Myth: The Mainstream Media (MSM) is the principal enemy of various conservative causes from the Republican Party to advocacy groups.
When I started chairing the Federal Communication Commission, in 1989, their dominant influence was probably true. It could be said, when broadcast networks were few (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS), and the executives of each awakened in Manhattan with their New York Times over coffee that most of the news consumed each day was influenced by a liberal elite.
But today? We live in a cacophonous age. The New York Times struggles financially, and the broadcast news networks have been losing audience and influence for a generation. Today, like it or not, the most successful distributor of news is Facebook.
Certainly, there are many both liberal and conservative voices, but their audience shares are relatively small. Indeed if there is a powerful ideological voice, it is the combination of a very successful Fox News on cable and talk show hosts on radio.
Fox News at the end of the first quarter of this year announced: “In outranking all other cable networks for the full quarter, FNC spent the past ten consecutive weeks as the No. 1 cable channel in total day viewers.” Additionally, it is said that Rush Limbaugh alone reaches 13 million listeners a week.
Indeed if the MSM is to be judged by results, the fact that the Republicans control both houses of Congress and more governorships and state legislatures means they are a failure. So when you next hear that the MSM has a dangerous influence on politics, recognize that it is no longer true and is being used as a marketing and political ploy. Perversely, this lingering perception weakens the Republican Party’s quest for the White House.
Let me briefly explore the trap. And let me use Rush’s voice, at least as I imagine it:
“We must take back America from The Mainstream Media (I think he alternates with the phrase “drive-by media”). They want to take our guns, our bibles, indeed our freedom, and we must not let them succeed. I won’t let you down. Each day I will expose this left wing conspiracy and point the way forward.”
Back in the day, I would listen to Rush from time to time; I remember his characterization of those who agreed with him. Those who were in the amen corner he called “ditto heads.”
Rush wants indeed needs his “ditto heads.” And give Rush credit; liberals too have wanted a charismatic radio personality, but none has emerged. Although maybe that is an advantage because when a hard core develops that falls in love with their piped piper, trouble is ahead. Let me elaborate.
Many congressional districts are relatively homogenous; true also of many states. Narrow political narratives, in these jurisdictions, are often successful. While Democrats are advantaged in some of the small states, the GOP is dominant in more.
Presidential elections, on the other hand, tend to be won in the big coastal states. If a candidate wins Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Florida in the East and California, Oregon and Washington in the West, he/she will accumulate almost 60% of the electoral votes needed to win. Add several industrial states along with states that are more liberal and the Democrat candidate wins.
Returning to the media world, persons or Parties need to avoid echo chambers. In short, those who have national ambitions need to listen to and understand many voices. The cacophony is not going away, nor is the diversity of America.
But let me add, biased media that pretend fairness ill-serve our Republic. Jim Lehrer, who co-anchored the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour and then his own show on PBS, was the archetype of a well-prepared and fair journalist. He moderated twelve presidential debates because both Republicans and Democrats could quickly agree on his fairness.
Today we spend almost as much time talking about debate moderators as we do debaters. I would suggest to those who own or control news shows, that ultimately the best market position is exemplary journalism. Imagine the benefit of having your journalists picked election after election to host the debates; that would be better than the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.