July 28, 2015

Shorenstein Center

It’s only fitting that Republican candidates are lobbying Fox News intensely to be among the 10 selected for the first GOP presidential debate on Aug. 6.

The Fox role as sponsor bolsters the thesis of a new study that argues conservative media now have undue influence in the Republican Party.

Jackie Calmes, a veteran Washington correspondent for The New York Times, makes the case that it’s now no longer Republican Party leaders setting the party agenda.

No, “It is conservative media – not just talk-show celebrities Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, but also lesser-known talkers like Steve Deace, and an expanding web of ‘news’ sites and social media outlets with financial and ideological alliances with far-right anti-government, anti-establishment groups like Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.

Calmes did her research and writing during a recent Harvard fellowship. Her report is published by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She’s now back at her paper’s D.C. bureau.

Calmes and others concede that the existence of very conservative media is nothing especially new. Indeed, other books and academic research have explored the same terrain, including a very revealing 2004 book, “The Republican Noise Machine,” by David Brock, a onetime conservative polemicist who by then had made an ideological turn and is now a high-profile Hillary Clinton acolyte.

And while conservative media will surely discount Calmes’ analysis merely due to her affiliation with what some deem the Great Liberal Nemesis, namely The New York Times, it’s clear that their impact has grown sharply since Brock’s own transformation, as detailed by many longtime Washington observers of the nexus of politics and media.

“One of the realities here is that these people have always existed,” she quotes Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein is also co-author, with left-leaning Brookings Institution’s Thomas E. Mann, of the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” which dissects what the authors see as a dramatic right turn by the GOP.

Speaking of those people who’ve always been on the scene, he says, “But they were at the fringes, the John Birch Society types. Now, because of social media and because you have a culture of extremism that is not culled out more generally, they can move into the mainstream and actually hijack a major party. And that’s what’s going on here.”

Calmes interviewed many in a Republican Party establishment that is now often pilloried by hard-core conservatives as sellouts. They cited a variety of legislative tussles over the past year, including over immigration and homeland security spending, as raising fundamental questions about whether the GOP majority in Congress can actually govern.

One de facto consensus among many of those more establishment types is the source of the problem: “Conservative media, having helped push the party so far to the anti-government, anti-compromise ideological right, attacks Republican leaders for taking the smallest step toward the moderate middle.”

Matthew Dowd, a former strategist for President George W. Bush’s White House campaigns, says, “In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Democrats weren’t dealing with a media that has become the way the conservative media has become.” That media is “much more powerful than John Boehner and Mitch McConnell,” he says, referring to the House Speaker and the Senate Majority leader, respectively.

By comparison, Dowd argues, Democratic leaders “didn’t have to deal with a quote-unquote liberal media out there that was going to confront them every time they took a turn.”

A prototypical GOP establishment figure, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, told Calmes, “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.”

Calmes cannot avoid the A-list of conservative media heavyweights, but she also focuses on others with apparently ample influence, if not quite as well known by the mainstream.

They include Steve Deace, a “baby-faced” college dropout, “self-described one-time loser, former part-time sports writer and born-again Christian who one day unexpectedly found himself with a radio show in Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation contest for aspiring presidential nominees.”

He’s now nationally syndicated and a social media figure with many followers. “As such, the entrepreneurial Deace exemplifies the otherwise obscure and deeply conservative new-media figures who, collectively, often call the shots in the Republican Party, by both provoking and amplifying the party’s conservative activists and their hardline positions. His motto is ‘Fear God. Tell the Truth. Make Money.'”

Calmes recounts the post-World War II emergence of more conservative media and acknowledges the ongoing debate as to whether they drive opinion or merely reflect it.

She would appear to sympathize with those, especially in an older GOP guard, who believe it’s a catalyst for changes and has pressured the party into taking inflexible positions that may doom attempts to recapture the White House.

On a variety of political, legal and social issues, those establishment observers say “conservative media is on the wrong side of history,” including on issues such as gay rights, insurance for contraceptives, climate change and budget policy.

An unidentified Republican Senate aide cites the chicken and egg conundrum: Did the dogmatic stands that can permeate Republicans derive from conservative media or their audiences?

The aide puts it this way: “I think they just feed off each other” in “a pact from hell.” “In a way we’re our own worst enemies, not the Democrats. It’s the conservative media pushing us to take these positions, these extremist positions. And of course there are those who are more than willing to take them because it gets them press. It’s a vicious cycle: The shows want — they’re a business. The members want publicity. So it’s just this unholy alliance.”

Calmes concludes that the party seems consigned to talking to itself, with little chance of luring many independents or Democrats in 2016.

At minimum, the tensions she, and others, lay out between media hardliners and GOP politicians seem inescapable.

They are exemplified by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who played an active and successful role in toppling Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning, nationally-noted Virginia upset in 2014. As Ingraham recounted to me back then, she thought Cantor had compromised on too many issues and supported a long-shot academic, who proceeded to win the GOP primary against Cantor despite very little party support and sail to victory in the general election.

Calmes finds it revealing that Ingraham told listeners in February, “We don’t need a nominee who believes he can win by bypassing the people who listen to this show or others in talk radio.”

Back then, she predicted that former Gov. Jeb Bush would be the GOP presidential nominee. But she also said that, as a result of not paying sufficient heed to the values espoused by many of her listeners, Bush would then lose the 2016 election.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
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