Haley Barbour sees media trends as fuel for polarization
Before he was governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour was a national Republican insider, serving as a senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan and, during the same career phase, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In recent comments, Barbour, still very much a national political figure, offered his observations about conservative media then and now.
“What I thought would be really good and spreading out where people got access to a lot of different views has actually become a little bit perverted,” Barbour told those attending an elections panel organized earlier this month by the online news enterprise Mississippi Today.
The story starts way back in the 1970s. As Barbour said, quite accurately, each evening back then 90 percent of TVs, if on, were tuned to the newscasts of ABC, NBC or CBS. The networks and the major newspapers decided what was news.
Facts are facts, and it’s a fact that facts can be viewed from both liberal and conservative perspectives. The elite media viewed facts from an East Coast perspective. Farmers in Kansas and truck drivers in Indiana and retail clerks in Mississippi didn’t necessarily view facts the same as those in steel and glass towers of New York City. Not so much about who’s right and who’s wrong — just different perspectives.
Along came Fox News promising a conservative perspective. Along came radio host Rush Limbaugh who attracted 20 million listeners a day.
“We conservatives thought that was going to be great,” Barbour said.
As years passed, the dynamic of news and information shifted 180 degrees. As opposed to just accepting what’s served up, consumers now feast at a self-selected 24-hour buffet. For established media, that made attracting and keeping an audience (and the associated advertising dollars) more challenging. The most effective and efficient approach developed into what’s called “journalism of affirmation” by the experts. The rest of us just call it “telling people what they want to hear.”
So, Barbour said, there’s been a Balkanization. Conservatives flock to conservative media and liberals flock to liberal media.
While all that’s pretty obvious, Barbour’s concern was the effect this has on political conversations:
“For me, I think the conservative media have become as biased as the liberal media except as against the Republican establishment,” he said. Why? “It has become about purity.” The quest to attract and retain an audience, Barbour said, has pushed the left more to the left and the right more to the right. “It has become about if you don’t vote right (meaning as those at the extremes desire) about every subject every time you’re not a good Republican or a good conservative.”
It’s well known that Barbour was part of the effort to stop the Donald Trump train before the New York real estate magnate won the Republican nomination. They aren’t chums. Trump called Barbour an “old-style politician,” referenced him as a money-grubber who “is losing his grip.” Barbour is younger than Trump, but nonetheless the portly partisan from Yazoo City swallowed hard and said even though voters made a “bad decision,” he planned to vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton.
It is perhaps less well known or observed that Barbour is a master manipulator of the media.
During his two terms as governor, Mississippi’s press corps never laid a glove on him. He plays the national press like a fiddle.
His secret? He never stops thinking strategically. He’s available when he wants to be available, when he can use the media to advance something in which he believes. When it’s not to his advantage to say something, he says nothing. He rarely responds to any criticism … just lets it go. (While that sounds very simple, it takes a level of self-discipline few in the public limelight have achieved.)
During the forum, Barbour invoked the term “purity” with due respect for the word.
He said the media’s quest for ratings was both spurred by ideological purists and, in turn, spawned more ideological purists. The combination has pushed the people and the press to the poles of political identity.
Not healthy. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and a few thousand other leaders have understood that governance is horse trading. To get what you want, the other side has to get something, too. The core question has to be, “Is this good for the country or not?”
If the sun is setting on generations of compromise in America, then, as Barbour said, it’s not such a good thing. Power politics — my way or the highway — is the opposite of democracy.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.