Secrets of the conservative media machine

After mastering TV news and talk radio, conservatives lost control of their message online. That's about to change

Topics: Books, Conservatives, Sarah Palin, Brent Bozell, Paul Weyrich, Matt Drudge, Editor's Picks,

Secrets of the conservative media machineMatt Drudge, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck (Credit: AP/Brian K. Diggs/Douglas C. Pizac/Wikimedia/David Shankbone/Salon)

To borrow a Sarah Palin aphorism, after their election defeat in 2008, conservatives didn’t retreat, they “reloaded.” Instead of finding new solutions to public policy problems or seriously reevaluating Bush’s failures, conservatives focused almost solely on new ways to communicate their old ideas. To do so, they looked to their natural allies in corporate marketing for inspiration — and they looked to the Left for imitation. The result has been a recent and profound turnaround that has allowed the Right the bury Obama’s message and dominate the political debate.

Historical right-wing domination of the media

Traditionally, conservatives have almost always dominated direct mail solicitations, retained the best pollsters money could buy and paid for the most celebrated advertising makers. Message discipline is the first lesson for any Republican politician. Talk radio? unquestionably controlled by conservatives.

Cable news? Fox News couldn’t be more right-wing and popular. The Right had also dominated the Internet for most of the Internet’s fledging history. Throughout the 1990s and for much of President George W. Bush’s first term, conservatives easily ruled online news. And much of that initial sucess stemmed from foundations and entrepreneurial pioneers such as Matt Drudge, creator of the wildly popular headline-aggregating site Drudge Report, and Jim Robinson of the news message board Free Republic. The pair formed a symbiotic relationship. Drudge, who played a role in breaking the Monica Lewinsky story, made waves in the media with scoops on the latest Clinton scandals, and Free Republic provided a platform for conservatives to share conspiratorial perspectives and to organize their own rallies and events. Many of the angry mobs hounding Clinton at public events were mobilized by Free Republic. The impeachment rally that was organized by the Free Republic, “Treason Is the Reason,” featured Republican lawmakers and writer Christopher Hitchens.

Their efforts were enhanced by well-funded conservative investments in Internet technology. The first major foray into purely ideological online news came from the Heritage Foundation, which worked with National Review magazine to create Town Hall in 1992. The Town Hall bulletin board forum on Compuserve required users to pay to dial into a central terminal to share information and read conservative publications. It later morphed into an Internet site with links to conservative opinion pieces, studies and syndicated columns from newspapers. Town Hall helped organize the top conservative arguments, studies and articles. The one-stop shop, similar in utility to Drudge Report, provided direction for various conservative web sites, talk radio and Republican politicians to get on the same message.



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Conservatives maintained their dominance by constantly making investments in online news portals. In 2000, James Glassman, previously a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, launched a web site called TechCentralStation with the corporate lobbying firm DCI Group. The web site, with funds from corporations such as Microsoft and ExxonMobil, published reports from right-wing think tanks as news pieces. Glassman, who later became the director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, eventually closed TechCentralStation after a round of criticism that the site was essentially a smoke screen for corporate propaganda. In 2004, Bush strategists hired a number of firms to develop online tools to help supporters place op-eds and letters to the editor, well before MoveOn adopted a similar tactic. As even Karl Rove conceded, conservatives held an advantage in online news through 2004 — but the Right lost its edge after Bush’s victory over John Kerry.

Change in media environment

Conservatives soon slipped to second place in the media war. Comfortable controlling the gears of government for so long, the Right had largely ignored the rapidly shifting media landscape. John McCain, for instance, used an outdated emailing technology and had no functioning social network of his own. By Election Day, 2008, the Republican Party did not even have its own national list of supporters they could reach through text messages. While candidate Barack Obama talked about hope and change, an entire universe of liberal web sites lobbed attacks and criticism every day at the McCain-Palin ticket. There were structural reasons for this decline. During the latter half of the Bush administration, triumphant Republican consultants who had won in 2004 largely with traditional spending on television ads, telemarketing and direct mail had every incentive to encourage the party and the right-wing movement to continue spending on traditional outlets. Many television consultants receive up to a 15 percent cut of an entire advertising buy — which of course can be many of millions of dollars during an election season. Moving to online and nontraditional communications would result in a financial loss for some of these consultants, who doubled as advisors to the Republican National Committee and contractors to major conservative foundations.

Yet, while Republicans were expanding their traditional marketing strategies, some of the most cutting-edge corporate advertising campaigns of the 21st century intentionally abandoned using billboards, television commercials and other traditional forms of branding. Ironically taking their cues from the socialist writer Naomi Klein — whose book “No Logo” detailed a world alienated by the over-abundance of corporate brands on every T-shirt, building and bus — brand managers skillfully slipped their products into the background of movies, seemingly amateur blog posts and the most popular YouTube channels. The corporate public relations firm Edelman, one of many advertising and marketing behemoths that specialize in this form of stealth salesmanship, carefully chronicled how the public shifted toward trusting “peer-to-peer” endorsements of ideas and products. They found that one of the efficient ways to mediate peer-to-peer marketing is through impersonal social networking and online content platforms. The USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism found that 80 percent of Internet users considered the Internet to be an important source of information for them in 2008 — up from 66 percent in 2006 — and already higher than television, radio and newspapers. By 2010, USC found that over 82 percent of Americans were regular Internet users.

Edelman published a study, “The Social Pulpit,” revealing the various ways the 2008 Obama campaign wove campaign engagement into the social media habits of his supporters, from ethnic social networking web sites like Black Planet to innovative campaign widgets for local bloggers. Ironically, the study was written in consultation with Mike Krempasky, an Edelman executive who also helped found the conservative blog Redstate (a blog that duplicated the diary system of the left-wing blog DailyKos). Krempasky would later assist various corporations and right-wing blogs in deploying Obama campaign tactics to boost the nascent Tea Party movement.

However, out of power in 2006 and 2008, it was the Left that had a greater incentive to experiment with alternative methods for organizing and delivering their ideas to the public, and it was the Left that took the lead in the tactics proposed by Krempasky and others. Simon Rosenberg of the New Politics Institute and other left-leaning think tanks contributed resources to developing best practices for new communication tools as well as opportunities for incubating talent. Democratic campaigns sought outsiders adept at online strategy. Progressives developed online fund-raising schemes, such as Act Blue, and experimented with new ways of connecting with voters, such as targeted SMS text messages. The Obama campaign’s decision to announce the selection of Obama’s running mate via text message netted an additional 2 million cell phone numbers to its database, which could then be used to plug voters into other election season notices. The unprecedented investments from the Left coincided with rapid shifts in the media landscape. Perhaps most important, much of the institutional assistance simply buoyed left-wing initiatives that began organically, like Dailykos or MoveOn. As the progressive “blogosphere” swelled with traffic and influence during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, the momentum gave the impression that liberal bloggers would always be the prevailing force on the Left.

“Don’t retreat, instead reload!”

Much of the right-wing’s resurgence is due to its intense investment in technology and communications. Republicans, as well as right-wing conservatives, realized that their image could be salvaged if repackaged properly. And the most discussed post-2008 election concern was the advantage held by the Left in communication infrastructure. In a December 2008 reflection piece titled the “Roots of Defeat,” Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini wrote in the National Review that progressive news sites, like the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, were the constant purveyors of “attack memes” against the conservative movement and its candidates. Talking Points Memo had led the liberal blogosphere’s mobilization against President Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005. In addition to its rapid news coverage, the web site posted the phone numbers of Democratic politicians who had indicated support for Bush’s proposal and encouraged readers to call. The groundswell of opposition from bloggers, then the general public, marked the first significant policy defeat for President Bush. As Ruffini noted, the defeat punctured Bush’s “aura of invincibility and presage[d] the death spiral to come.” ThinkProgress, where I began working in 2009, had helped expose much of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s relationship with the Bush administration, and Talking Points Memo broke the story of the Bush Justice Department’s systematic political firings of U.S. Attorneys around the country. As the 2008 election unfolded, the McCain campaign’s positions and statements were instantly fact checked and scrutinized by leading progressive web sites. Ruffini observed that progressive blogs did actual research and reporting while most conservative bloggers were “generally commentators and not reporters.” He also noted that the Right lacked many of the technological innovations employed by Barack Obama’s campaign, and, more important, lacked a powerful online megaphone for its ideological goals.

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.

Just as insurgency helped the large MyBarackObama community create tight bonds as an ideologically coherent community, Obama’s victory undid them. Shortly after Obama took office, Democratic planners moved the MyBarackObama listserv and online community into the apparatus of the Democratic National Committee, converting it into Organizing for America. The social capital of the community evaporated quickly as the DNC ordered the community to support conservative politicians like Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska, or to simply fall in line with the agenda of the president, even when policies drifted from ideologically pure campaign promises that had brought people to the web site initially.

While MyBarackObama died a quick death as a functional community, the Right went to work building communities to oppose Obama and his agenda. Republican consultants flocked to Ning, an easy tool to create entire social networks for niche communities. Ning replicates common features of any social network: Users may create online identities, send messages within the network, post links and news articles, and create events for offline activities.

Template Ning networks provided the Right with the ability to quickly assemble Tea Party groups without the appearance of top-heavy Republican partisanship. Eric Odom, the former new media director of Sam Adams Alliance, used his consulting firms Strategic Activism and American Liberty Alliance to create dozens of ready-made Ning web sites to cultivate the early stages of the Tea Party movement. Some Tea Party groups he created, like the Patriot Caucus, were geared toward a national constituency, while others catered to specific localities, such as Lehigh County in Pennsylvania. Although the web sites appeared to be citizen generated, all of Odom’s sites were actually centrally planned and operated. Every major Tea Party organization got in on the act: Smart Girl Politics, working with Odom’s colleagues, created a Ning for Tea Party women; Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, used her Liberty Central group to help local Tea Party groups in Florida build Ning web sites; and the lobbying firm Libertas Global Partners created Regular Folks united using Ning to organize Tea Party groups. Grassroots Action Inc., a company that thrived by building huge email and petition lists using conservative outrage over immigrants or gay rights, operated as a business by selling its lists to corporate or politics interests. After Obama’s election, Grassroots Action redesigned their network as a Ning, called ResistNet. Even Glenn Beck, with his so-called 9/12 movement, used Ning to develop local and national communities of supporters.

The power of Ning is the illusion of open, democratic communities. Republican operators and consultants in control of most of the Tea Party Nings set the agenda, administer the talking points available on the main page, and have the ability to censor information they disapprove of. Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest Ning communities of over 100,000 members, was regularly fed action items by lobbyist-run entities such as FreedomWorks. So when members of Tea Party community web sites received emails from web site administrators to call Congress to oppose a student lending bill or hold a rally against a Democratic member of Congress, the orders appeared to come from community members of their respective Ning networks. To the casual user, the site appeared to be maintained by citizen activists, but in many cases the actual online organizers worked for right-wing corporate fronts or a Republican campaign. Functionally, the Ning social networks provided grassroots cover for the oil interests funding FreedomWorks or Republican campaigns paying Odom.

Republicans in Congress also seized upon a similar Internet technology to create an illusion of popular support for their corporate-friendly agenda. The best example would be a program touted by House GOP leadership called America Speaking Out. America Speaking Out offered the public the ability to submit policy ideas, and then vote them up or down. Republicans promised to campaign and eventually legislate on the most popular policies using the web site’s results.

The campaign document Republicans produced shortly before the 2010 midterms, supposedly based on the America Speaking Out voted ideas, actually ignored the will of the people. First, any idea to raise taxes was censored from the site. But even the most popular ideas did not make the cut. In one section, four out of the five ideas with the most votes concerned marijuana decriminalization and legalization. In the economy section, the top idea was the legislation, proposed by Democrats, to end tax loopholes for companies that ship jobs overseas. In another section, ending earmarks ranked as one of the most popular ideas. However, the final Republican “Pledge to America” contained boilerplate Republican campaign pledges like repealing Obama’s reforms and reducing the deficit. It omitted many of the most popular ideas from their web site, even earmark reform. Regardless, the House Republican leadership hailed their pledge as revolutionary because of the America Speaking Out voting system. Shortly before unveiling the pledge, Representative Mike Pence (R- Ind.) declared, the “Democrat [sic] majority isn’t listening, but House Republicans will.”

This trick deflected the fact that Republicans in 2010 failed to produce any ideas to address climate change, energy independence, job creation, rising inequality and poverty, or America’s health care crisis. America Speaking Out was more of a public relations gimmick than an actual way to incorporate public opinion into policy making. Similarly, Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Va.) created a web site called YouCut for the public to vote on federal programs to eliminate. Many of the programs were simplified or distorted with wasteful-sounding names. One such program targeted by YouCut, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund, created 240,000 jobs in a matter of months, but YouCut falsely characterized it as a job-killing welfare program. Another item on YouCut, the Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Program, had already been eliminated by Obama’s budget, yet the Republican web site claimed killing the project would be a YouCut idea. The first few months of YouCut targeted only 0.017 percent of the federal budget for elimination, but the online vote platform gave the impression that Republicans were serious about incorporating the public’s ideas for eliminating “waste.”

Excerpted from “The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right” by Lee Fang. Copyright © 2013 by Lee Fang. Reprinted by permission of The New Press. www.thenewpress.com

Lee Fang is an investigative journalist in the Bay Area.

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