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Where Is This Decade’s Murdoch or Limbaugh?

The center-right needs new strategies and new talent to expand its media presence.

by
Jim Kearney

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September 23, 2009 - 12:06 am
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“Thank you, Dick Cheney.” So says Captain Danny Ross of the Major Case Squad when the massive data mining of credit card transactions provides him with a valuable lead in a terrorist investigation.

Ross is a fictional character speaking in the season finale of Law Order: Criminal Intent, and Eric Bogosian’s line reading is laced with inappropriate sarcasm. Still, the acknowledgment of Cheney’s role in protecting us rings true. “Yes — thank you, Dick Cheney.” You can almost hear the audience responding, without the irony.

It’s certainly a line you won’t hear on the news programs of the major networks or CNN unfortunately, amidst efforts to overturn the surveillance, interrogation, and counterterrorism policies proven so effective in the years after 9/11.

Brief glimpses of socio-political insight are startling on our TV networks, because they are so unexpected. The cheerful, optimistic, and traditional No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is a stranger in HBO’s strange land of sex-saturated cynicism and celebrated transgression. When an old Huell Howser documentary savaging Castro’s Cuba turns up in rerun on public broadcasting, the host’s astonishment at the madness he finds is no more than ours that the show somehow slipped past the goalie guarding the PBS net.

Must it be this way? Inclusion of conservative perspectives has made Fox News a significant profit engine for parent News Corp. Conservative voices have kept AM radio from landing next to the 8-track on the ash heap of media history. News Corp’s Wall Street Journal is one of the nation’s few profitable newspaper and online combinations. Wouldn’t it make good business sense for more media channels, especially news and information outlets, to follow their lead?

It certainly would make sense for conservatives and other free-market proponents to develop larger audiences independent of Murdoch (who is 78) and the whims of his future descendants. There’s certainly a niche for one more center-right Big Media entity. I’m not talking about another small, elite, subsidized magazine or another high-quality but second-tier radio group.

I’m talking Big Media.

Big Media is evolving. To News Corp., Time-Warner, NBC, CBS, and Disney, add Google (including YouTube) and Apple, whose iPhone apps and iTunes podcasts may become the equivalent of the AP wire of yesteryear. Big Media companies don’t just shape our entertainment choices. Many route the attention grabbing “story of the day” so crucial in political life.

Three hundred sixty-five stories of the day each year have a cumulative effect. Years of Big Media saturation bombing took an electoral toll on Republicans in this decade. The litany of media misery over Katrina, “torture,” and Iraq plus the daily vilification of Bush/Cheney’s second term all laid the foundation for political upheaval. Barack Obama’s superstar candidacy did the rest in the first election of the American Idol era — a time of limitless hope, instant celebrity, and voting on raw emotion.

As Republicans seek policy alternatives and electable candidates, a media reboot is also essential. When new leaders score political points, will the tally be registered? Let’s pick up our scorecards and assess the competition.

Begin with PBS and NPR, and imagine what it’s like to hear those sources and no other. Throw in the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine, and some ignore all the rest and consider themselves informed, educated voters in the media capital. Big Media doesn’t have to be huge if they’re positioned for influence. These particular outfits are well-defended from institutional adversaries, so don’t expect to compete on their home turf.

Jump the demographic spectrum and you’ll find college freshmen claiming to get their politics mostly from sly references on Comedy Central and HBO. Lots of talent is on display, despite the one-way street politics. What a waste.

Between those demographic extremes, you’ll find a vast chunk of mainstream, suburban, “white collar,” and professional Americans. Many work all day, so they don’t hear talk radio or read blogs. Think of the typical swing voter, who spends her day attending PowerPoint teleconferences, analyzing mammograms, or annotating spreadsheets.

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