Commentary Magazine


Topic: talk radio

The GOP Entertainment Wing’s Flight of Fancy

Donald Trump is not running for president.

Oh, he acts like he is a candidate on a stage. And Trump has filed the requisite paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, as have hundreds of others. But he is not running a presidential campaign. Read More

Donald Trump is not running for president.

Oh, he acts like he is a candidate on a stage. And Trump has filed the requisite paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, as have hundreds of others. But he is not running a presidential campaign.

It might come as no surprise that the gaffe-a-minute reality television star has claimed that he has no use for pollsters. “I don’t want a pollster,” he told the New York Times. “Because if a pollster’s so good, why aren’t they running?” The logic is impeccable. But pollsters are not the only political professionals whose services Trump has eschewed. If the alleged presidential candidate had hired a consulting firm with a graphics department, he probably would not have promoted his candidacy by sending out an image with the American flag superimposed over the soldiers of the Nazi Waffen-SS that someone on Trump’s team apparently mistook for American troops. Say what you will about political consultants, at least they know the difference between U.S. soldiers and the German division responsible for their massacre at Malmedy. Perhaps that lapse explains Trump’s evident low regard for American servicemen and women who endure torture and deprivation in enemy custody.

Nor has Donald Trump or his team displayed much interest in the technical aspects of running for the president. Little things like developing an organization in the early primary states that is tasked with winning the requisite delegates to secure the party’s nod and transitioning into a grassroots general election support structure. “I met Mr. Trump for 30 seconds on May 9. Gave him my card. He hasn’t called me thus far,” South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore revealed. Moore’s frustration is shared by Iowa and New Hampshire’s GOP operatives who say they have had little contact with Trump or his organization. That does not, however, mean the reality TV star has ignored the early states entirely. Earlier this month, Trump hired as his Iowa campaign co-chair a former contestant on his canceled reality television program The Apprentice. The move generated quite a few headlines and, for the Trump campaign, that seems to be an end in itself.

Anyone with even a passing understanding of how political campaigns are waged and won knows that what they are witnessing is a spectacle. This is not a presidential candidacy; it’s a vehicle for self-promotion. That makes the unwavering support that Trump has received from prominent members of what constitutes the “entertainment wing” of the GOP, its popular radio talk show hosts and commentators, that much more egregious. Showmen and women themselves, they recognize one of their own when they see him.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board admirably drew fire from the right this week when it briefly scolded an unnamed cadre of “conservative media elites” who serve as Trump’s “apologists,” but those the Journal admonished do little in the way of apologizing for the target of their affections. “Abettors” is perhaps a more apt description of those who would willingly facilitate a grift. Some of the most accomplished, seasoned, and bright members of the conservative movement’s commentary class have inexplicably given succor to a figure who is flagrantly misrepresenting himself and misleading their audiences.

Mark Levin, a constitutional scholar and a deservedly successful radio host, bizarrely declined to challenge Trump in the same way that he has other Republican candidates who have joined him on his radio program. “You know, your biggest problem is going to be the Republican establishment,” Levin advised after noting how his candidacy has resonated with the public and lamenting how the Republican members of the legislative branch are too quick to seek compromise with the country’s executive. This is a far cry from the Mark Levin of 2011 who called Trump an “airhead” whose tenuous grasp on free market economics sounded “stupid” to him.

When Trump refused to express support for Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal that reformed entitlement spending — very much an “establishment” Republican goal from an “establishment” Republican officeholder — Levin savaged the real estate developer for spouting the same vacuous platitudes he spouts today. When Trump advised Ryan to “sit back and relax” on the issue of entitlements, Levin reprimanded him furiously. “Apparently all your supporters are going to give you a pass on every damn thing you’ve ever said or done,” Levin exclaimed. “But not me.” What changed? Trump certainly hasn’t.

One of Levin’s radio colleagues, the accomplished radio host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham, appears equally blinded by frustration with congressional Republicans. “Trump filled a vacuum existing in GOP,” she said in praise of his willingness to attack “Bushism” and congressional Republicans. “Prediction: Trump numbers will not change — could go up after McCain dust-up. Establishment approval will go down.”

That’s a bizarre prediction, considering the pollster in the field on Sunday after Trump’s insulting remarks about Senator John McCain’s service record noted that the candidate who drew nearly 30 percent support over the weekend was down in the single digits after those comments generated publicity.

“So Trump won’t commit to supporting GOP nominee if not chosen,” Ingraham said of Trump’s refusal to rule out a third-party bid for the White House. She asked if Senator Marco Rubio or former Governor Jeb Bush would support Trump if he secured the requisite delegates, but she must know that there is a rather substantial distinction between not supporting a party’s nominee and actively trying to handicap him or her.

Even the astute Rush Limbaugh has succumbed to the passions of the moment. “The American people haven’t seen something like this in a long time,” Limbaugh said in praise of Trump’s refusal to apologize for questioning McCain’s record as a North Vietnamese hostage. “They have not seen an embattled public figure stand up for himself, double down, and tell everybody to go to hell.”

“Trump can survive this,” Limbaugh averred. He’s right, but only as long as Trump can count on the help of his friends in the GOP’s entertainment wing.

All the while, Hillary Clinton is relishing the attention she isn’t getting. The New York Times reported that Clinton’s team is weighing how best to give the GOP what it wants and inexorably link Trump, a doctrinaire liberal and Democratic donor, to the Republican Party. Reporting on its own poll of Republican primary voters, ABC News described those of his supporters who are most incensed over the issue of illegal immigration in America “nativists.” The conservatives behind the microphone in this country know exactly what’s happening here. While the Republican Party brass should welcome the chance to repudiate a vile self-promoting pretender like Trump, the conservative movement’s most booming voices seem intent on rendering that effort impossible.

Making one’s way in the business of political entertainment is incredibly difficult. Those who are successful in that profession have achieved their position only after dogged perseverance, years of hard work, and repeated displays of inborn aptitude. No one gets to where these and other accomplished personalities are today unless they are possessed of great talent, prudence, and a wealth of knowledge on history and civics, which makes this whole affair all the more demoralizing. Those who continue to prop up this faltering carnival act based on the mistaken premise that it somehow advances conservatism are making a grave error. All that is being advanced are individual careers. The Americans who truly count on the conservative program to better their lives and right the course this country is on are those who will suffer the most if Trump is allowed to indelibly tarnish their movement.

 

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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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