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19 November 2012

Conservatives need commentators that tell us what we need to hear not what we want to hear

Now that George Osborne has had his say, shall we all shut up about American politics for a while?

You must be joking! As the popularity of programmes like Silent Witness proves, there’s nothing we enjoy more than a good post-mortem. And so, with the corpse of the Romney campaign still on the slab, let’s have another delve.

Why, for instance, were the Republicans so surprised by their defeat? Throughout the campaign most opinion polls indicated that Obama would win. However, the conservative ‘bubble’ – that vast constellation of rightwing bloggers, columnists, pundits and talk show hosts – was convinced that the polls were wrong.

Writing for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf explains how it was that so many intelligent people fooled themselves – and one another: 

  • "It is easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber. And right-leaning outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh's show are far more intellectually closed than CNN or public radio. If you're a rank-and-file conservative, you're probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn't accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thinking; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear."   

But aren’t the mainstream media also biased, albeit in the other direction? Well, yes, they are. But it’s a much better quality of bias – one that lurks within subtle, slanted interpretations of the truth, rather than outright denial.

Friedersdorf has an undeniable example of the latter: 

  • "Conservatives were at a disadvantage because their information elites pandered in the most cynical, self-defeating ways, treating would-be candidates like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain as if they were plausible presidents rather than national jokes who'd lose worse than George McGovern.
  • "How many months were wasted on them?"  

Looking back, the contest for the Republican nomination now seems unreal. Mitt Romney, for all his faults, is at least a serious politician who acquitted himself with great aplomb in the Presidential debates. Imagine if it had been Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry up against Barack Obama. Yet amazingly, because these individuals were taken seriously by the conservative media, they were – for a time – taken seriously by conservative voters.

In the internet age, with so much information so freely available, the greatest service that professional journalists and commentators can provide is to act as a filter. But that leaves two paths to success – either to filter out what your audience don’t need to know or what they don’t want to know.

The second of these paths is the easier one, but it leads to defeat.


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