Who Poisoned Talk Radio? | Sojourners

Who Poisoned Talk Radio?

Behind the secretive network that convinced Americans they cannot trust East Coast “elites.” An interview with investigative journalist Anne Nelson.
Photo illustration by Tyler Comrie / Photographs by Getty Images

ANNE NELSON IS a child of Stillwater, Okla. Though she left home to attend Yale University, traveled as a reporter to Central America in the 1980s, and has lived in New York City for four decades, Nelson stays connected to her hometown.

In 2004, while visiting family back in Oklahoma, she noticed something about the conversations on talk radio as she drove across town. People in Oklahoma were not simply processing the news through different filters than her neighbors in New York City. They were getting different news—a whole different story about what was supposedly really happening in America. A good reporter, Nelson wanted to know why.

Her research led her to a group called the Council for National Policy. Founded in 1981 by extreme conservatives who cut their teeth in right-wing politics and the struggle for power within the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s, this little-known network brought together Republican political operatives and preachers of the new Religious Right with independent radio and media companies. In the words of Richard DeVos, a longtime member, the CNP became a coordinating committee for the “donors and the doers” of reactionary right-wing politics. A strange conversation on talk radio led Nelson into the inner workings of an elite network that has labored for four decades to convince everyday Americans in the heartland that they cannot trust East Coast “elites.”

In Nelson’s recent book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right , the longtime professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and School of International and Public Affairs invites readers to see what’s happening in the United States today as a product of the propaganda that CNP produces. Anyone who has been confounded by the willingness of some Christians to march in lockstep with Donald Trump and the Republican Party through the personal scandals and political controversies of the past four years would benefit from placing a list of the characters from Nelson’s new book beside their daily news source. People who have defended Trump from the White House—Steve Bannon, Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway—have in fact been connected through the CNP for decades to the white evangelicals—James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Ralph Reed among them—who have been most eager to praise Trump as a champion of “religious values.” On the same list, less recognizable names point to radio and television networks that offer an alternative story to the fact-based journalism Trump and his enablers attack as “fake news,” to the data companies that empower targeted political organizing, and to the money that makes all of this possible.

Critical books in recent years, such as Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, have uncovered the influence of big money in efforts to undermine American democracy. But in an era of the most extreme inequality since the Gilded Age, how do oil-rich plutocrats persuade everyday Americans that someone like Donald Trump represents a populist agenda? The answer to that question has everything to do with the way Christian values have been reframed in American public life by members of the CNP over the past 40 years.

As a growing movement of Christians organizes to challenge the Religious Right, Shadow Network is an important resource. Nelson, who is herself a member of the Episcopal Church, sat down with me to talk about how her research can inform faith-rooted organizing to reclaim democracy for the common good.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: As an investigative reporter, you’ve written a book that takes readers into the heart of the institutional network that connects the Religious Right to the NRA, the Federalist Society, right-wing media, and the Republican Party. It’s a wild ride. What got you started on the path that made it possible for you to write this book?

Anne Nelson: I wrote Shadow Network out of a sense of civic duty. I observed some trends in our national life that were anti-democratic and detrimental to our public welfare. I’m deeply concerned by the epidemic of gun violence in our schools, the growing disdain for science and fact-based reporting, and, gravest of all, the campaigns against climate science and environmental protections. My research gave me some insight into the underlying mechanics that achieved these measures, and I dropped my other projects in 2016 to document them in this book.

As someone raised in the Southern Baptist church, I was struck by the way you see so much of the extremism in American life today rooted in the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s. Why was that struggle within America’s largest Protestant denomination so important to what would follow in public life?

It is indeed extraordinary that individuals connected to the Southern Baptist Convention should play such an outsized role in our national life. I see three major factors. The first is that, over a period when mainline Protestant denominations were shrinking in membership and influence, the Southern Baptist Convention was growing and exerting increasing influence over other evangelical sects.

The second is that the Southern Baptist Convention is extremely well represented in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, which, combined, amount to a virtual petro-state in terms of the oil industry’s sway over economic and political life, and there’s been a symbiotic relationship between the Baptists and the oil interests of the region.

Third, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded to defend slaveowners before the Civil War. I don’t see the issue of race playing out in the same way, but I do perceive many echoes of Civil War-era resentment of federal authority in its culture.

Same here. Not least in the ways this movement has focused on “state’s rights.” Paul Weyrich, the key organizer of the Council for National Policy (CNP) in its beginnings, saw the importance of state governments to his goal of subverting representational democracy. What has this movement done in statehouses to ensure its agenda can move forward without popular support?

The movement I describe in Shadow Network has devoted major resources and energy to winning state-level elections, including state legislatures. It is common for them to pilot bills in certain states, to leverage them to others through organizations such as the State Policy Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council. That’s one reason we’re seeing so many “copycat” bills in areas such as limiting women’s reproductive rights and gun control.

I noticed when Russian agent Maria Butina was arrested, people were asking why she had so many connections with both the NRA and the Religious Right. Short answer: The CNP. Can you talk about the NRA and the role it plays in the CNP?

Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association, is a leading member of the Council for National Policy. The NRA claims some 5 million members and mobilizes them in the interests of the CNP’s agenda. The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action is the organization’s lobbying arm. Its cellphone app uses the Koch brothers’ data platform i360 to mobilize and equip members to conduct Get Out the Vote campaigns for gun rights supporters, to lobby local and national government officials, and conduct door-to-door canvassing in electoral campaigns. The app’s geofencing capability convenes NRA supporters for social interactions in gun shops and other locales.

I learned a great deal from your book about the digital tools that political campaigns are using to connect with voters. Why are the data wars so important to the struggle for democracy in this moment?

The extensive use of Big Data in political campaigns is barely a decade old, yet it has transformed our national landscape. It allows campaigns to target and try to activate voters who are likely to support their candidates. All sides are using it. The serious problems arise when the campaigns use their targeted messaging and platforms to circulate falsehoods—such as the idea that Democrats endorse “executing newborns.” They don’t. But Big Data targeting, combined with wallpaper media, can convince people to neglect important issues such as health care and the national debt while they’re bombarded with messaging on nonexistent phenomena.

You write about this “wallpaper effect” of multiple media sources that constantly reinforce a distorted narrative, and even outright lies. What made this propaganda machine possible? Do you see any effective ways to counter its influence in 2020?

When I travel to the Midwest and the Southwest to see family and friends, I’ve found that the region is blanketed by conservative fundamentalist and right-wing talk radio, which presents a distorted, one-sided, and often fallacious version of current events. These outlets often use religious programming to make political points, without even pretending to offer fact-based reporting. Their influence is reinforced by fundamentalist television broadcasters such as the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, as well as Fox News and local Sinclair stations.

Council for National Policy affiliates such as the Family Research Council influence pastors through groups such as Watchmen on the Wall, which claims a membership of more than 70,000 pastors nationwide. These pastors are equipped with voter guides to insert in the church bulletins, videos to project in their sanctuaries, and even downloadable sermons to deliver. In some communities, citizens are surrounded by content from these sources—at a time when local newspapers and other sources of professional journalism are struggling to survive.

For a long time, the consensus in progressive faith communities was that the Religious Right was like the KKK in the South—a lamentable vestige of the past that was best ignored. Young people could see through the lies, so we thought it best to ignore the liars until those young people became a majority. But youth outreach has become a huge focus of CNP organizing. Are they recruiting a new generation of followers?

After several years of intense research, I believe the Religious Right is driven by economic interests. The political operatives have conducted focus groups and polling to identify hot button issues and framing language (such as “partial birth abortion,” which doesn’t exist as a medical term). Then they manipulate people to support candidates who work against their interests once they take office—cutting corporate taxes, then slashing budgets for public education, public health, environmental protections, and public infrastructure. I see it as an ingenious shell game.

That said, the affiliates of the Council for National Policy are aware that trends in national demographics are not in their favor—the U.S. is becoming more racially diverse; younger generations are more socially liberal than their elders. That’s why they’re trying to move quickly in appointing judges to the federal courts and spending big money on recruiting students and young professionals.

Many people of faith who’ve watched the Religious Right and right-wing media hijack our language are weary of politics. It feels like our most sacred values have been used as tools. What would you say to folks who feel burned by all of this about why it’s important to stay engaged—to expose and challenge the shadow network you’ve described?

My last two books, Red Orchestra and Suzanne’s Children, recounted the stories of resistance movements in Nazi-era Berlin and Occupied Paris. I learned that most of the population in Germany and France was passive; it was natural to look the other way as human rights abuses occurred, and care for oneself and one’s family.

But there were others—many of them Protestants and Catholics—who chose to take a stand and follow the tenets of their faith. Some are well-known, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; others less so, such as Pastor Paul Vergara in Paris, who helped to rescue hundreds of immigrant Jewish children from detention and deportation.

There are moments in history when people of faith must ask what their faith instructs them to do. I have been deeply moved by a recent trip to Israel, when I visited Nazareth and swam in the beautiful Sea of Galilee. It was a green and pleasant land, and I reflected on how Jesus could have had a perfectly lovely life in his village minding his own business. But he didn’t.

This appears in the May 2020 issue of Sojourners