This week on the podcast, Mila hosts a fascinating talk with scholar Nicole Hemmer. Nicole is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, a deep-dive on the origins and impacts of right-wing media. If you’ve ever wondered why Fox News holds the top spot on cable news, or how the conservative media landscape continues to move away from the truth with impunity, make sure to check it out!
We also highly recommend her well-written and meticulously researched book. It may not be the summer reading you want, but it is the summer reading you need, especially as we hurtle towards the most fateful election in modern history.
According to Hemmer, several reasons exist for conservative media’s unprecedented staying power. Chief among them is the ability to play the victim, even while maintaining political power and media primacy throughout the country.
The Myth of Conservative Victimhood
The modern conservative movement started as the anti-interventionist movement of WWII. That movement—at one time considered the dominant mode of American political thought—really was censored.
“Neither of the two major parties agreed with you [at that time],” she told us. “You probably weren’t going to get to be a columnist in The New York Times. You probably weren’t going to be able to write for Henry Luce’s magazines because they were staunchly interventionist. And so that experience of feeling that they had been blacked out of the major parties and the major media outlets was a really formative experience.”
Nowadays, however, a liberal media bias does not exist. Journalists cover stories based on newsworthiness and report facts, some of which don’t jive with the carefully crafted conservative worldview. In fact, according to the study linked above, journalists are overly cautious in their reporting, thanks to the constant right-wing wolf-crying of liberal bias.
Further, the consolidation of media in the last decade created a proliferation of decidedly anti-liberal news outlets. Television dominates the American news landscape, and Fox News is the most-watched cable news outlet in America. Notoriously conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group owns 191 local TV stations in 89 markets and forces their anchors to read the same segments, like this creepy one about “fake news.”
Despite this, Republicans have a long history of pointing out the liberal media bias. The reason? “It’s actually kind of amazing how politically effective it is,” Hemmer said. “Finding these institutions where conservatives feel victimized, that then is really, really effective politically to sort of continue to nurture that sense of victimization.”
Hence, journalism continues to be widely viewed as being liberal. The same goes for universities and other places where facts outweigh rhetoric. Moreover, they’re allegedly working in tandem with the Democratic Party. According to the right, facts are conspiring against the election of Republican leaders, led by a sinister cabal of Democratic operatives. While this seems ridiculous, listeners primed to accept conservative talking-points and the deification of ideology readily accept these ideas.
Once liberal media bias is accepted by a majority of Americans, as it currently is, Republicans have another excuse to build power.
“Those ideas were really important because that then allowed the right to build their counter-institutions…that did all of those things that they accused mainstream media of doing,” Hemmer explained. “Because they made the argument that, say, The New York Times was an arm of the Democratic Party, they developed something like Fox News that actually would become an arm of the Republican Party.”
So, what is the solution? It’s hard to say. Hemmer says the American political right and left have fundamentally different views of truth. Conservatives believe faith-based claims, and liberals believe in facts and objective reality. There may never be a reconciliation, but understanding how conservative media uses ideas like liberal media bias to grab power is the first step in stopping their plans.
Bryan, Bob. “Sinclair Broadcast Group Owns Local News Stations across the US – Find out Whether Your Local Station Is One of Them.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 3 Apr. 2018, www.businessinsider.com/sinclair-broadcast-group-stations-by-state-list-2018-4.
Hassell, Hans J. G., et al. “There Is No Liberal Media Bias in Which News Stories Political Journalists Choose to Cover.” Science Advances, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1 Apr. 2020, advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/14/eaay9344.full.
Hemmer, Nicole. “Attacking the Press for Liberal Bias Is a Staple of Republican Campaigns — and It All Began in 1964.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Feb. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/02/29/opinions/lyndon-johnson-barry-goldwater-liberal-media-bias-hemmer/index.html.
Illing, Sean. “How Fox News Evolved into a Propaganda Operation.” Vox, Vox, 22 Mar. 2019, www.vox.com/2019/3/22/18275835/fox-news-trump-propaganda-tom-rosenstiel.
Jeffrey M. Jones and Zacc Ritter. “Americans See More News Bias; Most Can’t Name Neutral Source.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 8 Apr. 2020, news.gallup.com/poll/225755/americans-news-bias-name-neutral-source.aspx.
“The Largest and Most Diversified Television Broadcasting Company in the Country Today.” – The Largest and Most Diversified Television Broadcasting Company in the Country Today, sbgi.net/#About.
“Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” Messengers of the Right | Nicole Hemmer, www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15571.html.
Mitchell, Amy. “Americans Still Prefer Watching to Reading the News – and Mostly Still Through Television.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, 30 May 2020, www.journalism.org/2018/12/03/americans-still-prefer-watching-to-reading-the-news-and-mostly-still-through-television/.
Raimondo, Justin. “Anti-Interventionism, Then and Now.” Antiwar.com Original, 29 Oct. 2010, original.antiwar.com/justin/2010/10/28/anti-interventionism-then-and-now/.
Rosenberg, Paul. “Major Study Finds No ‘Liberal Bias’ in Media If Anything, Journalists Have Become Too Cautious.” Alternet.org, 5 Jan. 2020, www.alternet.org/2020/01/major-study-finds-no-liberal-bias-in-media-if-anything-journalists-have-become-too-cautious/.
Schneider, Michael. “Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2019’s Winners and Losers.” Variety, Variety, 26 Dec. 2019, variety.com/2019/tv/news/network-ratings-top-channels-fox-news-espn-cnn-cbs-nbc-abc-1203440870/.
Warren, James. “Consolidation Is Killing the Myth of the Liberal Media.” Vanity Fair, www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/11/consolidation-is-killing-the-myth-of-the-liberal-media.