“Under the Dome”: How The Conservative Media Are Keeping The GOP From Moving Past The Same-Sex Marriage Debate
Over the weekend, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee issued a call to arms to conservatives not to give up the fight against same-sex marriage, based on his bizarre belief that no decision of the Supreme Court has the force of law unless Congress passes legislation to confirm it. Because of that, Huckabee says, the fight can continue unhindered no matter what the court does. “I’m utterly disgusted with fellow Republicans who want to walk away from the issue of judicial supremacy just because it’s politically volatile,” he said. “Here’s my advice: Grow a spine!” Huckabee’s legal analysis may be idiosyncratic (to put it kindly), but his position — that this isn’t a fight conservatives should abandon just because they’ve nearly lost it — is one with plenty of purchase among the Republican faithful. And he’s hardly the only one with a media pulpit from which to preach it. In fact, the division within the GOP has a parallel in the conservative media. The presence of hard-liners (or dead-enders, if you prefer) like Huckabee is going to make it all the more difficult and painful for the party to evolve in the way its more sober strategists know it must.
Conservatives worked very hard over a period of decades to build up their own media to serve as an alternative and a counterweight to a mainstream press they saw as biased against them. This project was spectacularly successful, particularly with the explosion of right-wing talk radio in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the launch of Fox News in 1996. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that people began questioning whether it was doing the movement more harm than good by encasing conservatives in a self-reinforcing bubble from which it became increasingly difficult to see the outside world clearly.
Just as there are divisions within the GOP, there are divisions within the conservative media. And just as the party’s conservatives make it hard to make strategically necessary shifts — or simply avoid moving too far to the right — the continued power of hard-line media figures can keep the party from modernizing.
Since 2012, Republicans have been fretting about how they can “reach out” to minority groups, particularly Latinos, in order to widen their appeal beyond the older white folks who are the core of the party. The trouble is that it’s hard to reach out when elected officials within your party keep loudly proclaiming their anti-immigrant views. The same is true on gay marriage. The party’s national strategists would like nothing better than for the issue to go away. They know that the policy outcome is inevitable and public opinion is not turning back, so there’s little point in mounting some kind of rear-guard action against it, one that will only make the party look outdated and out of touch. But as Greg and I both pointed out last week, potential future presidential candidate Ted Cruz is going to force a debate on it in 2016 whether other Republicans like it or not.
Some parts of the conservative media will do the same thing. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters observes that in most of its programming, Fox News has all but stopped talking about same-sex marriage. But that’s not going to silence Huckabee (whose show runs on Fox on the weekends), or Rush Limbaugh, or many of the other radio hosts with huge audiences. As long as they press the issue, the Republican base will still demand that candidates proclaim their objections to the changes taking place in the country, and the harder it remains for the party to move past its vehement opposition to marriage equality. Everyone knows that evolution will have to take place eventually, but the conservative media have the power to make the transition inordinately painful.
Fox’s abdication of the marriage issue demonstrates that the network functions as the semi-official organ of the Republican Party. Roger Ailes may be in business to make money, but he won’t do so in ways that harm the interests of the GOP. The same, however, can’t be said of everyone with a large conservative audience. On a whole range of domestic issues, from immigration to marriage equality to reproductive rights, they’re going to continue pulling the party to the right even when it has to turn back to the center or risk electoral disaster (like, say, the election of a certain former secretary of state to the White House). Conservative media have been great at keeping the rabble angry and excited, getting them to the polls and getting them to open their wallets. But when the party needs to take a cold hard look at reality and evolve or get left behind, the same media are going to be an albatross holding it back.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, October 13, 2014
Did you catch Ted Cruz’s numbers in that Pew poll that came out this week? You may not have, because there were a few other things going on. So take a guess as to his favorable ratings among Tea Party people. I can tell you that 18 percent expressed no opinion, so the numbers add up to 82. So, 65-17, 68-14? Could he possibly have topped 70?
He sure could have. It was 74-8. Eight! It used to be 47-10 in a prior poll. In other words, a lot of people who weren’t able to form an opinion of him now can, and it’s swooning. Among non-Tea Party Republicans, as you’d imagine, a rather different story: It’s 56-44 (everyone has an opinion!). That’s favorable, but it ain’t 74-8. And in these numbers, among dozens of other auguries, we see the Armageddon that’s coming in the GOP between now and 2016. What on earth are the establishment Republicans going to do about this man?
Examine with me a few more numbers, from an earlier Pew survey taken over the summer. That one found that while Tea Party people make up 40 percent of Republican voters, they make up 49 percent, or roughly half, of those who vote in every primary. Got that? OK.
So now put the two surveys together: Half of the most loyal Republican voters approve of Cruz at 90-percent levels (74 is nine-tenths of 82). Still think he couldn’t win the nomination?
You better believe he can. The chance that he could win a presidential election is as close to zero as any plausible candidate’s chance could be. I think he tops out at around 180 electoral votes. But the nomination? Not. Impossible. At. All.
So I ask again: What are the establishmentarians going to do? What, for example, can Mitch McConnell do? Not a whole lot. Individual senators are pretty autonomous. Remember when liberals were screaming during the health-care debate, “Why doesn’t Obama give Ben Nelson the Johnson Treatment?” Because the Johnson Treatment doesn’t work anymore, least of all on the serenely messianic, of which Cruz is definitely one.
Can a group of establishment senators break him, as a previous cohort, led by Margaret Chase Smith, broke Joe McCarthy? They can try, and that might make some difference. Their success will depend to a great extent on where the right-wing media decide to land. Will Roger Ailes and the rest of them do what’s right for the party and the country, or for the ratings and the bottom line? Why do I not want to know the answer to that question?
Much will hinge on what happens in 2014, in the coming crisis negotiations and then in the elections. If Cruz overreaches in January, they’ll polish him off. He is presumably smart enough to know that he’s on probation. So my guess is that as the January deadline approaches, Eddie Haskell will start bringing the teacher some apples. He’ll behave. Oh, he’ll mis-behave just enough to signal to the peanut gallery that he’s still Eddie Haskell; the world’s Eddie Haskells can’t help themselves. But he’ll keep it in line. And if he’s very smart, he’ll do those little, sugary things that senators value so much—the hand-written note when the wife’s checked into the hospital, that sort of thing.
He’ll spend the rest of 2014 guiding the Tea Party like Columbus on the Santa Maria. Rand Paul will be back there on the Niña, and farther back, Marco Rubio on the Pinta, straining to catch enough wind to keep up. But everyone will know who’s holding the compass.
The elections will be crucial. If the GOP loses control of the House because of perceived Tea Party looniness, Cruz will be blamed and held accountable. As for the Senate, it’ll be just slightly more nuanced. We’re seeing now that all these Tea Party people are going to challenge establishment Republicans. If some of them win their primaries but lose the general to a Democrat—if, say, Nancy Mace, the Citadel grad, beats Lindsey Graham but then loses in the general, giving South Carolina its first non-racist Democratic senator since Fritz Hollings, who’s probably the only non-racist Democratic senator the state has ever had—Cruz will, again, be blamed and held accountable. But say Mace wins, and a few others do too, even if the GOP doesn’t take control of the Senate. And say the Republicans hold the House. That’s a slightly ambiguous result. But any ambiguous result is easy for a demagogue to spin into a great victory. It’s precisely the kind of thing demagogues do best.
If the results a year from now don’t give the establishment the excuse it needs to bury him, Cruz will be off to the races. And then, Armageddon will come. To whom will the establishment hand the silver cross and vial of holy water? Chris Christie? Jeb Bush? South Dakota Senator John Thune, who offends no one (not yet, anyway) and who quietly voted for the deal to reopen the government and avoid default?
This will be a war. And it just might be a war the extremists will win. Establishments have power and money, and it is true that Republican voters have typically, after all the noise, gone in the establishment direction (McCain, Romney). But the insurgents have been advancing the beachhead, and unless they’re pushed back once and for all, it’s only a matter of time. But an epic battle looms. I cry for what these maniacs are doing to my country, but at the same time I plan on enjoying every minute of it.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 18, 2013
Fox News fired its head of PR recently, an act that would’ve been a dry bit of news of interest only to cable news junkies and media reporters were it not for Fox News’s scorched-earth style of PR. Thanks to Fox’s own efforts, the story of the firing of a guy you’ve never heard of became proper news, discussed and analyzed by people who’d never notice if CNN fired some random suit. At Fox News, the conspiratorial paranoia on the screen often seems like a reflection of the conspiratorial paranoia in the offices.
Brian Lewis had been with Fox News for 17 years, with his final title being executive vice president of corporate communications. On July 25, he was “terminated for cause,” according to Fox News corporate communications, and escorted from the building. Fox cited “financial issues” and did not elaborate. New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, whose forthcoming biography of Roger Ailes has caused the already nutty Ailes to act nuttier than usual, said the firing would further isolate Ailes from dissenting viewpoints. Sherman referred to Lewis as a “moderating influence” on Ailes, and one of his most trusted advisers since Fox News was first launched.
Sherman’s short piece led to the sort of coordinated “push-back” effort that Lewis pioneered in his years at Fox, with multiple Fox personalities insisting that Lewis had never been important to anyone, least of all Ailes. “Lewis and Gabriel Sherman are the only two who believe that Lewis was actually the right-hand man to Roger Ailes,” someone told Mediaite. (In fact, “right-hand man” was how the Hollywood Reporter referred to Lewis, before Sherman’s piece even was published. Similar language was used by the L.A. Times, the New York Times, and… a bunch of other places. Good zing, though, Fox PR!) Ailes even asked Donald Trump to trash Sherman’s piece on Twitter, and Trump complied.
The story of Lewis’ firing seems to have something to do with Sherman’s forthcoming book, and Ailes’ suspicion that Lewis was one of Sherman’s sources. “Brian was operating outside the culture of the company, and thus violated his contract, so Roger let him go,” an executive told Mike Allen, who has published Fox News executive rebuttals (and prebuttals) to other journalists’ reporting on Fox in the past. “The culture of the company,” at Fox News, is basically paranoia, omerta, and vicious retribution.
The person now solely in charge of public relations for Fox News is Irena Briganti, a person whose relationship with journalists has been described as “vindictive” and “ruthless.” Most reporters who’ve had to deal with her have horror stories of threats, accusations, and blacklisting. Briganti and the Fox PR shop have been known to perform campaign-style “opposition research” on journalists they perceive as unfriendly.
We all know that Fox is deeply worried about the demographics of its viewers — they’re really old — and that Roger Ailes is “shaking up” the network in order to appeal to a newer, more diverse generation of Americans. (His moves so far: Putting Megyn “The New Black Panther Party are coming to get you” Kelly in prime time and putting Elisabeth “Great AmerMcCain Hero” Hasselbeck on in the mornings.)
The problem isn’t Sean Hannity, though. Or Bill O’Reilly. The problem is Ailes. As long as he’s running the network — and he’ll be running the network as long as Rupert Murdoch is alive — the network will fail to appeal to most people under 40. As Jordan Chariton wrote at Salon earlier this month, Fox’s demographics problem is simple: Ailes is committed to creating conservative content, and young people are getting more and more liberal. But it’s not just that the content is conservative, it’s that it reflects the mindset of the post-sixties white backlash, something people born after the 1960s can’t relate to at all.
Part of Ailes’ great success is simply great timing. He got in the game, alongside Richard Nixon, at the start of the great conservative backlash. He is a master at appealing to and manipulating the pissed-off American white man. He began his career selling Nixon to worried white people and now he’s selling older, even more worried white people reverse mortgages and #BENGHAZI. But that generational tantrum is currently in its rampaging hysterical death throes. The next generation is not quite as panicky about the endangered state of white supremacy.
So the Fox problem isn’t just partisanship. It’s in the culture of the company. Fox will continue to have trouble appealing to a wider variety of people as long as its leader, the person who embodies everything Fox News, is a paranoid, angry old man who handles staff issues like a Stalinist, erasing disfavored former deputies from history and ordering all who seek to remain in his good graces to denounce their former comrade as a traitor.
My question, and this question is basically directed at the people above Ailes in the News Corp corporate hierarchy, is this: Does Fox actually need a culture of secrecy, or a political campaign-style PR apparatus that regularly plants smears against its critics? Is this a cable television news channel or Scientology? What is even the point of going to great lengths to discredit a forthcoming biography of Ailes by planting stories in the conservative blogosphere? How many Breitbart.com readers were going to read Sherman’s biography? How many of them would’ve turned against Ailes were it not for the constant, ridiculous anti-Sherman smears Ailes is planting?
It’s not just that Fox’s war on enemy journalists is unethical and unprofessional, it’s that it’s frequently embarrassing for Fox. Every time they go to war against someone who wrote something they don’t like, they simply create more stores about unhinged Ailes and his strange and petty retributions. If Roger Ailes wants people to stop claiming he’s paranoid and crazy, he needs to stop acting paranoid and crazy. If Fox wants journalists to stop treating their channel like a cult run by a madman, well, maybe someone should consider convincing the madman to retire.
By: Alex Pareene, Salon, August 26, 2013
Fox News and Howard Kurtz may be a good match not only because the conservative news network has become a stable for journalists who have fallen on hard times, but because the former Daily Beast Washington bureau chief has long been more generous to the network than many of his fellow media critics.
Not surprisingly, Fox has often come in for a drubbing from media watchdogs for its often conservative, narrative-driven news coverage. But Kurtz, while occasionally willing to call foul on Fox, is generally pretty credulous of the cable news channel, defending it during controversies, favorably profiling its personalities, and seemingly overlooking its lapses.
John Cook at Gawker pointed this out, suggesting that Kurtz may have scooped him in 2004 at the behest of a News Corp. PR agent, and pointing to some other examples:
Kurtz wrote a negative review of Robert Greenwald’s anti-Roger Ailes film Outfoxed. He also wrote a related item, quoting Briganti, accusing the New York Times Magazine of “ambushing” Fox News in a feature about the movie. More recently, Ailes turned to Kurtz for an exclusive interview in June 2011 after two damaging stories in Rolling Stone and New York magazine portrayed him as a paranoid lunatic. A few months after that, Kurtz wrote an influential story claiming that Fox News had become more “moderate” under Ailes’ strategic guidance. Several months after that, a “senior Fox News executive” turned to Kurtz to express “regret” after (the now moderate!) Ailes called the New York Times “lying scum.” Kurtz transmitted the apology, as well as Ailes’ “respect” for Times editor Jill Abramson, but did not note that Ailes had called her “lying scum” in the course of telling a bald-faced lie himself.
But there’s more.
Kurtz took Sean Hannity’s side in his battle with Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison after the Fox host called the congressman an Islamic “radical” comparable to the Ku Klux Klan; he defended the network after the Shirley Sherrod scandal; downplayed News Corp.’s $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association; favorably profiled anchors Bill Hemmer, Shepard Smith, and Megyn Kelly, along with chieftain Roger Ailes; seemed to take the network’s side in its dispute with former host Glenn Beck; and declared that Karl Rove is “generally fair-minded in his commentary.”
In the early days of the Tea Party rallies in 2009, Kurtz equated “whatever role Fox played in pumping them up” with mainstream reporters who were “late in recognizing the significance of the protests.” Journalists at CNN and MSNBC who “also performed badly on April 15th,” he wrote in a Washington Post Q&A with readers by being a few days on their importance. When another reader questioned the bleeding of opinion programming into Fox’s straight news block, Kurtz pointed to the quality work of Major Garrett, a good reporter who later left his job as Fox’s White House correspondent because he said he wanted to “think more.” Garrett’s work is solid, but he’s a single anchor and reading the Q&A, it feels like Kurtz is going a bit out of his way to defend the network. He played the same Major Garrett card in an interview with former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn during the height of the White House’ war on Fox News.
This isn’t to say Kurtz hasn’t criticized Fox News. He’s had a number of scrapes with the network, especially his made-for-TV feud with Bill O’Reilly that led to an on-air debate in February. But that fight was about O’Reilly making an isolated error and being too stubborn to correct it, and Kurtz never even came close to addressing Fox’s fundamental flaws as a news organization.
But considering how much there is to criticize about the network, one might expect more from one of the country’s most prominent media critics — who had a media watchdog TV show on a rival network for years. Perhaps, as some smart liberals like Alyssa Rosenberg and Simon Maloy have written, the move could actually be good for Kurtz and Fox. It could hardly get worse.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, June 22, 2013
Let’s state this very simply, so everybody will understand. The notion that Barack Obama is “Nixonian” — or that his administration’s recent troubles bear any resemblance to “Watergate” — is the biggest media lie since the phony “Whitewater scandal” crested during the Clinton presidency.
Fraudulent as it is, we have listened repeatedly to versions of this bogus comparison uttered by figures as diverse as former Fox News commentator Dick Morris and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, alongside a phalanx of Republican politicians, including Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – whose latest attack ad directly links Obama with Nixon.
Only in a country afflicted with chronic historical amnesia could they issue such accusations without shame or embarrassment. Only under those circumstances could the Republicans continue their fitful fabrication of a “Democratic Watergate” without fear of being laughed off the stage. It is a project that they will never grow tired of pursuing.
Coming from figures such as former White House political boss Karl Rove and Fox News chief Roger Ailes — both of whom worked for Nixon and defended him with vigor — the hypocrisy is stunning. They can only say words like “Watergate” or “Nixonian” because most Americans have forgotten who they really are behind the respectable masks – or never knew.
The last time we heard Obama mentioned in the same breath as Watergate was in 2009, when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – the same Issa who has labored for months to pump air into the Benghazi “scandal” – decided that a job offered to a potential political candidate had erupted into a Constitutional crisis. Is it necessary to note that nothing of consequence ever emerged from Issa’s investigation back then? Yet somehow, he maintains credibility with the Washington media.
So does Graham, who slandered Susan Rice over the Benghazi talking points, which he deemed “worse than Watergate” – an assertion since proved entirely wrong, irresponsible, and vicious. Nevertheless Graham is treated as someone worthy of airtime and quotation, rather than a discredited blowhard.
But certain liberals in the media have fretted loudly over Obama’s “scandals,” too. Is it reasonable to compare the Benghazi incident, the vetting of abused tax exemptions by the IRS, or the Justice Department’s leak investigations with the Watergate crisis? Or is it all just trumped-up hysteria? To answer those questions, it helps to remember what Nixon and his gang actually did to America – and why they were driven out of Washington and, in many cases, sent to prison.
In these circumstances, a quick history lesson seems vital. For those who have forgottten or don’t know, Watergate is the name of an apartment complex near the Potomac River in northwest Washington, D.C., where then-President Nixon’s henchmen staged a “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic National Committee headquarters on a June night in 1972.
But Watergate came to stand for a vast agglomeration of gangster conspiracies based in the Nixon White House but spanning the nation. Watergate was a series of burglaries, warrantless domestic wiretaps, illegal spying, campaign dirty tricks, election tampering, money laundering, and assorted thuggish schemes conceived by a large and lawless gang whose leaders included G. Gordon Liddy and the late E. Howard Hunt.
And Watergate grew into a cover-up of those initial felonies with still more felonies, committed by lawyers and bureaucrats who collected cash payoffs from major corporations and then handed out hush money and secret campaign slush funds.
Eventually, Watergate implicated scores of perpetrators, from the right-wing Cuban footsoldiers all the way up to the president, his closest advisors, and his crooked stooges at the highest levels of the Justice Department, the FBI, and the CIA.
Again then, in what sense is the Benghazi tragedy – thoroughly investigated by an independent board, as provided by law – akin to Watergate? How is the IRS effort to vet the tax exemptions of Tea Party groups, which were violating their status brazenly, similar to Nixon’s criminal abuse of the agency to punish his enemies with audits? What makes the Justice Department probe of national security leaks, conducted with valid subpoenas, resemble the secret Nixon White House war against “enemies” in the press, which went so far as trumped-up FCC license challenges and even threats of violence against the Washington Post?
The answers are fairly obvious: None. Not at all. Nothing whatsoever.
And so far as we know, Attorney General Eric Holder hasn’t rung up any Fox News reporter drunkenly at midnight to warn that Roger Ailes is “going to get his tit caught in a big, fat wringer.” But if and when that ever happens, the chance to roll out the Watergate clichés will arrive at last — starting with “Nixonian.”
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, May 30, 2013