Tuesday, December 13, 2011

GOP Field Conspires With Political Science Profs! (Part 2)

Political scientists (with some exceptions) are confident that political parties have grown stronger over the last few decades. One development that makes the parties stronger is the revival of the partisan press. Very quick summary: in the 19th century political information was generally controlled by partisan newspapers. In the 20th century, the partisan press faded and was replaced by mass media that valued neutrality and objectivity, reaching its zenith in the network news era of the 1950s through the 1970s in which most people got information from a source that didn't even have an editorial page to wall off news reporting from. Then, from about the 1970s on, we've had a revival of the partisan press in several forms, probably beginning with op-ed pages and syndicated partisan columnists, but featuring (OK, you know this part) such things as Fox News and MSNBC, talk radio, and the partisan blogosphere.

Here's the question, however: what are the incentives governing the partisan press? How does it fit in with the rest of the party -- that is, both formal party organizations and the larger party network?

There are basically three plausible stories. One is that the partisan press, just like the 20th century objective press, follows professional journalist norms and financial incentives, each of which creates biases which are (roughly speaking) outcomes of other processes rather than deliberate ideological choices. For example, we can expect that if a candidate wins a huge landslide in Iowa in three weeks that the neutral, objective media will play up the chances of the #2 or #3 candidate, rather than declaring the nomination contest over -- even if the contest appears to be over by all objective standards. That's because everyone involved -- reporters and correspondents, editors and producers, and upper management -- has incentives to keep the battle going on and appearing competitive for as long as possible. So: does Fox news have the same incentives? Will that drive its actions?

A second story is that the partisan press serves as the PR wing of the parties, and takes its marching orders from them. This can be complicated, of course, when the parties themselves are split over something, but when party actors agree on something, then we can see whether the partisan press takes their lead from them.

And then a third story is that the partisan press are party actors, but that they are freelancers -- that no one tells Beck and Rush and Hannity and the rest (and their Democratic counterparts) what to say, and so the most successful ones become independent, important party actors in their own right.

The problem is that these are extremely difficult stories to untangle empirically, especially if (as I think is the case) each story is partially true. Fortunately, the next couple of months should prove highly useful, if indeed we have a situation in which the bulk of Republican party actors ("establishment" and otherwise) strongly oppose Newt Gingrich, but his act continues to play well in the polls and then with Republican voters in the early states.

Indeed, the entire election cycle will be interesting. How did Fox News cover, and therefore contribute, to the demise of Herman Cain? How is it treating Newt right now? To what extent does the Republican partisan press move in unison? What happens to those who appear to be opposing the bulk of party actors?

Party and media scholars are getting plenty of data to work with. If I see any interesting results, I'll pass it on (and if I'm missing any important findings from what's out there so far, please let me know; I try to keep up with the party literature, but not so much with the media literature).


  1. Now there's a question for you - who's behind the Republican Party?

    Certainly you can cite the Kochs, the Chamber of Commerce, Defense Interests, and much of Wall Street and the Hedge Fund Financial types - but that's really more an expression of where the GOP gets their money from. I'm not sure that really answers the question.

    One thing I'd say is that the interests of Rupert Murdoch (maybe to a slight lesser degree Roger Ailes) and Rush Limbaugh don't necessarily match up with the interests of the Republican Party. Rush and FOX certainly seem to be two notable anti-Romney outposts.

    Then you have the 'establishment GOP' as in elected Republicans lining up to endorse Romney, while the epitome of Washington insider columnists, George Will is trashing Romney as "a recidivist reviser of his principles". That doesn't make particular sense, unless the conservative group-think tanks are going for broke, seeing this as their chance to reverse the New Deal?

    I don't know that I have the answers, only that what I see as the "party actors" in the GOP aren't rowing in the same direction. And they haven't been since the run up to the 2010 elections. How do you connect the dots at the dawn of the '12 campaign season? I imagine that's above my paygrade.

  2. You said it's hard to untangle the different stories, so I wonder whether you can ever point to a case of scenario II, where the party gives marching orders (or talking points) to the partisan media. It's much more likely for one media source (who of course doesn't attribute the talking point to a party operative) to say something. If it's a good talking point, it'll cascade quickly, and I'll be reading it on comment pages a couple hours later (and regrettably for months afterward).

  3. >the interests of Rupert Murdoch (maybe to a slight lesser degree Roger Ailes) and Rush Limbaugh don't necessarily match up with the interests of the Republican Party.

    I suspect part of the reason is that, perversely, they get better ratings when Republicans are not in power. So they may actually have an incentive to back candidates with less chance of winning, even aside from Rush's and Hannity's instincts as right-wing ideologues.

    >while the epitome of Washington insider columnists, George Will is trashing Romney

    Will has heaped scorn on just about every Republican nominee since Bush Sr. I'm not sure it means anything.

  4. Okay, scholarship on the partisan press is all very nice, but let's address Jonathan's question, "Will that drive it's actions?" It's?! Is it so long since fourth grade that Jonathan has forgotten what he was taught about "it's" with an apostrophe being a contraction, not a possessive? What's next--"lose" being spelled "loose"? "I" being used as the object of a verb or preposition (cue tape of Obama saying "to Michelle and I")? Past participle adjectives that drop the final "d" ("that's cliche")? We are on the slippery slope and Professor Bernstein just hurtled by.

  5. Fixed, and thank you.

    In my defense: I had "its" correct two of the three times I used it in the post, which strongly suggests typo (or, perhaps more properly, carelessness) not lack of proper grade school education. I can't spell to save my life, but virtually all grammar errors here (and I count its/it's as grammar, not spelling, FWIW) are the product of careless typing and editing, not grammar errors.

    Except for those cases in which I just disagree with standard grammar rules. Because I've decided to always write in whatever style I want to keep it in.

  6. I think option three-- free lance party actors is the right choice.


    One question-- who are the Democratic counterparts to Beck and Rush and Hannity? Who are the importnt party actors for the Democratic party? To which pundits have any Democratic politicans apologised?

  7. @Anon 4:53, why should bias on the left side be a mirror image of the bias on the right? So if there aren't exact analogues to Beck and Rush, does that mean anything? I know we aren't supposed to answer a question with a question, but your question was framed in a particular way.


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