We had a short but high quality thread yesterday on the media and the young. Carl noted that Chait’s column validates long-held conservative complaints about liberal bias in the media and Corey suggested that media liberals are following the George Lakoff’s advice to ignore rather than refute conservative ideas. Carl is right of course, and Corey may be right. But here is what I’d like to focus on: The mechanics of transmitting center-right arguments to the younger cohort are working less well now than they were thirty years ago.
I don’t just think it is because the media that young people consume have a liberal bias. The media that people consumed thirty years ago had a liberal bias. Quite a bit of media from 1981-1983 was pretty much dedicated to implying that American should unilaterally stop its military buildup and that the voters should elect George McGovern (or Walter Mondale or Alan Cranston or…) as president in order to save us from Reagan. The difference was that the norms of the major broadcast media meant you had to carry major political speeches and the news broadcast had to sample some of the speeches of major figures. That meant that, through all the liberal messaging that people heard, those same people often heard the center-right argument at length. The same thing was true with the major news magazines. Those “news” in those magazines was liberal-leaning. I remember my first introduction to the abortion controversy. It was a lengthy article in Time. The article never got around to explaining what abortion what, but it got the point across that the people who were against it were very bad. On the other hand, Milton Friedman was a columnist for Newsweek. You see this pattern emerge. The media had a liberal tilt, but people of all stripes (though not all people of course) consumed certain kinds of mass news sources that had to include some conservative thought. So people of all stripes heard and read conservative arguments, and conservative spokesmen had a strong incentive to speak to the broadest possible audience.
That is less true today. I don’t know what fraction of younger people watch the network news, but my sense is that it is fairly small on any given day. There are lots of channels. Compared to 1980, how much less likely is it that a given 25 year old will see the Republican nominee’s convention speech next week? I think this problem (which is largely a problem of adapting to audience dispersion) is in some ways less obvious to conservatives. Let’s go back to 1982. You want to sit down after dinner and catch a thirty minute summary of the day’s news. You end up sitting through Dan Rather implying that Reagan wants to starve poor children. There was the Wall Street Journal editorial if you are into that sort of thing, but that is just a couple of pages. National Review comes every couple of weeks and most conservatives didn’t have a subscription. Reader’s Digest was probably the place where you got conservative opinion (sometimes explicitly, but sometimes implied by the tone of the stories) at something like length. Today you have a constant stream of conservative broadcasting that is geared to you. This doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t consume liberal-leaning media. It does mean that conservative opinions (for those who are inclined to seek them out) are more available and at greater length than thirty years ago. This can create a distortion in how the world is viewed. Ideas and arguments that are famous among that minority (which is tens of millions of Americans) who seek out explicitly right-leaning media are alien to that majority of those who don’t. There is also a subtler distortion. Since conservative media is, to a large extent, media for conservatives there is more incentive to speak in terms your (conservative) audience understands, but might be obscure to the rest of the population. There are, potentially methods of mitigating the resulting problems, but the current situation creates incentives within the center-right (both financial among right-leaning media providers and emotional among consumers of right-leaning media) to not come to terms with the failure to communicate with the young in an age of dispersed audiences.