Conservatives trust conservative media. Here’s why.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Photo: Getty Images

Last week on Twitter, as bombs were arriving at the mailing addresses of some of Donald Trump’s prominent political opponents, the president charged the mainstream media with fueling “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society.” Some of Trump’s critics offered their own theories of radicalization and media influence: As The Washington Post’s Molly Roberts put it, the bomber’s online footprint suggested he had been inspired, in part, by a right-wing conspiracy machine—one amplifying falsehoods from the Internet fringes to hubs of attention like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

As the 2018 midterms unfold in a feverishly polarized atmosphere, conservative media institutions appear more influential than ever. One recent poll indicated that more than 90 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that traditional news media knowingly report false or misleading information “a lot” or “sometimes.” Conservative news outlets have rushed into the vacuum of trust.

ICYMI: What if the right-wing media wins?

Though conservative news institutions have been growing for decades, scholars have only sporadically considered them subjects of serious attention. Researchers who have studied conservative news have come from fields ranging from history to political science to journalism studies, but they have only rarely worked in conversation with each other.

We are co-editing a book on conservative news cultures that we’re hoping will help bring together different strands of research. We’re also working, along with Magda Konieczna of Temple University, with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism on research to illuminate the news values and routines animating conservative newsroom through interviews with conservative news reporters and editors.

As the midterm elections near, we want to want to answer some frequently asked questions about U.S. conservative news media:

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

Many conservative media commentators are convinced that mainstream journalism is deeply biased against conservatives. Where does the notion of “liberal bias” in news media come from? When did that become a common trope?

Right-wing claims of media bias date back as early as the late 1930’s—in publications such as Joseph P. Kamp’s anti-communist newsletter Headlines, and What’s Behind Them. In the 1940’s, however, common sense held that most major US newspapers exhibited a conservative political bias. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was fond of claiming that “85 percent” of newspapers opposed his administration and its New Deal policies. Many of the progressive media reform efforts of that decade were premised in part on ensuring that conservative press bias would not extend to commercial radio. That changed with the onset of the Cold War, when right-leaning anti-communists began accusing both the press and broadcasters of towing the Communist Party line.

Indeed, growing belief in the “liberal media” keeps pace with the rise of the modern conservative movement. H.L. Hunt’s Facts Forum, among the earliest efforts to foster modern conservatism at the grassroots, launched in 1951 with the express purpose of fighting putative news bias against his nascent, contemporary-conservative worldview. Framing conservatism (what he termed “constructivism”) as a right-center philosophy, Hunt argued that the public “cannot be pacified with the part and kinds of news which Left Wing workers or Right Side partisans are willing to let them have.” He designed Facts Forum radio and television programs to air “both sides” of a debate, yet he routinely placed a thumb on the scale of the conservative view. Hunt’s media empire ceased operation in 1956, but it popularized a skeptical conservative disposition toward the press, and even gave a young William F. Buckley his televisual debut.

Buckley’s National Review magazine,launched in 1955, not only played a crucial role in legitimating conservatism within elite political circles, but also did so against a “liberal media” foil—or, as Buckley wrote in the magazine’s first issue, “the delinquencies of the Liberal press.” By the 1960’s, media criticism was already a mainstay of conservative political discourse. The following decade, thanks to the Nixon administration’s open animosity toward the press, “liberal media” bias increasingly became an object of journalistic and scholarly debate.

The volume of conservative media criticism—and with it belief in a “liberal media”—increased exponentially with the emergence of conservative talk radio, in the late 1980’s; again with the launch of Fox News, in the late 1990’s;  again with the right-wing blogosphere, in the early aughts; and once more with the rise of social media.

 

What schools of thought are represented under the rubric of “conservative?” What are some of the major differences among competing news outlets that each claim the mantle of conservatism?

For years, self-identified conservatives and their critics have debated the constitutive ideologies of post-war or modern conservatism.

The simplest definition, developed by George Nash, an intellectual historian of conservatism , contends that modern conservatism involves the fusion of three previously discrete schools of thought: libertarianism, anti-communism, and religio-cultural traditionalism. Others figures, most notably Corey Robin, a political theorist, contend that Nash’s definition ignores conservatism’s deep investment in ascriptive interest-based politics—namely maintaining racial, gender, and class status.

But modern conservatism is a historical phenomenon, which is why news plays such an important role in how we understand it at any given moment. From the beginning, conservative media activists have reflexively shaped their political ideas in dialogue with the news of their day.

For example, when William F. Buckley founded the National Review, he aligned conservatism with opposition to civil rights activists. When that movement succeeded in making overt support for state-enforced discrimination less politically palatable, Buckley’s magazine re-framed conservatism’s racial investments in more colorblind terms.

This sort of conservative respectability politics has played a crucial role in internal movement schisms and the related proliferation of conservative media outlets. Conservatives feel the need to respond to mainstream journalistic narratives that have sometimes depicted conservative ideas as skirting the political fringe.

Perhaps the most pertinent contemporary example of conservatives struggling for mainstream respectability is the battle between President Trump and his “Never Trump” conservative critics. Never Trumpers, who have counted the National Review among their friendly outlets, tend to represent the deeply entrenched (and historically successful) neo-liberal or neo-conservative wings of the modern conservative movement. The increasing influence of Breitbart, which has always been resoundingly pro-Trump, can be traced in part  to Steve Bannon’s orientation of the site toward overtly racist, nationalist, and paleo-conservative aspects of modern conservatism—the ascriptive interest-based politics noted by Robin.

Tensions between conservatism’s ideological and identitarian tendencies play out across the conservative media and have resulted in renewed internal movement debates over who is allowed to claim conservative political identity. These efforts sometimes take aim at a specific person, as in a case when a group of conservative thinkers and pundits affiliated with the American Principles Project, a libertarian and social conservative-leaning nonprofit, publicly challenged the conservative bona fides of Jennifer Rubin, a columnist for the Washington Post.

 

America has a long history of partisan news outlets. Is it fair to say that both right and left partisan views have developed their own parallel worlds of news media?

It is true that discrete news cultures exist on both the political left and right. It does not follow that their worlds are parallel. Conservative news cultures differ from their liberal and left counterparts in terms of structure, style, and proximity to professional journalistic values.

As scholars at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society recently demonstrated, online political polarization has developed asymmetrically. The online right-wing mediasphere tends to be more self-referential and insular, with conservative media producers and consumers more likely to link to or cite other conservative media outlets, and less likely to interact with professional, mainstream journalism sites, than their centrist, liberal, or leftist counterparts.

There is good reason for this insularity and asymmetry. Since its outset, the modern conservative movement has framed its various alternative media outlets as providing truths elided by high-modern professional journalistic conceptions of objectivity, fairness, and balance. Belief in a “liberal media” has both made conservatives more skeptical of professional journalism and—because of their reliance on movement-backed or ideology-reinforcing media sources to fill in the gaps of mainstream media reporting—more prone to misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories. In other words, conservatives are more likely to believe “fake news.”

Stylistically, conservatives have become accustomed to the news values developed by tabloid newspapers and television programming. There is a rich history of conservative commentary employing high-brow style and a rational-critical deliberative tone (see especially William F. Buckley, but also more recently Ben Shapiro), but commercially successful conservative news sources (from talk radio to Fox News) have tended to employ more populist rhetoric than do comparable sources on the liberal-left.

 

Are there conservative news organizations that share many of the same basic journalistic values as mainstream professional journalists—fairness, detachment, separating facts from values, etc.?

There are two ways we might interpret this question. One is whether conservative outlets practice these values; the other is whether they endorse such values.

Liberal media watchdogs typically argue that the practices of conservative outlets fail to meet the standards of professional journalism. Yet it may be just as an important to consider if conservative outlets articulate their own ideals and standards and, if so, how similar those standards are to the norms of traditional journalism. (We should bear in mind that conservative news organizations are not a monolith, and will not all operate according to the same values.)

Nicole Hemmer, a historian at the University of Virginia, offers an illustrative example of how conservative media activists in the 1950’s and ‘60s developed a news judgment and style all their own. This was a rather elite group, including Buckley, who nevertheless felt locked outside of mainstream political institutions because of their views. So they built their own media outlets.

As they created their own media, they advanced a conception of journalism with norms quite distinct from reigning professional ideals. According to Hemmer, they argued that “there was no such thing as non-ideological media, that objectivity was a mask mainstream media used to hide their own ideological projects.” Hemmer suggests that, rather than aspire to make impartial or objective judgments,  these conservative news outlets offered an alternative way of discerning truth—one intimately bound to ideological integrity.

 

What do we know about conservative news audiences? What draws consumers to conservative outlets and do they typically tune in to those sources exclusively?

The Pew Research Center has been conducting large-scale surveys, which indicate that attitudes about news media and news habits differ dramatically between conservatives and liberals, especially among the most consistent partisans. In 2016, Pew found that Fox News was named as the “main source” of news for 40 percent of Trump voters while Clinton voters were more dispersed across outlets, with only 3 percent naming Fox News as their main source. That said, while many signs point to partisan fragmentation among news audiences, it does not appear that many US citizens reside in hermetically-sealed echo chambers where they rarely encounter opposing views.

Apart from survey data, we have few in-depth accounts of how conservative news consumers make judgments about truth or decide what news sources and stories they find compelling.

In 2017, Francesca Tripodi, a sociologist at James Madison University, conducted an ethnographic study for Data & Society, a research institute, of the news practices of upper-middle class, Christian conservatives in Virginia. She offers a detailed account of a practice she calls “scriptural inference,” through which some Christian conservatives “apply the same type of close reading that they were taught in Bible study to mainstream media.” This practice involves skepticism and searching for evidence.

Many of Tripodi’s interviewees rely heavily on Google searches to “do their own research” when news claims seem unreliable. This may amplify partisan biases: Not only are results influenced by Google’s personalization and user profiling, but the exact wording of a search matters immensely. For instance, consider a Google fact check of President Trump’s claim that player protests have caused NFL ratings to plummet—Tripodi demonstrates that a search for “NFL Ratings Down” largely yields headlines bolstering Trump’s assertion. However, a search for “NFL Ratings Up” produces conflicting results.

The prospect of deep differences separating conservative news outlets from professional norms may be intriguing to some, frightening to others. But exactly what types of journalistic norms do different conservative news outlets embrace? Which professional practices might they see as fundamentally flawed? These questions are still unresolved and point to the need for more research on and engagement with conservative news outlets.

One of us (Nadler) has been conducting interviews with conservative news consumers in Southeastern Pennsylvania. A theme that has emerged is that many conservative news consumers feel strongly that their personal identity, as conservative, is under assault by liberals and liberal institutions. Many interviewees believe that liberals see conservatives as deeply morally flawed and seek to humiliate them and exclude them from any legitimate place in political discourse.

Conservative news amplifies these beliefs by focusing on stories that reinforce them. The intense feelings of threat can make any criticism of conservative politicians or policies—whether lodged by news commentators or celebrities—appear tied to efforts to humiliate conservatives. This is part of what makes the overarching story told by conservative news compelling to its audiences: Not only is so much at stake in terms of political outcome, but also the political contest is pitched as a battle with forces striving to degrade and shame the very conservative identity shared among the audience.

ICYMI: The clause freelance writers should fight to remove from their contracts

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

AJ Bauer and Anthony Nadler