BY LEE HABEEB
How did it happen? Unemployment is at 4.1 percent, consumer confidence is at a 17-year high, wages have risen for middle-class workers, worker 401(k)s are flush, and crime levels hover at near 30-year lows. Yet only 38 percent of the American people thinks the country is on the right path and only 24 percent think the new GOP tax cuts are a good idea, while 42 percent believe they’re a bad idea—with 63 percent sure the cuts benefit the wealthy and corporations at the expense of the middle class.
How did it happen? A recent Pew Poll revealed that only 5 percent of media coverage about President Trump was positive this past year, while 62 percent was negative. Compare that with President Obama’s first year, when 42 percent of the coverage was positive and only 20 percent negative—while he was trying to do something extremely unpopular with health care at the time.
We all know why those numbers are those numbers: Folks get their news and cultural cues from a media that leans left, with movies, sitcoms, talk show hosts, and sports entertainment all serving as an almost de facto extension of one ideological faction.
It isn’t just the short-term political landscape affected by this well-documented bias. The long-term impact is only now beginning to be understood. A new poll by the American Culture and Faith Institute revealed a sharp rise in Americans who prefer socialism to capitalism: the number was 37 percent.
Why the Left Dominates Culture
The bigger question remains: Why does the Left dominate this all-important aspect of American life? I am often asked this question because I make a living working for one of the few publicly traded conservative media companies in America, Salem Media Group.
The director and actor Rob Reiner gave his answer on “The Ingraham Angle” a week ago: “You know the difference between Republicans and Democrats? Republicans know they’re right. Democrats entertain the possibility that they might be wrong,” Reiner told host Laura Ingraham. “And that’s the big difference, and why liberals are drawn to the arts. It is a more open-minded kind of thing.”
The answer wasn’t even worth a rebuttal, it was so broad, so self-serving, and such a gross caricature of large groups of individuals. The real answer is more complicated and begins with this important distinction between the Left and Right: they take the business of the media and storytelling seriously. We don’t. That’s quite odd, given that we take every other business in America seriously.
The Left has invested fortunes in storytelling pipelines and filled them with stories that shape what Americans think about everything—business, family, government, marriage, love, sex, current events, history, even God. To understand how we let this happen, we must first understand why.
‘Those Who Tell the Stories Rule Society’
To begin, we really don’t think storytelling matters. The Left does. They know what Plato knew when he said “Those who tell the stories rule society.” The writer Paul Auster, thousands of years later, echoed Plato’s words with these: “Stories shape reality, and human beings.” Auster understood that the true power of storytelling was its imitative power.
Why don’t we think storytelling matters? Deep down in our hearts, we think it’s a silly vocation. It’s not what serious people do with their lives. How do I know? How many of you would be happy if your child told you he or she wanted to be an actor or writer? If that same child wanted to join the Marine Corps, or start his own businesses, I know how you’d react: You’d be worried, but proud.
At New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts a few years ago, Robert DeNiro gave a speech to students about to begin their careers. He told some stories, and a few jokes. But then he got serious. He implored the graduates to work hard. To be fearless. He said they were a part of an important tribe called artists and storytellers, that their work would shape the life of America.
DeNiro spoke to them as if they were new army recruits. To the Left, they are. They view careers in the arts the way we view careers in the military and business. They really believe in this stuff. We don’t.
Rather than Competing, We Whine
Another reason we didn’t invest in storytelling and the media is not as well understood. We instead spent tens of billions of dollars over the past 20 years on think tanks—that’s right, tens of billions—because we actually believed that facts and logic alone, our superior arguments alone, would win the national narrative. And we call our opponents elites? That misallocation of capital has cost us, and cost us dearly.
When we do finally “invest” in the media, we do it by pouring billions into political ads every election cycle. This, oddly enough, funds our political opponents’ media platforms and content. And we’re the smart guys?
No disrespect to PhDs and politicians, but asking them to shape the national narrative is like asking NFL linebackers to be ballerinas. Rather than do what we’d naturally do in any other business category, which is compete, we’ve chosen an unattractive alternative: whining.
Given that media ownership can change the world and make a profit, you’d think we’d just start sinking vast fortunes into this space, and turn what has always been a cost center—our billions spent on political ads—into a revenue center like the Left does. But because we really don’t believe storytelling matters, we don’t. We just whine. And complain. And then whine and complain some more.
To be fair, we have lots to whine about. When’s the last time you saw a businessman cast as the good guy and a bureaucrat or trial lawyer as the bad guy on TV? Or a good guy priest and bad guy union boss in a movie? That’s right. Hold your breath. 1954. Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.”
Why Stories Are Better than Facts
I am often asked, “So what is it about stories that move people in ways data and facts can’t?” It’s simple. We’re hardwired to absorb the narrative form. Stories have structure, characters, and plots. Storytelling is the world’s oldest killer app. Stories change our hearts. They change everything. Most importantly, stories outlive news cycles and reinforce the underlying themes in the news.
Take Arthur Miller’s plays, which generally revolve around fathers and sons. But there’s always a scene that hammers capitalism. Like the one in “Death of a Salesman,” where Willy begs for his job while his boss plays with a machine on his desk. What a jerk! Miller wrote that play in 1949. He died in 2006. People are still moved by the story to despise business owners, which then gets reflected in the polls.
Media ownership also confers big advantages that conservatives don’t properly appreciate, one of which explains why so many artists and storytellers lean left: owners get to choose the stories that do and don’t get told. That curation power effects outcomes. If artists want their stories chosen, they’d best comport with the curator’s worldview. This drives artists to censor themselves, often without knowing it, because they need the work. That’s why so many artists and media types are liberal: Their bosses are.
Another power of media ownership is its asymmetric nature. A handful of owners make the majority of us feel like a minority in our own country. It’s why dictators always seize the media. What they’re seizing is their nation’s story, its past and its future.
The Left has seized the media in America, but not by force. We just let them. We surrendered that hill, and without a real fight. To be fair, we own a few platforms: Fox News, talk radio, and some partisan websites. But it’s news and opinion, designed to preach to the choir, not bring in new converts. We’ve invested nothing in storytelling platforms that will attract new customers to the great brand called America—and we’re the business people?
Our Attempt to Reverse-Engineer NPR
There are at least two of everything in business. Where’s our CBS, ABC, and HBO? In radio and audio storytelling, which is exploding thanks to podcasting, the elephant in the room is NPR. They have 20 million people listening for more than two hours a week. They are producing many of the most listened-to storytelling podcasts in the country. NPR has a whopping $350 million in annual revenue, with very little of it—about 10 percent—coming from the government.
A few years ago, a friend dared me to reverse engineer NPR. Produce one big show, only make it more American. Celebrate the risk-takers in the country, the entrepreneurs of the past, present, and future. Celebrate people of faith and the good works they do every day, and the real-life heroes and real-life warriors who defend us. Celebrate the Constitution, property rights, and the rule of law, which have unleashed the creative capacity of citizens in ways no other nation has ever done.
A few founding funders liked our plan, and in about 24 months, we have grown from a mere four affiliates to nearly 100, and are approaching 1 million listeners. There is a reason the show is growing fast: The American people crave redeeming, uplifting content that reminds them every day that the country they live in is good, and that the values they hold dear are good ones. That hard work, self-sacrifice, courage, honor, self-reliance, generosity, and compassion are a part of the cultural DNA of the American people. That we are a good and decent people, a beautiful people.
Tell Americans Their Own Stories
Folks, we must start telling the story of America to Americans. Stories about what free enterprise has done for human progress. We must address matters of the heart, too. Not talking about our spiritual nature, about love, is where we go wrong. We must tell stories about faith, and the beautiful things we do because of our faith. Tell stories about the generosity of the American people. We give more of our time and money than any other western country in the world does.
We must tell stories about underdogs and victims of government bureaucracies, too. Stories about inner-city kids trapped in bad schools, and union bosses who oppose school choice. Stories about small bankers forced to sell to bigger banks thanks to Dodd-Frank, even though the big banks got us in trouble.
Most importantly, we must compete with the Left at telling the story of America’s past. George Orwell knew why. “The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their understanding of their own history,” he wrote. Orwell was right. Battles over the past are always about the future.
To continue to let the Left tell the story of America to Americans without competing fiercely in the space isn’t just gross negligence: It’s cultural suicide. We have great stories to tell. We need to start telling them. We can do this. How hard can it be? After all, liberals did it.
Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content for Salem Radio Network, and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford with his wife Valerie and daughter Reagan.