This is perpetually a dream project for me. There is absolutely no way I will have the time to devote to it to really do it right in the next year or two, and after that it is still unlikely. But I’ve given this a great deal of thought over a fairly long period; in some ways this is the topic I have remained most continuously engaged with for the longest span, investing here and there in reading, writing, discussing, and refining little by little.
So I’m going to sketch out the basic outline of how I think about this here, in a blog post, for future reference and hopefully to flesh out into something properly scholarly at some point.
In an important sense, midcentury media was both centralized and wildly competitive and creative. This is because even then, even in the absolute heyday of mass media, “media” was not one single monolithic thing. Magazines and club periodicals and other niche audience publications occupied a space that was energetic as well as ideologically and stylistically diverse.
Mass media, however, was a cartel through and through. From newspapers to book publishers to broadcast television, a very small number of people who all ran in the same social circles set the agenda and got to decide who could and who could not have access to national audiences. The entire niche publishing market combined was a drop in the bucket compared to the enormous audiences enjoyed by the midcentury media cartel.
I would like to pause here for a moment and say that midcentury media is long overdue a serious demystification. The problem is that right now that entire discursive space is monopolized by right-wing narratives, which is chock full of bad actors. On that, more in a moment. But the main thing I wish to say is that like any cartel which is able to get away with a lot of bad bullshit, midcentury mass media did, indeed, engage in a lot of bad bullshit, and get away with it.
Contra the aforementioned narratives, I think that most of the bad bullshit was not political in nature, but was just about drumming up interest—strong-arming people to get a story, selectively and dishonestly quoting people to achieve a certain effect, and so on. In other words, by and large the bad shit they got away with was out of indifference to the harm they caused in pursuit of their bottom line, or sloppiness plain and simple. Because as the only game in town, they could afford to be so callous and so sloppy.
But I don’t want to overstate this, as I often did back in the old bloggers vs journalists days. These were also serious institutions, in every sense of the word. It’s just that institutions of that kind are a lot more shot through with bad behavior than we like to think, especially when dealing more immediately with the faults of their replacements.
On the question of bias: I do think they had it, but here I think the leftist critics are more on the money than the rightist ones. The midcentury cartel had a conventionalist bias. It’s just that they hardened into a cartel at a moment when New Deal Liberalism was at its apotheosis, enjoying extremely broad public support. And so it was biased in that direction. Later, the conservative media insurgency would define itself against that very bias. Later still, as that insurgency began winning major victories, the institutions of the old mass media would begin to define themselves against the insurgents—the beginning of a long slide into the partisan press we live with today.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Again if I had the time and resources I’d flesh out the good and the bad more thoroughly, along with the exact nature of media bias at particular moments. But I don’t, so let’s move on to the next part: the dawn of the conservative media insurgency.
National Review holds a certain place of pride in movement conservatism, but it is and has always been in the niche audience market. The real conservative insurgency began with Talk Radio. As is typical of entrants seeking to compete with big, established players, conservative media entrepreneurs went into a close substitute field that was basically unoccupied, creating a cottage industry overnight.
Fox News was the next big accomplishment of this movement; while cable news was not new by the time it launched in 1996, it was still not as pervasive as it has now become. And with the comparative wealth of channels cable TV offered relative to broadcast, there was more room for entrants in general.
The Internet was naturally the last big piece, and it has been big indeed, though we musn’t overstate it—the communities created by Talk Radio and Fox News are probably the biggest pieces of the conservative insurgency’s positive contribution to its final victory. The rise of the Internet probably contributed to that victory most directly by bleeding newspapers dry of classifieds revenue, and by suddenly putting every form of media into more direct national, even global competition with one another. In other words, the Internet ruptured a number of contingent business arrangements and market structures that had buoyed the established media’s profitability for a long time.
But of course, alongside these blows to the entrenched players, the Internet also opened the market up to all comers. The excitement around so-called “Web 2.0” centered specifically on the development of tools and platforms that non-technical users could easily employ to publish themselves online. This very blog, obscure as it is, could have millions of viewers tomorrow under a completely conceivable (not to say likely) set of circumstances. The birth of the big social media platforms reduced the number of steps you needed to receive such sudden and massive attention, which is so common these days we coined a phrase for it (“going viral”) for convenience’s sake.
Unlike Talk Radio, but like Fox News, the conservative insurgency was not the lone pioneer in online media. Especially because the blogosphere really lit up under a Republican administration, the leftist and liberal blogosphere was active and energetic. But the conservative one was equally so, precisely because the mainstream press, though flagging, was still dominant, and when contrasted to the genuinely conservative voices they could now find online (and in Talk Radio and on Fox News), the hated Mainstream Media (“MSM”) was intolerably left-biased. Out of the conservative blogosphere was birthed many an online conservative publication, Breitbart being among the most significant.
All right. Now let us return to the question of quality, raised ever so fleetingly during the discussion of the midcentury cartel.
I mentioned that a lot of bad bullshit occurred under the midcentury cartel because they could get away with it. Well, the conservative insurgency has engaged in a hundred times as much bad bullshit. They have done so because, in general, it is not the nice guys who are able to unseat a truly entrenched power. There is an important parallel in the history of the partisan polarization of congress, discussed by political scientist Frances Lee and summarized by Vox here. In that telling of history, Democrats dominated Congress for decades, and in order to overturn that, the Republicans in effect declared all out war, putting all tactics on the table and steamrolling past established norms.
The conservative insurgency is a phrase I picked precisely because I think it is best seen in such total war terms. Talk Radio played for keeps, and Breitbart definitely does. The more they succeed, the more their enemies sink into the same total war mindset.
Frances Lee thinks that the war of the congressional parties cannot be settled until one dominates again and the other accepts defeat for a while. Here the metaphor becomes hazy, for congressional seats are determined by first past the post voting and other particularities that do not apply to the media landscape. We have lived through times when the press was explicitly partisan before, and that may be our new normal again. A conservative media victory on par with the midcentury cartel is simply impossible under present technological circumstances, and unlikely given the notably unconservative bent of the typical resident of America’s large urban population centers.
Whatever the future holds for American media, the present seems relatively clear to me: at a high level, the big presses are transparently aligned with one major party or other. This does not, again, make them symmetrical: the conservative media ecosystem is truly a cesspool of the worst sort. And that, again, does not get the liberal press off the hook: its sins range from the laughable mediocrity of Glenn Kessler-style “fact checking” and Washington Post #resistance theater in its new motto, to becoming dependent upon pumping up the very bad tendencies it ostensibly is aligned against.
But I don’t mean to do any serious evaluations here. I just wanted to sketch out that broad history: from midcentury media split between the creative niches and the conventionalist cartel, to the conservative media insurgency spearheaded through Talk Radio and Fox News, to the Internet’s gutting of mainstream media’s business models and empowering of the online conservative media ecosystem, to our current partisan press.
That’s the gist. To be fleshed out and defended (and modified based on research of course) at some future time. Please do not hesitate to steal it if you intend to do the scholarly legwork (not that I would mind a link or a shout out should you do so!)