Anthony Nadler on conservative media’s identity crisis
By Sara Sheridan
The last four years have been a whirlwind for journalists and researchers covering the media. The president has repeatedly demonized the press while amplifying fringe outlets and tweeting false and misleading claims directly to his followers. Meanwhile, local news organizations whose work was once considered necessary for an informed public have struggled to survive in a crowded information sphere increasingly controlled by social media giants. With the media industry in crisis, the news ecosystem has become a battleground for partisan influencers and disinformation campaigns. Nowhere are these dynamics more evident today than in conservative media.
For years, Fox News was a Trump darling. The network had more direct access to the President than legacy competitors like NBC, hosting him on shows like Fox and Friends and Hannity. Tucker Carlson regularly pulled in over 4 million viewers a night during his primetime slot. But with this month’s election came a rupture in Fox’s regularly scheduled programming. With the network’s decision to (eventually) call the election results in favor of Joe Biden, a wave of Trump supporters descended on the network across social media. The President himself barraged Fox over their election coverage, shepherding his supporters to other conservative outlets that remained loyal to him such as OANN and Newsmax. Before the election, Newsmax had an average viewership of 636,000 people per day. By November 9, that number jumped to 7.2 million, according to data by Tubefilter.
As the Trump era comes to an end, conservative media faces an identity crisis: How can they appease their base while also maintaining standards of journalistic integrity (or at least the appearance of such) in the aftermath of an election marred by baseless accusations of voter fraud and in the midst of a pandemic that some still believe is a hoax?
To distill the current shake-ups in conservative news hierarchies, I spoke with Anthony Nadler, a fellow at the Tow Center who has spent years studying conservative newsrooms and partisan divisions in the media generally. Nadler is an associate professor of media and communications studies at Ursinus College. HIs most recent work with the Tow Center focused on conservative newsrooms’ views on objectivity, misinformation and journalistic ethics, and he is currently researching how conservative newsrooms have covered the coronavirus.
We talked about the news industry’s attempts to correct some of its mistakes from the last four years, the explosion in popularity of fringe news sites like OANN and NewsMax, the dangers of misinformation spreading along conservative news channels, and what the media can do to bridge partisan divides.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To begin, could you paint us a picture of the current, post-Election state of the news industry?
It certainly seems like the news media are grappling with a couple of basic questions. With the model of professionalism that was adopted in the mid-20th century, which was centered around a notion of objectivity more or less and is still the sort of standard of newsrooms, what are adjustments that have to be made? And the election, you know, put the most pressure on this notion.
So much of the model has been based on, “One official says this, another official says this.” There’s always been fact-checking beyond that, but there's been a reliance upon elected officials to sort of set the guidelines and the limits to what's up for debate. So when much of the [Republican] party refuses to recognize the results [of the election], what seems like a loss of norms is also a tightening of the screws around this crisis of professionalism.
Can you speak more on what you called a crisis of professionalism?
The sort of professional journalism from that 20th century time period is questioning its modus operandi and thinking, “Are we equipped to deal with manipulation and propaganda coming from major figures within governmental leadership?” And I think there's a crisis on the left and right.
Some research that Magda Konieczna and AJ Bauer and I did for the Tow Center (mostly interviewing and talking to a lot of conservative journalists) found that there’s a lot of overlap between how they saw their personal ideals and standard professional journalistic ideas. I think most of the journalists on the right still suggest that what they're doing is sort of fair and measured and that they have ways of keeping kind of partisan or ideological bias at bay—even if they don't like the term objectivity.
There's also pressure about this model of professionalism and objectivity related to calls for moral clarity, which is perhaps an alternative to objectivity. And I think much of the right-wing media sees itself as pursuing a version of its own professional ideals. Most right-leaning media does differentiate between opinion, commentary and news.
Right-wing new sites such as OANN and Newsmax are really exploding because of their coverage of election results. So reading your report, which was published in March, it almost seems like those interviews are from a different conservative news universe than the one we’re seeing today, especially on those fringe sites. What’s shifted and why?
To start, we couldn't get people from Newsmax to speak with us. With that, both of those organizations really do present a lot of content that looks professional. When Newsmax launched its cable TV programming in 2014, their goal at that time was to sort of be less polarizing and less argumentative than Fox. They wanted to be more fact-based. Now, I have not watched a whole lot of Newsmax TV, but you know, they seem to be dominated by a sort of straight news tone. The content of the stories they're selecting, what they're including and not including is further apart from what most of the media sees as fact-based. But the style and the presentation of their stories makes them seem like straight news. And remember, a lot of folks who watch conservative news want their news to be about just the facts.
Right. And do you think that kind of straight news, “just the facts” presentation is dangerous given that new sites such as Newsmax and OANN are peddling misinformation as it relates to the election and the counting of votes?
I think a lot of what I've seen on those two networks is a certain type of misinformation, where they enable political actors like Lindsey Graham or other pundits to deliver misinformation and then they don't correct it. But they won't necessarily report for themselves that there's been massive voter fraud. I think a lot of the journalists on these networks—and many of their viewers—may see accusations that they are delivering misinformation as disingenuous because they see it like, “We're just reporting on what other people are saying. We are not making the call on fraud ourselves.”
I don’t think most of the conservative media, though, is where Trump is. Most of it is saying that the media does not get to call the election and there are still these challenges out that need to be mediated. It’s more of a matter of bad context than outright lies. The conservative media are not offering viewers much of a story that shows how Trump’s claims of fraud are unsupported by evidence and out of line with longstanding norms. Rather, they are serving as friendly platforms for those who are making such claims. To many of us there’s not much ethical distinction between news outlets that willfully enable propagandists and those that directly endorse false claims. However, there’s a game going on here that may further alienate conservative news audiences from mainstream journalism. Conservative news consumers will see their news sources as pursuing a more careful and nuanced approach regarding the election than what they believe liberal critics claim, thus reinforcing perceptions that it is liberals and mainstream journalists who play fast and loose with the facts.
Thinking about the shifting attitudes of conservative media that you’ve explained, where this is all headed for the media as a whole?
I think that the conservative media is split. There's some tension. But for the most part, we can probably rely on the old playbook, which is Fox making the liberal media the bad guys of the story. The focus there is just on the sort of presumption that (and when I say liberal media, that's in quotes) “liberal media” feels like they have this right to determine when the election is over. And of course, nobody has democratically voted “liberal media” or media organizations as a whole to make that determination.
I'm curious to know if there are discussions in conservative media about how to cover presidential elections moving forward?
I'm certainly not privy to those conversations if they’re happening, but I think it's very possible to imagine that the topic of election calls is somewhat of a blip in terms of any split between conservative media. But I don't know that it's really going to shift the landscape.
I think that the anger and the sort of myth of even the possibility of a stolen election will be a big theme in conservative media. It could be as big of a theme on Fox as it will be on Newsmax. There's some possibility that Trump himself partners with Newsmax or OANN, which would give them a competitive advantage for sure, but my own guess is that we're unlikely to see a lasting and particularly large exodus from Fox over this.
I think Fox may be less concerned about whether or not they are perceived to stay true to Trump, than they are about whether competing conservative networks successfully portray Fox as part of the establishment media.
Do you think Fox News is part of establishment media?
Certainly they’re a well-resourced, extraordinarily politically connected network with a lot of political power. That said, I think the pitch that Fox is the mainstream media isn't necessarily going to resonate with a lot of Fox viewers and Fox fans, because, for them, the mainstream media is people who look down on them and people who look down on people who share their views and their lifestyles. They feel like Fox doesn't do that to conservatives for the most part. Interestingly, Newsmax generally features professional-looking guys in suits, so they're not really going for a radically populist alternative.
What are your thoughts on how conservative newsrooms have given leeway to misinformation and conspiracy theories over the past four years?
From our research, conservative journalists have been really split. Most everybody that we talked to said that they don't want to amplify misinformation, but many said that they were not willing to serve as a fact-checker or gatekeeper. Now, some did. I know David French from the National Review talked about having that [gatekeeping] role historically. But a lot of the reasoning that we got from others was along the lines of, “We think the rest of the media is there to critique these conspiracy theories that are popular among conservatives. We don't add anything by doing that.” And there were some that said, “If we focus on conservative misinformation that favors conservatives, it just starts to seem like we're reiterating the narrative that’s been in circulation as a conservative problem.” But they see it as a problem on “both sides.”
I think another side note within that realm is this rise in fringe, if you'll allow me to use that word, news sites [OANN, Newsmax]. Do you think that the patterns of the Breitbart rise of 2016 will repeat with these sites or will they go away? Or do you think this actually a development toward a more robust conservative news sphere?
I think it's hard to predict, because I think it depends on a lot of contingencies rather than an underlying logic. I think there are forces on the conservative side pulling towards greater radicalism, greater radicalization. There are also forces that, to some extent, check that. I think that Trump himself is one of the biggest forces that has been pulling towards greater radicalization. So if Trump is a little bit decentered in the conservative universe, which may or may not happen, that probably means that we’ll see a center of conservative media resembling the Fox that we knew during the Obama years. So I think if Trump continues to have this really central place in conservative circles, then that's going to continue to shake things up in conservative media.
You noted in the report that you published that, “interviews suggest the segment of the [conservative] field...is not openly dividing into ideologically defined niches.” Do you think that's still the case today?
Yes. OANN and Newsmax are not ideologically defined. They're defining themselves vis-à-vis Trump. That's their M.O. right now, and that's really important because how long will that division be able to hold?
I think one of the other things to think about the power of Trump is that what really draws his supporters to the Trump orbit is how he is such an epitome of the object of liberal hatred. And they're drawn to that emotional space. Trump is so compelling because he draws the ire of all the people and institutions that many feel look down on them so much. So that seems to be the most important part of Trump's magnetism or force field. Whether he will stay in that sort of position, I don't know.
Do you think “conservative” is still a fair label for sites such as Breitbart or Newsmax, or is there a different way to categorize them?
Certainly in terms of self-concept, I think yes. The conservative label is what most of their journalists and viewers would identify with. I don't see any new challenge to that emerging. At the same time, I don't think that there’s some set of conservative principles that these organizations represent. But, I'm not sure that the conservative movement has always represented some consistent set of unified principles.
Right—this isn't necessarily something new in terms of there being a spectrum of beliefs that manifest in conservative news content.
Yeah. I mean there's a kind of identity battle, a liberal/conservative identity battle. Conservative media are still going to be there to tell conservatives that liberals are really powerful and they despise you and have contempt for you. There are some different nuances, but I think that's likely to still be the storyline of certain popular conservative media for some time. I don't see any signs of that changing.
Clearly, there are huge gaps among journalists across the political spectrum, regardless of whether or not they claim objectivity. So how do journalists bridge those gaps? Is it okay that there’s partisan journalism?
I think, yes it's okay. Partisan journalism is part of a diverse media sphere. But I also think that outlets that are trying to speak to ideologically, politically heterogeneous audiences are really important. I subscribe a lot to the notion of affective polarization, which political scientists talk about.
So the basic idea of what seems to have happened in the U.S., in terms of polarization over the last decades, is in the last several years there’s less of a polarization based on policy disagreements and political principles and more in actual levels of animosity. I don't think that we're in a world where liberals are from Mars and conservatives are from Venus in terms of basic values. But I think that we are in a world in which their assessment of each other and what the other represents is really far apart.
But, I think giving up on pluralism is a really bad idea. I think there are definitely progressive forces and left forces that think that the best way is to give up on pluralism. I disagree with that diagnosis. It doesn't mean not being concerned about partisan media, but I think trying to strengthen heterogeneous media could espouse the values of plurality in many ways.
How would you handle someone who categorizes all media as bad or fake?
I think there's so many who are convinced that the media represent a certain cosmopolitan elite that sees itself as so much better than the average person. There’s been a successful, overarching propaganda narrative considering the media. And it’s not entirely based on nothing, but certainly the message being amplified and brought to the foreground is that, “The media have no respect for you.”
Do you notice this more in conservative media?
Yes. And that's why it's so hard to engage sometimes. Because they start from the premise of suspicion of seeing the media as just, you know, people who look down on them and despise them.
My hope is that there are ways to actually deescalate that tension, to sort of redirect it. I don't think it's easy. I don't actually know what the approach can be, but I also don't think the possibility is off the table.
There are some people who think there's just no way that conservatives are ever coming back. But if there are ways in which people who live in these conservative leaning communities can feel like they're respected even if people disagree with them, I don't think that we’ll stay as alienated. But how do you get to that space? I don't know.