Is Right-Wing News Entering the Mainstream?

By Glen Martin

While progressives are scandalized by Breitbart’s nativist tone, it’s deeply appealing to millions of disenfranchised and largely white citizens. Indeed, it helped energize them to the point that they actually got out and voted in numbers sufficient to elect Donald Trump, much to the horror of the droves of Democrats who couldn’t be bothered going to the polls and the prestigious mainstream news outlets that predicted an easy Hillary electoral victory. (Of course, Clinton did win the popular vote by a margin of three million ballots, most of them coming from reliably Blue California.)

As a consequence, Breitbart is thriving. Right? After all, its former editor-in-chief, Stephen Bannon, is now Trump’s senior strategist, and is seen by most in the Left as a Svengali playing to Trump’s Trilby. And it draws heaps of eyeballs: In November, the site claimed it was drawing 300 million page views and 45 million unique views monthly. And while independent digital analytics companies tell a less impressive story—SimilarWeb pegs Breitbart’s November peak at about 128 million total visits in November, with visits falling to 108 million in January—that’s still a lot of readers.

But in the new online media landscape readership doesn’t necessarily translate to prosperity. Indeed, nobody beyond Breitbart’s principals and bean counters know the true bottom line for the site, because the company is privately owned, says Alan Mutter, a former executive at InterMedia Partners, past CEO of several Silicon Valley start-ups, an erstwhile editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and a lecturer at Cal’s graduate journalism school.

“If you look at the advertising on Breitbart, it’s for things like lithium stocks,” Mutter says. “That’s not the same as General Motors or Wells Fargo Bank. They can’t attract the large and lucrative accounts. It’s interesting, because as they’ve become more politically influential, as they’ve locked in a particular audience, their revenue opportunities may well have shrunk. We saw that play out with Rush Limbaugh. He was doing very well with advertisers until he called that woman a slut [Sandra Fluke, who supported mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives to U.S. House of Representative Democrats in 2012]. That terrified advertisers, he lost major accounts, and he hasn’t been able to get them back.”

At the moment Breitbart might not care that they’re losing advertisers because political influence and positioning may be more meaningful than profits.

But there are clear signs that advertisers are abandoning Breitbart en masse. A recent article in the Washington Post by Abha Bhattarai detailed the trend, citing the case of Klipfolio, a Canadian software company. The firm typically purchases advertising through Google’s Display Network, which uses keywords and demographic information to distribute ads on more than two million websites. But when Klipfolio ads showed up on Breitbart “alongside stories that supported white nationalism, misogyny and homophobia” company executives freaked.

“It wasn’t even a question,” Klipfolio spokesman Cameron Conaway said to the Post. “It was, ‘Let’s get these ads off this extreme site as quickly as we can.’”

The Post cited data from Sleeping Giants, an activist group intent on “shaming” alt right sites, indicating that more than 1,250 companies have abandoned Breitbart, including Audi and Lyft.

But at the moment Breitbart, which did not respond to calls from CALIFORNIA Magazine, might not care if it’s losing advertisers because political influence and positioning may be more meaningful than profits.

In addition to having direct access to the White House, Breitbart also is more than just a little cozy with a company called Cambridge Analytica, a data science firm that used “psychometrics” (algorithms that focus on specific personality traits) to identify potential Trump voters. Those efforts hardly resulted in a landslide for the Republican candidate, but they did convince 80,000 Trump sympathizers to hit the polls in key electoral states—enough to give him the election.

Indeed, Trump, Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica seem something of a three-legged stool, each “leg” supporting the messaging of the others. Steve Bannon, in addition to running Breitbart, was on Cambridge Analytica’s board before leaving for his new post.  Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and Trump’s largest campaign donor, is reportedly a major stakeholder of the firm and also funded Breitbart to the tune of $10 million. And several news outlets reported last week that Breitbart CEO Larry Solov acknowledged that the Mercer family, including daughter Rebekah, who was on the Trump transition team, are part owners of the site. Breitbart, in other words, may not need advertising or circulation revenues with angels like the Mercers in its corner.

Not only that, reports Cadwalladr: Robert Mercer also has a $10 million stake in Cambridge Analytica. What it all comes down to, she intimates, is an attempt to create a far-right news narrative that delegitimizes standard media and bolsters Trump.

“How do you change the way a nation thinks?” she writes. “You could start by creating a mainstream media to replace the existing one with a site such as Breitbart.”

Still, this basic dynamic—the Right finding ways to assert media dominance over the Left—has been long established, says Tom Leonard, a UC Berkeley emeritus professor of journalism and the author of the books, The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting, and News for All.

“Big [media] advantages for the Republican Party are nothing new,” says Leonard, who is now working on a book on “notorious” Americans and the ways that journalists and historians both promote and undermine them.

There is no overarching trope that unites the Left in the way the Right has been united under Trump; so the message of the Left is perceived as muddled and discursive, no matter what medium conveys it.

“FDR never had a majority of newspaper endorsements, and the share going to Democrats shrank to around 10 percent when Truman ran on his own,” Leonard says.  “In that era, it was the natural affinity of wealthy publishers [to support] the GOP. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the Right has the popular touch in new-fangled media. They had that… in old media as well.”

So why hasn’t the Left learned from the Right? Where’s the alt Left version of Breitbart, one that flogs the messages of social and economic equity to a fervent and loyal audience?

While there may be no direct analogue, the Left isn’t necessarily standing in the corner sucking its digital thumb. Breitbart may be the 800-pound gorilla, but the Left has plenty of nimble gadflies inhabiting the digital landscape, supporting one component or another of the progressive agenda. But that’s also part of the problem. There is no overarching trope that unites the Left in the way the Right has been united under Trump; so the message of the Left is perceived as muddled and discursive, no matter what medium conveys it.

The Democrats missed an opportunity to connect with a lot of disaffected working class people, says Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism lecturer and former Mother Jones editor-in-chief Deirdre English—and not all of those people were old and white.  

“They were also brown and black, they were second generation immigrants, and they’ve long felt abandoned by both parties,” she says. “They feel they’ve been economically exploited, and they’re angry about it.”

That made them susceptible to a hard right populist like Trump, and highly sensitive to the simple, inflammatory messaging pushed by the outlets that support him.

Leonard agrees with that assessment, adding that it’s necessary to understand the passions and fears of the people who put Trump into the White House.

“Anger and disappointment tend to make politics a binary game,” says Leonard. “Am I with the ‘In’ or the ‘Out.’ If that is the only choice you are prepared to make, finding an online group or broadcasting [network] that helps you feel confident is what you want.”

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