The Right To Speak and the Duty to Be Right
For longer than I care to recount Rush Limbaugh has been in my life. My work takes me on the road, as it’s done for three decades now, and sometime in the early 1990s I scanned the AM dial and happened on his show. He was an amusing host then; funny, well-informed, voluble, not nearly the sanctimonious blowhard, fabricating tool of the radical establishment right that he’s become. Rush attracted so many listeners to his noon to 3. p.m. show that his fans gathered in “Rush hour” lunches around the country. It was pretty plain that he was important. In 1993, on the same day that the World Trade Centers were bombed the first time, I was among a group of New York Times national correspondents who’d gathered at the upper West Side Manhattan townhouse of our national editor, Soma Golden Behr. We were talking about the increasingly aggressive and rightward shift we were seeing around the country — property rights everywhere, Sagebrush rebellion in the West, the re-emergence of the Klan in the South, the skinheads in Detroit. I’ll never forget Peter Applebome, who was the Atlanta Bureau Chief, noting the emergence of “this guy” Rush Limbaugh who’d attracted quite a following in the South. Other correspondents chimed in that they’d been listening in their territories too.
I listen to Rush much less frequently now, not because I’m uninterested in keeping track of influential views from across the ideological spectrum, but because he’s so irritating, particularly when he talks about the environment. Rush deliberately misleads, misinforms, denies the facts, and legitimizes the specious. In Rush’s world global warming is a farce made up by Al Gore and his ilk. Environmentalists are wacko tofu-eating elitists. “Sound science” is whatever the White House says it is.
The danger, of course, is that Rush’s credibility with millions of Americans is still too high. He’s an enabler for delaying action on global climate change, energy independence, and environmental stewardship. And while the tide of history is inexorably pushing the United States to a new, greener, cleaner, more energy-efficient era, Rush and his alliance of radio wing nuts and the political leaders they support are holding back intellectual and technological transformations that will make this nation a much better place.
James Wolcott covers some of this same ground in a new piece in the green issue of Vanity Fair this month. The money section:
“For us non-dittoheads (that is, the unconverted), a more fitting memorial to Mount Rushbo might be a diorama of the environmental destruction that he did so much to enable in his multi-decade reign of denigration. Global warming’s most popular denialist, talk radio’s most imitated showman, conservatism’s minister of disinformation, he has injected millions of semi-vacant American skulls with a cream filling of complacency that has helped thrust this country into the forefront of backward leadership. He has given Republican lawmakers the rhetorical cover fire to do nothing but snicker as the crisis emerged and impressed itself on the rest of the world. He conscripted concern for nature as just another weapon in the Culture Wars. May the grasses of his favorite golf courses go forever yellow and dust storms whip from the sand traps.”
Rush, though, is in trouble. Radio was the communications platform that fostered the radical right’s agenda across America. The Internet is the platform that is gradually weakening that agenda’s foundation. Media Matters for America, which closely tracks the tone, civility, and accuracy of political conversation on television and radio, has built much of its reputation on documenting Rush Limbaugh’s factual inaccuracies. The Web site has revealed Rush, who prides himself on his ability to conduct intelligent conversation across a wide spectrum of issues, to be nothing more than a fabricator on matters of science and the environment. For a radio host whose reputation is built on ideology and expertise, such persistent reporting is enormously damaging.
As a communications strategist, I often tell policy groups that they’re making a difference when their opponents start to whine, call them names, and otherwise divert from their core message. Rush’s audience is diminishing, according to broadcast audience tracking companies. And Rush is responding with unprovide attacks on his critics in way that illustrates weakness not strength. Media Matters reported the latest outburst yesterday.
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen how broadcast words have consequences for those they’re aimed at, and for those who did the aiming. The heap of shattered conservative pundit careers is growing. Ann Coulter last summer said the widows of men killed on 9/11 were “reveling in their status as celebrities,” and early last month called presidential candidate John Edwards a “faggot.” Both comments were recorded on video tape, rocketed across various Web sites, were rebroadcast on national television. Ann Coulter is done as a credible voice. She’s become a sideshow.
Don Imus’ racist and sexist remark about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team was seen as out of bounds. He’s gone.
Rush is cagier, but he’s slipping.
A final thought: One of the intriguing elements in the narrative of all of these people is how some of my liberal media friends say ‘free speech’ is diminished when ideologues suffer for their remarks. Frankly, that’s nonsense. Nobody denied Coulter or Imus or Rush or any other broadcast personality the right to speak. The public just insisted that facts and authenticity and some measure of truth underly what they said. The public also expressed its right to say, “Enough.”