Matthew Sheffield talks media's blind spot for religious fundamentalism [podcast + transcript]

Part 2 of my conversation with Matthew.

  
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This is part 2 of 2 of my conversation with Matthew Sheffield. If you haven’t checked out last week’s episode, you may want to do that here:

The Present Age
Matthew Sheffield helped build the right-wing media apparatus. Now he's fighting it. [podcast + transcript]
Listen now (43 min) | This week’s podcast guest is Matthew Sheffield, the founder and editor of Flux, a new online community for progressive writers and podcasters. I was interested in talking to Matthew about his earlier life experience as someone who was present when right-wing media really started building the echo chamber. The interview went pretty long, so this is part …
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Parker Molloy: A lot of criticism of Democrats seems to ignore the asymmetric nature of partisan media. There's a massive right-wing infrastructure in place that can keep the same topic and headlines for an indefinite amount of time. This makes it easy to pick a topic re-alert invented to hammer away at for their own political goals, and I think we saw that recently in Virginia about critical race theory and all of that. And you have people like James Carville offering advice like stop the wokeness, but what he seems to miss is it's not Democrats who are pushing these narratives. If Fox News wants to spend every night between now and the next election claiming that Biden quadrupled everyone's taxes or made it illegal to breathe oxygen, they can, and some people will believe it and they'll repeat it.

The Democrats who lost these recent elections, they didn't run on critical race theory or defund the police or anything like that, or LGBTQ issues, which, trust me, I wish the Democrats were as pro-LGBTQ as right-wing media make them out to be. But I don't know what they're supposed to do, or even more importantly, what legitimate news outlets are supposed to do to counter this. If Democrats weigh in on every nonsense issue that comes up... As we're recording this, we're in day two or three of them freaking out about Big Bird. There's a new target every day that gets thrown out there. If they weigh-in, they lose because they're weighing in on something as trivial as Big Bird. If they ignore it, it just builds up and so all of it's a long way to ask you what... How do you fight back against that when the infrastructure is so... It's a very strong infrastructure that right-wing media has built. You have Fox and Gateway Pundit and Daily Caller and Daily Wire and all of that; they keep bouncing the same ideas back and forth. Oh, commentary from a Daily Wire contributor turns into a Fox and Friends segment with that person, which then gets put on Daily Caller. It's this very incestuous, basically. It's an echo chamber.

And people often talk about there being, "Oh, the liberal bubble, get out of your liberal bubble." That was something we heard over and over and over after 2016, and then after 2020 there was a big push to, "People have to get out of their liberal bubble," again. The answer is always people on the left need to do this. It's never people on the right need to get with reality. That's never something that gets brought into it, and that's one way I feel like mainstream outlets are failing us is that they don't realize, or they refuse to urge people on the right to maybe be less extreme. You hear after the recent elections, there's been this push, hey, oh, does Joe Biden need to move to the right? Has he been too extreme? He hasn't really done anything extreme. The policies he's proposed have generally been pretty well supported. There's nothing crazy in there, especially when you consider that when Republicans passed the tax bill in 2017, it had something like a 30% approval rating. It was super low and they passed it anyway. And it remained unpopular, but they didn't care.

Matthew Sheffield: Well, there's a lot to unpack there.

Oh yeah, I'm sorry. That went on forever on my end.

The first thing I would say is that after Republicans lose elections, they don't think, well how can we move to the center? What is the message that we can say that will make people like us? They don't do that. They never do that. In fact, what they do is to say, "How can we change the environment so that our ideas can propagate better?" And nobody on the left does that.

And part of that is why I started my website, Flux, to try to focus on some of these larger issues and larger trends. In terms of Christian nationalism and the Republican mind, I just did a long interview and discussion about how this works. The Left Behind novels. People have heard of them but did you know that they were written by the... from one of the co-founders of the Council for National Policy?

No, I didn't.

Which is a right-wing networking organization. The Left Behind novels are designed as political propaganda. That's what they're for; that's the point of them. But people just think, well look at this stupid moron Kirk Cameron movies and whatnot. Of course it's done. Whatever. Understand-

Yeah, that God's Not Dead; that whole series of movies, too. It's all the same.

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah, of course it's dumb, but you have to go to the next step which is what is the point of these things? Why do they exist? How many people are reading them? And in the case of the Left Behind, those things have sold over 100 million copies.

Yeah. Which, in fairness, it's a cool premise for a book, but it's definitely... I feel like it's a cool premise that could've been done in a less super propaganda type way, which I guess that just becomes the Leftovers.

Yeah, the end of the world, Satan trying to kill everyone or the demons or whatever. Hell, that's every fucking superhero.

Yeah, it's true.

Marvel literally has a god character, Thor, in its pantheon of superheroes. Yeah, it is a cool premise, for sure, but people have to understand what does it... The way that it's executed is designed to tell the audience who reads the books or watches the films or whatever that Democrats are the literal, not metaphorical, literal servants of Satan.

Yep, that's... Yeah.

And that reality that there are 10s of millions of people who think this. Have you ever seen that discussed on cable news?

No.

I don't think ever.

No. And if it was brought up, people would get slammed for, "Oh, your generalizing," which, okay, but if one Democrat somewhere saying, "We should defund the police," gets turned into, "This is what Democrats believe," there's no... No one goes, "All Republicans believe that forest fires are started with a Jewish space laser," like Marjorie Taylor Greene said, but that's kind of how things are when it comes to you find one fringe-type character on the left and that becomes this is what Democrats believe, this is what the left believes.

Yeah, or even in the case of Black Lives Matter, there were some acts of arson or criminality that were conducted, but if you act... I actually was watching the... I live in Long Beach, California; I was watching some webcam footage that people had, the public webcams, and I saw the protests. They were in an area and then they left, the protesters left. And then some people drove in from who knows where and then broke into a store. They had nothing to do with these protests, they were just looters and were not affiliated with the groups. But nobody reported that.

Yeah. Well, and also with that, there was this narrative last year as that was happening, "Oh, Democrats support riots and mobs and violence and looting and burning," but I don't know, there might have been a couple who were outspoken on the more extreme ends of whatever was happening, but for the most part, Democrats were like, "Violence is bad, violence is wrong. No violence. Stop it." That sort of thing. But it's-

Well, and then, yeah... Oh, sorry.

There was this idea that Joe Biden was... these were Joe Biden fans. No. No one who goes and calls themselves an anti-fascist is a Joe Biden fan.

They hate Joe Biden.

Yeah. Joe Biden, he's the middle of the road. I don't know. He's, "Is Pepsi okay?" as a person, you know?

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

That sort of thing. He's no one's first choice.

Yeah. But I would say, though, that, yeah, I don't think, though, that the mainstream media is adequately positioned to cover this. And Democrats and democratic leaders and funders and activists need to understand that the mainstream media will never be up to this task. There is nothing that you can say to them because most of them operate... Their training is basically show up in a building and try to find people and ask them about legislation. That's the only thing they know how to do. They don't know-

Repeat whatever gets told to them, which that's one of those things that, especially during the Trump era, was pretty obnoxious because you'd have respectable mainstream reporters tweeting out whatever nonsense Trump said that day or whatever-

Yeah, "I had the biggest inauguration attendance ever."

Yeah. One guy who used to do that a lot was this CBS reporter, Mark Knoller, where he would just say nonsense. Trump would say nonsense and he would just type it up and send it out and everyone would be like, "Why are you doing this? You understand that this is straight-up untrue. You don't need to share it word-for-word without saying-

“Are you a stenographer?”

Yeah, well exactly. And then he... I forgot, there was-

He retired, actually.

Yeah, he retired and then immediately started popping up in the replies of some... I forgot who it was but some democratic lawmaker said something that was a slight exaggeration and he popped in to go, "Actually..." And it's like, where was this guy? Where was this guy the past four years? But-

Yeah. Well yeah, so basically what has to be done is that there has to be multiple organizations started who will not only document the lies but also actively push back against them and then also try to stay in touch with the democratic base and get them to be engaged and continue to be engaged, then also to... And then there also need to be groups that are out there telling people who vote Republican, "This is who you actually are supporting when you support these people," because I can tell you so many people who I know, they have no idea. I personally didn't know about this stuff and I worked in media commentary and analysis and I didn't know how crazy these people were. And so the mainstream media isn't going to report it because they are so upset. The only thing that they can understand is an elected politician said this. And sometimes they will debunk it, maybe. But most of these people in the right-wing ecosystem are not elected politicians, and that's by design. Charles Koch, he actually did try to run for president, actually, I think it was 1980, and he got completely destroyed because no one likes their ideas. They don't care about public opinion. They're not going to put themselves out there on the ballot.

And so you need to understand that these activists, that these donors are the actual powers behind the right. The politicians themselves are literally just window dressing; that's all they are. And in fact, Reverend [Norquist 00:56:40], who is one of the most powerful and wealthy right-wing activists out there, been around forever, has said, "The only thing we want in a president is a monkey able to sign legislation that we write," basically. That's what he said. And that is their attitude. This guy has been around in politics literally since the '80s at the epicenter of Republican politics. You have to understand if you're a reporter that that's who you should be covering or paying attention to. But again, you can't count on the mainstream media to understand-

They're so set in their ways and stubborn, even now after the entire world has been working remotely, not in offices for two years, if you go to any mainstream media publication and look at their job listings, they'll all be like, "Must live in New York, must live in DC." It's like, did you not pay attention to any fucking thing that you yourself experienced? The answer is no, they did not. If they can't even learn from their own experience in their own industry, you can't count on them, so don't try them.

It reminds me of those stories of people who had really serious COVID and then survived, and they're still not getting the vaccine. It's like, dude, how? How are we here? How did we end up there?

Here's an example I was thinking about from last week. There was this segment that CNN ran during New Day that was about... It was a trip to the grocery store with a family of 11. First off, the average size of an American family's two point something. It's very small, not 11, so right there you're not talking about the average American family in any way, shape or form. The family they spoke with lived in Texas so they flew a reporter down to Texas because when they aired it, he was in New York, so they sent him down to Texas to meet with this specific family to go shopping with them for a piece to illustrate how Americans are struggling to pay the bills with the way inflation is going. And then when you looked up the people who were being interviewed in these stories, they were very clearly pretty partisan. That's fine. They had Facebook posts about, oh, gas hasn't been this high since, well, the last time a Democrat was in office, which is not true.

But beyond that, the story comes out and there were a number of false claims in it, which could've just... They didn't go down there and film three-and-a-half minutes of footage, they filmed probably an hour at least, and they could've left out portions where one of the family members said things like, "Oh, milk went from $1.99 up to $2.79 this year." It did not go up 80 cents. It did not increase by 40%, which is what the argument was there. And when you're buying 12 gallons a week, that's a lot of milk, yes. Yeah, when you're buying 12 gallons a week even at the amount that you're talking about, that's $9 which, yeah, adds up but it's not necessarily a lot, a lot, I guess.

But the whole story hinged on that where they also said, "Oh, well if in June $1 was worth $1, now it only has 70 cents worth of the same buying power," which is not true, obviously. That would be the worst inflation in the country's history if in five months you had 30% of the purchase power of the US dollar disappearing. But CNN left those in there, didn't challenge any of the statements and aired the segment. And when people pushed back on it, when people said, "These things that she said were false and you included them in the segment without really challenging them at all," they got angry. The person who reported it out who flew down to Texas to meet with this family, the person who did that went and called people who were criticizing him assholes on Twitter. Now, that's not something that... I don't know, CNN has a history of firing people for tweeting things that are bad or for saying things that are controversial. You had Reza Aslan, he lost his show because he tweeted that Trump was a piece of shit, which okay, that's fair if you want to fire someone for that, but then you have this dude calling your audience assholes for correcting misinformation that was put out there.

It's frustrating because there are very, very clearly separate rules that the right is allowed to abide by and the left has to abide, sort of like how the New York Times will buckle under pressure to bend over backwards to try to appease right wing criticism. They'll bring in... Oh, let's have Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton come in and write op eds for us. Let's invite Eric Erikson to write an op ed for us about why we need to come together after he took a page of the New York Times and shot bullets into it. These sorts of things that-

Well, and a guy who called a Supreme Court Justice a pig fucker.

Yeah. Well, I think it was a goat-fucking pedophile. That was, I think, what he said. Yeah.

Whatever it was, yeah-

Yeah, it was not good.

... about civility.

It was a lot. And these are the people who get voices, these are the people who get... They pop up on CNN all the time. It's really frustrating as... Not just as someone who wants to live in a society where we can all... I would love to debate the merits of different tax policies or to discuss what the US role in foreign policy should be or something like that, but there's no policies being discussed, it's just culture war straight up and down. It's just Democrats want to kill you and that's why you should vote Republican. That seems to be the message, and it's unhinged. And I don't know how we all coexist. I would like to, but-

Well, like I said, I think the right a long time ago decided that, well, the mainstream media isn't going to promote our candidates for us and do the pure propaganda that we want so we'll just go and start our own things. There isn't really any appreciable... Not really. There are some liberal outposts here and there, but certainly not anywhere near the amount of... There is no equivalent to right wing talk radio, and people sometimes will be like, "Oh, well there's lots of popular left wing podcasts." And it's like, well, sure that's true, there are some, but guess what? Head over to the Apple podcasts top news and politics and see who dominates that. It's ain't NPR, I'll tell you that.

Yeah. Well, and same thing with Facebook. One great illustration, I think, of the way that right wing media can game the system is I always thought that the way Facebook reacted to this pretty flimsy 2016 Gizmodo story about supposed suppression of conservative ideas, and in reality the complaints seemed to be mostly that Facebook wasn't promoting conspiracy theories about the IRS targeting only conservative groups but not liberal groups, which the IRS was monitoring both groups because you have to be careful when you're an overtly political organization applying for tax exempt status. That's how it's supposed to go. They were mad that these stories about how the IRS were not trending and they were upset that the Associated Press was being weighted heavier than something like Gateway Pundit or Steven Crowder. And I always thought that was a moment that things really started to spiral totally out of control.

The article was published, and within hours you had every right-wing media outlet screaming about it being censored, the RNC weighed in on it. And within days, Facebook set up a meeting with high-profile conservatives. You had Brent Bozell, Jim DeMint, Tucker Carlson, Glen Beck, all of these people went to Facebook and met with Mark Zuckerberg to talk about what they can do to make them feel better about things to assure them that it's not biased against conservatives. Facebook took a bunch of the recommendations. Facebook immediately fired the team that curated its trending section, replaced it with an algorithm that didn't differentiate between nonsense stories and actual news. And then in the months leading up to the election, it just fed readers false stories about things like the Pope endorsing Trump or Megyn Kelly endorsing Clinton and a bunch of conspiracy theories. [crosstalk 01:06:52] It seemed like a pretty clear-cut example of conservatives seizing on an opportunity to weaponize a sense of being wronged, a sense of being the victim to claim bias to their advantage.

Facebook bent over backwards to make sure that they felt okay. They carved out special rules so that Trump could lie in his ads. They did all of these things. And what's the conservative position on Facebook? It's still biased against conservatives. There's nothing that can be said or done that would change that because it's not actually about correcting a bias, it's about pushing for an advantage. I don't know. Do you think that I make too much of that Facebook example? Because it's stuck with me for five years.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I wouldn't say it's more of a... It's just a good test case or example. But that sort of thing happens all the time. But that's why I do think that there needs to be more... There are some progressive publications out there. Let's say the Nation or New Republic or Talking Points Memo, et cetera, but they are more about progressive interpretations in reporting of the news. But they aren't about actually combating right-wing stupidity and lies and activism, and so basically these people have had waging a one-sided war on mainstream institutions so it's no wonder that they have been favored by them. Your former colleagues at Media Matters have started a new project where they're tracking the most popular Facebook posts, and the most popular Facebook posts are almost without exception right-wing propaganda.

Yeah. And this is something that Facebook could choose to just do rather than eat up all the resources of Media Matters to do that, but alas, Facebook is a secretive organization that worries me.

Well, their key investor is Peter Thiel.

Yeah, which-

He is Mark Zuckerberg's mentor.

The “tech companies are biased against conservatives” lying always gets me because it's so clearly not true but it's impossible to convince people that it's not true.

Well, here's the thing; and this goes back to something I said earlier, that conventional right-wing Republican leaders are... They're much closer to the radical conspiracy theorists and outright fabricators than people realize. The primary reason that Facebook took these criticisms seriously... There were two reasons. One was it was a business decision. They wanted to make sure that half of their audience wouldn't, well... Or 35... Facebook is majority elderly people now, so that's... they didn't want to piss off their Republican mainstays, so that was number one. But then number two is that when you look at the way that disinformation works and is distributed if you have automated filters put in place against disinformation, they will disproportionately affect Republican politicians, and that's because... But nobody ever takes the second step which is to say, "Okay, so if that's true that these filters are doing that and it's indisputable that they do, then that means that Republicans are basing their politics and messaging on lies." That's what that actually means and that's the thing that we should be pointing to as the problem in this discussion. It isn't the algorithms. The algorithms are based on detecting exaggerated or fabricated statements and so they are neutral. They are not having things that are based on, oh, let's make sure to take points off if it's a Republican saying it. That's not how they work. They are neutral. They are literally math formulae. That's what they are.

The thing is, though, these... If Facebook wanted to, it could say, "Yeah, it affects more Republicans than Democrat politicians because that's just the reality of it." They could but they would piss off millions and millions of their users, which obviously they don't want to do.

They instead kind of try to back off.

Yeah. But still, I don't think that point is really made very much even in the... There's tons of critical coverage of Facebook now that's come out in the mainstream press, but I don't think any of it's really touched on. A lot of the problem that Facebook has in terms of disinformation and falsehoods, it isn't because of Facebook's audience or the people who use it, it's because that right wing activism is based on lying. That's the root problem. If you talk to people who actually work in machine learning and content moderation, they actually do discuss this stuff, but it's only within that very small little universe that these discussions are being had and they need to be had on a much greater degree because...

I'll give you an example. Sam Harris, the atheist author who has drifted over to the right the past few years, he did an interview recently where he said that... Somebody had asked him, "Why is it that you seem so... Almost all your content is about criticizing "woke" stuff? That you never talk about Republican extremism or Christian nationalism. Why don't you do that?" And his response was, "Well, because that stuff is so obviously wrong that I don't need to criticize it because it's wrong and so I have to focus on cleaning up my own side." And it's like, bro, do you realize who was the president of this country? Do you realize what is the top-rated cable channel in America? He has no idea. And to be honest, I do think that there are a lot of people in the A political technocratic center or even center left who have that opinion because they have no awareness or contact with right wing media. There's a very easy mistake that you can make which is to think that because you don't know about something that it doesn't matter. And the reality is maybe you don't know about this thing because you're wrong.

Which is an important lesson all around. This has been just a totally fantastic, extremely long conversation. I am so thankful that you took the time to chat with me today.