“Democrats,” the Cato Institute recently observed, “are pinko-communist flag-burners who want to tax churches and use the money to fund abortions so they can use the fetal stem cells to create pot-smoking lesbian ATF agents…” But it then described Republicans as “hateful, assault-weapon-wielding maniacs who believe… that the only thing wrong with the death penalty is that it isn’t administered quickly enough to secular-humanist professors of Chicano studies.” What gives?
The libertarian organization was simply filing a very funny amicus curiae brief (words not often seen together) in a Supreme Court case that deals with Americans’ right to say terrible things about each other. The caricatures may be over-the-top, but an alien could be forgiven for perceiving the Right and Left this way if the only information he got about American politics came from MSNBC and Fox News (respectively).
This is definitely the view that same alien would get if he read very many political emails. The GOP combines Genghis Khan’s regard for human rights with Leona Helmsley’s compassion for the poor (at least according to the messages I get from Democrats). Meanwhile, your Aunt Millie wants you to know about President Obama’s sexuality (gay), religion (Muslim), mother (a stripper), and healthcare microchips (soon-to-be-implanted in humans across America).
I am a bit of a collector of political emails, particularly those from the Right. In a way it feels like eavesdropping on someone else’s dinner table conversation. The American Family Association assumes that its supporters will be equally outraged about the Army’s “anti-Christian training sessions” and Home Depot’s “support of homosexual activist groups.” Watching the Right’s seemingly endless reserves of paranoia, self-pity, and (above all) self-deception is, admittedly, a guilty pleasure.
Indeed, I’ve been amused (and saddened) by the way that some conservative groups treat their own followers like a massive herd of Geritol-chugging suckers. It’s not just the Glenn Beck method of ginning up fears of civilizational collapse in order to sell audiences on gold and survivalist gear (though that is a big part of it). Many of the emails I get from Newsmax, a conservative publishing powerhouse, are hawking ludicrous financial schemes of the one-easy-trick-to-not-pay-taxes-or-get-rich-on-the-stock-market variety. For example, an email headed, “Weird Calendar Turns $1 into $49,000?” says:
Elsewhere the same author, Aaron DeHoog, says that he is “absolutely thrilled about a new investment system my team has developed . . . a system that is designed to help you garner up to 52% annual returns per year. Using this exact system, I have personally already pocketed gains of 25% in just 5 weeks — and I am confident it could do the same for you.”
Another message features the alluring subject heading: “Seniors Scoop Up Unclaimed $20,500 Checks? (See If You Qualify).”
These gimmicks target the same easy marks who are prepared to consider an offer of millions from a Nigerian prince, even if Newsmax’s emails may not be as pernicious as the notorious 419 scams. More often than not, it seems, these advertisers want to get anxious senior citizens to part with some of their limited income for dubious financial advice.
I’ve noticed this pattern for years, but last November I decided to start collecting emails from Newsmax and Truthout, a left-wing publisher, to compare how differently they relate to their audiences. The two are not quite equivalent, of course; Newsmax was founded in 1998 by conservative journalist Christopher Ruddy, who was famous in part as an antagonist of the Clintons over Vincent Foster’s death, and received support from big-money funders of right-wing causes such as Richard Mellon Scaife. The company runs a website and a magazine of the same name and has since become a major voice on the Right, rivaling the audience of sites like Huffington Post and pulling in tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue. Truthout, in contrast, is a nonprofit website that, since 2001, has republished pieces from around the progressive media and posted its own editorial and journalistic content, focusing on issues such as war, torture, climate change, poverty, and the prison industrial complex—albeit with a much smaller audience than Newsmax. I never subscribed to either one, but I’ve been getting Truthout emails (1st message: “Kissinger Says Victory in Iraq Is Not Possible”) since at least 2006 and Newsmax (“Brain expert: Your thoughts lie. Do not trust them”) since about 2009.
Both publishers are very much a part of the partisan political media that has flourished online in the last fifteen years. By comparing the two, I wanted to find out: What are their preoccupations? What is their style or tone? How do they perceive the events of the day? I saved every message I received from both groups for two months, but I decided to focus on a two week window (Jan 1-15, 2014) for my analysis, because A. I’m lazy, B. I’m not a social scientist, and C. the holiday season might have been tilted heavily in the direction of war-on-Christmas bromides, and the first two weeks of the year seemed more neutral.
Here are some of my observations:
Newsmax sends out a lot more email—29 messages in 15 days, versus Truthout’s 15. In short, Truthout sends one message a day, which is a digest of stories with short summaries and links for each article. Newsmax sends out news items, op-eds (Alan Dershowitz is a frequent contributor), and many, many promotional messages, mostly about finance and health. Truthout’s emails were much wordier, which is perhaps not surprising since none of them are advertisements. Over the course of half a month, Newsmax’s emails clocked in at a little over 5000 words, while Truthout’s messages, though fewer in number, included more than 13,000.
About 45% of Newsmax’s messages were promotional in nature, if one defines the remainder as “news” in a very loose sense. In the 15-day period under review, these included:
- Money Morning (a financial publication that was hyping China/gold hysteria)
- a “shocking” video about how the “US Government and Corporate Medicine” are keeping medical miracles secret
- The Douglass Report (something to do with NSA surveillance)
- The Richest Man Who Ever Lived (a book on Christian entrepreneurship)
- Health Revelations (“a healing message encoded in ancient scripture”)
- Medix Health (“one thing you should do for your prostate every morning”)
Again and again in Newsmax’s promotions, one find anxieties over health (particularly ailments of the elderly) and nefarious schemes to keep ordinary people from knowing about financial and medical secrets that, if publicized, would greatly enhance public well-being. The purveyor of the secret, of course, will let you know if you just click here. A word cloud of the text from both Truthout and Newsmax emails reveals their different emphases. I’ve removed a few common words (such as “Truthout,” “Newsmax,” “read,” “article,” and “January”) from both sets of text in order not to distort the relative frequency of the remaining terms.
Truthout’s cloud reflects the perennial concerns of the Left, such as capitalism, democracy, and unemployment, as well as the names of frequent contributors like Thom Hartmann and William Rivers Pitt. Notably, the word “news” looms largest for Truthout, but is significantly smaller for Newsmax. Indeed, there is very little commonality between the two clouds: “Republican” comes up for Truthout, but not for Newsmax, while “Washington” appears in the latter’s but not the former’s. The GOP, of course, is the Left’s bête noire, and perhaps Washington symbolizes the evil of the (liberal) political establishment for conservatives. Newsmax skews strongly toward medical issues—blood, pressure, prostate, sick, carb—which owes in part to Newsmax Health being a major arm of the publisher, but also the magazine’s presumably older readership. Current events figure little in either cloud, except to the extent that words like “tax” or “water” allude to contemporary political debates; “Christie” and “Bridgegate” curiously come up for Newsmax but not Truthout, suggesting at least the possibility that the New Jersey Governor’s scandal loomed larger for conservatives than liberals.
These observations are cursory and tentative, and the methods are hardly scientific. The comparison itself suffers from a fundamental apples-to-apples problem; Newsmax and Truthout are not clear counterparts of each other, as the latter is solidly identified with the Left (akin to The Nation or Democracy Now), while Newsmax at least purports to be “Independent. American.” Though its content is overwhelmingly conservative in nature, it certainly does not demonstrate the reflexive xenophobia of competitors farther to the right, like RedState or Breitbart, and the company has periodically published op-eds by figures like Susan Estrich and (the late) Ed Koch that offer a more centrist spin on current events.
But the two publishers offer an unmistakable contrast in tone, focus, and attitude: one has a carnival barker or snake oil quality, presenting a world of secret financial opportunities and medical cures and spiritual answers, while the other focuses on systemic problems related to civil rights, immigration, and poverty. The conservative site focuses on individual, personal solutions (like an investment or health choice) while the other dwells on movements and structures—not a surprising dichotomy given the basic ideological orientations in American political culture.
Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the very different worlds that readers of Newsmax and Truthout inhabit. Newsmax may stand closer to the more moderate side of conservative media, yet it remains fixated on silly fantasies about health and finance and treats its readers as old, befuddled dupes whose email addresses can be rented out to con artists for, one assumes, a pretty penny. As hard as it is to understand how anyone falls for a Nigerian email scam, obviously enough people do get fooled for the enterprise to be a going concern. By the same token, Newsmax & co. appear to have determined that people who are willing to believe that Sharia law is a real threat to America and that healthcare reform means rounding up the elderly and infirm for mass euthanasia are the sort of people who might believe that there’s an easy way to get rich too.
The Left may be hobbled by its own prejudices and groupthink, but at least the discussions of political, economic, and social issues I see on Truthout (or American Prospect, or Jacobin, or Daily Kos) appear to be grounded in some recognizable, empirical reality—and these publications don’t blatantly take advantage of their audiences, as far as I know. If someone can find an example of a progressive publication that treats its own readers as easy marks, we’d love to hear from you.