfuffle could be seen in a debate on ABC a couple of months ago, in which George Stephanopoulos, obviously acting on direct and specific instruction from the White House, unfairly pestered Mitt Romney about whether he agreed with the Supreme Court's decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned the state's ban on contraception and became the basis for the Roe v. Wade decision.

I doubt Limbaugh actually believed what he was saying, but his listeners have no idea about that—they largely accept what he tells them at face value, and so many (if not most) of them think that Jay Carney literally calls up the networks or the New York Times and says, "Here's what we'd like you to say tomorrow" and they do it. I've had the experience many times of appearing on a conservative talk show and having a caller say, "How much is the Democratic party paying you to tell these lies?" People really think that's the way it works.

But it doesn't. The process by which arguments and ideas get disseminated is much more organic. I'd argue that the right lines up around consistent language, arguments, and priorities much more quickly and completely than the left does, but even there it's not because Karl Rove sent everyone an email with their daily instructions. The biggest difference is that the right's media figures are infinitely more powerful. As Adler explains, if a Republican candidate makes a momentary deviation to the left and Rush Limbaugh decides to go after him for it, you can bet that he'll reverse course right quick. But Democrat politicians don't fear the progressive radio host with the largest audience—in fact, many of them probably don't even know who that is (he's Thom Hartmann, in case you're curious, and we just published a profile of him that I did).

The power that Limbaugh holds comes not only from the size of his audience but from his place in the conservative network. Once he says something, pretty much every important conservative knows about it immediately. But even if he's at the top of the conservative heap, that doesn't mean he issues orders. He doesn't have to—the system is distributed and self-reinforcing.

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