In the land of free speech, tearing people apart on the airwaves is not confined to one side of politics.
Reviewed by Tom Switzer
Rush Limbaugh: An Army Of One
By Zev Chafets
New York, 2010
Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America's Airwaves
By Bill Press
Thomas Dunne/St Martins
New York, 2010
After nearly two years of the Obama administration, America remains a centre-right nation. The Democrats' liberal legislative overreach on various policies—from big spending to financial regulation to nationalised healthcare—has ignited a fierce backlash from the conservative heartland. So much so that, at the time of writing, Republicans are expected to gain control of the House of Representatives and even come close to capturing the Senate in November's mid-term elections.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates America's conservative instincts than talk radio, led by Rush Limbaugh, who has filled virtually an unmet demand for right-leaning commentary over more than two decades. Australia also has its fair share of so-called 'shock jocks': radio broadcasters who play high-profile roles in the highly charged debates of the day. But they tend to be more populist than ideological and, in any case, they lack the national reach that many top US broadcasters command. When it comes to talk radio, America is indeed exceptional. And these two books help explain why this is the case. Toxic Talk suggests that these radio hosts, by employing ugly rhetoric, coarsen the public debate whereas Rush Limbaugh is a more sympathetic appraisal of the ringleader himself.
Start with the latter. For Zev Chafets, a journalist and novelist, Limbaugh's brand of conservatism is indebted to the three-legged stool associated with his hero, Ronald Reagan: hawkish foreign policy, free-market economics and social conservatism. So it was perhaps fitting that in 1992 the Gipper himself told Rush: "I know the liberals call you 'the most dangerous man in America', but don't worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work."
For Chafets, Limbaugh is more than simply the mouthpiece of the Republican Party. He is the brains and the spirit behind its success in the post-Cold War era. After Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, the Grand Old Party (GOP) was left dazed, demoralised and leaderless. Rush rallied the party faithful and the conservative base. The result: Republicans swept to historic victories in the congressional elections of 1994. For their thanks, the GOP first-year class named Rush an honorary member of their caucus.
A decade and a half later, it is a similar story: after the Obama victory in 2008, Republicans were dazed, demoralised and leaderless. Again, Rush rallied the party faithful and the conservative base with a rancorous denunciation of the new president's agenda in a nationally televised keynote address within a few weeks of the inauguration. The result: just as they did in 1994, Republicans are poised to make big gains in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate. For Chafets, Rush does not just dole out ideological red meat: thick, juicy cuts of the stuff. He is the voice and the intellectual force and energy of the GOP. Forget Reaganism, he writes. "For millions, conservatism is now Limbaughism."
Chafets devotes more than a third of his book to the latest two years of Rush's life. Yet little is said about the Tea Party movement, which is odd. After all, Rush has not only enthusiastically welcomed it, but both leaders Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck often pay tribute to their hero. Still, Chafets, by no means a conservative, is generally sympathetic, though not entirely uncritical, towards his subject.
One ideological opponent who disagrees is Bill Press. A liberal talk show host, Press laments "how the radical right has poisoned America's airwaves". Along with Rush, the major syndicates are dominated by the likes of Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Bill O'Reilly. They are, we are told, destroying America's democratic process. "Unfortunately," he laments, "as we hear from listening to most conservative talk-show hosts, [the influence of talk radio] has mostly been in a negative direction: tearing people apart, exploiting divisive issues, pitting one group against another, and denying honest differences of opinion".
Press makes some telling blows on some of these hosts. Indeed, many are perpetually hot under the collar and incapable of understatement. Neal Boortz, for example, dismissed the poorest victims of Hurricane Katrina as "parasites" who don't deserve to vote. Yet much of what Press characterises as vile or vicious is really just strident opinion that merely does not reflect his liberal world view. Such behaviour, moreover, is hardly limited to the right. After all, Press ignores or plays down comparable sins made by left-leaning media identities and talk-radio hosts. Liberal radio host Randi Rhodes, as Randall Bloomquist pointed out in the Wall Street Journal recently, aired a song parody that repeatedly calls Rush Limbaugh, among other things, a Nazi. Who, too, can forget the many hateful things said about George W Bush?
The point here is that in the heat of the moment, partisans on both sides of the divide let off steam and in the process sometimes make silly, even vulgar, remarks. It is a stretch to say this mindset is merely an exclusive province of the right. After reading Press, one gets the impression that he is much tougher on strident right-wing hosts than left-wing types simply because the former are more popular.
Which brings us to why political talk radio has exploded in the US since Rush came on the scene in 1988. A year earlier, the Reagan administration abolished the so-called Fairness Doctrine of 1949, whose main effect had been to stifle controversy on the airwaves by threatening stations with the obligation to provide equal time and 'balanced' news coverage. For conservatives, this merely allowed the media liberal elites to control the political debate by discouraging stations from touching controversial subjects. So, by 1980 there were only 75 talk radio stations. With the end of that doctrine, however, the airwaves were opened to the populist political right. Today, there are more than 1300 talk radio stations. And the hosts who have prospered on radio in this conservative nation are the likes of Rush.
Like many liberals, Press maintains that the popularity of a Rush Limbaugh is based on tapping into anger. But as Chafets points out, the reason for the conservative icon's long-time appeal to his 20 million-plus listeners is more intriguing: far from representing the angry impulses of other talk-show hosts, Rush is funny and an optimist. This seems to frustrate Press and other liberals, who yearn for a return of the Fairness Doctrine. But talk radio is only one of many media alternatives in the internet era. Trying to suppress it is not only bad public policy; it would constitute a government limitation of free speech. And that just ain't America.