A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Attempts to advance a leftwing media agenda by destroying Rush Limbaugh’s radio show will surely fail -just as efforts to advance a progressive economic agenda by punishing the nation’s most productive corporations and individuals have always failed.
The raging controversy over the nation’s top-rated conservative commentator won’t rearrange the landscape of talk radio, but it does highlight the odd leftist preference for attacking the success of the other side rather than promoting progress for their own.
Boycott threats recently led more than 98 companies to suspend their sponsorship of the Limbaugh show, but Rush and his associates insist (very plausibly) that many other firms have eagerly rushed in (you’ll pardon the expression) to fill the gap. To underline that point, El Rushbo even turned away one repentant sponsor who apparently changed his mind and wanted to come back to the show after a few days off the air; the indignant host declares he wants no part of on-air partners whose support for his work seems wobbly or tentative.
Meanwhile, the Limbaugh apology for crude language (including the epithets “slut” and “prostitute”) in his three days of ridicule of free-contraception activist Sandra Fluke poses an uncomfortable question for his critics: now that he’s said he’s sorry, repeatedly and somewhat emotionally, what, exactly, do they mean to accomplish with their continued pressure to try to force sponsors to sever ties with the show?
Other than raising big money for their anti-Rush jihad, the leftist pressure groups clearly intend to reduce Limbaugh’s national reach and media influence or, even better, to put an end to his show altogether. They tip their hand when they claim that his attack on Ms. Fluke is only typical of the “hate speech” which has always characterized his show. They object to far more than a few minutes of one particularly controversial monologue; they resent the very existence of a program that’s been wildly successful for 24 years and spawned a powerful conservative talk industry which reaches an overall weekly audience of more than 40 million and which more than one-in-eight Americans describe as “very credible.”
Limbaugh’s critics seem unable to accept the fact that many of their fellow citizens actually appreciate the opportunity to listen to his opinions on a regular basis, so rather than persuade those poor, benighted souls to listen to something else, they mean to take away the broadcast that they enjoy.
Why not try to build an eager new audience for liberal opinion leaders and steal listeners from Rush and the rest of us who host right-leaning shows? How about recruiting the most outrageous and opinionated voices on the left, syndicating their shows in major markets, and promoting these fresh, progressive voices with a catchy moniker like “Air America”?
Oh wait, that’s been tried – starting in 2004 and proceeding (intermittently) till 2010 when chronically low ratings and bankruptcy court performed a belated mercy killing on the ill-fated experiment. It’s true that some of the Air America “stars” ultimately found their way to other opportunities – with Rachel Maddow hosting a successful TV program on MSNBC, and the insufferable Al Franken enjoying an unlikely career in the U.S. Senate.
But attempts to create viable radio alternatives to Rush and other right wingers have never gained traction, so rather than continuing to compete in the open market place, lefties merely yearn to shut down the other side with sponsor boycotts, public pressure or, most obnoxiously, the so-called Fairness Doctrine. Fortunately Barack Obama has consistently opposed the Fairness Doctrine, but many of his democratic colleagues have promoted it for years, with Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry and—most adamantly—that heroic public servant John Edwards providing vociferous support
The core concept of bureaucratically imposed “fairness” actually constitutes and oppressive, invidious authoritarian relic (removed by unanimous vote of the Federal Communications Commission in 1987) that would destroy the entire talk radio industry by preventing any station from establishing an ideological identity. Like forcing a Country and Western station to “balance” its chosen fare with equal doses of Mozart, the Fairness Doctrine would require that broadcasters compensate for popular shows from one point of view by providing comparable time to shows with the opposite point of view – no matter how pathetic the ratings. Rather than put up with this sort of governmental dictate, most broadcasters would prefer to turn away from opinionated hosts altogether and go back to the bland-old-days when talk-radio featured yakkers who never spoke about their ideological inclinations and preferred to avoid politics altogether. It’s hard to see how the nation would gain from reducing and restricting the nature of political conversation in the media.
The liberal instinct to attack conservative voices on the radio rather than promoting liberal alternatives mirrors the left’s approach to the economy in general. The President of the United States and his apologists insist on raising taxes for the rich as a top priority without explaining how those additional burdens on the most productive are supposed to help the poor and the working class in their struggles. Since Obama acceded to the nation’s highest office, the percentage of Americans in dire poverty has sharply increased and the unemployment rate for blacks remains stuck at 14.1 percent – nearly twice that for whites (7.3 percent). Democrats make no real attempt to show that raising tax rates on the prosperous will change this situation for the better (especially since higher rates generally produce more tax avoidance, not more revenue), but they do suggest that punishing the rich might at least make the downtrodden feel less oppressed.
The logic seems to suggest that since we’re suffering at the moment then at least we can make you suffer too; we may not be able to help the poor but we can certainly hurt the rich.
This reflects the similarly resentful attitude toward powerful voices in radio. There, the left argues that since we can’t get our own messages out to millions of enthusiastic fans, then the least we can do is to stop Limbaugh and colleagues from imparting their dangerous messages to an immense and eager audience. At this point, the critics of the conservative talk medium seem far more concerned with shutting up right wing voices than with raising left wing voices as a constructive alternative.
In a sense, this posture offers a powerful demonstration of the classical liberal penchant for envy above ambition, and destruction ahead of creation. Government can’t make wealth but it can take it; political power can’t produce profit but it can disable those who do.
This model has never worked as a long-term strategy for reviving and building an economy and it won’t succeed as a means for muzzling the often explosive but widely appreciated controversialists of right wing talk radio.