Free Speech Is Real Loser in Rush Kerfuffle

Is it appropriate to defend free speech even when it’s harsh or degrading?  Whatever their political views, do people have a right to express them?  Not for the first time, such questions are being debated in the court of public opinion.

The proximate reason for the debate, this month, is some nasty things said about a law student by Rush Limbaugh, a man who – like Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Ed Schultz, Michael Savage, and Bill Maher – makes his living by saying provocative and sometimes ugly things through the media of TV, film, or radio.

For those who believe in freedom of speech, there’s a little bit of good news amid the bad in the Limbaugh kerfuffle, but a couple things demand to be acknowledged right from the start: Neither Rush, nor any of the other on-air opinionmeisters, are scholars, statesmen, or intellectuals.  They are, instead, political entertainers whose appeal reaches as far as those who share their political views, and not one inch further.

This, and one other thing: The coordinated attacks on Limbaugh and his show’s advertisers is the product of the calculated strategy of a group – Media Matters for America (MMA) – that was created precisely to try to silence, by whatever means, right-leaning organizations and individuals.

The bad news in the Limbaugh affair is that while some people are recommending that the FCC take him off the air (Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem), or think he should be prosecuted (Gloria Allred), and after a number of his advertisers have been cowed into dropping his show, most of the media and journalism organizations one might expect to defend him have remained silent.

From the professional journalism societies to the university-based journalism reviews and the legacy “First Amendment” groups, virtually nothing has been issued in opposition to MMA’s tactics of intimidation.

It could, of course, be argued that MMA is merely exercising its own free speech rights, and that is certainly true, but that fact need not strike dumb those people who, exercising their free speech rights, could and should criticize MMA’s tactics.

According to an AP story, the next step in the war against Limbaugh is a radio ad campaign in eight cities, using as a template MMA’s earlier campaign against Glenn Beck.  Meanwhile, the head of Media Matters, David Brock, is gloating about the negative impact his organization’s efforts are having on Limbaugh’s advertisers.

In a piece published in Politico, titled “Ad exodus dooms Limbaugh’s model,” Brock says he is confident, “seeing the reaction over the previous two weeks, that sponsors will take their ad dollars elsewhere.”  He also says, in a sentence sure to be admired by fanatics and totalitarians everywhere, that MMA “along with numerous other groups, have begun to educate (emphasis added) advertisers about the damage their financial support of Limbaugh’s program can do to their brands.”

Looking beyond the campaign against Limbaugh per se,one can see that if this kind of thing persists it won’t end well for freedom of speech.  Already, for instance, a piece in the American Spectator calls for Rush admirers to contact those of Limbaugh’s advertisers who have dropped his show, the kind of thing that, along with campaigns like MMA’s, may in time have the practical effect of moving advertisers out of radio altogether.

In addition, there’s the distinct possibility that conservative groups will ape the tactics used against Limbaugh, and begin themselves to use advertiser intimidation and/or government policy to effectively shut down speech they don’t like.  Just last week Brent Bozell, head of the conservative media watchdog group Media Research Center, which has used both tactics in the past, said of the MMA campaign: “We all have free speech.”

As mentioned at the outset, there’s a little bit of light breaking through the gloom of this matter.  Though he doesn’t reference the Limbaugh affair, liberal law professor Jonathan Turley penned a piece in the Los Angeles Times this month titled “Free speech under fire,” in which he bemoans the fact that “Western nations appear to have fallen out of love with free speech and are criminalizing more and more kinds of speech through the passage of laws banning hate speech, blasphemy, and discriminatory language.”

At about the same time, liberal icon Michael Kinsley wrote a piece for Bloomberg titled “Case Against Case Against Rush Limbaugh.”  Among other poignant observations, Kinsley says this:

Do we want conservatives organizing boycotts of advertisers on MSNBC, or either side boycotting companies that do business with other companies who advertise on Limbaugh’s show, or Rachel Maddow’s?…

As we all know, Limbaugh’s First Amendment rights aren’t involved here – freedom of speech means freedom from interference by the government.  But the spirit of the First Amendment, which is that suppressing speech is bad, still applies.  If you don’t care for something Rush Limbaugh has said, say why and say it better.

In a perfect world, one wouldn’t need to be a policy wonk or a constitutional expert to understand the wisdom in this. But in this world, who knows?                                             


This piece was first published in TVNewsCheck on March 26, 2012. The views expressed above are those of the writer and not those of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Matthew & Rush & Glenn & Andrew

For those numerous consumers of news and opinion whose political views are right-of-center, the ideology and ubiquity of people like Glenn Beck, Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and Andy Breitbart are a breath of fresh air.  Apart from the serious stuff, some of what they do – like Breitbart roller blading through a crowd of progressive protesters, or Drudge boasting of the MSM’s efforts to get a link on his website (“they kiss the ring”) – is fun.

More than this, all four have demonstrated a substantial talent for creating commercially successful journalistic products.  In 2009, for instance, the financial website 24/ estimated that the Drudge Report was worth $46 million.  Given that the same report, though, suggested the Huffington Post was worth only $96 million, whereas AOL paid $315 million for it just two years later, the Drudge estimate is undoubtedly on the low side.

Their personal attributes notwithstanding, however, the simple truth is that none of these gentlemen, alone or together, provides a substitute for mainstream journalism or a cure for what ails it.  In part this is because all of them engage in opinion rather than reporting – and in Drudge’s case not even his own opinion but that found in the content he aggregates.  But it’s also because, like their liberal counterparts, they address issues solely from within their own ideological constructs, with predictable if sometimes bizarre results.

Take, for instance, Glenn Beck’s absurd suggestion that Sen. Scott Brown’s joking reference to his single daughters’ “availability” was tantamount to “pimping them out.”  Or Andrew Breitbart’s careless or deliberate distortion of the words of Shirley Sherrod.  Or, these days, of the prevalence on the Drudge Report of overwrought headlines that mislead about the content of the articles to which they’re linked.

There is a place for opinion journalism, and for conservative opinion, but the great journalistic need today is for mainstream, objective news reporting.  Indeed, it is the perceived absence of objectivity among the MSM that has created the market for conservative opinion, not just among the four individuals mentioned above but in talk radio generally, at Fox News, and on the Internet.

Which is not to say that this fact is widely acknowledged.  Actually it’s never acknowledged by those people and institutions, such as J-school professors and journalists themselves, who instead follow the lead of the grant-giving groups, like the Knight Foundation, whose munificent gifts set and pay for the journalism establishment’s agenda.

So instead of spotting the journalistic elephant in the room, which is the perceived lack of objectivity (bias, to use the word most commonly employed), the journalism reviews and media critics are uniformly pushing these days the notion that journalism’s greatest need is for more “localism” and “investigative journalism.”  And if the MSM were seen to be objective players in the news business these would be good and timely ideas.  But given that they are not seen that way, the question becomes who would read or watch such stuff, or believe it if they did?

Though the mainstream media’s problems are frequently conflated, there are at least two severable parts to the whole: the business problems, which derive from the damage inflicted on the MSM’s advertising revenue by the Internet generally (and Google specifically); and those strictly journalistic problems, only some of which are a consequence of business problems that have led to downsizing.

Management of the MSM have been slow to come to grips with their business problems, but even slower to deal with their biggest journalistic problem.  Whether this is because they share and approve of the perceived bias in their newsrooms, or because of the firewall that separates the business and editorial sides at most news organizations, the damage to the MSM, to professional journalism, and to the country is palpable – and not at all relieved by the growth of the conservative commentariat.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.