Secrets of the Conservative Media Machine

As conservative writer Ross Douthat noted in a post-election interview about the future of conservatism, the Internet also served as a vital organizing platform for progressives. DailyKos, Douthat said, was one of the main sources of "left-wing populist anger against the excesses of the Bush Administration." The DailyKos system allows the public, after registering, to post blog entries, which are either selected by moderators or voted up to the "Recommended" list by other users. Other organizations, from MoveOn to Democracy for America to the message board Democratic Underground, had helped feed the surge in leftist populism through the Internet by providing opportunities for like-minded people to find each other instantly.

In more apocalyptic terms than usual, Media Research Center founder L. Brent Bozell III addressed the Council for National Policy in February of 2009 and warned of an entire media revolution the conservative infrastructure had "missed." He rattled off a series of negative stories about Barack Obama, and claimed that during the course of the 2008 campaign, only two stories had been written about the Tony Rezko scandal, and by the time the national networks ran "a single story on Reverend Wright, 42 states and the District of Columbia had voted." According to a search of transcripts supplied by Nexis, the major networks ABC, CBS and NBC ran at least a combined 57 segments or mentions of Obama's controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright well before November. Countless news stories were written about Barack Obama's relationship with Chicago developer Tony Rezko: the Associated Press (41); Washington Times (13); Los Angeles Times (6); the Chicago Sun-Times (78).

The gross exaggeration notwithstanding, Bozell went on to complain that these stories "weren't told" because the Right had failed to continue to build its communications apparatus. "We have Fox News," Bozell said, "we have mastered talk radio," referring to the fact that nine out of ten talk radio programs are conservative. But on the Internet, Bozell said that Matt Drudge's Drudge Report — "our top guy" —  barely had half the readership of Arianna Huffington's liberal-leaning Huffington Post. He then went on to run down a list of technologies from podcasting to text messaging to YouTube and on to blogging where the Left had gained a strategic advantage. More important, these were areas where the American public increasingly was turning for news and information. With enough investments, Bozell said the Right could compete. If "any of us have made the Internet a top priority and made the information world a top priority," then the American public would see Obama as a "socialist," he concluded.

Bozell closed his remarks to the assembled group of conservative leaders and donors with a futuristic vision crafted perfectly for his audience of former Reaganites. "Do you realize that we have the technology actually to hologram ourselves? This is not Star Wars stuff," Bozell exclaimed to the group. "Did you know we can have a three-dimensional image of [Focus on the Family founder] Jim Dobson standing right next to me talking to you," beamed Bozell. He closed on an optimistic note. "The technology is wondrous that we have out there."

Bozell was a true pioneer in media technology. Although he is best known for using his well-funded think tank to conjure the "liberal media" myth, Bozell also started some of the first conservative news web sites in the nineties. In 1998, Media Research Center founded conservativenews.com, a unique site with its own staff of reporters and editors, funded with a three-year budget of $5.46 million. The site later rebranded as CNSNews.com, which became a popular newswire and reporting outlet for conservatives. In 2008, Bozell began touting a web site his organization created called Eyeblast, which he hoped would be an "alternative" to YouTube. YouTube, according to Bozell, had a pernicious liberal bias. Bozell stipulated that Google, Facebook and even Wikipedia were "run by liberals" and are "openly hostile to conservatives." To combat this, Bozell asked for money — lots of it. (In 2009, Bozell's Media Research Center raised over $10.5 million from over 80 family and corporate foundations, as well as from donations from a number of individual contributors.)

Ruffini, like Bozell, had a financial stake in demanding that the Right stock up its communications arsenal. His EngageDC political consulting firm specializes in new media technology, and a shift in resources to the Internet would be a boon to his business. But they were both correct to argue that the Right had skimped on investments in technology during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, and in doing so, were losing an opportunity to communicate with millions of Americans.

Meanwhile many progressives were taking a laissez-faire approach to developing online tactics. From the 2008 election through the 2010 midterms, there were few, if any, serious innovations or new online breakthroughs for the Left. Some, like political science professor Russell Dalton, argued that the decentralized nature of the Internet allowed liberals to naturally outpace conservatives on the medium. Dalton reasoned that because conservatives philosophically embrace ideological loyalty and are generally more comfortable with authoritarian, top-down communication, they would never really harness the potential of new media. Liberals on the other hand automatically flourish in environments where users are granted freedom to communicate with infinite possibilities. According to this line of thinking, liberals would inherently succeed online, and investments weren't quite necessary. The Right's ability to effectively harness the Internet to achieve tremendous political goals after Obama election, however, demonstrates the weakness of this theory.

As Patrick Ruffini recalled later, "in the wake of the 2008 election, after four years of aloofness from most of our party's leaders about the role of new media and technology in electoral politics, we took a break from the day to day of campaigns and thought seriously about how to help our party move forward." The series of targeted investments and strategic nurturing of new communication vehicles bore fruit quickly. From the rise of the Tea Party to the upset victory of Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Republican operatives outmaneuvered their counterparts on the Left by imitating and improving on the online approach of Obama's 2008 campaign. Moreover, the right-wing noise machine became more sophisticated in its ability to smear Obama and his policies, again making use of the Internet and broadening its reach in the media. The Right not only convinced their ideological funders and the Republican Party to invest in creating the next wave of communication tools, but corporate lobbyists desperate to manipulate public opinion against reform aided in the process.

Attack of the clones

One of the most defining differences between new media and traditional media is the role of the user. With new media, anyone with Internet access has virtually unlimited power to comment on, modify or discuss content with which they come into contact. Traditional media — whether it is broadcast television, print or newspaper — does not allow the same type of instant, unrestricted interactivity, although some television shows are increasingly finding ways to better incorporate their audience's feedback. Fundamentally, traditional media delegates power to the broadcaster, the editor or the radio host. Conservatives seeking to take control of the media spent years under the traditional media paradigm creating their own media outlets while casting doubt or public skepticism on ones outside their grip. The "liberal media" myth was one of the most potent strategies to discredit outlets that reported critically on Republican politicians or did not generally skew toward the right. Many of the early Internet innovations from conservatives relied on simply creating new models of one-way content distribution. But the rise in Internet culture, in which users expect decentralized networks and user-created content and control, has forced the Right to adopt more sophisticated strategies to reach the public.

A central dynamic created by the growth of new media is the proliferation of virtual communities. The Obama campaign in 2008 tried to harness this trend by creating MyBarackObama, an interface for campaign supporters to create online identities, connect with other supporters and publicize their campaign activity. The technology was based on Howard Dean's successful use of the web site Meetup, used in 2004 to network and find fellow supporters. By showcasing their own contributions in the form of pictures, videos and "points" for volunteer service, MyBarackObama did more than simply foster engagement. They created a social premium for volunteers to share their contributions with others. Also, users of MyBarackObama, like the Obama campaign generally, saw themselves as insurgents fighting against entrenched powers, from the Democratic establishment during the primary with Hillary Clinton, to special interests and Washington insiders during the general election. The online community gave Obama campaign operatives a wealth of information about its supporters, and the seemingly walled structure (although it was open to anyone) of such a network provided a sense of togetherness for people inside that community.

Tags: fox news, republican party, right-wing media, talk radio

    • Lee Fang
    • Lee Fang is an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute and a San Francisco-based journalist covering the intersection of lobbying, politics, and political movements. He is a contributing writer for the Nation, and has a book slated to appear in early 2013 on the campaign by conservatives to block President Obama's domest...

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