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Straight talk from Oliver Willis on lessons from 22 years of progressive blogging
The original online progressive dishes about why Dems shouldn't go on Fox, how Republicans win the messaging game, and more.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. I’m on a bit of a baby break following the birth of my son Owen, but this is the first of two newsletters this week. The next will drop Thursday. I hope you enjoy both. Cheers — Aaron
If you’ve spent any time reading progressive websites since the early days of the Bush administration or following lefty politics on social media more recently, you’re probably familiar with the wit of Oliver Willis.
Willis is one of those lefty writers I feel like I’ve been reading forever, and I guess I sorta have been been. He started blogging about politics all the way back in 2000, joined Media Matters a few years later, and was a grizzled veteran by the time he met with President Obama at the White House in 2010. Now, in addition to serving as a senior writer for the American Independent, he has a new Substack aptly titled Oliver Willis Explains.
On it, Willis distills his decades of experience into practical lessons for progressives. Recent themes include words of wisdom about why Democrats shouldn’t go on Fox News, but should use social media to speak more directly to voters and emulate Republicans by using unpretentious language. His headlines are often useful aphorisms like “Liberals Need To Understand: The Media Thinks It's Doing A Great Job” and “Debunking Can't Defeat Disinformation.” If you haven’t already subscribed, I highly recommend doing so.
Willis is perhaps the closest thing there is to an OG political blogger. So I figured I would ring up him and ask him about key insights from his 22 years of writing. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
You’ve probably watched as much Fox as any progressive journalist, and you’ve recently done posts about how people should watch less cable news and how the Biden White House legitimizes Fox by, for instance, habitually giving Peter Doocy the chance to ask questions at briefings.
If you were hired as a White House adviser, what would be your strategy for dealing with right-wing media?
Bringing on White House officials to talk to Fox News seems insane to me, because the whole idea of Fox News is to attack liberalism, attack the Democratic Party, and attack pretty much anybody left of Attila the Hun in America. As you know, every day, from morning until night, Fox News is focused on attack the left, attack the left, attack the left. A big part of the legitimacy they gained from doing that is to say, "We're a real news organization. We're legitimate. We're not just an arm of the Republican Party."
Well, if Democrats go on Fox News and appear on Fox News, that helps Fox make that argument, because then they can say, "See, we had Jen Psaki on here. We had the transportation secretary on here. We had the HHS secretary on here. The Democratic White House thinks that we're a legitimate news organization, so we're a legitimate news organization." But we all know that Fox is the furthest thing in the world from a legit news organization.
I can see the other side of this where people say, "Go on Fox News, and go toe to toe with them and make your case in the arena." I get that impulse. I used to believe that. But the problem with that is what Fox does with an appearance. Even if you sort of, quote unquote, "win" your hit on Fox News, that fills three minutes out of 24 hours in a day. And that hit is often used to undermine people on the left.
Recently, I think it was the DHS secretary who appeared on Fox News Sunday, and how did that turn out? He was on for a few minutes, and then they spent the rest of the day on their website using clips of it on the other shows attacking him and attacking Biden on immigration.
I think that's the thing people don't understand sometimes. They think if someone does a good job in their hit, that's it. But you have to like step back and look at what happens after that. What does Fox use it for? And so to me, if you starve the beast, which is what I think everyone on the left should be doing, from Nancy Pelosi on down to union activists — they should be starving Fox News of oxygen because they're the antithesis of everything anyone on the left stands for.
You’ve also been critical of mainstream journalists when they stick up for Fox News staffers by calling them journalists or describing what Fox does as journalism. Do you think think that tendency to circle the wagons is rooted in a fundamental misconception of what Fox is?
As you and I both know, I think a lot of these journalists just have never watched Fox News for any length of time. If they do watch it, they've probably seen a Bret Baier interview or Chris Wallace interview from Fox News Sunday, which is the most mild version of Fox News. They're not sitting there watching three hours of Fox & Friends or Tucker or Sean Hannity, but they might see the dayside anchors that will throw in stuff like, "Democrats are for defunding the police, and Republicans are for helping kittens out of trees." They're not seeing the primetime version of Fox News.
I think a lot of these reporters, especially at the White House, they're hanging out with Fox News staffers, and they're probably perfectly nice people in their day-to-day lives. Perhaps Peter Doocy is a perfectly fine person to hang out with. But once he gets on air, he's a nasty right-wing hack. So I think a lot of the mainstream reporters, they don't see that because they're like, "Well, I see Peter. We hang out with him." They're all together in the press scrum back there. And so a CNN reporter, a New York Times reporter, to them, they're like, "Ah, they're the same thing as us. Yeah, maybe they have a right-wing opinion side." I think that’s one of the problems.
It's better than when I started at Media Matters back in '04, but to this day, there's this belief that Fox — kinda like the Wall Street Journal — has a separation where, yes, the Journal produces good journalism, but they also have this crazy opinion page. And I think a lot of people think of Tucker and Hannity as the crazy opinion page and not the daytime anchors being like that, but they are. They're just that way in a slightly more subtle way than Tucker, but it's the same thing.
I wasn’t watching Fox back in ‘04 like you were, and I think that longevity is one of the things that gives you an interesting perspective. I don’t think you’re that much older than me, but you’ve been doing this a long time.
So has Fox gotten appreciably worse? I think there’s a perception that it did after it went all in for Trump and became an official/unofficial administration mouthpiece, but as I’m sure you remember Fox was pushing birtherism a decade ago.
It's changed, but not so much their ideology. The way that they approach it has changed, and it reflects the wider conservative movement. The racism inherent in conservatism in the last 50 years has not changed that much. It's just whether it's saying “forced busing” or “states' rights” instead of using the N word. That is how Fox has approached it. Is Fox still as racist in '05 as they are now? Yeah. But now it's Tucker talking about the great replacement conspiracy theory. And back in '04, it was, "We have to leave it to the states,” and then 10 years later it was “Obamacare is socialism.” So I would say it's similar, just a different tone. But it's just as corrosive now as it was back then.
The other difference is that they themselves went with the pretense of being legitimate news much more often back then than they do now. They had the “fair and balanced” slogan, which they basically got rid of a few years ago. Back then, the Roger Ailes idea was, “We're going to worm our way into the mainstream media and push the Republican Party talking points.” Not to pat ourselves in the back, but a lot of the work we did at Media Matters was toward that end of saying, "You guys need to understand that this is a conservative outlet," which Fox shied away from for a long time. They used to say, "We have conservative voices, but we're a legitimate news organization."
I think maybe not necessarily journalists, but the public that pays attention knows that Fox is, quote unquote, "conservative." They don't know necessarily the severity of it, and Fox is still able to play with that as legit. And that's why, again, the White House going on there kind of undermines that. But yeah, I think that's how it's changed in the last 15, 20 years. God, it sounds so long ago when I say it that way.
Yeah, the Bush years do feel like forever ago.
I also really appreciate your takes about how Republicans run laps around Dems when it comes to basic political messaging. What in your view are the important things that Democrats misunderstand, and how can they fix it?
To be perfectly blunt, I think Democrats overestimate the intensity of the average person's interest in politics. Granted, the voter base of the Democratic Party tends to be higher educated and more politically engaged. But the problem is the rest of the country gets ignored a lot of the times. And yet I don't want them to be like the Republicans who are just sort of going after the racist guy that is yelling at Fox News.
But there's a wide swath of America that is very open to progressive ideas and they haven't been spoken to. And I don't mean going to farms in the middle of white America. I mean just all over the country, in the suburbs, in the cities, everywhere that they're not talking to. I think that there's this way that Democrats tend to have of talking over people's heads. Because the Republican Party has had such success at appealing to the middle-class voter, they think, "Well, we can't lower ourselves to that level. We have to go to the sort of college-educated folks, our folks, the folks are the ones that are watching a lot of MSNBC."
A lot of times Democrats think those voters only care about deficits and school budgets, things like that, and they do, but as we saw recently, they also care about abortion and healthcare — even climate is a big deal because it affects their day-to-day living, right? Democrats need to translate this high-level language to regular-person language. And the thing is, there's been Democrats that have been super successful at doing it, so it's not impossible.
I hear people say, "Our ideas are way more complex, and we can't dumb them down." And I say, well, just look at the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and even Joe Biden, three successful Democratic presidential candidates. Joe Biden is not speaking like he's talking on the college lecture circuit. I don't even think Biden knows how to speak that way most of the time. I always say that's one of his skills. Even though he was in the Senate for so long, he doesn't talk like a senator 90 percent of the time. He talks like a regular person. So it's not impossible. I just think it needs to be more systematic through the party.
I think that's the biggest stumbling block. Democrats are sometimes too smart for their own good.