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Billboards, Tabloids, and Bootleg Porn: or How the Southern Strategy Became the Rural Strategy

As Russiagate limps on into the summer of 2020, CNN, the ire of Donald Trump, is about to celebrate its 40th birthday on June 1st. What Russiagate wants to be is Watergate, the 1972 investigation into Nixon that revealed a botched burglary, a massive cover up, and knocked Nixon and the Republican party off the presidential perch until 1980. While Russiagate has proved rather empty in comparison, if one were to compare the rises of Donald Trump and Richard Nixon instead of their falls, there are some striking similarities in the events which lead up to their ascent. They don’t have a whole lot to do with Russia, but with civil rights and its discontents.

In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed with broad approval in Congress across a partisan divide that didn’t look much like the one we have today, but was well on its way toward it. Segregationist Southern Democrats, frustrated over Truman era reforms, started leaving the Democratic party and forming their own factions. Eventually they realized starting their own party was futile. It was much easier to join the enemy.

During the 1964 presidential campaign, Republican Barry Goldwater who opposed the Civil Rights Act, won the presidential nomination. He lost in LBJ’s landslide victory, but nonetheless carried the Deep South from Louisiana to South Carolina showing a broad voter base that could be had over desegregation politics. Since then, appealing to racial tension in the Southern states has been a key strategy, especially of the Republican Party, in most presidential elections.

While overt anti-civil rights rhetoric was increasingly not tolerated since the 60s, coded language which spoke of issues such as states rights (essentially on race relations) signaled to many voters the party’s inclinations, and could help carry the candidate, especially in those select Southern states.

In 1968 Richard Nixon ran on a platform of “state’s rights” and “law and order.” Student activism over civil rights frustrations helped to move the needle on equality in the 60s, but activism and the changing youth culture that surrounded it also scandalized the rest of the nation. That grainy, handheld black-and-white newsreel footage that exists as the calling card of 60s-era journalism was a relatively new development in film technology. And its availability gave the television watching public, essentially everyone by the early 60s a new and untethered look at the world around them. It caught the sensational and often violent images of the Civil Rights Movement in its viewfinder. Times were a changin’, and of course, not everyone was into that.

In the 68 election Nixon won the popular vote by a narrow margin with key support in the Southern border states, while the Deep South went to Independent segregationist candidate George Wallace. And, in 1972, with no segregationist candidate, Nixon took 70% of the vote in the Deep South(while taking just 18% of the Black vote in those states). The strategy paid off, and the post-segregation South went to Republicans.

Southern strategy tactics (AKA dog-whistle tactics)continued to be used by Ronald Reagan(see Welfare Queens), George Bush Sr.(see Willie Horton), but increasingly they were being morphed into what could instead be called a Rural Strategy, that is the same tactics which appealed to southern voters frustrated about desegregation in the South, appealed to rural voters across the country who increasingly saw racial tension as an inner city problem and who were experiencing more dire economic straits themselves as manufacturing and agricultural economies were leaving small towns and being consolidated and outsourced, and Reagan-era tax reforms were creating vast wealth inequality.

But perhaps even more importantly, in the 40 years between 1964 and 2014 the media landscape had changed rather drastically. The rise of cable news changed the scale, scope, and breadth of news media, and then narrowed its ideological focus. The process ghettoized local news, which, surprisingly, has seen a growing viewership in the past 8 years. The story of how this happens belongs to a few fortunate media-mogul heirs and their wily ambitions.

In 1963, following his father’s suicide, Robert Edward Turner III or “Ted” was heir to a million dollar Billboard business in Macon, Georgia when he was just 24-years-old. As the new CEO Ted made the company even more successful, but his interests soon turned to radio and TV broadcast. By the time the 60s were coming to a close, Ted acquired a UHF frequency television station in Atlanta that became his focus. He grew the station’s viewership over the next ten years, mainly showing reruns of popular shows like I Love Lucy, and Gilligan’s Island. Throughout the 60s and 70s cable television services had proliferated throughout the country, mostly carrying network-television broadcasts and local stations where possible with much higher fidelity than over the air. By the mid 70s, Turner’s station WTCG was reaching nearly half-a-million households through antenna and cable systems across Southern states.

In 1975 pay television channel HBO aired a pay-per-view bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier that sold half-a-million views throughout the country aided by a satellite that linked the match live from the Philippines. Turner was inspired, and seized on the under-regulated cable TV market to create his own satellite linking station stateside. While he was barred from owning both the link and the station by the FCC, he got around it by selling the satellite uplink facility to a business partner for $1 and striking a deal to use the link to beam WTCG across the country. By 1979 WTCG (which would later be branded TBS) was reaching 2.3 million households nationwide, and along with HBO was the start of revolution in television. Turner’s next move was to create another network, one that would air news 24 hours a day. Turner built his own news studio with the help of satellite TV expert Reese Schonefeld, and on June 1st, 1980 CNN began airing by satellite from Atlanta, Georgia.

Then, cable television exploded. By the end of the decade there were 53 million cable TV subscribers nationwide and nearly 80 independent channels. CNN’s ratings were sluggish throughout the 80s in comparison to the major news offerings, but in January 1991 for the first time its ratings exceeded the big three network newscasts (ABC, CBS, and NBC) when it offered live coverage of the shelling of Baghdad during the Gulf War. CNN’s rating remained high by covering international crises. This led to what has since been called the “CNN Effect”: The power of news to create foreign policy mandates simply by focusing on a particular conflict or crises for long periods of broadcast. By covering a number of worldwide conflicts, most notably the Somali Civil War and the Bosnian War in the early 90s, CNN News actually created mandates for intervention both military and humanitarian. Cable news was changing the world.

In 1996 CNN and TBS merged with TimeWarner following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which officially deregulated cross-platform ownership restrictions (between telecommunications and broadcast, or Internet and TV) put in place by the 1934 Communications Act, the New Deal Era regulatory structure that created the FCC. The 1996 Act paved the way for the media behemoths that exist today. With the merger, Ted’s control over CNN begins to wane, but cable news had proven itself an historic force. While the CNN’s influence grew, another mogul was making a meteoric rise in both cable and network television news, that would have an even bigger impact.

Rupert Murdoch, a naturalized American since 1985, got his start by inheriting his father’s newspaper business, News Limited, which ran a tabloid newspaper in Adelaide, Australia(the fifth largest city in Australia at the time.) The paper, simply called The News, was what was left of his father, Sir Keith Murdoch’s, dwindling media empire by the time of his death in 1952. Over the next 20 years, Murdoch grew his father’s paper empire across Australia eventually founding The Australian the nation’s first national daily newspaper. In 1972 News Limited bought three major newspapers in Australia including The Daily Telegraph. Rupert used them collectively to help swing the 1972 election of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam of Australia’s progressive Labor Party.

In its brief tenure, Whitlam’s administration attempted to enact sweeping reforms including universal health care and free university education. In return for his support, Murdoch asked to be appointed as High Commissioner in London. Rupert’s ambitions here mirror those of his father, who used his news might to swing the 1931 election of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. Sir Keith was knighted for his troubles and by 1940 was appointed to a newly created post of Director-General of Information, a position which allowed him to compel all news media to publish government statements at his discretion. But, comparisons of the office to that of Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany caused a scandal and the post was removed that same year.

Rupert’s bid failed. The newly elected Whitlam denied him the appointment due to the appearance of corruption. Murdoch put the force of his papers behind removing Whitlam, who was replaced by a member of the right-wing “Liberal”(yes, you read that right) party in 1975 by a landslide vote. Since then, Murdoch has put the strength of his media entities behind right-wing causes and candidates.

During the 70s and 80s, Murdoch acquired a number of international television and newspaper properties most notably 20th Century-Fox. While two partner investors Marc Rich and Marvin Davis had purchased 20th Century Fox in 1981 for $720 million coming off the success of its backing of the film Star Wars, Rich fled the country in 1984 under a number of federal charges including illegal trading with Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Davis gained control of Rich’s share of the company at a fraction of its worth and sold that share to Rupert Murdoch in 1985, and then sold him his own share too. Murdoch took control of the company after gaining American citizenship that year and in 1986 created the Fox Broadcast Company.

In 1987 the new company made an attempt to buy the broadcast rights to the NFC football conference from ABC, hoping to leverage it toward a fourth major network. He failed in 1987, but made another attempt in 1993 and this time was successful. This would be the catalyst of a revolution in network television that turned it from the big 3 to the big 4. News Corp, using the Fox name, began buying up television stations across the country in the VHF spectrum in preparation for NFC broadcasts. Over the next few years Fox would acquire 37 television stations previously affiliated with other networks, create 5 new stations, and sell off most of its UHF spectrum channels. By 1996 Fox was the fourth major network.

In 1989 Murdoch had launched Britain’s first 24-hour-news channel Sky News. Following the success of his penetration into network television in 1996, he announced an American 24 hour news channel for cable and satellite systems called, simply, Fox News. Murdoch chose former NBC executive, Roger Ailes, a conservative political strategist who had worked on the media strategies of every winning Republican presidential campaign since Richard Nixon’s winning campaign in 1968 (including both campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush) to run the new network.

Cable and satellite providers were slow to take up the new channel, but Murdoch took the aggressive and unheard of approach of paying cable and satellite networks on a per subscriber basis to carry the new channel. By 2000 it was available in 56 million homes. Its ratings jumped considerably during the 2000 election cycle, the September 11 attacks, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Ailes, who was a consultant to the Bush campaign and administration, created daily memos to organize the network’s many voices around key talking points, essentially using the CNN Effect (the ability to create political mandate through media focus)to more deliberate ideological aims. One 2006 study, which used channel ranking (the number that corresponds to each channel) in order to rule out ideological self-selection of Fox News, showed a significant effect from the introduction of the channel on the percentage of Republican voter share by county in the 2000 election. A similar study found that this effect increased over time through 2010, a phenomenon that would come to be known as “The Fox Effect”: The phenomenon of viewers shifting rightward when exposed to enough Fox News.

When in 2003, Fox News saw its viewership surge during the Invasion of Iraq, its had its own CNN-Gulf-War moment, and pulled ahead of CNN in the ratings. Since 2003 Fox News has remained the top cable news network, and is now the top-rated cable network period.

If News Corp’s cable network was a success, its local channels were an even bigger success. By 2002 Fox pulled into the lead owning more local television stations than its competitors at the Big Three networks, but its dominance of network TV wouldn’t last for long. While many Fox affiliates also presented news with a conservative bias as compared to other local stations, the skew was nothing on the level of its cable television network. And when a local station became affiliated with Fox it changed branding. To discerning viewers this could indicate its rightward slant. Ironically, to really introduce Fox News levels of conservative bias into local TV news it would take another, even shiftier, media mogul.

David D. Smith got his start in the 70s partnering in a company called Cine Processors that made and sold bootleg copies of pornography. In 2017 he was owner and CEO of the largest local television station network in the country, Sinclair Broadcasting Group.

David’s father, Julian Sinclair Smith, created The Chesapeake Television Corporation in 1971 to start a single UHF television station in the Baltimore area WBFF-TV. Over the next fifteen years, CTC expanded into just 3 more stations in the region. In 1986, along with his four sons Julian created the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and by 1988 David was the CEO. In 1990 the brothers bought their parent’s remaining share in the company and began buying up television stations throughout the country.

One of these acquisitions was a company called Act III Broadcasting that had pioneered a creative way to get around FCC regulations that prohibited owning more than one television station in the same market. Act III, would hand over ownership to the managers of these stations and then enter with them in License Marketing Agreements, now known as LMAs that would lease the broadcast time back to the original station.

Smith took to LMAs quickly, buying and leasing stations in million dollar deals across the country. Eventually Sinclair came up against the FCC who fined the company a whopping $44,000 for their sins and then continued to let them do it anyway. By 2005 Sinclair owned over 60 stations in 37 cities and was reaching a quarter of the TV-watching public. Unlike Fox, however, affiliate stations were not re-branded as Sinclair stations. Sinclair simply left the original affiliate branding (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) on their stations’ logos and names. As for the news content itself, they were far less hands-off.

Smith had already swung elections by 2002 when he put the force of his stations behind Robert Ehrlich Jr., a Republican US Congressman and gubernatorial hopeful in Maryland who had helped him coerce FCC approval for some of his stations in the late 90s. Sinclair stations aired a number of outlandish smear campaigns against his rival Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, including one that claimed she had fallen off a horse as a child and suffered brain damage. Ehrlich won by a narrow margin.

In 2004 when Ted Koppel of ABC’s Nightline news read the names of casualties in the Iraq War, Sinclair stations forbade their ABC affiliates to air the statement. Later that year with the 2004 election approaching they instructed all their stations to broadcast a documentary about John Kerry called Stolen Honor, which accused Kerry of treason during the Vietnam War. A Sinclair anchor had also been found to have made a quarter-million-dollar deal with the Bush White House to portray them favorably in broadcasts. Additionally, until 2019 Sinclair also sent its stations “must-run” editorials that espouse the ownership’s conservative viewpoints on any number of topics from Muslims to Social Justice Warriors, which were edited into news broadcasts, and directed by ownership not to be framed as editorials.

While it had become commonplace to have blatant bias in cable news, local news stations had remained somewhat even-handed through the 90s, though they hadn’t been compelled to for some time. The “Fairness Doctrine” which was introduced by the FCC in 1949 and required broadcasters to present balanced viewpoints on controversial topics had set a standard for broadcast journalism since the 50s. However, The Fairness Doctrine was officially removed from the FCC’s rules in 1987 under the Reagan Administration. Efforts to reinstate it have since failed.

Between 2012 and 2016 Sinclair’s stations exploded from around 70 to over 170. This same time frame coincides with a few important shifts in television watching. The first, cable television viewership begins its first downturn since the early 80s in 2012, losing around 10% of subscribers by 2016. The second, local TV news viewership begins an upturn gaining around 10% in that same time. The third, UHF frequencies, Sinclair’s bread-and-butter, and once the lesser choice of networks because they had poorer frequencies, are no different in quality after the 2009 digital TV switch. In fact, many channels that seem to be in the old VHF spectrum are simply “virtual channels” broadcast in UHF and given a virtual 2–13 channel designation. By 2016, local TV is coming back, and the biggest game in town fits pretty squarely in the Trump demographic. Not surprisingly, Sinclair sent its stations pro-Trump and anti-Clinton must-runs leading up to the 2016 election.

By comparison, the Rural Strategy isn’t a major party defection and switching of alliances in the same way the Southern Strategy was. Its simply a continuation of the party’s long-time strategy of appealing to rural, Christian, ideological values, and the legacy of 100 years of Black Migration to urban areas throughout the US and the self-segregation of white flight to suburbs and small towns, a split that has yet to be reconciled. (They aren’t too happy with gay marriage either.)

40 years after the Civil Rights Act, the death of Ferguson teenager Mike Brown at the hands of St. Louis County Police captured the nation’s attention. The push for and failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson on charges for Brown’s murder sparked protests in St. Louis and expanded the Black Lives Matter movement which had begun two years earlier after the death of Trayvon Martin, a black teen in Florida killed in an altercation with white man George Zimmerman who found him “suspicious.”

Similar protests and demonstrations occurred in a cities across the country over the continuing problem of black men being killed by law enforcement. Many of the protests included violent clashes with police and destruction of property. Helicopter footage of demonstrations from local news sources became commonplace. On the ground, cell phone camera footage captured more black men dying at the hand of officers, and footage of fires and looted stores proliferated in turn. While very little in the way of demonstrations made it to predominantly white rural areas throughout the country, images of the confrontations did. And while images of officers killing black men incited the unrest, images of destruction more often pervaded it.

Just like 40 years prior, new technology — cell phone cameras, and the internet — gave citizens more access to intolerable images of human tragedy. That same technology offered them images of confrontation and destruction. These images permeated the entire media environment, and scandalized a largely older, largely white, and largely rural and suburban voting public, and in the next presidential election in 2016 a “law and order” candidate emerged victorious. In those intervening years, the mass media had become far more sensational, pervasive, conservative, addictive, powerful and unmoored from the facts. Trump simply met that media on it’s own terms.

June 1st, 2020 we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide pandemic where cable news as well as local TV news ratings are skyrocketing (for Fox New, their best ever) as people are under stay-at-home orders in many cities. A contentious and tactically unprecedented presidential election looms. Whats the worst thing that could happen?

One week ago today, George Floyd, a black security guard in Minneapolis died after a police officer Derek Chauvin exerted pressure on Floyd’s neck with his knee for over 8 minutes while Floyd was detained and complained that he could not breathe. The outrage over Floyd’s death has sparked protests in Minneapolis and throughout the country.

The CNN Effect shows us that focusing on a crisis leads to intervention. Which crisis is getting more focus, George Floyd’s death or the violent demonstrations? The Fox Effect shows us news bias is a powerful tool of statecraft. What channels are being watched and by whom? If a “Sinclair Effect” exists it could be described as a trust in local news stations as unbiased based on their pre-internet and pre-cable news profiles, a trust that is dubious at best.

The scene has changed since the 60s, but one thing remains constant: If social unrest is a means for progressive change for civil rights, it has also become a powerful recruitment tool for regressive change. And we all live in the balance.

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On June 1st, 1980 Ted Turner inaugurated CNN with a performance of the Star-Spangled Banner and made an interesting promise to viewers that CNN would be covering the end of the world :

“We’ll be on, and we will cover it [the end of the world] live, and that will be our last, last event. We’ll play the National Anthem only one time, on the first of June, and when the end of the world comes, we’ll play “Nearer My God To Thee” before we sign off.”

As protesters smashed windows and entered the CNN building this past week, one has to wonder if some staff member didn’t have their hand hovering tensely over a big red button to play Turner’s grainy final sign-off salute.

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