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Fighting the Republican Noise Machine

David Brock talks about his new book that exposes the inner workings of the rightwing media echo chamber and how it shapes our political debate.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Author of one of BuzzFlash's all-time best sellers, "Blinded by the Right," the former journalist for the vast right wing conspiracy, the man who came in from the wrong, David Brock has penned another knock-out book whose title says it all, "The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy."

Brock's new book is a comprehensive analysis of the right wing media echo chamber -- and it is indispensable to anyone who believes that the GOP has taken a few pages out of the Goebbels handbook and run with it. And if you don't think that is the case you will, if you read "The Republican Noise Machine." It explains how we have ended up with a whole army of "Stepford" right wingers.

And Brock has done more than write about the ministry of Republican media propaganda, he started a research center to expose the deceptions and lies that are disseminated daily by the likes of FOX News and Rush Limbaugh. Just go to MediaMatters.org for a sampling of what Brock's new project is up to.

We last talked with you when your bestseller "Blinded by the Right" came out and you were being blindsided by the right as a result of the book. We came to your defense and got a lot out, and our readers got a lot out of our interviews with you. You've got a new book out, "The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy." But before we get into that, you're doing something about the right-wing media echo chamber. Tell us what it is.

Media Matters for America is a progressive research center that monitors, analyzes and corrects conservative misinformation in the media. It's primarily web-driven, and we are posting our analysis and corrections in real time, every day, as the result of our monitoring. For example, we're recording and transcribing Rush Limbaugh, and we're TIVO-ing and analyzing and correcting what's on cable. We're looking at a lot of the right-wing websites with the hope that we can spot this conservative misinformation before it spreads into the mainstream media. And then we're also analyzing print as well.

Do you plan to do any studies?

Yes, absolutely. It is a research center; it's not just a website. We're going to do longer-term analysis of trends and issue reports. We just launched this last week, and so we're in our very, very first iteration of this. But I think there's a lot of room for longer-term analysis of the trends, trying to document the echo chamber by which a piece of conservative misinformation might start on a right-wing website or with talk radio, and then ends up being legitimized and repeated throughout the mainstream media. And so we will be doing that as well.

When BuzzFlash started we took a look at the Drudge Report, and we took it seriously, whereas a lot of progressives and independents dismissed Drudge.

That's right.

We thought Drudge was unfortunately having a tremendous impact on bottom-feeding the mainstream media. And while we hope our standards are a bit above Drudge, nonetheless we took that as a model for the way that our site is constructed with headlines and commentary from a progressive perspective. Have you taken into account what Brent Bozell has done with the conservative Media Research Center?

Yes, I have. In fact, the idea for this organization -- the book I'm publishing next week, The Republican Noise Machine, goes into the history of how the conservative movement has over time and through strategic funding been able to come to a point where they dominate our discourse. And part of that strategy was the formation of several media watchdog or monitoring groups, going back to 1969. Today, the premier one is Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, which has roughly a $6 million annual budget, and, I believe, something like 60 employees who monitor the media. And obviously what they are trying to do is to market and brand the notion of liberal bias.

Perceived liberal bias.

Yes, what they consider to be liberal bias. I don't believe they ever proved that. But the fact is that they are moving the media itself to the right by dominating the debate over the politics of the media, and by convincing -- including, I think, close to a majority of Democrats -- that the media is liberally biased. The monitoring concept is very similar to what they're doing, but we are focusing on misinformation. We're not focusing on bias, because I believe bias is a very slippery and subjective term. You'll always have some people who agree with your opinion about what may have been the motivation of a newscaster or a reporter. We're not going into that, because those are not provable things. What we're trying to do is focus on accuracy, reliability and credibility -- all under the rubric of misinformation. So we're carrying out what we're doing very much differently than what they do, because I think a lot of what they do is just fraudulent. However, the concept of monitoring itself was a very effective device that the right came up with, and it is modeled on that concept.

I think your book "Blinded by the Right" was so instructive for us in particular, because independents, Democrats, liberals, progressives and so forth are dismissive of this sometimes -- of understanding what the right has done, and to grant that while the substance of what they do may be perhaps immoral, unethical, or untruthful, they have had successful strategies. We have to differentiate between content and strategy.

Correct. That is actually, I think, the most important point. I've obviously been in conversations that have been ongoing since I published Blinded by the Right -- about fashioning effective responses, and what kind of institutions could be built. And there is a lot of cognitive dissonance on the question. I think you said it perfectly -- distinguishing between content and strategy. There is today The Center for American Progress, a liberal, progressive version of The Heritage Foundation. It does not mean that the research coming out of there is of the low quality of the research coming out of The Heritage Foundation. I worked at Heritage for a year, and people don't have to take my word for it. There have been plenty of analyses -- and, in fact, books written -- that talk about how shoddy the research is, and that it's basically public relations and propaganda.

So the same thing is not going on at the several at the Center for American Progress. They're doing good, factual, solid research. But the idea of creating an institution -- that it's funded in perpetuity to wage what the right wing calls the war of ideas -- is a very good one. And that's a war that I think progressives have not waged in this way, by creating these institutions that are meant to be there. They're not connected to political campaigns. They're meant to be there before an election, and they're meant to be there the day after the election, no matter the outcome of the election.

You ran the risk of opening yourself up to personal attacks due to "Blinded by the Right" from so-called liberal newspapers like the Washington Post, which ran a lacerating review of your book.

Yes. Still today -- this is our ninth day of Media Matters operation -- they have not noted that we exist.

And this used to be, at least, considered a liberal paper. It's held up by the right wing as a liberal paper. And that's a bit of a joke, because we know while The New York Times editorial page continues to be what one might call traditionally liberal, its news page, along with the Washington Post, tends to be extremely hard on Democrats and extremely easy on Bush.

We commissioned a poll for our launch and we asked a question about people's perception of the mainstream media's coverage of the Bush administration. Unfortunately I'm not looking at it right now, but if people go to our website they'll see that a majority, or at least a plurality, have thought that the mainstream press was far too soft on the Bush administration, which is backup for some of what you're saying there.

Your book concentrates almost entirely on an analysis of the right-wing media echo chamber, if we can call it that, and the relationship to think tanks, along with the role of Rush Limbaugh and so forth. Now the Republicans took a country that was kind of centrist-to-left on social welfare issues, New Deal issues, Social Security, Medicare, and so forth, and moved the debate way to the right, although a lot of the polling still supports this sort of center, moderate, liberal, New Deal concept of America. Hasn't the Republican media machine shown that you can do this successfully?

Let me describe what happened on the right-wing side. Yes, I think it is correct in the sense that they took ideas that if you go back to the Goldwater era and then forward into the early 1970s when they really started funding these think tanks, they took ideas that were considered fringe and extreme. The conservatives were a minority within their own party. And through this strategy that I lay out in the book -- a specific strategy that was specifically funded -- they took what were considered some of the planks for Goldwater: the hostility to civil rights, hostility to the United Nations, the privatizing of Social Security -- things like that. That is still, to a large extent, the Republican agenda today.

What they were able to do is to mainstream these ideas first within the Republican Party, and then through the whole political culture. The only thing I think is significant is that they did not rely on elected politicians to do this for them, so that when Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, the Heritage Foundation had been working for six or seven years on what would become the policy blueprint for the Reagan administration, and they handed it to them.

But the people who led this conservative movement in the early 1970s were ideological people who were passionate, who had the financial resources to do this. And they were unelected people, such as the person who's still the head of the Heritage Foundation today, Ed Fulmer. So that was where the leadership came from. I would argue that it was not actually Ronald Reagan or either Bush who really moved the ball. The ball was moved through effective communication and strategic philanthropy that was organized by the right, and not primarily through their elected politicians. The only one who really understood this, I think, was Newt Gingrich. But the others are the beneficiary of all this work that was done by non-elected leaders.

Newt Gingrich -- if we kind of look at his doppelganger or his alter ego in the media, from my perspective it would be Rush Limbaugh. Rush kind of idealizes the Gingrich approach, which a cultural media populism appealing to emotional flashpoints -- call it demagoguery -- to get people emotionally on the side of the right wing, and then repeating falsehoods that become engrained in their heads. As you point out in your book, they become circulated among other Republican officials. Limbaugh legitimizes certain ways of thinking and certain thoughts.

Right, and it's a kind of inverted populism where, by playing to primarily cultural prejudices, he was able to take the Republican-conservative right-wing economic agenda -- which I don't think there was a lot of popular support for, and there still may not be -- but by emphasizing those cultural issues, he was able to bring a lot of people along who I think otherwise would be voting more their economic interests; i.e., voting with progressives and liberals. Through all of the bashing he does of feminism and gays and that kind of thing, he's able to get them to side against their own economic interests by highlighting the cultural divisions.

It's not coincidence that Cheney appears fairly regularly on his show. And that after Limbaugh was first charged with illegal use of prescription drugs, Bush was asked about him, and he said, “He is a great American.â€? He seems a vital link because without him the right wing could lose some of the blue-collar voters, because he emotionally targets them on the so-called gays, gods and guns issue -- wedge issues.

I think the phenomena of Limbaugh is understood in the conservative movement, but not well understood outside of it. Someone asked me this today -- when did the right wing start to really get mainstream media attraction for its talking points, and its propaganda, and its lies and disinformation? I wrote about this in Blinded by the Right, but the period that I was in the conservative movement, from 1986 to, say, 1997, there was a critical shift, and I think Limbaugh is really the key to it.

Part of that had to do with sales. For example, once Limbaugh went into national syndication in 1988, and then he started to get huge audiences into the early 90s, he could take information from places like the Washington Times or from National Review, or he could take a book, as he did with my book, The Real Anita Hill, and he could sell that book. Then it would make the best seller list, and there would be a perception in the regular media that, well, if a book is selling, then there must be something to it, or it must have some kind of credibility.

Then you could go on the Today Show with your misinformation, as I did. And then you'd reach another 6 million people who are not the Limbaugh audience. He's really a critical piece of this entire thing. In 1986, I was at the sister publication of the Washington Times, Insight magazine. Back then, the Washington Times was seen as a fringe and unreliable, and it had a circulation of about roughly 100,000. The critical shift that I try to describe in The Republican Noise Machine is that 18 years later, because of Limbaugh, and then because of all the Limbaugh imitators on radio, because of cable and particularly Fox, and because of the Internet -- all those things happening subsequent to '86 -- a wrong or false article in the Washington Times that was done in '86 only reached the circulation of the Washington Times.

Today, that author of that wrong or false piece -- Limbaugh can read it to 15 million. The author could go on Bill O'Reilly's show and reach whatever it is -- 2-3 million? And Drudge could post the Washington Times story and have another several million. This is a structural change in the media environment. And I think that that is the critical reason why progressives -- although they still win elections -- seem to steadily be losing the hearts and minds.

This is an issue that interests us very much. In 2000, the conventional wisdom of the mainstream media was Gore was becoming too populist, whereas we would argue that he probably should have been more populist and gotten so far ahead that Bush couldn't steal the election. As we know, he still won the popular vote by 542,000 votes, so I don't know how that's being too populist. But in any case, it seems the Democrats are always on the defensive in the DLC, saying, oh, we can't afford to be too populist, whereas the Republicans are brazenly populist in the sense of appealing to a value populism.

But the Democrats are definitely afraid to bring up economic populism. The Republicans say, oh, you're trying to create class warfare, while the Republican Party basically rules in Congress and got within enough distance to steal the presidency because of a cultural populism. So it seems to work for the Republicans, and the Democrats haven't figured out yet that that's what they're doing.

Well, it's certainly the case that this is where the absence of liberal radio, I believe, is an enormous problem for liberals and progressives because the populism of the Republican right is largely coming out of radio. And radio is a populist medium. Without that kind of voice -- I believe one study showed 310 hours a day of right-wing talk, and five hours of liberal talk, in something like the top 45 U.S. radio markets -- when you have that kind of disproportionate influence, when you have one ideological faction controlling that medium to that level, I think you have -- and this is in the subtitle of my book -- serious questions about the proper functioning of the democracy, which is predicated on the idea that people need correct, and good, and solid information.

Their dominance of that media has led to a lack of an even playing field to such an extent that I question whether any issue could be fairly debated, and whether you can actually have a fair election. Because if you go back to what they did to Gore, and the false caricature of Gore as a liar -- that was repeated and repeated through radio day after day. Eventually it did shape the coverage in the mainstream media. If you look at the exit polls, the majority of voters went with Gore on the issues and on the platform, including on taxes, but the election was won by Bush on this issue of integrity and who you trusted. There was a completely fraudulent propaganda initiative to go after Gore's character because they knew, in their own internal polling, they couldn't win any other way.

I reprint in the book an interview that Al Gore gave to the New York Observer in November 2002 where he lays this out absolutely correctly -- that this was what happened -- that the Republicans were able to change the entire zeitgeist of the country through these right-wing media organs.

I've been saying for months that no matter who the Democrats nominated this year, that person would face the same problem because the machinery is in place. The particulars of the story having to do with the particular backgrounds of the candidates would mean that the script would be slightly different. But the machinery is in place, and the ability to create those caricatures is in place. What I've tried to talk about is I think a lot of people, even progressives, misunderstood what happened in the ‘90s, to the extent that they felt that what had happened had something to do with the Clintons. And I believe it had very little to do with the Clintons; the same smearing that happened to the Clintons happened to Gore, and then it also happened to Daschle. If you looked at Al Franken's book and the way he lays out what happened during the Wellstone memorial, and how that whole thing was completely distorted and misrepresented right before another election, this is a really critical issue.

If you go back to the famous Joe McGinnis book "The Selling of the President" about Nixon in 1968, it discusses that Nixon was posed as a commodity to be sold. We saw that leap exponentially when Reagan was nominated. Here you had an actor who was really a blank slate in many ways, even though he espoused a right-wing ideology. The Reagan presidency was sold on Morning in America commercials. It was the complete triumph of image over substance of leadership. And with Bush, although he's become a better sort of scripted speaker -- obviously not extemporaneous, but better scripted -- he carries that one step further, because he's an even lighter candidate than Reagan in terms of image. Isn't this really the advertising model of branding an image, and no matter what appears contrary to that image, you just keep going on with the brand?

One of the points I try to make in "The Republican Noise Machine" is the superior understanding that the conservatives have had for three decades. but it accelerated so much because of the development of new media -- the Internet and cable and radio. They have an understanding of branding, marketing and PR. It's well more than a billion dollars that has been spent in just the subsidized parts of the right wing -- the partisan think tanks and many of the pundits you see on cable, and the Washington Times and New York Post and things of this nature.

Within the think tanks, they create jargon: faith-based initiatives and school vouchers. They create a language for talking about their ideas, and they package the ideas, and then they sell them. And they come up with the phrases as you would if you were selling any product. These are all products. Liberal bias is a product too. They funded it, they branded it, and they kept repeating it and repeating it. And they convinced people of it.

We're seeing that as Bush continues to talk about democracy in Iraq when it seems, at this point, the Iraqis don't want us and the only democracy would be one that we impose and run. But he still keeps saying nothing will deter us from this mission. The flowery appeal to democracy and patriotism continues to flow out of Bush despite reality. We've got a script and we're sticking to it, no matter what happens.

Right. And they have an operation, which I go into in a lot of detail in the book, to disseminate and to keep people on those messages. From all of these investments and think tanks, you have talking points and research flowing into the distribution channels, which are the media channels such as radio, so that all those hours on the air are not being filled by the hosts or by the staff of the hosts themselves. They are getting their content out of what began to be created in the early 1970s, and what is today a vast interlocking network of partisan think tanks and research centers. They're provided all that.

And that extends as well to cable, where the conservative hosts and conservative guests are supplied in real time with what the message of the day is, and what the party line is. It's still coming out of this multi-billion dollar communications apparatus that the right set up.

How does that work in terms of the corporately owned CBS, NBC, ABC, and affiliates? What role do they have to play in their news operations?

What seems to have happened is that the right wing wanted to mainstream its ideas and wanted to infiltrate and penetrate the mainstream media. I think they've had the easiest time with cable partly because there's so much airtime to fill and partly because, if you look at the demographics, the people watching cable -- not just Fox, but the other cable -- it skews conservative. It's something like 40 percent of above. And the numbers for liberals watching cable are quite low -- it's less than 20 percent. Part of this is what you're saying, which is that it's ratings-driven and advertiser-driven. As far as the big network morning shows and the evening news, I think the right has an effect, but I think it has had less of an effect, in putting out bad information in those places.

Then again, through creating pundits like Ann Coulter and having a conservative book club in place, where you can drive a book like that onto the best seller list, she still does end up on Today or Good Morning America with books that are just page after page of lies. So they are everywhere, and it's spreading. One of the parts of this organization is to combat and to push back against it, because these ideas are not reliable or credible, and that has to be documented. We have to move the mainstreaming in reverse.

What role does technology play? A barrage of information is distributed in headline fashion. Even print media, with the emergence of USA Today, has its own McNews, and you're starting to see even the larger papers run shorter articles and fewer investigative articles.

It seems that the Bush administration in particular relies on the media sort of being ahistorical -- that is, each day it sort of begins freshly to cover the news, and you rarely see context of what Rumsfeld said a week ago. You might see that in some of the magazines, or occasionally in a longer article, but news is basically whatever the White House dictates that day.

Well, that is true, and it is the case that because information travels so fast, the context is often lost. Where they have had their greatest impact, I think, is with the media that lends itself to illogic, which is radio and a lot of the crossfire formats on cable. The insidious effect in the mainstream media, which I go back and show started in the early 1970s, was the conservative promotion of the idea of balance. So the groups that they funded to pressure the media were agitating for equal time and balance. And once the mainstream media accepted that as the correct way of reporting, what you ended up with was, under the rubric of balance, they had to report things that were false and wrong that conservatives were saying, because they had to give the other side. And the media stops its quest for truth and accepted that all they had to do was balance. So there are many assertions in the regular press, and one of the reports we have up on our website talks about the way the conservatives were able to convince a majority of Americans that the economic recession began under Clinton, when in fact it began in March of 2001. And what you see in that report is that over time mainstream media quote Republican officials saying falsely that the economic recession began under Clinton. And then there's a missing paragraph; the next paragraph should be: But it didn't.

Someone who reads "The Republican Noise Machine," what will they get out of it?

I think what they'll get out of it is an understanding of how the conservative system works, from heavy documentation going back to the early 1970s that there were specific plans put in place. The plans are in writing and I identify what those plans were, and how they were funded, and what exactly the strategies were over time to achieve what they've achieved.

The book does deal with the present media landscape, but a lot of it is tracing how, through a lot of patience and a lot of money -- it's all about following the money -- the Republican right was able to achieve the goal of infiltration and penetration of the media. They understood from the beginning that all politics is translated through the media, so that has been their focus. And the irony is that at the same time they mounted a simultaneous strategy to bash the media as liberally biased. The two worked hand in hand to change the entire complexion of the media.