Commentary Magazine


Topic: talk radio

Who Created the Gerrymandered Media?

New York Times media columnist David Carr thinks its shocking that some smart people don’t want to read his paper or the Washington Post. He was amazed to learn in a New York magazine interview that Justice Antonin Scalia a man who is widely acknowledged, even in the saner precincts of the left, to be an intellectual giant, won’t read either of them and that his daily sources for news are limited to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and conservative talk radio. Carr presents this as evidence that denizens of the right wing echo chamber are not just “a bunch of narrow-minded, politically obsessed characters who send mass e-mails from their mother’s basement.”

To understand this problem more fully, he then asks our John Podhoretz about the problem. John is introduced to the Times readership as a conservative but one that should rate some respect because he recently criticized the architects of the government shutdown tactic. John rightly dissects the shrill nature of some of the most popular cable news programs and points out that the bifurcated ideological media don’t just disagree but make anyone who disagrees with their point of view unwelcome. That helps gin up the intensity level and manufactures a level of vituperation that has caused the two sides to largely insulate themselves from opposing points of view.

Carr deserves credit for acknowledging this problem rather than merely rehearsing the usual liberal complaints about conservatives but there is something important missing from the piece. What he fails to acknowledge is that his own newspaper is as good an example of the media echo chamber as anyone on cable television or talk radio. Indeed, if we have a gerrymandered media that has helped to exacerbate political differences it is to no small extent the responsibility of institutions like the Times whose liberal bias made the creation of conservative alternatives inevitable as well as necessary.

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New York Times media columnist David Carr thinks its shocking that some smart people don’t want to read his paper or the Washington Post. He was amazed to learn in a New York magazine interview that Justice Antonin Scalia a man who is widely acknowledged, even in the saner precincts of the left, to be an intellectual giant, won’t read either of them and that his daily sources for news are limited to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and conservative talk radio. Carr presents this as evidence that denizens of the right wing echo chamber are not just “a bunch of narrow-minded, politically obsessed characters who send mass e-mails from their mother’s basement.”

To understand this problem more fully, he then asks our John Podhoretz about the problem. John is introduced to the Times readership as a conservative but one that should rate some respect because he recently criticized the architects of the government shutdown tactic. John rightly dissects the shrill nature of some of the most popular cable news programs and points out that the bifurcated ideological media don’t just disagree but make anyone who disagrees with their point of view unwelcome. That helps gin up the intensity level and manufactures a level of vituperation that has caused the two sides to largely insulate themselves from opposing points of view.

Carr deserves credit for acknowledging this problem rather than merely rehearsing the usual liberal complaints about conservatives but there is something important missing from the piece. What he fails to acknowledge is that his own newspaper is as good an example of the media echo chamber as anyone on cable television or talk radio. Indeed, if we have a gerrymandered media that has helped to exacerbate political differences it is to no small extent the responsibility of institutions like the Times whose liberal bias made the creation of conservative alternatives inevitable as well as necessary.

Carr writes that the Wall Street Journal is, “a really good newspaper that tilts right on its editorial page and sometimes in its news coverage.” But anyone who reads the Times regularly knows that its news pages, especially its front pages are often littered with “analysis” pieces that are thinly disguised op-eds. Whatever criticisms might be made about the Journal, by comparison it is model of Olympian objectivity. The Times editorial section isn’t merely almost uniformly liberal, even its letters column rarely includes criticism of the paper’s content from a conservative point of view.

But the problem is bigger than the shortcomings of the Times. The origins of the media divide must be traced to what it was like before the rise of Fox News and talk radio. If liberals lament the current split, it’s not just because they claim to despise the nasty, partisan nature of much of the contemporary media, but because they remember how much they liked it when there was no such diversity. The “golden age” of television news was one in which the three major broadcast networks were as uniformly liberal in their presentations as the Times and the Washington Post were in theirs with no competition from cable, the Internet or a talk radio market that was largely inhibited from political commentary by the so-called “fairness doctrine.” The enormous success of Fox News and talkers like Rush Limbaugh is the product of the fact that they filled a niche that was ignored by the mainstream media prior to their development. The bad news for liberals is that it was an underserved niche whose target audience was composed of approximately half of the American people who were begging for an alternative to the left-leaning monolith that had been forced down their throats for decades.

Even worse, was the conceit of these unaccountable liberal news institutions that they were not biased. The power of media icons like Walter Cronkite (who would later admit that he had slanted the news on his broadcasts to conform with his political opinions) was based as much on their pose of objectivity as it was on their lack of competition. As unfortunate as the divide between the hysterical liberals of MSNBC and their conservative antagonists, at least more journalists today are honest about their politics. Any discussion of this topic must note that among the most irresponsible and contemptible holdouts on this point have been Carr’s colleagues at the Times.

I agree with both John and Carr that it is too bad that nowadays we are a nation largely split between those who read the Times or the Washington Post, listen to NPR and watch the broadcast networks or MSNBC and those who read the Journal, listen to Rush and watch Fox. Both sides bear some responsibility for this state of affairs but it’s obvious that Carr is primarily interested in profiling why conservatives don’t read, listen or watch liberals rather than to examine why the liberal media does its best to drive conservatives away. That stance is consistent with the position of President Obama and his cheering section on the Times editorial board which sees liberalism as reasonable and its opponents as inherently irresponsible or extreme. But if he really wants to know why the country is split, he should look in his own mirror and examine what is wrong with a mainstream media that has never been able to be honest about its liberal bias.

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What Rush Hath Wrought

Let’s now pause to take a moment to render praise to someone who rarely fails to do the same for himself. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the syndication of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. While the date passed largely without notice in much of the media, it is nonetheless a significant milestone that, regardless of whether you love Rush or hate him, deserves to be noted. Though he will never draw the sort of accolades and awards that mainstream media liberals routinely bestow on each other in pompous ceremonies, Limbaugh is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in the history of broadcasting. Though he was hardly the first or the only conservative talker on the air, Limbaugh’s unique mix of biting conservative commentary, humor, and braggadocio helped transform the political landscape of America.

I think there are three main points to be made about Rush on his silver anniversary.

The first is that Rush’s radio revolution was made possible because it filled a void in the world of broadcasting. The 1987 repeal of the so-called fairness doctrine, which hindered the ability of radio stations to run talk shows that operated from a specific point of view, cleared the way for both conservatives and liberals to take to the airwaves. The reason why conservative talk shows succeeded (in Rush’s case on a scale no one could have imagined before he did it) and left-wing hosts have generally flopped is that in a media world where liberals dominated most daily newspapers and all the broadcast television networks there was a huge audience that was dying to hear someone they agreed with. As with the subsequent development of Fox News, Rush’s success was the product of the fact that there was an underserved niche in the market that made up approximately half of the American people who thought of themselves as conservatives.

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Let’s now pause to take a moment to render praise to someone who rarely fails to do the same for himself. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the syndication of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. While the date passed largely without notice in much of the media, it is nonetheless a significant milestone that, regardless of whether you love Rush or hate him, deserves to be noted. Though he will never draw the sort of accolades and awards that mainstream media liberals routinely bestow on each other in pompous ceremonies, Limbaugh is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in the history of broadcasting. Though he was hardly the first or the only conservative talker on the air, Limbaugh’s unique mix of biting conservative commentary, humor, and braggadocio helped transform the political landscape of America.

I think there are three main points to be made about Rush on his silver anniversary.

The first is that Rush’s radio revolution was made possible because it filled a void in the world of broadcasting. The 1987 repeal of the so-called fairness doctrine, which hindered the ability of radio stations to run talk shows that operated from a specific point of view, cleared the way for both conservatives and liberals to take to the airwaves. The reason why conservative talk shows succeeded (in Rush’s case on a scale no one could have imagined before he did it) and left-wing hosts have generally flopped is that in a media world where liberals dominated most daily newspapers and all the broadcast television networks there was a huge audience that was dying to hear someone they agreed with. As with the subsequent development of Fox News, Rush’s success was the product of the fact that there was an underserved niche in the market that made up approximately half of the American people who thought of themselves as conservatives.

That factor along with the fact that Rush’s show was both entertaining and always spoke to the news of the day contributed to making it an instant hit. Thinking back on this period of American political history, what is most remarkable is that it wasn’t long after it became nationally syndicated that Limbaugh assumed his current perch as perhaps the most influential radio talker in the country. By the time of the Republican landslide in the 1994 congressional elections, Rush was already an icon of the right and public enemy No. 1 to the left.

What was most disconcerting about Rush’s ascendance to his liberal antagonists was not so much the clever way he parodied objects of his derision like Bill Clinton but the fact that it was quickly apparent that there was no going back to the pre-Limbaugh status quo. Prior to his rise, impudent conservatives had no place on the national spectrum. Talk radio—as well as Fox News on TV, which came along a few years later—changed forever the American public square in which a few liberal talking heads had been the arbiters of what could and could not be said on the air.

The second point to be made about Rush is that notwithstanding his importance in changing the way we think about media and politics, he is not the pope of the Republican Party or the conservative movement.

The left prefers its conservative villains to be as sinister as possible so it was always necessary to account for Rush’s huge audience by portraying him as either being the front man for a dark right-wing conspiracy or as the evil Svengali hypnotizing a docile audience of hayseeds and fools into supporting policies that are against their interests.

But the key to understanding Limbaugh’s perennial appeal is that he has always been a sounding board for conservative sentiment in this country, not its manufacturer. Limbaugh has thrived not by dictating to his audience but because he has followed it and appealed to the issues and stories they care about. To note this fact is not to discount or deny that he is one of the country’s opinion leaders, but it is a mistake to think that what he has done is anything other than provide a platform for the views of his listeners and to appeal to what they think is simple common sense.

Lastly, it is equally a myth to claim that Limbaugh has coarsened the tenor of America’s political debate. Though he has sometimes erred by using misleading terms like “feminazis” and memorably called free contraception advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut” in an awkward effort to skewer her position, most of what Limbaugh says is merely blunt conservatism, often presented with a satirical tone. Most liberals who denounce Limbaugh have probably never actually listened to his show and have little idea of how central humor has always been to his popularity.

What Limbaugh has done is to shoot a great many liberal sacred cows on a regular basis, and that isn’t something the left and its media gatekeepers were ever willing to accept. The notion that he is uniquely disrespectful or nasty is not only a distortion of his own record. It also reflects a stark double standard by which the mainstream media’s dismissal or even slanders of the right are treated as unexceptional while conservative denunciations of liberals are seen as beyond the pale.

Talk radio, like any medium, is a mixed bag. Some of its practitioners bring a lot to the table while some are mere windbags or even dangerous demagogues. Limbaugh is neither of those. His national popularity is a continuing testament both to his talent and to the enduring appeal of his brand. His breakthrough still disconcerts his opponents who long to tell conservatives to shut up. Thanks to Rush that will never happen. Even those Americans who don’t always agree with him should be happy about that. 

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