The simple fact is that the well of dollars keeping conservative talk radio going might very well be going dry for good. One might be surprised by something as commonplace as Rush Limbaugh’s slut-shaming would be causing collateral damage for a bunch of other hosts, but I’m not. Their ratings have been dropping significantly since the midterm elections ended, and the simple fact is that if you’re over 49, as most talk radio listeners are (quite older in fact), advertisers are absolutely uninterested in trying to get you to buy anything. That’s just how it goes. Of course, even if the demographic is generally older, there are still going to be some people in age groups advertisers care about tuning in (perhaps for ironic purposes–I used to listen to Michael Savage semiregularly and laugh at his lack of self-awareness), so you have to balance that with the possibility of getting slimed by association. Looking at all this, it seems very obvious that a tipping point would eventually be reached, that eventually the aging demographics, chronically declining ratings and fears of ruining a company’s reputation would eventually create a perfect storm, and that the meathead contingent would be stuck in the middle of it in a boat when it hit. If it weren’t Sandra Fluke inciting it, it would have been something else. If the trend holds, of course.
And this is, it goes without saying, a very good thing. I personally tend to be suspicious when people earn tremendous amounts of money just venturing their opinions. What kind of opinions are worth that cash? Hateful ones, typically. Ones that scare people into retaining the status quo, now you’re talking. If you’re saying something truly dangerous, or taking action that really threatens the status quo, the odds are you’re not going to make $50 million a year doing it. That’s the tell for me. Rush Limbaugh makes that kind of money by preying upon peoples’ fears and anxieties, and by continually trying to marginalize the voices of inclusion, moderation and sanity within his chosen party. I remember reading many years ago that D.C. groups based on ideals, like people working for stronger environmental regulations, tended to pay poorly, while obviously big oil pays handsomely. And that stuck with me. When it comes to politics, I tend to be highly suspicious of enormous paychecks because there’s not much money in lonely battles against unjust laws. There’s tons of money in protecting powerful interests, since they have it and they have everything to lose. But my question at this point is: what happens if this is for real? How does right-wing radio stick around absent this kind of moneymaking potential? The idea that Mark Levin and Sean Hannity would rebrand themselves as moderates to cultivate a broader following seems unlikely to me, but I guess it depends on whether they want to follow the money or remain ideologues. Time will tell the true grifters from the ideologues. So here’s how I think the big talk radio personalities would deal with leaner times:
- Limbaugh will never change his style, though he might well have fully cooked his goose this time. He doesn’t exactly take criticism or bad news well, so it’s entirely possible he’ll hang up his microphone after his contract ends and devote himself full-time to designing ugly clothes. Hopefully?
- It doesn’t appear that the radio boycotts have spread to cable news yet, so even if his radio show bombs Sean Hannity is probably going to be just fine. Sadness.
- Laura Ingraham has always struck me as a complete opportunist, and if there’s no money to be made as a Limbaugh clone, she’ll just become a clone of someone else who makes more money.
- Glenn Beck will drop off the face of the earth, but will anyone be sad about that? Also, that’s kind of already in process.
- I don’t think Mark Levin is capable of dialing down the malice, so he’ll try to ride it out to the end. But my guess is he’ll eventually snap when the millionth person mispronounces his name (“It’s Leh-VINN, dammit!”) and have a minor stroke that convinces him to retire.
- Michael Savage has seemingly already figured out that aping Alex Jones is a less saturated market, and I would expect him to just go further in that direction.
All in all, the ghost of Morton Downey Jr. will weep.
Did I miss any of the biggies? Write below in comments.
John Avlon’s righteous rant against Glenn Beck is pretty satisfying, and definitely worth a read. But I have to say that the thing that sticks in my mind about Glenn Beck is that his departure from FOX News is due to people losing interest in him. It wasn’t due to the media seeking to expose his hucksterism. In that sense, he once again resembles Father Coughlin, the Depression-era radio priest whose xenophobia and conspiracy-centric worldview Beck closely mirrors. Coughlin was not taken down by the media. He was, however, largely neutralized by Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was actually responsible for neutralizing a lot of the most rancid figures of his age, both on the left and the right: he shut down Charles Lindburgh, the Nazi sympathizer, and he shut down Huey Long, the quasi-socialist. Granted, I’m not sure it’s the President’s place to dictate the terms of the conversation (and Roosevelt did overreach on this front at times), but the end result was that some of the most hateful rhetoric out there was reined in. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the Great Depression.
I’m glad that Beck is leaving, but I’m not satisfied with how he’s going down. Sure, all right-thinking people know he’s a buffoon, but few people seemed to find it imperative to push him out. The Obama Administration’s fight with Fox News lasted about two minutes and might well have been counterproductive. The media doesn’t spend too much time correcting erroneous stories on FOX. Beck was by far the most objectionable of FOX’s personalities, but a cursory search of the NY Times website reveals few articles dedicated to criticizing or exposing Glenn Beck. It appears that practically no one in power had much of an interest in taking Beck down. Contrast that with Joe McCarthy. Sure, you had some weasels who realized he was full of shit but declined to intervene for political gain (Robert Taft, namely), but you also had Ed Murrow’s shining moment of truth that helped sabotage McCarthy fatally, and then Eisenhower finally twisting the rope when McCarthy tried to mess with the Army. Granted, McCarthy and Beck are very different demagogues–one was a sitting senator and another is just a commentator–but the fact is that in both McCarthy’s case and in Coughlin’s case, elites in government and media acted responsibly. They picked their fights well, inflicted damage judiciously, and won. In Beck’s case, elites abrogated their responsibilities. We got lucky that the public tired of Beck, or we might have been stuck with him for several more years.
See, this is where people get it wrong. The notion of being anti-elite is silly. There will always be elites, and attempts to eliminate elites have often ended up empowering elites to a much greater extent than ever before (see also, Russian Revolution, 1917). The choice we have is who to empower. I believe in institutions, and it’s hard to see Beck as anything other than a full-scale indictment of the Washington establishment. As we are seeing almost daily at this point, they just don’t care all that much about anything other than their own little games. I appreciate Avlon’s piece, but why wasn’t it published six months ago? Or a year ago? Then it could have made some difference. Now, it’s just a matter of putting himself on the right side of history. And that’s somewhat less laudable.
What he’s created is some sort of weird amalgamation of a daytime soap opera, a televangelist show, and a mystery show like Lost. The primary message of the program often seems to be watching more Glenn Beck or listening to the guy’s radio show. (He began the week with an entreaty to record the show on DVR and watch it over and over, for God’s sake.) The ads on the show—which has now been boycotted by so many advertisers that Fox News is reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel (while STILL making a healthy profit, almost certainly, given how cheap the show must be to produce)—primarily focus on gold investment firms, with an occasional tax service or Christian dating agency tossed in for good measure. In almost every episode, Beck walks past a cameraman, underlining the artificiality of the program, making it feel more like a Paddy Chayefsky script that’s up and walking around and piped in from another universe. In Friday’s episode, he opened one “act” looking at the wrong camera, something he didn’t bother to correct for quite some time. Glenn Beck has a very specific structure, one similar to mystery shows, which the program shares a surprising amount of DNA with. Beck opens with a 20-25-minute harangue, an uninterrupted monologue that inevitably skews toward extreme emotions of either anger or fear or grief. Then, he goes through the motions of the rest of the show, popping in on several other short segments, occasionally having someone else in to talk with him about the news of the day, but almost always coming up with a few bite-sized chunks of whatever to pass the time. The opening monologue is easily the strongest part of the program. (If you’ve ever seen a clip from this show on YouTube, it almost assuredly comes from that section of the show.) It’s a magnificently performed free-associative ramble, almost a bit of performance art that divorces itself from the show’s talk show roots and becomes a kind of new Apostle’s Creed, made up on the spot every day. Beck moves all over his massive set with direction and purpose, pointing out things he’s scrawled on chalkboards, pulling up disconnected soundbites on his giant television, and just generally making the same two or three points over and over again. But in mesmerizing fashion! After watching a week of the show, I’m as repulsed by Beck’s ideology as I’d expect to be, but I kind of want to keep watching.The piece is by Todd VanDerWerff, and despite his admiration for late-period BSG he has got to be one of the best TV writers around.
I’m not convinced that Jared Loughner was inspired to violence by Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. He seems like a pretty disturbed guy who is mentally ill and lacked anything resembling a coherent political philosophy.
But…if history tells us anything, it’s that these things inspire other sickos to do their worst. In 1963, the JFK assassination was so shocking because the murder of political officials was so rare and even unthinkable. Within a decade, assassins had taken Kennedy’s brother, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and George Wallace’s legs (I know, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but still). Violence begets violence, and in none of these cases were the killers motivated by the same thing Kennedy’s killer was, whatever it might have been (Jack Ruby’s bullets kept us from ever knowing). Everyone was shocked by John Kennedy’s death, but suddenly political murder went from just not being done to something that nuts of all stripes suddenly could consider.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed, and maybe this most recent killing will just be a blip, an isolated incident of madness. I hope so. But there’s no guarantee of that, and assassinations like this have sparked trends on more than one occasion (see this old Yglesias post for some examples). It might well be that Beck/Palin/Limbaugh don’t deserve the blame for this incident, but this could be the beginning of increased violence instead of the end. It would probably be a good idea for those types to tone things down for a while, until this incident is suitably behind us. I hardly expect they will, but next time (should there be one), and the killer is one of their followers, they will suffer their richly deserved consequences.
Yep, Glenn Beck opines that his loony conservative cohort is an underaged girl getting raped by Big Government (just like Roman Polanski did!):
We’re the young girl saying ‘no, no help me,’ and the government is Roman Polanski. In the end I think we’re all going to be cowering in France.
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