Serial killer Kermit Gosnell was convicted in a case that most Americans have not been following. Why is that? How could it have been different? The answers to those questions could help conservative donors (even small donors) better reach more Americans.
The horrible Cleveland kidnapping and rape case is something about which almost any adult American who listens to any news (or even some entertainment-oriented programming) can name some basic facts. It is easy to understand why the Cleveland case got so much attention from the media and interest from viewers. The Cleveland story has many news hooks. It has violence, sex, death, and unimaginable horror in a normal-seeming neighborhood under the noses of the authorities.
The combination of elements is one reason why the Cleveland story became so big so fast, and so is the fact of coverage, but there is more to it. Stories don’t have legs just because of their inherent interest and the fact of some media coverage. The nature of the coverage matters too. If every television and radio news outlet had limited its coverage to a one-minute report that three kidnapped women had escaped and a man was in custody, the story would likely not have acquired its current salience.
It matters if a news story contains a narrative that explains the lives of those involved and makes emotional connections with the viewer and listener. It is the difference between the yeah-something-happened-in-Philadelphia-let’s-move-on coverage that the mainstream media eventually gave the Gosnell trial and the four straight days in which the network evening news programs gave the Cleveland story prominent coverage—including leading with the story for three straight days.
As Conor Friedersdorf pointed out, the Gosnell grand jury report provided an enormous number of potential news hooks. There was the failure of the authorities to supervise Gosnell’s clinic. There was the intersection between government negligence and extreme pro-abortion politics. There were acts of spectacular evil like cutting the spines of newborn infants. There was the Jeffrey Dahmer-type keeping of fetal (infant?) body parts as trophies. Lest you think that this might be too gruesome, the previous week’s evening news coverage contained a description of a man starving a pregnant woman for two weeks and then punching her in the belly until she had a miscarriage.
The current conservative broadcast media is not the answer—or at least not the answer to this particular problem. They inform the maybe one-third of the public that regularly consumes right-leaning media. Much of the time the conservative media put a conservative audience–friendly spin on stories that the mainstream media already cover. When the conservative media emphasize a story the mainstream media downplay or ignore, the result is that, on some news stories, we have two parallel Americas. There is one America for those who consume right-leaning media and another (larger) America for those who don’t.
Very rarely, if conservative media can mobilize its audience, they can shame the mainstream media into acknowledging the existence of a story. Mollie Hemingway did this brilliantly, but there is coverage and there is coverage. The NBC Nightly News carried a story on Gosnell’s murder conviction, but there was no context. It was just another murder trial. It was a local crime story. They “covered” this fascinating and horrible story into boredom.
The conservative outside groups are often an expensive (for the donors) waste of time. Super PACs like American Crossroads have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on commercials that were, in retrospect, futile. Remember when Obama bowed to a Chinese leader and this symbolized American subservience to China because of Obama’s borrowing policies? You probably don’t, but Karl Rove and American Crossroads made an ad to remind you.
Remember when Jay Carney had an awkward answer about the Obama team’s fundraising tactics? You probably don’t, but American Crossroads produced an ad about it. (That ad should really hurt the constitutionally prohibited 2016 Obama reelection effort.) American Crossroads produced an attack ad more than three years before the next presidential election against a candidate who might well not be the Democratic nominee.
There are several ways conservative donors could better spend their money. The first would be to set up an alternative media outlet that would compete with the mainstream media for the attention of a general audience rather than for the conservative segment of the population. Such an outlet would not be another Fox News. It would be patterned after the news divisions of the major broadcast networks and aim for the same market segment, but with a reporting staff and editorial judgment that had a conservative perspective.
The draw would not be to put a conservative spin on the news of the day. It would be to pursue stories that the major networks don’t get to. Such a network could take the time to explore the reporting angles opened up by the Gosnell case. They could also report on any number of other matters that don’t make the news. We just don’t know what stories get missed because of the absence of such a well-funded right-leaning news outlet.
Another way conservative donors could better spend their money would be to either start new conservative outside groups (or repurpose old ones) to use ad money to pursue educating the public about issues of long-term concern rather than running opportunistic ads that attack particular candidates. Such groups would focus less on gaffes and shaping how viewers perceive the often transient controversies that dominate the news for a day or a week and then fade away.
These better conservative outside groups could run ads explaining the abortion extremism of the Democratic party, the risks of centrally rationed health care, cheaper alternatives to the current Medicaid system, or tax reform that would increase the take-home pay of middle-class families. Having a larger share of the public understanding how conservative ideas will save them money will do more to help Republicans than any number of ads that show pictures of Obama set to scary mood music.
Conservative donors would be better off funding either new right-leaning broadcasting outlets or public education–oriented outside groups. Giving money to the current crop of conservative super PACS is only a slight improvement over donors spending the money on their own leisure. Conservative donors have a chance to escape the trap of just talking about the news of the day. They can escape the media spin cycle.