Two weeks ago, while almost no one was watching, Rick Santorum and the conservative media pulled off an historic, astounding and quite literal coup. They did this with the tiniest of acts: organizing to kill US participation in a small and innocuous United Nations treaty. The treaty itself was not historic; indeed, it was mind-numbingly mundane. Vanquishing the treaty took no innovative political strategy; no seldom-used, arcane Senate Rule of Order was employed. There existed no metaphorical Goliath that required their acting the part of a modern-day David. No, what made the victory so jaw-droppingly incredible was this:
By killing the UN treaty, both the conservative media and Rick Santorum’s lobbying group FreedomWorks officially made the Republican Party irrelevant.
Like many such U.N. actions, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is entirely symbolic. Its sole function is to recommend that Third World countries live up to the standards the industrialized world has set in regards to the treatment of people with disabilities. In the United States we tend to think of disabled people as potentially vibrant and productive members of society. In many Third World countries, however, prejudice, superstition and governments that prey on both ensure that the disabled have little access to any economic class save the most impoverished. In many of these countries, the only care for the disabled comes from charity groups based in the United States and Europe.
The UN treaty does nothing but make a list of recommendations; it does not include any kind of enforcement mechanism. (Also, the recommendations themselves are fairly tepid – the US has been doing each for decades.) Several months ago, it was assumed by most that the bill to approve the treaty would pass unanimously. After all, there’s no real downside to the bill, it had no conceivable opponents, and it provided Washington pols with a fairly cheap, quick and effortless way to garner an “I Care!” photo-op. When the final vote was tallied, however, Santorum’s lobbying firm and conservative pundits had succeeded in torpedoing any chance of the U.S. adding its voice to the recommendations.
There was some peripheral reporting in the mainstream media on the matter. Some journalists focused on the politicians that walked back on promises they made to Bob Dole, the disabled vet and retired Republican Senator who championed the treaty. Others tried to tie the treaty to Santorum’s own daughter, who is herself developmentally disabled and presumably would have liked the kind of opportunities she has in the US had she been born in, say, Somalia. Most everyone who reported on the story, however, noted that everything Santorum and the conservative media outlets said about the treaty – everything – was a complete fiction. (The story spun by Santorum and the conservative media borrowed heavily from a ratings-boosting lie from this past summer: the canard that President Obama and the U.N. were conspiring to take guns away from American citizens. In this newer incarnation, signing the disability treaty would allow United Nations to come into the homes of Americans and force them to raise their children in certain unspecified but nefarious ways.) But as best I can tell, no one reported on the larger and far more important story, which is this:
There actually were two parties – and only two parties – that stood to gain from FreedomWork’s and the conservative media’s nixing of the treaty. Those parties were FreedomWorks and the conservative media.
That makes this effort both incredibly unique and astoundingly troubling.
Our country’s history is full of potentially benign legislation being scuttled at the last minute by interested outsiders. Prior to this, however, there has always been an active agenda behind the outside interference. For example, a trade group that did not want its members to shoulder the expense of factory retrofits might lobby against and kill a “clean air” bill. A Senator up for reelection might not want to be on record having voted for a tax increase, and might therefore vote to increase the deficit. Threats from angry, traditionalist voters might force a Congressman to vote against a Congressional Declaration singing the praises of a deceased feminist leader. Pick any effort by lobbying groups and media outlets to block a bill and you will find an active and invested agent behind them, cutting the checks and ringing the bells.
But the case of the UN disability treaty is an entirely different animal. It has no discernible economic impact, good or bad, for any US corporation. It does not fly in the face of any political philosophy – or at least any that resides here in the United States. The message the treaty sends to the world – that other countries should aspire to be more like America – is a political winner, as is the ability for politicians to declare themselves champions of the disabled. Had this bill passed, no one – no one – would have been a loser. For Santorum and the conservative media, however, the question was not who would win or lose, but rather, how might they generate the most revenue?
Santorum used the lie of the UN coming to raise your child as a way to garner donations, and the media used the fake story as a way to boost ratings. (And in the case of Glenn Beck, to hawk a newly released, ghostwritten thriller about the UN taking over the United States.) In the weeks leading up to the vote on the treaty, both FreedomWorks and the conservative media hit the airwaves and the blogosphere with a self-serving, full court press: The conservative media machine referenced Santorum, urging its audience to donate to his lobbying firm; Santorum referenced the conservative media machine, asking his own followers to tune into their shows and buy their books. Neither was asked by anyone to provide evidence to back their wild, tall tales. In the end, the GOP did what well-trained dogs do everywhere: it rolled over and it voted against the treaty.
The entire opposition to the UN treaty existed for no other reason than to create a cottage industry of opposing the UN treaty. And given their increasing dependence on the media machine, the GOP had no choice but to acquiesce and put the profitability of that machine above its own political and policy interests.
Think about that for a moment.
What we witnessed this month with the UN Treaty isn’t a one-off outlier, it’s the natural and inevitable outcome of coupling the political success of a major US political party with the financial success of a shock-radio format media enterprise. And this development should be a huge concern for Republicans. After all, the needs and desires of the media machine do not necessarily overlap with conservative ideals. The debt-ceiling crisis from last summer resulted in a downgrading of this country’s credit rating, which is hardly a victory of conservative ideals. However, it did feed the media machine with ratings and page view spikes. Similarly, the preposterous story that the President was a Kenyan sleeper agent was not only inanely radical, it badly damaged the GOP brand at the exact place the GOP brand needs to be vibrant: the ballot box. But party members were forced to either jump aboard the Crazy Train or at least limit themselves to coy winks toward the silliness, because birtherism was ratings gold for the conservative media.
Simply put, the GOP has put itself in a precarious position with its propaganda machine that the Democrats have thus far avoided. The longer Republicans refuse to untangle themselves from conservative media, the more ineffective their party will become at the ballot box, as conservative ideals, attitudes and policies are shed for radical, populist rating-boosters.
This will not be an easy or painless endeavor. Even though they’re just noticing the deep hole they’re in, they’ve actually been steadily digging this grave for the past two decades.
In 1994, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was a man with both a deep-seated hatred for the President of the United States and $200,000 burning a hole in his pocket. The new populist strain of social conservatism that he had helped develop in the Reagan years was still trying to break out of its role as the redheaded stepchild of the GOP, but it was growing rapidly and beginning to flex its burgeoning muscles.
Two years earlier, frustrated Reaganites sought a balm to soothe the sting of the upstart draft dodger who had won the White House, and the memory of the tax raising, Washington-elite, Republican Judas he vanquished. The rapidly ascending world of conservative talk radio provided that relief, and more: in exchange for ratings it provided social conservatives with a populist grassroots machine that was beginning to claim victories in Washington. Carefully steering their angry audience, this new conservative media had been successful leveraging voters’ distrust of government into a scuttling of the President’s and First Lady’s attempt to enact universal healthcare.
What’s more, conservative shock jocks were able to take scandals that had long been considered “local interest” by the media and turn them into the Big National Story of the Month on their own shows. Better still, they were able to pick and choose which scandals to highlight. For example, in the two years leading up to ’94 there were three major stings that took down crooked US Congressmen. Two of those, Albert Bustamante and Lawrence Smith, were Democrats; as such national and regional talk radio programs covered their downfalls extensively. The third, David Durenberger, escaped the national spotlight even as he pled guilty to “misuse” of public funds. He was a Republican, and consequently talk radio pretended that he didn’t exist.
But perhaps the new media’s biggest coup was its capitalizing on the House banking scandal.
As national scandals go, the largely symbolic House banking scandal was small potatoes. In September of 1991 Roll Call reported on the U.S. General Accounting Office 1989-90 audit. This report showed that many elected Representatives frequently wrote checks from their House Bank accounts that were greater in value than what they had in their allotment accounts. The moneys were always repaid, but Congress Critters’ use of government funds to provide interest-free loans on expenditures fit too precisely with the public’s view of Congress being an irresponsible spending machine. In truth, the practice went back to at least 1984, was not limited to Democrats, and extended well beyond the House. (One of the worst regular offenders was then-Sec. of Defense Dick Cheney.) However, the vast majority of the House members identified in the Roll Call’s report were indeed Democrats. Talk radio hosts seized on the scandal as an opportunity to create an increased level of dissatisfaction with voters. As a result, large numbers of traditionally safe incumbents were thrown from office in the ’94 elections, including many that had not been involved in the scandal. When the smoke cleared the GOP had its first House majority in four decades, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that its burgeoning media machine had enabled their victory.
Despite all of the successes the new conservatives and their media earned, however, they were entirely unable to gain any traction in taking down the man and woman they hated most: William Jefferson Clinton and his wife Hillary. It vexed them; they continued to win ground battle after ground battle, only to see this pot-smoking, Pinko-loving turncoat remain popular by co-opting their most well received policy ideas. Every talk radio show in America had their sights drawn squarely on Clinton, only to see him outplay them time and time again. It didn’t seem fair (and it truly wasn’t), but it was becoming more and more obvious that the battleground of Washington politics was Clinton’s home turf. Try as you might, you just couldn’t beat Slick Willy at his own game.
So, after two years of watching conservatives banging their head against a wall, Jerry Falwell decided to play a different game altogether. And in 1994, he used $200,000 of his own money to fund a small-budget film that accused the President and the First Lady of murdering Vince Foster.
Foster was a White House staffer who suffered from clinical depression. After being painted unfavorably by the media in the Travelgate scandal, Foster committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in a parked car. There was no evidence that any crime had been committed, let alone that the Clintons had perpetrated one. Still, Falwell’s The Clinton Chronicles claimed otherwise. Today, most of those whose testimony takes place in the film admit that the “evidence” provided was made up, such as an erroneous claim that Foster’s head had no exit wound. Director Patrick Matrisciana, who had previously directed small religious self-help videos such as Is There Life After Marriage, noted later that Falwell orchestrated a phony interview where Matrisciana was instructed to lie about having reason to fear for his life from the Clintons.
The Clinton Chronicles was not entirely unusual for its time. Many conspiracy theorists in the 60s, 70s and 80s turned to cheap (and badly made) filmmaking to pitch their cases. Lyndon LaRousche, perennial third-party presidential candidate, felon, and all around crackpot made such films frequently. These films went largely unnoticed, though, and existed primarily as vanity projects. Falwell and Matrisciana, however, had the luck of God’s timing on their side. The burgeoning conservative media took to the Vince Foster story like a moth to a flame, and by doing so they were rewarded: talking about Foster and The Clinton Chronicles was pure gold. Ratings and newsletter subscription rates soared. Because the new media was based on a shock-radio format model, the accuracy of the story was immaterial. Slowly but surely, the Vince Foster murder became the conservative story of early 1994. By August, Kenneth Starr would be selected as Independent Council to investigate the matter as part of his Whitewater probe; that investigation would take several Rube-Goldberg-like twists before it actually lead to Clinton’s impeachment.
If there was a lesson in all of this for the new conservative media, it was this: being dishonest could actually lead to higher ratings, provided that the story was sensational and primed correctly. If the dishonest claims made the other team look bad, then that was even better. Seeing the financial success that “stories” like the Foster murder begat, Roger Ailes correctly deduced that the same formula that worked so well on talk radio could be harnessed for a television news network. After taking the helm at Fox news in 1996 he replaced the network’s primetime traditional news show, The Schneider Report, with muckrakers Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Is it really that big of a leap to imagine that from such a beginning, we would come to a place where news networks regularly made up fictitious stories in an attempt to sway elections?
Mind you, it wasn’t just the conservatives that learned this cynical lesson. There is, of course, plenty of terrible, partisan pseudo-journalism on both sides of the aisle. As I noted last June, I’ve actually witnessed Ed Shultz “report” (without evidence) that Mitt Romney was working with sinister forces to purposefully eliminate the middle class. The one time I watched liberal anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, it was hard to believe he wasn’t a paid Obama staffer. As I say, there really is plenty of legitimate finger pointing to go around. The difference between conservative pseudo-journalism and liberal pseudo-journalism – and the reason the GOP is threatened in a way the DNC is not – is that only one side’s propaganda arm has power over the party for which it was created. This has nothing to do with the relative moral superiority of either side; it has everything to do with the size of audience each draws.
Whatever the reasons for the disparity, there is little doubt that today’s right wing simply consumes its bulls**t in greater doses than does the left wing. MSNBC, the famed left-wing propaganda vehicle posing as a news network, made horse-race ratings news of its own last month. “Anti-FOX Gains Ground,” shouted an optimistic Huffington Post headline, as it reported that MSNBC’s growing viewership was so off the hook that for a couple of weeks they were only losing to FOX by a factor of two.
There is also the case of Air America, the much ballyhooed liberal “answer” to conservative talk radio. To be certain, its format was every bit as shock-driven and conspiracy-laden as its right wing competitors’. Mark Malloy, Air America’s evening host, often referred to the then-president’s family as the “Bush crime family” and “rat bastards;” wild tales of our country being taken over by Halliburton execs were often breathlessly reported. But for whatever reason, Air America never connected with its target audience the way right wing talk radio had. The network went bankrupt in 2010 after years of anemic ratings and negative net revenue. Its highest rated show ever drew approximately 1.5 million listeners a week. As a comparison point, conservative media staple Rush Limbaugh alone regularly draws almost 15 million. In fact, Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Neal Boortz, Laura Ingram, and Art Bell’s Coast to Coast each draw more weekly listeners than all the shows on Air America combined drew at the network’s peak. Liberal propagandists would, I’m sure, love to have the power over the Democrats that conservative propagandists have over the GOP. But they can’t; they just don’t have the juice.
(Tellingly, the only non-mainstream media news shows that have broken through to hold steady audiences of mainstream liberals are satires of cable news. Even then, however, tu quoque comparisons to conservative media lack punch: both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are happy to target liberal politicians as well as conservative, and they actually spend most of their time targeting the political media.)
The mainstream media itself has not been unaffected by ill-gotten ratings gains, of course. In 2004, Dan Rather erroneously reported that George W. Bush had shirked his duties in the National Guard. More recently, NBC was caught editing a 911 call in an attempt to make the Trayvon Martin shooting seem even more sensational. Even so, the comparisons of these true outrages to Fox’s shenanigans are not entirely apples-to-apples. When the mainstream media is caught with its pants down, it is forced to make a correction and people get fired. What’s more, other mainstream news desks report on their brethren’s transgressions. On the other hand, when Fox is caught fibbing, other parts of the conservative media machine hold their tongue. If Fox has ever corrected, apologized or fired producers when they’ve been caught making fiction, I have yet to see so.
But for Republicans, the troubling difference isn’t simply in the way their media behaves; it’s the way the two party react to their respective media. When MSNBC, liberal talk radio, or even NBC puts their foot in it, Democratic politicians and policy makers are not beholden to sacrifice their own credibility by picking up and running with the polished turd they’ve been handed. MSNBC’s Ed Shultz may be every bit the ass that Sean Hannity is, but liberals have no problem publicly sending him to the woodshed if he steps over the line. If a high-ranking member of the DNC is caught disagreeing with something Garrison Keillor says, he isn’t forced to travel to Lake Woebegone and grovel for forgiveness.
At this moment, we are speeding toward a Fiscal Cliff that should have been put to bed weeks ago. The Republicans just lost an election, are tanking in the polls, and do not have the elected body count to give a “my way or the highway” ultimatum to Democrats. And yet this is exactly what the media machine is pushing them to do. Doing so will be politically disastrous for the GOP, and might actually negatively impact their chances as far away as 2014. Media pundits, on the other hand, know that such a crisis would be a boon during the traditional slow-news days that post-election time brings. (And let’s be honest – going over the fiscal cliff would make it easy to continue to sell advertisements for products that cater to the end-of-civilization set.)
When the League conservatives did their fantastic post-election podcast, most of them discounted the negative impact that the conservative media machine has on the Republican Party. The most common reason given was they didn’t really pay attention to what that media machine did. This is not such an uncommon response; most levelheaded Republicans I know say the exact same thing. As much as I respect all of the contributors and guests that recorded the podcast, I have to say that in light of what is happening to the GOP I find this attitude terribly irresponsible. For right or wrong, the conservative media now defines both the GOP and its agenda. Like it or not, John Boehner is not the public face that independents see; nor is Eric Cantor, or even Mitt Romney. No, the face of today’s Republican Party for most of America is Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and the veritable cavalcade of circus performers that dominate the Fox News airwaves. And here’s the thing: outside of their relatively small audience, no one likes them very much.
America needs a conservative party. Not simply a party that throws the word “conservatism” around as if it were a religious mantra, but an actual party of grown-ups dedicated to keeping the inevitable tide of progressivism from turning into dangerous radicalism. We don’t have that today. There are no Ronald Reagans waiting in the wings of the Republican Party right now; there are only media hucksters willing to sell us his likeness on cheap, made-in-China collector plates.
Republicans need to start becoming a political party again, rather than simply a marketing arm for a multi-media conglomerate. If they don’t they can kiss power goodbye for a long time. And in the unlikely possibility that they do somehow win the White House in 2016, it won’t be an Edmund Burke White House. It will be a Roger Ailes White House.
And a Roger Ailes White House will be many, many things. But “conservative” ain’t one of them.
|The Daily Show with Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Sean Hannity Uses Glenn Beck’s Protest Footage|
Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts about the right wing media machine, and how it has gone from being an asset to a liability for both the GOP and the advancement of conservatism in America.
The initial post, which was written back during the Sandra Fluke affair, can be found here. The second installment, where I began to ague that the tipping point I worried about last spring had finally arrived this past election is here. A look at this summer’s right wing media meme that Obama was working with the United Nations to eliminate the second amendment and take your guns is here. A look at how creating a fictional scandal around Benghazi ultimately made any actual scandals politically irrelevant is here.