post-template-default single single-post postid-64865 single-format-standard

The Right-Wing Media Takeover Is Destroying America

Alex Constantine - January 23, 2024

The purchase of The Baltimore Sun is further proof that conservative billionaires understand the power of media control. Why don’t their liberal counterparts get it?

By Michael Tomasky - Fighting Words Newsletter

You have no doubt seen the incredibly depressing news about the incredibly depressing purchase of The Baltimore Sun by the incredibly depressing David Smith, chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the right-wing media empire best known for gobbling up local television news operations and forcing local anchors to spout toxic Big Brother gibberish like this.

The Sun was once a great newspaper. I remember reading, once upon a time, that it had sprung more foreign correspondents into action across the planet than any American newspaper save The New York Times and The Washington Post. It had eight foreign bureaus at one point, all of which were shuttered by the Tribune Company by 2006. But the Sun’s real triumphs came in covering its gritty, organic city. And even well after its glory days, it still won Pulitzers—as recently as 2020, for taking down corrupt Mayor Catherine Pugh, who served a stretch in prison thanks to the paper.

Smith wasted no time in showing his cards during his first meeting with the staff Wednesday. He was asked about a comment he made to New York magazine back in 2018, when he said, “Print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble.” (“Dribble”? Let’s hope he won’t be on the copy desk.) Did he feel that way about the Sun specifically? “In many ways, yes,” Smith said, adding that he wants the paper to emulate the local Fox affiliate, which is owned … by Sinclair.

Travel With The New Republic! Learn More About Our Trip to CubaCuba is one of the most amazing places in the world. We’re inviting you to join a special group of readers on a lovingly designed, all-inclusive tour.

But this column isn’t about the Sun and Smith. In fact, I applaud Smith and Sinclair in one, and only one, respect. They get it. They understand how important media ownership is. They are hardly alone among right-wing megawealthy types. Of course there’s Rupert Murdoch, but there are more. There’s the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who, after he got rich from his Unification Church, sprouted media properties, most notably The Washington Times, still owned by the church’s News World Communications (once upon a quaint old time, it was shocking that the conservative newspaper in the nation’s capital was started by a cult). And Philip Anschutz, whose Clarity Media Group started the tabloid newspaper The Washington Examiner in 2005. These days, the list includes Elon Musk with X/Twitter, Peter Thiel and Senator J.D. Vance with Rumble (a right-wing YouTube alternative), Ye with his attempted purchase of the now-defunct Parler, and, of course, Donald Trump, with Truth Social. They all understand what Viktor Orbán told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2022: “Have your own media.” Shows like Tucker Carlson’s old Fox show, the Hungarian strongman said, “should be broadcast day and night.”

I’ve been watching this develop for decades. The right-wing media was a thing long ago, but it was still easily drowned out by the mainstream media. If the mainstream media was a beach ball, the right-wing media was a table tennis ball.

Today? The mainstream media, with cuts like those endured by the Sun, is maybe a volleyball, and the right-wing media is a basketball—a little bigger. And it’s on its way to beach-ball-hood. The right-wing media is now the agenda-setting media in this country, and it’s only getting bigger and more influential every year.

And how have the country’s politically engaged liberal billionaires responded to this? By doing roughly nothing.

I’ve been in the trenches of this fight for many years. Back in the George W. Bush era, the late Rob Stein, a Democratic insider and good friend of mine, mapped for the first time the conservative infrastructure in a PowerPoint presentation that became such a hot ticket in Washington liberal circles that The New York Times Magazine did a story about it. He showed, from looking over conservative groups’ 990s (because they were mostly all nonprofits), how much was spent on policy development, how much on field operations, how much on youth training, and how much on media. I don’t remember the numbers, but the media figure was high.

Much of this spending was coordinated. Murdoch’s empire didn’t count, because his properties were for-profit, as was The Washington Times. But a lot of the nonprofit spending was directed by a handful of anointed movement leaders, and they made certain that a big chunk of money was spent on media.

I used to try to argue, whenever I was lucky enough to get the ear of one of our side’s rich people for five minutes, that we needed to build an avowedly liberal media infrastructure. I was told that they just weren’t that interested. They had other priorities. They were concerned with the issues. They weren’t prepared to lose all that money, and for what?

For what? Ask Viktor Orbán. He knows. Ask Rupert. Why has he held onto the New York Post? News Corp., the parent company, makes a profit. But the Post loses kajillions. Nobody knows how much, but here’s an estimate from 12 years ago that put the paper’s losses at $60 to $120 million a year.

So why does he keep it? Because it’s worth every penny. It gives him power. The Post’s editors know how to use its front page and its news pages to shape discourse. Where did last fall’s New York crime scare come from, the one that had Westchesterites convinced they dare not set foot in the city, and which elected all those Republican members of Congress? From the Post, that’s where.

I used to be told sometimes, “Yes, but we have The New York Times, The Washington Post …” Really? No, not really. Sure, they endorse Democrats mostly. And sure, much of their social and cultural coverage proceeds from liberal assumptions. They, and almost all of the mainstream media, will not write a story today suggesting, for example, that undocumented immigrants across America should be rounded up en masse and deported. This has been a hard-won reality forged by many activists and intellectuals over many years, and it is a good thing.

But it isn’t capital-P Politics. On capital-P Politics, The New York Times and The Washington Post often let liberals down. I was having these arguments, as I said, back when Dubya was president, and he and his vassals were ginning up their phony case for invading Iraq. Which newspaper published the infamous “aluminum tubes” story charging that Saddam Hussein was seeking material that could only be used in nuclear centrifuges? The Times, on its front page on a crucial Sunday in the fall of 2002, as Bush officials spent the day fanning out onto the political chat shows touting the article.

It was false. Eventually, the Times itself debunked the story—but in 2004, well after the war had started. And as for the Post, that liberal paper’s editorial page was one of the most important promoters of the Iraq invasion in all of American media. (Speaking of the unreliability of liberal media outlets at that time, it would be evasive of me not to mention The New Republic’s own fervent support of the war, but that wasn’t me; I was helming The American Prospect at the time, and we opposed it.)

I used to say to people: What we need is a full-throated liberal tabloid in Washington—a Washington version of the New York Post that would use its front pages and its news columns to promote embarrassing stories and scandals about Bush administration officials, evangelical grifters, and other prominent right-wingers. It would be agenda-setting. It would have some juicy gossip columns and a great sports section because a tabloid newspaper has to. And most of all, it would have done the vital work of connecting liberal values to a proletarian tabloid sensibility.

Everyone I mentioned this to laughed in my face, and maybe you are too. But Phil Anschutz didn’t laugh. He started a conservative tabloid right around the same time I was saying our side should start a liberal one. And what’s happened? I suppose he’s lost money, although I don’t really know. But The Washington Examiner is a respected property (it gave up on print in 2013, but that was fine; by then it was an established presence). I see its people on cable news, and it has produced some legit stars like Tim Alberta. It has influence, I assume its reporters have Hill press credentials, and I don’t see anybody laughing at it.

How different would today’s discourse be if someone had funded such a paper? I don’t want to overstate things, but it would be different, no question. Four years of tabloid “woods” (covers) smartly and riotously mocking Trump while he was president would absolutely have changed the way he was perceived and described by the rest of the media.

And now let’s return our thoughts to Sinclair. How different would things be out there in America if, 15 or 20 years ago, some rich liberal or consortium of liberals had had the wisdom to make a massive investment in local news? There were efforts along these lines, and sometimes they came to something. But they were small. What if, instead of right-wing Sinclair, some liberal company backed by a group of billionaires had bought up local TV stations or radio stations or newspapers all across the country?

Again, we can’t know, but we know this much: Support for Democrats has shriveled in rural America to near nonexistence, such that it is now next to impossible to imagine Democrats being elected to public office at nearly any level in about two-thirds of the country. It’s a tragedy. And it happened for one main reason: Right-wing media took over in these places and convinced people who live in them that liberals are all God-hating superwoke snowflakes who are nevertheless also capable of destroying civilization, and our side didn’t fight it. At all. If someone had formed a liberal Sinclair 20 years ago to gain reach into rural and small-town America, that story would be very different today.

There has in recent years been an impressive growth of nonprofit media outlets, led nationally by ProPublica and laying down roots everywhere, from the aforementioned Baltimore, where the Baltimore Banner has sometimes been scooping the Sun, to my home state of West Virginia, where Pulitzer Prize–winner Ken Ward’s Mountain State Spotlight is doing terrific reporting. These outlets are welcome indeed. They do sharp and necessary reporting. But they’re nonprofits, which, under IRS rules, cannot be partisan. They have to be apolitical.

What we used to call “the progressive infrastructure” has grown in the two decades since Stein was showing his PowerPoint around town. Donors got together at Stein’s behest to create the Democracy Alliance. It helped seed the Center for American Progress, designed as liberalism’s answer to the Heritage Foundation. It helped grow groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. On the media front, it funded Media Matters for America, the broad left’s leading media watchdog outfit.

But there is one job liberal benefactors have refused to take on (with a few exceptions, starting with the owner of this very magazine). The cost has been enormous. And by the way—this story isn’t over. By a long shot. I’m certain David Smith wants to buy more struggling newspapers and turn them into MAGA sheets. And there are surely mini-Sinclairs in formation. Prager University’s right-wing misinformation videos are gaining a foothold in some public schools. Right-wing outlets have zero interest in sharing the “media space” with the mainstream media. They want to crush it.

And I fear that they probably will. There’s a story in the Times today about three moguls who bought prominent media properties, most notably Bezos with the Post, and the many millions they are losing. That’s sad. But what did they expect? You don’t buy a newspaper expecting to make money. You buy a newspaper because you want influence. You are passionate, as Murdoch is, about pushing the country in a certain direction. You either learn to live with the losses or you find a way to cover them. To those who say it’s impossible, I point out that somehow, the rich men of the right have figured this out. And so Bezos, who has no discernible public passion, will probably tire of it all and sell someday—and maybe to David Smith, whose public passion is very discernible indeed. If you can’t imagine the Post as a right-wing rag, you’d better start smelling the coffee that’s been brewing for 20 years.

What will the result be 20 years from now? Will we be raising a generation of children in two-thirds of the country who believe that fossil fuels are great and trees cause pollution, that slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War, that tax cuts always raise revenue, and that the “Democrat” Party stole the 2020 election? Yes, we will. And it will happen because too many people on the liberal side refused to grasp what Murdoch, Anschutz, Smith, and Viktor Orbán see so clearly. Have your own media.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

Share This Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *