This is excerpt No. 32 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.
The TV broadcast networks have been all liberal, all the time, since the beginning of television. But Americans began to have alternatives to the networks’ monopoly-of-TV-viewpoints beginning in 1979, with the creation of Farley Gingrich CSPANC-SPAN, which gave the public a direct line to Congress.
C-SPAN had no ideological tilt and no political mission other than grassroots democracy: to present gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House and Senate – plus much more – to the American people, so they can see what is happening without going through the filters of gatekeepers of any persuasion. But that opened the door to competing viewpoints, and Newt Gingrich in particular saw how to take advantage of the new medium to promote conservative views.
Soon C-SPAN would be joined by TV talk shows, followed by cable news networks. And by then more Americans would get their televised political news from these alternative media than from the original three broadcast networks.
Liberals cannot stand competition.
TV Network Broadcasting: All Liberal, All the Time
Since the 1950s – when the eldest of us became active in politics (give or take a few really old codgers) – network television news has been the voice of the liberal establishment. Now that Walter Cronkite has retired, he is open and outspoken about his liberal views. While he was on the little screen, he held the same political and cultural perspective but disguised it as “objective” journalism. And we’re not singling out only Cronkite – all the network news anchors were the same, without exception. It was their pretense of objectivity that made their bias an even more bitter pill for conservatives to swallow.
That’s a half century of TV broadcast network bias – a long period of time, which explains the intensity of conservative feelings on this subject. Those anchors and their apologists will deny that they’ve been biased, of course, and many of them will be sincere in their denial. In their rarefied and elitist social circles it isn’t seen as anything but exemplary journalism, and to prove it they can point to the countless awards they’ve given each other.
For conservatives, the hardest part of those years was watching the election returns through the filter of these liberal anchors and their staffs, with no place to turn for relief on the small screen. Then things started to change. First came C-SPAN, which gave us a direct line to Congress without that liberal filter. Next came the proliferation of TV talk shows, with a conservative – John McLaughlin – once again leading the revolution. But the biggest break of all was the proliferation and growth of cable television networks in the 1990s, giving conservatives an outlet—Fox News—they could watch without getting ulcers.
C-SPAN (formally the National Cable Satellite Corporation) began in 1979. The McLaughlin Group debuted in 1982. The talk-radio explosion began in 1987, with the repeal of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, as discussed in Chapter 10. And the Fox News Network was launched in 1996. Together they created a revolution in how Americans get their news over television.
The revolution starts with C-SPAN
C-SPAN at first glance is an unlikely vehicle for political revolution. It was created by the cable industry in 1979 as a not-for-profit corporation that would air public service programming. President and CEO Brian Lamb is an easygoing, easy-to-watch on-air personality who can leave you wondering what his political views are after decades of his appearing in your living room.
What is known is that this unlikely revolutionary truly believes in grassroots democracy. Without commercialization and refusing to play the ratings game, Lamb has fashioned C-SPAN to bring gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House and Senate – plus much more – to the American people, so they can see what is happening without going through the filters of gatekeepers of any persuasion. No prior screening takes place even on call-in shows, which admittedly can lead to some far-fetched commentary.
“We’re better off listening to everyone, no matter what they say, rather than us being the gatekeeper,” Lamb told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. “Politicians say things every day that aren’t true. People who write columns say things that aren’t necessarily true, make a lot of accusations. This is probably naïve, but I have an enormous faith in the system to work over time. There are plenty of checks and balances. Although someone on a call-in show can say things that are unfair, that’s one of the prices you pay in public life.”
People who watch hours of C-SPAN’s programming are by self-definition a pretty serious lot, so it’s not surprising that 98 percent of them vote, and they’re twice as likely as non-viewers to contact Congress, donate to campaigns, and volunteer in campaigns. That’s no doubt why Congress puts up with C-SPAN cameras in its chambers: You don’t want to get these people angry at you, and they’d be furious if Congress revoked C-SPAN’s coverage.
Brian Lamb created a nonideological vehicle, but it was a group of conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives who first realized how that vehicle could work to the advantage of people with an ideological mission. House rules allow “special orders” at the end of each day, when members can take turns speaking on any topic. Of course, by then the chambers are usually empty except for the handful who have something they want to say for the record. In early 1984, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his merry band of conservatives began using these “special orders” to talk methodically about conservative issues.
Only about 17 million Americans had access to C-SPAN in 1984, but, as we’ve noted, those who did watch tended to be hard-core activists. Word quickly spread around the nation, conservative to conservative, that there was some great viewing on C-SPAN, and soon Gingrich and company were celebrities whenever they appeared in public, outside of Washington, D.C., that is. (The District of Columbia’s residents couldn’t get C-SPAN until much later in the decade, so the ruling establishment in D.C. had no idea what was going on out in the boonies.) This was pretty heady and unprecedented stuff for members of the House, accustomed to taking a backseat to the president and much-more-visible senators.
C-SPAN’s audience continued to grow, as cable spread across America and transformed television viewing. Gingrich had a truly revolutionary vision of how to use the media (most notably C-SPAN) to push for his group’s Contract with America, in the process leading to the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives. In an interview with C-SPAN Executive Vice President Susan Swain, Gingrich admitted (or was it boasted?) that “we are to some extent manipulating you. You’ve provided us a vehicle to reach out to every neighborhood in America…”
Sometimes Gingrich wasn’t aiming for Mr. John Q. Public in Podunk, Wisconsin, but for a very special citizen – President Ronald Reagan, sitting in the White House. As always seems to happen, Reagan’s staff erected barriers to shield him from all the people, important and unimportant, who wanted a word with the chief executive. And as always seems to be the case with Republican presidents, that staff was more “practical” than conservative in its ideology, so conservatives who wanted a word with the president were more likely to get shut out. C-SPAN gave Gingrich a way to sometimes bypass those gatekeepers.
In his book Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time, Howard Kurtz relays what he calls “the ultimate in narrowcasting” with this quote from Newt Gingrich: “Ronald Reagan was a creature of the electronic media. Reagan would literally, particularly when Nancy was out of town, sit upstairs and watch C-SPAN. Sometimes, when we wanted to get messages to him that the staff didn’t want to get through, we’d simply do special orders. And then he’d call us. He’d say, ‘That was really good stuff.’ We got more time with Reagan on C-SPAN than we did with Reagan in his office. That’s a very important reality.”
Richard A. Viguerie was a pioneer in the use of direct-mail appeals in the service of conservative causes. He is the founder of ConservativeHQ, from where this excerpt is taken.