Lessons from America: Beware those who tell you what you wish to hear

It’s sort of taken as a given, on the broad centre right side of politics, that competition is always good. Having three mobile phone companies, instead of one, means that they are competing to lower monthly bills and win customers from each other, whereas a monopoly will set prices and force the consumer to accept them. Competition, we argue, promotes efficiency and innovation, and a healthy contest between good ideas and bad in which the good ideas usually win.

For years, Fox News was a global villain in the English speaking world for the main reason that it had done just that: Provided competition, given a huge audience what they wanted, and in the process achieved an almost monopolistic position amongst centre-right American voters. Tired of the mainstream media’s political bias, Republican voters decamped almost en masse to Rupert Murdoch’s news channel, which offered them “fair and balanced” news. Over time, this meant that the average scandal about a Republican politician could not be effectively spun, by the centre left, at that politician’s own voters. Fox News broke the power of the American mainstream media by taking its audience away – a crime for which it has never been forgiven.

For years, this was a net positive to the US right. But in the end, the bigger Fox News became, the more it actually became a monopoly inviting competition. Because there was no longer one US news audience, but two: Fox News, and everyone else.

This division within the American news audience, into two factions, had an obvious endpoint. Fox became the largest news outlet in America by successfully creating a “right wing audience” and a “left wing audience”. It had sole command over the right, all the others competed for scraps on the left, taking viewers from themselves.

It was obvious, then, that competition for Fox News on the right was always going to emerge. And it did.

Newsmax. One America News. Breitbart. Steve Bannon’s radio show. Podcasters like Joe Rogan and Tim Pool. A panopoly of talk radio stations, and websites, and talking heads.

The Fox News audience – especially lately with the departure of Tucker Carlson, but in reality for years before that as well – has been shrinking. But it has not been losing viewers to CNN or MSNBC. It has been losing them to smaller news outlets on the right.

And the problem is that news outlets on the right are no longer competing with the likes of ABC news, or CNN, for viewers. They are competing with each other. That is why, by some accounts, it was actually cheaper for Fox News to lie about the 2020 election and pay 700 million dollars in damages than it was to tell the truth about the 2020 election and lose half it’s audience to Newsmax or One America News.

As if to prove that point, last year Nick Catoggio, one of the founding authors of one sort of moderate conservative news site, HotAir.com, was forced out of his job. The reason was not misconduct – it was that his anti-Trump views were driving away the audience. When there are 1000 right wing news outlets, all competing for right wing views, the competition is no longer about delivering honest fact and opinion, but about telling readers what they want to hear. If one outlet dares say something mean about your hero, then you can just abandon them, and get the “real” news further off to the right.

The result is that the competition for views and engagement on the American right is now essentially a competition to tell the audience what it wants to hear, and the realities of the situation be damned.

And so, this week, when it emerged for example that Donald Trump had spent $40m of donor’s cash on his legal bills, and another 200k on his wife’s hairdresser, most American liberals heard about that story, and many American conservatives – the people actually handing over the cash – did not. The story is not fake news – it’s all included in Trump’s legally mandated financial returns. But telling voters on the right news they do not want to hear is now bad business, so a great many conservative news outlets either ignored it entirely, or ran pieces arguing that it was, in fact, good.

There was shock on the American right, last year, after the midterm elections ended up being very good for the Democrats, and very disappointing for the Republicans. In the weeks running up to those elections, the American right’s media did a very poor job of explaining what the problems might be for Republicans in running, in many cases, crazy candidates. Instead, those viewers and readers were assured of a so-called “red wave” that was going to break. When it did not break, it is little wonder more and more people on the right suspected fraud, rather than reality, as the cause of their shock.

And this is the core of the problem: Politics and culture are a majoritarian sport. To change them, you need a majority of the people behind you. But media is a minority endeavour: Gript, for example, would be fantastically profitable if just 5 or 6% of the Irish public became paying subscribers to us, but in the political world 5% is barely enough to elect even 3 TDs.

That’s where the American Right is now: The objective of their pundits and media outlets is to each capture just 1 or 5 or 10% of the right wing audience. But by capturing it, and getting the right wing voter to live in a news bubble of their own choosing, they make it harder and harder for the party ever to come to terms with the fact that you need a majority to win elections.

That’s how so many Republicans, for example, have convinced themselves that a man facing four criminal indictments is their best shot to take back the White House.

This is a lesson that needs to be learned in Ireland, and in other countries. Pandering to your audience might be good for you, as a media outlet. But it’s almost always in the worst interests of the audience itself.

The American Republicans, I fear, are a year and a bit away from learning that lesson the hard way, yet again. When the “alternative” media stops giving you facts, and starts doling out happy pills to keep you watching, the consequences are inevitable.

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