The broader media angle, meanwhile, is touched on by estranged conservative David Frum, who in a column for The Week asks why such practices—which would be verboten at broadcast networks and major newspapers—are accepted within right-wing ranks. His final theory speculates that the situation Politico documents is the start of a broader trend:
3) Conservative media outlets are harbingers of an emerging American media culture defined by the collapse of traditional revenue sources. In this new world, revenue will be scarcer, competition for revenue more ferocious —and standards will be everywhere pushed downward by competitive pressure.
If this third theory is right, the media obsession with “objectivity” and “ethics” was a by-product of the short interval in which media companies enjoyed local monopolies and collected abundant revenues. The new technology of the 21st century is thrusting our media culture back toward the standards of the 19th century, when media and journalists candidly advocated the powerful interests that owned or employed them.
How persuasive is this? It’s certainly the case that mainstream outlets, like conservative talk show hosts, are exploring new revenue opportunities, and in some instances that exploration has come into conflict with what are understood to be ethical practices. (“Salongate” at The Washington Post, for example.) And it’s true that the rise of objectivity is often explained in economic terms, as a stance that allowed American publishers or broadcasters to sell their product to a politically diverse audience.
But as the sociologist Michael Schudson has argued, however, the roots of objectivity in American journalism can be understood differently: as a norm adopted and enforced by reporters and editors seeking to establish their occupation’s credentials as a profession.
The merits of that norm—and how well the press has adhered to it—are of course much debated. But for the present discussion, what matters is that it has never much applied to talk radio of any variety. The conservative blogger and talk show host Ed Morrissey, mocking the Politico story, argues that the many of the practices Vogel and McCalmont describe are standard fare for talk radio.
He’s correct, and in fact the Politico piece acknowledges as much. But that’s hardly a robust defense. And all it does is bring the issue back to a variation on Frum’s original question: not whether the revenue-generating tactics of conservative talk radio will spread to other media, but why conservatives built their media infrastructure around talk radio in the first place.