In case you missed it, Mark Hertsgaard had a terrific piece in The Nation‘s special issue on “Media in the Trump Era” (March 20, 2017). You may still be able to pick up a copy on the newsstand if you hustle, which you should, both because there are lots of good essays in it and because one of the ways you get good, in-depth reporting is by paying for it. Don’t rely on squids like me to get you the most important news for free.
In “Progressives Need to Build Their Own Media,” Hertsgaard details a game plan to counter the effects, not just of Fox News, but of the cluster of television, radio and websites that surround Fox like planets rotating around the sun. Conservative media have won the political narrative, he argues, and although they did not cause the Trump victory they were an “indispensable” element of it.
“Nothing, including [Hillary Clinton’s] own sometimes questionable actions, did more to boost her negatives than the right-wing media, which has been attacking her since she appeared on the scene as the wife of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992,” Hertsgaard writes. “Nor were Hillary’s presidential prospects the only casualty. The United States is the only advanced country in which the denial of climate science is taken seriously in governing circles. ExxonMobil and the other fossil-fuel companies that spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars promoting this denial are the number-one culprits, but Fox and Friends rank a close second: It was their ceaseless repetition of such corporate disinformation that embedded climate denial in right-wing ideology and made it a litmus test for Republican politicians.
As usual the Internet is the culprit, while only offering vague and incomplete solutions. As it turns out, there are not enough pop-up ads in the world to make up for the fact that Americans don’t want to pay for digital news, and they will snub publications that support in-depth reporting through charging a subscription fee in favor of those who deliver lesser content for free (think both Breitbart and Huffington Post.) In addition, trusting mainstream outlets to report progressive politics accurately didn’t work twenty years ago, and it doesn’t work now.By instinct, mainstream news organizations are political centrists,” Hertsgaard writes,
a characteristic that Fox and Friends exploited over the past quarter-century to push mainstream coverage significantly to the right—arguably their single greatest achievement. The old business model of commercial television, radio, and newspapers called for appealing to the largest audience, which dictated offering news and commentary that spoke to as broad a spectrum as possible. Thus, mainstream news outlets developed a habit of hewing close to the ideological center—or, more precisely, what they perceived as the ideological center. Like Goldilocks’s porridge, their coverage would be not too liberal, not too conservative, but just right.
Fox and Friends, by articulating an unabashedly right-wing take on the world and accumulating a large audience in the process, in effect convinced the mainstream media that the political spectrum extended much further to the right than they had recognized. Right-wingers had long accused the media of harboring a liberal bias as part of a larger ideological offensive driven by right-wing think tanks and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Now, the marketplace seemed to be confirming it.
Progressive media need to do what Fox did: get to an audience beyond the traditional right-wing choir; build a trustworthy brand that has legs on social media; and acquire the financial resources to extend that brand into Trump territory. It’s not going to happen tomorrow — which will be frustrating to anyone who jumped past the most recent change.org petition on Twitter or Facebook to read this post — but if conservatives can do it, Progressives can too.