Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, became fascinated with the conservative media landscape while spending many hours while young listening to talk radio with her father. The nuances of the genre so interested her that she began to investigate its origins.
Her new book, “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” examines how modern conservative media came into existence after World War II.
UVA Today sat down with Hemmer to find out more about her book and what her research can tell us about the power and voice of conservative media in today’s political coverage.
Q. Was there a specific impetus for this movement in the late 1940s?
A. One of the first big moments that predates the rise of conservative media was the opposition to World War II – the America First Committee. This was a group of people who ranged across the ideological spectrum. You had socialists and conservatives who were all opposed to the war, but their experience with that opposition was that the press disagreed with them and many of them lost their positions within the press as a result.
The two major parties also disagreed with them, so they didn’t have a voice in politics and they didn’t have a voice in media.
For conservatives, that experience of being excluded carries over after WWII. The big event for their exclusion is the 1952 Republican nomination. It’s a race that Bob Taft was supposed to be the shoo-in for. Then out of nowhere, this person with no political experience – Dwight Eisenhower – comes swooping in and he wins the nomination.
Conservatives believed that that nomination battle was rigged and that it was stolen from them. Then Eisenhower becomes president and they feel they don’t have a voice in the Republican Party or in the Democratic Party. They also don’t believe they have a voice in the media and that in order to gain real political power, they’re going to need to change the media landscape of the U.S.
Q. Who were the key players of the early movement?
A. Robert McCormick, who was the publisher of the Chicago Tribune – this was the newspaper that was the conservative stalwart in the United States – is one. In 1952, he bolts the Republican Party and starts his own political action committee in order to develop funds for a conservative ticket in 1956. Also people like Clarence Manion, who would become a radio host in 1954; William F. Buckley, who would go on to found National Review; and Henry Regnery, who founded a conservative publishing company in 1948.
You have these groups of essentially all men with some power. They were all highly educated, they all had a lot of political and social connections, but in the early 1950s, they found themselves shut out of the halls of power. They were looking for a way in.
Q. What is the notion of “elite populism” and how does it factor into the movement?
A. It’s the feeling of being shut out, but unlike normal populism, which usually takes place with what we would call “ordinary people” who are being shut out by the wealthy and the well-connected, here you have this group that’s wealthy, well-educated and powerful, but who aren’t running things. They’re not running media, they’re not running the political parties and the fact that they’re elites adds a layer of entitlement to their populism. It reinforced both the sense of exclusion, but also a conspiratorial exclusion that somebody out there was keeping them from their rightful claim to power.
Q. Why was the Barry Goldwater campaign so important to the movement?
A. Goldwater’s campaign was a watershed moment in a lot of ways for conservative media. Clarence Manion, the radio host, lights on to Barry Goldwater in 1960 as the potential Republican nominee and he helps him organize and write “Conscience of a Conservative,” which became the manifesto for Goldwater conservatism.
For conservatives, and particularly those in the media, Goldwater’s bid for the nomination in 1964 was their chance to offer a legitimate choice to the nation between a true conservative and a liberal. Conservative media activists were the ones who were essentially running his nomination fight.
What makes Goldwater a different kind of turning point is that he lost the election in a historic landslide. Conservatives didn’t love that they lost, but they didn’t see it as the end game. They saw it as proof that they could win the nomination of a major party – they just needed to broaden their base if they wanted to actually win the election.
Q. How did these early figures factor into Reagan’s election in 1980?
A. There are conservative organizations and media who carry the cause forward after Goldwater and who are compromising in the immediate aftermath of Goldwater.
These conservatives were learning how to do politics. Mixing conservative ideas and a little bit of a willingness to compromise keeps them going through the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Now Reagan can’t be put just down to conservative media in the 1950s and 1960s, but he is very much shaped in that environment. He has his own radio show after he becomes governor of California; he blends the traditions of conservative politics and conservative media that the activists I describe were blending in the 1950s and 1960s.
Q. How have modern conservative pundits evolved from these originators?
A. I call the people in my book “the first generation.” We might call Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and others like them “the second generation.” The second generation benefits pretty broadly from the work of the first generation.
By the time Limbaugh and Fox News come about, you have conservatives who see conservative media as part of what it means to be a conservative. To be a conservative, they believe you listen to, and search for, conservative voices in the media because you don’t trust the liberal mainstream media. That belief in media bias was essential for somebody like Limbaugh to become as popular as he is.
That said, that’s about where the similarities stop. The second generation is far more profitable. They’re far more powerful. They are closely tied with the Republican Party, a party that, with Reagan, became much more powerful in terms of the presidency and in terms of Congress.
Part of their success is also that the second generation doesn’t have its roots in politics, but in entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was a disc jockey before he was a radio host. Glenn Beck had a “morning zoo” show on radio before he became a conservative host.
They knew how to cultivate an audience and bring conservative ideas to the table. It’s that blending that’s made them so successful and ultimately so powerful.