Commenter I am not writes:
It’s an empirical question as to how much leeway a proprietor has to influence debate without losing eyeballs. What I think the leftist analysis misses is that proprietors aren’t the only ones exploiting this leeway – editors and journalists are too.
This is an empirical question, and it’s one I’d like to see studied in greater depth. (If you’re aware of existing research, please post links.) I would think that political polling firms, largely dormant when elections are further away, would be interested in studying the interaction between policy preferences and media. And if not polling firms, then perhaps academic social scientists.
On the broader point of media influence, I agree that media figures–owners, editors, writers, bloggers(!?)–have the power to influence people. I think that the liberal narrative I hinted at earlier can be paraphrased as: conservative media power is both more concentrated and, as a whole stronger, than liberal media power. Or in contrarian moderate terms, American conservatives, on average, tend to be lower down on the vertical axis of my two-dimension political axis. That is, the average American conservative is more to accept the arguments that a small number of conservative media figures proclaim than is the average American liberal.
I’m sympathetic to this broad claim, with the relative abundance of low-quality, high-popularity conservative media serving as evidence, but the extreme version of this position–that all tea partiers are mindless drones that can be converted to any position at any time at the whim of four people–is wildly absurd.
Matt Yglesias speculates over what (who) drives tea party members:
Suppose there’s some sellout that John Boehner wants to implement…he sits down in a room with Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Donohue, and David Koch and persuades all three (sic) of those people that this is the right way to proceed…coordinated action among a very small number of people can cut the oxygen off from the tea party fire any time they want to.
This follows a common narrative amongst the left, which says that the tea party movement, or conservatives generally, are largely controlled by their media consumption. If Rush and Fox News say X, then conservatives/tea partiers will believe X. This theory is viable, but as someone who’s done my own speculating about tea partiers, I’m pretty skeptical. I tend to view tea partiers as some combination of thinking and unthinking conservatives, whose views tend to align with a range of conservative figures. Yes, to some extent, media figures influence the grassroots. But simultaneously, media consumers have considerable influence on media.
Suppose, for instance, that Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh spontaneously decide that Americans ought to move to Nebraska. They shift their programming and constantly present arguments for why Americans should move to Nebraska. Does it follow that Americans move to Nebraska? Some might. But more likely, conservatives would simply find different media outlets that better reflect their views and attitudes.
The tea party phenomenon is, I think, a fairly complex movement that has a basis in legitimate concerns about the governance of the country. To dismiss the movement as being completely subject to the whims of a small number of power brokers is, I think, a pretty serious mistake.