The “Hack Gap” by Matthew Yglesias of Vox

Full text of article below explaining what is the “hack gap” and why it’s important to furthering Right-Wing politics

The hack gap: how and why conservative nonsense dominates American politics

Republicans have a huge strategic advantage in shaping the news.

By Matthew Yglesias@mattyglesiasmatt@vox.com  Oct 23, 2018, 8:30am EDTSHARE

In the fall of 2016, Hillary Clinton, asked at a fundraiser how she explained the political appeal of Donald Trump, said that “to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”

The rest, she allowed, were fundamentally good people, pushed by circumstance into embracing Trump, and she was hoping to win them over.

Insulting rank-and-file Republicans (even if it was only about half of them) was treated as a huge national scandal. Republican Party politicians and conservative pundits harped on the line, providing a point of party unity at a time when many party and movement stalwarts were reluctant to actually praise Trump. The mainstream press covered the controversy intensively, and left-of-center pundits weighed in with a range of takes, including one from yours truly, which concluded that Clinton really had messed up by violating “the norm against attacking the other party’s constituents” rather than its politicians.

This past Friday, meanwhile, President Trump said that 100 percent of people planning to vote Democratic in the upcoming midterms — a majority of the electorate, in other words — are “crazy.” Nobody cared and almost nobody even noticed.

Hillary Clinton: “you can put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.”

Trump tonight: “Anybody who votes for a Democrat now is crazy.”

Deplorable is more evocative. Anybody is much more than half.

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The reason is something I’ve dubbed “the hack gap” over the years, and it’s one of the most fundamental asymmetries shaping American politics. While conservatives obsess over the (accurate) observation that the average straight news reporter has policy views that are closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, the hack gap fundamentally does more to structure political discourse.

The hack gap explains why Clinton’s email server received more television news coverage than all policy issues combined in the 2016 election. It explains why Republicans can hope to get away with dishonest spin about preexisting conditions. It’s why Democrats are terrified that Elizabeth Warren’s past statements about Native American heritage could be general election poison in 2020, and it’s why an internecine debate about civility has been roiling progressive circles for nearly two years even while the president of the United States openly praises assaulting journalists.

The hack gap has two core pillars. One is the constellation of conservative media outlets — led by Fox News and other Rupert Murdoch properties like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but also including Sinclair Broadcasting in local television, much of AM talk radio, and new media offerings such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller — that simply abjure anything resembling journalism in favor of propaganda.

The other is that the self-consciousness journalists at legacy outlets have about accusations of liberal bias leads them to bend over backward to allow the leading conservative gripes of the day to dominate the news agenda. Television producers who would never dream of assigning segments where talking heads debate whether it’s bad that the richest country on earth also has millions of children growing up in dire poverty think nothing of chasing random conservative shiny objects, from “Fast & Furious” (remember that one?) to Benghazi to the migrant caravan.

And more than Citizens United or even gerrymandering, it’s a huge constant thumb on the scale in favor of the political right in America.

The hack gap, explained

The essence of the Clinton email scandal wasn’t the claim that she’d done something wrong — everyone, including Clinton herself, agreed that it was inappropriate to violate State Department email policy and that she should not have done that.

The essence was, rather, the bizarre and obviously false claim that the Clinton email scandal was important.

The argument around this score became in most respects circular. As a CNN explainer on the controversy concluded, the scandal mattered politically because “among Clinton’s biggest challenges in the presidential race is demonstrating her authenticity — and part of that is showing voters she’s trustworthy. Increasingly, though, voters say they distrust Clinton. The numbers have shifted dramatically since news of her private email server was first reported in March.”

But, of course, the only reason the email controversy so thoroughly dominated perceptions of Clinton was it dominated coverage of Clinton — coverage that was justified with reference to its importance in driving perception.

You can tell that it wasn’t actually important because the people most invested in pretending it was important — Republicans — clearly do not actually think government email protocol or Freedom of Information Act compliance are important issues. Have you seen any Fox News segments about email protocol adherence or Freedom of Information Act compliance in the Trump administration? Have congressional Republicans held any hearings about the subject? Have muckraking right-wingers launched any investigations? Of course not.

When the New York Times reported that Trump White House staffers were using personal email accounts, the conservative movement shrugged. When Trump’s use of an insecure cellphone for sensitive communications was revealed, Congress didn’t care.

There’s hypocrisy in this, of course. But politics is full of hypocrisy.

The essence of the hack gap is that when Clinton was in the crosshairs, conservative media made a huge show of being sincerely outraged by her misconduct, which forced the topic onto the national media agenda.

Reporters, meanwhile, simply tend not to jump on left-wing talking points. And progressive media is more infused with the values of actual journalism, and pretending to think something unimportant is actually critical is not journalism. Consequently, while many left-of-center pundits, including me, have noted the Trump email issue, we normally do it in an ironic or second-order way. We’re outraged by the lack of outrage or, rather, still bitter about the amount of faux-outrage over emails that was allowed to dominate campaign 2016. Meanwhile, there is simply no institution on the left that has anywhere near the institutional clout — to say nothing of the value system — of conservative broadcast media.

Conservative propaganda television matters

Since there are exactly two significant political parties in the United States, it’s natural to think of them as essentially mirror images of each other.

But they’re not, and one critical difference is that the Republican Party benefits from the operation of mass-market propaganda broadcasts that completely abjure the principles of journalism. Sheelah Kolhatkar’s recent New Yorker report on Sinclair Broadcasting, America’s largest chain of local television news franchises, says that “the company orders them to air biased political segments produced by the corporate news division, including editorials by the conservative commentator Mark Hyman, and that it feeds interviewers questions intended to favor Republicans.”

Sinclair doesn’t follow journalistic norms for the very good reason that its strategy wasn’t designed by a journalist, similar to how the architect of Fox News, Roger Ailes, came to cable news from a background as a communications strategist for Richard Nixon rather than a journalist.

And it shows. Research from Emory University political scientists Gregory Martin and Josh McCrain found that when Sinclair buys a local station, its local news program begin to cover more national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative, and viewership actually falls — suggesting that the rightward tilt isn’t enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion effort. A separate study by Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimates that watching Fox News translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.

Specifically, by exploiting semi-random variation in Fox viewership driven by changes in the assignment of channel numbers, they find that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. Without Fox, in other words, the GOP’s only popular vote win since the 1980s would have been reversed and the 2008 election would have been an extinction-level landslide. And that’s only measuring the direct impact of the Fox cable network. If you consider the supplemental effect of Sinclair’s local news broadcast, the AM radio shows of Fox personalities like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and the broader constellation of right-wing punditry, the effect would surely be larger.

Of course, to view this as saying that absent right-wing propaganda media, the Republican Party would lose every election is misleading. What would happen in the real world is that the GOP would adjust to a less propaganda-filled landscape by altering its positions on issues. Rather than pretending to support affordable health care for people with preexisting medical conditions, for example, they might actually adopt the position they pretend to have, joining conservative political parties in Canada, the UK, Germany, and essentially every other country in embracing a large state role in the financing and provision of health insurance.

Ditching unpopular positions in favor of popular ones is, after all, a time-honored way to win elections. But thanks to the hack gap, Republicans can count on flimflam instead.

The hack gap gives Republicans tactical flexibility

One of the more remarkable things happening in American politics right now is that after House and Senate Republicans both embraced multiple versions of Affordable Care Act legislation that would remove regulations requiring insurance companies to avoid discriminating against patients with preexisting health conditions, Republican politicians up and down the ballot are now pretending to support the Obama-era rules.

Even more remarkably, this issue is essentially nonexistent in conservative media, where the biggest issues of the day are some random protesters being mean to Mitch McConnell in a restaurant and whether or not Elizabeth Warren inappropriately claimed Native American heritage.

If Democrats began to loudly insist that they’d abandoned a longstanding progressive stance on an issue in favor of a new, more conservative one, they’d get grief about it from left-wing pundits. Then if they were really only pretending to have changed positions through a rhetorical sleight of hand, new takes would come out defending Democrats against the charge of ideological betrayal. But, of course, the defenses would undercut the original goal of portraying the party as having changed position.

This basic cycle played out time and again in the 2016 campaign when Clinton’s effort to reach out to Republicans alienated by Trump’s bizarre behavior was inevitably met with a progressive backlash that, in turn, required her campaign to reiterate the inconvenient reality that she was actually running on a very progressive platform that lifelong Republicans wouldn’t like very much. She benefited, as all politicians of both parties do, from some ideologically sympathetic media coverage.

But Trump had — and has — at his disposal something that Democrats simply don’t: organized, systematic propaganda broadcasters. Fox, Sinclair, and much of the rest of conservative media simply do not exist to inform a conservative audience about what Republican Party politicians are up to and how it conforms to the tenets of conservative ideology or the preferences of Republican Party voters. Aware that cultural issues unite the GOP base while economic issues divide it, Fox and its cohorts fan the culture war flames while papering over — and often actively misleading about — the nature of the concrete Republican policy agenda.

Silly stuff can be a powerful tool

A classic example of an “imagine if Obama did it” situation arose last week when the current president of the United States, who cools his heels almost every weekend at one of his many golf resorts and has been staging multiple campaign-style rallies per week, claimed to be too “busy” to visit the troops. Obviously, if Obama had said something like that, the conservative punditry would be frothing at the mouth with rage. But rather than raging at Trump, liberals are outraged by the hypothetical outrage that Obama would have faced.View image on Twitter

View image on Twitter

I think if Obama had proclaimed himself too “busy” to visit troops in the field we would have heard a thing or two in the media about his golfing.

Democratic Party politicians’ statements about troops and other matters touching on patriotism are hyper-policed by easily triggered conservative snowflakes, whose mass panics easily come to dominate the national political agenda. And it is frustrating for liberals to watch this happen when Republican Party politicians are able to skate by with little scrutiny.

But here’s the critical thing: Even though plenty of liberals are happy to be mad about the double standard, nobody important in progressive political commentary is actually mad about Trump’s troop visiting schedule. We’re mad that Trump is destroying financial and environmental regulation while trying to screw poor people out of health care and nutrition assistance, all while imprisoning children seeking asylum and undermining the international order. That’s important stuff, while Trump’s golfing — like Clinton’s emails — fundamentally isn’t.

And yet elections are swung, almost by definition, not by the majority of people who correctly see the scope of the differences and pick a side but by the minority of people for whom the important divisions in US partisan politics aren’t decisive. Consequently, the issues that matter most electorally are the ones that matter least to partisans. Things like email protocol compliance that neither liberals nor conservatives care about even slightly can be a powerful electoral tool because the decisive voters are the ones who don’t care about the epic ideological clash of left and right.

But journalists take their cues about what’s important from partisan media outlets and partisan social media.

Thus, the frenzies of partisan attention around “deplorables” and “lock her up” served to focus on controversies that, while not objectively significant. are perhaps particularly resonant to people who don’t have firm ideological convictions.

Meanwhile, similar policy-neutral issues like Trump’s insecure cellphone, his preposterous claim to be too busy to visit the troops, or even his apparent track record of tax fraud don’t get progressives worked into a lather in the same way.

This is a natural tactical advantage that, moreover, serves a particular strategic advantage given the Republican Party’s devotion to plutocratic principles on taxation and health insurance that have only a very meager constituency among the mass public.

“BUSTED!”: another RW media tactic

Based on Breitbart’s story: https://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2018/08/24/nolte-cnns-jim-sciutto-busted-for-two-fake-news-scoops-in-one-week/

Another right wing media tactic is try to *aggressively* debunk and single out a mainstream media reporter for getting a story wrong. In this case, Breitbart on CNN’s Jim Sciutto.

Then, Laura Ingraham, Drudge and other popular right wing sites write their own story, retweet and their story gets retweeted thousands of times and goes viral. This not only fuels #MAGA trolls but, more crucially, it casts doubt in the eyes casual low information “independent” voters. Ideally, these independent voters should do their own research and come to a conclusion, but this is not practical given we are drowning in content.


Breibart’s “debunking” is, of course, bullshit. If one clicks through enough of the links in the story and reads the original reporting, you can see for yourself. On the first story, Breitbart’s source is a Bloomberg reporter’s (Jennifer Jacobs) tweet based on her sources (she was “told”). So, it’s Sciutto against Jacobs, no debunking. On the second story, the article Breitbart links to on CNN has a paragraph that says “Cohen privately testified last year to two Congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. A source familiar with Cohen’s House testimony said he did not testify that Trump had advance knowledge. Cohen’s claims weren’t mentioned in separate reports issued by Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee”

In other words, CNN reported Cohen testified Trump didn’t know. Now, he has information Trump did know. Where is the lie and debunking?

Unpopular Issues? No problem. Thanks RW media!

Remember when we were so curious as how Trump voters and even some independents, Bernie / Jill Stein folks voted against their own economic (and some social) interests?  And we were inundated with think piece / analysis after think piece / analysis? To jog your memory, here was one explanation that got a lot of airtime, and here’s another. People can reasonably blame stuff like apathy, gerrymandering, racial resentment, mistrust for politicians, poor education levels, poor critical thinking and reading comprehension skills, the way bills are written are needlessly obscure and complex. There are even political start-ups dedicated to making it easier for people to read bills. A simpler answer – and one that seems so obvious and overlooked me – lies in the information they are being fed. Let’s start there.

Question: How it possible every hot button issue in the United States polls one way and is legislated another?

Most people, including a significant % of Republicans, generally have favorable views towards stuff like legal immigration (including DACA), the environment, NATO, some gun control, inequality, workers’ rights, ACA, abortion (1st trimester, at least) and special interest money in politics.

And yet, somehow, we keep moving in the opposite direction of what the majority of us want. Something’s up. Quite literally, Every. Single. Issue. Even the much fear-mongered topic of immigration, through which GOP say the “Democrats are destroying this country!”. Amazingly and pathetically, Trump and GOP have managed to pass, try to pass or stall legislation that advances the majority’s interest, including their own party. It’s as if Republican voters are cheering for a team that is throwing the game. They’re like the 1919 Black Sox. Trump is Shoeless Joe.

Answer: RW media. This blog is dedicated to RW media, and I have described many times the effect and reach it has. No need to elaborate. You can read the ‘about’ section and the first two posts to get a sense of how powerful I think it is.

NOTE: I am not even including in the below the negative attitudes towards and conspiracy theories about Barack Obama from him being Muslim born in Kenya to child sex rings to friends with ISIS to being a racist…and on and on and on.

Keep in mind, Trump and Republicans have legislated (or not) in counter to every single one of these issues that were polled by Pew, Fox News even, CBS and other reputable polling companies.

Abortion

Immigration

Gun Control

Environment

Inequality

Healthcare, specifically repealing the Obamacare

NATO

Corruption was more widespread in 2014, than in 2009, really??  At the peak if the financial crisis?? Really??

Labor unions

Fox News take on Democrat’s immigration stance

Based on: Opinion: Here’s the terrible secret about why Democrats did a complete 180 on illegal immigration and border security – Fox News https://apple.news/Alx-gWczdT6Cdo7dPJnsN-Q
The above caught my eye and will be helpful for those who plan to canvass this fall on foot, by phone, letter writing whatever.
 
First, as you’re probably aware, RW media is modern day nationalist propaganda. They quite literally propagate (extremely) biased information for the sake of achieving an objective. Like advertising, except it aggressively attacks, is unregulated and carries severe national consequences. Fox News is the ring leader but there are many many others who serve this purpose. They function effectively as state-sponsored media like that of China, Russia and North Korea (at its worst).
 
This op-ed is a good example. It happens to be the *top trending news piece* on the Apple app this morning. It seeks to denigrate enemies / detractors and covers many of the bogus arguments of the president / GOP / Trump supporters issue about Democrats. To be sure, left wingers would write a piece of hackery – with huge political consequence – like this but it would not appear in the top mainstream media publication and would not be trending at #1.
 
For fun, I went through point by point debunking each. Skip to the conclusion if you are tired of proving Trumpers wrong.
 
– Obama is a “hypocrite” on illegal immigration because…soundbite deliberately / misinterpreted taken out of context from 2006
– Opposing a “big beautiful wall” is somehow pro illegal immigration
– “Abolishing ICE” argument conveniently excludes replacing it with less fantastically corrupt and abusive agency AND **will not** alter the nation’s immigration laws (per WaPo)
– “Secure Fence Act” =/= “big beautiful (expensive) wall”
– The “hard left” (whatever that is) would gladly take universal healthcare…even if it came from Trump. That’s stupid
– Democrats *gave* wall funding in return for DACA path to citizenship. Just lies
– The legislation proposed to “abolish ICE”, again, *will not* alter the nation’s immigration laws
– Class sizes and employment for low income workers are somewhat affected but, let’s be honest, most Trump supporters *don’t* do the jobs of undocumented immigrants because…it’s hard labor. Snowflakes
– Undocumented *do not* receive social benefits unless you count parks, ERs (at risk of being deported) and air. They don’t collect welfare, the don’t have healthcare, they don’t have the same labor protections as citizens, cops arrest them at first sight and they can’t vote.
 
RW media continues to be one of the most dangerous threats to our democracy. More than the politicians who are in most cases the propaganda’s source, RW media has the benefit of reaching millions of people in a variety of formats and styles, packed with entertainment and well-articulated prose sprinkled with, most importantly, bits of facts here and there (key to good propaganda is the presence of grains of truth).
 
They take advantage of our population’s inadequate education levels and relatively poor literacy/critical thinking skills. No wonder most republicans think college is a waste of time (http://thehill.com/homenews/news/341305-poll-most-republicans-say-colleges-have-negative-impact-on-us). Most people – including several intelligent friends of mine – who consume can’t effectively tell the difference between a meaningful statistic and one that’s trotted out to make the argument *seem* stronger (ie any immigration argument a la the above piece)
 
More critically, RW media attacks attacks attacks and tries to poke holes in MSM and Democrats positions. Sometimes they do effectively, but that’s their primary function. They’re perpetually on the offensive. If I constantly attacked my enemy for being wrong, I’d hit the barn once or twice out of 100. They do this, because its nearly impossible to accurately defend *their own* policy positions. They don’t have much to report on stuff like repealing the ACA, tax cuts, the popularity of gun control, 1st trimester abortions and Trump’s bungling and selling out of national security so they instead attack celebrity and Democratic politician gaffes. “LOOK AT THIS CRAZY LEFTY! Is this who want running our country?!” and make it more about culture than policy. It’s much easier to attack than it is support and explain, and it’s impossible to truthfully support the really unpopular.
 
We need to do something about the RW media machine. It’s gotten out of control. “But Billy, it’s always been out of control, though?”. Nope. Remember RW media is really not that old. Fox News *started* in the 1996. Only 20 years ago. The conservative upstarts like Breitbart, Daily Caller, Daily Wire only 5-10 years ago. They are pretty nascent.
 
We need to bring back something that resembles the fairness doctrine. A gov media watchdog. Sorry, staunch free speechers, it has to be done. Police the left too while we are at it.
 

“In every lie, there is a grain of truth (that gets exponentially magnified and manufactured by right-wing media)”

Daily Caller deliberately omits facts about Trump Tower meeting statements prior to this tweet:

http://dailycaller.com/2018/08/05/trump-tower-meeting-tweets/

Grain of truth: Trump tweeted today about the meeting in Trump Tower and said the meeting “went nowhere”

Lies / omissions: Trump and Trump Jr. went on record several times previously deliberately omitting they were out to get political opposition research.  The original statement, in which Trump dictated on behalf of Don Jr. from Air Force One read: “It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up.”

How pervasive is right-wing media? ~45 million uniques

This post will attempt to quantify the right-wing media circus.  If you think Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are the 800-pound gorillas in the room, then I’d like to introduce you to Breitbart, Ben Shapiro, the Daily Caller, Steven Crowder, Mark Dice and Jordan Peterson, among many many others less gargantuan, but still dangerous chaos-provoking primates.

Only 2.3 million people watch Fox News in a given weeknight during primetime (Nielson, June 2018).  The vast majority of conservative media is consumed on several mediums. For example, 14 million unique listeners per week for Rush Limbaugh (Talker, June 2018), 16 million Facebook engagements per month for The Daily Wire (Newswhip, June 2018), 15 million unique monthly visitors to the Drudge Report (Quantcast, June 2018), and on and on.

Below are some numbers to help frame (*very roughly*) how many unique people consume conservative media in a given day / week / month.  I did not account for the frequency in which they consume – impossible to tell – but I do not believe this matters all that much. Whether a casual or obsessive consumer of conservative media, the idea one simply consumes signals a willingness to buy what they’re selling.  In some instances, I provided liberal / mainstream / celebrities as comparison. My estimation below is 45 million + people. It’s very very rough (lots of immeasurable assumptions), but a good start.

Of course there are plenty of conservative media trolls I’ve left off these lists, but I’ve included most, if not all, of the most popular.  The smaller voices are inconsequential in measuring conservative reach.  They likely all overlap with the the more popular outlets.

If Nixon had Fox News, he would not have likely been impeached

To piggy back off of former WH counsel, John Dean, Richard Nixon would likely not have been impeached if he had the benefit of Fox News (and the vast right-wing media circus). I am operating under the assumption that Nixon had no such dominant popular mouthpiece.

For starters, the Watergate investigations dragged on for 928 days. Over that more than two and half year period, public support for Nixon deteriorated (from 70% to 24%) and for his impeachment increased steadily (from 19% to 57%).

Conversely, we have so far seen the opposite for the Russia probe, an intensely more serious crime against the Democratic Party and our country. I will not elaborate on the differences between the two and how the latter is far more serious, but it is important to note that right-wing media downplays the Russia probe so dramatically as to – in the minds of their viewers – lay waste to the idea this is even something we should be concerned about.  “You can collude all you want with a foreign government in an election,” mouthed leather faced marmot Gregg Jarrett. This would make 25% of people in this country stop reading this piece immediately, as they *sincerely* do not believe any of it (thanks Fox News!).

Now, if these right wing media consuming folks were simply relegated to a corner of society in their hardened bubbles, this may be an easier exercise. Problem is, there are a lot of “independents” and generally underinformed folks who consume the fighting between Trump / GOP / right wing media and the “liberal” media and Democrats. They, crucially, have been neutralized. Contributing to the problem is the all-time post-Great-Depression low lack of trust in media and government (more on this in a later post). Nixon gave speeches, Halderman, Erlichman, Ailes (Roger began with Nixon) planted stories and smeared the “liberal” media “Long before Fox News, before Ailes and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, there was a conservative media complex in the United States refining a theory of liberal media bias” (from Gabe Sherman’s book, “The Loudest Voice in the Voice in the Room”), but this was nothing like it is today.  The reach and fiction material has reached peak level propaganda.

For example, President Trump’s approval rating has steadily increased and public perception of the Russia probe has steadily decreased since beginning only 1 year and 2 months ago. We’ve had numerous hearings, admissions, guilty pleas, lies, omissions, you name it, and yet…

Amazingly, his approval rating has gone up (slightly) and American’s views of the probe have deteriorated despite all of the aforementioned, particularly among Republicans and, somewhat modestly, independents.  The daily onslaught of anti-Russia probe news from right wing media is surely to explain at least the Republican opinion shifting and like the independent, low information voters.

Here’s a little taste