Society for US Intellectual History

By Nicole Hemmer

In 2010, libertarian writer Julian Sanchez used the term “epistemic closure” to help explain the closed system of logic used by movement conservatives. Arguing that conservative logic had become “worrying untethered from reality,” Sanchez traced this untethering to conservative media. Indeed, he argued these ideological media were a necessary condition for epistemic closure: “Closure is the universal tendency toward confirmation bias plus a sufficiently large array of multimedia conservative outlets to constitute a complete media counterculture, plus an overbroad ideological justification for treating mainstream output as intrinsically suspect.”

As a historian of conservative media, I was intrigued by Sanchez’s claims. His descriptions of the current state of the conservative movement seemed spot-on, and received plenty of supporting evidence during the 2012 election. Megyn Kelly seemed to put her finger on it when she asked Karl Rove, who on election night was fumbling to explain how Mitt Romney could win Ohio, “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?” Rove’s therapeutic math became Exhibit A for epistemic closure.

But how did epistemic closure develop? Why was it rooted in media? And why was it more prevalent in the conservative movement than other political groups? Those were questions my work on conservative media seemed well-suited to address. In asking those questions, I began to understand media as a site of epistemological production and reproduction. Indeed, the story I tell about conservative media activism from the 1940s through the 1970s is not just one of media that spread political ideas, but media that open a battle over how best to assess what is true and what is not.

Conservatives took up this battle against the dominant journalistic mode of mid-century America: objectivity. Objectivity was more than a set of professional values that shaped journalism in the 20th century. It was a claim about the best way to understand the world. In mid-century, objective journalists claimed the trueness of their stories could best be evaluated by how well they adhered to standards of disinterestedness, accuracy, factuality, fairness, and, less overtly but no less importantly, deference to official information and institutional authority.

Conservative media activists advanced a different way of knowing the world, one that attacked the legitimacy of objectivity and substituted ideological integrity. That attack was embodied in cries of “liberal media bias,” which disputed not just the content presented by mainstream journalists but the very claims they made about their objective practices. And this is what I mean when I say conservatives were engaged in an epistemological battle: they weren’t just saying there is a world of objective media that we reject and a world of ideological media we promote. They were saying that there was no such thing as non-ideological media, that objectivity was a mask mainstream media used to hide their own ideological projects.

In doing so, conservative media activists in mid-century America provided their audiences — readers, listeners, and viewers — with a different way of understanding the world: a different network of authorities, a different conception of fact and accuracy, and a different set of values for evaluating truth-claims. These values rested not on impartiality but rather focused on the assumed biases of the writers, editors, and publishers involved in the media enterprise. That assumption that all media outlets are equally biased, and are engaged in the same type of ideological warfare, allowed conservatives to develop a robust heuristic for absorbing contrary evidence. Sanchez captured this dynamic in his writings on epistemic closure:

The output may have varying degrees of liberal slant, but The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right. Their conservative counterparts—your Fox News and your Washington Times—always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative. And that has implications for how each of them connects to the whole ecosystem of media: Getting an accurate portrait is institutionally secondary to promoting the accounts and interpretations that support the worldview and undermine the liberal media narrative.

These, however, were not innovations of Fox News or talk radio or the Washington Times. Today’s conservative media inherited this understanding of media from an earlier generation of activists. And by the time Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes appeared on the scene, a generation of conservatives had already established the habit of consuming ideological media as a key behavior of conservative identity.

It is also worth noting that conservative media activists in the 1950s and 1960s were upfront about their epistemological aims. Media critiques suffused conservative media from the start, as did statements about alternatives to objectivity. For instance Human Events, a newsweekly founded in 1944. By the early 1960s, Human Events arrived at this articulation of its mission:

In reporting the news, Human Events is objective; it aims for accurate representation of the facts. But it is not impartial. It looks at events through the eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.

This statement, which ran in most issues of Human Events in the 1960s, is what I meant by media as a site of epistemological production and reproduction. In distinguishing between objectivity and impartiality, Human Events editors created a space where “bias” was not only a positive journalistic value, but the lens through which conservatives should interpret media sources and the wider world.

Most of us are probably familiar with Stephen Colbert’s neologism truthiness, which he distinguished from truth, a type of fact-checking that happens in the gut rather than in the head. Whatever one thinks of Colbert’s analysis, he’s making a valuable point about the epistemological divergence I’m describing. Colbert is pointing to a difference in how movement conservatives evaluate truth-claims, a difference I would argue is first produced and then reproduced through conservative media. Given the centrality of ideological media consumption to the conservative political identity, I would also argue that we can’t understand the intellectual development of postwar conservatism in the United States without putting these media front and center.

This article was originally published at the Society for US Intellectual History