Mar 1 1995

New (Right) Technologies:

In the Right Lane of the Information Superhighway

Al Gore may get credit for coining the term “information superhighway,” but it’s Newt Gingrich and company who are burning rubber on it. House Speaker Gingrich and his fellow Republicans have clearly stolen the thunder of their Democratic counterparts in applying state-of-the-art information technology to further their political agenda.

Since seizing power in November, the Republicans have taken new initiatives to get out their message through electronic media. Gingrich, who refers to himself as a “conservative futurist,” quickly inaugurated a new on-line system that will make Congressional information available over the global computer network known as the Internet.

Gingrich’s media plan also calls for using traditional media–both radio and television–in new ways. As a true believer in the power of talk radio,Gingrich invited talkshow hosts to broadcast their programs from Washington the first week of the new Congress, and announced that he will meet monthly with talkshow hosts from around the country. “Every month we’ll re-establish our ties with people who spend hours talking with the American people,” Gingrich told the media.

In addition to appearing on the usual network news and information programs, Gingrich has his own call-in show, the Progress Report, on National Empowerment Television (NET), a right-wing cable channel founded by Paul Weyrich that describes itself as “C-SPAN with an attitude.” Gingrich has said (New York Times, 1/8/95) that NET‘s emphasis on live, viewer call-in programming provides a better alternative to the “distortions” of the “media elite.”

However, viewers of Gingrich’s TV program might note appearances by some very elite guests who could use a little help from the new Congress. Take John Malone, president of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), the nation’s largest cable operator. After a dinner with Gingrich and NET officials in December, Malone appeared on the cable channel with the speaker-elect,where both bashed the government regulation of business. Malone told Gingrich and his audience that he was hopeful that the “Gingrich revolution” will allow the telecommunications industry to “break free” from its regulators (Broadcasting & Cable, 12/9/94).

To add a little icing on Gingrich’s ratings cake, Malone’s TCI has begun carrying a portion of NET‘s programming on a special system-wide preview channel called tv!. This arrangement exposes the fledgling network to a far wider audience, though not on a 24-hour basis. TCI said it hopes to carry NET‘s full programming lineup–which also includes shows hosted by Weyrich, Accuracy In Media and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America–when it has increased channel capacity on its system in 1996.

Gingrich has been taking some political heat for the way his video ventures are funded. The Progress and Freedom Foundation, founded in 1993, underwrites both Gingrich’s weekly call-in program on NET and raises money for his controversial video college course, “Renewing American Civilization.” The foundation, which has collected nearly $1.7 million, has been supported by corporations with interests in deregulation like AT&T, BellSouth, Turner Broadcasting and Cox Cable Communications.

New information technology also played a significant role in the making of the new Republican-controlled Congress. In 1994, the time it took from producing to airing political campaign commercials was compressed to only a few hours.

Larry McCarthy, a partner in Gannon, McCarthy and Mason, Ltd. of Washington, D.C., produced spots for several 1994 campaigns, including Republican George Nethercutt’s successful bid over House Speaker Tom Foley in Washington and Michael Huffington’s unsuccessful Senate campaign against Democrat Diane Feinstein in California.

“For many of the Huffington spots, I would produce it at 4 o’clock and feed it at 5 o’clock over fiber optic cable from Washington, D.C. to California and it would be on the air the same day,” said McCarthy. For radio, McCarthy got similar speed by producing spots and having them delivered to selected radio stations via computer modem.

Another technique being successfully used now, said McCarthy, is the group satellite feed to small television stations who do not have a Washington correspondent. “Every senator and congressman…can regularly do satellite interviews with local stations from the Capitol lawn,” McCarthy said.

Other Republicans are using satellites to disperse their messages to media outlets far and wide. In an article (1/16/95) headlined “How the GOP Laid Claim to Cyberspace,” Interactive Age reported that former Bush cabinet member Lamar Alexander has established the Republican Exchange Satellite Network to transmit his monthly messages and TV shows to cable systems across the country.

Interactive Age also reported that the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, will join with the right-wing magazine National Review to fund Town Hall, a private forum on CompuServe, the commercial online service. For $24.95 a month, the forum promises unlimited connect time to Heritage analysts, as well as pre-press articles from the National Review, Heritage’s Policy Review and the the Republican National Committee’s Rising Tide publication.

The quick mastery of information technology by the political right is a bit of an irony. Only two years ago, when the arrogant young Clintonites were moving into the White House, the Republicans were ridiculed for their old-fashioned typewriters and ancient telephone systems. Now it’s the Democrats–beaten at their own game–who find their heads in the high-tech sand.

Frank Beacham writes a column for AlterNet on communications technology issues.