Blunder on the right

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 top talent, along with $104 million, and young Murdoch has been withdrawn to New York.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.

But his work paid off—he helped destroy ACORN, an organization that tried to get poor people housed, and turned Planned Parenthood into a political problem.

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.


10 thoughts on “Blunder on the right

  1. As if the left doesn’t have its own liars and obnoxious buffoons. Let’s talk hypocrisy – let’s talk about Obama keeping the million dollar donation from Bill Maher, a noted left wing mysoginist.
    That’s just one example, and there are many, many more. There’s slime on both sides – as a conservative, I didn’t approve of what Limbaugh said. But the condemnation of Maher from the left is deafening only because it isn’t there.

  2. It’s not a left right issue, it is a decency issue and the free market is exacting a price on Rush Limbaugh. Citizens have the constitutional right to petition government and to slime a young woman like that was just despicable

  3. Yes, that was my point – it’s a decency issue and, from what I see, neither the left nor the right has a good handle on decency. Of course, Mr. Wasserman seems inclined to hold the right responsible while giving the left a pass.
    How about it? Are you a seeker of the truth Sir, or just another polemecist?

    1. Bill Maher has a late-night comedy/talk show, where he typically invites a reasonably broad range of guests and engages in loose talk, sometimes takes cheap shots, and traffics in a brand of satire that at times skates on thin ice–all of which, importantly, airs on a pricey premium cable TV channel with declining viewership. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but he doesn’t really matter. Limbaugh, on the other hand, is unquestionably the most influential single media figure in the country and has a stronger, more loyal following than any of the current GOP presidential hopefuls. His power, along with his appalling comments about an unknown young woman, makes him a suitable subject, and with the confluence of Murdoch’s beleaguerment and Breitbart’s death, constitutes an appropriate moment to ask whether the rightwing media might indeed have a problem. That’s a big question, I don’t see why I have to earn the right to ask it by agreeing to criticize a marginal figure like Maher.

      1. Really doesn’t matter? Oh my, what a handy throwaway excuse. He doesn’t matter.
        My point is, and I think you’ve missed it, is the hypocrisy of the left in not equally criticizing Maher – and Obama, for taking a million dollars from a man just as guilty of unacceptable remarks as Limbaugh.
        Of course, we’re dealing with a group of people who wouldn’t call Clinton what he really was with regards to women, despite plenty of evidence to that effect. Or doesnt’ that matter either?
        Hypocrisy. You’re intelligent enough to realize that, or would you rather just join the mob and condemn the right?
        Take the log out of your eye.

      2. I realize that the hypocrisy trope has been peddled heavily by the conservative spin machine, which is trying to turn the disgust with Limbaugh’s awfulness into another instance of rightwing martyrdom, but I think we all know better. My column wasn’t about tasteless remarks by people in show biz who should know better. It was about a moment of moral crisis centered on major figures in the conservative media.

      3. Call is spin if you like, and if it helps you pretend the issue doesn’t exist. The left is quite talented at that I’ve noticed.
        The only people hooting about a crisis within right wing media stand well to the left of me. The rest of us, we’re dealing with it. Still, I find it hugely entertaining that the left wing simply cannot address their own hypocrisy in this issue.
        Come on – admit that Maher is just as much a boor as Limbaugh. I’ve said as much about Limbaugh, and very few conservatives are standing behind him on this one, and so they shouldn’t – but the left won’t admit the two faced attitudes of your own president when he accepts money from Maher.

      4. If you disagree with the point of the column, fine. But don’t bring up Bill Maher, which isn’t a refutation of the column, it’s an attempt at distraction. Besides, has Maher also hacked phones and set up deceitful stings?

  4. While I’m thinking of it, this might be the moment for some lesser, but capable and qualified, lights, to come forward to fill their places.
    While you may be rejoicing over the problems the right wing media will face in replacing (not certain in Limbaugh’s case) these personalities, it may just be that even more credible – and thus more influential – people come forward.
    Given that Limbaugh undoubtedly turns off large portions of the middle with his presentation, people that might otherwise look to the right for answers America needs, this may actually be a good thing.

  5. I have always respected Edward Wasserman and I will continue to do after his Herald Monday’s column.Yet, a simple desire for truth and justice in our American media leads me to confront him here. For Mr. Wasserman refers to wrong doings by the News Corp. and the radio commentarist Rush Limbaugh and from there he concludes that the right wing media establishment is in trouble. Frankly, if it is about violations of ethics and civility, I am forced to indicate that that is the left wing media domicile, its actual place of abode year round… unchallenged.
    On this charge, I point as exhibit A the article by Kirsten Powers, a liberal devoid of sheep’s mentality, published in the “Daily Beast”. There, the details are provided of an abundance of despicable epithets directed at women from the mouths of a number of well known leftist pundits.( from Bill Maher, of course, to Ed Schultz) To give an idea, Rush Limbaugh comes across as St. Francis of Assisi in comparison.
    This, as in truth, the real difference between conservatives and liberals comes down to the obvious fact that the latter control the media and that have consequences.For example, they get to choose presidents i.e Barack Obama in 2008 who was and has been unashamedly protected since in news coverage as well as in the op-ed pages ( again, what became of that liberation theology preacher?).All of this happens while conservative voices are markedly absent from newspapers and stations in what has to be the longest, ongoing freedom of expression abuse in our history. So,Mr. Wasserman, when the passion and the anger on the right shocks you and you complain about the cultural war and of a congress that cant agree on anything you just to look at your media and how it deals with conservatives, particularly if they happen to be Christian. Intolerance inevitably breeds intolerance.
    Thomas Merton was fond of saying:”We, Americans, believe that we were born without original sin but the truth is that we are in the same mess just like everybody else”. Scratch the word Americans and substitute it with the word liberals.Now, that’s ethical
    Felipe Fernandez
    Miami, Florida

    PS. This note was sent to the Miami Herald as a letter to the editor

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