When Talk Radio Listeners Buy Into The Persuasion Machine

June 18th, 2011 at 9:41 am David Frum | 44 Comments |

| Print

At the Economist blog, Will Wilkinson has a useful amplification — and correction — on my piece about talk radio pay-for-play.

He perceives the construction of a whole new system of reality creation.

What we’re seeing is a set of once disparate pieces coming together into a powerfully unified persuasion machine. Rich and not-so-rich people give to think tanks and advocacy groups because they believe, mostly correctly, that these organisations can do more with their money to promote their political values than they can do on their own. But the influence of these organisations is limited both by their budgets and their ability to get their messages out. Conservative talk radio has proven itself an incredibly popular and powerful persuasive force. They offer Washington politics and policy shops both a huge potential donor base and a megaphone. It helps Heritage immensely to have Mr Limbaugh citing their studies on air. But the persuasive force of their message is even greater when Mr Limbaugh’s listeners choose to literally “buy in” to the Heritage Foundation by becoming donors. Over time, Heritage’s financial support subtly and not-so-subtly shapes Mr Limbaugh’s message. He, and thus his audience, comes to think ever more like Heritage. And his audience, who become ever more personally invested in Heritage, become correspondingly more receptive to his Heritage-influenced messages. The partisan public has its independent general policy instincts, but it tends to adopt its more specific policy opinions from trusted partisan elites. Traditionally, these elite opinion-leaders have been politicians. But I think we’re witnessing a process through which professional “movement” elites in Washington, DC political non-profits are actively shaping public opinion via sympathetic mass-media intermediaries. Conflict between the Republican “establishment” and the tea-party movement may well reflect this shift in the balance of elite persuasive power.

And one might add: unlike the politicians, this new opinion elite is not very concerned for the functioning of the American political system as a system. They are willing to do more radical things, and run bigger risks (e.g.  debt default), in pursuit of more aggressive ideological goals.

Recent Posts by David Frum



44 Comments so far ↓

  • Arms Merchant

    Hint: this is called “the marketplace of ideas.” People will pay for things of value.

    David is simply pissed off that conservative ideas are winning, so he’s scrambling to explain that it’s some nefarious plot.

    • TerryF98

      None so dumb as they that are propagandized.

      • Arms Merchant

        The New Republic pushes a study by the Brookings Institute? All those TNR readers are letting themselves get duped. Shocking.

  • Jim_M

    Yes, David it’s common for like minded people to share ideas for the sake of consolidating influence.

    As with many of your efforts I sense envy and a tinge of fear.

    “Reality Creation“? David I understand why the left needs as many shades of grey as they can get their hands on. I am sorry to inform you David, but God created just the one reality. Most folks prosper in it. A few struggle.

    • ottovbvs

      “Reality Creation….David I understand why the left needs as many shades of grey as they can get their hands on. I am sorry to inform you David, but God created just the one reality“?

      Obviously Jim M and others like Churl are forgetting the phrase “Create our own reality” which famously originated with a member of the Republican Bush administration. Alzheimers? Deliberate lying? Who can tell? Of course there is only one reality and as someone else once said it has a liberal bias. Just to remind them:

      “The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

      The “aide” was Karl Rove.

      • Churl

        I see that the old Karl Rove Mind Control Beam theory is back in fashion again.

        • ottovbvs

          the old Karl Rove Mind Control Beam theory

          Rove said it. And on the basis of the evidence of your comments I’d say it’s been enormously successful. Tell me how is it done? Do you actually have a radio receiver implanted in your head?

  • Churl

    “But the persuasive force of their message is even greater when Mr Limbaugh’s listeners choose to literally “buy in” to the Heritage Foundation by becoming donors.”

    Hint: one can explain the fact that people who like what the Heritage Foundation says would contribute money to hear more of it without needing to hypothesize “new systems of reality creation.”

  • elsongarino

    The process Will describes sounds familiar. It feeds itself. It eats itself. There’s no room for anything entering that food chain without being turned into the empty drivel that keeps the chain alive. The beginning, the middle, and the end are already there and there’s nothing to distinguish them.

    Perhaps that explains why one can tune in to Limbaugh on any given day and, if he’s not on commercial break or holiday, you can hear the same (il)logic applied to any given event. The loop goes on, the loop sucks up reality and turns it into crap and the crap pushes on through the loop. Dittoheads run throughout the entire mindless system.

  • ottovbvs

    What’s new about this? It’s how political parties come into being. The only wrinkle here is that Heritage and others are making covert payments to the drummers like Limbaugh. I’m not sure whether Limbaugh’s followers like Churl are particularly concerned that they are being manipulated by reactionary business interests with an agenda which is almost certainly inimical to their own economic interests. On the basis of the almost uniform defense of Limbaugh and the process by Churl and the usual suspects it doesn’t look like it. Maybe they’re masochists? It’s not totally an accident they’ve come to be called Dittoheads.

    • Churl

      For what its worth, I don’t listen to Limbaugh. I tried a couple of times and found him to be a boring windbag. However, he seems to have a considerable following of people who will vote in a way I find congenial and therefore ought to be encouraged to keep up his chatter.

      I don’t know how you figure you know enough about my economic interests to deduce that a radio program to which I don’t listen convinces me to act contrary to them.

      Perhaps you could tell me what my interests are, how a cabal of sinister forces thwart them, and how I am manipulated to agree with the thwarting.

      • ottovbvs

        “Perhaps you could tell me what my interests are, how a cabal of sinister forces thwart them, and how I am manipulated to agree with the thwarting.”

        Whether you listen to him or not you appear to subscribe to his opinions and therefore I was using you Churl as representative of conservative everyman. And if you’re unable to discern that the purpose of Heritage (which is backed by reactionary business interests) in paying backhanders to Rush is principally to further the agendas of those business interests which are invariably inimical to the majority of Rushbo’s listeners then you are either dumber than I thought or doing a very good imitation. For the moment I’m going to assume it’s the latter and you’re just pretending to be exceptionally stupid by posing this rather childish question. Of course you could have Rove’s radio receiver in your head. Does it show?

        • Churl

          Now, otto, surely you can do a better job of informing me of what my interests are and demonstrating the means by which my beliefs are manipulated to be antipathetic to these interests than merely suggesting I have a Karl Rove Radio Implant in my head.

        • ottovbvs

          merely suggesting I have a Karl Rove Radio Implant in my head.

          Once YOU mentioned the Rove Mind Control Beam it seemed a logical explanation of your irrationality.

          “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
          - Sherlock Holmes

  • Graychin

    Persuasion? Or propaganda?

  • Hunter01

    “The partisan public has its independent general policy instincts, but it tends to adopt its more specific policy opinions from trusted partisan elites.”

    More accurately, the “trusted partisan elites” set the agenda of public discussion for the base; that is, they decide (1) what are the issues of concern today, (2) what are the facts and terms of discussion, and, therefore, (3) what are the acceptable (and unacceptable) viewpoints. In short, the elites may not tell the base exactly what to believe on every issue, but they do tell them what to talk about and how to do it.

    And the base is happy to have trusted elites do their mental work for them.

  • politicalfan

    Both sides do it to different degrees.

    The sad fact about all of this is that large populations of people can’t always decipher between reality, soundbite (rhetoric) and blatant propoganda. Those that can,
    deem it as irony, wit or simply essential to their cause.

    • PracticalGirl

      Distinguishing between reality and a soundbite is nearly impossible when said soundbite is one that offers an opinion delivered with venomous certainty as fact all supported by flawed, narrow and/or biased studies from a sponsor. That’s the biggest issue with talk radio. The brain science is there and they use it to the fullest: People are most susceptible to message-implant when in a state of agitation, and conservative radio is the best around to take full advantage.

      Shoot, even the Frum Forum does it. Have you ever read one of their juicy headlines, read the article and then realized that the headline spoke to you more than the entire content of the post?

  • PracticalGirl

    An small example of how Heritage’s “studies” shape the public message of the talk radio message machine:

    Durin the ’08 elections, Heritage distributed a study that highlighted possible rift between Hispanics and black Americans. This was one case study confined to one small area and to one specific incident. In that case, there was a bit of a gulf between Hispanics and black groups.

    The study was then disseminated to talk radio producers and hosts nationwide, also offering “experts” as guests who could talk about the national implications of the “findings” of this study. Mind you- not researchers, but political experts. They did this with the full knowledge that the information contained wouldn’t be reported as the small, narrow, confined case that it was but rather, become a sweeping pronouncement: Hispanics would not, by and large, vote for a black man for President. Talk radio did not disappoint, and the largest shows ran with it-hard. It was enough that it became a topic in the MSM, who explored it for a bit until it became clear that there was no “there” there.

    The point? Heritage had a strong desire to try to create a rift between Hispanics (with a higher national percentage of Democratic voters) and the candidacy of Obama which was rapidly becoming a reality. It knew that incendiary content with a sliver of credibility was all that it takes for talk radio to make large and national an issue based on information that isn’t national in either study or scope. It was just the beginning of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mentality.

    This is done every day by Heritage and other groups whose stated missions are to create and promote conservative policies and market them to key Congressional and executive branch decision makers and to the media. Heritage is a marketing and sales arm of what they perceive to be conservative policy. And yet there are legions of listening conservatives who are convince that this is an unbiased, credible institute that just happens to prove everything they want to believe.

  • Churl

    So, otto, let me try again,

    Certainly you can do a better job of informing me of what my interests are and demonstrating the means by which my beliefs are manipulated to be antipathetic to these interests than by quoting a character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction.

    • ottovbvs

      quoting a character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction.

      I merely quoted Sherlock Holmes as illustrative of my point….namely:

      Once YOU mentioned the Rove Mind Control Beam it seemed a logical explanation of your irrationality.

      Per Holmes…I thought it impossible that you were completely stupid.

      • Churl

        You know, otto, when you asserted a while back that my beliefs undermined my interests because of a radio show that I don’t listen to, I figured that you must have some understanding of my interests (of which I must unaware) and how I am being manipulated to ignore them. Further, you seem to imply that there are millions in the same fix as I am. It would be nice to find out what we could do to improve our situations. Given your obvious education, erudition, intelligence, and worldly experience I was sure that you could give us advice. Unfortunately instead of answering my question you wander off talking about Sherlock Holmes and getting all vituperative.

        I am on the verge of being disappointed.

        • ottovbvs

          I am on the verge of being disappointed…..and getting all vituperative.

          Because I said you couldn’t possibly be completely stupid? I don’t see the vituperation there. Rather the reverse I ‘d have thought. And apparently Sherlock’s advice wasn’t entirely without merit in the matter of the Rove Mind Control Beam.

          http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/17/science/17memory.html?_r=2&ref=science

        • Churl

          So, it is possible that Karl Rove has already nearly perfected for humans what Wake Forest has done only with mice. This perhaps explains why I always forget where I left my keys after I turn on the microwave.

          You may have something there.

  • baw1064

    Talk radio is one big infomercial…who knew?

  • midcon

    The greatest threat to America is the herd, who rely upon the purveyors of slogans to shape their every thought and deed. The inability or unwillingness of the citizens to study and think for themselves is the greatest failure of our political process. Those who get their information (and I use that term loosely) from such sources are cows and our founding fathers did not envision cows having the right to vote.

  • PatrickQuint

    Arms Merchant: ” Hint: this is called “the marketplace of ideas.” People will pay for things of value. ”

    I’m not used to thinking of the Marketplace of Ideas as a place where money changes hands, but I suppose that’s exactly what talk radio does. I think that this is a profitable way of thinking about the relationship.

    People often pay for things of value. Then again, they also often pay for homeopathic medicine.

    David Frum: “And one might add: unlike the politicians, this new opinion elite is not very concerned for the functioning of the American political system as a system. They are willing to do more radical things, and run bigger risks (e.g. debt default), in pursuit of more aggressive ideological goals.”

    While these people are accountable to their audience (who vote with their dials), they do not need a majority of radio listeners to support their ideas in order to get airwaves. They also have fewer watchdogs looking over their shoulder. They are not tied to the fate of the candidates they attach themselves to.

    midcon: “Those who get their information (and I use that term loosely) from such sources are cows and our founding fathers did not envision cows having the right to vote.”

    If people start thinking of someone as a mindless animal then they’ll start treating them as a mindless animal. Call your opponents wrong, call them stupid if you like, but don’t call them less than human.

    You’re not this bad. Keep it that way.
    http://www.jackandjillpolitics.com/2008/05/the-attempt-to-dehumanize-michelle-obama/

  • Houndentenor

    If Rush Limbaugh (Ann Coulter and a number of others) had as much influence on the right as they are often assumed to have, they could have successfully blocked the McCain nomination in 2008. They couldn’t.

  • ottovbvs

    Churl // Jun 18, 2011 at 10:18 pm
    “Karl Rove has already nearly perfected for humans what Wake Forest
    has done only with mice”

    Rats

    This perhaps explains why I always forget where I left my keys after I turn on the microwave.

    “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
    – Sherlock Holmes

  • Johnwallsghost

    I think the point is this: in the marketplace of ideas we should consider at least a few view points arrived at independently, by people we trust. If people are listening to Rush thinking that they are hearing “the way it is” but instead are hearing what he is paid to say, isn’t that trust broken? Does Rush agree with everything Heritage says, or does he agree with whoever pays him the most? Would he take a position that conflicts with Heritage, or discuss that on the air? If he disagreed with them on something, would he change his position to reflect theirs?

    • Arms Merchant

      You raise fair points, but people who think they’re getting gospel truth from Limbaugh are about as smart as leftists who think the NYT always tells it straight. In other words, yeah, some people are like this, but who cares?

      Frankly, I think Heritage is wasting its money. Limbaugh ought to be paying them for their research that supports his case, not the other way around. It’s hard to imagine points where they disagree. If there’s a “scandal,” it’s that Heritage is wasting its donors’ money.

      Perhaps David has a need to point to “shady dealings” as the reason for his termination from AEI and National Review. Guess it never occurred to him that his employers might have wearied of his constant apologias for Statism.

      If Frum wants to spend blog space on a scandal, how about Gunwalker instead of this pile of nothing?
      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304453304576392023631543738.html

  • Gramps

    Rush [One-Note] Limbaugh…BORING…!

    “He is definitely a “Johnny one-note” who repeats the same tired mantra over and over hour after hour, day after day…infineitum. That term can be used to describe some shrill, tired ideologue or academic that pompously echoes some quaint notion or idea endlessly, and expects everyone to see his supposed wisdom and bow in concurrence.” How’s it go again… “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it…”

    Limpbaugh… gained additional infamous, notoriety; by once dehumanizing, Chelsea Clinton; by referring to her as the “White House dog”…

    “John [Johnny One-Note] Bolton set the moral tenor of his life early on by saying: “By the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from…” Thus began a life-long tradition of presumptively blaming liberals for all bad things while having no problem watching others die for a situation he didn’t want to get personally involved in. A great moral giant, a real Neo-Con…” ~~~ http://firedoglake.com/2011/02/02/johnny-one-note/

    Men and women, who have actually served their country in time of war; just can’t find a lot of room in their hearts or souls for pretentious yakkers and intellectual Neo-Cons…!

  • PatrickQuint

    Gramps: “Limpbaugh… gained additional infamous, notoriety; by once dehumanizing, Chelsea Clinton; by referring to her as the “White House dog”…”

    Yeah, he does that a lot. There’s too much of it going around by far, but far too large a proportion of it from him.

    • Gramps

      Conservative “talkers” never cease to amaze me…

      “They can see the “straws” in another eye; but are never capable of observing the “rafters” in their own…?”

  • nwahs

    When a fake scandal falls in the forest, does it bark?

    You know even though Alpo paid Ed McMahon to feed those dogs, I have a hunch he really liked dogs anyway.

    • ottovbvs

      nwahs…Another sufferer?

      In psychology, Stockholm syndrome is a term used to describe a real paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors; sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness

  • Gramps

    ottovbvs // Jun 18, 2011 at 11:48 am ~~~ “The “aide” was Karl Rove.”

    “Reality has a well known liberal bias.”~~~ said, Stephen Colbert “and then this… “Reality has become a commodity.”~~~ Stephen Colbert, being unfortunately truer, than funny…

    Hehehe…!”

  • NRA Liberal

    I always figured that Rush and the top think tanks got their stories straight by either formal or informal means. I guess this adds some depth to the picture of the conservative propaganda machine.

  • Chris Balsz

    “Over time, Heritage’s financial support subtly and not-so-subtly shapes Mr Limbaugh’s message. He, and thus his audience, comes to think ever more like Heritage. And his audience, who become ever more personally invested in Heritage, become correspondingly more receptive to his Heritage-influenced messages. ”

    That doesn’t seem to be happening, if the latest Heritage implant is “Hey everybody, we been saying for years we flipped to your POV on mandates”.

  • driftglass

    The Right’s Disinformation Factory is anything but a marketplace of ideas: the transaction between the Limbaugh/Palinite/Fox Conservative and the individuals and institutions they support is instead virtually identical to the transaction between john and prostitute — paying someone to dress up in a special outfit and say and do what you want them to say and do.

    The difference is, on a basic level the john knows it is a fantasy and that he/she is paying someone to pleasurably suspend reality for them for a little while. The Conservative, on the other hand, really believes that because their hookers dress up like journalists, talk radio heroes, pundits and think tank “experts”, what they are hearing and seeing is actually 100% real and over the years have grown more and more berserk whenever anyone tries to get between them and their increasingly ridiculous and dangerous political/cultural porn.

    http://driftglass.blogspot.com/

    • Chris Balsz

      What allegory applies to network news, which applies its own secret standards in the name of professionalism?

      I can’t blame anybody but CNN for deciding that continued access to Saddam’s Iraq justified covering up atrocities, because CNN didn’t tell anybody at the time. Only after Saddam went, did Eason Jordan decide to mention the policy in a “Golly gee” moment of clarity.

      Likewise I can’t blame anybody but 60 Minutes for giving Bill and Hillary Clinton unprecedented (and publicly refused) powers of editorial control over their fluffpiece debut in 1992. It was only when 60 Minutes decided to show the Clintons asking for repeated retakes of their answers in 1998 that anybody knew about that.

      And I can’t hold anybody but Mary Mapes responsible for telling the Kerry campaign how that Bush National Guard memo story was coming along. That was her secret decision.

      But since we know that’s how they operate, it’s kind of silly to insist the modern network media is THE gold standard of accuracy. Fact is, you can’t tell what they’re up to.

      And it’s beyond silly to pretend that political argument is really “political/cultural porn”, “dangerous”, “berserk”, and something ought to be done about stopping it.

  • maxfieldj

    When someone relies on MSNBC or Fox as their only source of information they are living in a reality of their own creation.

    • driftglass

      Ah, the Biggest Conservative Lie of all. The firewall that the Right leans on every time reality makes them look like imbeciles, and the intellectual Fox-hole into which they predictably dive when one of more wingnut lie blows up in their face.

      Both sides are equally wrong…

      Both sides are equally bad…

      Both sides do it…
      Both sides do it…
      Both sides do it…

      Fucking cowards.

  • Bully Blackmailing of Candidates Through Pledges and Purity | The Pink Flamingo

    [...] Noting better exemplifies it than far right talking celebs. David Frum wrote: “…And one might add: unlike the politicians, this new opinion elite is not very concerned for the functioning of the [...]