Why Conservatives Can’t Stop Acquiring Media Companies

From a story on politico.com by A.J. Bauer headlined “Why Conservatives Can’t Stop Acquiring Media Companies”:

Elon Musk has officially gone from Twitter’s most notorious troll to its commander in chief. And conservatives are gleeful that the social media platform is now more welcoming of their talking points, with little censorship or oversight.

It’s not just Musk who is creating safe spaces for conservatives online. There are a handful of conservative social media outlets vying to replace Twitter as the de facto digital public sphere including Donald Trump’s Truth Social, Jason Miller’s GETTR, and Gab, long a haven for neo-Nazis. Last month, Ye, better known as Kanye West, announced his agreement to buy Parler, giving the site a much-needed pop cultural boost.

None of this should come as a surprise. Conservatives have often been early adopters or innovators of new and emerging media.

They’ve already proven adept at innovation in digital content creation — leveraging apps such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Spotify to produce and amplify far-right video blogs, live streaming services like Right Side Broadcasting Network and podcasters like Ben Shapiro. They’ve also launched a seemingly endless array of conservative news sites, from the Daily Caller to Breitbart to Gateway Pundit.

But this surge of online content is merely the latest front in a 70-year effort by conservative activists to cultivate an alternative media system to rival mainstream media hegemony. There is no comparable left-wing counterpart. What explains the right’s fixation on media? Why do conservatives seem more interested and adept at media activism than their left and liberal opponents?

The answer lies in a series of historical battles, now mostly forgotten, which continue to structure the conservative drive toward media ownership, innovation and activism. These battles have not only shaped conservative movement strategy, but they have also situated media criticism as a core component of conservative political identity. This all stems from a desire to promote deeply unpopular ideas to a largely skeptical public.

To understand conservative antipathy toward the press, we must recall just how bleak things looked for conservative activists nearly a century ago.

The modern conservative movement began in the 1930s among businessmen who opposed Keynesian economic solutions to the Great Depression, most notably President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Popular support for these programs, designed to mitigate the boom-bust cycle of laissez-faire capitalism and to create a social safety net for the working class, solidified throughout the Second World War. After the war, conservative activists redoubled their efforts to scale back federal intervention in the economy — but their appeals failed to resonate.

By 1948, conservatives were dispirited enough to justify the publication of a self-help book, How to Be Popular, Though Conservative. The book, which included tongue-in-cheek political cartoons and was advertised in Reader’s Digest, offered advice for conservatives who hoped to win adherents to their deeply unpopular ideology.

While some conservative activists were pessimistic about the prospect of widespread adoption of their beliefs, wealthy Texas oilman H.L. Hunt sought to build a popular conservatism.

In 1951, Hunt launched Facts Forum, a series of loosely coordinated local discussion groups designed to make conservatism more palatable at the grassroots. Hunt soon expanded the idea, tapping into his vast wealth to produce Facts Forum radio and television programming that aired nationwide.

These broadcasts were designed to fulfill the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine mandate that ordered radio and television stations to present balanced perspectives on controversial issues. While nominally nonpartisan, Facts Forum skewed to the right — giving weak arguments for liberal ideas and enthusiastic defenses of conservative ones.

At the end of 1953, the Providence Journal published an exposé on Facts Forum, documenting Hunt’s financial backing and pointing out the group’s clear far-right motivations. The article was picked up by the Associated Press and stirred additional criticism from other national media outlets like Time magazine. By 1954, Facts Forum was playing defense against what its supporters perceived as an unrelentingly hostile press.

In its final two years of existence, Facts Forum increasingly published and aired commentary designed to appeal to a conservative audience that felt underserved and even targeted by mainstream media outlets — platforming conservative activists who would later play crucial roles in building the modern conservative movement, including professor and writer Medford Evans (later a John Birch Society organizer) and William F. Buckley Jr. (later founder of National Review).

Though little remembered today, Facts Forum was the post-war conservative movement’s first concerted effort at building popular support. Its demise, accelerated by a deluge of attacks by mainstream journalists, informed subsequent conservative movement efforts like the John Birch Society and Young Americans for Freedom, who themselves often faced considerable press scrutiny in the decades that followed.

Conservative antipathy toward the press also easily dovetailed with the concerns of white Southerners — many still New Deal-supporting Democrats — who saw Northern-based press outlets as complicit with the Civil Rights Movement. Nationally televised images of violent attacks by white mobs and police against Black freedom activists in the 1960s helped to discredit Jim Crow segregation. They also turned many white Southerners against the national press, pushing them toward the burgeoning conservative media sphere, which steered their economic thinking rightward.

Conservative media innovations continued in the 1970s. Richard Viguerie revolutionized the use of direct mail advertising in politics, helping to cobble together the Reagan Republican coalition out of a series of hot button single issue solicitations, such as those opposing school integration bussing, abortion and gun control.

While conservatives have been consistently winning elections since the 1980s, they have continued to struggle in their long battle for public sentiment and a firmer place in popular culture. The Republican Party has only won the popular vote in one presidential election since 1988 (George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004). So even after electing Reagan in 1980, the conservative movement’s penchant for media innovation and activism continued apace.

Following the Reagan administration’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Rush Limbaugh developed a conservative talk format that almost single-handedly resurrected AM radio. After a series of false starts by activists to create a conservative television network, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes launched Fox News Channel in 1996. By the early aughts Fox was boasting the highest ratings in cable news, and it has paved the way for further right imitators like Newsmax and One America News Network.

The need to build a robust alternative media system was more than a practical concern for conservatives; it was also an animating vision that helped the movement smooth over internecine ideological conflicts. Hostility toward the mainstream press became a core element of conservative identity.

This distrust of the media is reflected in conservative enthusiasm for Ye and his purchase of Parler.

Ye was criticized on the right after declaring that then-President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about Black people” amid the carnage of Hurricane Katrina. But he has been a darling of conservatives since his endorsement of Donald J. Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Ye’s penchant for egotistical, non-sensical and anti-Semitic utterances has garnered widespread condemnation by most mainstream media outlets. This criticism has only strengthened the mutual affinity between Ye and the right. That Ye is Black provides an added benefit at a time when the Republican Party is once again growing increasingly brazen in its racist appeals to white voters. Ye’s wearing a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt and appearing on Tucker Carlson’s “great replacement theory”-promoting Fox News show gives conservatives plausible deniability against well-substantiated accusations of white supremacism.

Conservatives and Parler relish Ye’s approval because of his A-list status — he bestows on them a form of cultural cachet which the right has long desired and rarely achieved. The rapper’s celebrity, however, is unlikely to translate into popularity for conservatives: Ye’s veer to the right has tarnished his image among Black people, Jewish people and many of the liberal white millennials who comprised his earlier fan base.

Even when capable of electorally viable majority coalitions, conservatism remains stubbornly unpopular. This is one reason why, despite having already amassed a vast and immensely powerful network of right-wing media, conservatives can’t stop acquiring and building more.

A.J. Bauer is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. He is currently working on Making the Liberal Media, a book on the history of conservative media criticism in the United States.

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