The Johnny Appleseed of ad-click journalism did not leave the media landscape better than he found it.
Rush Limbaugh was no John Muir. He wasn’t a naturalist, he wasn’t a conservationist; he wasn’t even a steward in the manner of Teddy Roosevelt, who at least was prepared to steward what he intended to hunt or harvest.
Rush Limbaugh did the opposite of, “leave no trace.”
Instead, Limbaugh was the Johnny Appleseed of ad-click journalism. He made milking an already-biased audience for every ounce of outrage any scandal- minor, major or manufactured- could produce the new normal in journalism.
Why bother to spend months researching a story, chasing down leads, interviewing key players, getting other perspectives, presenting a thoughtful, measured, empirically verifiable analysis of the facts when saying something outrageous gets news media personalities much further, much faster?
It doesn’t even matter if what news media personalities like Rush Limbaugh say is later proven to be untrue, misleading, false- even a blatant manipulation by agents of the government and/or political operatives pretending to be concerned citizens.
By the time the news-cycle catches up with the correction, if there ever is one, our opinion arbiters in the media have already moved on to the latest outrage, which dwarfs the last outrage so completely, there is no point in even bothering to discuss the old one, true or false.
It’s the ultimate in doomsday-prophecy boondoggles; missed predictions are memory-holed, any vindication is heralded to the stratosphere. Since even a broken clock is right twice a day, this strategy is perfect.
Rush Limbaugh showed people like Alex Jones and James O’Keefe how to play to their audience, how to give the people what they want, without letting things like nuance, transparency, or balance get in the way.
The truth, as they see it, is subjective anyway. If deceptive editing, or outright lying, can illuminate a greater truth, the ends justify the means.
The Rush Limbaugh formula of confirmation-bias journalism inspired plenty of figures on the left, too. There is plenty of money to be made in outrage-based news entertainment among progressives; in chasing ambulances to the site of whatever culture war skirmish is currently underway, finding out what the most outrageous thing anyone has yet said about it using the popular rallying cries of the day, then trying to one-up them.
It’s a game of brinksmanship that has perverted the U.S. media landscape into something unrecognizable compared to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. We can no longer count wholesale on any of our media companies to tell the unvarnished, messy, difficult, complicated, often contradictory truth. There’s no money in that. They wouldn’t make a dime.
Now, media outlets don’t just have to compete with the appeal of Rush Limbaugh; there are dozens of Rush Limbaugh’s, maybe hundreds by now; not all over the political spectrum but concentrated at the most extreme ends. That’s where the money is.
Unless what you are writing makes people angry enough to engage on Twitter, forget about it.
When Rush Limbaugh departed this mortal coil, he did the opposite of lighting a thousand candles; he snuffed a thousand candles out. Instead of curiosity and fearlessness in investigative journalism, he left a legacy of narrative and playing it safe by always telling his audience what they wanted to hear, and never, ever telling them anything they didn’t want to hear.
When was the last time a Rachel Maddow audience member heard an unpalatable truth?
What- inconvenient, unpalatable truths don’t exist on the left?
Rush Limbaugh’s audience was rabidly partisan and Limbaugh did everything possible to reaffirm their beliefs by never exposing them to any fact that didn’t conform to that narrow worldview. It wasn’t news or even news commentary: It was bread and circuses. And it worked.
Of course people lapped it up. It was news people wanted to hear; that is, the comforting news that everything they already believed about the world was right and true and correct and conservatism was the one true faith and everyone else was a heretic.
Plenty of money in this. There was plenty of money for Limbaugh; even more for the media figures who followed in his footsteps: Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson. Rachel Maddow is using the Limbaugh formula to wipe the floor with her competition on the left. Even Katie Couric realized there was more money and prestige in a completely favorable portrait of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg than in a full presentation of the actual person.
Rush Limbaugh didn’t invent the incendiary hyperbole genre of politicalspeak, but he refined it to a reproducible art form. No one had to reinvent the wheel to follow in Limbaugh’s lucrative footsteps. His formula was simple enough for anyone to follow.
1.) Build an audience of like-minded viewers, with strong opinions on various cultural topics and current events. 2.) Tell them only what they want to hear, never anything that contradicts their worldview; never make them want to turn the channel. 3.) Make them feel so righteous, and correct, and smugly satisfied with their bead on things- why would they ever get their news from anyone else?
Growing the audience, and keeping it; increasing the number of eyeballs and ad-clicks is all and all in the Rush Limbaugh standard of loosely-defined political journalism. Present a narrative-based overview of political news, not a fact-based one- cash checks all day. Easy.
In the years since Rush Limbaugh first scorched the airwaves of conservative talk radio, a double-sided sword of news media has emerged.
The leftists like one side of the sword, the conservatives like the other and never the twain shall meet. Reporting the facts with no angle or political bent? No rage-inducing hyperbole or resulting Twitter storm?
If American news consumers wanted that, they would have watched C-SPAN all these years, where they televise the goings-on on Capitol Hill in real time all day with no commentary to an average audience of 11 people.
Instead, we have turned the news media landscape into two distant islands with a vast ocean betwixt them. Rush Limbaugh was the pioneering sailor who showed us how to get there.
Now that we are there, most Democrats are only getting their news from MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post and other openly-liberal outlets- who now make no more secret of their political bias than does FOX news. Any attempts by these networks to display a more nuanced view would result in accusations of “both-sidesing” pure evil and being traitors to the cause.
Republicans mostly get their news from conservative news sources, who do the exact same thing and adhere to the same strict guideline of toeing the confirmation-bias line.
This has left a vast number of American news consumers adrift in the marketplace, underserved. It has given rise to media personalities like Joe Rogan and Russell Brand, who openly reject both narratives and irritate progressives and conservatives in equal measures.
Whether these new “neutral” offshoots are the balancing element so desperately needed in U.S. news media culture, or they are merely another variation on this same theme of feel-good, entertainment news, remains to be seen.
Joe Rogan may be this year’s hot new media news anchor, but next year it might be someone else. With the media legacy left to us by the late Rush Limbaugh, it is a race to the bottom; who can drum up the biggest viral response. Good or bad, it hardly matters.
Limbaugh left a legacy of opinion-news media personalities who aren’t tradesmen; they’re hacks. They don’t pursue leads, work a journalistic beat, verify sources and adhere to other previously accepted journalistic practices. Otherwise, so many “separate” news networks wouldn’t all get major stories wrong and/or miss major scoops, like the Afghanistan Papers. News consumers are starting to notice that when one major media network gets it wrong, they all get it wrong.
If journalistic standards were being maintained, that would rarely happen, if ever. It certainly wouldn’t become such a common occurrence.
The answer is that of course old journalistic standards aren’t being maintained. The new media arbiters who have risen to take Limbaugh’s place instead ask what the market wants and then try to deliver that.
There is a new standard: The Rush Limbaugh Standard of Monetized Confirmation Bias Journalism.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)