How Right-Wing Media Fuels The Political Divide 

Nov 23, 2020

Matthew Sheffield started his career as a conservative blogger. He says many Americans don’t understand how powerful right-wing media really is — or how damaging it is to American democracy. Now, he says he wants to free people from it.  

Guests

Matthew Sheffield, former conservative blogger. Founder of the right-wing site Newsbusters. Host of the Theory Of Change podcast. He’s working on a memoir about growing up in a Mormon family. (@mattsheffield)

Nicole Hemmer, historian. Author of “Messengers of the Right.” Co-host of the This Day in Esoteric Political History podcast. (@pastpunditry)

Eliana Johnson, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. Former White House correspondent for Politico. (@elianayjohnson)

Interview Highlights

Matthew Sheffield On his history in right-wing media

Matthew Sheffield: “I was raised in a very ultra-orthodox Mormon family. And we, for whatever reason, our family watched the CBS Evening News, my parents did in the ‘90s. And one of my brothers and I decided that we didn’t like their coverage of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. And so we started up a website about Dan Rather called Ratherbiased.com. And that kind of just exploded in popularity. And after that, we launched the website Newsbusters.org with a group called the Media Research Center.

“And by that time I had left Mormonism and I thought that I could perhaps … sort of expand the tent of conservatism in the United States to include secular people, to include Muslims, Jewish people. And so that was sort of my goal, to try to help people on the right understand media better and be better about media. But ultimately, I realized that that was a fool’s errand. And anyway, a few years later, after starting Newsbusters, I was the first online managing editor of the Washington Examiner, which is one of the most popular conservative news sites today. And I was involved with several other ones as well.”

What is the duty of a right-wing media organization?

Matthew Sheffield: “They don’t see journalism the way that more traditional journalists do. They see what their media enterprise is as about activism and about supporting whoever is the top Republican. That’s what they see as their duty. … From the very beginning of conservative media in this country, it has been heavily linked to political electioneering. And that’s continued down to this day that so many current right-wing media outlets were created by political organizations or people who had political motives.”

Are we in a distinctly different moment now than, say, we had been 40 or 50 years ago?

Nicole Hemmer: “It is distinctly different. But I think we have to understand that period from the 1930s on to understand how we got here. There was, as you were just saying, right-wing radio in the 1930s. There was a much more robust conservative media that was developed in the 1950s and 1960s. But at the time it was powerful within conservatism. It was increasingly powerful within the Republican Party. But it didn’t have this all-encompassing, almost cult-like following that it has now.

“And that change really happens when people like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News appear on the scene and they bring not just conservative politics, but entertainment and this totalizing conservative media. Where if you’re a conservative today, you have no reason to interact with other media sources. You can listen to 24 hours of talk radio or podcasts or now you can choose from a number of different conservative cable news outlets. There’s a totality to it that we haven’t seen before.”

Is money a part of the story?

Nicole Hemmer: “It’s a huge part of the story. And that’s the big change that happens when Rush Limbaugh and Fox News appear on the scene, because those folks in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s weren’t making any money. So you add in this financial incentive and suddenly things start to look different. And we saw this so clearly when Donald Trump took over the Republican Party, because you see people who were diehard conservatives but who are also anti-Trump begin to lose their jobs.

“We see the Weekly Standard shut down. We see radio hosts get fired. We see Fox News reshuffling its lineup in order to align with President Trump. And so the economics matter a lot. And where the economics meet the politics. They know that audiences want a certain kind of content and they change their content in order to meet where the base is.”

Can the facts become part of conservative or right-wing media once again?

Nicole Hemmer: “There certainly are some efforts to try to do that. A lot of the anti-Trump conservatives have sought to find a place where there can be a kind of fact-rooted or reporting-rooted conservative media. But the flow or all of the energy is moving in a different direction. I mean, this is something that has happened time again. Daily Caller was founded in order to, ostensibly, to be a place where conservative media was based more on reporting and it’s moved so far away from that.

“And so even as you have these activists trying to move back toward some sort of more deeply rooted in fact, or journalistic practice … they’re moving against incredibly strong headwinds. What you see across the board in conservative media is this real propulsion in the same direction it’s been going for a while. And why not? It has worked pretty well for them politically for years now. So until there are actual serious political consequences again and again and again and again, until this is no longer an effective route to political power, it’s going to continue to move in that direction.”

On funders of right-wing media

Matthew Sheffield: “The funders of the right-wing media, they need to face consequences, social business consequences for what they do. Rupert Murdoch has been enabling a growth of a fanatical movement in this country. And anybody who is funding these far-right publications needs to be exposed. And they need to stop funding it. And they need to start funding mainstream Republicans like Larry Hogan, and they need to actively counter because otherwise they’re just going to [grow] radicalization over and over, and get worse and worse.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “A former right-wing media creator on how a ‘different reality’ became so prominent.” — “Matthew Sheffield started his first conservative website in 2000, dedicating it to criticizing the former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who Mr. Sheffield believed was a partisan liberal and not critical enough of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”

Washington Post: “The Trailer: The very different view of the election from pro-Trump media” — “Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, carrying 306 electoral votes. Dozens of lawsuits, brought by both President Trump’s campaign and by conservative activists, have been knocked down, failing to find irregularities that had any effect on the vote.”

New York Times: “Newsmax, Once a Right-Wing Also-Ran, Is Rising, and Trump Approves” — “Flanked by aides in the Oval Office on Wednesday, President Trump dialed up a friend in the news media with a message: Keep up the good work.”

Politico: “Dan Bongino leads the MAGA field in stolen-election messaging” — “As far-right media entrepreneurs seize on Trump’s fraud claims to build new audiences, a former Secret Service agent rises to the front of the pack.”

On The Media: “Another World Entirely” — “With President Trump refusing to accept the results of the election, analysts are asking if he’s trying to wage a coup. On this week’s On the Media, why so many Republicans support the president’s claims, despite the evidence.”

Politico: “How Trump Blew Up the Conservative Media” — “Months before Donald Trump blew up American politics with his surprise win in November, he did the same thing to the conservative media.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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