Agnew’s Resentment Machine: Six Data Points About Culture War and The Campaign Press

Jan.
23
The conservative movement’s warmaking around the “liberal media” is a joke to the people who are actually running for president as conservatives.

Data point 1. Vice President Spiro Agnew, speech delivered at Des Moines, Iowa, November 13, 1969

A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official, or the wisdom of a government policy. One Federal Communications Commissioner considers the power of the networks to equal that of local, state, and federal governments combined. Certainly, it represents a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.

What do Americans know of the men who wield this power? Of the men who produce and direct the network news, the nation knows practically nothing. Of the commentators, most Americans know little, other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence, seemingly well informed on every important matter.

We do know that, to a man, these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C. or New York City–the latter of which James Reston terms the “most unrepresentative community in the entire United States.” Both communities bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism. We can deduce that these men thus read the same newspapers, and draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement to their shared viewpoints.

… The views of this fraternity do not represent the views of America. That is why such a great gulf existed between how the nation received the President’s address–and how the networks reviewed it.

Agnew’s speech is one of the founding documents for the conservative movement’s mighty resentment machine. The most telling words are “they reflect an urbane and assured presence, seemingly well informed on every important matter.” They being the journalists and pundits one sees on television: unelected, unaccountable, unrepresentative know-it-alls. Therefore suitable for despising and generating resentment, but also a standing reason why the rest of the country remains unpersuaded: “A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds.” You can explain almost any defeat that way… and generate more resentment.

Data point 2. New Gingrich, speaking Saturday night in South Carolina after his victory in the primary:

So many people [feel] that The elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability and in fact do not represent them at all. In the two debates we had here, in Myrtle Beach and in Charleston, where people reacted so strongly to the news media, I think it was something very fundamental that I wish the powers that be in the news media would take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of other system.

Notice how Gingrich goes beyond Agnew. “They” are not only unelected, unaccountable and unrepresentative, but un-American. And not only that, they’re trying to force America to change into something other than itself.

Data point 3. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt interviewing Ryan Lizza, campaign reporter for The New Yorker.

HH: …Here’s the absurdity. The Republicans are selecting their nominee on the basis of debates moderated by George Stephanopoulos and David Gregory, who are very left wing guys, and on the votes of independents in Iowa, and independents and Democrats who reregistered in New Hampshire, all as mediated through the very conservative electorate of South Carolina. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

RL: Now first of all, I would disagree that Stephanopoulos and Gregory are very left wing guys. I mean, Michael Moore is a very left wing guy. David Gregory is not a very left wing guy.

HH: No, Hugo Chavez is a very left wing guy.

RL: (laughing)

HH: When you’ve got guns, you’re very left wing.

RL: Look, the Republican Party is extremely skeptical of the mainstream media. I won’t argue there. So it is a little strange that they’ve become, in this campaign, so reliant. I think probably, I don’t know this for sure, but I’ve been trying to figure out why is it that all these candidates agreed to do so many debates. You know, you don’t have to show up.

Here we have one of the most under-covered stories of the 2012 campaign. If the Republican candidates believed the culture war wing of their own party, if they credited it with any genuine insight, if they respected its critique of the journalistic profession, if they thought there was a solid core of truth there, they would not have agreed to participate in debates where the questions are asked by such ideological opponents as Wolf Blitzer and John King of CNN, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos of ABC, David Gregory and Brian Williams of NBC, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times and on and on. As Hewitt said: Hey, these guys are left wing! It doesn’t make any sense!

Unless… the candidates see the culture war wing of their party as a useful idiot– wrong about what journalists are up to, but valuable for keeping the press in line. Then the debate thing does make sense. The candidates participate because they can predict the questions. They know they’ll be able to get their message out and reach people who don’t watch Fox. And the resentment machine is right there at their fingertips: just attack the questioner and score some points. Notice, then, how conservative culture warriors wail about it, but don’t try to explain this basic weirdness: candidates vying for the title of head conservative voluntarily submit themselves to questioning from the enemies of the conservative state!

My view: even Newsbusters knows their critique is a joke. They’re just working the refs, and raising money off their Agnewisms. And it’s a pretty sweet gig. Brent Bozell’s 2010 salary: $423,000. He should be raging at the Republican candidates for legitimizing the David Gregorys and John Harwoods of the world. That’s what a real activist would do. Instead we have Hugh Hewitt whining to a New Yorker writer: It’s absurd!!

Don’t you see the comedy? This is why I say it’s a great story going uncovered. Conservative candidates treat their culture warriors as know-nothings: fools and tools.

Data point 4. New York magazine political correspondent John Heilemann on MSNBC Saturday night. (Hat tip, Balllon Juice.)

“This is the first big unexpected, kind of dramatic victory. And Gingrich is going to get so much free media attention in the next few days, it is going to be wall to wall Gingrich, and I think it is fair to say, that the “liberal media,” as Gingrich would put it, is rooting for Gingrich right now. They want this ra.. they/we, want this race to go on, so he is gonna have, he is gonna get more attention and in some ways more favorable coverage, at least for the next couple days than he would ordinarily from people who normally would give him tougher scrutiny… He’s going to ride a big wave out of here.”

Right. Because the press is a political actor whose moves are constrained by an official prohibition on acting politically. I want you to read the sentence in italics again. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Now that we know what kind of actor the press is (one whose moves are constrained by an official prohibition on acting politically…) we can agree with John Heilemann: Gingrich will benefit from a wave of momentum-izing press attention, which could seriously affect his numbers. But it’s not that journalists have made a political judgment that Gingrich is a plausible president or bought the arguments for his candidacy. Rather, they feel fine boosting his chances–and providing him with free mind share that his competition will have to buy–because they have a sufficiently non-political reason for doing it: A surprising turn in the narrative, or as Heilman put it, “the first big unexpected, kind of dramatic victory.”

That makes it okay to root for Newt from the press box because what you’re expressing is only your love of a good story. That’s not political. It’s story logic. Therefore you can act, and tell everyone watching MSNBC that you and your colleagues are going to act in a way that could affect the race. Get it? (Update: Heilemann expanded on his observation in this piece.) To understand political journalism, American style, you need the production of innocence or your calculations will go wrong. The producers of political news need to constantly reproduce their own innocence, and a lot of what they do can be explained by this dual demand.

Data point 5. Newt Gingrich and the press: Secret pals, a story that ran Sunday on Politico.

The same candidate who on Thursday decried “the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media” shows another face to the cadre of reporters who follow his campaign day-to-day. He jokes with them, publicly celebrates their birthdays, teases them about the early hour they are often forced out of bed to cover his events.

It’s not unusual for Gingrich to chat with reporters, off-the-record, in the hotel restaurant at the end of a long day on the campaign trail — and he engages them to a degree that’s unheard of on the other campaigns.

…Gingrich acknowledged to ABC News in December that he appreciates the crew that chronicles his every move and follows the same grueling schedule.

“I actually identify with the people who are the embeds,” Gingrich said. “Also, we have really nice people. I mean all the guys who are hanging out with me are nice. I don’t know about the other campaigns.”

“I’ve just been struck with the good humor of the group,” Gingrich told ABC.

See what I mean? The conservative movement’s warmaking around the liberal media is a joke to the people actually running for president as conservatives. Yes, it brings supporters to their feet. It permits a skilled candidate ready access to Agnew’s resentment machine. It works the refs. It raises money for the cause. But to actually live by the logic of that critique on the campaign trail? That would be too costly and kind of dumb.

For these people are not adversaries. (“I’ve just been struck with the good humor of the group.”) And they are not going to be forcing any confrontations along the lines of: “Mister Speaker, do you really think that we and our colleagues in the national media are trying to force the country to become something un-American? On what grounds do you make this charge? How would we even accomplish that?” This would sound unsavvy. It would show the political world that the questioner does not know how the game is played.

Data point 6. Chuck Todd commenting on Stephen Colbert’s SuperPac. (For the background, see this.)

“Is it fair to the process? Yes, the process is a mess, but he’s doing it in a way that it feels as if he’s trying to influence it with his own agenda, that may be anti-Republican. And we in the media are covering it as a schtick and a satire, but it’s like, ‘Well wait a minute here…’ he’s also trying to do his best to marginalize the Republican candidates, in a way, and we’re participating in that marginalization. We in the mainstream media need to be careful and wonder: what is he up to? What is his real agenda here? Is it to educate the public about the dangers of money in politics and what’s going on? Or is it simply to marginalize the Republican party?

Chuck Todd, NBC’s lead guy in analyzing the 2012 campaign, is concerned that he and his colleagues are helping to legitimize Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. These men, according to Todd, aren’t just trying to win laughs, expose stupidity and educate their viewers about the absurdity of campaign finance. (You gotta watch these two clips…) No, says Chuck, the two comedians also have an agenda–he would never say that about a fellow journalist, would he?–and that agenda is to “marginalize the Republican candidates.”

We in the news media shouldn’t help them do that, says Todd. We should be more careful. And we should try to hold Colbert and Stewart accountable for their attempts to weaken the Republican field. No more free pass! Todd goes on to say that he “idolizes” the United States Senate and he didn’t appreciate Colbert making a mockery of the Congress by appearing before a committee in character.

So is Chuck Todd one of those “elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of other system?” (Gingrich’s words.) I somehow doubt it.

16 Comments

  1. Terry Heaton says:

    Excellent piece, Jay. I hope I can add to the discussion. As an active participant in this particular war in the early 80s, Jay, I always find this issue perplexing. “I was there,” as they say, and I didn’t find the disingenuity and hypocrisy assigned by the press and observers to the war beliefs espoused by those on the right. You allude to this by painting Gingrich as a hypocrite who hobnobs with the very people he criticizes. I don’t presume to know what’s going on in his mind, but I can say that the people I used to associate with were entirely genuine in their belief that the press didn’t connect with everyday people. As a student of Agnew’s speech, it’s rare to find any critique that actually examines his claims. Rather, they are rejected immediately, so that the discussion can move to how such claims are being used to manipulate the (ignorant) folks he was trying to reach. That in itself is a disconnect, the same one you referenced from Hallin’s book and the spheres of concensus, legitimate controversy and deviance.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I’m having a little trouble tracking your point, Terry.

      Gingrich goes well beyond the observation that people in the press don’t connect well with ordinary Americans. He claims that media elites have been “trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of other system.”

      Are you saying that I am misreading his words? That his words are meaningless? That he’s trying to say something legitimate and reasonable but I am not hearing him correctly?

      About Agnew: are you saying that his speeches are not attempts to gear up a resentment machine? Please advise.

      • Terry Heaton says:

        I don’t profess to know about Gingrich or Agnew. What I’m saying is that the people I used to run with — the folks who created the “Christian Right” — were not disingenuous. I suppose then, by proxy, I read a genuine concern in both Agnew and Gingrich, the concern being that somebody in power — be it government or the press or “institutions” — doesn’t connect with what we think is important AND must have another agenda. Whereas most see only a conspiratorial form of manipulation to sway unsuspecting minds in this, I just didn’t encounter that. In fact, I’m not sure the idea doesn’t give them too much credit. If Gingrich, et all, are flat wrong, that’s one thing, but if it’s a campaign tactic, that’s something quite different. Does he believe that the press has been “trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of other system?” My guess, based on my experience, is yes. To assume “no,” therefore, accomplishes nothing except to prove his point in the minds he has supporting his. It’s a dangerous form of contempt prior to investigation. If he does end up the candidate, I hope somebody will require chapter and verse from him on this belief, because that is what’s going to have to stand up to scrutiny — to fact checking.

        • Tim says:

          I think the intersection of the rise of the critical, or adversary culture (Schudson) and the role of the press in the noetic field (Cline) is a good point for discussing whether such a concern has genuine or disingenuous intent.

  2. Brian says:

    I recognise what you’re saying, but I sincerely doubt the solution is as simple as asking “Mister Speaker, do you really think that we and our colleagues in the national media are trying to force the country to become something un-American? On what grounds do you make this charge? How would we even accomplish that?”.
    From long experience interviewing politicians I can tell you it wouldn’t get you an interesting response, it wouldn’t even make him blink. It would just be a cue for more vitriol aimed at the politician’s favourite hate-target of the day.
    Gingrich is deliberately exaggerating for effect. Given that, he’s hardly likely to back down when someone in the media calls him on it, as that would totally undermine the effect he was trying to have.
    Journalists have better things to do with their time than tell people who know they’re lying that they’re lying, when it’s an issue that can’t be settled on the facts. And this is such a case. Better not to throw the first punch at that tar baby.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Did I say that was a solution of some kind? If so, I miscommunicated. It certainly isn’t any sort of “solution.” Almost any question can be evaded by a skilled pol. I am quite aware of that.

      What I thought I said is the question wouldn’t even be asked.

  3. Chris Talerico says:

    Great article which desperately needed to be written, but I would add a caveat to your statement “the press is a political actor whose moves are constrained by an official prohibition on acting politically.”

    For the average news organization I would say this is true, but opinion / commentary shows on Fox News or MSNBC and the like (including print) have been acting politically for years now. In fact they are so open about it you’d almost have to be naive to call them anything other than propaganda.

  4. John Brown says:

    You’re showing your age Jay—the Culture War is so’90s and as the latest debates have shown, it is the establishment press who are more in love with the Culture War than the GOP. Republicans want to talk about Obama’s failures in leadership and the economy, the press wants to talk about ex-wives and birth control.

    The new, hip, cool war is the Obama/Soros/OWS/Big Labor Class War—move on or move out.

    But still, I’m waiting for the Pressthink hard-hitting analysis about how the establishment press helped a man with few accomplishments and little experience get elected POTUS in ’08, while painting Bill Clinton as a racist and Hillary Clinton as some crazed harridan.

    Can’t wait!

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Was this some of that “leaving the culture war behind” you mentioned?

      “So many people [feel] that The elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability and in fact do not represent them at all. In the two debates we had here, in Myrtle Beach and in Charleston, where people reacted so strongly to the news media, I think it was something very fundamental that I wish the powers that be in the news media would take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of other system.”

  5. Ethan says:

    Jay, I love your columns but I’m not sure the inferences you make here can be supported using only the data points offered.

    Let’s assume that the right really does believe the media is liberally-skewed/unrepresentative.

    Does it follow that the candidates wouldn’t participate in debates lead by these media personalities? It seems plausible that each candidate might feel that they can’t afford to pass up face time that their competitors will be taking advantage of. They might argue that, even if the questions are skewed, some chance to make their positions heard is better than none.

    Further, isn’t it also possible that Gingrich would cozy up to the press even if he believed it to be liberal? It’s still a ref he can try to work; maybe he thinks he’ll get more stories out of it, or that the stories will be a little bit less hostile to him than they will be for his competitors. Of course, we’d also see some republican candidates limiting their contact with the media to minimize the risk of it pouncing on one of their small mistakes. And that’s what we do see with Romney in the Politico piece you linked.

    So while I don’t necessarily disagree with your conclusions, I’m not convinced that the above evidence alone rules out the possibility that the right is sincere in its charges against the press.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I think my interpretation is valid, but I would not say that I have proven it.

      Also, the culture war division of the conservative movement doesn’t say that the journalism profession is merely liberally-skewed or unrepresentative. It says that the liberal media is the ideological enemy of the Republican party and that it tries to elect Democrats. When you look at it that way, I think participation by the candidates in the debates is a refutation of the culture war wing.

  6. Tim says:

    “Therefore you can act, and tell everyone watching MSNBC that you and your colleagues are going to act in a way that could affect the race. Get it?”

    I doubt either of MSNBC’s viewers got it. However, this is the most important sentence in the essay. These press-savvy political announcements are standard fare in horse race campaign journalism and pre-date Agnew or any culture war meme.

  7. Rossum says:

    … so the ‘stunning newsflash’ here is that politicians are deceptive, including current Republican Presidential campaigners pretending to be conservatives.

    And the honest but humble American media are mere victims of this (?)

    What does the citizenry actually get from the American media during these primaries ?

    A 2007 comprehensive study of election coverage across the media by the “Project for Excellence in Journalism” (PEJ-Shorenstein) found:

    - In the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, the media had already winnowed the race to five candidates and offered Americans relatively little information about their records or what they would do if elected.

    - The press also gave some candidates measurably more favorable coverage than others. Democrat Barack Obama enjoyed by far the most positive treatment of the major candidates. Democrats generally got more coverage than Republicans, (49% of stories vs. 31%.)

    In all, 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%)… or the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals (15%).

    - Just 1% of stories examined the candidates’ records or past public performance, the study found.

    - Just 12% of media stories explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while the rest of the stories focused on campaign-insider matters of real concern only to the parties and the candidates. Study results match almost exactly the campaign-centric media coverage found in the presidential primaries eight years ago.

    - Newspapers were more positive than other media about Democrats and more citizen-oriented in framing stories. Talk radio was more negative about almost every candidate than any other outlet. Network television was more focused than other media on the personal backgrounds of candidates. For all media sectors — campaign strategy and horse race were the central focus of reporting.

    Media culture versus citizen culture.

    _______