I Used To Think It Was Funny: Before the Right Wing Media Supplanted Moderate-Conservativism, Created an Ideological Monopoly, and Became a De-facto Propaganda Arm for the Extreme Right’s Agenda

I’ll admit, I used to think it was funny. Back in the beginning — when a red-faced, bulging-veined Rush Limbaugh was still relatively new to the nation’s airwaves and didn’t yet have a huge following. His show seemed so foreign and outrageous, like some dark, twisted parody of Archie Bunker. Not many took him seriously back then, including most conservatives I knew. Conservatism was a different animal in the late 1980’s — a much more deliberate and thoughtful one. Intellectuals still held a place of importance in the Republican party. William F. Buckley, Jr. was a conservative icon. George Will did battle each week with Sam Donaldson on This Week With David Brinkley, more than holding his own. A pair of Bobs led the GOP in the house and senate — Michel, known for civility and bi-partisanship, and Dole, tough but relatively moderate, and more than capable of compromise. Civil discourse and meaningful debate were still alive and well in the country, as was bipartisanship. Limbaugh’s brand of overt incivility and bombast was controversial and out of place. His show had “flash in the pan” written all over it.

But it was anything but a flash in the pan. In a few short years, Limbaugh would become a dominant force in political media, even becoming a national celebrity in the wake of two best selling books and an ever-growing legion of fans. Limbaugh’s brand of political outrage found an audience — or more accurately, forged one. Limbaugh’s gift, as it turned out, was an ability to incite anger, outrage, and prejudice in people who weren’t overtly angry, outraged, or prejudiced to begin with. Limbaugh made people that way through sheer demagoguery — by directly appealing to people’s darkest fears and prejudices and demonizing all opposition.

As Limbaugh’s popularity grew, political discourse in this country began to take on the flavor of his show. It became more combative, more heated, less grounded in fact and policy and more rooted in ideology and emotion. More than once, when discussing politics with conservatives in the ’90’s, I wondered if I might get punched in the face — not because I had said or done anything rude or offensive, but merely for questioning the other’s assumptions and advocating a liberal viewpoint. At some point, I began to avoid political discussions altogether. It wasn’t fun anymore, or worth it.

Politics likewise followed suit. As Limbaugh was reaching the height of popularity, Newt Gingrich was revolutionizing modern attack dog politics. Gingrich’s approach to political warfare was much like Limbaugh’s approach to political discourse: attack everything, concede nothing, and blame and dehumanize the enemy at every turn. Gingrich, following Limbaugh’s lead, understood that effective messaging wasn’t about winning intellectual debates; rather, it was about rallying people to your side. And the best way to do that was to make them angry while giving them an enemy to hate.

By the late ’90’s, the Limbaughs and Gingriches of the world had largely convinced conservatives that mainstream media outlets had a liberal bias and could no longer be trusted. In stepped Fox News, with its farcical claims of being “fair and balanced,” and began developing programming in the Limbaugh/Gingrich model. Conservatives flocked in droves. Today, Fox is the top rated news network in America, and has been, continuously, for over fifteen consecutive years. It is also, astoundingly, the “most trusted” news network by its viewers, by a considerable margin. Today, it arguably serves as a de facto propaganda arm for the president and his administration, devoting countless hours a day to defending and mitigating Trump’s policies, failures, blunders, offenses, and possible crimes at every turn. The influence it wields on public opinion and, in turn, American political outcomes, is immense.

A big reason Fox is so powerful is that it essentially rose without competition. It exists as something of a monopoly with regard to mainstream conservative news and opinion. As such, it can steer conservative public opinion in any direction it chooses. And while those directions have morphed over time, they have from the beginning leaned heavily toward extreme right wing positions and extreme right-wing factions within the Republican party — from hawkish neoconservatives, to indignant theocons, to outraged “constitutionalists” and purported “libertarians,” to angry populists, majoritarians, and paleoconservatives. Fox has rarely embraced moderate conservativism or the moderate wing of the GOP. As such, moderate conservatism has not had an equal media platform on which to develop and advance its ideas, and has largely been supplanted. What was once the extreme right has become the mainstream. What was once the unthinkable (Breitbart, etc.) has become the fringe. The contrast between current GOP majority leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the kindlier Bobs of yesteryear — Michel and Dole — could hardly be starker, to say nothing of the contrast between Donald Trump and George H. W. Bush.

The unrivaled emergence of Fox News proved to be a pivotal moment in America — not only in media, but in American politics. A decade after Fox premiered, the moderate wing of the Republican party would find itself on life support. Less than a decade after that, it would be virtually extinct. And in its wake rose what we have now: a hapless, narcissistic buffoon as a president — a cartoon character who, a mere decade or two earlier, would have been laughed off the stage by the very people who voted him into office. Moreover, a Congress packed with conservative ideologues so drunk with power that it has been unwilling to look meaningfully into the president’s conflicts of interest, Constitutional abuses, and near-certain corruption. A president and a Congress, both, that rode to power on the fears and prejudices that had been kindled and stoked by the right wing media for the past thirty years.

And I can’t help but wonder if things might have been different — if, say, some credible news organization at the time recognized the market demand for more conservative news programming, and responded to it by offering a meaningful alternative to Fox. An alternative that didn’t try to out-outrage Fox, but instead earned a reputation as an objectively credible news organization adhering to principles of journalistic integrity, featuring guests and pundits that didn’t cater to people’s worst fears and prejudices, but advanced legitimate conservative viewpoints grounded in and supported by science, data, and logic. Pundits who were willing to discuss climate change as a real phenomenon, and to engage in meaningful discourse about healthcare reform, gun control, immigration, and inequality without resort to false and misleading stories, angry, absolutist denials, and ad hominem attacks against all things “liberal.” Might a significant percentage of educated and reasonable-minded conservatives have tuned in? Might such have tempered and served as a check on Fox’s wild accusations and extreme rhetoric? Might it have at least positioned Fox differently — as what we now refer to as the “alternative right,” rather than as the mainstream conservative voice?

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that perhaps the biggest problem this nation faces is the seemingly impenetrable information and opinion divide that exists as the result of the rise of an extremist right wing media over the past thirty years. And I recognize that, at this point, it’s going to be an extremely difficult fix. But a key step, I think, might be to give moderate conservatism a viable media voice and presence, which, in fairness to moderate conservatives, it may not have truly had since the 1960’s. It’s an idea, anyway, and one that I’ve been carrying around long enough to feel the need to unload. It’s also one I’d love to see spark a little conversation. So, what do you think?

As always, thanks for reading, and my best to all.

— T

8 thoughts on “I Used To Think It Was Funny: Before the Right Wing Media Supplanted Moderate-Conservativism, Created an Ideological Monopoly, and Became a De-facto Propaganda Arm for the Extreme Right’s Agenda”

  1. Tim — By intent, I haven’t owned a television for over 37 years so I can’t speak to that aspect of this post, but a voracious reader (the internet and otherwise), I do have a clue. Hence, I very much appreciate your perspective.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. I once read a book entitled “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” by Jerry Mander. I believe it was published in 1978. I wonder if this might have influenced your decision to eliminate t.v. from your life? I recall it being an excellent book, and one that made me consider giving it up as well. As it stands, I don’t watch a lot, but have never fully yanked the plug, other than for a few prolonged stretches here and there. ‘Appreciate your comment :). – T

  2. Tim, old Buster and I believe you to be as “right on” as is possible! With your permission, we’ll re-blog this gem of yours.
    PS: I’ve had periods with “no tv” also, probably totaling about 30 years in all, and felt immeasurably more content during those periods.

    1. Thanks, Walt – ‘appreciate the kind words. Feel free to re-blog as you see fit. I know exactly what you mean about feeling more content the further away we get from the boob tube — and possibly, the media in general. I’ve given thought to unplugging altogether and taking a big step back from everything that’s going on, for my own mental and spiritual well-being. Then I think I have a responsibility to stay informed and to speak out, even if it is rather demoralizing sometimes. I suppose a lot of us on the “left” experience this inner struggle — particularly in these dark days. It’s good to know there are a few good souls out there to at least commiserate with.

      1. Thanks, Tim, I will at least make your astute observations available to Buster’s unfortunately meager audience. As old Winney once urged his Brits, we sure need to “stay calm, and carry on,” keeping in mind that nothing lasts forever! The old dog will also post a little observation on the “real dump” later today, and is hoping his old pappy will get on with the “research.” Cheers!

  3. Well thought out and reasoned. In the beginning I thought Limbaugh made a certain sense. Then he went off the deep end and I changed the dial. I vaguely remember some potty-mouth DJ about the same time — Jerry Springer, I think. I never listened to him, but a man in my cubical cluster kept him on all the time, as much to annoy our priggish manager as anything, I think. Fortunately he was far enough away I only heard it when I went to the printer.

    So, you have a good plan: a new station or media stream. How does the rubber hit the road?

    1. Sharon, thanks very much for reading and weighing in :). I think often about how radically the tenor and substance of political discourse has changed throughout the years — really, the thirty or so years since I entered adulthood. I turn on some of this stuff from time to time and literally cannot believe what I am seeing, let alone that much of it now represents mainstream views. I can see how we got here, but what to do about it now is a far more difficult question. I’m not sure I have a good answer.

      One thing that comes to mind is making more space for intelligent, moderate conservative voices on public media outlets like NPR, PBS, and the like. While those of us on the left see them as largely centrist, virtually nobody on the right does, which is why they largely tune out and are always trying to kill their funding. Existing MSM content providers could also ease into that market. I believe (in hindsight) it was a mistake for NBC, CBS, NBC, and CNN to scoff at Fox News in the beginning. Instead, their reaction to cries of “liberal bias” was simply to deny any bias whatsoever and the stay the course. Creating a separate channel dedicated to moderate conservative viewpoints might have made a huge difference. It would be hard to do now, but perhaps it’s still possible if there is any will to do so. Alternatively, a third party with serious cash could challenge Fox News for reasonable conservative viewers. As it stands, nobody on the right is challenging Koch Brothers narratives or strategies, and they are essentially winning, unopposed. Where is the network of billionaires that don’t buy into all that stuff? The Warren Buffets and Bill Gateses of the world? I know they’re doing good work elsewhere, but they’re letting a few fanatics more or less have their way with our country and our democracy. Last, perhaps some innovative, non-polarizing programming could be developed that is sufficiently enticing to pull viewers in from both sides of the fence and help them find and explore common ground. Like the recent Heineken ad, where people with radically different views are brought together over a beer. We just don’t see that kind of stuff on television, which seems more intent on opposition and outrage. Anyway, those are a few very broad and possible impractical thoughts . . . but maybe it’s a start?

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