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Managing The MSM's Decline

Over in one of the threads, political scientist Carl Scott referenced the shrinking of the mainstream media.  He is certainly right when you look at the long-term ratings trends of the CBS Evening News or the prime time line up of the old big three networks.  But I don't take much solace from that decline.  My sense is that the decline of the mainsteam media and the resulting audience fragmentation is going to make it harder for conservatives messages to reach certain segments of the population.

The old MSM sure wasn't fair.  I remember being in seventh grade and reading a Time magazine story about abortion.  I didn't know what abortion was.  At the end of the really long story I still didn't know what abortion was, but I knew that people who were against abortion were bad.  It wasn't like the story outright told you to dislike them but the message got across. 

But even though the coverage wasn't fair, the vast size of the MSM's audience, its commercial orientation and certain journalistic conventions that predominately liberal journalist felt they had to follow gave conservatives the space to get their message out.  If you had the money to but ads, you could be pretty sure that most people would hear your thirty second (or thirty minute) message.  The interviews for conservative figures might have been more hostile than the ones for liberal figures, but at least people got to see you and the hostility was usually limited to subtle cues (an exception being Bryant Gumbel, who usually didn't bother to disguise his detestation of center-right figures.)  Even an overtly hostile interview could play to a center-right figure's advantage as George H.W. Bush and Dan Rather could tell you.  Certain conventions where journalists were discouraged from openly taking sides and were obligated to describe center-right arguments, and provide coverage and interviews for center-right figures usually put boundaries on a press corps with liberal defaults.  That these conventions allowed conservative messages to reach the public has been bitterly noted by  liberal media critics who wanted the media to more overtly side with liberal partisans.  Even when the MSM clearly took sides (as in the 1964 presidential campaign), if you had the money, you could buy a thirty minute ad that could make a huge impression on people who never thought of themselves as conservatives 

The decline of the MSM, rise of the right-leaning media and the fragmentation of audience into small pockets that consume formally "nonpolitical" media has made it much easier to mobilize right-leaning Americans even as it has made it much harder for conservative messages to reach that majority of Americans that don't consume right-leaning media.  Reaching that majority is now tougher because it means fighting for space in hundreds of outlets that aren't overtly political.  These media often have a celebrity, lifestyle or ethnic/racial focus.  The defaults of those who produce the media are probably liberal, and those producers can, by their occasional interventions into political issues, shape the political orientation of their media consumers.  The most obvious example was the US Weekly "Babies, Lies and Scandal" cover story on Sarah Palin.  This helped shape the perceptions of people who don't follow much "news."  While reading my wife's Parenting magazine (don't judge me!) I was struck by an explanation of Obamacare that read like a paid advertisement.  It didn't seem "political."  It was just telling busy middle- class women (and me apparently) how a new law was going to change the lives of their families.   

Twenty years ago you could count on at least reaching those people by ads during popular programs.  Today it is much tougher not only because of audience fragmentation, but because it is easier to skip ads.  Getting conservative messages into the forums that people are consuming will require different techniques than the ones that conservatives developed to deal with their relative weakness in the old MSM.  It doesn't matter so much now that the economy is so bad, the turnout model for the November elections favors Republicans and the right-leaning media is able to help mobilize tens of millions of voters.  But reaching those tens of millions who aren't being reached now is a major long-term problem with no obvious solution.

Categories > Politics

Discussions - 15 Comments

Maybe what you mean is that the liberal media (and the non-political but easily manipulated media) won't go off quietly into the night. According to recent polls, about 20 percent of Americans describe themselves as liberals, which may fail to include those who are liberal but don't know it or believe it. Most of these folks are not reachable because they operate from entirely different premises than conservatives and other self-supporting Americans. No political realignment in our history has succeeded in extinguishing the (usually temporary) minority party and will not extinguish declining media or their audiences. The outcome of political controversies is not wholesale conversion because the salient points or facts will never convince some people. The obstacle is human nature, which is always tempted to seek advantage at others' expense, not to mention seeking political power by promising to redistribute the wealth. There is plenty of work for journalists as well as politicians to do in the future as we seek to repeal ObamaCare and other noxious government programs, which won't extend to reaching out to people who will not listen.

Richard, I think we might be talking about two different groups. I'm less interested in those who won't listen (say people who put themselves on an all Keith Olbermann media diet), than people who consider themselves nonpolitical but think of liberals/Democrats as the "good guys" because of social and media cues they hardly remember and could not, if their life depended on it, explain what conservatives want on any given issue. With the old media, one could be reasonably assured that you would have gotten some kind of hearing before such people. Some of them would listen and some wouldn't. Now it is more difficult to reach many of these folks in the many media and social networking niches that exist and that is a challenge for crafting a majority political coalition that has a chance of winning under less than ideal circumstances.

I think the people you have in mind are those who are shaped more by events than by ideas, even if the event is nothing more than obvious evidence that public sentkment has shifted on political parties. Is my opinion too uncharitable?

R, it is not uncharitable to state that many people do not have detailed and fixed frames through which to view the issues that are currently in dispute. Events are often ambiguous and what ought to be done in response is even less clear. That means that there might be profit in finding ways to get your message in front of them in a way that takes into account their experiences (for example saying this or that failed under Carter doesn't mean much to them.)

Pete, you read an article about abortion in the 7th grade, huh? Took me two more years to be interested in that, and only due to my high school debate coach, the great Mr. Pacilio. I remember getting into Newsweek because of a war in Lebanon. The magazine had maps, and photos of soldiers, tanks, and explosions. Eye-candy for a boy, I guess.

I would think that with the fragmentation of media, the problem of which you speak exists for the political opposition as well. Since the opposition had acquired an effective monopoly of the news pages by about 1967, it would seem the loss of a state of the world where all issues were presented with templates congenial to them renders this the state of affairs more injurious to them than to our side.

Newspapers in their reportage once reflected the politics of their owners. I do not think effective control over content passed to the reporters and editors until about 1961 at the Los Angeles Times and about 1963 at the Washington Post. It was only in 1966 that the New York Herald-Tribune folded. Henry Luce died in 1967; If you look at issues of Time from 1966 and then from 1976, you can see the difference. The era of local monopolies in newspaper production appended to a national broadcasting oligopoly of similar coloration lasted only about 30-odd years, when talk radio began to provide mass alternatives.

That being the case, you might study what advertising and mobilization strategies were attempted prior to 1955 (when broadcast news consisted of brief bits of reportage and the politics of newspapers were more variegated).

In recalling the previous era, I think you forget that there are liberal and then there are liberals. I suspect that if you had carefully questioned David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, and Mike Wallace you would have discovered a different sort of political intelligence than you might if you questioned Mary Mapes or Eason Jordan.

Re "...even though the coverage wasn't fair, the vast size of the MSM's audience, its commercial orientation and certain journalistic conventions that predominately liberal journalist felt they had to follow gave conservatives the space to get their message out. If you had the money to but ads, you could be pretty sure that most people would hear your ...message."

I'm not sure that buying an ad in the NYT would have the same impact on the NYT reader, of whatever political persuasion, as would presumably unbiased reporting by the staff of a respected newspaper. And if you didn't have the money, then your voice went unheard regardless. I just don't agree that everyone suffers at the loss of the vast audience of the MSM. Conservative outlets like Fox News, conservative talk radio, and publications like the National Review and Weekly Standard I would suggest are together also reaching a vast audience and with a relatively consistent message. Of course there is a "preaching to the choir" quality in this process of "getting conservative messages into the forums that people are consuming," but a) even the choir needs preaching to occassionally and b) forget about reaching readers of the Huffington Post with a conservative message anyway.

In short, the decline of the MSM has more downside for the liberal establishment, which the MSM supported, than it does for the conservative insurgency, which the MSM opposes or ignores.

Carl, I read an article about abortion, was given a vague impression about which side I should be on, but still didn't know what abortion was for a while yet. Mt parents had gotten me a subscription to TIME when I was in the my later elementary school years/early middle school years. My first memory is of an article on U2. Weirdly, I read that abortion article in homeroom in middle school, from a stack of old TIME magazines the homeroom teacher left for the kids to read.

AD, I think that the problem with market fragmentation is that right-leaning media captures a minority of the population and that many of the formally nonpolitical celebrity and lifestyle niches that have come into existence are produced by people whose sympathies are basically to the left of center and who can (often quite subtly) steer their audience in that direction and with little chance for conservative arguments to reach those media consumers within those particular forums.

You are right that most of the dominant media producers leaned liberal, but the center-right had developed techniques to compensate for their relative weakness within the structures and conventions of the old MSM. Alot of liberal media commentary in the 80s and 90s (other than the post-1988 stuff about Limbaugh) was a series of complaints about conservatives were able to use commercials and especially the conventions of TV network journalism in order to get their messages out. Alot of those techniques were based on the existence of an audience that included not only conservatives, but also the nonpolitical and that could be reached either by ads or by tailoring your campaigns so that the network news producers felt they had to cover your campaign a certain way. That isn't to minimize the challenges that conservative faced. It is just that they developed a way of dealing with those challenges. The challenges are different now and will require at least some different techniques.

I should add that to give an example of how unfair the old MSM media environment could be to conservatives, one could read William F. Buckley's THE UNMAKING OF A MAYOR.

hat many of the formally nonpolitical celebrity and lifestyle niches that have come into existence are produced by people whose sympathies are basically to the left of center and who can (often quite subtly) steer their audience in that direction and with little chance for conservative arguments to reach those media consumers within those particular forums.

I doubt the producers of the Home and Garden Television Network or Access Hollywood are going to be very effective shills for the Democratic Party.

Alot of liberal media commentary in the 80s and 90s (other than the post-1988 stuff about Limbaugh) was a series of complaints about conservatives were able to use commercials and especially the conventions of TV network journalism in order to get their messages out.

Mark Hertsgaard and Eric Alterman had their fancies. What of it?

AD, no, but celebrity and lifestyle coverage (check out coverage of Obama vs. Palin) and the coverage in various ethnic and racial-oriented media can influence people who would, in the past, have gotten messages from the other side by watching programs (or commercials on programs) that they might not be watching today. I don't think it is an insuperable problem, but it will mean finding ways to focus on talking to people in subgroups rather than aggregates alongside established methods - which still have their place.

I'm no fan of Hertsgaard and Alterman and I take most of their work as a combination of special pleading and working the refs, but looked at a certain way, they are, against their own interests and intentions, describing how center-right figures were able to get their message out despite a press corp. (and general media culture) that was dominated by liberals.

I for one celebrate the decline of the MSM. I remember back in the 1970s watching NBC (as I recall) on the Contras in Nicaragua. What was startling was that it was actually balanced and maybe even pro-Contras. It has stuck in my mind all these years because it was so very unusual. I've had enough of the bias to last a lifetime.

We can do without the monolithic Leftist media. I agree that an ad in Time doesn't even begin to equate with the endless drumbeat of progressivism coming from those magazines or other media. Fragmentation means that it is harder to get our message out, but that's also the case for the Left, and given that conservativism. And, as Edmund Burke reminds us, conservativism has a passive strength that the strident Left does not. We can thrive in fragmentation; the Left can't.

"Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour."

Here's the funny thing. Why has no-one attempted to establish a major media outlet or even one-slot TV program by just going straight 50-50: hire journalists, editors, and pundits agreed to be conservative by conservatives, agreed to be liberal by liberals, and let 'er rip? Sure, 40-20-40, with some moderates and can't predict where they'll go "odd-erates" in there for the 20, would probably be a more workable ratio. But why has no-one tried it? There is no format that could possibly make this work?

Or go by the Fox slogan, coupled with old-school "just the facts, mamn" journalism. I.e., HIRE 50-50 or 40-20-40, but then tell everyone, NO PUNDITRY. FACTS. Why has no-one tried that?

Serious issues with media bias began appearing in the late 90s and early aughts. Yes, I know, conservatives had been complaining for years, and with reason. But something got dramatically worse, perhaps tipping-point worse, at that point. Even TNR had stories complaining about bias at the NYT, indeed that angle was one of Mickey Kaus' original bread and butter blog issues. A. Sullivan too. Fox News responded to this environment by a) hiring a lot of conservatives b) having a few liberal voices c) and implausibly claiming to be and yet perhaps nobly promising/aiming to be "fair and balanced." They rather quickly beat the big three in ratings, although not at the trounce-levels they now regularly deliver. B. Goldberg published his Bias book, and sure enough, CBS totally vindicated his thesis in the politically explosive (as in potentially election-stealing) Rathergate scandal. All of this, and well before the CBS meltdown, should have caused fair liberals and the semi-mythical Gergen/Cronkite types to take pause and re-evaluate. Didn't happen...whatever concerned voices there were within the MSM establishment got drowned out, and largely ignored.

Jonah Goldberg in the early NRO days had a post that said it all--in response to liberal complaints about Fox and talk-radio and the emerging blogosphere (heavily non-liberal at first) he said, in effect, "Okay, you don't like our media outlets, think they play the game of calling MSM biased while themselves largely doing open punditry? Fine. Let's trade. You get Fox, Limbaugh's show, National Review and NRO and all the rest, we get the big three, the NYT, AP, etc." (Not an exact quote)

The idea of such a trade is very revealing, but of course is a fantasy--but what was practically possible in the late 90s early aughts was for a major MSM outlet to bite the bullet and FIRE a bunch of its liberals and HIRE a bunch of conservatives, so as to arrive at 40-20-40, or more likely, 50-20-30. Can you imagine how powerful that would have been? "The New ABC: Seriously Balanced. Facts-Focused." Or, "The New Newsweek: America's Forum."

The impact of this nowadays would be less, of course, as the damage to the MSM brand among center-right Americans is now complete, but it might still be a pathway to financial success. I'm no media expert.

I think the basic rejoinders to Pete on this are right enough in terms of raw political advantage, but let's face it, otherwise, fragmentation is dismal. Bad for the U.S.A. I think that's what really bugs Pete.

1. I believe Gannett and Hearst began assembling newspaper chains in the 1920s. Scripps-Howard is somewhat older.

2. Time is the most venerable of the national newsmagazines; it was founded in 1923.

3. The NBC Radio networks were founded in 1927.

4. Nationally-distributed newspapers have always been niche products and few in number. During the 1920s, the Wall Street Journal had a circulation under 100,000.

5. Wire services have a longer pedigree. However, their product is used a-la-carte and I do not believe they distribute advertising.

The state of the world Pete describes was an interlude in our public life, and not necessary to its health.

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