Commentary Politics

Right-Wing Media Is a Domestic Threat to the Republic

Mike Stark

Talk radio’s power will continue to be a dominant force until the nuts and bolts of elections are dismantled and rebuilt with a more resilient design.

President Donald Trump and his administration have demonstrated the ability to send the news cycle into overdrive at will. From the weighty and consequential (travel bans, the aggressive deportation policy, unqualified political appointees) to the prosaic (the Emoluments Clause, too much golfing), controversy and headlines follow the new president the way stink follows a garbage truck.

Of course, many Trump controversies are birthed from his personal Twitter account. For nearly a decade, the president has demonstrated a weakness for right-wing propaganda and conspiracy, and Twitter is often the platform he uses to advance his baseless—and dangerous—opinions. Serious legal scholars have even suggested that some of Trump’s tweets as president constitute impeachable offenses.

Of course, if Trump were impeached, a Mike Pence presidency would follow. And that raises an important question: Where does Vice President Pence get his news? On what basis would he develop policy?

If the answers to those questions can be inferred from the results of an important study published in the Columbia Journalism Review on March 3, many will find them to be troubling. The study, authored by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman researched more than 1.25 million articles published in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, finding:

[A] right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda.

and that:

[P]olarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season. [emphasis added]

The study ended on Election Day, but it is easy to find anecdotal evidence supporting the researchers’ findings that the Breitbart network is the core of an impermeable conservative media bubble.
For a striking example, recall March 4: Yes, it was only a week and a half ago that Trump tweeted thrice:

The tweets provoked sudden paroxysms of skepticism and indignation among the national media. The sitting president of the United States had accused his predecessor of ordering a literally Watergate-esque criminal conspiracy. Still operating under the old rules—rules holding that when a president of the United States utters words, it is important and serious—the media first reported the accusations and then asked for supporting evidence.

Of course, the old rules no longer apply. This is a president and administration prone to hyperbole, misstatement of fact, and bald prevarication, and it is ridiculous to assume anything the president says has even a tangential connection to fact or reality.

The day after the tweets were posted, Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman asked an important question in the New York Times: Where did President Trump get the paranoid idea that President Obama had monitored his phone calls?

The answer should trouble all Americans: President Trump acted on the basis of propaganda distributed by extreme right-wing radio host Mark Levin and his allies at the white nationalist site Breitbart News.

Baker and Haberman wrote:

It began at 6 p.m. Thursday as a conspiratorial rant on conservative talk radio: President Barack Obama had used the “instrumentalities of the federal government” to wiretap the Republican seeking to succeed him. This “is the big scandal,” Mark Levin, the host, told his listeners.

By Friday morning, the unsubstantiated allegation had been picked up by Breitbart News, the site once headed by President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. Less than 24 hours later, the president embraced the conspiracy in a series of Twitter posts accusing his predecessor of spying on him, setting in motion the latest head-spinning, did-he-really-say-that furor of Mr. Trump’s six-week-old presidency.

The Times report was not the first to connect President Trump to unreliable and partisan news sources. His favored media bubble of Fox & Friends, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Infowars (Alex Jones’ conspiracy program) is well known. Assuming the president’s media diet remains unchanged, we should expect more irresponsible tweets from the White House.

Even so, there is a more ominous perspective we must acknowledge: The president will continue to set policy and lead his executive agencies fueled by an information diet of right-wing misinformation.

Worse yet, President Trump is not a special case when it comes to media consumption. He appears to be a typical Republican, like Vice President Mike Pence.

You may have recently noticed commentators and pundits openly discussing the 25th Amendment remedy. These columns explain how the 25th Amendment can be used to remove a sitting president because he is incapable of fulfilling his duties (rather than by impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors”). The same amendment spells out the presidential succession chain; Vice President Mike Pence would assume the duties of the office for the duration of the term.

Whether remote or not, the possibility of President Mike Pence is worth examining. What kind of Republican is he? Is he cut from the same cloth as his boss, or is he a more “reasonable Republican?” Does he subscribe to what the study’s authors describe as “an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, [that] reinforce[s] the shared worldview of [its] readers and shield[s] them from journalism that challenge[s] it”?

The jury is still out on that question while evidence continues to accrue, but a clue may have come from Chris Plante.

Chris Plante is a nationally syndicated right-wing talk radio host based in Washington, D.C. Toward the end of his March 2 program, Plante spoke of meeting Vice President Pence at the Gridiron Club dinner. Plante related that he was “stopped [in his] tracks” when the Vice President shared that he is a listener.

Assuming Mr. Plante was telling the truth (a dangerous concession, but one necessary for the purposes of this article), we should want to know more about what he says on his radio program that makes him such a compelling listen for the Vice President of the United States. To learn more, I listened sporadically to his program this week finding:

  • Plante finds humor in the idea of journalist Scott Pelley inserting large objects into his own rectum:

And:

  • He is also dangerously anti-Muslim, as evidenced by him joking with a caller that her daughter serving in the Air Force should “accidentally” program the GPS coordinates of a women’s bathroom in Qatar into a smart bomb:

Vice President Pence also has appeared on the Rush Limbaugh program at least twice in recent weeks, suggesting that his commitment to right-wing talk media is genuine. In other words, if Vice President Pence were to assume the presidency, he should be expected to have, at least in part, internalized a world-view shaped by extremist right-wing propagandists and ideologues.

Right-Wing Propaganda: Rotting Our Entire Republic From Within

Dr. Brian Rosenwald earned his PhD in history from the University of Virginia with his dissertation, Mount Rushmore: The Rise of Talk Radio and Its Impact on Politics and Public Policy. Today, he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is a frequent commentator in both broadcast and print press. I interviewed him by email on March 8, asking him to share some nutshell insights into talk radio and its role in contemporaneous politics. He explained:

Talk radio is part of a broader conservative media constellation that is enormously powerful …. [I]n a very real way, Donald Trump winning [the] election provides a logical endpoint to the changes in politics and the media that began with Rush Limbaugh going national on August 1st, 1988. Stylistically, [Trump] embodies the talk radio ethos—he’s preaching from the talk radio hymnal. He focuses on black and white thinking, [and] simple, often incendiary rhetoric, with little concern for facts.

Congratulations America, you elected a talk-radio president. And, in case you didn’t know it, you elected a vice president who was a right-wing talk radio host before he ever held office. The vice president described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”

Dr. Rosenwald continued, explaining what we should expect from our talk radio president:

[Limbaugh, and by inference, Trump,] has a lot of very loyal fans, most of whom aren’t particularly perturbed by the fact that he crosses the line once in a while. The bond between talk radio host [] and listener is strong—they have a friendship. Some listeners “spend” more time with their favorite hosts than spouses. In a lot of cases, listeners feel like hosts are voicing things that they feel, but aren’t comfortable saying publicly for fear of being accused of racism, sexism, or another form of bigotry. Hosts challenge and chide the princes of political correctness loathed by their listeners. They speak up for a set of values that they share with listeners.

The upshot is that it will be very difficult to persuade Trump voters to abandon their “friend.” So long as Trump stands united with them against the “princes of political correctness,” Hollywood elites, coastal “in castrati,” and the “Democrat Party,” no amount of “pussy grabbing,” or Russian scandal, or murdering people in the middle of Times Square is going to diminish the support he enjoys from his base. To the contrary, the “politically incorrect” transgressions will cement his support; other scandals will be discounted as annoying attacks from the liberal “drive-by” media.

With a talk-radio president in the White House, and an actual, honest-to-goodness talk-radio host occupying the Naval Observatory, I wondered if talk radio has reached the peak of its power. Dr. Rosenwald responded:

In terms of whether talk radio’s power has peaked, I’d say no. The medium’s influence has diminished in the sense that the media landscape is far more crowded than in the halcyon days of talk radio in the ‘90s. I like to use the analogy of the way in which the importance of the only supermarket in a town would diminish if a second market opens up. Which is to say that in the ‘90s, if a Republican or conservative wanted to get a message to his/her base or to circumvent the mainstream media, they really could only turn to talk radio. Now they have many more options. But the message on talk radio compliments the message on conservative cable news and in conservative digital publications. Talkers source their topics from social media and conservative publications, many appear on Fox (Levin did both Fox and Friends and Hannity [last] week), etc. So conservative media is one constellation and its megaphone is actually larger now than it was two decades ago thanks to collective power. Republican politicians also still view talk radio as part of balanced communications plan.

Rosenwald continued, explaining key aspects of talk radio’s enduring power:

I can’t see the power of talk radio truly diminishing until we shift back to a place politically where general elections matter more than primaries in most places. Talk radio hosts are uniquely positioned to influence primary elections, where the turnout is low and the voters tend to be the sorts of engaged, conservative people who listen to talk radio. Voters can’t rely on party heuristics (i.e. the voter is a Republican so he/she votes for the Republican candidate). National talk radio can influence these races by undermining the benefits of incumbency—an interview on Mark Levin’s show for an insurgent primary challenger can produce a five-figure contribution spurt to his/her campaign. Local talk can boost these candidates by giving them a platform to reach primary voters, and in some cases, providing an endorsement to their “friends” in the audience. As the primary election is increasingly the most important one in scores of red districts and states (thanks to gerrymandering and natural geographic voter sorting/polarization), the impact/import of ideological media grows.

This is a lot to digest and very difficult to accept. Adding to a deep reservoir of commentary on the increasing importance of primaries in American politics, Rosenwald suggests that talk radio’s power will continue to be a dominant force until the nuts and bolts of elections are dismantled and rebuilt with a more resilient design that increases the diversity of powerful voices heard in Republican primaries.

If he is correct, the United States of America faces a threat from within unlike any it’s ever known. The fact is, conservatives control virtually all levers of the federal government, and the vast majority of the states. Talk radio and conservative propaganda work to their immense benefit; they cannot—and should not—be expected to level the playing field.

Many progressives were utterly shocked by the outcome of the last presidential election. The result defied every bit of faith they had in their fellow countrymen. It was simply inconceivable that we could have elected Donald Trump.

If progressives trust the system to self-correct rather than engaging their dispossessed neighbors, we may soon realize that our downward spiral has just begun.

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