Media

Bring the Right Wing Into the Mainstream Media

If conservative journalists are kept out of important news organizations, the outlets suffer.

Conservatives who've been at major news outlets? William Kristol and a handful of others....

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

How can the Republican Party keep another Trump candidacy from derailing its future electoral chances? Forget messing around with the primary system. If Republicans want a party that can win, says Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post, the first thing they need to do is to “drain the right-wing media swamp.”

“It is, after all, the right-wing radio, TV and Internet fever swamps that have gotten them into this mess,” she writes, “that have led to massive misinformation, disinformation and cynicism among Republican voters. And draining those fever swamps is the only way to get them out of it.”

I could point out that Rampell is remarkably ungenerous in ignoring the many serious conservative journalists who spoke out early and often against Donald Trump, including an entire “Against Trump” issue of the National Review, the elder statesman of right-wing journalism. (The National Review also printed an editorial unequivocally stating that then-President-Elect Barack Obama was a natural-born U.S. citizen.) None of this had much effect on folks like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, nor does it seem to have appreciably damaged Trump. It’s unclear how the Republican establishment critiquing Fox News and talk radio would be any more effective.

Let me suggest a better strategy. Liberal journalists who want to drain the “fever swamps” should not be pointing the finger at Republican politicians. If they want to get people out of the swamp, they’ll have to make room in the castle.

The media is overwhelmingly liberal. It tends to mirror the left-to-center-left spectrum of the social class from which most journalists are drawn. That affects coverage, which right-wing readers pick up on.

Yes, liberal journalists, I’m saying that the media is biased, and I know you don’t see any evidence of that, because that’s how bias works: You don’t notice it when you share the bias. No, my loonier Republican readers, I am not confirming your belief that journalists deliberately slant their coverage to achieve political ends or even just to provoke you.

Rather, the bias operates in what topics people choose to cover, how strenuously they interrogate facts, how skeptical they are of various claims about the future. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, when we see a fact or a claim that comports with our ideological beliefs, we ask: “Can I believe this?” When we see one that conflicts with it, we ask: “Must I believe this?”

The process mostly operates subconsciously; it is entirely possible to believe that you are being strenuously fair while setting the bar higher for believing “conservative” stories and liking conservative politicians than for “liberal” ones. An unlikeable liberal politician will still be disliked; an irrefutable “conservative” fact will still be accepted. But in the mushy middle, the ground will tilt toward liberalism.

As long as there is liberal hegemony over the media -- and there is -- its coverage will read as liberal to someone with a different worldview. And that will create a demand for conservative media. The talent, the donors, the customers -- all will tend to be folks who are irritated with the status quo, which is to say, hardcore conservatives.

How do you get and keep those folks? By being strongly ideological. You end up with a liberal mainstream media that is large and weakly politically biased, and a much smaller conservative media that is strongly political and focuses almost entirely on stories with a political angle, to keep its readership.

At which point, it became hard for the people working in that media to get a job at a mainstream publication staffed by people who think they’re wrong about everything. Big mainstream outlets hire a fair number of reporters from little left-wing political magazines; when I asked the conservative journalists I know for a similar list from right-wing outlets, the number of people we could come up with could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And we didn’t need all the fingers, either.

This is not a slur on the folks on that side of the industry; a lot of them do great work, and many are my friends. But they justly lament that it will be hard for them to ever work anywhere else, given the employers on their resumes.

Conservative media, in other words, became an ideological ghetto. And ghettos often develop pathologies. What’s remarkable is not that so much of the right-wing media is so vitriolic and prone to conspiracy-mongering; what’s remarkable is that so many of those outlets remain committed to careful reporting and debunking things like the Obama birth certificate nonsense, rather than simply pandering to their readers.

I’m not blaming liberals for the rise of the conservative-media ghetto. “Blame” implies that someone made a decision to make this happen. The thing is, no one made any such decision. There was no secret plan.

There was certainly no liberal media conspiracy, just an iterative process controlled by no one: Being human, liberals naturally prefer the work of folks who agree with them, so those are the folks they tend to hire and promote.  As they became increasingly dominant in the media, the trend became self-reinforcing. Fewer conservatives wanted to enter the castle in the first place, and few were allowed to. Now the castle residents are peering into the swamp and wondering what the heck is going on out there.

But whoever is to blame for the problem, yelling at the residents of the swamp to behave themselves is probably not going to fix it. What would fix the problem is if the folks in the castle made a concerted effort to open the doors and persuade some of the swamp-dwellers to move inside. Not just to move inside, but to help run the place, pushing back on liberal pieties and dubious claims with the same fervor that liberals push back on conservative ones.

It’s not wholly implausible. The opinion operations of mainstream media outlets have long sought out and amplified conservative voices, in op-eds and via regular columnists like George Will at the Washington Post and Ross Douthat (preceded by Bill Kristol) at the New York Times. The news side of media outlets could follow suit.

Unlike the “yell at them until they stop” strategy, this at least has a chance of working.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE
    Comments