Obsolete ‘both sides’ journalism has enabled far-right radicalism and enabled ‘faux left’ grifting

Media critic Eric Boehlert discusses how the mainstream press refuses to acknowledge that the Republican Party has turned against democracy
NBC News host Chuck Todd speaking at the Desert Vista Community Center on U.S. Senator Rand Paul's Presidential announcement tour in Las Vegas, Nevada. April 11, 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Episode Summary

In recent American history, the mainstream media has adhered to a “both sides” approach to covering politics. But as the Republican party has increasingly become skeptical of democracy and public participation in policy formation, this method is no longer useful as a way of determining the truth. In this episode, Eric Boehlert, founder and editor of PressRun.Media, talks with host Matthew Sheffield about where this attitude originated and why it persists.Boehlert also talks about how the rise of Donald Trump’s anti-intellectualism has changed left-wing media in addition to right-wing outlets.

In recent years, several of Boehlert’s former colleagues like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have begun seeking fame and fortune among Republicans while still claiming to be left-wing. Is it all about the money? Why don’t they ever debate their mainstream left critics?

Finally, Boehlert and Sheffield also discuss how, after several decades of regularly losing the national presidential popular vote, some Republican Americans have begun turning against their own country. Have conservatives become an anti-American movement?

A lightly edited transcript of the discussion follows. A video version is available below:


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: This is Theory of Change. I’m Matthew Sheffield. We’ve got another great show for you today. Every Thursday we’re doing these as a livestream. And today we’re going to be talking about the role of the media in the political system. How does it function?

There’s a lot of strange developments that have happened with the rise of the internet, but then there are also some persistent media tendencies, such as the idea that there is, there are two sides to every question that are fully legitimate and must be given complete moral equivalence. There’s there’s a lot going on with that tradition.

And the internet has also made it so that a lot of people have been able to get into independent media. And what we’ve seen in recent years, especially after the rise of Donald Trump, a bunch of people who had long been on the political left as media commentators are now deciding to cultivate a political conservative or far-right audience.

The person I’m going to be talking with about that today is a longtime observer of the media. And his name is Eric Boehlert. And he is somebody who worked as one of the original employees at Media Matters. And now he’s doing his own website called PressRun.Media. So please welcome Eric Boehlert.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right, well, so before we get into the discussion here, let’s maybe talk just a little bit about Media Matters. What is it? It got started in 2006 and you were one of the first employees, writers there. What is Media Matters? Just give us the history a little bit.

BOEHLERT: Oh, sure. Media Matters was David Brock’s invention. David Brock is a—well, he’s formerly a conservative firebrand. And during the Clinton years, he was part of the “get Clinton crowd” and wrote for the [American] Spectator, I believe, and others, he had an epiphany and did a U-turn and became one of the chief critics of the right.

On the left, he kind of arrived with lots of insights in terms of how the right wing media works. So, and he’s also a very talented fundraiser. So he’s helped create Media Matters, as you say, in 2006 I think it was. And the idea was to do two things was to monitor the right-wing media to monitor at the time Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and detail, all the misinformation. And then secondly, was to document how that right-wing misinformation found its way constantly into the mainstream media and into the Beltway press in the Washington Post in the New York Times, and CNN, and how there was this kind of corrosive food chain of right-wing media lies, then kind of dressed up. And so it’s, it’s this constant parade of negative narratives for Democrats and things like that. So it was kind of a, it was kind of a one two punch, and, you know, 15-16, whatever years later, Media Matters is still doing it. You know, when I was there, gosh, they had a staff of probably 100.

And so it became one of the important part of the liberal infrastructure within the Beltway, because the media hadn’t really been tackled, there was this assumption, particularly then (it’s less strong today), but there was this assumption within the Democratic Party within donors within members of Congress, that ‘oh, the media, you know, the media is on our side,’ ‘the New York Times is great, they’re, fighting the good fight, they like Democrats, they’re gonna get our message out. If we, if we get a story in the New York Times about tax policy, that’s good, because it’ll it’ll mirror what we’re talking about. That’s not true.

And so I think more and more people on the left and within the Democratic Party have come to the realization that, you know, the mainstream media is not necessarily their friends. There needs to be pushback, there needs to be analysis, there needs to be criticism, there needs to be accountability. And so that’s what Media Matters started doing.

And that’s now what I do at Press Run. Same, the same, same, same goals and same approach. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD (4:20): Yeah. Okay, just for purposes of this discussion, you know, there’s a lot of longer podcasts out there that I feel like are kind of meandering. So we’re gonna try to organize the discussion around three general topics here. First one is the mainstream media’s “both sides” fetish. We’re going to talk about that in the context, both of— because a lot of people are aware that it happens, but they don’t know why it happens or where this idea came from. So we’ll be talking about that.

And then the second topic we’ll be talking about, as I mentioned in the intro, is there has been a lot of left-wing, they were at least, at one point or another, very affiliated with progressive or liberal organizations or media outlets, and now they’ve decided they want to have conservative and far-right audiences.

And then the third one is probably might be a little bit more triggering for our conservative listeners, which is do conservatives hate America now. And I’ll get into that a little bit more as as when we when we get down to that because it’s because it’s kind of a it’s an interesting different topic that I think a lot of people haven’t thought a lot about.

So but first, let’s talk about the both sides idea. First of all, what is that, Eric? And how commonplace do you think it is?

BOEHLERT: So both both sides journalism is an absolute hallmark of the Beltway press. And so, and it’s become a pejorative probably in the last 10 years, because for many decades, it seemed to work fine. So if you’re on Capitol Hill, if you’re in the Washington, if you’re if you’re covering politics, your job is to reflect the two parties, right?

For decades, it was a basically center-left party versus a center-right party, they were somewhat similar in terms of, they were kind of mirror opposites in terms of where they were situated on the political spectrum. So if you did a story, you know, any political story, you went to both sides, what do Republicans think? What do Democrats think? It’s pretty straightforward. That becomes your product, your content, your journalism.

And like I said, I think for a long time, it worked really well, because what the press kind of prizes, this idea of independence and, and being bipartisan, and being savvy enough to to watch these right-left battles unfold, and to be able to cover them fairly. And to cover them fairly. You have to, you have to figure out what both sides are saying.

The problem is the Republican party has changed so radically, really, in the last 10 years, I would say, it started under Obama, and for lots of reasons. And so “both sides” has become a pejorative because they’re not similar.

The Republican Party today is waging war on free and fair elections. They’re, they spent part of most of last year denying the pandemic existed. You have congressmen openly lying about a miraculously safe and efficient vaccine today, during a public health crisis. This is not a center-right party, this is become a much more radical and dangerous enterprise. But the press really wants to hang on to this center-right, center-left, all we have to do is get quotes from both sides. And and because both sides act similarly.

So just to just to piggyback on this hypothetical COVID, or vaccine story, yesterday, CNN put up a piece, basically saying, McCarthy and Republicans want to run on COVID, they want to run on this backlash against the mask, they think it’s a political winner. But Democrats say that’s irresponsible. So there, you know, there you have kind of both sides. But CNN shouldn’t have to be able—shouldn’t have to rely on the Democratic Party to conclude that lying about a vaccine is irresponsible. Right? You don’t have to do that you can make that judgment on your own.

But journalists are so nervous about the allegation of liberal media bias. And we can talk about the five decade crusade that has been there so nervous about that allegation, I think they go out of their way not to draw obvious conclusions that they can, whether it’s about an insurrection, whether it’s about trying to overturn election results, whether it’s about the scare campaign now, in terms of the COVID, and things like that.

So “both sides” is basically a relic from, from a way Beltway journalism used to work. And I would say it worked fine for the times. But the times have changed, the Republican Party has become, in my view, a very radical and dangerous enterprise. And the press is still covering it like it’s a mainstream party. And they’re still covering it by suggesting anything unusual or out of character or controversial the Republican Party does, Democrats probably do the same thing. And there, that’s the “both sides” umbrella that allows the press not to have to make any kind of value judgment. And that allows them just to to maintain their kind of distance.

SHEFFIELD (9:38): Yeah, and I think another thing that—people are increasingly aware of this as a deleterious phenomenon. But in terms of some of the origins, yes, there’s definitely this invasive fear of being called liberally biased, which, you know, I, myself as the co-creator of NewsBusters, definitely played a part in that and we could talk about that in a little bit. But the other thing also is that is a huge driver of “both sides” moral equivalence is access. Access, the desire for access, a desire for scoops, gossip, whatever you want to call it. One thing that a lot of people don’t know is that the House Freedom Caucus, the furthest right most arranged Republicans in the House who have been the people directly responsible for a lot of the things that we see today, they are the biggest leakers on Capitol Hill about internal congressional drama and procedure. And you’d ever hear that from Hill reporters and for good reason. They want to protect their sources. And it’s a huge reason why their deranged and crazy behavior doesn’t get scrutinized, because why would you want to call attention, negative attention to people who give you so much of what you know?

BOEHLERT: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And I think I think we saw a larger phenomena just in the Trump coverage in general, for four years. I mean, that was a White House that was just absolutely off the rails, basically, it was run as a criminal enterprise for four years. It was unethical, it was corrupt. It was vindictive, all, all the things we could talk about for a whole hour. But it wasn’t really portrayed, nine times out of 10. In the daily news coverage. I’m not talking about the commentary and things like that. I’m talking about the straight ahead, news coverage. There were days you would think Jeb Bush were president and I’m talking 2020 2019. Not like Trump’s first three months in office.

There were reports that I would see you would think John McCain were president. You know, this is just a typical Republican administration. This is what they’re doing today. Just a complete lack of context, and especially four years into that circus, that nightmare. And I think a lot of that had goes to the point you made, which was access.

So if you don’t have to make a judgment call, even though you know, Trump is probably mentally unstable. You know, he’s a pathological—as a reporter covering the White House—you know, he’s a pathological liar. You know, he’s a racist, you know, all of these things. If you’re not forced to make that judgment call, why would you? Because it’s a leakathon. I mean, there’s all this gossip that the White House, everyone who covered that White House got a book deal. And those book deals do not come cheap.

A lot of people have second homes because of that Trump administration, and because of the access and because of the drama they were able to collect. So, yeah, what’s the incentive to be forthright? What’s the incentive on a daily basis? You look, I mean, I wrote about this 55 times, there’s a reason the Beltway press collectively, without exception, on day one, announced we are not going to call Donald Trump a liar. Now, the Washington Post documented 20,000 lies he told in four years, and The Washington Post told the newsroom ‘do not call him a liar.’ What? No one in any position of power has ever been able to rationalize or explain that. But I think the point you made and the point I’m making goes a long way to that, which is access and and not wanting to upset this and and not wanting to put what Trump did to this country in a super clear focus in the in the news coverage for four years.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then I think the other thing is that there is, as somebody who who once was more of a moderate conservative, I was constantly seeing reporters that, you know, they were trying to find people that they thought were reasonable conservatives, you know, and to try to talk to them. And like you see that on the on the Sunday shows like they’ve they’ve got Asa Hutchinson, who is the governor of Arkansas and has no power in, in the Republican Party whatsoever, does not speak for them in any way, shape, or form. But he is the guy who gets booked on all the Sunday shows, because apparently you have to go to the governor of Arkansas to find a Republican who’s not going to lie and gaslight people about COVID.

BOEHLERT: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: He seems to be the only one.

BOEHLERT: I mean, just real quick think about how far down the list you have to go to get to the governor of Arkansas. But it’s a very good point, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But the thing is, though, that in their desperate search for conservative rationality, a lot of them are willing to give a pass to people who don’t act in good faith and who actually are trolling the media themselves. So like, they’ll, there are all these endless articles about, ‘Well, so-and-so official, will he turn on Trump now?’ And guess what? They never did. They never did! And and there was just this repeated, and I mean the Atlantic probably is the worst publication that does this New York Times does it a lot too. But it’s like this idea that if we just, if we just sit them down enough and talk to them, well, by golly, they’re going to they’re going to shape up aren’t they?

BOEHLERT (15:18): Look, I mean terms like “cult,” terms like “brainwashing” are obvious descriptions, obvious ways to describe what happened for four years were never touched. And and that’s just, you know, that’s just always been the way it worked, too.

The day after the insurrection, New York Times big headline, this was a news headline. I’m paraphrasing, but, you know, Republicans face Trump reckoning, and the New York Times was sure, this was going to be the turning point. There’s no way the Republican Party could could remain loyal to Trump. I mean, my God, look, just look what happened in the last 24 hours, and that’s their mind—that was their mindset. It was insanely naive. Even though 140 members of the House had just post-insurrection, like three hours after the Capital was stormed still voted to try to overthrow the election.

But yeah, it’s this purposeful, professional naivete, I think is one way to put it. And I think a lot of people know it’s kind of a charade, knew it was a charade. And it was a dance while covering Trump.

But, so why, why this, why this obsession with finding those rational Republicans why this idea that, you know, after four years, they’re still powerful group. Why? Because they wanted they they refuse to tell the truth about the party as a whole.

So if they held out this fantasy, that there were there were Republicans, besides the same five Republicans, they quoted for five years, Mitt Romney, the same five who showed up in every story. If they made maintain this fantasy that there were 20 or 30 Republican senators like that they could make then they could keep up this this this ridiculous narrative that Republicans can’t sleep at night, knowing what Trump’s doing. Trump’s doing this to the Republican Party! If they could just break this bond, Mitch McConnell would not shove through a Supreme Court justices eight days before an election. That’s all Trump’s fault, right?

And it’s baloney. And we know it’s BS. The Republican Party is doing what it’s doing, because it wants to. And so in a weird way Trump provided the press coverage in order to play nicely with the Republican Party. Right, they, particularly the Times and the Post and others for years just absolutely maintain this this storyline. Like I said, Republicans are just at their wit’s end about Trump and man, if he would just get off the stage. They could get back to being hardworking, patriotic, honest brokers, which is total bullshit.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And but I think the other thing is that beyond beyond the access are related to the access desire, there is this idea, a very naive idea among a lot of, of editors and executive producers, that elected officials are the ones who drive what happens in Washington. And, and you know what, it’s not to say that that’s not true at all. But the reality is that interest groups, especially on the right, they drive—and the donors— so like, for instance, the Republican tax cut of 2017, large Republican donors, they started blasting the Republican Party for not getting this done giving them their money, and they were literally threatening them in the press, ‘we’re not going to give you money for 2018, unless you do this right now.’

And that was a story that you almost, people would run like one story about that.

BOEHLERT: Right.

SHEFFIELD: But the reality is, that ought to have shown these editors and these executive producers, wow, maybe we should pay attention to these people. Because guess what they wanted? They got what they needed.

BOEHLERT: Yeah, yeah.

SHEFFIELD (19:15): And like you’ve got this group, the Council for National Policy, and a bunch of these very powerful Christian activists, like open Christian supremacists who talked about how they’re going to take away rights of atheists or Jews or Muslims, LGBT people, women, they basically, you know, have untrammeled power in the Republican Party and no one ever pays attention to them.

BOEHLERT: No, that’s such a good point. I mean, the republican party today, if you talking about members of Congress, I mean, it’s such a reactive body. I mean, what was was the last time they initiated any kind of policy push of any significance in the last 10 years, and those interest groups on the right are so much more powerful than the interest groups on the left which just don’t have the money the bang for the buck, the relentless push. They tend to try to work with the Democratic Party and understand the Democratic Party is under siege, but particularly in the era of Trump.

But yeah, you know, you turn on the TV and you see Senator [John] Kennedy from Louisiana, like he has any power to do anything. I mean, he’s just, he’s just there to fill time and produce some content. I mean, none of these people, particularly in the last four or five years, none of them produce much of anything.

And a real quick point about the coverage of the tax cut. You know, when Biden came in within 48 hours, the press was demanding why he hadn’t united the country yet. And the way you unite the country, as you must pass a bipartisan COVID relief bill. Right? Even though every Republican, this is a bill that had 80% public support, ended up getting, I think, zero, yeah, no, it got zero.

SHEFFIELD: It was zero.

BOEHLERT: Zero votes, it couldn’t even get Romney and the usual suspect of four, zero votes in the House get zero votes in the Senate. This is one of the most popular pieces of spending, spending legislation and half a century. And Biden couldn’t get a [Republican] vote. And the press was beside itself. But you go back to 2018. Trump didn’t get a single Democratic vote for those tax cuts. ‘Trump Trump was savvy, Trump was aggressive, Trump was bold, Trump didn’t care with his opponents thought.’ So it’s a totally different way of covering Republican and Democratic Party for every piece of legislation. And in terms of the eyes of the Beltway press, if you’re a Democratic president, nothing, nothing is more important than securing Republican votes. If you’re a Republican president, press couldn’t care less if Democrats all said no, it’s one of these weird traits that that because that really came into highlight, once Biden kind of came in, and the press overnight, went back to worshipping at the altar of bipartisanship.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And so just to—you kind of touched on interest groups here that kind of dovetails nicely with our second topic, which is toxic left wing pundits seeking far right audiences.

And I guess, you know, as somebody who has changed places politically, myself, you know, that’s an interesting subject to me.

BOEHLERT: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD (22:15): But in your case, you know, you were there on as a progressive writer, when a lot of these people and I’m talking about people like Glenn Greenwald, or Matt Taibbi some of these other people out there, and we don’t necessarily need to talk about any one of them individually. But it’s it’s notable, I think that there’s this—well, there are a lot of reasons it seems that that they have decided to go after far-right audiences. Why don’t, tell me about some of your theories?

BOEHLERT: Yeah. You know, and that’s a fair point because I just talked about David Brock, who kind of changed teams. You, you’ve mentioned, you’ve had a dramatic change of perspective for politics. So I don’t think there’s anything in and of itself wrong. I think what I think what’s wrong with these writers is they won’t admit what they’re doing.

They still pretend they’re coming at, they’re viewing the world from a populist-left perspective, when they’re basically just become MAGA mouthpieces. So I think there’s there’s a dishonesty. I mean, if you want to change teams, make that U-turn and go full force, you wouldn’t be the first you wouldn’t be the last and good luck to you and count all that money.

I mean, Oliver Willis is talking—who used to work at Media Matters. And I mean, he’s talked for years. I mean, if he decided overnight to become a conservative, I can’t even count how much money Oliver Willis would make. You know, people don’t understand— you do—but most people don’t understand don’t understand how much money that the conservative infrastructure in Beltway have. They don’t even know what to do with it. I mean, they literally don’t know what to do with all the money.

So if you emerge as a voice as a popular voice on the right, guess what? And I’m not saying these are specifically happens to the one the two writers you talked about, but you get a you get a writing gig, you get a speaking gig, you get a speech tour gig.

SHEFFIELD: Book deals.

BOEHLERT: Book deals, many book deals. So you go from making $110,000 a year to making $600,000 a year. I mean, and and beyond. And then you get a Fox, and then you’re a contributor. I mean, the money is astounding in terms of this right-wing media infrastructure, cradle to grave, and we’ve seen it before.

So I think for folks who who go to the right, and it’s funny because I have a Substack newsletter Press Run, Taibbi, Greenwald others, they also are on Substack now. And they have a lot more followers than I do. I don’t begrudge anybody, but you can just make a ton more money. I mean, that’s the bottom line. I mean, it’s always been the bottom line.

I don’t know if that was their motivation. I don’t know if that’s why they decided to become apologists, essentially, for Donald Trump. To relentlessly run down the Democratic Party, enter into very, kind of, from my perspective, just really murky and disturbing areas in terms of race in this country and minorities and white power and all that stuff, “cancel culture,” crying yourself to sleep at night over supposed liberal cancel culture and things like that.

So Glenn Greenwald, for instance, you know, it’s interesting, I wrote a book Bloggers on the Bus: How the internet Changed the Press. I think that was 2008. He was a chapter in my book, he was an absolute star of the liberal blogosphere, very persuasive critic of the Bush administration. And now he’s Tucker Carlson’s best friend and runs, interference for Fox News on a daily basis, runs interference for the Trump administration. They spent the whole year downplaying the insurrection, mocking people who suggested it was a violent event and things like that.

So if you’re going to do that, then obviously, you’re just, you’re just a Fox News contributor. You’re a Fox News voice. But they seem to want to hang on to this idea that they’re the truth-tellers and, and they’re they’re viewing the real world from populist, anti-elite perspective. But—

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well it’s total nonsense, because Donald Trump—

BOEHLERT: Yeah. Now I’m sorry, that was another quick point. If you want to make a U turn, if you wanted to switch teams, that’s fine. But if your arguments are garbage, and they’re just incessantly dishonest, you’re going to get called out for it. So yeah, go ahead.

SHEFFIELD: Well, I mean, yeah, the idea that Donald Trump is populist, like, it’s such a total lie.

I mean, all you have to do is look at the guy’s actual policies. Sure. He likes to be vulgar and crass and swear which as president is completely unheard of. But his actual policies were about redistributing wealth to the top 1% of Americans.

BOEHLERT: Oh yeah.

SHEFFIELD: ProPublica, just a matter of, just this week, reported to how some of Ron Johnson’s, the Wisconsin senator, his top donors, pressured him to not vote for the for the Trump 2017 tax cut, because it didn’t, it wasn’t catered specifically enough to them. And so he did just that, and and then Trump gave him exactly what he wanted, what the donors wanted. And, you know, if you look at the various tax projections about what the law does over over 10 years, it actually raises taxes on on the poorest Americans.

So the idea that Donald Trump—and that’s just one—like he tried to take away people’s insurance that they got from Obamacare, he not just lower threshold, but like completely scrap the law. He’s pushed for all kinds of policies that promote, that attack unions.

BOEHLERT: Of course.

SHEFFIELD: These are not policies—this is not a populist guy. So for Glenn Greenwald, or any of these people to go and say, ‘Oh, well, Donald Trump is he’s a populist like me.’ No, he’s not. He’s just a loud mouth, and you are selling your soul to support him.

BOEHLERT (28:20): And you know, and I think a lot of the what I call the faux left or whatever, you know, they push Trump as a as a dove. Right?

And we can’t really talk about this movement without talking about 2016, their just naked hatred of Hillary Clinton, the mysogyny that fueled a lot of that. So obviously, this is the old horseshoe politics, right? The far left meets up with the far right, and they find united themes. And obviously, that’s literally what what has happened.

But yeah, you know, a lot of them push Trump as a dove into this day. ‘Oh, Trump didn’t start a war. Oh, gosh, but look at all the Democratic wars.’ Trump increased bombings in Somalia through the roof. He increased bombings in lots of places.

SHEFFIELD: And drone attacks.

BOEHLERT: So it’s just yeah—

SHEFFIELD: And trying to reinstate torture.

BOEHLERT: Yeah, I mean, you know, these people claim they care about stuff as you say, you know, stuffing the pockets of Wall Street. I mean, that was that was, I mean, I’m pretty sure Matt Taibbi made his career out of decrying that while he was at Rolling Stone. But apparently now that’s, that’s, that was okay when Trump did it.

So, you know, I do think a lot of this is kind of the newsletter media culture, too. I think you can find that niche. And so if you’re getting people to subscribe, like, you know, I’m fortunate enough to have some people subscribe to Press Run. So if, if you tap into something, if you tap into a column, if you tap into a vein, you can see the response in terms of dollars that day. And so, if you’re a supposed faux left and you run an Obama-bashing column, your Stripe account, which is which does all the transactions goes through the roof that day? Guess what? (Laughter.) Yes, you are popular among conservative consumers, conservative consumers who bought books who buy diet pills from Fox News and by newsletters, you have just tapped in to basically unlimited resources. And guess what? It pays really well.

SHEFFIELD (30:29): Yeah, and I do want to say that as somebody who is has seen the market, you know, the consumer market, the reader slash listener, slash viewer, whatever you call it, it is, it is an unfortunate thing that a lot of progressive media consumers are, are just content to watch it. And, and whereas, if you look on the conservative side, they will say, ‘Wow, this person is standing against the forces of Satan, I have to give them money!’ And they do, and they do!

BOEHLERT: And it is amazing. And again, God bless all the people who pay for my newsletter, it’s really a miracle. And it’s humbling when you put publish a newsletter, and you see people subscribing and renewing. So there are lots of there are folks on the left who do want to support that voice. But yeah, you just multiply that by 10 and I think you’re basically looking at the same pool, on the right.

They have just been taught from an early age, that if you don’t, if you don’t send your money now, all of this, your your way of life may disappear. I mean, Mark Levin has the number-one book in the country, right? And so yeah, they’ve been printing money on that side for a very long time. And in general, it’s hard to scratch that out on the left. So I mean, it’s very alluring. I mean, if you’re generating, I mean, I’m sure Greenwald’s, making $100,000 a month off his newsletter. And if you’re willing to sell your soul at some point, you think, why am I not going to do this? Why am I, why am I not going to be an apologist for that guy?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And some of the other things that there are also other reasons, it seems that we’ve seen kind of these these ponderings. And I think it’s, well, one thing I do want to say is that, because the Fox News and right-wing media world is so devoid of actual policy content, they never talk to them about what their actual beliefs are. Everything is about Oh, the Democrats are mean, the Democrats are elitist and, oh, we hate Fauci or vaccines or whatever, right? Like they never ask.

So we so we actually don’t know where these people are at ideologically because A) they don’t talk about it on the media outlets they go to, and then B) they they will not engage with progressive critics anymore. Which is hilarious because they talk about being canceled. Well, they’ve basically said, I will not debate anyone who will say mean things about me.

BOEHLERT: Hey, just just a quick point, because you were talking about the lack of seriousness on the right, and we were talking before about the media desperate to find people who, who aren’t just Trump believers and things like that. CNN had a really time, a tough time for four years, they churned through a lot of people who turned out—[Corey] Lewandowski for a while was on the payroll. Obviously, at the end, Rick Santorum became a big problem. But they were committed to this kind of both sides ‘we’re CNN, we live between MSNBC if you think they’re too liberal, if you think Fox is too conservative, you know, we’re the channel for you. We’re going to present Democrats and Republicans. We’re going to have a robust debate, we’re going to look at this thing.

And they very quickly realized anyone, anyone who showed up that was basically a Trumpist was just gonna lie, non-stop, and it was going to embarrass the network. I forget his name off the top of my head. They hired that young Republican congressman whose claim to fame was being on the MTV reality show. Sean Duffy, Sean Duffy?

SHEFFIELD: Sean Duffy, yeah.

BOEHLERT: Yeah. So they hired him. And like the third time he was on, he ended and the anchor to come on and basically apologize and say, ‘Oh, everything he just said was a lie.’ This happened like two or three times in the first 10 days. He’s now working for Fox News.

And then Rick Santorum, they thought, ‘Oh, okay. Well here’s our safe go-to guy, he’ll defend Trump, but people, viewers see him as being rational and kind of common-sense and straightforward.’ And in the end, he made those comments about when colonists came to America, there was nothing here, just empty trees and forest. And we made this, made America into this wonderful thing. Nobody, there were no natives walking around.

And so they finally you know, had to let—

Didn’t influence America—

And Native American culture didn’t work even though 32 of our states are named after Indian phrases in languages. So yeah, it became a struggle. But it was only a struggle because they were so committed. ‘Well, we have to have the Trump voice on our network. We have to, how are we going to? He’s the president, they run the federal government.’ But it was, as you say, it was almost impossible to find anyone rational. It was bad enough. They had people like Peter Navarro, as senior Trump administration officials on constantly lying about a pandemic through all 2020. It was equally bad when they were paying people to lie on Trump’s behalf. Because they were so dedicated to this “both sides” paradigm.

SHEFFIELD (35:43): We had an interesting comment just come in from somebody named ‘Redrage1972.’ And this person says “If crazy, right wingers don’t get a platform on the mainstream media, people won’t see how crazy their clique is.” What’s your response to that? What do you think of that?

BOEHLERT: Oh, so if I read if I hear that correctly, is it’s good to give them a platform because American needs to understand kind of how crazy they are and how dangerous they are? Is it?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that’s the point.

BOEHLERT: You think that was the idea? Yeah, you know, I think maybe if we’re talking the Trump years, I would have made sense for the first three or four months, then at that point, I think everyone understands. I think there’s—I don’t think it’s worth giving these people a microphone, because they already have so many. I think the problem is, if you give them a microphone, you have to be very specific that they are crazy.

The problem is the press is giving them a microphone. And depicting them as just normal folks. I mean, we haven’t talked about the Ohio diner trend for four years. You know, I think the New York Times had correspondents camped out in the middle of Ohio and Wisconsin and these Midwestern states. Literally dozens, maybe a hundred articles among mainstream media outlets.

And it was just, they weren’t newsworthy. They were just checkups, ‘What do white middle-aged men in red counties in red states think about Trump in 2017? In 2018? Oh, they love them. Okay, that’s a new story!’

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BOEHLERT: So going to that person’s comment, if you’re going to highlight these people, the problem is the mainstream media did a really bad job at highlighting them. It gave them cover and it kind of whitewashed, what was really going on. If you live in a news vacuum, you would have been shocked by that insurrection, because the New York Times for four years told you these Trump voters were just honest, hardworking folk who finally found their voice in Washington, you would not know that Trump for four years had had cultivated a murderous mob, because that was not the story of Republican voters that the Beltway press wanted to tell.

SHEFFIELD (37:55): Yeah. And then I think the other thing is that when you’re when you specifically platform people and identify them, you are you’re advertising their ideas, you’re advertising their personalities, and their websites and whatever. So I do agree with our commenter that it’s important to understand these ideas, and know that they’re relevant and influential. But you do it by talking about the ideas in the larger context, not in the idea of the specific person. So like, for instance, you’ve got Ben Shapiro, who is this, you know, total snowflake, kind of dimwit guy who can’t debate—the only people he wants to debate are college freshmen—he literally will not debate. And you’ve got people like Steven Crowder, who actually ran from a debate when he was it was gonna have it with Sam Seder, when somebody brought him on a livestream.

BOEHLERT: Yep, yep.

SHEFFIELD: So these people cannot debate their ideas. So they don’t deserve a platform unless they’re going to become, you know, unless someone is going to come at them and really challenge them. Because if all you’re going to do is just say, ‘Well, gosh, here are these people, and they have these ideas that are unpopular. The End.’ That’s a piece of s– article. And so you’re not, you’re not giving it the scrutiny that it deserved.

And the same thing, we’ve gone from the ‘Do Trump voters in diners like Donald Trump? Why yes, they do.’ We’ve gone from that to ‘Do people who hate vaccines, do they really hate vaccines? Oh, gosh, they do?’

And they make no effort to persuade them or show well, you think X is true? Well, here’s a thing that shows it’s not true. You think Y is true? Here’s how it’s not true. They don’t do any of this stuff.

BOEHLERT: No, no they don’t.

SHEFFIELD: And so basically, in effect, in effect, they’re doing kind of trying to have an open mic night on the cruise ship as it goes down. When people for the people who sank it, who made the hole come and tell us about what you did. Yeah, that’s what this is.

BOEHLERT (40:03): And that raises a really good point. It’s been one of my pet peeves for years in terms of, and I think this will probably segue into the third topic, but we’re seeing this anti-vaccine hysteria and things like that. And the press not only doesn’t want to talk about how radical the Republican Party is, doesn’t want to talk about how to deranged the conservative movement has become. “Complete brainwashing,” it’s just not a word the mainstream media will use in terms of talking about what’s happening. “Cult,” you will never, ever in a straight news story, are you allowed to talk about this cultish behavior.

And now we’re seeing these rash of these hysterical school board meetings, where parents and usually parents only, I don’t see students complaining about mask mandates. It is this irrational, it was Franklin, Tennessee two nights ago, where a local doctor came down and volunteered his time and talked about the safety benefits of having a school mask mandate. And afterwards there, he needed a police escort, he probably would have been beaten and drag from his car, people were saying they know where they live, they’re going to come and get him over a cloth facial covering for students during a pandemic.

So, and I see a lot of people, I’ve been highlighting these and been talking about a Twitter. And a lot of comments are how do people get like this? And that and that is the question. People aren’t born that way. People aren’t born with a consuming rage about a cloth masks covering during a pandemic. You have to be brainwashed. You have to become a cult follower. And that is what’s happening to conservative politics in this country. And you are just not going to see that in the coverage.

What coverage you see, oh, there’s a backlash against mass. CNN the other day in that article I highlighted previously, talked about previously: ‘Oh, the Republican Party’s think they’re going to they’re going to take advantage of this backlash?’ Well, according to the polling, there is no backlash. According to the polling, a clear majority, 60, 70% of Americans approve of mask mandates and things like that.

So not only is the press buying into this idea that there’s this widespread protest across the country, when they focus on the protest that exists there’s no “brainwashing,” no “cult,” no, these are just hardworking folk who can’t sleep at night, because their kids might have to put on a mask and go to school.

I mean, nobody wants to wear a mask at school. I mean, I understand that. But people aren’t born that way, their brain has to be rewired. And there’s very little discussion about who’s rewiring it, and the long term consequences of that rewiring. And it’s obviously QAnon. And just real quick, the mainstream press wants to cover QAnon as the separate thing, fringe thing over here, doesn’t really have anything to do with the Republican Party, doesn’t really have anything to do with mainstream conservative politics in this country. Which is a complete lie. And and that’s the ugly truth that that news outlets don’t want to talk about, because it goes back to our very first point, the fear of the liberal media allegation.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I think the other thing that they also are not talking about is that the mainstream press, they’re so interview-dependent and what that means is if somebody is going to lie in an interview, or they’re not going to tell the full truth of what they are, or who they are, why they’re doing it, well, then you’re you’re not going to know as it has been a lazy mainstream reporter.

And so, like we’ve seen this over and over with the critical race theory protests and now they’re doing it with the with the masks. These protests are deliberately engineered by Republican activists, and they have publicly said this so this is not like a conspiracy theory that this is going on.

They are boasting about ‘Haha, look, we’re sending our activists over to the Leesburg School District in Virginia. Yeah, we’re going to we’re going to bend them to our will and make a national controversy over this. Look at what we’re doing we’re so awesome.’ So they’ve said this and Fox News, yeah, your former colleagues at Media Matters came out with a study that showed Fox News had interviewed dozens of these people apparently and never and never disclosed who they were they’re just concerned parents who have a problem and they’re doing the same thing like with this mask.

So for for instance in Tennessee there was an anti mass protest in Nashville after the the Nashville school district, or suburb there, said they were going to require a mask for students. There was a protest that was, you know, a bunch of people piled into a meeting. And one of the people who was there was Clay Travis, who is this right-wing talk radio host. And so, they don’t, they’re so ill-equipped to understand when something is being artificially astroturfed that they just cover it. The mainstream press just covers it: ‘Oh, wow. Look at these people. Yeah, look what they’re doing.’

BOEHLERT: Well, you know that goes back to literally my number ones, my number one rule of Beltway journalism. Every news cycle of every day starts with a simple premise of what are republicans angry about today? And everything else flows from that. And you mentioned critical race theory. You go back to the Tea Party, you go back to Obama scare, and now we’re doing it with the mass protests last year, just about this time, it was the reopen protests. I remember writing about that at Press Run. And you know, there are local reports of over a dozen protesters. Okay. Well, the county that that happened in there’s 700,000 people, why would that possibly be considered news? Or the suggestion that’s part of a nationwide backlash, right?

So their myopic view is what are Republicans, conservatives, angry about today? And then, then a complete lack of understanding, as you say about, again going back to my point, the billions of dollars and the infrastructure, Republicans have to literally invent these things. And third part, you have a right-wing media that’s actively brainwashing people. So I’m not suggesting this that all these people are actors, there are deranged people who show up on their own will. And the these, these events are created perfectly pop-up events, and those don’t come cheap. So it’s a combination of all those things. The press comes in doesn’t see any of it. They just see ‘Oh my gosh, they’re angry. We have to interview these people. They’re talking about on Fox News, this must be a national movement. And then oh, by the way, we have to leave out all the polling that says the vast majority Americans are fine with masks.’

SHEFFIELD (47:14): Yeah. Yeah, it’s just so shoddy. shoddy. So we’re coming up on time here, unfortunately. So I did want to get to our third topic, which is, do conservatives hate America? You know, it’s something that when I’ve raised this topic with conservatives before, they always get very angry at this idea. And honestly, probably for good reason, because they’ve created their entire political brand about how liberals hate America.

BOEHLERT: Right, right.

SHEFFIELD: But here, but here’s the thing. So as I think you can, you can look at the January 6th Capital attack, this is the ultimate manifestation of this radicalization.

BOEHLERT: Of course.

SHEFFIELD: As somebody who who worked in the conservative media environment for a long time, what I saw was that a lot of people, probably the majority of them had Christian supremacist viewpoints that they wanted, they wanted to take away rights of liberal Christians or non-Christians, atheists, Jews, etc. They thought that right-wing Christians should have more rights. But then they also they kept thinking that ideas which had no popular support ever, so like eliminating Social Security, or privatizing Medicare, like things like these, you know, our eliminating the Department of Education, like, they’re still obsessed with these ideas. And these ideas will never happen.

Elected, Republicans are even as extreme as they are, they will never push these policies. And so what’s happened is that there has been this enormous radicalization, because when you want something for so long, and then you never get it.

BOEHLERT: —even when you have a Republican president, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: —and Congress, they become deranged from this. And the more religious ones have become even more deranged. Because they, for a long time had this idea that well, if we if we cut the government, that will force people to rely on local institutions like their church and will force them back into church by cutting their budget, or regulations or whatever.

And of course, that didn’t happen either. Because imagine that, taking people’s ability to have, you know, abortions or birth control. It has nothing to do with whether they go to church or whatever, how does that work? And whether a billionaire gets a tax cut or cash it has nothing to do with whether someone believes in God or the Bible. These things are not related at all, and so they, a lot of them with the rise of Trump in 2016, they begin feeling like this. ‘We are losing America.’

BOEHLERT: Right.

SHEFFIELD: You had this guy wrote an essay in the Claremont Review of Books, who later went on to work in the Trump administration. He wrote an essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” Michael Anton was his name. And he literally said, the 2016 election, this is life or death. And if we don’t have a Republican in the White House, then America will be over.

And, and of course, they’ve said things like this for 50 years. But the problem is, the more you say that stuff, and the more it doesn’t happen, like they’ve been predicting a debt crisis for 70 years, ‘Oh America’s, no one’s gonna believe or buy our bonds or whatever. And so everything they say is wrong. And yet all their extreme rhetoric never pans out. And so they just have to keep amping it up, and up and up. And now we’re seeing the point where, I regularly see right wing podcasters or commentators columnists, talk about ‘Oh, you know what, I’m against the American Olympic team this year. Because they have transgender athletes. Or ‘I’m against Simone Biles, because Simone Biles is pro-choice,’ and you’re seeing this over and over like there’s this really emerging viewpoint a lot among a lot of far-right Republicans that America’s over.

BOEHLERT: Right.

SHEFFIELD: And well, we hate America now.

BOEHLERT (51:36): Well, look at just last week, right, in the last 10 days. They hate, as you say, American Olympians, which is unheard of. I tweeted that if Barack Obama had look side-eyed at a US Olympian, it would have been a five day story. Trump’s out there, they’re all out there trashing them.

They hate the Capitol Hill police, they hated that insurrection hearing. Laura Ingraham just went after these people by name. And Tucker Carlson goes to Hungary and talks down the United States to a Fox News audience. So yeah, part of it is the fear and the loss of, the fear of lost America. Roger Ailes created Fox News so people would be scared out of their mind every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So you absolutely have to drive that point home. And so if you ask a conservative, they say, ‘Well, I hate Biden’s America,’ you know, or ‘I hate the socialist America.’ ‘I hated Obama’s America. I’m gonna save the real America.’

You know, I wrote a piece this week at Press Run, I think the Republican Party has become the fifth column in this war on COVID. I mean, how else can you describe just the open misinformation deliberate lies about a vaccine during a time of a public health crisis? I mean, they’re attacking America from within. There’s no question. They want this pandemic to continue.

I don’t know if it’s because they think it’ll hurt Biden. These are people who, you know, the entire Republican Party. We have members speaking out of against the vaccine. These people didn’t care about vaccine one day in their life before 2021. They didn’t use their platforms to warn people against inoculations. This is specifically tied to COVID and Biden and partisan warfare.

So there’s no other country, certainly no other leading country in the world that’s trying to recover from a pandemic while facing a deep-pocketed political and media movement that is determined to keep the pandemic going. I mean, if we had a rational Republican Party, we’d be at 60, 65% vaccination rate right now. No, we wouldn’t have masked mandates for schools and Biden would be riding the success. So yeah, I think they do hate America. I think they don’t want it to succeed. People around the world just look at this in terms of the COVID response in the last month or two. And it’s obviously bewildering, we have states like Arkansas throwing away 100,000 vaccines, because nobody will show up for it. People around the world think, continue to think part of this country has just completely lost its mind. And that’s accurate.

SHEFFIELD (54:19): Well, it is. But that analysis that you just said, it’s also not something that you hear about in the mainstream press. I mean, and if, for instance, Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host, she literally said on her program, if Biden can’t convince a lot of us to get a vaccine, well, that’s his fault.

BOEHLERT: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And, and we see that and, real quick, we see that in the mainstream media we’ve seen in the last week or so, Biden has failed. This lack of vaccination. The Delta, the surge of the Delta variant is a political problem. It’s going to wipe away his his legislative agenda. Usually in these reports, not one single sentence about how the vaccination hit a brick wall because of a coordinated crusade by the Republican Party to make sure it hit a brick wall. So to your point, yeah. They not only are not accurately reflecting what the conservative movement is doing, they’re blaming Biden for it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it’s, it’s really awful. And so let’s maybe just, and we could probably do this all day. And we’ll have to do some one another one later. But we, let me end it with a question from a Twitter viewer named ‘SeattleSusieQ.’ And she says, Eric, your reporting is spectacular. But I don’t see any change in the mainstream media. What can we do?

BOEHLERT: That’s a great question. And it’s a it’s the kind of the big $64,000 question. I will say we do occasionally see improvements. And I think it’s improvements that come along because folks on the left are being increasingly aggressive about this.

I talked about not calling Trump a liar, you did finally see CNN doing that, at the end of his administration, we did see virtually all mainstream news organizations, when Trump tried to steal the election, December, January, talk about the “Big Lie.” So I think there are small victories that that we can point to, because news organizations do come under pressure. I don’t, on a tiny self serving note, I mean, what we can do is support progressive media, that folks that are trying to do an independent journalism, news organizations, websites, magazines, podcasts, all that stuff, and show people that it’s worth producing original content, because there will be supporters there.

But I think mainly just continue to be smart news, consumers, try to hold the press accountable. And, you know, easier said than done, and also try to convince the Democratic Party to be smarter about media. Just real quick, I mean, there’s been an ongoing debate for years. I don’t think anyone in the Democratic party should ever appear on Fox News, under any circumstances. I’m, I know, that’s a hard line that I have. I’ve heard other people say, Well, you know, we can communicate with their viewers and things like that. I think it completely I think Italy completely legitimizes what they’re doing. But I think most democrats 10 years ago would say, Oh, no, I mean, what’s wrong with Fox News? I’ll go on Fox News, I’ll have a debate, everything will be fine. I think a vast majority of Democrats in Congress in the Beltway, now realize it’s a cancer and it’s poison, and you should stay away. And so again, I think that’s that has been, that’s become from kind of years of discussion and pressure and things like that. So I think people who are concerned about the media, there are ways to, you know, make our voices heard.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I would add to our viewer that the one good thing about our current media environment is that most of these media anchors are on Twitter. Yeah, you know, and you’re on Twitter, too. And so yeah, I think that pushing back and telling these people what they’re doing, as they do it. So like, if they post a link to their story, ‘I wrote this story here,’you know, about how, you know, whatever, you know, some whatever nonsense they’ve done, then specifically, tell them what they did wrong. Yeah. Because if we, if we get enough people doing that, they can’t avoid your criticism. They may not ever answer your criticism.

BOEHLERT: Right.

SHEFFIELD: But they will have to think about it just because it’s there. Yeah.

BOEHLERT (58:32): I’ll just jump in, real quick point. And that’s so true. I mean, in the past, how did you get in touch with a New York Times reporter. I guess you could leave a voicemail, send an email they’ll never read. You can tweet them be incredibly, you know, serious and respectful. I don’t think name calling works that well. But you can respond and say, Look, this is this is why the story is wrong. And again, it’s back to you know, the viewers question. It’s a tiny silver lining. But we have seen several instances where news organizations change headlines, for instance, New York Times have done it, they put up just, you know, a ridiculous, you know, some sort of false equivalency headline or just awful, and they get pummeled on Twitter, and within hours, you know, they have a they have a legitimate real headline up. So they do pay attention. And that’s a way to get into people’s ear. If you if you want to again, I suggest do it respectfully and do it seriously and point out real quickly, hey, this XYZ is wrong. And use that approach.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well, I appreciate your time today, Eric. So your your website is PressRun.Media and then you’re also on Twitter @EricBoehlert. So thanks for being here today, Eric.

BOEHLERT: Oh, my pleasure.

SHEFFIELD: All right, just a little bit of housekeeping that I wanted to say thanks to everybody who joined us for the live show we’re doing these every Thursday at 10:30 Pacific / 1:30pm. Eastern time. So let’s keep showing up for that. And please do tell your your friends and your family about Theory of Change, that would be awesome. And be sure to leave us reviews on—maximum star reviews on whatever podcast platform you’re using, we definitely appreciate, that it’s very helpful.

And I did want to let you also know that Theory of Change is part of the Flux Community network. And Flux is a new nonprofit website, Eric is actually one of our partners on there, but we also tried to elevate and find people who were interested in writing deep stories about media, about politics, about science, and about technology and how they all interrelate. So please do check out the website. And if you want to write for us, if you got a podcast, we’ve got a contact page right there. And you can find Theory of Change on there as well. So the website is Flux.community, and I appreciate everybody joining me today and hope you guys enjoyed the discussion. Thanks.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.