Giving Rush the Bum’s Rush

Over the last few weeks, the authors of several posts on this blog have sought to address recent outrageous assertions made by Rush Limbaugh.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote the following post for Oxymoronic Nation, a personal, progressive blog that I started on Google. I was trying to place Limbaugh’s offensive characterization of Sandra Fluke in some sort of context that might allow readers to see it a little more clearly for what it was.

As the news stories of this week seem ever more tragically recycled—another ghastly act of terrorism, another failure of political will in addressing gun violence—it seems to me that recycling this blog post is probably at least as ironic as it is meaningful.

For political junkies, the week of March 4, 2012 was supposed to be important because of the “Super Tuesday” Republican primaries. The results from ten states were supposed either to put Mitt Romney firmly on a path toward the nomination or to make the whole process a hopeless muddle. Predictably, the election results did neither of those things. Instead, commentators first rushed to point out that Romney’s lead was insurmountable—that Rick Santorum would have to win an improbable percentage of the remaining available delegates in order to wrest the nomination from Romney. Then commentators rushed to point out that Romney himself would have to win an improbable percentage of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. So, it is now very clear that the matter may or may not be settled, in fact or in effect, ahead of the Republican National Convention.

The “big news” of the week turned out not to be “Super Tuesday” but the controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s denigration of Sandra Fluke, a young woman who testified about the need for insurance companies to cover female contraception, and the subsequent denunciation of Limbaugh for the comments about Fluke—and then the attempted counter-denunciation of those denouncing Limbaugh in the re-identification of the “liberal mouthpieces” and “left-wing haters” who have said all sorts of ill-considered things about their political opponents. Bill Maher, ironically, opened himself to attacks by both sides by responding to reminders about his own history of controversial comments by suggesting that Limbaugh’s apology should be accepted for the expedient gesture that it was and his critics should move on to something else.

As both an indication of our rapidly declining capacity for any “historical memory” and the relative significance of the controversy surrounding Limbaugh, barely mentioned in the controversy was the relatively recent but very comparable case of Don Imus. I had been an avid viewer of Imus in the Morning on MSNBC. In hindsight, I believe that what attracted me to the show was Imus’ and the show’s “multiple personalities.” The show was, in almost equal parts, a serious political talk show, a “shock-jock” radio show, a country music variety show, a public radio/television show on environmentally friendly products and practices, and a small-town radio show in which a small collection of easily familiar “characters” are endlessly recycled in “visits” to the studio. In hindsight, much of the attraction of the show was an underlying sense of the unsustainability of this mixture of forms and styles. When Imus’ gratuitous insult of the players on Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team “ruined” his career, the surprise for me was not that he had said something that was patently offensive but, rather, that that particular insult had become the focal point of his ruination. Someone might say that the comment had crossed several lines at once by being insensitive to both race and gender, but the parodies of Maya Angelou (just to cite the most memorable example) had done that same thing far more egregiously—and repeatedly. No, Imus’ mistake was in directing a very gratuitous insult at young women who were not “public figures” and therefore in no way as open to satiric characterization and imitation as Maya Angelou might have been said to be. Moreover, the insulting comment was off-handedly vicious and mean-spirited. And it was simply not funny. So very few people were put in the very awkward position of having to denounce a comment that had actually made them laugh.

I have listened to Rush Limbaugh very infrequently. At first, I thought it might be interesting to consider why I am not much interested in what he has to say. But then it hit me that at the center of this controversy is an incontrovertible fact that no one in the “media,” whether “mainstream” or not, is much interested in pointing out: that is, Rush Limbaugh may dominate the radio airwaves of America, but in raw terms, almost no one is actually listening. Limbaugh’s daily audience is 14.75 million listeners. That may sound like a very large audience, but if one rounds it off to 15 million and rounds off the U.S. population to 300 million, Rush Limbaugh’s audience consists of only 5% of the American public. Before anyone hurries to point out that his actual impact is much more pervasive or more pernicious because of the political activism of his audience and the word of mouth that his opinions generate, let me point out that 5% of just about anything is considered next to negligible. A candidate who attracted 5% of voters would be better off not running at all.

Indeed, I suspect that one might find that 5% of Americans believe all sorts of strange and even hateful things—for instance, that Elvis is still alive and hiding somewhere in plain sight in some sort of self-imposed version of “witness protection”; that UFO’s are kidnapping ordinary Americans for the purposes of some sort of inter-species sexual experimentation; that neither the Holocaust nor the moon landings actually occurred; or that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Osama Bin Laden are figures worth honoring and emulating. We do know from recurring surveys that the number of Americans who believe that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim fascist socialist community-organizing elitist regularly fluctuates between 20% and 30% of the population.  And I think the actual number of Obama-haters ends up being of less interest than the fact that it keeps fluctuating. Those fluctuations suggest that a certain percentage of Americans–probably equivalent to the size of Rush Limbaugh’s audience, though not necessarily everyone in that audience–recognize that these contradictory characterizations of the president are ridiculous but have a need to embrace them that is simply more powerful than their sense of the ridiculous.

But, again, the most surprising revelation about the current state of the “opinion-sphere” might be how few Americans are actually listening. The audience for cable news programs is only a fraction of the audience for talk radio. The most highly rated cable news program is the O’Reilly Factor, which attracts slightly more than 3 million viewers a night. That’s an audience of 1% of Americans—about the same percentage who support Buddy Roehmer for president.

Such numbers beg the question: who is listening to whom? And then, not–why are they listening, but, instead, how much does the fact that they are listening matter? And, by extension, how much does what they are listening to really matter?

Then, again, does it make any less sense than a few thousand voters in Iowa and New Hampshire having such a profound impact on the mix of candidates for whom the rest of us have the opportunity to vote?

2 thoughts on “Giving Rush the Bum’s Rush

  1. The notion that an audience of 15 million people is “negligible” strikes me as completely misguided. In reality, Limbaugh’s daily audience is probably under 10 million, and his weekly audience might reach 15-20 million. But that’s a huge audience in today’s media. Consider this fact: there are about 20 million college students in America. That means Rush Limbaugh reaches an audience almost equal to all of the 1.5 million professors in America combined. And many of Rush’s listeners are devotees, and listen to him for 15 hours every week, roughly the same as a full-time college student. Would anyone describe higher education in America as “negligible” or “almost no one”? I wrote an entire book about Rush ( precisely because of his enormous influence on listeners, on our politics, and on our culture.

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