How the right-wing media ecosystem created conspiracy theorists

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Conspiracy theories have long been a part of American politics, but their creation and continuance has never been more obvious and politically consequential. Last fall most Republicans still wrongly believed the false fraud claims about the 2020 election which led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

When I think of how we got there I remember walking through Times Square in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. There’d invariably be some guy wearing sandwich boards proclaiming a political message about the dangers of the United Nations. If I passed close by, he’d try to give me a sheet with rambling writings and an address at the bottom.

Back in those days, it wasn’t as easy for conspiracy theorists to find each other. Yes, they had their newsletters but they weren’t on mass media and the social media of our day didn’t exist. There was no internet for conspiracy theorists’ websites.

But, even before that, there were far right-wing groups trying to get a political foothold.

The John Birch Society, a conspiracy-oriented group, was a force within the Republican Party in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Gov. George Romney of Michigan introduced planks repudiating the JBS and other extremists at the 1964 Republican National Convention, delegates voted them down and jeered the governors. This likely harmed GOP nominee Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide.

In our time, numerous leaders of the Republican Party — former President Donald Trump is the most significant — regularly purvey conspiracy theories.

And the spread and reinforcement of those lies are aided by a right-wing media ecosystem, initially led by talk radio but now with Fox News at its center.

As historian Brian Rosenwald explained in his 2019 book “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States,” such media created information bubbles that regularly reinforced and never questioned certain narratives and purported facts. Over time these outlets pushed the GOP further and further to the right, making it harder for Republican politicians to challenge what on-air personalities say. As Rosenwald put it, “talk radio and its successors thereby became a more powerful force than the party that cultivated them.”

Increasingly the right-wing media ecosphere has also been captured by the audiences they’ve fostered and formed.

That’s seen in the evidence in the Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News. Dominion collected depositions from producers, executives and on-air talent, as well as emails and text messages sent to each other. These show Fox staff said very different things in private than on-air. Fox personnel knew they were spreading lies and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election

Moreover, Fox News personnel worried that their audience would reject them and they’d lose money if they told the truth. One executive wrote that their viewers might be looking for “conspiratorial reporting.” Reporters who fact-checked election lies were rebuked; one was told she “needed to do a better job of — this is a quote — ‘respecting our audience,’” according to the documents in the Dominion filing. Regarding another journalist’s factual correction, Tucker Carlson told Sean Hannity the journalist should be fired: “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” In a deposition News Corp. Chair Rupert Murdoch “agreed with the statement, ‘It is not red or blue, it is green.’”

Meanwhile, Fox’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz, was told not to report on what the Dominion lawsuit revealed. Unless they’ve ventured out of their media bubbles and are willing to examine the evidence, these viewers wouldn’t know they were lied to, let alone this happened because many at Fox News see them as a cash cow and want to keep the money spigot running.

The right-wing media ecosystem made conspiracy theorists and ended up afraid of them. This is an American tragedy that spawned the Jan. 6 insurrection, continues to affect our body politic, and will not be easily eased or reversed.