Watershed moments don’t announce themselves, and they’re not easy to spot in the flickering news of the day. But I think in recent weeks something of historic importance has been happening to the U.S. right-wing media establishment: It’s in trouble.
Consider first the continuing scandal enveloping the Rupert Murdoch dynasty. Their giant News Corp. owns two key conservative organs: The Wall Street Journal—whose editorialists are among the most influential ideological forces on the right—and Fox News, which pioneered the reinvention of cable news as a partisan mosh pit.
Second is the broad outrage over some unusually vile utterances by the movement’s biggest media star, Rush Limbaugh, which is shaking his unrivaled, decade-long dominance of talk radio.
And third is the passing of Andrew Breitbart, 43, who in his brief career as an online provocateur had become a leading right-wing media celebrity, but whose death notices couldn’t help but recall that his notoriety rested on stunts that were deceitful and cruel, when not downright fraudulent.
The convergence of these developments, I think, creates a singular moment in the political culture, in which rightist media stalwarts are vulnerable to attack not for political philosophy or policy prescriptions, but for something they have long claimed as their strongest suit: Their moral authority.
Murdoch’s News Corp. continues to be pummeled by allegations out of London about staggering misconduct by its UK newspaper arm—a cascade of bribes, lies, cruelty, suicide attempts, invasions of privacy, influence-peddling, and testimony that the Murdoch heir apparent, James, had been repeatedly alerted to the sleaze that he, busy guy, had repeatedly ignored.
The scandal has already cost News Corp. top talent, along with $104 million, and young Murdoch has been withdrawn to New York. A big question hangs over the conglomerate’s continued stake in publishing. Revenues there are down 43 percent, while its lushly profitable entertainment and TV businesses are soaring.
If publishing is both an embarrassment for News Corp. and a financial loser, retained largely at the insistence of newspaperman and patriarch Rupert Murdoch–who’s 81 this week—the possibility looms that News Corp. will abandon news, which would remove a powerful force from the conservative media ecosystem.
But that’s just business. The Rush Limbaugh debacle, on the other hand, feels personal. It’s an ugly affair in which the radio host denounced a Georgetown University law student for asserting, at an informal congressional hearing, that her school’s health plan should cover contraception.
Limbaugh was venomous. Over three days, he ridiculed and vilified the young woman. He suggested that if “we” were paying for her contraception, “we” should benefit from the sex it enables, by getting to watch her. He said because she wanted her sexual practices subsidized financially, she was therefore a “slut.”
Limbaugh was grotesque, and a number of conservative commentators said so. One of the best, Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal, called him a “primitive voice of pure ideological hatred.” She continued: “Something permanent has been emblazoned on people’s minds.” His words, she said, “won’t be forgotten.”
Estimates of Limbaugh’s advertiser loss as of last week ranged to nearly 50, and a few radio stations have dropped his show, but with nearly 600 stations and a weekly audience of 15 million he has a long way to fall. A bigger question is whether in Hollywood-speak, he has jumped the shark—meaning his creative energies depleted, he’s entered an irreversible decline.
And as Rabinowitz suggests, when the country’s most powerful radio voice calls an unknown young student a whore because he disagrees with her it makes an impression. Limbaugh was no longer feisty and fearless; he was a foul-mouthed bully. It was reminiscent of the signature moment in the televised 1954 Army-McCarthy congressional hearings, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy needlessly slimed a young lawyer working for his adversaries, and the Army’s lawyer Joseph Welch sealed his decline by upbraiding him: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
Decency wasn’t Andrew Breitbart strong suit either. He was a pioneer in New Media agit-prop, heedless of ethical qualms. He put his stamp on videos that were edited into virtual fabrications—such as the character assassination of agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, distorted into a racist caricature—and encouraged “stings” in which phonied-up scenarios were floated as emblematic of left-wing perfidy.
Breitbart mattered, because he was a genuine hell-raiser, and it’s important to recognize the importance of outliers like him in injecting energy and audacity into a political movement and defining its media strategy.
But his legacy of tactical excess, alongside Murdoch’s vulnerability and Limbaugh’s distemper, raises questions about the future of the right-wing media juggernaut that has dominated the first decade of the new century.