How Much Do Conservatives Actually Care About Media Bias?

Compared to the Reagan years when there were literally four conservative publications: the Washington Times, Human Events, the American Spectator, and National Review—the media environment on the right has exploded in size.

While there are more right-leaning publications than before, given the left’s still overwhelming dominance of the mainstream media, have things really changed that much since Reagan’s day?

Leaving aside the efforts of the Media Research Center and its journalism division CNSNews.com (given my obvious conflict of interest in the matter), the case could be made that in dollar amounts, conservatives have actually done rather little to change the media landscape.

Sure, there are a lot of commentary radio shows out there now and there are a handful of right-leaning outlets that actually do report news. But compared to the billions that conservatives have spent on television ads and junk mail, the amount the right has spent on news is, sadly, rather pitiful.

But beyond just the expenditures, the fact is that too much of the conservative writing and videos that are being produced are pieces which are less about reporting and more about opinioneering. This is a very real problem for the right since solid, well-researched reporting and a media network to push this reporting out to the politically uninformed are of much greater value than television ads and labeled opinion pieces.

Ironically, while many conservatives (especially those in the donor class) have mostly ignored this point, some on the left have taken note. One of them is Huffington Post reporter Michael Calderone who has a very interesting piece out today on the conservative media environment.

It isn’t as complete as it could be since it ignores some very innovative journalism being produced by my colleagues over at CNSNews.com and it leaves out examination of outlets like Newsmax and WorldNetDaily. It also clearly has been hacked up by an editor trying to make it more palatable to the Huffington Post’s leftist reader base. It also persists in describing “The National Review” even though the has never been part of the publication’s name. I also think Calderone is incorrect in his discussion of the prostitution allegations unearthed by conservative reporter Matthew Boyle against New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez.

All that said, the piece offers an interesting look at the state of conservative journalism, including some recent controversies involving bloggers being paid to write material without disclosing it to their audience. Calderone also did some extensive interviews with several people on the right who are yearning for more just-the-facts journalism and less sermonizing.

The [sic] National Review, a leading voice in the conservative movement since 1955, isn't cutting back on opinion writing or strong editorial stands. But Costa and his team of three reporters are gaining recognition inside Republican circles and among the Washington media establishment for actually making calls, staking out the Capitol and breaking news. Costa recently reported the inside story of the attempted House GOP "coup" against Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and scooped that former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will speak at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.

It's the type of shoe-leather reporting that many political observers and even some prominent conservatives claim is sorely lacking on the right. Their critiques seemed confirmed this past month as several conservative media-driven stories fell flat, from speculation that Chuck Hagel wouldn’t be confirmed as defense secretary to reports that he’d spoken to a shadowy (and fictitious) group called "Friends of Hamas." On Friday, a prominent conservative writer and commentator was found to have been heavily involved in a paid propaganda operation funded by the Malaysian government. […]

And so, while outlets like The Daily Caller, Breitbart News and the Washington Free Beacon have sprouted and, in some cases, prospered during President Barack Obama's administration, concern is mounting that they and others in the conservative media universe are shedding their credibility by focusing more on supposed scandals than reporting the basics of who, what, when, where, why and how.

"There's absolutely no pretense from any of these publications of giving a policy a sort of objective hearing,” Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, told The Huffington Post. "It's very clear that it comes from the same mindset as talk radio and Fox News. This is something that's by and for a particular kind of conservative." McCarthy hesitated before asking, "It’s a circle jerk, isn’t it?"

RedState editor Erick Erickson argued last week that conservative outlets have been "failing to advance ideas and stories" beyond their ideological borders. "The echo in the chamber has gotten so loud it is not well understood outside the echo chamber in the mainstream press and in the public," Erickson wrote. "It translates only as anger and noise, neither of which are conducive to the art of persuasion."

It has indeed been the case that some conservative scoops have had trouble gaining mainstream traction because they are not as newsy (such as the attempts to somehow “revet” Barack Obama even though he was already the president) but that has not been the sole cause. The right faces a very real “channel” problem in the retailing sense of the word—the people who control the much larger distribution platforms of broadcast television and major newspapers are almost all very liberal. For a variety of reasons, they are thus less inclined to spread messages harmful to Democrats or skeptical of governmental action.

This fact does not absolve conservatives from any sort of blame, however. In fact, the left’s control of the biggest media institutions has been known of by conservatives for decades now. Yet despite this knowledge, conservatives have spent almost nothing (comparatively speaking) to fix things.

There are two solutions to this problem:

  1. Educate the public to understand that the “mainstream” press is really just a bunch of left-wing Democrats.

  2. Don’t just beat the media, be the media.

Given the large number of Americans who now correctly perceive the existing media hierarchy as being on the side of statism, the first point is well along the way to being taken care of. We at the Media Research Center are doing our part with our new campaign asking the media to “stop censoring the news.”

The second point has been mostly ignored by the right, largely because many of the conservative and Republican elites persist in believing the fantasy that if they somehow get just the right message, they will be able to break through the left’s monopoly on media. This will never happen.

As Noel Sheppard and I noted in November in an essay for the American Spectator, the Mitt Romney 2012 strategy was a perfect illustration of how a very good message can’t carry the day. During the campaign, about the only thing Romney ever talked about was the economy and how bad things were. None of his rhetoric really mattered, though, because the media simply did not inform Americans about how gas prices were much higher under Obama than ever before or that Obama and his team actually want energy costs to go upward so as to make their “green” solutions more economically competitive.

All of these things were stories which were regularly being discussed on right-leaning websites. The sad reality is, however, that online properties are simply not enough. Neither is spending on think tanks to produce conservative policies. In most cases, people have to go out of their way to hear or read conservative perspectives. Flipping through their television sets, the average person is inundated with news channels and local programming that is almost uniformly created by left-of-center editors and reporters. Ditto for when they click over to Facebook or their email.

This constant inundation of left-leaning messages has had a very real effect on Americans. Huge percentages of people, not just loyal Obama voters, thought the economy was doing well even when it was in the depths of recession. Huge numbers of people think that Republicans are just a bunch of white devout Protestants even though reality indicates otherwise. A majority of Americans appear not to know that Obama is deliberating using the budget sequester as a means to cause pain to the public and then blame it on Republicans.

None of this ought to surprise because in the Information Age, those who control the media control the politics.

Since the Romney defeat, there has been some speculation about whether Ronald Reagan could have defeated Barack Obama in 2012. I think he could have, but only because he understood the paramount importance of communications. He was such an exceptional candidate that he was able to overcome a media environment that was just as much against him as the current one was against Mitt Romney.

But there was only one Ronald Reagan. And it is unwise and unrealistic for conservatives to continually expect someone of his unique gifts and knowledge to become their standard bearer year in and year out. Instead of hoping for the perfect candidate, conservatives need to do better at creating a positive climate for their ideas to flourish in. In a more hospitable climate, candidates of any ability will be able to win.

The current state of affairs is not just bad for conservatives. It’s bad for America. Sadly, the only people who can really change it are the same people who blew their money on cookie-cutter television ads and junk mail that was promptly thrown in the trash. Following the 2004 election, the wealthiest donors on the left got together and drastically overhauled their giving. A similarly drastic realization needs to happen on the right after 2012. Until media-savvy conservatives can break through to wealthy donors on the right—such as Sheldon Adelson, Bob Perry, Jerry Perenchio, Charles Koch, David Koch, and Patrick Durkin—things will never change.

Not only do conservatives need to do better at actually covering the news, they need more platforms from which their news coverage can be heard. As it is, a handful of websites and newspapers, some talk radio shows, and one television network that isn't overtly leftist is not enough to get the message out. We need more scoops, more commodity political news, more investigations, more of everything.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013