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7 days on a right-wing news diet: When a blue reads red

Story by Peregrine Frissell, art by Rene Sanchez

I grew up reading George Will in the Missoulian, one of 450 newspapers nationwide that syndicated his column. Over the breakfast table, my mother used to condemn his conservatism. It was only when I became a student at the University of Montana School of Journalism that I realized Will didn’t actually live in Missoula.

A product of western Montana, I was raised in a liberal household and educated in a red state with a deep libertarian tinge. I’ve since migrated to southwestern Connecticut, where I work as a reporter in a town that serves as a bastion of Republicanism in one of the nation’s last reliably blue strongholds.

Here, we have lots of immigrants and Republicans, but they aren’t the gun-toting kind we get in Montana. They refer to themselves as “Connecticut Republicans,” though they use that label mainly as an exclusionary tactic, e.g., Donald Trump is certainly not a Connecticut Republican. (He does, however, own property here.)

George Will, who graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, with a bachelor’s degree in religion, was an ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan. The Wall Street Journal once called him “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America.”

In June, Will told PJ Media, a conservative news outlet, that he had changed his voter registration from “Republican” to “unaffiliated.” Like him, many others within the Republican Party denounced their candidate that summer, initiating a dogfight in right-wing media.

With his campaign, Donald Trump exposed and deepened a fissure in the Republican Party that caused media personalities to take sides. It pitted figures like Glenn Beck and Michael Reagan against other Republicans like Sean Hannity and Roger Ailes who lean further to the right.

Inspired by novelist Gary Shteyngart, who once submitted himself to an exclusive diet of Russian television for a story, I decided to walk a week in rightist shoes. As the presidential campaign reached its peak in September, I wanted to move my own experiences closer in line with Republican voters and see how that would affect my judgment and political leanings.

As I got ready for a seven-day diet of media that much of America is consuming at a higher rate than I am, I didn’t really know what to expect. The closest I generally get to right-wing media is reading headlines of articles my crazy relatives and libertarian friends share on Facebook, and listening to Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield tell me about how it’s rotting their brains each week during “On the Media.”

In many ways, I felt like I do right before a long jog. I knew full well there would be several short moments throughout when I would understand why this was important and worthwhile, but on the whole, the experience would be incredibly unpleasant.

The last piece of media I consumed before starting my purge was a piece from “On the Media” explaining the alt-right. Here is the answer from their guest Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center: “It’s essentially a rebranding of white nationalism or white supremacy for the digital age.”

It is into this world that I embarked.

 

DAY 1

THE ECHO CHAMBER

My normal morning routine is to wake up and turn on a supposedly objective, but more likely decidedly liberal podcast while I make my morning coffee and pour some cereal. I’m close enough to the city that when I climb in the car the station is tuned to WNYC, and when I get to work I steal pockets of time to read The New York Times and The Guardian.

This morning I had a realization (and one that I expected to repeat), that though I like to tell myself I work hard to consume media from across the political spectrum, I really only listen to people who, from time to time, talk about right-wing media, rather than consuming it at the source.

When I tried to replace David Remnick and Brian Lehrer for journalism icons on the right, at first I didn’t know where to start. I typed “conservative media” into the search bar, and found a name that was indeed familiar: Glenn Beck.

Beck’s show started off with an ad that couldn’t have better suited my assignment: “Regardless of whoever wins the White House, we are facing serious geopolitical and economic challenges that could lead to the next great financial crisis. You need a recognized safe haven asset for your portfolio and IRA, and that asset is gold.”

The story that followed was 10 minutes long, and called “The Breakdown of the Family,” part one of four. It began with a Bible verse that established from the beginning the ideal family makeup “was for a biological mother and father to both be in the home raising the children together.”

The article then moved on to more contemporary sources. It cited unspecified scholars from universities across the nation as saying that children from nuclear homes “live longer, healthier lives, are less likely to be in trouble with the law, less likely to be violent or sexually active, less likely to drink or do drugs and are more likely to have successful marriages when they are older.”

I learned that a 2013 book by Nick Schulz, “Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure,” said that, among children who start off in the bottom third of income distribution, only 26 percent with divorced parents ever move up, compared with 42 percent born to unmarried mothers who marry later and 50 percent who grow up with two married parents.

Then, out of left field: “So is it any wonder then, that so many blacks never break the cycle of poverty?”

The program referenced a special report from 1986 by CBS News called “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America.” Here, I learned that 30 years ago, a lot of black people fit those bad statistics, and a spiraling marriage rate has made it much worse. Today, 73 percent of black families live in broken homes, I was told.

Despite that, the narrator said people today are told that this collapse of the nuclear family is perfectly fine. “A family unit can be anything:  single mom, a single dad, two moms, two dads, a monkey, a gerbil, maybe a wandering minstrel or two from Saskatchewan.”

The last 90 seconds were spent hedging the statistical bets, and in the end, the narrator said it was absolutely true that when possible, it is clear that a married biological mother and father are the keys to any child’s success.

Later, I found that Glenn Beck went on CNN and told Brian Stelter he thinks the left could not have found a better candidate to implode the GOP than Donald Trump, of whom Beck does not count himself a supporter.

“I blame Donald Trump for being the worst candidate for either party the country has ever seen,” he said.

 

Day 2

LIBERAL IS AS LIBERAL DOES

 Thursday is the day my New Yorker always comes in the mail. Today, I took it and cast it onto the pile in my room without even opening it. I did this in the morning as I left for work so I would have nothing to look forward to, and nothing to ruminate on, when I got home that night.

When I signed onto this self-experiment, I originally assumed The New Yorker was well-balanced, attracting readers from both sides of the aisle.

Apparently I was an ignorant liberal dope, and The New Yorker is “the preferred media outlet of liberals,” according to a Washington Post analysis of a study done by the Pew Research Center. The study said it was more liberal than The New York Times, Huffington Post and even Al- Jazeera America.

“When I signed onto this self-experiment, I originally assumed The New Yorker was well-balanced, attracting readers from both sides of the aisle. Apparently I was an ignorant liberal dope.”

– Peregrine Frissell

 

Day 3

THE GREAT DIVIDE

 I used to simply type the letters “ny” and hit enter to get to the front page of the Times in the morning, where I actually pay to read news. Today, my browser finally began catching up to my new habits and sent me straight to nypost.com instead.

Sometimes I go to zoning board meetings in the evening for work. On the East Coast, municipal governments derive great meaning from telling people what they can and can’t do on their land. In Montana, people would literally grab their guns, and I feel more like a libertarian than I ever have.

For dinner, I went to an old neighborhood bar near my house in Port Chester, New York. About halfway through my meal, a biker gang walked in and sat near me for drinks and wings.

“Vote for Donald Trump, don’t be a little bitch,” one man shouted as some of his colleagues looked at him.

“I’m sick and tired of all these people. They whine and moan about Obama, then they complain about Trump,” he said. “You have to pick one or the other. If you don’t like Obama, vote for Trump.”

The dots in the man’s logic were as easy to connect as Glenn Beck’s when he was excoriating the demise of the nuclear family, but it was unsettling at the same time.

The extent to which two-party politics have taken over our lives is clear.

 

Day 4

I’M NOT WITH HIM

 At the grocery store I added a New York Post to my bag, but when I realized the woman working the register was elderly and black, I put it back on the shelf.

I didn’t know what it was, but I didn’t want this sweet old woman to associate me with the man I watched on television the night before, a man with a history of racist remarks and housing project administration. I’m sure lots of black people read the New York Post, but this woman didn’t seem like one of them, and you can tell, right?

 

Day 5

DISCOUNT JOURNALISM

 Every Sunday I buy The New York Times. It’s $5 and as thick as Moby Dick, full of fascinating journalism and a real estate section. It’s the only thing that keeps me from waking up and realizing that the next day is Monday, and the week will go by too quickly, and my life, which is already about one-third over, will continue to disappear without me being able to do a thing about it.

This Sunday, I bought a New York Post instead. I thought I would want to scream, but then I realized it was only $1.50. I was able to use quarters.

You can buy the New York Post five days a week for the same price as the Sunday Times. Not for the first time this week, I felt like an elitist and understood another thing in the growing list of reasons why such outlets might appeal to a segment of the population.

Also, layout and stories strike a chord that’s easy to follow no matter your mental state.

When I’m feeling unambitious on a Sunday morning, I enjoy buying a Times paper, but it’s hard for me to do much else than see what the cover story is and what theme and picture they put on the front page. →

Around 10:30 a.m., that slowly begins to change, and I move from the weekend arts section in the middle toward the A section.

The front page of the New York Post looked like it always does, and while it wasn’t appealing it also didn’t lead to intellectual overload. The words “Cheat Shot” were printed in a sans serif font size that must have been at least 132 across the front. Under it, in font a third of the size, the line read, “Bubba’s affair agrees to attend presidential debate.”

Was Bubba an affectionate conservative name for Donald Trump? No, on closer examination it turned out Bubba was an affectionate conservative name for Bill Clinton, and the former mistress they were referring to was Gennifer Flowers, whom they called a “blond bombshell” in her photo caption.

“The salvo came after Hillary Clinton said Trump nemesis Mark Cuban would be her own front-row guest.”

The back displayed an ad for a football game that made it look like two players were entering a boxing match against each other, rather than playing football. I can see how people think it would be a lot more interesting than an ad for Christie’s, which I saw in the Wall Street Journal, another outlet I thought was a lot more conservative than conservatives think it is.

In other New York Post news:

—The ashes of Truman Capote were recently sold for $45,000 to buyers who promised to continue to take them to parties, per his post-mortem wishes.

—A New York artist took responsibility for the creation of slick brochures and a website claiming a giant octopus dragged a Staten Island Ferry boat to the ocean floor back in 1963. They said no one ever talked about it because it happened the same day Kennedy died, and the “crooked media” (lowercase C) let it fade from mainstream attention.

—Lobster larvae struggle to live in water that is heated 5 degrees above normal ocean temperatures, according to “scientists in Maine, the state most closely associated with the lobster.”

—Angelina Jolie filing for divorce from Brad Pitt was as predictable as death and taxes, and really just marked a return to the pre-Pitt Jolie that was mostly batshit crazy and less of a humanitarian. “By trashing Pitt, Jolie exposes her ‘hellion-turned-holy mother’ myth,” the subhead read.

—“Venezuela is just the most recent example that socialism sucks and can’t work. That should be clear to any thinking person.” The entirety of a letter to the editor from John Dumary, Jr., who lives in Duanesburg, New York.

Day 6

SKIRTING THE BORDER

Today, the first presidential debate took over my house, where I live with two roommates from Brazil. It turned out Gennifer Flowers would not be there, another questionable decision stabbed to death by boring Mike Pence.

I guess Trump only threatened to invite Flowers after Clinton invited Cuban, who is, I think, richer than Trump and owns the Dallas Mavericks. Flowers even texted The New York Times and told them she was coming. Talk about deep sources.

Trump’s initial threat came from a tweet:

“If dopey Mark Cuban of failed Benefactor fame wants to sit in the front row, perhaps I will put Gennifer Flowers right alongside of him!”

I was happy when my immigrant roommates sat down next to me. “Surely, they will see Trump’s madness,” I thought.

As Lester Holt briefed the candidates and the unruly audience on the rules, I asked them which candidate they wanted to see win. They said they were undecided.

They thought illegal immigration was a problem but thought the wall would be a waste of money, because people would just climb over it, go around it or go to Canada and come in from that direction.

A Hillary supporter, I remembered, had recently told me he wanted Hillary to become president but thought she should appoint Trump to run the economy. “Because he knows how to run a business,” he said.

 

DAY 7

FOR WHOM THE RED POLLS

When I woke up the next morning, I grabbed my phone to catch up on some of what I had missed overnight.

It appears Breitbart fact-checked the fact-checkers. In my journey to go read the beauty, my slow internet made my browser stall on an ad that read “Join Team Trump: Join the movement by contributing today and help us stop Crooked Hillary.”

They capitalized “Crooked” like it was her first name. I suppose I’d never seen it written out before, but I imagine there could be a whole world of in-house style guides for terms these outlets use. I wish David Foster Wallace were alive.

They dubbed the story featuring the fact-check of the fact-checkers “Fact wreck.” Over the past several days I’d realized that whatever leads editors at liberal rags to disqualify shitty puns from their publications has not penetrated the right-wing ranks.

When I clicked the link, a photo of a small toy Pinocchio floating facedown in a tub of water popped up. Under that, text read “Poor factcheck.org, their website went down in the debate.” After that, my computer slowed to a mind-numbing crawl and my browser killed the Breitbart page. I tried again later that night and got the same result.

Breitbart also had a poll for readers to declare who they think won the debate.

I voted for Clinton, out of spite, and lost. The poll showed that 75 percent of readers thought Trump was the victor. 

 Peregrine Frissell was born and raised in Polson, Montana, and is a graduate of the University of Montana in Missoula. He interned for the Nepali Times in Kathmandu, Nepal, and is now an environmental reporter at a daily paper in Connecticut.

 Rene Sanchez is an artist from Rancho Santa Margarita, California. She is currently finishing her degree in journalism at the University of Montana.