Secrets of the Conservative Media Machine

Secrets of the Conservative Media Machine

Article highlights:

To borrow a Sarah Palin aphorism, after their election defeat in 2008, conservatives didn’t retreat, they “reloaded.” Instead of finding new solutions to public policy problems or seriously reevaluating Bush’s failures, conservatives focused almost solely on new ways to communicate their old ideas. ...

Throughout the 1990s and for much of President George W. Bush’s first term, conservatives easily ruled online news. And much of that initial sucess stemmed from foundations and entrepreneurial pioneers such as Matt Drudge, creator of the wildly popular headline-aggregating site Drudge Report, and Jim Robinson of the news message board Free Republic. The pair formed a symbiotic relationship. ... Their efforts were enhanced by well-funded conservative investments in Internet technology. The first major foray into purely ideological online news came from the Heritage Foundation, which worked with National Review magazine to create Town Hall in 1992. The Town Hall bulletin board forum on Compuserve required users to pay to dial into a central terminal to share information and read conservative publications. It later morphed into an Internet site with links to conservative opinion pieces, studies and syndicated columns from newspapers. Town Hall helped organize the top conservative arguments, studies and articles. The one-stop shop, similar in utility to Drudge Report, provided direction for various conservative web sites, talk radio and Republican politicians to get on the same message. ...

Conservatives maintained their dominance by constantly making investments in online news portals. In 2000, James Glassman, previously a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, launched a web site called TechCentralStation with the corporate lobbying firm DCI Group. The web site, with funds from corporations such as Microsoft and ExxonMobil, published reports from right-wing think tanks as news pieces. Glassman, who later became the director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, eventually closed TechCentralStation after a round of criticism that the site was essentially a smoke screen for corporate propaganda. ...

Edelman [an ad company] published a study, “The Social Pulpit,” revealing the various ways the 2008 Obama campaign wove campaign engagement into the social media habits of his supporters, from ethnic social networking web sites like Black Planet to innovative campaign widgets for local bloggers. Ironically, the study was written in consultation with Mike Krempasky, an Edelman executive who also helped found the conservative blog Redstate (a blog that duplicated the diary system of the left-wing blog DailyKos). Krempasky would later assist various corporations and right-wing blogs in deploying Obama campaign tactics to boost the nascent Tea Party movement. ...

In more apocalyptic terms than usual, Media Research Center founder L. Brent Bozell III addressed the Council for National Policy in February of 2009 and warned of an entire media revolution the conservative infrastructure had “missed.” He rattled off a series of negative stories about Barack Obama, and claimed that during the course of the 2008 campaign, only two stories had been written about the Tony Rezko scandal, and by the time the national networks ran “a single story on Reverend Wright, 42 states and the District of Columbia had voted.” According to a search of transcripts supplied by Nexis, the major networks ABC, CBS and NBC ran at least a combined 57 segments or mentions of Obama’s controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright well before November. Countless news stories were written about Barack Obama’s relationship with Chicago developer Tony Rezko: the Associated Press (41); Washington Times (13); Los Angeles Times (6); the Chicago Sun-Times (78).

The gross exaggeration notwithstanding, Bozell went on to complain that these stories “weren’t told” because the Right had failed to continue to build its communications apparatus. “We have Fox News,” Bozell said, “we have mastered talk radio,” referring to the fact that nine out of ten talk radio programs are conservative. But on the Internet, Bozell said that Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report — “our top guy” —  barely had half the readership of Arianna Huffington’s liberal-leaning Huffington Post. He then went on to run down a list of technologies from podcasting to text messaging to YouTube and on to blogging where the Left had gained a strategic advantage. More important, these were areas where the American public increasingly was turning for news and information. With enough investments, Bozell said the Right could compete. If “any of us have made the Internet a top priority and made the information world a top priority,” then the American public would see Obama as a “socialist,” he concluded. ...

Bozell was a true pioneer in media technology. Although he is best known for using his well-funded think tank to conjure the “liberal media” myth, Bozell also started some of the first conservative news web sites in the nineties. In 1998, Media Research Center founded conservativenews.com, a unique site with its own staff of reporters and editors, funded with a three-year budget of $5.46 million. The site later rebranded as CNSNews.com, which became a popular newswire and reporting outlet for conservatives. In 2008, Bozell began touting a web site his organization created called Eyeblast, which he hoped would be an “alternative” to YouTube. YouTube, according to Bozell, had a pernicious liberal bias. Bozell stipulated that Google, Facebook and even Wikipedia were “run by liberals” and are “openly hostile to conservatives.” To combat this, Bozell asked for money — lots of it. (In 2009, Bozell’s Media Research Center raised over $10.5 million from over 80 family and corporate foundations, as well as from donations from a number of individual contributors.) ...

the Right went to work building communities to oppose Obama and his agenda. Republican consultants flocked to Ning, an easy tool to create entire social networks for niche communities. Ning replicates common features of any social network: Users may create online identities, send messages within the network, post links and news articles, and create events for offline activities.

Template Ning networks provided the Right with the ability to quickly assemble Tea Party groups without the appearance of top-heavy Republican partisanship. Eric Odom, the former new media director of Sam Adams Alliance, used his consulting firms Strategic Activism and American Liberty Alliance to create dozens of ready-made Ning web sites to cultivate the early stages of the Tea Party movement. Some Tea Party groups he created, like the Patriot Caucus, were geared toward a national constituency, while others catered to specific localities, such as Lehigh County in Pennsylvania. Although the web sites appeared to be citizen generated, all of Odom’s sites were actually centrally planned and operated. Every major Tea Party organization got in on the act: Smart Girl Politics, working with Odom’s colleagues, created a Ning for Tea Party women; Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, used her Liberty Central group to help local Tea Party groups in Florida build Ning web sites; and the lobbying firm Libertas Global Partners created Regular Folks united using Ning to organize Tea Party groups. Grassroots Action Inc., a company that thrived by building huge email and petition lists using conservative outrage over immigrants or gay rights, operated as a business by selling its lists to corporate or politics interests. After Obama’s election, Grassroots Action redesigned their network as a Ning, called ResistNet. Even Glenn Beck, with his so-called 9/12 movement, used Ning to develop local and national communities of supporters.

The power of Ning is the illusion of open, democratic communities. Republican operators and consultants in control of most of the Tea Party Nings set the agenda, administer the talking points available on the main page, and have the ability to censor information they disapprove of. Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest Ning communities of over 100,000 members, was regularly fed action items by lobbyist-run entities such as FreedomWorks. So when members of Tea Party community web sites received emails from web site administrators to call Congress to oppose a student lending bill or hold a rally against a Democratic member of Congress, the orders appeared to come from community members of their respective Ning networks. To the casual user, the site appeared to be maintained by citizen activists, but in many cases the actual online organizers worked for right-wing corporate fronts or a Republican campaign. Functionally, the Ning social networks provided grassroots cover for the oil interests funding FreedomWorks or Republican campaigns paying Odom.

Republicans in Congress also seized upon a similar Internet technology to create an illusion of popular support for their corporate-friendly agenda. The best example would be a program touted by House GOP leadership called America Speaking Out. America Speaking Out offered the public the ability to submit policy ideas, and then vote them up or down. Republicans promised to campaign and eventually legislate on the most popular policies using the web site’s results. ...

Republicans in 2010 failed to produce any ideas to address climate change, energy independence, job creation, rising inequality and poverty, or America’s health care crisis. America Speaking Out was more of a public relations gimmick than an actual way to incorporate public opinion into policy making. Similarly, Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Va.) created a web site called YouCut for the public to vote on federal programs to eliminate. Many of the programs were simplified or distorted with wasteful-sounding names. One such program targeted by YouCut, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund, created 240,000 jobs in a matter of months, but YouCut falsely characterized it as a job-killing welfare program. Another item on YouCut, the Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Program, had already been eliminated by Obama’s budget, yet the Republican web site claimed killing the project would be a YouCut idea. The first few months of YouCut targeted only 0.017 percent of the federal budget for elimination, but the online vote platform gave the impression that Republicans were serious about incorporating the public’s ideas for eliminating “waste.”

Excerpted from “The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right” by Lee Fang.

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http://www.salon.com/2013/04/23/secrets_of_the_conservative_media_machine/