Dark Money and Disinformation in the Rural United States

Rural voters are being stoked to feel anger and outrage at a mythical coastal elite exploiting them and enforcing federal regulations on them. They're being told by rightwing media that this is all some kind of conspiracy.

Transcribed from the 3 December 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

I’m talking about a networked movement that involves media and big money—millions and millions of dollars—and operates on a state level as well as on the national level. That’s why I call it the “shadow network.’

Chuck Mertz: There is a far-right Christian evangelical organization with immense power, whose members include some of the highest-ranking Trump administration officials, whose supporters include the vice president, and whose goals include undermining US democracy and establishing some sort of hybrid theocracy-plutocracy ruled by the wealthiest, whose power is divined by God.

The whole thing is frightening as hell, and here to tell us all about it is award-winning author and media analyst Anne Nelson, author of the new book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Anne.

Anne Nelson: Thank you.

CM: You write, “One day in August 2004, as I drove down the street in my hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma, I turned the radio dial to a news station. I settled on a random call-in show and sat back to listen. The host was denouncing the candidacy of John Kerry in terms that went something like this: ‘He legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts. That’s exactly what he’ll do all over the country if he gets elected president of the United States.’ An anxious elderly woman called in to the host: ‘I’ve been married to my husband more than forty years. Are you saying my marriage would be in danger?’ ‘That’s right,’ the host answered. ‘John Kerry is threatening the sanctity of marriage, including yours, so you better get out and vote.’”

That’s obviously not true in any way. Neither John Kerry nor anyone has ever said that gay marriage would nullify all other marriages. In your research, how typical is it for conservative media to outright lie to their audience, knowingly sharing something that is not true in order to influence their audience? Or are they just misleading them?

AN: Both happen quite a lot. Right now the drum that they’re banging is that Democrats favor something called “birthday abortions,” where babies are killed as they emerge from the womb after nine months’ gestation. This is not the case. They call it “abortion on demand.” They’ve made animated films that are shown in churches illustrating this. The problem is that there are so many ‘news deserts’ in the middle of the country that a lot of people don’t really have access to verifiable sources of information and professional journalism.

CM: What would you say to an avid consumer of rightwing media who argues that rightwing media might lie, but sure, everybody lies. The leftwing media lies too. How would you react to someone saying it’s all lies?

AN: I do have these conversations when I travel in the Midwest and in the southwest. I try to explain something based on my seven years of teaching at the Columbia school of journalism, which is that professional reporting involves multiple perspectives, fact-checking, editing, lawyering. It is a real, serious discipline. And reporting exists apart from the leanings of a publication. The Wall Street Journal is undoubtedly a conservative newspaper that addresses the business community, but its reporting is first-rate. If you see something in the Journal, it is professionally reported. Other publications and outlets may be more sympathetic towards the positions of liberals, but you can still tell whether they’re professionally reported or not. The journalistic establishment has done a poor job of explaining itself.

There’s the term “citizen journalist.” Do you want to go to a “citizen dentist?” I think the facts are at least as important.

CM: I’ve talked to science writers; they have a lot of difficulty finding people who have a background in science and at the same time have experience as a journalist. A lot of scientists, and a lot of science journalists, believe that scientists have done a poor job of describing their work and how they do it. Now here you are saying that people in the media are doing a poor job of explaining their work and how they do it.

Why do you think that is the case? Why doesn’t the media point out that, as you were saying, citizen journalists could be as dangerous as a citizen dentist?

AN: People have taken so much for granted in all of our democratic institutions—going back over a hundred years. Modern journalism has not been around that long. It started post-civil war. Once it got institutionalized, it connected the country. Newspapers and local radio stations and so on would read Associated Press wire services at the top of the hour; they’d run them on the front pages. So Americans were able to make collective decisions based on the same notion of the facts.

As we’ve seen the collapse of newspapers, and the buyouts of local radio stations—some by these fundamentalist networks—we’ve lost a lot of that. So we’re talking past each other. I have been listening to these radio stations say that the reason you shouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton is that she’s a demon. How do you fact check that?

CM: That’s not to say that the Associated Press or whatever national media outlets that we could find a common ground in were doing a perfect job. They are certainly open to criticism. What would you say to someone who argues they weren’t doing that great a job anyway? They weren’t representing ‘my’ point of view, either from the left or the right, and they were using this guise of objectivity to when it’s impossible for anybody to be completely objective.

Membership is secret, but over the years the roster has been leaked several times. That’s one way we know who’s in it. Their meetings are secret; the proceedings are secret. Occasionally there’s been a leak. I spent a lot of time piecing together who they are and what they do.

AN: Objectivity is kind of a red herring. That’s where you go to professional reporting. Did it happen? Did it happen in this way? One criterion that has been used for news organizations is whether they run corrections. When somebody at the New York Times makes a mistake, the paper runs a correction, and it is humiliating for all concerned, but they do it because they feel a responsibility to the public record.

No one is saying that the AP or any other news organization is perfect, but it is a question of whether they make an honest effort to talk to both sides of a question. This is something that broadcasting lost with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 under Reagan, where all of the sudden broadcast outlets no longer had to report both sides of a controversy. That gave rise to all of this fundamentalist broadcasting and to rightwing talk shows, which are really unidirectional messaging. They use the format of news reporting, but they only show one side. When you listen to these fundamentalist stations, as I have at length, they only tell one side of the story. They only promote rightwing Republican candidates and policies. You never hear a kind word about or a representation of a Democrat.

Whereas on professionally reported outlets, you do. You hear representations of both sides of the story. They’ll tell you what they think, but you can also decide what you think.

CM: About the rise of rightwing media, you write, “America’s national news media were caught off-guard, and experts scrambled to find an explanation. The New York Times turned to Fox News: ‘Trump voters don’t believe what any one of the news media is telling them except for maybe Fox News,’ stated one op-ed. The New Yorker named The Apprentice as the show that made Trump’s presidency possible. A report form Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center pointed to news platforms, making a case that conservatives shunned professional online media organizations in favor of pro-Trump, highly partisan media outlets such as Breitbart News, and all of this led to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.”

To what extent do you think that’s true? Do those on the right only seek out rightwing media outlets? Does today’s right wing, as well as the left for that matter, only seek out information that confirms their biases?

AN: The passage you quoted is leading into a section that says all of these factors were in operation. I don’t believe in any single cause for an event like the November 2016 election. However, there is a whole world—not just of fundamentalist broadcasting, but the way that the Council for National Policy and its affiliates have mobilized fundamentalist churches and weaponized them in the political system. We’re talking about voter guides that are distributed in the sanctuary, and inserted in church bulletins. We’re talking about pastors who download sermons written by this political movement, and showing their videos in churches.

There’s an entire bloc of voters, especially focused in swing states, who are being told how to vote, with the words, “It’s your religious obligation.” That is a change in our political atmosphere, and it is not a level playing field. There is not this level of activation of other religious groups. I’m talking about a whole networked movement that involves media and big money—millions and millions of dollars—and operates on a state level as well as on the national level.

That’s why I call it the “shadow network.” There are all of these moving parts in the machine.

CM: Did something change to allow religious organizations to start reading scripts, essentially, that were written by far-rightwing political organizations? Putting tips on who to vote for in among the scriptures? Did something in the law change to allow that? Or is the legality of this process still up in the air?

AN: It is a shady area in terms of the legality. There was something called the Johnson amendment that was passed, which said that no nonprofit, tax-exempt organization should be doing outright campaigning. That amendment has been eroded over a few decades. It’s been eroded by various organizations on all sides, but I have not seen it as aggressively attacked as it has been by this movement—to the point where fundamentalist churches have even been recording some of their activities in the political realm and sending tapes to the IRS daring them to go after them, because they think they’ll benefit from the publicity. The IRS has been very timid about enforcing the regulations.

CM: You discovered the “rapidly evolving ties connecting the manpower and media of the Christian right with the finances of Western plutocrats and the strategy of rightwing Republican political operatives. Many of their connections were made through a secretive organization called the Council for National Policy, which as one member has said, ‘brings together the donors and the doers.’”

How secretive is the Council for National Policy, and how did you discover it? Is it hiding out in the open?

AN: Yeah, it’s found its own shadow. It was founded in 1981, and it’s got three components. One is big money. The DeVos family—which Betsy DeVos married into—in Michigan is one of their major donors; also a financier named Foster Friess, the Templeton Foundation.

Then it’s got the media people. It’s got very active radio networks; there are several of them, including the very large Salem Media. Their owners are members of the Council for National Policy, as well as representatives of everything from fundamentalist movie production companies to digital platforms to people who work with fundamentalist television (which is a market people overlook in the United States).

The third area is political strategists. Richard Viguerie is an old name from the Nixon and Goldwater days; he’s been active throughout his career. These are people who are really astute about designing long range strategy to slice and dice the battleground states and find hidden pockets of fundamentalist voters who can be activated and sent to the polls.

Still, when I talk about the Council for National Policy, I don’t want to suggest it is a major agent. It’s a network. Actions are carried out by its affiliates. There are some four hundred members, many of whom are heads of their own organizations. Membership is secret, but over the years the roster of members has been leaked several times. That’s one way we know who’s in it. Their meetings are secret; the proceedings are secret. Occasionally there’s been a leak. I spent a lot of time piecing together who they are and what they do.

There’s been a huge economic upheaval in the news business. The economics shifted; big newspaper chains acquired a lot of local papers and then gutted them. Several thousand communities in the United States—were left without any local newspaper, without any professional reporters.

In terms of their impact on our political life, look at something like the National Rifle Association. Its head, Wayne LaPierre, is a very active member of the Council for National Policy. Some of these organizations, including the NRA, get involved at a local or state level in elections: they’ll whip up anxiety about a proposition or a piece of legislation or a candidate, often under false pretenses (putting out information that is simply incorrect), and they’ll use that to create coattails for Republican candidates.

In that way, they put Democratic candidates at a disadvantage. They destroy their center of gravity. They have a position, they work it out, they know from polling where it stands, and then all of the sudden they’re under assault with misinformation, and they abandon their center of gravity and become less effective in communicating with the public because they’re running for cover against false statements.

CM: You write, “I discovered hundreds of broadcast outlets, such as the radio station I heard back in 2004, that belonged to members of the Council for National Policy. Three key players dominate the landscape: Salem Media Group, Bott Radio Network, and the American Family Radio Network. Over the years, they have connected their holdings to a cohort of pastors, politicians, and tycoons, creating an armada of radio stations and news outlets loyal to the CNP’s political agenda, and selling millions of Americans on its harsh combination of plutocracy and theocracy.”

How aware is the consuming audience that what they’re watching is a propaganda machine for plutocracy and theocracy?

AN: If you listen to the radio shows, there’s variation. Some of them are real fire-and-brimstone. The American Family Association and their radio network is really quite extreme; that’s one place where you’ll hear that such-and-such a politician is a son of Satan and that so-and-so is a demon. Then there are the radio broadcasts of a program by Tony Perkins, who is the outgoing president of the Council for National Policy. He is a Southern Baptist minister, and he is the head of the Family Research Council, which is working to roll back civil and political rights for the LGBT population and roll back women’s reproductive rights. He’s an Islamophobe who has said that Muslims should not be considered members of a religion that’s protected by the constitution. It’s quite extreme, but on his program he’s very smooth talking. He will have major climate deniers from congress on his program, and it’s quite strategic, and it’s punctuated by ads telling listeners that it is their ‘Christian obligation’ to run as candidates in the community and represent this movement in Washington.

Again, it’s all of a piece. The ads, the programming, the radio shows, the political campaigns. The money goes in a circle, and it is big money. And so does the strategy.

CM: You write, “These stations’ audiences have lost or abandoned professional news outlets, and because their interests have been ignored by major national media, they are more vulnerable than ever.” What were their interests that were being ignored? Is Fox News the fault of the rest of the national media ignoring those who are now watching Fox News?

AN: There’s been a huge economic upheaval in the news business that started in the late twentieth century. The economics shifted; digital ad revenue captured a lot of the profits, and big newspaper chains acquired a lot of local papers and then gutted them, abandoned them, stripped them out. A lot of communities—several thousand communities in the United States—were left without any local newspaper, without any professional reporters. Statehouse reporting has been decimated. We lost something like a third of our statehouse reporters in this period.

If you’re surrounded by fundamentalist media, and you go online and live in your social media bubble, it may be that this is all the information you’re going to receive. Then there is the combined influence of Fox and Sinclair. Sinclair is a corporation that’s acquired many regional and local television stations, and also harmonizes with this rightwing movement. There are always pockets, in every state, of people who get professional journalism through newspapers, magazines, radio stations, watch PBS, and so on. But you can see them on the electoral map as blue dots—urban areas and college towns—in a sea of red.

Rural voters are being stoked to feel anger and outrage at some kind of mythical coastal elite that is exploiting them and wants to enforce federal regulations on them. A lot of times, those federal regulations are things like clean air and clean water regulations that are protecting them and their children. They are involved in public education, public schools. They’re being told by this rightwing media that this is all some kind of conspiracy (to give them clean water). That’s where the disconnect really occurs.

CM: You write, “Groups run by CNP members and their favored candidates benefit from a subsidized turnkey digital package. Their coordinated digital apps collaborate across platforms and weave seemingly independent groups into tightly networked operations.” You point out that these measures “played a significant role in the 2016 presidential vote surprise, and continue to affect the political landscape today. But the CNP’s preferred Republican candidate that year was senator Ted Cruz. When Donald Trump won the nomination, the movement turned on a dime, delivering its national network of media and manpower to carry Trump’s message in return for his promise to advance its policy objectives. The impact of this network was born again in key races in the 2018 midterm elections, and can be anticipated for 2020.”

But if the CNP is so powerful, then why didn’t Ted Cruz win the nomination?

AN: The Council for National Policy is a network, so it’s not an acting body. It helps its members collaborate across various areas and platforms. They did support Ted Cruz quite vocally, and they were surprised by the success of Donald Trump. Ted Cruz had a real charisma deficit—the fact that he won any primaries at all could be considered a surprise in itself. He is not the most dynamic candidate you will ever see, either on television or in person.

On the other hand, Donald Trump did have his weird charisma; he had his television celebrity working for him, and he also was able to energize this base that ran parallel to the fundamentalists—it’s not a complete overlap; it’s connected—and added on to the fundamentalist contingent. It could just barely push them over the edge for the electoral college.

I don’t think they would succeed without the lies. I don’t think they would mobilize people in remotely the same way if they merely made valid representations.

Only a hundred thousand votes in three states won the electoral college. That is very slender. Their backing for Donald Trump occurred because they really felt he was going to be a preferable option to Hillary Clinton. And then there was a gathering of some one thousand fundamentalist leaders at the Mariott Marquis hotel in Times Square, where a deal was struck between them and Donald Trump. They basically said, “Alright, we’ll give you our ground troops, we’ll give you our money, we’ll give you our strategists, and you’ll give us the ability to present nominees for the federal courts; you will ditch your first choice for your running mate, Chris Christie, and substitute our guy Mike Pence; you will allow us to write sections of the Republican platform for the national convention [which indeed happened], and you’ll appoint an evangelical advisory council.” This council was one-third members of the Council for National Policy.

They got a lot for their money. They’ve said in retrospect that this served their purposes better. They say Donald Trump “may not be a man of God, but he’s an instrument of God.” And sometimes they call him “God’s wrecking ball.” Isn’t that a great term? The target is the federal government. They ultimately want to bring down entire federal departments, and they are on the way. They have decimated the state department staff and budget. They have gone after the department of education. They have made major progress in the destruction of the environmental protection agency; they have wiped out whole departments of scientists at the US department of agriculture.

All of this is being done behind the scenes while everyone else is running around talking about impeachment. But they have accomplished a major to-do list in terms of their political agenda. So they are quite happy with Donald Trump. They are going for broke. This is a critical year for them.

CM: You write how you spent time “among the partisans of the movement, attending their meetings, their church services, and their rallies. I listened hard and found virtues as well as failings. I spent long hours of time listening to fundamentalist radio shows and watching videos to learn their perspective. And I heard valid points, ingenious strategies, and outright lies.”

First of all, congratulations on not being a drug addict and an alcoholic by the time you were done doing all of that. But how important are those outright lies to their message? Could they still have the same success that they have had by simply embracing their virtues, eliminating their failings, and making their valid points and ingenious strategies without the lying?

AN: I don’t think they would succeed without the lies. For example, when both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump used their line that Democrats like to “execute” babies—which is what they say!—this obviously stirs profound emotions in people. Execute babies? What a horror! Except it doesn’t happen. It’s not true. If you go to the same people and say Democrats want women to have reproductive rights under certain circumstances, it gets much less inflammatory. I don’t think they would mobilize people in remotely the same way if they merely made a valid representation of their true positions.

The way they went after governor Northam of Virginia in just this way was really horrific. They will take somebody’s statement and re-edit it and use it selectively, and turn it on its head, and take it out of context, until it says something utterly different than what the person actually said. That’s really not helpful. That’s what I mean about professional reporting. Tell us what the guy said, and then we can decide whether we agree with it or not. But don’t turn it into a total misrepresentation.

They’ve done the same thing with Planned Parenthood. And they have entire feature films—there’s one about Planned Parenthood called Unplanned that opened nationwide, and it has an alleged Planned Parenthood official saying, “We give out abortions the way McDonald’s sells hamburgers and fries, and we haven’t met our quota this year.”

It’s just offensive. If you want to have a conversation about Planned Parenthood, have it. But don’t just pump out this misinformation that misleads people and activates them to vote under false pretenses.

I think the national press has to have a major role in informing the public about what is actually going on. We have to have some kind of civic organization or movement. This is how democracy works. We need information. We need access to polling places. We need enfranchisement of citizens in order to register to vote and go to vote. All citizens, not just those who are going to vote one way or another. We also have to restore the faith, especially in young people, in the act of voting.

But the other thing that really has to be done is a cleanup of the digital space. Let’s face it. The Russians have been loading social media with divisive and destructive memes and content that are wreaking havoc in our country. It’s been a long term strategy; they’re very good at it.

CM: You write, “The cumulative effect is the creation of a parallel universe of information. The results have been devastating to American democracy, as two parts of our country constantly talk past each other.”

So how sustainable is democracy as we know it here in the United States when there are parallel universes of information?

AN: I have great faith in this country. I’ve studied history and I’ve seen cases where Americans have—sometimes on the late side—woken up to a crisis and pulled together and behaved with great decency. I have faith that that can happen.

Right now, with so much at stake, with such a national crisis, it’s a moment of all hands on deck. How do we restore our national equilibrium and our values of decency and our feeling for fellow citizens? How do we restore our place in the world as people who can defend the climate?

I believe that we can do this. Do we have the national will? Will there be a strategic response? That I don’t know. But I hope so.

CM: Anne, I really appreciate you being on the show with us this week.

AN: Thank you so much, Chuck.

Featured image source: WikiCommons

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