Imagine you are part of that growing majority of Americans who do not watch Fox News, listen to conservative talk radio, or frequent conservative websites. You have heard about the Confederate flag controversy. You have heard all about Donald Trump's various idiocies.
But what have you heard about the horrors emanating from Planned Parenthood? There is a chance you have heard nothing. Perhaps you read a story that was little more than a jumble of competing allegations. Perhaps you have heard about how some extremists are viciously attacking a respected provider of women's health services.
Silence or distortion—this is what most people hear about the abomination. And if we can't reach these audiences with the truth, we cannot win lasting victories.
The central problem is that conservatives depend on liberal-leaning institutions of the mainstream news and entertainment media to speak to the majority of Americans. Most of the time, conservatives have to shame these institutions into giving attention to issues that make the left look bad. Conservative journalists have been doing some of their best work in the case of the Planned Parenthood story. Mollie Z. Hemingway has been brilliant at giving journalists angles to pursue. Bill McMorris wrote a wonderful article that doubled as a straight news story and a satire of how the mainstream media would cover the Planned Parenthood controversy if the videos had depicted loathsome behavior at a conservative organization.
But, as hard as conservative journalists work, there are limits to what a shame strategy can accomplish. It isn't simply that most journalists at mainstream outlets are liberal. It is also that the peers and social contacts of those journalists are mostly liberal. The journalists don't much want to cover stories that make liberal organizations look bad, and neither do the people in the social media streams of these journalists. Personal inclination and peer pressure pull in the same direction.
There is also the issue of market segmentation. One can divide the audience for any given news outlet into two groups. The first, and smaller, group is made up of those consumers of the right-leaning media who also choose to watch a mainstream media news program. The second, and larger, group is made up of those who do not consume right-leaning media. If the mainstream outlet ignores, underplays, or distorts a story that makes liberals look bad, not much changes. The mainstream media lost the respect of people who consume right-leaning media long ago, and the non-conservatives in the audience are none the wiser. The outlets don't have much to fear for indulging their liberal biases.
These biases show up in all kinds of ways. Some reporters will rationalize the hideous story of an abortionist-murderer as a “local crime story.” Others will purposely make their stories boring and incomprehensible so that they can say that they covered the issue while killing public interest. Others will try to invert the story. “Some liars are harassing noble people who want to help women!”
The shaming techniques will yield some benefit. They will extract, slowly, grudgingly, dishonestly, and insufficiently, coverage of the Planned Parenthood videos. But, sadly, the impact will fall far short. Most Americans will not have experienced the combination of visuals and intensity that marked coverage of the Todd Akin comments and Romney's 47 percent gaffe. The Planned Parenthood videos will not have seared themselves into the memories of those who are not already conservatives.
The techniques of shaming the mainstream media have to be supplemented by efforts to engage those Americans who don't consume right-leaning news sources. Imagine a conservative institution that could, several times a year, make an eight-figure advertising buy on a well-chosen (but under covered) issue. The ads could run on some of the more popular programs and on streaming media such as Hulu. Imagine a one minute ad that interspersed ultrasounds of a second trimester fetus with audio from Planned Parenthood officials about how they “crush” around the valuable organs that they sell, and then pictures of extremist politicians who support late-term abortion.
There would be multiple advantages to such an approach. First, and most obviously, it would reach millions of people who would otherwise never hear this message. Second, and less obviously, it would change the incentives of the mainstream media. If non-conservatives hear about the story from paid media, and the mainstream media embargoes or purposely botches the story, then the mainstream outlet takes a hit to its credibility.
Where is this money going to come from? The irony is that this money is already being spent. Sarah Palin's PAC raised 3 million dollars and only a little of it went to aid candidates. Something called the National Draft Ben Carson Committee raised almost 13 million dollars even though the candidate did everything he could to disassociate himself with the group. Organizations with “tea party” branding raised tens of millions of dollars from small money donors and spent most of that money on overhead rather than ads.
We don't have a money issue. The money is already being raised and wasted. It is being spent incompetently and dishonestly. We have a coordination issue. The present challenge for conservative office holders, journalists, academics, and activists is to build even one credible and effective institution for raising and spending money in order to reach out to the mass of non-conservatives on something other than a Chamber of Commerce agenda. The lack of such an institution—the lack of outreach, the totally justified lack of trust—is costing us the country.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.