The Right-Wing Media Machine Has Arrived on the Internet
In past years when I talked to American progressives about the growing media imbalance – as the Right gained dominance in books, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and cable TV – a typical response was, “well, the Left is stronger on the Internet.” But now even that advantage is disappearing, as should have been expected.
After all, the Right built its powerful media advantage by investing billions and billions of dollars over three-plus decades, first in magazines and various print outlets; later in national talk-radio syndicates; then in making Fox News the leading cable news network. So, it didn’t take lots of smarts to figure out the Right would use its money to conquer the Internet, too.
And that is what is happening. Backed by deep-pocket conservatives, the Right has poured large sums of money into its Internet assets, integrating them with other media properties, helping star right-wing bloggers get rich, and still maintaining the veneer of “populism” – even making sure some sites look amateurish – to stay attractive to rank-and-file Americans.
As the Washington Post’s Jerry Markon noted in a Feb. 1 article, the Right is now fully “wired” to disseminate a potent political message via the Internet, as demonstrated by the Tea Party assaults on President Barack Obama in his first year and by the Internet-savvy upset win by Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race.
What Markon discovered in his reporting was an intricate web of right-wing operatives and institutions that now rely heavily on the Web to network within the Right’s expansive array of think tanks, activist groups and media outlets.
Some right-wing bloggers have found their endeavors richly rewarded as right-wing institutes create “fellowships” for bloggers; other bloggers have become influential TV personalities, the likes of Michelle Malkin; and still others, like RedState’s Erick Erickson, wield outsized political influence because their commentaries resonate through the Right’s echo chamber.
Markon traced how one Erickson blog ricocheted from the Internet site RedState to the Web site of its corporate sibling, Human Events, then to the Web site of the American Spectator, run by publisher Alfred S. Regnery who sits on the board of the publishing house that owns RedState and Human Events.
From there, Erickson’s blog post spread to radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and then into the Right’s vast media empire.
“The ability of a single e-mail to shape a message illustrates the power of the conservative network -- loosely affiliated blogs, radio hosts, ‘tea-party’ organizers and D.C. institutions that are binding together to fuel opposition to President Obama,” Markon wrote.
The Right on the Rise
The Washington Post writer also noted that this “wired” Right is clearly in the ascendance.
“With the Democratic defeat in the recent special senatorial election in Massachusetts, engineered in part by tea-party activists working with several Beltway-based groups, the conservative movement is more energized than it has been in years,” Markon wrote.
“Learning from the Democratic ‘Net roots,’ conservatives use Twitter and Facebook to plan such events as the recent demonstrations against health-care reform at the Capitol. …
“Inside the Beltway, much of it is fueled by the Conservative Action Project (CAP), a new group of conservative leaders chaired by Reagan-era attorney general Edwin Meese III. CAP, whose influential memos ‘for the movement’ circulate on Capitol Hill, is an offshoot of the Council for National Policy, a highly secretive organization of conservative leaders and donors. …
“CAP has worked with some of the movement's key national players, who include bloggers such as Erickson and Michelle Malkin and the State Policy Network, a consortium of 57 conservative and libertarian think tanks.
“One of them, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy in New Orleans, recently hosted a speech by James O'Keefe, the conservative activist charged last week with entering a federal building under false pretenses in an alleged plot to tamper with telephones in the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
“O'Keefe formerly worked at the Arlington-based Leadership Institute, which trains conservative leaders, and attended ‘10 different’ institute schools, said Morton Blackwell, the institute's president. He said his organization ‘found’ O'Keefe when O'Keefe was a student at Rutgers University.”
While the Right has long demonstrated an ability to spot and develop youthful “talent” – such as Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham who emerged from the racist Dartmouth Review in the 1980s – the Right also has made sure that these youngsters are well rewarded financially.
In his 2002 book, Blinded by the Right, former right-wing hatchet-man David Brock recounted how his scurrilous attacks on law professor Anita Hill – to discredit her testimony about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’s gross sexual advances – earned him rewards of money, status and access to power within the right-wing establishment.
Brock also described the intricate interconnections among the various groups on the Right, from the corporate and ideological moneymen down to the well-groomed propagandists who would keep a smile on their faces while savaging political adversaries.
The Growing Right
The only real difference between the world of the 1980s and 1990s, which Brock depicted in his book, and today is that the right-wing organizations and their supportive media have grown in size, wealth and sophistication.
Americans are drenched in right-wing messaging, which stresses that the enemy is Big Government, not Big Business. The anti-government propaganda seeks to make sure that no meaningful restrictions will be placed on the power of corporations to hold sway over the lives of average citizens.
With the federal government thus blocked, citizens will be left to bargain on their own for better treatment from their bosses, their banks, their credit card companies, their health-care providers, oil companies, cable TV conglomerates, etc., etc. Not surprisingly, the citizens usually get rolled.
Only a democratized and energized federal government would be powerful enough to protect citizens from the dictates of these corporate giants, which is why the Right's anti-government propaganda is so important. In essence, the Right is rallying the tea partiers, under the false flag of “populism,” to serve the political interests of large corporations and the super-rich.
“Beltway organizations have had more involvement in the tea parties, long portrayed as largely organic expressions of populist anger, than most conservatives have acknowledged,” the Post’s Markon reported.
“The first nationwide tea parties on Feb. 27 were co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, whose president, Grover Norquist, is a paragon of the D.C. conservative establishment, and the Arlington-based American Spectator.
“The Spectator's then-managing editor organized the rally near the White House that day, according to promotional materials and participants. …
“There is much crossover among leading D.C. organizations. Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council president who hosts CAP meetings, is a board member of the Council for National Policy, the organization's most recent tax filings show.
“Becky Norton Dunlop, the council's president, is a key CAP member -- and a Heritage Foundation vice president. Blackwell is a director of CNP Action, a sister organization to the Council for National Policy.”
Other powerful lobbying organizations, such as former House Republican Leader Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch family’s oil wealth, also have worked behind the scenes to build the Tea Party movement, Markon reported.
Tea Party Rising
The Tea Party movement got its start last Feb. 19 when CNBC’s Rick Santelli went on a rant against government efforts to protect Americans from home foreclosures and called for “tea parties” as a means to protest against government intervention in the economy.
Next, Brendan Steinhauser, D.C.-based director of state and federal campaigns at FreedomWorks, and another FreedomWorks staffer coordinated with activists planning the first tea parties on Feb. 27, according to Markon.
“Steinhauser then wrote a tea party organizing primer, which was posted on the FreedomWorks Web site and Malkin's site,” Markon reported.
Glenn Beck and other Fox News hosts also began pushing the Tea Party idea, even serving as on-air cheerleaders for some events.
“The tea party-Beltway nexus continues,” Markon wrote. “Tea-party groups held a health-care town hall meeting at Norquist's offices in June." Markon quoted Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin saying that the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union "‘have been helpful, sometimes by saying, 'Here are talking points we've created.'"
“Another inside-outside force is CRC [Public Relations], the Alexandria firm headed by [Greg] Mueller, who was Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign communications director. It works with the movement's many strands, inundates journalists with e-mails and uses social networking to drive the message,” Markon wrote.
CRC’s clients include L. Brent Bozell III, who runs the Media Research Center, which targets mainstream journalists who are deemed to have a liberal bias. According to Markon’s article, Bozell today “operates a mini-empire with seven Web sites, including Eyeblast.tv, a conservative version of YouTube.”
Though progressives have regarded the Internet as their bailiwick – boasting blog sites such as DailyKos and HuffingtonPost – it’s also true that the Right has long had an important presence on the Web, such as Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report, which played a key role in harassing the Clinton administration in the 1990s and in helping George W. Bush seize the presidency in 2000.
Plus, the Right’s Web attacks on Democrats, progressives and mainstream journalists had much greater resonance because those hostile stories got picked up and amplified by the Right’s talk-radio programs, by Fox News and by print outlets, such as Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times.
Bush’s National Guard Mess
For instance, in 2004, a few right-wing Internet bloggers started a stampede against CBS’ “60 Minutes 2” over a segment describing how Bush had blown off his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War.
The bloggers made the false claim that memos cited by CBS must have been forgeries because IBM Selectric typewriters supposedly didn’t permit superscripts in the early 1970s and that therefore the memos must have been concocted much later using Microsoft Word.
In fact, Selectrics did have that capability in the early 1970s, but the bogus blog comments spread quickly through the right-wing media and into the mainstream press. The furor created pressure on the CBS brass, which responded by firing Mary Mapes (who had recently helped uncover the Abu Ghraib scandal) along with three other "60 Minutes" producers and forcing out longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather.
The four producers and Rather saw their network careers cut short for the technical offense of not vetting all aspects of the memos as thoroughly as might be possible, even though the contents of the memos – regarding Bush’s insubordinate behavior as a National Guard pilot – were true.
In other words, even with a lesser presence on the Internet, the Right’s bloggers had an inordinate amount of influence because their claims, whether truthful or not, would be trumpeted by right-wing media outlets that reached tens of millions of Americans and thus gave mainstream news outlets little choice but to follow up.
With its vertically integrated media apparatus, rising through all forms of modern communication, the Right had achieved what corporate executives call “synergy,” with one part of an operation supporting and strengthening another.
Meanwhile, the dynamic worked the opposite way for the Left. Since it had few media assets that could amplify progressive-oriented stories, the mainstream media could safely ignore the articles or mock them.
Because the Right had spent millions of dollars on attack groups, like Bozell’s Media Research Center, mainstream journalists mostly felt pressure from the Right, so they generally tilted their stories in that direction as a way to avoid accusations of “liberal bias” and to protect their careers.
Still, prior to last year, progressives had a point when they claimed that the Internet represented their media stronghold. During George W. Bush's administration, scores of left-leaning “net roots” sites published or republished articles that sounded a discordant alarm about Bush while the mainstream press and the Right’s media mostly sang harmonious duets in his praises.
But most of the progressive Web sites were run by amateurs or were so underfunded that they couldn’t compensate professionals much for their work. Some on the Left took a strange pride in this vow of poverty, as if forcing writers and reporters to work for free or nearly for free was somehow nobler than paying them a living wage.
This attitude proved shortsighted, however. The Left continued to see its media endeavors fail due to lack of resources (like Air America Radio shutting down last week). Today, many progressive Web sites, like Danny Schecter’s Media Channel, are growing increasingly desperate about their chances for survival; others have simply disappeared.
Meanwhile, the Right keeps expanding its media power deeper into the Internet, with well-funded sites and plenty of cross-marketing with radio, TV and print.
With the Right shoring up its position on the Internet, its only area of relative media weakness, the implications for progressives and Democrats should be frightening.