Sharon E. Jarvis
Annoy the Media Re-Elect George Bush
—1992 Presidential Campaign Slogan
George Herbert Walker Bush had an extraordinary political resume. When he was elected president in 1988, he had already served in the following positions: vice president for two terms, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms, Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the Peoples Republic of China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. As he was running for re-election to the presidency in 1992, he had also enjoyed unprecedented levels of public approval in March 1991, connected to the invasion of Kuwait supported by the U.S. Congress and the United Nations (Broder & Morin, 1991). Yet concerns connected to the economy, and being challenged by two other candidates (Democrat Bill Clinton and Independent H. Ross Perot), placed him behind in the polls heading toward Election Day. Facing those conditions, one strategy from his campaign was this slogan: Annoy the Media, Re-Elect George Bush.
Conservatives have long positioned themselves as outsiders against perceptions of a biased national press (Hemmer, 2016). The introduction for this book starts with H. W. Bush’s 1992 slogan as it points to a moment when such frustrations were both nuanced and becoming more amplified. On one hand, H. W. Bush was a politician raised in an era in which matters of political capital (like his resume) trumped concerns regarding symbolic capital (such as visibility or mediated attention; see Jarvis, 2005). Reports show he was reluctant to appear on nontraditional news programs or pander to entertainment programming as he regarded such venues as unpresidential. Even though his campaign staff hoped to get more than “15 second sound-bites” through legacy media coverage, H. W. Bush was not prone to engage in such media events (Kolbert, 1992). On the other hand, his opponents showed no such restraint. Perot, for instance, announced his candidacy on CNN’s evening program Larry King Live on February 20, 1992. Clinton, too, appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and then played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show the evening after winning the California Democratic primary. H. W. Bush’s person and political moment put him in a bind: his advisors anticipated the value of critiquing the media, leveraging conservative sentiment against it, and having him communicate directly with voters via nontraditional outlets; he, however, did not display a commitment to engage these burgeoning channels as did his challengers (Knott, n.d.).
This bind came in the midst of tremendous changes to the information landscape in the United States. In 1980, when H. W. Bush was in his first year as vice president, CNN began offering 24-hour news coverage—a development critiqued by scholars of journalism and governance. Patterson (1994), for one, lamented that 24-hour coverage led to focusing on sensationalized stories just to fill air time, a pattern that amplified topics of interest to reporters more so than issues of importance of the public. Fallows (1997), who had experience as a journalist, editor, and White House speechwriter, feared 24-hour news placed tremendous time pressures on reporters such that it “is always deadline time” (p. 183). As he put it,
Thanks to C-SPAN, CNN, online data services, and radio and TV talk shows . . . opinions, events, and accusations crop up ceaselessly through the day. Reporters must keep on top of each new twitch. More importantly, so must the government. The cycle of nonstop news has drawn the government into a stance of nonstop response. A decade ago, observers claimed that our public life suffered because politicians had such a short time-horizon, which led to changes in policy day by day. Now a president would be grateful if he even had a whole day to think.
While CNN has not been regarded by conservatives for being friendly to them, 24-hour coverage and its connections to sensationalism and timeliness created opportunities for proactive people—like candidate Donald J. Trump in 2015 and 2016—to receive attention for outrageous and fast-paced messaging (Patterson, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d).
The 1980s and 1990s, too, saw some new outlets move in the direction of an “integrated conservative media machine.” As Jamieson and Cappella (2008) document, the rise of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show during these decades, Rupert Murdoch’s launch of Fox News in 1996 for conservative audiences, and then Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal in 2007 created a “self-protective enclave hospitable to conservative beliefs” (p. x). These authors trace how Lim- baugh, Fox News personalities, and Wall Street Journal opinion writers circulated “similar lines of argument, shared evidence, and common tactical approaches in their defense of conservatism and their attack on its opponents” (p. x). A consistent approach was to identify what mainstream media did not cover, to paint traditional sources as untrustworthy, to continually call distinctions between conservatives and liberals (such that a distinction was consistently salient), and to paint the left as the enemy (Brock, 2004). In the case of Fox News, Grossmann and Flopkins (2016) detail how the network raised “the profile of scandals and controversies involving Democrats that receive scant attention in other media” (p. 178) ranging from Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, past sermons by then presidential candidate Barack Obama’s Pastor Jeremiah Wright in 2008, and charges against then presidential candidate John Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. In the case of talk radio, other scholars describe how alarmism, conspiracy theories, and audience flattery led to larger audiences, larger paychecks, and increased influence for key hosts—power that could be exerted on Republican lawmakers, their policy agendas, and the GOP itself (Berry & Sobieraj, 2016; Rosenwald, 2019).
Decades of frustration with the media, and the messaging practices of the 1980s and 1990s, created a context for how many conservatives would think and feel about social media in the 2000s and beyond. Having been socialized to identify as ignored by traditional news and as victims of a biased national press, the prospect to receive information easily from like-minded others, and to recirculate shared opinions, was attractive to citizens on the right (Tucker et al., 2018). Individuals on the right had new openings to follow conservative opinion leaders, to create their own extreme news diets, and to recirculate arguments critiquing the media and the left (Freelon, 2019). Individual advocates and organized groups on the right, too, used social media platforms to gain electoral success (Schradie, 2019).
Journalists also began to follow social media—namely Twitter—closely, a habit that led them to report on how conservatives were using it (Lawrence, Molyneux, Coddington, & Holton, 2014; Moon & Hadley, 2014; Robinson, Xia, & Zahay, 2019). Consider their focus on candidate Trump’s use of Twitter in 2015 and 2016. His tweets featured the news values of being timely and sensationalistic— again, content that thrives on 24-hour news (Fallows, 1997; Patterson, 1994)— which handed him national attention time and again (Patterson, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d). Yu (2016) calculates that Trump’s personal messaging from July 2015 to October 2016 translated to “$5.6 billion worth of earned media” including print and television stories, radio segments, and social media mentions, with “$58 million” coming during October 2016 alone. This sheer amount of attention led Patterson (2016b, p. 12) to argue “Trump is arguably the first bona-fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.”
Book projects from the 1990s, to Trumps candidacy and election in 2016, speak to the shift from political capital (strong resumes like H. W. Bush’s) to symbolic capital (the sheer media attention that Trump received) in American politics. Kernell (1997) notes how the emergence of television in the 1950s and 1960s and changes in party structures and American culture have created incentives for ambitious candidates and politicians to speak directly to the public through media to gain support (rather than to engage in negotiations or other forms of governing directly with their elected colleagues). West and Orman (2003) observe how name recognition and celebrity have led to success for candidates who do not have prior political experience as voters are more forgiving of celebrities’ backgrounds, less prone to regard celebrities as self-serving, and more likely to imagine celebrity candidates as saviors entering political life to save the day. Mann and Ornstein (2016) link such matters directly to the right, contending that a coarsened political climate and occasions to become media darlings on right- wing media have created a Republican base that is ideologically extreme and scornful of compromise. These developments have redistributed power on the right, providing occasions for extremists and political novices to gain attention via conservative media and complicating the GOP’s ability to govern (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016; Martin & Yurukoglu, 2017; Rosenwald, 2019).
Overview of the Book
This book includes research from experts in political communication, rhetoric, media effects, and political science. The chapters draw from innovative theoretical approaches, multiple methods, and diverse datasets with many contributions coming from scholars early in their careers. Together, they forward four themes.
Chapters land 2 address considerations of political context. In Chapter 1, Grossmann and Hopkins place conservative media in political culture. They explain how Trump has been a regular fixture on Fox News since 2011 and how conservative media encourage viewers to regard themselves as perpetually on the losing side of a fight with the left. A key takeaway from their chapter, and their prior work (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016), underscores how many key developments in media and messaging on the right are not taking place on the left. In Chapter 2, Lee reports findings from an analysis of how race was treated in the conservative National Review from 1955 to 1968. This historical and rhetorical analysis points to patterns of “air horn” versus “dog whistle” strategies in discussing race as well as three “dog whistle” tropes of spin, equivalence, and redefinition. Ultimately, Lee shows how the treatment of race in the National Review puts a positive face on how conservatives could object to civil rights and a negative face on how the left was pushing acceptance of such rights.
The next set of chapters tackles matters of language and identity. Chapter 3 explores the use of partisan labels in television advertisements for candidates for the U.S. Senate from 2006 to 2014. These dates are notable as they include elections before and after the rise of the Tea Party (TP) in 2010. Neiheisel illustrates how conservatives, particularly during the TP movement, were more prone to attack liberal labels to build antipathy toward the out-group (the left) than to use their own brand to build identification for their cause (the right). Chapter 4 also attends to messaging connected to the TP, this time tracking how cable news outlets portrayed two sets of protest movements: the liberal Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and the conservative TP. One of Scacco and colleagues’ key findings is consistent with Chapter 2: conservative messaging (this time on Fox News) offered more cues to regard the TP (the right) as acceptable than to consider OWS (the left) as a meaningful moment.
Chapter 5 takes on a curious question: how did conservatives think and feel about candidate Trump in May 2016 (when he led in the polls, but his nomination was not yet certain) and then of President Trump in May 2017 (when he had been in office for five months)? Drawing on panel survey data, Jennings shows how early Trump supporters had more conservative and more limited media diets than traditional Republican voters, a pattern that continued to explain his support in 2017. Chapter 6 interrogates right-wing identity in yet another way. Here, Meeks studies if and how female and male Republican candidates reach out to voters on Twitter with gendered versus partisan-based appeals as well as how these candidates responded to the Access Hollywood tape (a controversial video recording in which Donald Trump discussed potential sexual assault) that was released in the late days of the 2016 presidential election. The data show how female candidates did not outpace male candidates with appeals to female voters on Twitter; female candidates, however, were more prone to condemn then candidate Trump for his words in the Access Hollywood tape than were their male counterparts.
Chapters 7 and 8 take on notions of civility and anger. In Chapter 7, Mud- diman offers findings on how conservatives and liberals think about patterns of (in)civility. Her data elucidate very few macro-level differences between what partisans regard to be impolite, particularly when Republicans and Democrats do not have a partisan cue to see if or how the “other side” was responsible for a message. When partisans do see a cue from the other party, however, they are far more likely to regard such messages as uncivil. Chapter 8 turns attention to negative emotions. There Gervais and Morris trace patterns of anger in the Twitter feeds of conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Specifically, they expose how the angry rhetoric of the TP maps on to other research projects focusing on the outrage industry on the right.
The final chapters focus on matters of social media, truth, and trust. In Chapter 9, Kearney begins by outlining how conservatives have been nudged to consider themselves as outsiders to a biased national press—a dynamic that might predispose them to be drawn to conservative opinions on Twitter. He then shows how conservatives are more likely to encounter Twitter Bots (often without knowing it) in their social media interactions. In Chapter 10, Russell analyzes asymmetric partisan trends in political language on Twitter feeds of members of the U.S. Senate. She finds that Republican Senators are more likely to use partisan language—both before and after the election of President Trump. Haenschen, in Chapter 11, dives into people’s Facebook news feeds to understand more about the news diets of people on the right and the left. She reveals how conservatives’ propensity to “like” like-minded conservative content on this social media site increases the likelihood they will see even more conservative content in the future (with no similar pattern on the left). Collier, in Chapter 12, draws from the same dataset as did Jennings in Chapter 5. In comparing understandings of trust in media content and understandings of misinformation across the 2016 and 2018 election cycles she identifies differences between Republicans and Democrats regarding the importance of facts versus opinions in the news and the accuracy of news in 2016 versus 2018. Over this two-year span, conservatives became more suspicious of news content (Chapter 12) at the same time that they limited the number of news outlets they followed (Chapter 5).
Thirty-six years separate the time when H. W. Bush was elected vice president in 1980 and when Trump was elected president in 2016. While H. W. Bush had the robust resume mentioned earlier, Trump had no institutional political experience prior to the White House. The chapters that follow interrogate the information landscape prior to, and during, these decades of changes in media and messaging. They take up themes of political context, language and identity, civility and anger, and social media, truth, and trust. Together they shed light on conditions that have made (1) certain conservative messages appealing, (2) governing more complex for Republican elected officials, and (3) communications on the right very different than those on the left. They also employ promising theoretical stances, methodological innovations, and empirical and normative questions for future study. Right-wing media and messaging have (re)made American politics. These chapters help to explain how that has happened and offer research agendas for what the future might hold.
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