A former right-wing media pioneer reveals Democrats' big mistakes about the press and politics
Liberals spend a lot of time bemoaning the state of the Washington press corps. There are many very good reasons for that. But there’s a risk to focusing so much on the Times for its toxic bothsidesing or on Post reporters withholding information from the public until it comes time to sell their books. We risk giving the Democratic Party a pass.
If the press corps can’t be trusted to get the party’s message across, the party needs to do what the Republicans have done: invest heavily in creating an infrastructure for their ideas and rhetoric – or as Matthew Sheffield told me, creating an infrastructure of democracy.
“Republicans have spent decades whipping their furthest-right voters into a violent frenzy,” he said. “They literally fantasize about killing liberals. Democrats want to tell you about their latest policy idea.”
Sheffield knows what he’s talking about. He was an early pioneer of right-wing digital media, Ur-Breitbart, you might say. He founded Newsbusters, a site dedicated to exposing “liberal bias.” As a blogger, he was key to creating the controversy that ended Dan Rather’s career.
Sheffield is an apostate now, alienated for good it seems. He’s now a regular source for news stories about the right-wing media apparatus, which is global in scale. I got in touch Tuesday to ask what he would say to readers of a small but respected newsletter for normal people.
Matthew Sheffield: When the right has problems, it gravitates toward tactical modification, not policy modification. Instead of changing the policy ideas they want, Republicans focus on how to better engage their base of voters. Democrats seem to think the public is more aware of their policy ideas than it actually is. This is likely a function of most left-leaning economic and social policies being more popular.
When polling showed weak support of the Republican tax cut bill, they passed it anyway. This was the story of most of Donald Trump’s administration. They’d come up with ideas and then just do them. By contrast, with Joe Biden, Democrats seem to be focusing their efforts on policies they see as popular. This is an obsolete approach.
Instead of focusing on how to alter larger political dynamics, as Republicans do, Democrats suppose that passing popular legislation, and spending nothing to market it, will prove beneficial. It hasn’t. People aren’t aware of what’s in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
JS: What can be done about lies vs. facts? Take the "war on Christmas.” There is no war. Yet it dominates the imaginations of so many Americans. What do Democrats need to understand that they don't?
MS: I wonder to what degree Democrats are aware that support for Republicans is based almost entirely on identity politics, and that this has been the case since long before Trump. His supporters are fully aware he lies, but they see his utterances as in the service of the larger goal of protecting their Christian identity. The lies about a “war on Christmas” are designed to feed this persecution complex.
Since the GOP has become openly oppositional to democracy, this actually is an outreach opportunity. But this is work that Democrats have to do themselves. They cannot outsource it to the mainstream news media that seems barely aware that it's happened.
JS: To a certain degree, Democrats believe there are swing voters. The 2018 midterms seemed to prove that. Same for 2020. Democrats still think the press corps is interested in truth. What do you say to that?
MS: The mainstream press is interested in "filling the news hole" more than anything else. The profusion of elite journalists who withheld critical information about Donald Trump in order to make money selling it in a book has demonstrated that many, if not most, media elites are not interested in public service.
Elections are decided by both swing voters and by casual party loyalists, that is, people who are more against the opposition rather than in favor of the party for which they vote. For all the focus in DC on physical infrastructure by Democrats, they have spent almost nothing on creating an infrastructure of democracy. You have to go where the people are and to explain yourself. Flushing millions of dollars down the TV ad toilet is not explaining yourself.
JS: Some have argued, I have argued, that the Democrats should go full-on anti-racist. But what you're saying seems to suggest they don't have to change their rhetoric so much as build an infrastructure for it.
MS: Understanding how bigotry is integral to right-wing politics is critical for left-wing thought leaders, but this is advanced political science totally inscrutable to the average person who has other things to do. One of the biggest things I noticed since leaving the right is that there are hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown at people who want to advocate for Republicans to the public. There is much less money being spent for the same reasons and purpose by Democrats.
Simply "fact-checking" a lie is not enough. You have to provide an alternative so people vulnerable to it can have their needs addressed. We have a grossly asymmetric politics where about 30 percent of the media outlets advocate for the right and about 2 percent advocate for the left. It's no wonder things keep drifting rightward.
JS: Liberals tend to think, "Well, if I know this, everyone does."
MS: The public needs to understand how radical the GOP base is and what it wants. The mainstream media will never tell this story on its own, because it's not about DC gossip and because doing so would jeopardize its access to Republicans who have said gossip.
At the same time, most people leaning Democratic are rarely spoken to outside of campaign season. Mainstream media has little to offer them. Right-wing media not only defends Republicans; it helps with right-wing organizing efforts. The "critical race theory" strategy in Virginia only worked because right-wing media helped it along.
Democrats seem to think that delivering some speeches and running some TV commercials is how you engage with your voters. Not true.
JS: It should be said the audience we are talking about is what I call respectable white people -- white people invested in their public image as respectable among other respectable white people. Black people, people of color, LGBTQ et al -- they already get it.
MS: I think it is true that people who are in the crosshairs of white Christian identity politics are more sensible, but even then, they are not nearly as engaged with our political system as the far-right.
Every few years, the Pew does a "typology" survey to go beyond D versus R. And what they've consistently found is that "faith and flag conservatives" are much more engaged than everyone else.
What's happened on the political left is that a small group of highly educated group of mostly white people is talking to itself. And that it does not interact with or understand the concerns of the rest of its coalition members. That group is where most Democratic politicians and progressive journalists are in. It needs to get out more.
JS: I’ll end with a question from Thomas Zimmer, a historian. “I’d be interested in the relationship between the right-wing propaganda machine controlling the base versus the base following deeply-held ideological convictions about what ‘real’ America should be.”
MS: Right-wing media is a bidirectional system. Talk radio with its listener call-ins and websites with easily viewable traffic stats provide instant feedback to GOP elites about what the base wants to hear.
At the same time, it is undeniable that right-wing media does work to disseminate messaging campaigns created by elites. The Republican strategy of creating fear and panic over "critical race theory" is a good example of this. Right-of-center voters were certainly not concerned about CRT before the 2021 campaign. They had never even heard of it.
JS: Many thanks for being so generous with your time today.
MS: You're welcome.
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