The Republican National Committee’s threat to boycott CNN and NBC won’t change the news, but it can tell us a lot about the state of the GOP.
The Republican National Committee’s chairman recently issued an ultimatum to CNN and NBC. If CNN and NBC don’t cancel their plans to air a documentary and dramatic miniseries respectfully about Hillary Clinton, the RNC would retaliate by refusing to partner with them on debates during the 2016 nomination cycle. This threat is pretty ridiculous. The idea that any voter is going to have their opinions swayed about one of the most famous politicians in the world because of a docudrama or CNN documentary three years before Election Day 2016 is absurd. But more than an example of the RNC behaving badly, this stunt is an example of how misplaced the Republican Parties priorities are these days.
Back in 2010 The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait coined the term “conservative information feedback loop” to describe a strange phenomenon he noticed. Republican oriented media outlets like Fox News were claiming that the “true cost” of Obamacare was actually higher than what the President and Democrats were claiming. As Chait pointed out this was due to a 1997 law, often called the “doc fix,” which changed how doctors were being reimbursed for Medicare costs. Basically Congress goofed the formula but never got around to fixing it permanently and instead “doc fixed” the cost difference temporarily every year. Or as Chait describes it, “In other words, the [Medicare] budget baseline is off by about $200 billion a year, which is the rough cost of filling in this hole.”
The curious thing that was happening was Republicans politicians, like Paul Ryan, were citing this discrepancy as being proof that there was a “true” cost of Obamacare higher than previously reported figures. Republican oriented news outlets like Fox News would then repeat this claim and more Republican politicians and other conservatives would then cite the news report as definitive evidence that the claim must be true, after all it has been reported on the news, right? The funny thing is that with just some basic research the claim is easily knocked down, and thus often was in non-Republican aligned news outlets like The New Republic. But because so many Republican aligned news organizations had stopped reporting on things in the “main stream media” with its “liberal bias” an easily refuted claim became a major talking point for the Republican Party.
The biggest problems with the feedback loop for the GOP comes when it abruptly collides with the world inhabited by those of us that don’t watch Fox News all the time. A great example came last year during the second Presidential debate held at Hofstra University. The one foreign policy question that night was about the attack in Benghazi, something that Romney should have been able to hammer Obama with. After all, it’s easy to attack any President for international events that happen on their watch, just ask Jimmy Carter. But as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein pointed out back then, the exchange went very badly for Romney:
Yet Romney drifted first to an attack on Obama for going to a fundraiser, and then wandered around the Middle East to little effect, then finished his first pass at the question with the mythical “apology tour” and his recent empty rhetoric about an “unraveling” policy.
And then it got worse. Obama lectured Romney for daring to accuse him of playing politics with the issue. The truth is, he supplied an opening for Romney; a candidate who knew what he was talking about could have pointed out that of course in the United States, these things become political issues.
Instead, Romney ignored that part of it, and clung to — and repeated — a conservative talking point about just exactly when Obama had called the attacks “terrorism,” a talking point that has the twin advantages of being both pointless and factually incorrect.
But this wasn’t just poor debating on Romney’s part, instead it’s the answer you’d except from some trapped in the feedback loop:
Romney has been doing this for, literally, years now. His main platform on foreign policy, after all, is to reject an “apology tour” that never happened and that people have been correcting him on for years. He’s come up with the new one, “unraveling,” recently, but hasn’t bothered to fill in anything—at all—about what is unraveling, or how. Nor is it just foreign policy. His tax plan doesn’t come close to adding up, and his jobs plan doesn’t, either. He repeats flat-out lies again and again, no matter how many times they’ve been shot down. As I said, lazy mendacity — even where the facts would do well for him, as in trillion-dollar deficits, he chooses instead to constantly claim that Obama doubled the deficit, which isn’t true.
When it comes to governing the effects of the feedback loop are even worse. The feedback loop was a big part of why the Bush Administration was unable to acknowledge that things were going poorly in Iraq until they spiraled completely out of control. It was also a big part of why Bush seemed so clueless as to what was going on in the aftermath of Katrina. After all, isn’t Brownie doing “a heck of a job?” The feedback loop is also a huge part of why Republicans were so misled about the likely outcome of the 2012 election. Those of us reading Nate Silver were pleasantly unsurprised when it came to Obama’s re-election, while Republicans were devastated because they had been misinformed for so long.
What the Republicans should be trying to do is break out of this loop. They don’t have to agree with what prominent papers say on their editorial pages, but if their talking points are easily blown apart they should change them, rather than quote them again and again on Sean Hannity’s show. This has added benefits greater than just being better informed about what’s going on in the world. A GOP candidate that pays attention to the entire media might know how 47 percent of Americans would respond to being called lazy loafers and thus might know not to say it. At the very least they would know not to say it at the height of a presidential campaign. Unfortunately for them what the RNC is trying to do with its boycott threats is make the loop even more closed by shutting out the national press even more. Unless they find a way to break out of it, a lot of the problems we’ve seen with the GOP over the last 10 years won’t be going away any time soon.