April 3, 2019
Alison Dagnes says she has the best job in the world. She’s a professor of Political Science at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Dagnes is an astute observer of the American political landscape with a particular focus on right wing media. Besides teaching, the former C-SPAN producer has written several books including “A Conservative Walks into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor” and “Politics on Demand: The Effects of 24-Hours News on American Politics.” Her latest book, “Super Mad at Everything All the Time: Political Media and Our National Anger,” was just published by Palgrave Macmillan. We wanted to know more about Dagnes so we reached out to her for this email conversation.
Q: What accounts for your fascination in conservative media?
I’ve studied, taught, and worked in political media for 30 years and assumed I had a handle on how things functioned. But something shifted recently, and I realized that the political media in America have morphed into a very different beast than what I thought I understood.
I tried to get my arms around what has developed but it was mind-boggling and rather upsetting. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and how it became this way, so I began to research a new book about the modern political media. After more than 30 interviews with journalists, politicos, and academics, I finally was able to understand the system that we have today. Just having explanations made me feel better.
Q: In your thorough examination of right-wing media, what are the biggest targets of their ire: big government? Big media? Hollywood? PC culture?
The biggest targets depend on the day and the news cycle. Charlie Warzel is a writer for The New York Times and he has identified several different tactics used by the right-wing media circle outlets. Sometimes these outlets are striking back against a perceived slight, reacting to something negative that affects them. Other times they are simply providing a fresh target of their ire, a distraction to help shift focus away from something else.
For example, if a Hollywood figure made headlines for opposing Trump, they will focus on that. If there isn’t a big oppositional story in the news, they’ll offer up some angry take on well-known antagonists like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And they are really fixated AOC, but she seems pretty cool with that.
Q: What are your daily news consumption habits?
I’m as overwhelmed as everyone else because there is so much content out there. I subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and a bunch of tipsheets and bulletins, and I feel informed. But I try hard to limit my news consumption so I don’t become a crazy person. The key for me is to hit delete frequently and put the phone down as often as possible.
Q: One of your main points in your book is that right-wing media seem essentially united in their purpose to support conservative values and attack those who oppose what they stand for. But don’t you think there’s a sharp division in the right-wing ranks? The Bulwark, for instance, has been taking a lot of heat from the right.
All conservative media are not the same. In fact, all media period are not the same. Since media is the plural of medium, it’s important to remember that even though we may talk of “the media,” the whole system is comprised of different outlets on different platforms using different technology, operating with different norms, and doing very different things.
What I do in the book is define what I call the “right-wing media circle” which consists of about two dozen outlets, and The Bulwark isn’t among them. With some help from experts, I defined the right-wing media circle outlets using this set of criteria that says each outlet is:
• Specifically ideological conservative and unambiguously antagonistic to the left.
• Openly Oppositional: They state their mission is to oppose the mainstream media.
• Most (with the exception of Fox News) do far less (if any) original reporting and instead deliver commentary.
• Outlets within the circle are self-reinforcing and they refer to others within their circle for evidence and support. Additionally, with the exception of trying to garner an audience and be first to get clicks and eyeballs, they are noncompetitive against one another.
Those characteristics define who is in (Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax, etc.) and who is not (The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Bulwark).
Q: Martians send a magical comet to earth that makes all media disappear except for one right-wing media outlet. Because of your sense of fairness and knowledge of the media landscape, they appoint you to pick the outlet. And your choice would be…..?
Boy, that’s a tough one. I guess I’d have to say The Drudge Report because it’s more of an aggregator, but if everyone else disappeared Drudge wouldn’t be able to aggregate anything. Isn’t the only possible answer Fox News because it does still employ some actual journalists who do real reporting? At least Alex Jones would go away. That’s a good thing.
Q: Do you believe Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the press helped create the foundation for the right-wing press that exists today? (For those not familiar, Agnew famously singled out the profound influence of a “small group of men in New York and Washington who didn’t reflect the views of Americans,” meaning the media elite in those cities.)
I think it’s very important to remember that President Trump is not the first politician to claim media bias; he just does it crudely and without the skill, humor, and dexterity of William Safire.
The seeds of dissent (conservative dissent – not the journal Dissent magazine) were planted before even Agnew; on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign plane, journalists were given pins that read “Eastern Liberal Press.” From there, the drumbeat of accusations against the “liberal media” took root and grew. Remember “Rather Biased?” against Dan Rather during the Reagan years? By the way – these were not cockamamie accusations because the press does lean left sometimes. But the antidote to this is to keep journalists fair and encourage news orgs to gain more balance. The remedy is not to throw away the entire political media, or establish a parallel conservative news media. That’s how we get two sets of truths and “alternate facts.”
Q: Describe the courses that you’ve taught this semester.
I teach classes at Shippensburg University in American government which focus on political behavior. During election semesters, I teach our campaigns and elections course, and I also teach upper-level classes on interest groups, political media (obviously) and a graduate course on political advocacy.
I have the best job in the world. I try to incorporate practical application into my classes, so my students frequently participate in simulations. My campaign simulation is epic: it lasts a whole month and extends well beyond the classroom. A few months ago, my husband woke me up at 2am and said “There’s a gaggle of kids on our front lawn putting up yard signs.” I burst with pride.
That said, sometimes these simulations run away from me. One year, I had students establish real Super PACs that were registered with the Federal Elections Commission, and we even made it into a Washington Post article. But just as I was hurting my arm by patting myself on the back, we got into trouble with the FEC because we never closed the Super PAC accounts and (according to my lawyers) we were supposed to have done that. Whoops. Here’s the funniest article from the Miami Herald about what happened.
Q: What have you learned from your students about the deep political divisions in our country? Do you feel optimistic that we can reach some common ground or do you feel an increasing split in the very fabric of American life?
I feel a terrible split in the fabric of American life, and it is difficult to teach and discuss American politics in this increasingly hostile environment. In truth, most of our non-major students are not terribly interested in politics and all the yelling has only moved them farther away from the topic. But even working with our Political Science majors has been tricky. I’d say our students are evenly split between left and right, with more conservative students than liberal, but among our right-leaning kids there’s another divide between those who are the Trump supporters and those who want to return to the GOP of old … and by “old” I mean the GOP of three years ago.
One big problem is that there is a loud campaign against colleges and professors now, and many kids come into my classroom predisposed to dislike or distrust me. That’s really frustrating because I have never discriminated against any of my students and I never will. But I can’t just say that; students have to give me enough of a chance to see it in practice and unfortunately there are those who are simply unwilling to give me that opening. They’ve been told that I’m a liberal who hates conservatives and, thus, I hate them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even worse, because everything has become so personal, most students don’t want to talk in class anymore because they’re afraid someone will scream at them. To me, that’s one of the cruelest consequences of our polarized political climate. People have just stopped talking and listening to one another, and that’s a really bad thing in a political system built for deliberation.
I do have hope, though. Most of our Political Science majors are pretty terrific and want to help bridge the distance growing between us. Next semester, we’re going to try some new and cool things to encourage voicing and hearing different opinions. It should be great.
Q: Truth be told, you’re a Democrat yet you’ve been served as the faculty adviser for the College Republicans at your university. Surely this is some type of leftist plot. How does that happen?
I am a Democrat and I was the advisor for the College Republicans for about a decade. The idea that college students are all liberal is bunkum, especially at Shippensburg University where our students are mostly right-leaning. A bunch of years ago, I saw that we didn’t have an active College Republican Club and helped some students get one up and running again. I’m very proud that some of our Ship College Republicans have gone on to hold positions within the national College GOP organization, and many still work in Republican Party politics.
That said, I resigned as advisor to the Club on May 3, 2016, when Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination for president. I told our student leaders that I couldn’t be their advisor anymore and they understood, because I have the sweetest students in the world. I also wrote a letter to our university administration asking them to help the kids find a new advisor, someone who supported President Trump and his view of the government. I’m a Jewish Political Science professor who researches the media; I’m pretty much everything the President despises, all rolled up into one chipper, compromise-seeking gal. The students deserved an advisor who would support the new incarnation of the GOP in a full-throated way.
The kids were really cute about it: at the time I resigned as their advisor, everybody thought Hillary would win the election and my students asked “When Trump loses, will you be our advisor again?”
See? No plot at all; just self-defensive enough to keep my job a total joy.