If you get your news from conservative media these days, you probably don’t know that President Donald Trump’s lawyers believe he is likely to make criminal false statements to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, as the mainstream media has reported, but you do know (or believe) that President Barack Obama meddled in the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and that Obama’s DOJ has been caught red-handed abusing surveillance authority to spy on the Trump campaign.
Both storylines have dominated right-wing media for days now, and both are false. Wildly false, and easily disprovable. But disproving them requires taking a detour through the confusing funhouse of right wing conspiracy theories, and digesting the scattered memoranda and innuendo strung up on the walls.
This misinformation campaign, concocted to delegitimize the Mueller investigation, isn’t limited to presenting conservative news consumers with incorrect information; it also includes telling their readers and viewers that the mainstream media is in on the coverup.
— Brit Hume (@brithume) February 8, 2018
Conservatives have used this same basic method for decades now, treating liberal bias in the mainstream media as a fact, and a conspiracy in and of itself. For just as long, mainstream media institutions have gone to great lengths to refute the right’s liberal-bias accusations, and make good faith efforts to appease their critics. It was arguably this self-defensive reflex that drove leading news outlets to generate a kind of equivalence between Donald Trump’s campaign promise to turn America into a racist kleptocracy, and Hillary Clinton’s email practices at the State Department. By noting that both candidates had question marks hanging over their heads, they could (they believed) preempt accusations of liberal bias from the right.
The conciliatory approach has never worked, and because the accusations themselves are deployed in bad faith, it, importantly, can not work. The goal of movement conservatism is not to make media more representative of American politics at the margin, but to destroy journalism as a mediating institution altogether. What might work instead, though, would be for the targets of right wing criticism to embrace the liberal epithet (in a manner of speaking) and then treat the endless right-wing bleating about partisan bias as so much obnoxious noise.
The word “liberal” is loaded with multiple meanings. When conservatives use it to bash the mainstream media, they are invoking an American colloquial definition of “liberal” which is roughly synonymous with “inhabiting the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.” A major project of the conservative movement over the past 30 or more years has been to convince Republican voters that mainstream media organizations (big national newspapers, network news broadcasts, etc.) are little more than private-sector satellite arms of the Democratic Party.
This malicious branding exercise rightly makes big news outlets recoil—in part because it’s not true, and in part because the outlets themselves were created to have mass, cross-political appeal. The first step toward ending the soccer-flop-style relationship between mainstream media and its right wing antagonists is for journalists to accept that the fight is over, and conservatives have won. There are many ways to gauge that victory, but the clearest illustration comes from Pew, which has studied the issue extensively and found that while liberal voters tend to get their news from a wide variety of sources, conservative voters overwhelmingly turn to a smaller number of right wing outlets, and seldom venture out of Fox News-dominated echo chambers to learn about political events.
Mainstream media organizations would like to reach these consumers, but the conservative movement has successfully siloed them; no amount of pleading with the public that the “liberal media” epithet is unfair will reach or persuade the conservative masses. So there is little to lose by simply tuning out the ref workers.
Step two is for journalists to accept that while their organizations aren’t “liberal” in the American-partisan sense of the word, the vocation itself is “liberal” in a more profound and important sense, which is why the right wants to crush it.
In American politics we often refer to Democrats as liberals and Republicans as conservatives, but that distinction is usually drawn relatively: We all notionally share similar precepts, but our political objectives differ, and the two parties are vehicles for sorting out which faction’s objectives carry the day—the relatively more progressive one, or the relatively more regressive one.
Outside of the specific American context, the word liberal describes something more abstract and less partisan. Internationally, it describes a philosophical approach to organizing society that is capacious enough to include people who believe governments should provide robust safety nets to citizens, and people who believe taxes should be low and the poor left to fend for themselves. What those people share is a common commitment to basic Enlightenment-era ideals like equality, democracy, and empiricism.
In recent years, political science tells us, the two American parties have polarized, and the polarization has been asymmetric. Republicans have become more conservative faster than Democrats have become more progressive.
It is increasingly clear that asymmetric polarization is the wrong metaphor for what has happened in American politics. To say the parties are asymmetrical is to imply that they’re fundamentally similar, but that one has become distorted in some way—that while Democrats and Republicans are still committed to basic Founding values, Republicans are rapidly adopting more extreme policy prescriptions. They’ve changed, but they can change back.
Whether or not that was ever true, it clearly no longer is. The parties aren’t two different animals of the same species. They have speciated.
Democratic politicians, liberal activists, and journalists have different purposes and respond to different incentives, but they are all liberal in that global sense. Two decades after Newt Gingrich redefined what it meant to be a Republican, it is clear that Republican politicians, conservative activists, and the right wing media have become adherents to a fundamentally different political tradition.
Most conservatives are not aware of this anymore than liberal people walk through life meditating regularly on their historical connections to John Locke and John Dewey. But some conservatives are perfectly conscious that they’ve rejected the small-l liberal canon.
Paul Ryan is an Ayn Rand acolyte. In his political biography of Steve Bannon, Bloomberg writer Joshua Green details how Bannon became enthralled with the antimodernist thinking of philosophers like René Guénon and Julius Evola, the latter of whom helped create the intellectual foundation of Italian fascism. Bannon is an admirer of the great propagandists of totalitarian Europe, including Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein, who used information instrumentally to mobilize (rather than inform) the citizenries of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For years now, Bannon and his acolytes in right-wing media have made no secret of their desire to destroy mainstream journalism as a vocation in America. His understudy Matthew Boyle has boasted that his organization’s goal is nothing less than “the full destruction and elimination of the entire mainstream media,” through the “weaponization of information.”
Bannon has been banished from the Trump White House and driven from his chairmanship of Breitbart for saying mean things about the president to reporters, but his imprint on the modern conservative media is enormous and undeniable. While he has consciously rejected the underpinnings of the liberal west, it is impossible to watch Fox News in prime time, or Devin Nunes at the helm of the House Intelligence Committee, or Rush Limbaugh bellowing at dittoheads, and not conclude that they have done the same, consciously or otherwise.
The job of the mainstream media isn’t to cast judgment on people with different value systems, but journalists can’t do their jobs well if they aren’t aware that the value systems of mainstream journalism and American conservatism are different and in conflict. It should be perfectly possible to apply the neutral rules of modern journalism to both American political parties while accepting that Democrats (and journalists and scientists) descend from the enlightenment tradition, while Republicans (and their allies in conservative media) descend from a different, illiberal tradition—and that this makes the parties behave in different ways.
It is why the right has felt comfortable spending the past weeks fabricating whole-cloth conspiracy theories about the FBI and setting about to cajole and intimidate impartial journalists into taking the theories seriously—or at least into offering liars big platforms to spread disinformation. Journalists have spent decades responding to this kind of manipulation with varying levels of appeasement, hoping to escape the curse of the liberal epithet. They should try embracing their own particular kind of liberalism instead, and letting their bad faith critics scream into the void.