The golden age of cable news, in my curmudgeonly view, stretched from 1980, when CNN was founded, to 1996, when Fox News and MSNBC came along, ending CNN’s monopoly.
It’s not that I like monopolies. Competition is good. But after the one became three, the race to the bottom was on, with all of them going with opinionated talk shows in prime time rather than covering the news. It almost doesn’t matter that CNN and MSNBC are liberal and relatively grounded in the truth while Fox is firmly a part of the conspiratorial extreme right. The point is that if it’s news you want rather than hot takes, you need to turn elsewhere.
But if the golden age has long since passed, the green age only started to fade recently. From 2015 through Jan. 6, 2021, all things Trump drove cable news ratings and revenues into the stratosphere. So what’s next for cable news in the post-Trump era? As I wrote in March, the future looks uncertain, with cable news ratings — and, in fact, audiences for all news organizations — down considerably. When the news is more or less normal and inspires something other than horror and perverse fascination, well, maybe “Beat Bobby Flay” looks like a better alternative.
Earlier this week, Vanity Fair published a lengthy article on the state of cable news by media reporter Joe Pompeo. It’s filled with interesting details and insights. What’s depressing about it, though, is that there isn’t a single executive who’s quoted, either on the record or anonymously, who talks about how moving the focus away from Trump might give them an opportunity to serve journalism and democracy better than they do now. It was all about ratings before. It still is.
Pompeo quotes Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with LightShed Partners, on what the future is likely to hold:
It honestly feels like we’re back to the run-up to the 2016 election, like we’re going back in time five years to when cable news was really about old people. The volatility, the anger, the hatred that was spewed across cable news over the last few years, from both sides, clearly brought an audience. I would feel very comfortable saying I don’t think we’ll ever see sustained full-year ratings like we’ve just seen.
OK, so maybe that’s how cable news will serve democracy: by reaching smaller audiences.
At the beginning of 2019, I wrote a column headlined “Five Ways to De-Trumpify Your Life.” No. 4: Stop watching cable news. There are many superior sources of news and information. If there’s major breaking news taking place, sure, I’ll tune in to CNN. If Anderson Cooper is at the anchor desk, I might even stick around.
But the class of the television news universe is the “PBS NewsHour,” which has improved and toughened up considerably over the past few years. We record it every night; we rarely watch the whole thing, but we appreciate the intelligence and context, which you just can’t get elsewhere.
And yes, I’ll watch Rachel Maddow occasionally, too. She’s smart and well-informed, and her politics are pretty much the same as mine. But it’s entertainment as much as it is news, and what’s important isn’t always entertaining.
As described by Pompeo, it sounds like cable news is going to be the same as it ever was, only with fewer viewers. It’s a lost opportunity. But what did we expect?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to give Fox News an exclusive as he signed his state’s new voter-suppression law was a sleazy piece of political gamesmanship. But was it unconstitutional? Maybe. A 1974 court ruling established the principle that government officials may not ban members of the press from events that are customarily open to the media. I wrote about it a year ago in a case involving — yes — DeSantis.
What makes this unusual is that the law envisions an official who singles out a specific reporter or news outlet for exclusion. DeSantis’ stunt involves the granting of special privileges to one news outlet. That’s generally allowed, as with agreeing to an interview. But a bill-signing is the sort of public event that is almost always open to the press, so it’s possible that DeSantis may have stepped in it again. Anyway, here’s my earlier item.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.
Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.
Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:
A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.
But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.
Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.
Vice President Kamala Harris made history Wednesday night just by sitting behind President Biden during his joint address to Congress. As the understudy to our oldest president, Harris may well be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 if Biden decides not to seek re-election.
And Harris, who is not just the first female vice president but also the first Black person and Asian American to fill that role, is driving the right crazy. Back in 2019, when she was running her own presidential campaign, the main critique of her was that she was too conventional and too close to law enforcement. Now the right-wing media echo chamber portrays her as the fifth member of the Squad.
The latest attack on Harris backfired in an unusually spectacular manner, and illustrates the corrosive effect that the Murdoch media are having in this country.
On Saturday, Murdoch’s New York Post devoted its cover story to a report that immigrant children at the border were being given goodie bags that included taxpayer-purchased copies of Harris’ children’s book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere.”
The story immediately became fodder for Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. But the only evidence was a photo of one copy of the book, and the tale quickly unraveled — though that didn’t stop the Post, in a follow-up, from claiming that “thousands” of copies were distributed.
Then, on Tuesday, we received a rare moment of clarity. Laura Italiano, the Post reporter who wrote the story, tweeted that she had resigned. “The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point,” she wrote. Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times has all the details.
The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point.
Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, then you’re thinking that this happens all the time. One part of the Murdoch media empire runs with something false, exaggerated or, at the very least, unverified; other parts of the empire amplify it; and we have a full-blown fake scandal about Democrats on our hands. (Note: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. See below.)
Last fall, for instance, in what was surely the lamest attempt at an October surprise ever, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon attempted to feed a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop to Fox News. Taking the sensible position that the story couldn’t be verified, Fox’s news division actually passed on it — only to see it pop up in the New York Post.
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But not before some internal hand-wringing, as the Times’ Katie Robertson reported. The Post reporter who wrote most of the story refused to let his byline be put on it since he was afraid it would blow up, and several others declined as well. But Fox News, whose journalists had enough scruples not to take the story, recycled it endlessly on its opinionated talk shows, running “nearly 25 and a half hours, which included 420 segments” between Oct. 14 and 23, according to Rob Savillo of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America.
Today the laptop story exists in kind of a weird limbo, neither proven nor disproven, and in any case telling us nothing of relevance about President Biden.
After stumbling a bit after Election Day and allowing pure Trumpist outlets like Newsmax and OANN to move in on its territory, Fox News has resumed its dominance, according to Ted Johnson of Deadline — although the three major cable news channels, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, are on the decline.
Morever, Fox, fed by the New York Post, remains the most dominant force in Republican politics, making it impossible for the party to move beyond Trump or even to think about compromising with Biden.
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently testified before his country’s parliament about the harm his fellow Australian Murdoch has done. Among other things, he said:
What does Vladimir Putin want to do with his operations in America? He wants to divide America and turn Americans against each other. That is exactly what Murdoch has done: Divided Americans against each other and so undermined their faith in political institutions that a mob of thousands of people, many of them armed, stormed the Capitol.
On Thursday we learned that Giuliani’s home and office were raided by the FBI, reportedly in connection with his murky dealings in Ukraine as he attempted to draw a connection between alleged corruption by Hunter Biden and his father. Bannon has faced criminal charges since last August over an alleged fundraising scheme involving Trump’s wall at the southern border.
The Murdoch media, though, just goes on and on, smearing without truth or consequences. You’ll be hearing false stories about Kamala Harris’ book for the rest of her political career. Mission accomplished.
Update: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. The Times’ Grynbaum tweets:
"The New York Post does not order reporters to deliberately publish factually inaccurate information. In this case, the story was amended as soon as it came to the editors’ attention that it was inaccurate." https://t.co/rXSx4mYU6khttps://t.co/X9Fjj3u4js
The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr has a must-read story about Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s habit of singling out journalists who’ve criticized him — or simply expressed views he doesn’t like — thus subjecting them to harassment and even death threats. Among them: NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny, Los Angeles Times columnist Virginia Heffernan and Grio reporter April Ryan. Barr writes:
Carlson cut his teeth jousting with the nation’s top elected officials and brand-name pundits on CNN’s “Crossfire” 20 years ago. But as his influence within the conservative media ecosystem has grown, with some calling for him to run for president in 2024, he has increasingly found fodder in criticizing lesser-known media figures whom he presents to his audience as symbols of liberalism run amok. And a subset of viewers are inspired to personally harass those journalists with threatening messages.
• The white nationalist organization VDARE tweeted enthusiastically about Carlson’s endorsement of ideas that sound very much like “white replacement theory”: “This segment is one of the best things Fox News has ever aired and was filled with ideas and talking points VDARE.com pioneered many years ago. You should watch the whole thing.” (See the Southern Poverty Law Center’s take on VDARE.)
• New York Times columnist Farah Stockman reports that Carlson has been fueling opposition to President Biden’s nominee to run the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, Kristen Clarke, with a blizzard of lies. Among them:
He [Carlson] also claimed she was a purveyor of hate who wrote a “shocking” letter to Harvard’s student newspaper promoting the genetic superiority of Black people. In fact, the letter was a satirical response to “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” a book that, among other things, portrayed Black people as intellectually inferior. Mr. Carlson might as well have done an exclusive investigation about cannibalism in Ireland following the publication of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
Carlson is flying awfully close to the sun. The Murdochs will put up with him until it’s no longer in their economic interest to do so.
Not too long ago, Tucker Carlson would go on vacation — always long-planned, of course — whenever one of his rancid descents into racism and white supremacy made life momentarily uncomfortable for his overlords at Fox News. He’d disappear for a few days, come back once the heat had died down and resume his hate-mongering ways.
But that was before former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, before the insurrection of Jan. 6 and, most important, before Newsmax and One America News Network briefly put a scare into the Murdochs by showing that Fox’s audience, increasingly unmoored from reality, could no longer be taken for granted.
Thus we should have known that an uncontrite Carlson would be back at his perch Monday evening after enthusiastically endorsing “white replacement theory” the previous week. After all, Lachlan Murdoch, the heir to the throne, had defended Carlson earlier in the day in response to a letter from the Anti-Defamation League calling on Fox to fire its top-rated talk-show host.
“A full review of the guest interview indicates that Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory,” Murdoch said in his letter to ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt. “As Mr. Carlson himself stated during the guest interview: ‘White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.’”
This is how it works if you’re Tucker Carlson: You can express vile, unadorned racist views. And as long as you say the equivalent of “I’m not being racist,” you’re good to go. Or, rather, good to stay.
So what exactly happened last Thursday? Carlson popped up during the crossover from the 7 p.m. show to his own in order to banter with guest host Mark Steyn. Picking up on something Steyn had said earlier, Carlson excoriated Democrats for allowing immigrants into the country who would at some point be allowed to vote — thus diluting the votes of Americans who were already here.
“Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true,” Carlson said.
He then added the part that Lachlan Murdoch seems to think absolves him of racism: “Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No, no, no. This is a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that? The power that I have as an American guaranteed at birth is one man, one vote, and they are diluting it. No, they are not allowed to do it. Why are we putting up with this?”
This is, in fact, racism in its purest form: the belief that real Americans, defined by Carlson as people who were born here, have the right not to have to compete for political power with newcomers, and to be regarded as more worthy and more patriotic than those who immigrate here, become naturalized citizens and vote. Like, you know, Rupert Murdoch.
By the way, the aforementioned Steyn is a piece of work in his own right. A Canadian by way of the United Kingdom who once wrote dismissively of former Sen. Max Cleland’s devastating war injuries — the Georgia Democrat lost three limbs in Vietnam — Steyn came to Carlson’s defense in a post on his website.
Yet it wasn’t always sweetness and light between the two. In 2004, I wrote a profile of Steyn for The Boston Phoenix describing how he straddled the line between respectable conservatism and Ann Coulter-style gutter-dwelling. Steyn had criticized Carlson as a “conservative cutie” who had gone soft on the war in Iraq. So I called up Carlson, who had not yet begun his own descent into the intellectual abyss, and asked him what he thought.
“He’s kind of pompous,” Carlson said of Steyn. “He’s obviously smart, he can be quite witty. I mean, I agree with a lot of what he writes. But the problem with being a columnist for too long is that a) you tend to repeat yourself and b) you tend to forget that you need to marshal facts to support your opinions.”
But I digress. After all, this is about Carlson, who, no doubt charged up by Lachlan Murdoch’s endorsement, replayed his entire Thursday monologue to open his show on Monday and argued that he couldn’t possibly be racist because he believes the votes of Black people who were born in the U.S. are being diluted just as much as those of white people.
“Our leaders have no right to encourage foreigners to move to this country in order to change election results,” he said, and said this of Democrats: “Demographic replacement is their obsession because it’s their path to power.”
Not that any of this is new. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote about Carlson’s endorsement of white replacement theory back in 2018, after Carlson said that “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country.” That took place just a year after neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia — “very fine people,” as former President Donald Trump called them at the time — had chanted “Jews will not replace us! You will not replace us!”
So what is to be done? Advertisers have, on occasion, pulled out of Carlson’s show and other Fox programs. But that has a limited effect, since Fox makes most of its money from fees paid by the cable companies. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On The Media,” “They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box.”
That, in turn, has led the progressive media-form group Free Press to propose that Congress pass a law mandating à la carte cable service so that customers wouldn’t be forced to subsidize Fox and its ilk. That sounds promising, and I certainly wouldn’t mind not having to pay for the various flavors of ESPN. But I’m sure that such a move would have unintended consequences. For instance, how many people would choose to pay for CNN? Flawed though it is, it’s indispensable when there’s breaking news.
As for Carlson, nothing will change until, suddenly, it does. He may be the most powerful right-wing figure in the country right now — an heir to Trump and a possible future presidential candidate. Yet he’s playing with explosives, stirring up the hatred and resentment of his viewers in a way that could lead to some extremely ugly consequences.
Dominion’s libel suit against Fox seems pretty solid given that it was the company’s own hosts, not just their guests, who were spreading false information. And if they actually believed what they were saying — the key to an “actual malice” defense — surely their bosses knew better.
Two Democratic members of Congress are asking giant cable providers like Verizon and Comcast some uncomfortable questions about their business dealings with three right-wing purveyors of toxic misinformation and disinformation — Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.
Among other things, according to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney want to know what “moral and ethical principles” are involved in carrying the channels and whether they intend to keep carrying them after their current contracts expire. This is not a good road to take. As Wemple writes:
The insertion of Congress into the contractual relationships of video providers with particular news/propaganda outlets, however, is frightening. Asking questions is a protected activity, of course — one that lawmakers use all the time. Yet these questions feel a lot like coercion by government officials, an incursion into the cultural promise of the First Amendment. Eshoo and McNerney’s letter hints that, unless the carriers proactively justify keeping OAN, Newsmax, Fox News and the like, the signatories would like to see them de-platformed right away.
The very real problem is that Fox News and its smaller competitors are unique in the extent to which they spout falsehoods and outright lies about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the outcome of the 2020 election. But what can we do about it without posing a threat to the First Amendment?
Liberal activists have pressured advertisers from time to time, which is well within their own free-speech rights. But Fox, in particular, is all but immune from such pressure because most of its money comes from cable carriage fees. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On the Media”:
They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box, and Fox is in the process right now of renegotiating 40 to 50% of all of their contracts.
A far more promising avenue is one suggested by the media-reform organization Free Press. Contained within its daily missives demanding that Congress take action against Fox, Newsmax and OANN for spewing “hate and disinformation into homes and businesses across the country” is a proposed solution that we all ought to support: mandating à la carte cable so that consumers would only have to pay for the channels they want. (Bye bye, ESPN!)
The problem with these right-wing purveyors of lies isn’t that they exist. It’s that, unless we’re willing to cut the cable cord, we’re forced to pay for them whether we watch them or not, whether we’re appalled by them or not. It’s time to bring that to an end.
So yes, there’s a way to do something about cable hate without raising constitutional issues. Reps. Eshoo and McNerney should take note.
Following the death of Rush Limbaugh, a number of observers — including me — noted that Ronald Reagan had paved the way for him and other right-wing talk show hosts by ending enforcement of the fairness doctrine. That rule, part of the FCC’s toolbox for decades, required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked.
So why not bring it back? It’s a suggestion I’ve seen a number of times over the past week. But though the idea of enforcing fairness on the airwaves has a certain appeal to it, the fairness doctrine is gone for good, and for some very sound reasons. For one thing, it applies only to broadcast, a shrinking part of the audio and video mediascape. For another, you can’t apply it to new technologies without violating the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the fairness doctrine and that simultaneously started the clock ticking on its eventual demise is Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, a 1969 decision based on the “scarcity rationale” — the theory that because the broadcast spectrum is limited, it may be regulated in the public interest.
The unanimous decision, written by Justice Byron White, involved an evangelical preacher named Billy James Hargis, who anticipated the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by a good decade. In a 15-minute tirade, Hargis attacked a journalist named Fred J. Cook, who had written a critical biography of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate.
According to Hargis, the newspaper where Cook had worked fired him for making false accusations against city officials, and was a communist sympathizer besides. Cook contacted the Red Lion-owned radio station in Pennsylvania where he’d heard Hargis’ rant and demanded equal time. Red Lion refused, citing its free-speech protections under the First Amendment.
Justice White’s decision follows two main threads — that the FCC was well within its authority, as granted by Congress, to enforce the fairness doctrine and order Red Lion to provide Cook with an opportunity to respond; and that the reason the FCC had such authority was because of limits to the number of radio stations that can be on the air in a given coverage area. For instance, White writes:
Before 1927, the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector, and the result was chaos. It quickly became apparent that broadcast frequencies constituted a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the Government. Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacophony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard.
Later on, he adds:
Because of the scarcity of radio frequencies, the Government is permitted to put restraints on licensees in favor of others whose views should be expressed on this unique medium. But the people as a whole retain their interest in free speech by radio and their collective right to have the medium function consistently with the ends and purposes of the First Amendment. It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.
Red Lion argued, among other things, that technological advances were making the fairness doctrine obsolete. Justice White replied that new uses for additional broadcast spectrum were quickly eating up that additional capacity, and that the demand was likely to exceed supply for many years to come. It was a crucial point — and it also anticipated the situation that developed in the post-Reagan era.
White’s decision explains why the scarcity of broadcast spectrum was the key to upholding the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine. I want to drive that home for those who think a new fairness doctrine could be applied to, say, satellite radio, cable television and the internet. Without scarcity, there is no constitutional rationale for the regulation of content. And with cable and satellite, there are hundreds of options; with the internet, the choices are theoretically infinite.
If Fred Cook wanted to respond to the not-so-good reverend today, he could attack him on Twitter, start a podcast, set up a blog — whatever. But he would not be able to demand redress from the radio station given that he would have multiple other ways of making his voice heard. (He could also sue for libel if he believed Hargis’ words were false and defamatory.)
The central role that scarcity plays in these legal calculations can be seen in another case where there was no scarcity — Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo (1974), in which the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Florida law requiring newspapers to offer a right of response to political candidates who had been criticized.
In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger writes that even though media concentration and the demise of newspaper competition had led to a scarcity problem similar to that which prevailed in broadcast, it was the result of market forces rather than the unbreakable physical limitations of the broadcast spectrum. In order to start an over-the-air radio or television station, you need a license from the government, whereas anyone, at least in theory, is free to start a newspaper. Burger writes:
[T]he implementation of a remedy such as an enforceable right of access necessarily calls for some mechanism, either governmental or consensual. If it is governmental coercion, this at once brings about a confrontation with the express provisions of the First Amendment and the judicial gloss on that Amendment developed over the years.
First Amendment protections are extraordinarily high, and they can only be breached for extraordinary reasons.
When Reagan’s FCC stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine in 1987, it cited the rise of cable TV as signaling the end of scarcity. I would argue that the FCC acted too soon. But by the mid-1990s, there was no longer any good reason for the government to regulate speech simply because it had been broadcast over the public airwaves.
Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Alex Jones and the like have done serious damage to our democracy. But as Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Rush Limbaugh, the toxic right-wing talk show host who died Wednesday at the age of 70, came out of a regulatory environment that had changed utterly from what had come before. Although I like to tell my students that everything can be traced back to Richard Nixon, it was changes implemented by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that gave us decades of Rush.
Starting in the 1930s and ’40s, the Federal Communications Commission required radio and, later, television stations to be operated in the public interest. The theory was that the broadcast spectrum was limited, so station operators were licensed and required to abide by rules such as the fairness doctrine. Right-wing talk would have been unimaginable during those years, since station executives would have been obliged to let the targets of Limbaugh’s attacks respond and to provide airtime to liberal hosts.
Reagan simply let those regulations lapse, and Limbaugh’s rise coincided with Reagan’s presidency. All of a sudden, a hate-monger like Rush was free to spew his bile every day without putting the stations that carried his show in any jeopardy.
The next step in Limbaugh’s rise was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by Bill Clinton. The law was mainly seen as a way to regulate cable TV prices and encourage competition. But the act also removed any meaningful restrictions on the number of radio stations any one company could own in a given market or nationally.
The law led the rise of massive corporate radio chains such as Clear Channel and Cumulus. These companies had in many cases taken on substantial debt in order to build their empires, and the way they serviced that debt was by slicing local programming and loading up on cheap national content like Limbaugh’s show. It’s a dynamic that continues to play out. As recently as a year ago, iHeartMedia, the successor company to Clear Channel, decimated WBZ (AM 1030), Boston’s only commercial news station.
Although some folks call for the restoration of the fairness doctrine, that no longer makes sense. The scarcity rationale that provided the legal basis for regulation is long gone, with satellite and internet radio offering hundreds if not thousands of choices. Podcasts have eaten significantly into the audience. Radio has fractured, just like most forms of media. Though I would like to see ownership caps restored, even that seems less relevant than it did a quarter-century ago given the multiplicity of audio options that are out there today.
That fracturing also means a radio show like Limbaugh’s could never become such a massive phenomenon today. Fox News long since surpassed Limbaugh in terms of audience and influence — and now they’re being threatened by new competitors like Newsmax, OANN and conspiracy-minded internet programming such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars. Rather than one big Rush, the mediascape is littered with a bunch of little Rushes. It’s not an improvement.
Limbaugh, of course, helped give rise to Donald Trump, and the two men have a lot in common — towering self-regard served up with heaping doses of racism, misogyny and homophobia. It’s no wonder that Trump presented Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom. This piece, published by HuffPost shortly after Limbaugh’s death, is brutal but accurate.
It’s a terrible legacy. But Limbaugh seemed content with his choices right up until the end of his life.