Is All the Lying Backfiring?
After the results of Tuesday’s elections, it looks like some folks are reconsidering the common wisdom that right wing media lies because it works. Republicans appear to be on total meltdown, which is either hilarious or distressing depending on how much you care about the Republican in question. Conor Friedersdorf correctly blames the right wing media for their distress:
Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike four years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday’s result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise. So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout — Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes. Joe Scarborough scoffed at the notion that the election was anything other than a toss-up. Peggy Noonan insisted that those predicting an Obama victory were ignoring the world around them. Even Karl Rove, supposed political genius, missed the bulls-eye. These voices drove the coverage on Fox News, talk radio, the Drudge Report, and conservative blogs.
Those audiences were misinformed.
Outside the conservative media, the narrative was completely different. Its driving force was Nate Silver, whose performance forecasting Election ’08 gave him credibility as he daily explained why his model showed that President Obama enjoyed a very good chance of being reelected. Other experts echoed his findings. Readers of The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other “mainstream media” sites besides knew the expert predictions, which have been largely born out. The conclusions of experts are not sacrosanct. But Silver’s expertise was always a better bet than relying on ideological hacks like Morris or the anecdotal impressions of Noonan.
Alyssa Rosenberg links Conor, and points out that having a strong worldview doesn’t preclude a strong adherence to facts. In fact, she argues that overall, trafficking in nonsense hurts you politically:
But even given that, it’s always amazing to me that people choose to believe it’s better, not just for their pageviews, but for their causes, to be dishonest or to waste time on conspiracy theories or straight-up dishonesty. If you lie, you can get caught, and sometimes, sued. If you chase ghosts, you risk being thought ridiculous both by people whose opinions you disdain and those whose approval you might like to court. If you devote bandwidth to nothing stories, you waste time that could be more profitably spent researching and reporting real scandals, and developing sources of actual value. If you mislead your readers to inflame their passions, you divert them from issues that they could profitably mobilize around. If you skew possible outcomes, you risk exposing your audience to shattering disappointments and confusion. No matter how well you firewall yourself, you will eventually be exposed on some level. Orly Taitz and company can believe all they want that the president is not an American citizen. But they cannot deny that he is occupying the White House and performing the office of president.
Alyssa’s making a point that I think will be more controversial’s than Conor’s. The right wing media has trafficked in lies for so long because they believe it suits their agenda. They know that if they tell the truth about the President’s actual agenda, most conservative viewers wouldn’t give a fuck. For instance, the Affordable Care Act will likely be imperceptible to people who already have employer-provided insurance, so the strategy to get them on board with fighting it is to tell them the government is taking their insurance away. Stripping the wealthiest of their tax cuts is something only said wealthiest actually care about, so right wing media runs a bunch of stories implying that people of color and single women are given a $50,000 a year salary for sitting on their butts or something. And so on. But what these lies have in common is that average people can’t really grasp the truth without a mediator. The reason I know that single mothers don’t actually get fat checks for not working is because reliable news media tells me that (as do government agencies you can look up online).
But the election is a different story. There’s no way for them to bullshit their way out of what was obvious, which is that Obama continues to be popular with the public and he was re-elected without any real doubt what the outcome would be. The right wing media stopped lying about stuff that’s hard to verify, and started lying about stuff that’s impossible to ignore. Alyssa has a point: Once you start down this road, maybe it is inevitable that you cross that line.
Fox knows that the sort of people who clog its airwaves on normal, regularly scheduled programming days — and especially prime time — are liars, phonies, wackos and con men. It knows it’s constantly lying to its audience. In the Bush era this was fine for morale. In the first years of Obama’s term it was good for midterm election turnout. But it’s apparent that it’s clearly bad for the movement in the long term. Counting midterms, the parallel conservative media has now utterly failed to grasp the reality of the American electorate in three of the last four national elections. (And for the record, their counterparts on the left did not spend 2010 furiously pretending that everything would turn out great for the Democratic Party.)
It’s an interesting theory, and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time. The problem, however, remains: Without lies, what does the right wing media have? Not much. One thing that continues to nag at me is how the vast majority of conservatives who come at me online are simply wrong. Not in their opinion, but in their facts. And that when you inform them of the facts, they either retreat or insist their lies are truth. That’s because if they accept the facts, their entire worldview dissipates. For example, the “outrage” over the contraception mandate mostly rests on the assumption that the government is giving out free birth control to anyone who asks, no matter how rich. In reality, the mandate simply requires insurance that women pay for to cover it without a copay. When you point this out, they have nothing. Even they know that there’s no reason to be mad that women get what they pay for. They don’t like it—mostly because they’re reacting on an emotional level to their deep-seated anger about other people’s sex lives—but they don’t have an argument.
So, that’s where they’re at. I suspect the lesson for the right wing media will not be, “Stop lying.” It will be, “Lie better.” Whether or not that works for them remains to be seen.