Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 12 May 2023


Conservative Media Has an Audience Problem

An illustration of a person wearing a red baseball cap sitting in an armchair and holding a remote control while watching a talking head on television.
Credit...Alain Pilon
An illustration of a person wearing a red baseball cap sitting in an armchair and holding a remote control while watching a talking head on television.

Opinion Columnist

You’re reading the Ross Douthat newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  The columnist reflects on culture and politics, but mostly culture. 

In last week’s newsletter, I wrote about the divergent intellectual climates in journalism and academia, but mostly left conservative media out of the discussion. Now we have a new YouGov survey on public trust in media that provides an opening to talk about the climate on the right.

The basic and unsurprising finding of the survey is that Democrats generally trust the media much more than Republicans do, and that this trust gap extends to almost every prominent outlet except a few websites and the right-wing cable networks — the big fish of Fox News and the minnows of Newsmax and OAN. Democrats aren’t just more likely to say they trust ABC, NBC, CNN and PBS. They’re more likely than Republicans to say they trust The Wall Street Journal, notwithstanding its conservative editorial page. They’re even more likely than Republicans to say they trust National Review, theoretically the intellectual flagship of the right.

That last finding is a red flag, an indicator that some of the respondents probably don’t recognize a lot of the outlets they’re being asked about and are just guessing based on vague heuristics, memories of legacy brands and so on. (Do the Democrats who say they trust the right-leaning Washington Examiner read the Washington Examiner? I’m skeptical.) As the redoubtable press critic Jack Shafer notes, this is a good reason to discount a lot of the specific findings in the report: Bloomberg doesn’t actually need to worry that it’s less trusted by Americans than the shell of Newsweek, because most Americans don’t read Newsweek anymore, they just recognize the name.

But the general finding is still illuminating: Republicans have a default against almost all non-Fox News-adjacent media, and many right-leaning respondents don’t seem to recognize some of the print brands that are aimed directly at their minds and eyeballs.

You can analyze these tendencies in terms of several different but mutually reinforcing patterns. One is distilled in the title of this Richard Hanania essay from 2021: “Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV.” Obviously, that’s an oversimplification, since conservatives also dominate the talk-radio dial, conservative book-buyers can drive best sellers and so on. But it seems fair to say that liberalism has more of a print culture and conservatism more of an oral one, shaped especially by the rhythms of televised infotainment, with its celebrity hosts, its heroes and villains of the week, and its partisan cheerleading. (Not that the Democrats don’t have their own partisan cheerleaders, but MSNBC doesn’t shape the left in the same way that Fox News does the right.) It might also be fair to say (as Hanania has argued in a different piece) that conservatives simply care somewhat less about politics overall — or at least its more granular aspects — and therefore constitute less of a natural audience for deep coverage of the kind that sustains much of the political press.

Much of this is connected to class divisions: Our political-ideological landscape is increasingly defined by polarization between populists and meritocrats, the working classes and the professional classes, and the more the Republican Party becomes the party of less educated Americans, the more it naturally reflects more mass-market media consumption patterns.

But then it’s also influenced by the intellectual shift I’ve written about frequently, where the political right has become the natural home for outsider narratives of all kinds, from healthy forms of skepticism to deeper paranoias. This means that even the subset of Republicans who consume the same media sources as professional-class liberals are more likely to read them through a strong hermeneutic of suspicion. And it means that the mass-media figures on the right who aren’t just partisan entertainers, who are trying to be in the ideas business, tend to be defined by an outsider or autodidact’s mentality, where they’re surfacing fringe ideas and voices and consistently defining themselves against whatever the establishment believes. (I’m thinking of figures as various as Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson and the more unclassifiable but increasingly right-coded Joe Rogan.)

All of this creates a very different set of intellectual pressures than what you see at work in mainstream/center-left media. In liberal-leaning cultural institutions, as I argued last week, a mass audience is often the check on the more radical enthusiasms of the activist-academic core, and the great intellectual peril is an ideas-driven conformism within that core — a prison of ideological correctness where the doors are locked on the inside and guarded by would-be commissars.

In conservative culture, by contrast, the mass audience tends to be the source of conformist pressure, but the pressure is not so much to conform to a singular set of True Conservative ideas (we saw in both Donald Trump’s ascent and Carlson’s success how easily aspects of the catechism could be questioned) as to a set of television-ready narratives, tribal expectations, cults of personality and Manichaean readings of any given situation. And, crucially, this pressure seems to become more intense the bigger your audience gets, until one day you’re entertaining Sidney Powell on your show because that’s what the people want.

Not that there aren’t conformist pressures within the smaller shops of right-wing discourse; the fact that so much conservative intellectual life depends on direct patronage by rich eccentrics rather than, say, the vastness of Ivy League endowments creates its own weird intellectual incentives. But generally, conservative journalism is intellectually healthier at a smaller scale than at a large one. And if you just segment off the distinct intellectual realm where the right’s small-circulation journals interact with various think tanks and newsletters and podcasts, you can find many of the qualities that you’d want from a vital national media-intellectual complex: Sustained engagement with reality, real intellectual curiosity, serious debate.

The problem is that this doesn’t seem to scale. The right has good reporters, but it has neither the personnel required to staff major news-gathering operations nor the audience that would be required to sustain that kind of work. It has serious intellectuals, but it doesn’t have the institutions that sustain a large mandarin class, or a political coalition that would fully trust them to lead or govern or advise.

And the more populist the political right becomes in general, the harder the problem of scaling up becomes. At some point, to actually transition back from outsider protest and rabble-rousing to insider leadership, the American right would need to convert a significant segment of the existing knowledge class to its ideas (a few traitors to that class, like Josh Hawley and Peter Thiel, are not enough) and either transform or replace current knowledge-class institutions — and do this, somehow, without alienating a popular base that for reasons of class and culture either distrusts or despises the knowledge class and all its works.

I can almost imagine this happening under an unusually successful Republican president whose success both pulled part of the knowledge class rightward and made the base feel like big, lib-owning winners. But I, too, watched some of Trump’s CNN town hall this week, so I know that “unusually successful Republican president who pulls the knowledge class rightward” is not, at present, the wisest way to bet.

No comments:

Post a Comment