There have been suggestions floating around that some of the bigger donors should buy a newspaper, a television network or a women’s magazine to counter the media’s grip. There was a time when a powerful media outlet could be bought or created by conservative owners and function and wield influence over national policy. Time Magazine in the Luce era is one example. But that was when the media was a patchwork of publications and radio stations where powerful owners often set the tone.
Today the media is more of an integrated beast that is mostly localized on the internet. It’s a giant echo chamber for talking points developed by left-wing think tanks and memes popularized by social media mobs.
NBC News these days is less relevant than Buzzfeed. You could buy NBC News, but then what would you have? A white elephant operation whose dwindling viewers are older and either share its biases or don’t care. If it shifted to the right, it would have exactly the same image as FOX does, no matter what its standard of programming was. If it tried to be genuinely non-partisan, there would be the difficult task of finding staff who are honestly non-partisan. And its image would constantly be under attack by the left every time it dissented on a major story.
Imagine if Donald Trump bought the New York Times. The New York Times doesn’t derive its influence from the quality of its content, but from the quantity and scope of it. That quantity and scope seem dizzying to those who don’t know any better, much like Thomas Friedman’s familiar mentions of three countries and their airports in one paragraph makes him seem like a man of the world who must know what he’s talking about because he has been to so many countries.
The New York Times influences other papers and outlets to adopt its tone on a variety of topics from musicals to foreign affairs. That makes them, in current ad jargon, Thought Leaders, which is just as Orwellian as it sounds. That cements the Times’ place in the culture. But it’s a position that would vanish in a second if Donald Trump took over and began influencing content. All that would be left is an expensive and unprofitable white elephant without any of the influence.
What we think of as the mainstream media is an integrated whole. It’s not really a series of outlets, but a culture of left-wing activists and more mainstream liberal reporters and pundits who provide content to those outlets. Buying one of the outlets would punch a hole in their content network, but only a partial hole because the outlet would still likely be reliant on wire services and would mostly cover the same stories that are driven by that same network, but occasionally from a conservative angle. It would essentially be another FOX News.
The content distribution network would reform around it, shut it out, as it has shut out FOX News, though many of its members would still work for it, and continue driving the tone and content of the media’s coverage of any issue. And it’s the content network and its culture that is the real enemy.
This isn’t just true of official news outlets, but any tastemaker outlets, such as women’s magazines, which would once again be shut out, ridiculed and marginalized as the media culture works to wipe out the credibility of rival opinion-makers and the cool of rival tastemakers. And since both news and fashion depend on consensus, trying to challenge it with a single outlet will only make a limited difference. It will have an impact. FOX News certainly has. But that impact will be limited, unless, like talk radio, it becomes a culture of content creators creating a consensus across different outlets.
What we are battling is a consensus creation machine. That machine spews out news stories and memes always making sure to integrate the consensus into as much of its coverage as it can. That way the latest consensus on gun violence can be rolled out everywhere from snarky blogs to drive time news to network news to magazines and sites catering to women, car owners and science fans.
Each group will have the consensus targeted to their demographic. NBC News will talk about the dangers of school shootings. Blogs will describe gun owners as psychopaths. A site aimed at women will talk about how often abusive husbands shoot their wives. The science site will discuss the latest technology for gun locks thought up by a 9th grader from San Francisco. Most of you have already seen this consensus manufacturing and distribution machine in action.
The good news is that the internet has allowed the right to develop its own form of consensus distribution. The problem is that it’s mainly ideological. Conservative news sites and blogs create and pass along a consensus, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but it doesn’t tend to go any higher up the ladder than FOX News or Talk Radio. Buying a major outlet would give it another place to go, but it wouldn’t fundamentally change the uneven balance in the media culture war.
The Breitbart approach of directly attacking the consensus by creating stories that the media is forced to acknowledge, thereby shaking its consensus, is invigorating. But the left’s success has largely come from the creation of a media consensus culture. Challenging it is not impossible, but it will take a lot of work over a long period of time, rather than a quick fix solution.
Buying an old media outlet, like a magazine, a newspaper or a news network is a poor value. These outlets have an aging readership and a white elephant infrastructure. Their only truly valuable part is their brand. And the brand will begin taking a vicious beating the moment it drops out of the left’s consensus network. The brand does have value. Newsweek in conservative hands would have been a useful weapon, but not a consensus-killer.
The consensus is a swarm, it’s a mob. Fighting it with one outlet is like trying to fight off bees with a baseball bat. Some bees will be swatted and you’ll be stung and the outcome will depend on whether you can absorb more venom than you can kill bees. It makes for a nice last stand, but not much else.
Countering one consensus with another is a problem that requires crowd solutions. And they already exist. The conservative consensus of social media, blogs and news sites is the talk radio of the net. Conservative news sites already distribute that content, and while they could use better designs, the basis structure of the consensus is in place. The next step is to begin expanding the consensus into the non-political sphere to target not just low-information voters, but people that are not strongly political.
Buying a woman’s magazine is of limited use now. Communities of interlinked conservative fashion bloggers whose content is indexed and collected by professional front end sites can have the same result at a fraction of the price and while turning a profit. Apply the same approach to everything from science, Latino, local and car sites, and you suddenly have something that is becoming a match for the mainstream media and its culture of consensus. And all this can be done at a fraction of the cost of buying Cosmo or NBC News or the New York Times.
We aren’t fighting media outlets, we’re fighting people. You can’t fight people with money. You can only fight them with people. And the people are here. We just have to use them.
The Romney Campaign’s big mistake was relying on big dumb sledgehammer media tactics, spending more money to do less, while neglecting the people on the ground. If the Republican Party is to compete, then it has to learn from that at every level. Think small. Look at the individual. Bring together committed individuals into organizations where they cooperate and make things happen, instead of viewing them as piggy banks for end of the year donations. That is what made the Tea Party work. It is the only thing that has any hope of revitalizing the Republican Party and the right.
A culture war is a shouting match. It’s not so much a war of ideas as a war of slogans that are embedded in everything. The left has too much top-down control to be directly beaten at that level. It can be challenged and occasionally humiliated, as Breitbart had done, but it still remains in place. If the left is going to be beaten, it will be from the bottom up by empowering the people who want to fight, rather than just building more expensive operations while ignoring the ground game.
Conservatism will only win out by empowering committed people and giving them the tools to organize in various ways and on various levels to challenge the consensus. It is the organization part that is most important and it is the place where the establishment can do the most good by providing the framework and the tools to package individual contributions into a professional group package.
Creating an alternative media is as simple as channeling the conservative consensus into segmented professional outlets through brand-creation, web design and a certain degree of start-up funding, much of which can be supplemented by advertising for successful sites. These sites need not be and should not be competitors for existing political sites, rather they would be general topic sites that would target specific demographics, with relevant content for their group, whether it’s video gamers or people looking for reality show coverage, while also embedding a certain political worldview.
Rather than trying to compete with a single major outlet or with a hundred conservative political outlets all targeted at the same base, the goal would be to expand that base and influence opinions across a wider range. It would be easiest to start with those groups that are already leaning our way, for example young white men and women, and expand an existing lean into a consensus. Similar efforts should be made with Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans, two groups that came out big for Democrats and whose population share is growing, but whose interests lie with us.
All this is feasible. It’s just a matter of shifting from frustrated attacks against mainstream media to becoming the mainstream media. The licenses and print distribution networks that make the media so powerful and that account for much of its sunk cost are becoming less relevant in the age of the mobile internet readership. All that’s left are brands supported by an integrated content distribution consensus. And brands are based on content and can be challenged with content. The content exists, so does the talent, all that is needed is to package and channel it into our own media.