Yesterday was one of the more bizarre news days in a long time, mainly because two of the most widely-disseminated news stories revolved around right-wing propagandists, Rush Limbaugh and Andrew Breitbart.
Note, we’re not talking about two right-wing ideas, nor about two right-wing legislative initiatives, nor about two right-wing candidates. No, the two in question are media personalities (I will refrain from using the word journalist to describe either), both known for their scurrilous tricks and for being among the most important mass media innovators in recent decades.
Let’s start with Rush, who really stepped into a deep pile this time. Yesterday Limbaugh suffered a crescendo of condemnation by Democrats, including President Obama, and non-partisan civic leaders for his repeated rants against a law school student whose sin was to appear in front of a hearing that Nancy Pelosi held on the so-called Obama rule mandating healthcare insurance coverage of contraception for women. FYI, Pelosi held the hearing only because the original Republican hearing on the topic did not invite a single woman to testify!
As Rush has continued his assault, even Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the Republican Party’s leading panderers to the social issues right-wing, have stepped back from the rudeness of Rush’s comments.
One interesting phenomena that occurs when news stories grow over time, is that the key information is quickly boiled down to its essentials. In the case of Limbaugh’s invective against an innocent woman who dared to express the will of the most Americans, every story now cites one already notorious quote: “What does it say about the college coed … who goes before acongressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex…It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”
I’d like to spend a few moments analyzing a second quote that was prevalent in Thursday’s first round of stories, but dropped from most of the stories that appeared on Friday, after media interest mushroomed. I’m selecting this quote because it exemplifies Rush Limbaugh’s specious rhetoric throughout the years:
“Can you imagine if you’re her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she’s having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope.”
We begin our analysis with “”She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford the birth control…” Behind this statement is a false assumption—that the more sex a woman has, the higher the dosage of her birth control or the more diaphragms she has to buy. When we’re talking about women’s birth control, it will almost certainly cost the same amount no matter how few or how many times the woman has sex (except for the emergency Plan B, which no one wants to make the centerpiece of regular birth control).
From this lie, Rush draws a false conclusion: “Can you imagine if you’re her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be?” We all know that Rush means that the parents should be very upset that their daughter is “having so much sex…” I can, however, readily prove that most parents don’t care about the amount of sex their adult daughters have by running a little thought experiment (and I’m using heterosexual examples, just to keep it simple and focused on what Rush was talking about): How would most parents react to learning that a single 30-year-old daughter had sex: a) 500 times a year with one man; b) five times a year, once each with five different men; c) once a year but with two men at one time. I don’t think we need a survey to conclude that for most parents, a long-term strong relationship is better than five one-night stands or one three-way. Rush’s emphasis on the amount of sex someone has is once again misleading.
Finally, Rush, like everyone else on the right, conveniently forgets that when we cover birth control for women, no one pays for it, because the entity that pays for the insurance policy, be in the government, employer or individual, ends up with lower healthcare costs because birth control is so much less expensive than an unwanted pregnancy.
Within this nasty rant are all of Limbaugh’s propaganda tricks: hiding an outright lie by focusing on the implications if it were true; conflation of facts or situations, which means giving equal weight to two things that are not equal or comparable; exaggeration; concealment of outright lies in entertaining quips and fantasies (e.g., “Botox-filled” and the image of a “co-ed gone wild”). What has made Limbaugh so effective for so many years is that he combines all of these propaganda tricks into one run-on sentence, which he follows with yet another and then another in a headlong rush of conjecture and deception.
Some advertisers have already pulled their ads from Limbaugh’s radio show and others are threatening to do the same. They have good reason. Not only were Limbaugh’s remarks rude and inappropriate, they go against the holy of holies, the American marketplace, which consists of American consumers. Two-thirds of all Americans believe that healthcare insurance should pay for women’s birth control, while 99 % of all adult Americans and 98% of all adult Catholics have used birth control. Advertisers have noticed.
Let’s hope that the outcry continues to grow and leads to the cancellation of the Limbaugh show.
We turn now to the other right-wing mass media propagandist, Andrew Brietbart, who made news by dying suddenly at the age of 43. While I wish no man death or illness, I am delighted we won’t be hearing from Brietbart anymore, for he was surely one of the most deceptive mass media manipulators of the current era.
Breitbart worked at The Drudge Report, the first and most well-known of the rumor mills that spewed out unsubstantiated accusations and assertions, primarily against Democratic candidates. Sometimes the Drudge Report turned out to be true, but often not. It didn’t matter to the mainstream news media, whose ethical standards prevented them from reporting directly the rumors that Drudge would routinely publish, but did not prevent them from reporting what Drudge said. Thus a new propaganda device emerged: it doesn’t have to be true, as long as we quote the Drudge Report or some other unscrupulous source.
Breitbart graduated to blogging and was instrumental in disseminating the photos of Representative Andrew Weiner’s wiener that led that weenie to resign. Breitbart’s blog also was the first to run the videotape of the sting-cum-scam in which two young right-wingers visited ACORN offices pretending to be a prostitute and pimp. He was probably best known, however, for editing down the remarks of an African-American civil servant to make her sound as if she were a racist. The propaganda technique in question, taking a statement out of context, was a favorite of the Nazis and Stalinists. The kind of editing he did is akin to an athlete taking performance enhancing drugs. For this offense, he should have been ostracized permanently by the mainstream news media for reasons of credibility.
At his untimely death, it doesn’t surprise me that the right wing has praised Breitbart as a sainted figure. It also makes sense that the mainstream media is treating him even-handedly, since they depended on him for so many stories, if very little real news.
But like Limbaugh, Breitbart will likely go down as a villain in the history of propaganda and the mass media. They both have routinely lied and distorted, and they debased the quality of news coverage in the United States. Even though the mainstream news media has often glorified their shenanigans, historians will eventually get it right.
Now for a semi- errata: Over the past few days, I have exchanged a number of tweets from a JD or JohnJosephTexas. JD is defending Professor J. Rufus Fears, the subject of my blog of February 28, against my assertion that Fears was not a historian. JD found a history book that Fears wrote 30 years ago that is out of print and says that there are others. JD also claims that while at Indiana University, Fears taught in the history department. Rather than get into an extended argument about a trivial point, let me yield to this extent: While I believe that the best way to describe Fears is as a history teacher, I will grant that he is a historian who specializes in teaching not research. What remains is my view of the history that Fears teaches, as reflected in the topics of his course on 36 dates that changed the world: It is old-fashioned and centered on the actions of Christian men in Europe and the United States.