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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Rush Limbaugh, 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago today, Rush Limbaugh went on the air in New York City and began his syndicated radio show. I believe that Rush has been the most influential figure in American culture over that quarter-century. He helped turn Newt Gingrich into Speaker of the House and then pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it makes Newt look like a compromising moderate. He paved the way for Fox News Channel and an entire genre of conservative talk radio occupied by hundreds of his imitators. For decades, he has single-handedly had a bigger audience than all progressive radio shows combined. He has moved public opinion, convincing millions that global climate change is a fraud even while the scientific evidence has grown more and more overwhelming. He has had presidents carry his bags up to the Lincoln Bedroom and give him a birthday cake in the White House.
He ridicules science and mocks intellectual arguments. He makes bigotry more publicly acceptable by his use of racial insults and sexist comments. He destroys the moderate wing of the Republican Party by imposing rigid adherence to his particular brand of conservatism. Rush Limbaugh is dumbing down America and coarsening our culture....Limbaugh is not some random guy who happens to express a political view every now and then; he’s a leader, I would say the leader, of the conservative movement in America, and his views are a powerful force in American politics. Limbaugh mobilizes and inspires the lunatic fringe of the far right. However, his influence extends far beyond the hard core conservatives; he popularizes right-wing ideas to a mass audience of mainstream Republicans and independents. Limbaugh pushes the Republican Party—and American politics—far to the right.
So what should progressives do about Rush? The most popular answer, and the worst one, has been to try to drive him off the air. The most successful approach has been to make Rush the face and voice of the Republican Party, and expose just how stupid, bigoted, and unpopular his ideas really are. But ultimately, progressives need to do what Rush himself did: build a media and political movement to bring our ideas to a wider audience.
The unsuccessful effort to drive Rush off the air by the Flush Rush campaign has had one unexpected and highly beneficial side effect: it revealed that companies were unknowingly and unwillingly advertising on these shows, being secretly used by right-wing media companies to help fuel the conservative movement. And the backlash against these revelations has cost these companies millions. But it hasn't cost Rush a dime, yet. In 2008, he signed an 8-year contract worth over $400 million. When he renews that contract, the boycotts against Rush will cost him many millions of dollars, but boycotts won't force him off the air.
Those who hate Rush have been elated by the recent news that Cumulus might drop Limbaugh from its stations in 40 markets. This is a negotiating tactic between two right-wing media companies for the allocation of massive profits, and it's highly unlikely Cumulus will drop Rush. But if they do, it won't change anything. Rush will be picked up by other radio stations, and Cumulus will replace him with a cheaper alternative chosen from the hundreds of Rush imitators he has spawned.
The misguided efforts by some on the Left to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine will never succeed. Even if it was politically feasible to enact the Fairness Doctrine (it's not), and even if the Fairness Doctrine was used to target conservative talk radio (it never was, and never would be), then the Supreme Court would declare it unconstitutional (as it should be). Boycotts and censorship will not work. Even if Rush Limbaugh announces the end of his show today, the political and media movement he built will not go away.
What progressives need is not a movement to “hush Rush,” but a movement to amplify our own voices. We need progressive media like Amy Goodman and Rachel Maddow and The Daily Show. We need progressive social media and websites like Daily Kos to expand. We don't need a reverse mirror image of Rush Limbaugh's idiocy and bigotry to succeed. But we do need more progressive voices to be heard, and we are swimming upstream against the same pro-conservative biases that helped Rush Limbaugh succeed in the corporate media.
This won't be easy, and we won't have a single leader like Rush Limbaugh or success measured in tens of millions of dollars and millions of listeners to any particular show. But ultimately, imitating Rush Limbaugh the only path to defeating him.
Crossposted at DailyKos.

Monday, May 6, 2013

How Rush Limbaugh Damaged Right-Wing Talk Radio

When Rush Limbaugh went on the air last year and called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” he had no clue that his words would cost the industry of right-wing talk radio hundreds of millions of dollars and bring companies to the brink of bankruptcy. Nor did anybody else. After all, Limbaugh has a long history of insulting women without any consequences, whether it was comparing 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton to a dog, or calling feminists “nazis.” When a group called StopRush called for an advertiser boycott of Limbaugh's show in the wake of the Fluke controversy, Limbaugh probably never imagined that it could touch him, especially after he offered a half-hearted apology for his comments.
From the start of his career, Limbaugh had carefully built a firewall that he thought would protect himself from the constant turmoil in the unreliable world of radio ratings, calling it “ratings insurance.” He carefully chooses and cultivates advertisers to assure their loyalty to him. Limbaugh noted two decades ago, “I realized that the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising.” As Limbaugh put it, “if I was ultimately going to succeed I had to get myself actively involved in the revenue stream of the radio station.” Early in his radio career in Sacramento, Limbaugh tried to demand control over what advertisers would be allowed on his show, and when he went national, Limbaugh attained that control.
In my book, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh's Assault on Reason, I explained why I thought Rush was right: “Boycotts can't affect Limbaugh because many of his advertisers are not major retailers, but midsize online companies that rely on Limbaugh loyalists for a substantial part of their business.” Crain's New York Business noted, “A good portion of the show's inventory is sold to direct-response advertisers who aren't worried about their corporate image.”
All of that turned out to be true. When the StopRush movement targeted Limbaugh's national advertisers, it was mostly unsuccessful. A handful of Limbaugh's advertisers bolted during the worst of the Fluke crisis, only to be quickly replaced. Limbaugh suffered a blow, but one that he would have easily survived.
But the world of syndicated radio has two advertising markets: the national advertising sold for Limbaugh's show by Premiere Radio Networks (owned by Clear Channel), and the local advertising sold by the individual radio station. (Traditionally, syndicated shows split the ad time in half, with the show offered for free, but Limbaugh's popularity allows him to charge stations to run the show in a few top urban markets.)
Limbaugh exerted enormous control over his half of the advertising time. What he couldn't control, however, was the half sold by the radio stations themselves. And it was there that a dirty little secret about right-wing talk radio was exposed, with enormous financial consequences. A funny thing happened when the StopRush movement identified Limbaugh's advertisers and contacted them: these companies had no clue that they were advertising on Limbaugh's show, and they wanted nothing to do with him in the wake of the Fluke controversy.
It turned out that the sales departments at local radio stations (which were increasingly owned by enormous media corporations such as Clear Channel and Cumulus) had gotten lazy during the Bush bubble. Instead of carefully cultivating loyal advertisers for Limbaugh's show, the sales departments simply sold large blocks of ad time to account agencies for their clients, often without telling them what show they were played on. Many companies were paying for advertising on Limbaugh's show who had explicitly prohibited their ads from appearing on Limbaugh and other controversial hosts.
When the StopRush movement began targeting advertisers in the wake of Limbaugh's Fluke gaffe, these companies responded by yanking their ads, not only from Limbaugh, but from any controversial host. All of a sudden, corporations were paying attention to the controversial content of the shows where they advertised. The conservative monoculture of talk radio that proved so profitable in the 2000s turned out to be extremely vulnerable to a boycott movement.
In the early years of Limbaugh's syndicated radio show, he might be heard on a station that included shows with local, less political hosts, or even a liberal. But Limbaugh's success inspired a bevy of imitators, from Glenn Beck to Michael Savage, and radio stations discovered that ratings went up when they surrounded Limbaugh's show with like-minded right-wing hosts. And the advertisers leery of Limbaugh wanted nothing to do with anyone else who might say similar things.
Now the Cumulus radio network is blaming Limbaugh's comments for financial losses, whileLimbaugh is reportedly threatening to leave the network at the end of the year when their contract expires due to his annoyance at being blamed.
Don't bet on that happening. First of all, Limbaugh cares about money much more than loyalty. Second, Limbaugh doesn't control what station he appears on. He's a hired employee for Clear Channel, and while his buddies make the decisions about his radio stations, Limbaugh doesn't have the final word. Considering how much money Limbaugh has cost Clear Channel, it's hard to believe that they'll be willing to sacrifice even more money for his personal vendetta against mild (and accurate) criticism from Cumulus executives. Third, the harm Limbaugh caused to Cumulus has already happened, and was the result of their own mismanagement. So dumping him won't improve the bottom line or bring back advertisers who have banned controversial advertising.
The reality is that Limbaugh's stupid and sexist remarks only exposed a corrupt practice of hiding the truth from advertisers that was widespread among talk radio stations in order to boost profits.
Ironically, while Limbaugh may have brought down conservative talk radio, he personally hasn't lost a penny. In 2008, at the height of the economic bubble, Limbaugh signed an eight-year contract extension worth $484 million, and he still makes over $80,000 every hour he's on the air. But when Limbaugh's contract is up in 2016, he will almost certainly suffer a significant cut in any future contract because the vulnerabilities of the talk radio industry have become clear, and the liability of Limbaugh to a radio station is now obvious.
None of this will actually end the reign of right-wing talk radio, which dominates over the far smaller world of progressive radio. The advertiser boycotts have hit all controversial programming, but a growing economy will soon turn losses into profits again, albeit not to the degree seen before. The scandal of hidden advertising will continue to hurt profits at talk-radio stations, but Limbaugh will continue his show to his massive audience. However, the StopRush movement has proven me, and many other doubters, wrong: the public does have a powerful voice that can influence what is heard on the airwaves.
Crossposted at DailyKos.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Limbaugh's Lies about Bowdoin College

Yesterday on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh read a Wall Street Journal article summarizing the National Association of Scholars (NAS) study about Bowdoin, and quoted the finding that Bowdoin doesn’t require history majors to take an American history class.
So a history major at Bowdoin College is taught about the intrinsic discrimination against blacks, women, gays, lesbians, transgender, bisexuals. That’s all they are taught. A history major coming out of Bowdoin College is not taught for one minute about the American founding. There is not one moment of traditional American history taught, and this is just the history department. What’s taught is how immoral and unjust America has been since its founding and how its founding featured institutional racism, segregation, sexism, homophobia, and all that.
The NAS Report doesn’t say a single word about what is actually taught in Bowdoin’s history classes, so Limbaugh’s claim that history majors are “not taught for one minute about the American founding” is simply a lie.
NAS president Peter Wood wrote to me in response to my questions about Limbaugh’s comments that Limbaugh “blurred a couple of points. A history major at Bowdoin CAN graduate without taking ‘one minute’ of formal coursework on the American founding. History majors are not required to take any American history.”
But, Wood added, “American history courses are, of course, offered. Whether it is accurate to say ‘traditional American history’ is not taught depends, of course, on what weight to give the word ‘traditional.’ I’d say that the generalization is fairly accurate in the sense that the Bowdoin History Department is thoroughly imbued with the spirit and the practice of teaching social history, which is conceived of as a repudiation of the methods and aims of traditional history.”
I think Wood is wrong, because even in history courses taught with an emphasis on social history, some traditional history is still taught. Limbaugh’s assertion of “not one moment” is simply unsupported by the facts.
Limbaugh made a very common intellectual error: the assumption that students don’t learn something unless it’s required. Unfortunately, it’s the same error made by the NAS itself, in calling its report, “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” But nothing in the report actually analyzes what goes on in Bowdoin’s classes, because the NAS didn’t study any of that. Instead, they looked at the titles of classes taught, and then imagined, like Limbaugh, that they could use their psychic powers to assume what was taught and how it was taught.
Alex Williams, a recent Bowdoin graduate, wrote a critique of the accuracy of the NAS study (pdf) in which he noted that while he was a student at Bowdoin, the history classes taught included HIST 233c (American Society in the New Nation, 1763–1840) and HIST 274c (The Shot Heard ‘Round the World: The History of the American Revolution). Even without the class devoted solely to the American Revolution, Limbaugh’s “not taught for one minute about the American founding” would be a lie. And the NAS makes no such claim.
Because Bowdoin tends not to require classes, it’s easy to smear the college by denouncing them for failing to require a certain course. But in reality, Bowdoin’s approach is a wise one. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I avoided the survey courses beloved by the NAS like the plague, and sought out the kind of small specialized seminars taught at Bowdoin. The survey classes were taught in large lecture halls with uninterested students and frustrated professors, they were dumbed down and largely repeated the same failed survey classes everyone took in high school and elementary school. Bowdoin shouldn’t be condemned for being one of the rare colleges to liberate its students from the stupidity of survey courses; they should be imitated as a model for what higher education could be.
Limbaugh also attacked Bowdoin’s first-year seminars (which were mistakenly referred to as year-long by the Wall Street Journal):
Now, the students at Bowdoin College are required to take a year-long seminar as freshmen. They get to choose from 37 different offerings, such as “Affirmative Action in US Society,” or “the Fictions of Freedom,” or “Racism,” or “Queer Gardens,” or “the Sexual Life of Colonialism,” or “the Modern Western Prostitutes.” They have to take one of those courses, as a seminar, but they’re not taught anything about the American founding other than it was racist and immoral.
Actually, among the first-year seminars at Bowdoin were classes with titles such as “Political Leadership,” “Human Being and Citizen,” and “Power and Participation in American Politics.” Attacking the first-year seminars at Bowdoin, the NAS admits, “Some of these courses are solid,” but it condemns some of them for being too specialized, based strictly on the title and a vague description. However, even the NAS would never make the absurd that Bowdoin students are “not taught anything about the American founding…” Peter Wood told me, “I think he is wrong that none of them teach anything about the American founding.”
Limbaugh also tried to claim that his misleading attacks on Bowdoin College reflect all of higher education: “People are going to say, ‘Whoa, that’s unbelievable!’ It’s not the only place. You think it’s the only college?”
Limbaugh blames this kind of education for Obama’s election and the destruction of America as we know it: “It has been happening every day for tens of years. Slowly creeping toward the left’s utopia.” This is the great conspiracy imagined by the far right, and it explains their anti-intellectual hatred of education.
Crossposted at Academe Blog.