RUSH LIMBAUGH, the Fairness Doctrine, and the (further) rise of right-wing media.
By Christopher B. Daly
(Adapted from Covering America, UMass Press, 2012)
The Reagan years changed U.S. journalism in several ways, some quite far-reaching. One important change during the 1980s was part of Reagan’s great ambition to de-regulate the American economy. When it came to the news media, the natural target of the Reagan reformers was the most regulated part of the field: broadcasting. After decades of attempting to ensure diversity and local control in radio and television, the FCC began to reverse course. In terms of radio, there were two key decisions.
One was to relax (and eventually almost eliminate) the traditional limits on ownership. This allowed companies like Clear Channel Communications to start buying up radio stations (eventually, more than 1,000 of them) and dominate the market. Just a few years after deregulation, it would be possible to drive from Medford, Massachusetts, to Medford, Oregon, constantly adjusting the car radio dial, and pull in only stations owned by Clear Channel. All the programming would come from Clear Channel headquarters in San Antonio. This This corporate takeover of radio had the result of centralizing programming decisions to an unprecedented degree, often in the hands of conservative big-business executives.
The other crucial step in the deregulation of broadcasting was the repeal of The Fairness Doctrine, which had governed radio (and later, television) since 1949. Under that policy, the FCC encouraged broadcasters to take positions on matters of public concern, but it also required them to seek out people with different points of view and give them equal air time — for free.
Radio station owners mostly hated the fairness doctrine and had been trying for decades to scuttle it. They finally succeeded under Reagan when the FCC voted to drop it in 1987. When Congress tried to restore the doctrine by enacting it into law, Reagan vetoed the bill, and Congress failed to override. As a result, radio and television stations no longer had to present balancing comments on an issue; they were as free as a newspaper or a magazine to propound one point of view all day long. That change opened the door, in turn, for the “talk” format, especially on AM radio. In 1987, fewer than 240 radio stations in America relied on a talk format, according to Broadcasting magazine; five years later, the number was approaching 900.
Taken together, those changes give rise to the phenomenon known as Rush.
Born in 1951 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Rush Hudson Limbaugh III came from a family of distinguished lawyers and prominent judges. He got involved with radio in high school and became so enamored that he made it through only one year of college at Southeast Missouri State before dropping out to go into radio full-time as a disc jockey. Using professional pseudonyms such as Jeff Christie and Rusty Sharp, he played music, read the news, and ran call-in shows for a succession of small radio stations. He moved a lot (and married a few times), then worked for a few years in marketing for the Kansas City Royals baseball team. In the mid-1980s he ended up in Sacramento, where he experimented with hosting a radio program without guests. In 1987, a former ABC executive who ran a syndication service came to Sacramento to listen and decided to sign him up.
Limbaugh moved to WABC in New York City and launched his nationally syndicated daily talk show on August 1, 1988. Starting with about 250,000 listeners on a few dozen stations, Limbaugh quickly expanded. The essence of his show was Rush himself. There were no guests, no “experts,” no debates, and no on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand. His listeners loved the program, and they loved Rush. It turned out they agreed with him so much and so often that he had to come up with a shorthand way for them to acknowledge that they shared his philosophy — hence, the “ditto-head” and “mega-dittoes” phenomenon.
Part of his success was due to the fact that his was one of the few national media programs to break out of the traditional one-way or “lecture” format. Traditionally, readers of newspapers and magazines, listeners to radio, or viewers of television were on the receiving end of one-way communication. The media outlet (usually based in New York) created the entire product, and the audience could either take it or leave it. The call-in feature of Limbaugh’s program allowed listeners to interact, to comment, and even (once in a great while) to disagree with the great “El Rushbo.” It was not as interactive as the Web would prove to be, but it was an antidote to the (sometimes insufferable) top-down pose of traditional print and broadcast media.
Limbaugh also tapped into a huge reservoir of conservative outrage, which had previously gone pretty much unnoticed by the national media. As it turned out, there were a lot of Americans who did not share the values and outlook of the Times, Newsweek, Dan Rather, or NPR. Soon, millions were tuning in three hours a day to hear their views expressed by Limbaugh, including disproportionate numbers of white, conservative male listeners. Freed from the constraints of the fairness doctrine, Limbaugh could hammer away with his personal doctrine, undiluted by any guests or any journalistic conscience demanding balance or a sampling of a range of viewpoints. His show was all Rush, all the time.
One of Limbaugh’s biggest bugaboos was the rest of the media. Although he lived inside the glass house himself, Limbaugh always threw a lot of stones at what he called “the mainstream media” or (in his coinage) “the drive-by media” or (following the election of Barack Obama) the “government-run media.” In his view, the major media are just another elite looking down on average Americans. “The media is now considered just another part of the arrogant, condescending, elite, and out-of-touch political structure . . . engaging in the abuse of power,” he once said.
Although his position in the media was making him quite wealthy and powerful in the 1990s, Limbaugh positioned himself as a perpetual “outsider” whom listeners could therefore trust. In this he was acting a bit like a veteran politician who runs as the “outsider” taking on Washington.
In the process, it also became obvious that Limbaugh was very, very talented. He worked hard and did his homework before shows. He had a magnificent radio voice, with superb delivery. He could also be extremely articulate and often quite funny. And he had a kind of political perfect pitch for his audience, which was, like himself, predominantly white, male, and conservative. He has also proved to be a master of more than one medium. Limbaugh’s book The Way Things Ought to Be spent a year in the early 1990s on the New York Times best-seller list, selling close to 3 million copies. Rush was, in short, a full-blown media phenomenon.
Was Rush Limbaugh a journalist? In one sense, of course, he was not, because he did almost no original reporting. He did not set out each day to find and verify information that could add to the world’s storehouse of facts, images, and quotations. He did not cover news.
TIME, Jan 23, 1995
In another sense, though, Limbaugh was a journalist — in the long American tradition of analysis and advocacy. From its inception, journalism has consisted of activities that can be arrayed along a continuum stretching from “news” to “views” — that is, from facts to opinions. What Limbaugh offered listeners was a point of view about the news, and many people want to hear his take on what others are reporting.
At times, he seemed to get help in establishing his take on the news from sources such as the Republican Party, conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, and in the early 2000s the George W. Bush White House. At other times, he was clearly improvising, as when he would grab a fresh news item from The Associated Press and begin, live on the air, to analyze it and coach his audience about what sort of attitude they should take toward this or that recent development. During periods when the Republican Party lacked clear leadership, Limbaugh filled the void.
Like a partisan newspaper editor of the early 1800s, he kept the faith when his party was out of office, he vetted up-and-coming politicians, and he shepherded the flock.
(Adapted from Covering America, UMass Press, 2012)
Copyright Christopher B. Daly