Yesterday, I was going through an online message board on an opinion piece that had been published in a newspaper. Actually, I read several. The threads all pretty much came to this exchange at some point:
"You need to listen to something besides Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck once in a while."
"Oh, like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow or all the mainstream networks?"
What both sides are alleging, obviously, is that the other follows marching orders from their respective representative pundits. Moderates and libertarians fed up with both sides often conflate liberals and conservatives as two sides of the same demagogic coin, and on the surface that makes sense. But as the above exchange repeated itself for the umpteenth time yesterday, something occurred to me — it's not the same at all. Not by a long shot.
"But Ian," you say, "Everybody knows you're a hardcore liberal. Of COURSE you're going to defend your ilk at the expense of conservatives! That's what your type is ordered to do at all the meetings where you get your talking points each morning."
And that's exactly where you would be wrong. When you compare what liberals and conservatives rehash, there's definitely a difference. They're the same only in the sense that both sides repeat things ad nauseam. Can that be annoying? Yes. But for the most part, they're not equivalent. And the comparison does not favor the right.
Liberals will say things like:
"George W. Bush received a briefing memo on Aug. 6, 2001, titled, 'Bin Laden determined to strike U.S.' He was on vacation at the time, and ignored the warning."
"Dick Cheney held meetings as vice president to determine energy policy, and refused to release the minutes or disclose who was invited to attend those meetings."
"The Bush administration invaded Iraq on false pretenses, despite no evidence of a connection to 9/11, diverting valuable military resources from Afghanistan in the process."
"Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay swiftly as president, but still hasn't done so."
By and large, most mainstream liberal refrains run along these lines. Whatever your stance on the issues, it's hard to argue with time or place. Bush really did receive that memo. The only debate should be, would it have mattered at that point? Cheney did hold secret meetings. Was that for the public good? Maybe or maybe not, but everyone agrees that he did. The point being, statements such as these are springboards for wider discussion and debate. And while there's plenty of fringe liberal kookiness to go around, it is exactly that, kookiness.
Now let's see what conservatives are saying:
"Bill Clinton was offered Osama bin Laden on a silver platter, and he refused."
"Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant who used weapons of mass destruction on his own people."
"Barack Obama is a dangerous socialist who uses a teleprompter and was voted into office by idiots who are coming to regret their decision."
"Sarah Palin is a viable presidential candidate and is a refreshing alternative to the elites in power now."
"We need to free up our soldiers to finish the job on the battlefield."
"Health care reform is nothing but a massive Marxist redistribution of wealth."
"The tea party is simply a grass-roots group of people fed up with big government."
"We need to take our country back."
While all of these statements have their individual flaws, they share a common thread: they assume facts not in evidence. Clinton was not president during 9/11. Saddam was not involved in 9/11, which was the stated reason for the Iraq invasion. Though cherry-picking polls on specific issues might sometimes suggest it, there is no mass exodus of Obama supporters. The timing of the tea party and its demographics suggest an ulterior motive that its practitioners doth protest too much. And so on. Believing any of these things requires an adherence to a reality that doesn't actually exist. As the saying so aptly goes, "You're entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts."
And that's where the pundits come in.
Liberals and conservatives absorb pundits in different ways. It's probably no accident that liberals dominate the Internet and Comedy Central, while conservatives have the lock on talk radio and cable news. The Internet is expansive and requires mental exertion on part of the user, both to find content and to filter out the wheat from the BS. That is the consequence of such a democratic medium. Comedy Central is an obvious one, because programs like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report are subversive in ways that button-down Republicans cannot be, even though neither show shies away from attacking Democrats as well.
By contrast, talk radio and cable news shows are passive outlets. They have a self-reflexive authority by virtue of being on the air, and they tell people what they want to hear. Their hosts tend to be alpha-male authoritarian types, though with enough blue-collar nods to come off as the little guy looking out for you. It's no surprise, then, that Rush, Beck and Hannity thrive in this environment, and that they push what would otherwise be fringe positions. Hey, they're just entertainers, right?
Of course, there are exceptions on both sides - Michelle Malkin and Matt Drudge are huge online, for example, and Olbermann and Maddow thrive on MSNBC. But these exceptions prove the rule, because they prove my point: right-wing bloggers and aggregators have fervent niche followings and MSNBC usually nets soft ratings compared to Fox News. And again, Jon Stewart's and Colbert's successes are a function of their equal-opportunity jabs rather than any partisan agenda.
So, yes, liberals and conservatives alike have their chosen sources of red meat. The difference is that conservatives employ them more, because their notion of truth is more flexible. For example, you might see a moderate Republican agree with a liberal Democrat that Bush made bad moves as president. But no liberal will agree that Obama is a racist radical. That's precisely why supposedly liberal talking points are nothing of the sort: truth is truth. But when Glenn Beck screams that we need to take our country back and newspapers are subsequently flooded with letters giving shout-outs to the 9/12 Project, well, that's pretty traceable.
If it's obvious whose version of the facts you're using, than it's safe to say you're a victim of talking points. And today's frothing right wing does that better than anybody. As Colbert once said, "The truth has a liberal bias." And with his support from both liberals and conservatives who think he's serious, he might be the most trusted man in America right now. Which pretty much proves my entire point.