Who leads and who follows in the right wing media stakes?

We hear a lot about bubbles, post truth and so on – all important in their way – but obscuring a larger puzzle: are the right wing media leading or following their audiences?

The puzzle was highlighted by a recent New York Times article on what it termed the ‘civil war’ among the right wing commentariat. The article by Robert Draper (September 29) highlighted the problems confronted by a right wing media activist and a key Tea Party player, Erick Erickson, who opposed Trump then lost 30,000 subscribers, was maligned by other conservative commentators and received numerous death threats.

He has partly come back into line without actually endorsing Trump while the usual suspects among the right wing commentariat – Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and others – have been enthusiastic with Coulter in the fore as an advocate. The highly influential Rush Limbaugh has praised Trump but not actually endorsed him yet although one can’t imagine him endorsing Hillary.

The more establishment conservative, George Will, seems to be agonising over his distaste for Trump and the trashing of what he sees as conservatism. And the Republican hawks are having their own problems with endorsing a candidate they believe is isolationist. Charles Krauthammer (of weapons of mass destruction and how invasion would transform Iraq fame) has diagnosed Trump as narcissistic in his professional opinion as a psychiatrist even though professional bodies in the US have been warning their members about the ethics of diagnosing people from afar. Nevertheless, it seems Krauthammer has met Trump and probably a good psychiatrist could make a quick diagnosis on the basis of that and general behaviour so for once the blog is on Krauthammer’s side.

However, putting aside all the right wing braying there is a really interesting problem here. One could argue that Rush Limbaugh created a specific audience although it is equally possible that he just tapped into community views which hadn’t had his sort of mass media support. A parallel would be the success of Father Coughlin in the 1930s although his views were rather all over the place. But for other contemporary right wing media – who is doing the leading and who are the followers? It has been conventional to believe that Fox et al have created an audience although it is probably more accurate that they have tapped into one and now have to fear the tiger even if they think they have it under control. Erickson’s experience is an example of that.

The issue has some relevance for Australia too. For instance, does the Sydney Daily Telegraph lead or follow? On the indications of the last Federal election results in western Sydney and the even more recent re-election of the Sydney Lord Mayor with a 10% swing to her it is impossible not to conclude that the Tele’s strident campaigning is counter-productive and/or ineffective. Ditto: does Andrew Bolt convert readers and are the only lefties reading him masochists? Would his readership follow him if he suddenly endorsed massive Muslim immigration and the need to control  some forms of speech?

The blog has to confess that it was sympathetic to Bolt’s position in the 18C case because it believes the right to insult and offend others short of inciting violence is something worth protecting although if the legal action had been for defamation that may have been a very different matter.

Arguing for extremely robust debate is important particularly at a time when university students are arguing for ‘safe’ places in which they only read or learn things which neither offend them nor make them make them feel ‘unsafe’. Universities ought to be safe places physically but never intellectually and there are lots and lots of people who the blog thinks it is perfectly legitimate to offend and insult (One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts and the Catholic Church’s attitude to child abuse for instance). It’s not only universities of course. The blog spoke at a local forum on various policy issues recently and the day opened with the moderator reminding everyone it was a ‘safe’ place. To be really effective, the blog thought, it ought to feature some really unsafe thoughts and indeed the blog couldn’t resist voicing some of them in its remarks.

But back to the media via that short rant – if it is unclear with the media about who leads and who follows it is perfectly clear with Australian right wing politicians and right wing media commentators – it is the politicians and the right wing media who do the following. Indeed, one of the advantages of taking a passing interest in US right wing politics is that you identify what Australian right wing politicians and commentators are going to say before they say it. For instance, a short while after the 2008 financial crisis struck, Alexander Downer was asserting that the problem was government regulation and nothing to do with markets – a view espoused by US bank supporters before they shifted ground to arguments which would guarantee their government bail outs. And the roster of News columnists, from what the blog learns from people who read their columns, often largely just recycle the fashionable hobby horses of those very same US commentators currently at war with each other.

And, in the interests of unsafe and possibly offensive comment, the blog discovered something Trump had said it agreed with. George Dubya gave the pharmaceutical industry a multi-billion dollar gift when he expanded Medicare retiree drug entitlements while forbidding the government to negotiate over the prices paid for them. Trump has apparently said the government should be able to negotiate lower prices. But that was a while ago and he may by now have said something entirely different on the topic.