The media, at this time, likes to repeat the almost-mantra that the United States is divided into two antagonistic political camps. The division is right-versus-left ideology and us-versus-them tribalism. There is even a strong division among many political candidates over whether we should be promoting specific ideals and relatively pure policy goals or working to communicate “across the aisle” with our opponents. Adding to the laments about the extremity and persistence of such divisions we have produced varied speculation about how we got to this point and what we need to do about it. Of these, perhaps the most vital is the origin question. We may not be able to reduce our political divisions unless we can accurately identify the elements that have caused and sustained them.
I won’t bother to belabor the hypotheses that have ben forwarded, which have included social and economic frustrations, racial and cultural prejudices, religious philosophies, and more. Some of these elements are undoubtedly factors for many individuals, but they fail to explain two characteristics of the opposing groups: (1) There are strong regional concentrations, with high proportions of conservatives in rural areas and liberals in cities; and (2) in interviews, individuals often exhibit standardized fact-resistant stereotyping and even demonization of members on the “other side” of the ideological divide. There is only one factor that can fully explain these two characteristics of our disunited population, and that is the influence of “fake news” and intentional misinterpretation; in other words, divisive propaganda continuously produced by our system of highly partisan media.
It is perhaps not surprising that our political commentators generally ignore the role that media plays in creating our bifurcated citizenry. Our political leaders also largely avoid mentioning it, perhaps because politicians who have referred to negative media influence have often received a scolding backlash, as President Obama did when, in a 2007 interview, he made the relatively mild and accurate comment, “I’ve got one television station entirely devoted to attacking my administration.” The ridicule he received was widespread both within Fox News, the target of his reference, and across virtually all of the outlets in conservative talk radio and print media. The backlash was also strikingly repetitive, with the arguments (or “talking points”) astonishingly identical.
The Obama incident gave us one significant example of how the media effectively creates the second characteristic I listed above, the fact-resistant stereotyping of opponents. The conservative media outlets acted as a national echo chamber against Obama, in this case not only defending the behavior of Fox News but producing iterative mischaracterizations of President Obama’s statement. The intent was clearly to instill, through repetition, a specific standard narrative in the minds of listeners. In this and many other instances their strategy has proven to be remarkably effective, aided by the habits of the millions of people who pay attention only to media outlets that stick to the message.
In analyzing this phenomenon, I am going to focus on the conservative side. This is in part because the opinion leadership on the right is astonishingly willing to ignore and distort scientific and statistical facts, from climate change to evolution to history to human behavior and economics. Their followers are also surprisingly dedicated to following their lead. One measure of this is what some analysts have called the “Fox News effect,” the results of multiple surveys that have shown that Fox viewers score significantly lower on current events knowledge than the general population. Another indicator comes from the staff of the “intentional faux news site” Disinfomedia. They produce internet click bait to attract advertising income and have made the decision to concentrate on conservatives, especially Trump supporters. Their reason is experience; their writers “have tried to write fake news for liberals — but they just never take the bait.” Conservative memes, faux or not, are accepted and shared uncritically at a much higher rate than liberal ones.
The power of a consistent and broadly accepted message is only half of the conservative effort. The other half, the one that creates a strong consensus in most rural communities in the United States, depends on a large media presence. In most small media markets the only outlets that offer political discussions lean to the right; there is generally only one talk radio station available and it offers a steady lineup of conservative logic. Conservative leaders are aware of this and they are working to extend their effective monopoly control to more regions. They began by getting President Reagan to get rid of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. From there they have steadily purchased radio and television stations, often pushing the limits relating to media concentration in local markets.
Silver City, New Mexico is a relatively isolated rural location, somewhat atypical because it is the home of western New Mexico University. Back in 2004 the main talk radio station in town carried the standard lineup of syndicated right-wing gurus. But they also had one hour of morning liberal discussions daily at ten o’clock. Then the station’s advertisers threatened a boycott if that one alternative hour wasn’t removed. The threat was effective, and since then the station has been all-conservative, all day.
But it’s not just in rural areas that the right is working to monopolize on-air ideology. When I first moved to Tucson, Arizona ten years ago there was one AM station that featured progressive and liberal talk shows. It seemed to be well supported by advertisers. After a couple of years, however, the station converted to a pop music format and the advertisements disappeared. There didn’t seem to be any economic reason for the change. At the time I thought this might be an isolated incident, possibly related to the overall conservative character of Arizona politics, even though Tucson (and the surrounding “Baja Arizona”) is a relatively liberal outlier in that Republican state.
In 2014 I moved back to Albuquerque, New Mexico and to an AM station, KABQ, that had offered progressive talk shows since 2007 and that was the second most popular talk-format station in the city. It, too, carried frequent local advertisements, seemingly enough to sustain its programming. About a year ago, however, infrequent plugs for Clear Channel and iHeartMedia began to appear, soon including requests to sign up for a phone-based “survey” site for which the sample questions were clearly biased to elicit answers favoring GOP policies. Then in May of 2019 the progressive talk shows disappeared completely, replaced by a format of endless repetitions of incomplete podcasts followed by incitements to subscribe to an iHeart podcast service. Almost all of the local advertisement spots have also disappeared. As in Tucson, the KABQ talk shows were not replaced with an opposition rightist lineup—both cities already have four or five full-time conservative talk stations—but the political reputation of Clear Channel and the failure to move to a revenue-producing replacement format implies that their primary purpose was the removal of a popular outlet for progressive ideas.
The success of the conservative media strategy in creating conservative constituencies in rural markets has apparently encouraged them to expand their reach into the more ideologically diverse cities. They are apparently willing to expend large sums to push this agenda. It is said that Rupert Murdoch has squandered, or “invested,” more than a billion dollars in his four decades of ownership of the New York Post. I’m sure he regards it as money well spent. The leaders on the right, including an enormous number of wealthy business owners, obviously have vast amounts of funds that they are willing to apply in their quest to “educate” voters to elect representatives who will provide those same leaders and their friends with tax cuts and low wages and minimal regulations. Their efforts are what has turned our country into us-versus-them tribal masses, more than a third of whom are blindly following the propaganda pushed by their copy-cat media. Unfortunately, their strategy has been as effective as it has been self-serving.