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How Did We Get The Media We Have?

gop-media-complex.jpgThe other day I was cleaning out my closet of old stuff and found a series of newspaper columns by people who probably wouldn’t get their feet in the door were they starting out in today’s conservative-dominated media:  Tom Wicker, Molly Ivins, Andrew Greeley, Garry Wills, Carl Rowan, Jack Anderson, Mary McGrory…

What happened to our media over the past three decades?  How did we get to the point where someone like Molly Ivins couldn’t get a job as a receptionist at most major papers, while conservatively-correct dingdongs like David Brooks, Michael Gerson, Debra Saunders, William Kristol, John Tierney, and Ben Domenech are considered smart hires?

This is how:

Proclaiming their movement a war of ideas, conservatives began to mobilize resources for battle in the 1960s. They built new institutional bastions; recruited, trained, and equipped their intellectual warriors; forged new weapons as cable television, the Internet, and other communications technologies evolved; and threw their resources into policy and political battles.

By 1984, moderate Republican John Saloma warned of a "major new presence in American politics." If left unchecked, he accurately predicted, "the new conservative labyrinth" would pull the nation’s political center sharply to the right. Today, that labyrinth is larger, more sophisticated, and increasingly able to influence what gets on and what stays off the public policy agenda.  From the decision to abandon the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor, to changes in the federal tax structure, to interest in medical savings accounts and the privatization of Social Security, conservative policy ideas and rhetoric have come to dominate the nation’s political conversation, reflecting what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham has called a "hegemony of market theology."

Spearheading the assault has been a core group of 12 conservative foundations: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Carthage Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the Charles G. Koch, David H. Koch and Claude R. Lambe charitable foundations, the Phillip M. McKenna Foundation, the JM Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Henry Salvatori Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. In 1994, they controlled more than $1.1 billion in assets; from 1992-94, they awarded $300 million in grants, and targeted $210 million to support a wide array of projects and institutions. Over the last two decades, the 12 have mounted an impressively coherent and concerted effort to shape public policy by undermining and ultimately redirecting what they regard as the institutional strongholds of modern American liberalism: academia, Congress, the judiciary, executive branch agencies, major media, religious institutions, and philanthropy itself.

The movement did indeed start in the 1960s after the Goldwater loss, but the biggest push came in the wake of Watergate.  Conservatives were itching for revenge for Nixon’s downfall — which they blamed not on his own criminal activities but on the media and on those politicians who refused to protect him, such as Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker — and Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary, William Simon, set forth the blueprints:

As the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon presidency in 1973, conservatives rallied to Nixon’s defense. With more than $1 million, Coors and Scaife christened the Heritage Foundation as a conservative flagship. But the right lacked the political clout to save Nixon. His Watergate ouster in 1974 and America’s defeat in Vietnam in 1975 only put larger chips on the conservatives’ shoulders.

In 1978, Nixon’s friend and Treasury Secretary William Simon again trumpeted the need for a conservative establishment. "Funds generated by business … must rush by the multimillion to the aid of liberty … to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty," Simon wrote in his book, Time for Truth. Simon used his post as head of the Olin Foundation to put its money where his mouth was.

The "bosses" of this Right-Wing Machine were an odd mix of political moneymen and ideological strategists. They included embittered ex-leftists Kristol and Podhoretz; ultra-conservative tycoons Scaife, Coors and Simon; right-wing apparatchiks Paul Weyrich and Michael Joyce; and libertarian oil men Charles and David Koch.

But the machine benefitted from cooperation among these leading funders. The "bosses" often coordinated giving to the same think tanks; they sat on each others’ boards; and they adopted broad strategy through organizations such as the Philanthropy Roundtable. "This is a highly networked group," noted Covington.

(By the way, Rupert Murdoch wasn’t the first archconservative to own a TV network, or even the first TV network owner to employ former RNC chair Roger Ailes.  Jack Welch owned NBC a decade before Murdoch started up FOX News, and he had Ailes as a big kahuna in the NBC news staff before Murdoch hired the lad to run his propaganda channel.  And as Joe Conason noted for Salon in 2002 (h/t The Consortium), CBS’ and AOL/Time Warner’s bosses were also hardcore conservative Republicans.  But I digress.)

One of the things to bear in mind about these people is that they know how to create and run very effective groups.  The biggest factor is making sure that their attack groups are funded 24/7/365, which makes it easy for them to mount speedy and hard-hitting attacks and counterattacks.  (Conversely, Sheldon Adelson, who had pledged to fund Ari Fleischer’s group "Freedom’s Watch" to the tune of $200-plus-million but failed to do so — probably because he’s been too busy trying to make Bibi Netanyahu the Israeli prime minister once again — wound up limiting Freedom’s Watch’s effectiveness, as it wasn’t able to spring into action as desired during the early part of the 2008 election cycle.)

Meanwhile, for far too long, far too many progressives — at least those with enough money to get any balls rolling — either had no idea what was happening or would refuse to put any skin in the game to mount effective pushback.  The attempt to create progressive radio analogues of the hate-radio shows that have owned the AM dial ever since the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine — a repeal the conservatives pushed as they were ready and waiting to cultivate certain key hate-radio artists and make national stars out of them — has been hobbled by the unwillingness of many key funders to understand radio or to understand the need to nurture potential radio stars through their early, and often nonlucrative, years.   And of course efforts to so much as buy a premium cable channel for progressives haven’t gone very far.  

The internet, however, is another matter.  It is on blogs and websites that I can find voices to match the wit and brilliance and integrity and ferocity I found in my early heroes like Molly Ivins and Garry Wills and Jack Anderson.   It’s no accident that, even though the righty bloggers got to the net first, the lefty bloggers wound up overtaking them in readership, to the point where Daily Kos alone gets more readers than the whole of the conservative side of the blogosphere.  While the members of the GOP/Media Complex duly kneel at the feet of Republicans like John McCain, blogs like FDL and Daily Kos will gladly expose the frailties of both McCain and the press that loves him oh so much.  

What’s more, well-to-do persons like George Soros, who aren’t necessarily progressives but who can’t stomach the rapacious, oncological, world-destroying greed of the conservatives, are now funding online independent media groups — and attracting the shrieking notice of right-wingers alarmed at the idea that progressives may have finally learned how to fight back.  (In fact, right now, the Soros-supported online news site the Minnesota Independent — formerly the Minnesota Monitorhas more staff in DC than do both the Twin Cities’ major dailies combined.)   This is the wave of the future, and for now we own it — but we’ll have to work hard to stay on top of it.

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