While conservatives obsess over the (accurate) observation that the average straight news reporter has policy views that are closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, the hack gap fundamentally does more to structure political discourse.
…The hack gap explains why Clinton’s email server received more television news coverage than all policy issues combined in the 2016 election.
…The hack gap has two core pillars. One is the constellation of conservative media outlets — led by Fox News and other Rupert Murdoch properties like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but also including Sinclair Broadcasting in local television, much of AM talk radio, and new media offerings such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller — that simply abjure anything resembling journalism in favor of propaganda.
The other is that the self-consciousness journalists at legacy outlets have about accusations of liberal bias leads them to bend over backward to allow the leading conservative gripes of the day to dominate the news agenda.
…The essence of the Clinton email scandal wasn’t the claim that she’d done something wrong — everyone, including Clinton herself, agreed that it was inappropriate to violate State Department email policy and that she should not have done that.
The essence was, rather, the bizarre and obviously false claim that the Clinton email scandal was important.
The argument around this score became in most respects circular. As a CNN explainer on the controversy concluded, the scandal mattered politically because “among Clinton’s biggest challenges in the presidential race is demonstrating her authenticity — and part of that is showing voters she’s trustworthy. Increasingly, though, voters say they distrust Clinton. The numbers have shifted dramatically since news of her private email server was first reported in March.”
But, of course, the only reason the email controversy so thoroughly dominated perceptions of Clinton was it dominated coverage of Clinton — coverage that was justified with reference to its importance in driving perception.
You can tell that it wasn’t actually important because the people most invested in pretending it was important — Republicans — clearly do not actually think government email protocol or Freedom of Information Act compliance are important issues.
…When Sinclair buys a local station, its local news program begin to cover more national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative, and viewership actually falls — suggesting that the rightward tilt isn’t enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion effort. A separate study by Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimates that watching Fox News translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.
Specifically, by exploiting semi-random variation in Fox viewership driven by changes in the assignment of channel numbers, they find that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. Without Fox, in other words, the GOP’s only popular vote win since the 1980s would have been reversed and the 2008 election would have been an extinction-level landslide. And that’s only measuring the direct impact of the Fox cable network. If you consider the supplemental effect of Sinclair’s local news broadcast, the AM radio shows of Fox personalities like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and the broader constellation of right-wing punditry, the effect would surely be larger.
Of course, to view this as saying that absent right-wing propaganda media, the Republican Party would lose every election is misleading.
…But journalists take their cues about what’s important from partisan media outlets and partisan social media.
Thus, the frenzies of partisan attention around “deplorables” and “lock her up” served to focus on controversies that, while not objectively significant. are perhaps particularly resonant to people who don’t have firm ideological convictions.
Meanwhile, similar policy-neutral issues like Trump’s insecure cellphone, his preposterous claim to be too busy to visit the troops, or even his apparent track record of tax fraud don’t get progressives worked into a lather in the same way.
This is a natural tactical advantage that, moreover, serves a particular strategic advantage given the Republican Party’s devotion to plutocratic principles on taxation and health insurance that have only a very meager constituency among the mass public.