Secular Conservatives & Media Framing

by Chip Berlet

Secular conservatives have long molded public opinion in major traditional corporate media--large-circulation publications such as Reader's Digest, conservative commentators on radio and TV, and even through TV drama programs such as "I Led Three Lives," and "The FBI." There is an important dynamic relationship between right-wing alternative media and the corporate media. Many of the conceptual frameworks and arguments used to marginalize left and liberal ideas in the media are first developed at think tanks funded by right-wing foundations and corporations. After these ideas are sharpened through feedback at conferences and other meetings, they are cooperatively field-tested within right-wing alternative media such as small-circulation newsletters and journals, and also by tracking responses to rhetoric in direct mail appeals. As popular themes that resonate with conservative audiences emerge, they are moved into more mainstream corporate media through columns by conservative luminaries, press releases picked up as articles in the print media, conversations on radio talk shows, and discussions on TV news roundtables.

Secular conservatives have launched themselves into cyberspace, with a major clearinghouse being the "Town Hall" section on Compuserve or the Town Hall web page on the Internet. Town Hall is the best starting off point for exploring the secular right online. Town Hall contains articles and press releases from secular conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, National Review, and Empower America, but also a few theocratic right groups such as the Family Research Council.

As the increasingly-refined arguments reach a broader audience, they help mobilize mass constituencies for rightist ideas. This in turn adds to the impression that all fresh ideas are coming from the right, as there is no comparable left infrastructure for the refinement and distribution of ideas. For example, between 1990 and 1993 four influential conservative magazines (National Interest, Public Interest, The New Criterion, and American Spectator) received a total of $2.7 million in grants, while the four top left magazines (The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Mother Jones) received less than 10 percent of that amount, under $270 thousand.

A good example of this process was documented by the National Council for Research on Women in an analysis of how the false idea that campuses were under siege by radical "PC Police" was constructed. The topic of how foundation-funded conservative think tanks dominate political discourse with claims that are frequently open to challenge on a factual or logical basis is a topic explored by Ellen Messer-Davidow. The increased demand for packaged information by reporters with diminishing resources to conduct their own thorough research and investigations has amplified this dynamic. As Lawrence Soley concluded in his article on right-wing foundations and think tanks:

    " While the research of conservative think tanks isn't serious, their lobbying efforts on behalf of corporate contributors are....Although information on the shallowness of [conservative] think tank research is available to the news media, reporters appear to have turned their backs on it in order to get easy access to a soundbite or quote. Rather than asking think tank representatives hard questions about their funding and their lobbying efforts, reporters turn to them for their ideologically prefabricated opinions on domestic and foreign affairs. And that's the way the news gets made."

Sources & Notes:

 A regularly updated list of links to web pages of various groups on the right is posted by Political Research Associates. at <> and by Hatewatch at <>. For radio programs, consult Far Right Radio Review online at <>.

David Callahan, "Liberal Policy's Weak Foundations: Fighting the Bull Curve," The Nation, November 13, 1995, pp. 568-572.

Beth Schulman, "Foundations for a Movement: How the Right Wing Subsidizes its Press," Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), special issue on "The Right-Wing Media Machine," March/April 1995, p. 11. Attempts to call The New Republic a left magazine will be met with laughter.

"To Reclaim a Legacy of Diversity: Analyzing the 'Political Correctness' Debates in Higher Education," Washington, DC: National Council for Research on Women, 1993.

Ellen Messer-Davidow, "Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education," Social Text, Fall 1993, pp. 40-80; Davidow, "Who (Ac)Counts and How," MMLA (The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association), Spring 1994.

Lawrence Soley, "Right-Think Inc., City Pages, (Minneapolis, MN), 10/31/90, p. 10.

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