The Big Power of Right-Wing Radio

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S1: I cannot swear to you that there is swearing on this show but there might be.

S2: It’s the kind of behavior I engage in.

S3: It’s Tuesday September 3rd 20 19 from slated to digest. I’m Mike Pesca. Hurricanes are like racism. Who this is Zenko. No no no. Hear me out.

S1: Remember a couple of years ago for current guy I got in the White House when most of the public expression of racism was dog whistles really quite subtle and you’d always hear you know it’s the subtle quiet racism that’s the most pernicious and then douchebags in khakis with Tiki torches show up in Charlottesville we realized now you know what it’s the yelling out loud stuff that really is the worst. Same with hurricanes. Because remember last year we were told well although we do categorize them by numbers according to wind speed now now now it’s the storm surge. That’s the real problem.

S4: The greatest threat to loss of life during a hurricane doesn’t come from the wind that comes from the water that the wind pushes ashore. This is something that we call.

S5: Storm surge. But now that there’s Dorian with It’s earth shattering really air shattering gusts we have sentiment like this as expressed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.

S6: This hurricane has shattered all time records. When you think about the wind speeds of one hundred five hundred eighty five miles an hour yesterday afternoon and it’s certainly one of the most powerful we’ve ever seen in the Atlantic.

S5: Yeah it turns out that ripping our years off. That’s kind of a problem too. You know it’s all a problem. We do this and by we I mean we humans but also that narrow slice of humanity that’s the media we all have the tendency to take the circumstance that’s right in front of us and say this one’s the worst when Harvey dumped 40 inches or so of rain on Houston that was the worst that was the most dangerous. And then we went without a category three or above hurricane for years and years and years and then we were told well forget Category 3 and 4 because that’s about wind speed and wind speeds not really the best way to measure them. You should look at the accumulated cyclone energy the Ace I liked and I’m like an ace except now that the Bahamas is getting smacked in the face with a freight train of air whereas ace nation now.

S1: In truth there is a logic to thinking of all sort of different ways to categorize and explain hurricanes to explain their intensity their potential for death wind speed. That’s the easiest to measure. But like batting average in baseball it doesn’t mean it’s the best indication. But also like batting average in baseball when Ted Williams hit 400 you did have to tip your cap or be bowled over to pick two idioms which are respectively improbable and probable during a Category 5 hurricane. And so we should take into account the amount of rain the amount of energy the storm surge. It should all be considered it should all be counted. It should all be understood. But I do however understand the imperatives of we humans and we in the media to look at that which is upon us and say Oh my God it’s never been worse because there is quite a case that the wind is not the most dangerous aspect of a hurricane. Only you won’t hear that case being made today on the show. One more aspect of hurricane coverage and how it relates to a certain fellow from the D.C. area who don’t like his hair to be too must up by criticism of Donald Trump’s golfing in the face of nature is mere bloviating.

S5: But first it is a veritable salon of intellect insight and the free exchange of ideas I speak of course of conservative talk radio. So Brian Rosenwald has looked at this institution the institution that gave us mega dittos and he found that what the A.M. Yorkers had to say in 2016 may have played a bigger role than you realized in the bullying of our shock jock in chief.

S3: Talk radio’s America how an industry took over a political party that took over the United States.

S7: Up next and I’ll take my answers on the air Brian Rosenwald is a first time longtime a longtime observer of the American media scene a first time author of talk radio’s America how an industry took over a political party that took over the United States rather than read a blurb on the back. Now we’ll read you an endorsement of this book. Quote This guy gets it more than anybody that I’ve ever encountered writing either about talk radio in general or about this program what program the name of the man saying that quote Rush Limbaugh. Hello Brian. How are you.

S8: Congratulations on the endorsement. Thank you. It’s great to be with you. I mean does that should I congratulate you. You want to get it right. But did you always want Rush Limbaugh complimenting you.

S9: Well it’s not something I ever expected but yeah I mean I do see it as a compliment because he didn’t say look this guy is endorsing our politics or anything like that. But he was saying is that that I get that the business. And that was a huge goal of this book and this project was to you know yes there are going to be political conclusions that there’s probably something in there for everyone left right and center to hate. But you know if people in the business say well he understands it he gets it then that’s sort of confirming to me that I got the story right and that I’m not leading my readers astray in any way that they can you know understand how this came to be and what impact it has from the book.

S10: So how Rush Limbaugh goes national in the late 80s before that. I grew up in New York and I remember when Rush was just local on w ABC before him there was a guy named Bob Grant who would end his show with your influence counts use it get Gadhafi who’s talking about Gadhafi before Gadhafi was a household name before that and I didn’t know this guy but I’d heard tale of long John Neville who was kind of a shock jock and maybe more of a angry conservative but that wasn’t his main shtick. What was the use. So what I’m saying is if Rush Limbaugh was Elvis there was a Jerry Lee Lewis before him. There was a Bill Haley before him. What made Rush the transcendent comment that he was I guess to mix a Bill Haley metaphor.

S9: So Rush goes national in 1988. And what Rush does is first of all he breaks number one rule among radio executives at the time which is that for talk radio to work it’s got to be local. You know that was the paradigm that was the rule and rush goes national and he’s enormously successful and he starts you know people are calling into his affiliate stations first screaming you know what is this guy. Get him off the air. But within like a week or two it starts to become more mixed. And then it’s Oh my God he’s the greatest thing ever. But he’s getting provoking reactions and he is this amazing entertainer he’s doing things. The only thing that you can expect from Rush Limbaugh in those first few years in national syndication are to expect the unexpected. And you know he’s not lecturing on the ills of communism. He’s talking about Gore Basin’s and how liberals in the mainstream media. Gore Bassem every time anyone talks about Mikhail Gorbachev he’s talking about. He has wilderness updates where he plays Andy Williams a song Born Free overlaid with like mortar blasts and shotguns and squawking animals to sort of poke fun at animal rights. And there’s a conservative message in this but it is fun it’s funny it’s brash it’s unpredictable but a funny thing happens. You know Limbaugh thinks he’s there to entertain and he starts getting these callers who are saying Thank God you’re on the air rush. We finally have a voice. Finally someone to stick up for us and speak up for us. And you know the radio executives as it was explained to me by program or executive after executive are not the most creative bunch. And the one thing that they live in fear of is when they want to try something new. The first question from their boss is going to be where’s this working. Because of course if you’re doing something is working somewhere else you can’t get yourself in trouble trying it. And Rush is getting these calls and the light bulb goes off for some of these radio executives where they say well it’s his viewpoint it’s his conservatism.

S1: So without talk radio is there a Fox News Channel because it’s apparent to all how powerful Fox News Channel is. Absolutely not.

S9: Rush is creating a programming model and talk radio after Rush you start to see a bunch of local mini rushes and then the early 90s they start syndicating people like G Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame who went by the moniker the g man or Michael Reagan the presidential son. And then you get into the mid 90s and I’ll be very honest I think the only person who totally understands or understood the relationship between Rush and Fox News would’ve been Roger Ailes because from 1992 to 1996 Ailes was producing Limbaugh’s television show. And I would guess he’s seeing the success Limbaugh is having on radio. He’s seeing that there’s a market for this he says well why can’t we apply this television and Ailes is a guy who’d been thinking about a conservative television network going back to the 70s room and the programming on Fox is exactly the same as the programming on talk radio.

S11: Right. So now is the part where I challenged the thesis a little bit which is to say if we were to run an experiment you have your dependent and independent variables and it does seem to me that talk radio was around and going strong when Clinton was elected. When Barack Obama was elected it also definitely helped the Tea Party. It has since just because of legacy media and over the air versus digital media has since declined in popularity at the exact time that you’re pointing to it as this powerful force that gave us Donald Trump. So if there if there was a successful and important talk radio phenomenon going on for 20 years why is it during the 2016 election that we could point to that format and say aha that’s where it was most impactful and important.

S9: Well I don’t know that it’s impactful in the moment in 2016 in that particular fashion. I think it’s impactful in the moment in 2016 because it’s the first presidential election where in a general election there are a lot of doubts about the Republican from the right. And talk radio host can sort of vouch for him. But I think that the impact is much longer and deeper in two different respects. That sets the stage for Donald Trump. The first is that for decades. By that point by the time you get to 2016 you’ve heard Republicans you’ve heard talk radio first hawking Republicans but criticizing them when they disagree. They did it with George H.W. Bush. They did it with the Gingrich ites and Bob Dole. They did it with George W. Bush. So they’ve been hosts have been calling for this they’ve been calling for a tougher Republican. Somebody will just stand up to the Democrats and the Liberals and fight back. We get to the primaries in 2015 and there are a lot of talk radio hosts who are mostly with Ted Cruz. And there’s questions Who is Donald Trump a conservative. You know this guy’s not exactly the paradigmatic Christian conservative that we think about. But what we don’t know in that we don’t see in that moment as clearly as maybe we should have is that he’s employing the style that base voters have been hungry for that they’re desperate for. That sounds like their favorite house. And those have also been doing another thing that ends up really critically boosting Donald Trump which is they have been running down what Rush calls the drive by media they have for decades been focused on media bias. So then we get to 2016 and the media starts to report on the unsavory side of Donald Trump how he’s treated employees how his businesses have gone belly up some of the things that he says and when reporters go to the folks at his rallies and say you know doesn’t this concern you. They say well I don’t believe this. This is just the mainstream media trying to run down this guy who’s finally sticking up for our values. They want Hillary to win. So all of these factors sort of set the stage for Donald Trump or a Donald Trump like figure it’s not so much that talk radio itself is so influential in 2016 and hosts are like yeah this Trump guy is the best thing since sliced bread if anything. In a lot of cases it’s the listeners driving the host to support Donald Trump. It’s this transformation of conservative thinking. It’s this desire for a fighter. It’s running down the mainstream media so that when they point things out about Donald Trump they sort of have no impact. It’s those kinds of factors.

S10: It also does seem to me that a major feature of the entire genre is a lack of accountability because like you were saying you got a tape from 1987. Well if the new York Times wrote an article 1987 would be very easy to look it up and hold them to account. I would listen to I listen to a lot of right wing radio and there was a time when a mainstay of Hannity and Laura Ingram was just mocking people who were worried about SMU vs and and gas mileage. And then when there was a couple of gas shocks that totally dropped away from their routines and actually blaming the Obama administration for the high price of gas and this is this is why you don’t want to drive an SUV. And it was totally ignored. And then they essentially did a 180 and it seemed like no one even noticed it. And without that I wonder how well talk radio would be able to persist over all these years.

S9: Well this is an outstanding point and one I don’t get to make very often but absolutely the hardest part about doing the research of this book I started out you know thinking I was going to write about the 1990s primarily you know I’m a historian we do better with the past and the present or the future. And I was going to write about the 94 Republican revolution I was going to write about the government shutdown in 95. I was going to write about impeachment. Well what I quickly realized is there’s virtually no recordings of anyone not even rush from that era. You know C-SPAN did a talk radio week here there but very little of it’s available. You know you can’t just sit down say I want to hear Russia’s first national show August 1st 1988 but what you’ve seen throughout the years is when the talk radio host crossover to an audience that is not their own they run themselves into trouble. So for a lot of time in like the 90s and the first half of the 2000s these guys were saying a lot of things that might have gotten them drummed off the airwaves if it went beyond their own audience. But they’re kind of insulated because at the time if you aren’t tuning in you aren’t going to hear them. There was no media matters. There was no monitoring. There was no internet streaming. It was literally the people who tuned in on the AM dial were the ones who heard them. I had people who worked in the first Bush White House say to me you know we didn’t we’re not quite. We didn’t get this we were slow to get this in part because you know if we couldn’t get the radio reception in the White House to hear it we had to go out to try to try to seek this out. But then you get to the moment where media matters takes off. And media matters you know starts tracking this stuff and they’ll clip it. And now in the social media world this is it’s gotten a lot of these house in trouble because media matters clipped something. It starts going viral on social media and people start tweeting at the companies advertising on the show saying my God yo dude does your company stand for this.

S10: Now one recent development in this world this world that you chronicle is that of the conservative talk radio hosts most of them didn’t start off pro Trump but then people might be shocked to find out that Mark Levin was an anti Trump guy. I mean the way he talks about him now but they’ve since all drunk the Kool-Aid. Glenn back to some extent even Ben Shapiro the exception was Joe Walsh a Tea Party stalwart who would you say has found the viable niche of being the one flame throwing conservative who says I’m still going to be a.. Trump is that is that what explains Joe Walsh running for president now.

S9: So I wrote about this in The Post today and I think that is the cynical perspective on Joe Walsh that Joe Walsh has decided that look you can’t be anti Trump or say anything even mildly critical about Trump and succeed in conservative media anymore. You’ve seen that happen to guy after guy after guy Charlie Sykes Michael Medved lost his syndication deal with Salem. He’s still out there but he’s no longer Salem host. Ben Shapiro lost his and to crowds were partners on Salem’s L.A. station and they lost their talk radio gig. And you know so the cynical side of this is you know Walsh understands that you can’t be critical this guy and succeed in conservative media but you can be liberal media’s favorite conservative because you’re bashing Trump and that you know he knows he’s not going to win. And there’s an avenue for this the less cynical side is that he really was one of those people who had an epiphany and said My God I helped create Donald Trump. And look how unfit he is for office and now somebody’s got to try and do something about it’s a long shot. But I’m going to try now. I don’t think Joe Walsh is an actual threat to Donald Trump. I think he’s only able to run because he embodied the style of talk radio and he got this prominence otherwise he is just a one term congressman from Illinois who nobody’s ever heard of. But he got this national platform on the radio and he’s been able to build a brand. And so he has some you know name recognition because he’s taken advantage of the style. But you know the bottom line is for the Republican primary voter if their choices are Donald Trump the guy who embodies the style and shamelessly kind of sticks with it no matter how much criticism he gets or Joe Walsh the actual talk radio host. But the guy who said you know mea culpa you know so some of the stuff I’ve said is wrong and I shouldn’t have said it and I didn’t believe it. And you know maybe there’s some danger in doing it this way. They’re not taking that guy over Trump.

S11: Brian Rosenwald is among other things by the way the co editor in chief of made by history in the Washington Post. And if you love Slate podcasts he is the main whistlestop researcher on John Dickerson’s whistlestop podcast. His new book is called Talk radio’s America. How an industry took over a political party that took over the United States. Brian thanks so much. My pleasure. Great to be with you.

S12: Happy to do it any time.

S1: And now the spiel. The storms are coming and the president is golfing Oh today the president teeing up at his golf course outside Washington.

S13: As Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas and bore down on the U.S. board down.

S7: Well there’s something associated with Trump is boring.

S13: CNN went on to new critics reminding him of this promise he once made to supporters. I’m going to be working for you. I’m not going to have time to go play golf.

S1: Well as the walk up music that began the clip suggests we were not all ready for this. But here’s the thing I do not care. I do not care that Trump played golf while in extremely slow moving hurricane was two to three days away because Trump’s supposed to do what he wanted to do. He wanted to nuke the hurricane to take us to hurricane one though because DEF CON severity works inversely to the sapphire Simpson scale of hurricanes. This means that the hurricane level is a one to five scale with three being the most severe. But seriously Trump I mean if the guy weren’t golfing he’d be scrambling the fighters. Either way we get bogeys. Am I right. And a time out for me and I’m back now. You heard on CNN there they were making the case in the guise of quoting critics them the hypocrisy of Trump that Trump is a hypocrite for going golfing in the face of a hurricane. Golfing. Can you imagine that with a hurricane only say 72 hours away. Which let’s be honest is the limit of Trump’s long term thinking. But that’s not the hypocrisy. It’s not hypocritical hurricane golfing. It’s hypocritical. Anytime golfing and according to Trump Golf count dot com Trump has golfed not just visited of course but confirmatory golf. One hundred forty nine times so far during his presidency. For context President Obama played golf only 113 times during the entirety of his first term in office that according to presidential golf counter dot com. According to Mike Reid’s names of ridiculous Web sites dot com Mike has read the name of two ridiculous Web sites in this segment. Three if you count the following Chris Cillizza article on CNN dot com Moon bird. So there’s this is a quote as Dorian grew into a category 5 hurricane over Labor Day weekend President Donald Trump played golf twice.

S5: The most common critique of Trump’s decision to hit the links was focused on the obvious hypocrisy. And yes there is that but at this point in his presidency and his life. Trump’s hypocrisy is so well proven as to be almost mundane. He believes he is governed by different rules than literally everyone else. This is bad. It is also not new. What is more striking and damaging is it relates to the overall health of the country. Is that Trump’s golfing weekend speaks to how he simply does not see the presidency as a beacon of moral leadership or leadership of any kind.

S1: And Cillizza quote Remember that point he was making a paragraph ago about hypocrisy but dismissing the hypocrisy as bad but also not new. And then he goes on to say that Trump doesn’t see the presidency as a beacon of moral leadership and yet this observation somehow escapes the bit about it being bad but also not new they’re both exactly the same. They’re both bad. They’re also not new. And I gotta say of all the bad stuff Trump does which is almost all the stuff Trump does golfing over Labor Day isn’t. Well it’s not just really far down the list is not on the list it’s not bad it’s not bad at all. It doesn’t matter during hurricanes. Governors are wants to don the gubernatorial fleece or the statehouse windbreaker and act all in charge as they monitor the same sources we can all see on Twitter.

S5: Is that what we demand. Does that help anyone to get to see Donald Trump in a fleece. Do you want Donald Trump rather than the professionals at FEMA or the state emergency agencies calling any of the shots here. If so there would be a citizen test for evacuees. Not only should we take solace in Donald Trump’s UN involvement in really anything that’s important in our country but hurricanes are a specific occurrence that are reacted to in a mostly a political way by our government. Competence is prized over partisanship and the public does pay attention and they mostly get right. What kind of job is being done there mostly sympathetic to people who are stranded by the government in the face of hurricanes. The applicable agencies are so much better equipped to handle things than the titular figurehead no matter what the title embroidered on the fleece says so normally I would also know that it is important for presidents to find some way to relax to decompress to recharge so they can come at their job with their full faculties. Only I can’t figure out how any of the verbs in that last clause apply to our permanently enraged but never focused president. Now in all this there is a more serious critique deeper than the media just going overboard on the president in this one instance. Also by the way on the I am the chosen one that too unfair critique. Who cares. A few years ago three years ago specifically as I think about it I sense that we were all involved in a kind of correction of the knee jerk media code enforcement of old. So in the old days you know when I was a little bit younger the media reflecting public sentiment but also shaping public sentiment probably lagging a little. The vanguard of public sentiment acted as a hectoring chorus in the face of supposed political transgressions. They were often in my opinion overly censorious. For instance for a politician being gay that was ipso facto a scandal ever having smoked pot in college. You got to ask that. That’s really important to know. And those began to fall away and the emphasis on policy better policy real policy began to march on. Policy began to be judged a little bit more sensibly. Yes the tabloid press was still a part of the press but we weren’t so much lurching from scandal to scandal that had been replaced during the Obama years maybe even during the Bush years by a bit more perspective. We were a little more concerned with the long term effects of say income distribution rather than just the latest unemployment numbers or tax cuts. More work was being done in the media to consider say the overall Pentagon budget rather than giving into one or two dominant stories that flashed up about an expensive hammer or a pricey toilet seat. Here’s an example. If you look at the number of national news stories about overall homicide trends in the 2000s and 2010s versus the individual stories about individual murders in the 1960s and 1970s I think you would see some progress some media progress in terms of looking at the important things looking at the big picture. And I would say Now that’s almost all out the window. It’s like we were painstakingly restoring a car doesn’t all happen at once takes a lot of time. Don’t always get the restoration right. But as we were in the media painstakingly restoring this car the Trump presidency represented a rabid ferret getting loose in the engine. Our project has been interrupted and so we are faced with this dumb critique of presidential golfing.

S1: In keeping with this dumb moment that our dumb president has foisted upon us. Now if you want to say Mike doesn’t this mean in a way that you are blaming Trump for unfairly being blamed. Maybe it does. And is that right. I don’t know. I can’t keep my head straight. I haven’t gotten in a solid 18 hole since Isidore.

S3: And that’s it for today show. Piano Man Daniel Schrader produced the gist. Her computer is a Category 3 with wind speeds up to 125. And Hurricane Daniel has been downgraded to a tropical storm which is so dispiriting. He just may fall into a tropical depression.

S5: Do you know what it’s like to laugh. Do you really know. Well if not come to the live just comedy special Monday September 16th at the Bell House in Brooklyn.

S3: Tickets for cheap 20 bucks are on sale at Slate dot com slash live. The gist we’ve not seen this kind of unfair criticism of a president since Gerald Ford played charts as hurricane Louise beset Fort Walton Beach Prudential road to Peru. And thanks for listening.