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How Alternative Media Have Changed American Politics: The View from 2004

(This is excerpt No. 44 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.)

In our conclusion to America’s Right Turn, published in 2004, we summarized how alternative media have Bush and Kerrychanged the American political landscape.  And those changes have been drastic—they already were in 2004, and the changes are even more pronounced today.

Today’s young people have no idea how different politics is today from how it was when their parents were growing up—unless they read real histories of the era, including America’s Right Turn.  So we start by looking at the changes in how and where Americans get their news.  And we conclude that “all the liberal harping about the conservative alternative media is just fear and alarm over finally having some competition.”

The view from 2004

When Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, there were two news cycles a day, morning papers and evening newscasts.  CNN was five months old.  There were no satellite phones, no USA Today, no Fox News Channel, no CNBC, no Comedy Central, no Weekly Standard, no Rush Limbaugh show, no Slate, no Salon, no Google, no Drudge Report.  Now campaign stories change hour by hour.

-- Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, Jan. 29, 2004

Make that minute by minute.  With the burgeoning growth of the Internet and embedded reporters and the blogosphere, there no longer is any compartmentalized news cycle – the news is under constant revision.  If you don’t like the news you’re getting this instant, come back in a second.

Most of us have better things to do than watch a news streamer all day long, of course, but the important factor is that now we can choose when we want to get our news.  As a Pew Research Center report put it: “The 24-hour availability of news on cable and the Internet has enabled many Americans to set their own schedules for getting the news.  About half (48 percent) describe themselves as news grazers – people who check in on news from time to time over the course of the day.  Roughly the same proportion (49 percent) get the news more habitually, watching or listening at regular times.”

Just as we have unlimited choice as to when we get our news, in practical terms we have unlimited choices as to where we get our news – no one could possibly utilize all the choices out there.  In this book we’ve drawn the distinction between traditional, mostly establishment-liberal news media, and alternative, mostly conservative, news media.  For years we used the phrase “below-the-radar” to describe these alternative media, but now it’s safe to say they’ve been outed (along with virtually everything else in our society).  The major categories of establishment-liberal media are the TV broadcast networks, the wire services and newspapers (especially the major trendsetting ones like the New York Times), and National Public Radio (NPR).  The major categories of alternative media are direct mail, talk radio, cable news TV, and the Internet.

The importance of this transformation of the news cycle and the explosion in the number of news outlets is that an elitist clique cannot control the news today.  News today is unmanageable and uncontrollable.  Those of us who have published, edited, or otherwise operated a news site recently do the best we can to bring some order to the news, but we know that our product represents the total reality in roughly the same degree that our solar system represents the universe.

U.S. News’ Michael Barone caught the significance of this during the 2000 election campaign, in his article “The Death of Big Media.”  Barone is not easily typecast in ideological terms and is widely respected as one of the most astute observers of the American political scene (he writes the unequaled Almanac of American Politics).  Here is part of what he said four years ago:

Twelve years ago, I decided that the ideal way to cover the 1988 presidential campaign would be to report on what happened in just five rooms – at the morning meetings in the candidates’ headquarters in Washington and Boston, and at the late-afternoon meetings of the producers of the ABC, CBS, and NBC network newscasts, all on the West Side of Manhattan.  My theory was that American voters got most of their information about the campaign from television, that the campaigns’ morning meetings would show what they wanted on the evening newscasts, and that the networks’ afternoon meetings would show how successful each campaign had been….

It was a good idea, then.  From the 1960s to the 1980s the three network nightly newscasts were, in fact, the town square of American politics….

You can’t cover the 2000 presidential election in five rooms.  It would take hundreds.

This is not altogether a bad thing.  The old-line nets’ dominance put great power in a very few – and mostly liberal – hands.

Also in the year 2000, one of your authors, Richard Viguerie, spotlighted this change on with his article, “Now, This is Real Campaign Reform”:

Have you wondered about the following?

(1) The establishment media with few exceptions declared Gore the winner of the first debate.  College debate professors declared Gore the clear winner.  Instant overnight polls gave Gore a strong victory.

(2) In the 12 days since the first debate that “Bush lost” he’s gone from about five points behind to about five points ahead.

How could Bush gain 10 points in 12 days if he lost the first debate?  The answer lies in the non-establishment media….

Now, for the first 24 hours after the first debate, the establishment media crowed loudly about Gore’s superior knowledge and Bush’s inability to defend his tax cut proposals.  But by the second day after the debate, the below-the-radar media was operating in full force.  Gore’s expressions, misstatements, off-putting sighs, condescending looks and mannerisms when Bush was speaking – all that began to get traction on national, state, and local talk radio, on cable TV, and on the Internet.

Three days after the debate, the establishment media could no longer ignore the direction the debate discussion was going around America’s water coolers and kitchen tables.  The new and alternative media almost single-handedly forced the establishment media to take a second look at their analysis of the first debate.

This presidential election is the first to feel the full weight of the conservative below-the-radar media – which is where about 40 percent of the voters get most of their political/public policy news and information….

All of this says American politics will never be the same.

What the liberal reformers such as Ralph Nader have been calling for, is happening in real time right in front of their eyes.  But unlike the liberals who receive billions of dollars each year from America’s taxpayers, the conservatives use the free market to finance their below-the-radar media.

Buckle up your political seat belt and welcome to the new reality of American politics.  The establishment media monopoly has been broken for all time.

Alternative media continue to grow

That was four years ago.  Since then the trend favoring alternative, mostly conservative media sources has accelerated, and, as we’ve already noted, those “under-the-radar” media have been outed.  The role of cable news TV, talk radio, and the Internet is a hot topic everywhere politics is discussed.

There’s one notable exception, however.  When commentators – even most conservative ones – talk about the types of alternative media influencing the election, they tend to forget direct mail.  Yet the Viguerie firm alone will mail over 100 million pieces of direct mail in this campaign year, and that’s just a small portion of what you’ll find in your mailbox this year.  We’ve surveyed the field, Right and Left, and here is our estimate of the amount of direct mail political advocacy likely to target voters this year:

  • * 3,100,000,000 letters will be mailed this year by the Republican and Democratic national committees, in addition to national and local political and public policy organizations with an ideological point of view – everyone from the Sierra Club and the NAACP to the Heritage Foundation and the National Rifle Association.
  • * 1,400,000,000 magazines, newsletters, and policy papers will be mailed by these same groups.
  • * And 2,700,000,000 letters will be mailed by candidates for public office at every level of government – from the president to your local sheriff.

And that’s just direct mail.  Add in talk radio, cable news TV, and the Internet and it’s safe to say that one-half of the American voters today get most of their political news from the alternative media.

Figures for 2004 haven’t been released as we go to press, but in 2002 the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked people where they got their news.  (Direct mail wasn’t given as a choice, of course.)  Television and newspapers were still the major sources, but from an ideological perspective it was significant that cable TV had moved ahead of the broadcast networks’ evening news programs:

                                Cable TV news                                  33%

                                Nightly network news                         32%

Similarly, talk radio slightly bested NPR:

                                Call-in radio shows                          17%

                                National Public Radio                      16%

Also, 25 percent of Americans were already citing the Internet, a huge jump from 2 percent in 1996 and 13 percent in 1998.

Where we’re headed in the future can be seen by comparing the median ages of viewers of different types of TV news.  The stereotype of the person addicted to the Weather Channel is a retiree who has nothing better to do, but we find that the audiences for the liberal network news programs and the liberals’ favorite PBS news program, “News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” are older than the weather groupies:

Median Age of Viewers

                                                News Hour with Jim Lehrer                                  54                                                       Network TV evening news programs                     50                                                 Weather Channel                                                47                                                       CNN                                                                 46                                                 Fox News Channel                                             44                                                Talk radio and NPR                                             42

Ideological profiles of news audiences

Throughout this book we have referred to the ideological leanings of the various news media – the TV networks and major newspapers being in the liberal corner, while talk radio, cable news TV, and the Internet are mostly conservative.  Now it will be extremely illuminating to look at what the Pew study we’ve continually cited found regarding the ideological leanings of media audiences.

Some highlights:

First, American news consumers are far more conservative than they are liberal.  Indeed, twice as many say they are conservative (36 percent) than liberal (18 percent).  America may be divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats in presidential campaigns, but ideologically it is overwhelmingly conservative and centrist.

Second, to quote Pew: “For all the controversy over Fox News Channel’s supposed ideological leanings, its audience is only slightly more conservative than the national average.”  The percentage of liberals (18 percent) who watch Fox is the same as the percentage of liberals found in the nation at large.

Third, because the nation is so heavily conservative, it turns out that far more conservatives than liberals watch such liberal programming as the nightly network TV news, print news magazines, NPR, and the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”  As Mickey Kaus is rumored to have said: “No wonder conservatives are so pissed off!”

Fourth, to quote Pew: “The only news-oriented media that has a decidedly liberal profile is the readership of literary magazines such as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Magazine.  Fully 45 percent of people who regularly read these magazines identify themselves as liberal, two and a half times the national average.”  No surprise there.

Bottom line:  America has always in our time been a conservative nation.  As we stressed in Chapter 4, in 1955 the nation was politically and socially conservative while the media were overwhelmingly liberal.  That was the impetus for conservatives to start and nurture their own alternative media.  Today those alternative media are healthy and powerful, but liberals are still overrepresented in the media as a whole compared to the American people.  All the liberal harping about the conservative alternative media is just fear and alarm over finally having some competition.


America’s Right Turn serialization:

To order American's Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.

  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
  22. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement”
  23. “Morton Blackwell Trains Tomorrow’s Conservative Cadre”
  24. “From FDR to Rush Limbaugh: The Talk Radio Revolution”
  25. “Talk Radio Demolishes Hillarycare, and Provides a New Battleground for the Culture Wars”
  26. “Why Liberals Fail—While Conservatives Succeed—on Talk Radio”
  27. “How the NRA Used Alternative Media to Save the Second Amendment”
  28. “C-SPAN Starts the Revolution Against TV’s Liberal Gatekeepers”
  29. “Fox Replaces CNN as King of Cable, Giving Conservatives a Voice on TV News”
  30. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  31. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  32. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  33. “Rush Limbaugh Becomes Talk Radio’s #1 Star; the “Tea Bag” Rebellion Becomes Its First Big Victory”
  34. “Cable TV—With Fox in the Lead—Becomes America’s Primary Source of Campaign News” 
  35. Political News and Impact: Newspapers Tumble—and Liberals Face Competition
  36. “Conservative Writers Get New Venues as Columnists and in Magazines”
  37. Conservative Authors Fire a New Weapon: Books with Ideas That Have Consequences
  38. “The World Turned Upside Down: How the Internet Empowers the Individual”
  39. Why Politicians Like Hillary Don’t Want You to Have the Choices Offered by the Internet
  40. “Conservatives and Libertarians Embrace the Internet”
  41. Liberals Use the Internet to Move On Past the Clinton Impeachment
  42. “Howard Dean and Joe Trippi Create the First Internet-Based Presidential Campaign”
  43. "Stirrings on the Right Side of the Internet"
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