In the early 1990s, I was a building and remodeling editor for Better Homes and Gardens magazine, where I oversaw the construction of dream homes, scoured the country for stylish remodeling projects, presided over photo shoots, and wrote about home designs in sprightly text that filled in between the lovely photo spreads featured in the then-eight-million circulation publication.
It was a great gig — and one that energized a lifelong interest in architecture and home remodeling. But as much as I loved what I did, I was passionate about public policy and politics, and wanted to write more about, say, property rights and tax rates than about the mid-century-style tile patterns that adorned Mrs. Smith’s master bath.
In 1993, however, the options for a conservative-oriented writer were strictly limited. Because I operated out of BH&G’s headquarters in Des Moines, I was able to participate in the Iowa GOP caucuses, and, thanks to the state’s key role in the presidential primary process, meet the national candidates in small-group settings. It provided this aspiring political writer with endless fodder — provided I could find anyone to publish me.
These days, I hear nonstop prattle from conservatives who complain about horrific bias in the media, with many suggesting that these are the worst of times for the Right. They get teary-eyed about the “good old days” of “unbiased” reporting and media even-handedness. It’s one of the curses of getting old, but I remember those days, and started my political writing career in the midst of them, and can guarantee that this hot take is nonsense.
The situation in Des Moines was typical of any mid-sized American city. We had one daily newspaper, the Des Moines Register. The news pages cranked out standard left-of-center fare. Conservative viewpoints were rarely included in the news stories or among the news columnists. The editorial page was predictably leftist. As I recall, it printed only one syndicated conservative op-ed every week.
The newspaper was hemorrhaging subscribers and held a community forum with conservatives to help win them back. After the confab, the editors replaced the one weekly columnist with contributions from local righties. I became a semi-regular contributor — and went on to a full-time editorial-page editor gig at the Lima News in Ohio, and eventually to Freedom Communication’s flagship paper, the Orange County Register.
At the time, most readers could subscribe to the local (usually liberal) daily newspaper, and watch the three (liberal) TV talking heads on the network news. Talk radio was in its infancy, as was cable TV. The internet had not arrived in its full glory. One could go to the local newsstand and buy some political magazines or subscribe to an obscure newsletter, but that was it. If you wanted to be published somewhere, you had to get past the media gatekeepers.
These days, conservatives complain about “censorship,” decrying Big Tech’s monopolies and often begging the federal government to intervene. I’m not defending Facebook’s and Twitter’s obtrusive moderating practices, but “what might happen if, like the proverbial dog, the GOP actually caught the car?” asked Robert Bork Jr. in a recent column.
He was wondering what would happen if GOP fretting about social media led to actual public policy — i.e., the elimination of the Section 230 rules (which were passed as part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act) that limit the liabilities of tech companies for the things that social-media users post on these sites. Many Republicans, including newly appointed FCC Commissioner Nate Simington, have those limits in their crosshairs.
The answer is obvious. “Without such protections, social-media platforms would have a stark choice,” as I explained in the Register last week. “They could take responsibility for everyone’s posts. They would therefore place stricter limits on what we write.… Or they could allow anyone to post whatever they choose, which would mean that forums — especially the more freewheeling ones that conservatives increasingly seem to prefer — would be swamped with garbage.”
As I’ve often noted, Facebook is not actually a “monopoly” if you can voluntarily stop patronizing it — and move on to a competitor, such as Parler. It’s hard to argue that conservative voices are suppressed when most of the top internet sites, radio shows, and TV programs are — you guessed it — conservative in orientation. You’re reading this on a popular conservative site, which is one of an endless number of easily available right-of-center choices.
Of course, mainstream media publications and networks have a liberal bias. They always have. But have you followed the trends in newspaper circulation? Have you compared, say, Fox News’ ratings to mainstream networks? Conservative talk-show hosts fill the airwaves. Liberal radio shows are so scarce it’s hard to make any meaningful listenership comparisons. This is an amazing turnaround in only 25 years.
There are indeed serious problems in this wide-open, conservative-friendly new media world. In the past, there were too many gatekeepers to limit discourse. Now, almost anything goes in this vast marketplace of ideas. I can’t tell you how many people send me links to “truth-telling” websites that literally defy parody. This is sadly typical.
One can argue that the media have undermined their own credibility with their biases, and have therefore set the stage for a public that’s willing to believe unbelievable alternative sources. That’s a fair argument, but the solution isn’t government interference — but for conservatives to act like level-headed people and create and patronize higher-quality news alternatives.
Before conservatives support changes to federal law or embrace a new version of an FCC Fairness Doctrine that lets government determine what’s “fair,” they should take a deep breath and consider the recent history detailed in this column. They should celebrate the limitless opportunities they now have to read and disseminate their views. They should stop obsessing over the media.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected]