Can We Learn From the Corrosive Influence of Rush Limbaugh?
The way I listened to him in the early 1990s can provide some answers
In my college years in the early 1990s, I had a summer job as a grounds crew/maintenance guy at my former junior high and I’d pass most of the day listening to the radio. Mostly, I stuck with classic rock FM stations, but as a budding journalist majoring in political science, sometimes I’d venture to the AM dials where news and talk radio hung out and I’d find myself listening to this guy named Rush Limbaugh.
As a liberal (then and now), I didn’t do this because I was like the tens of millions of “Dittoheads” that made up Rush’s audience because they mostly agreed with him. Yes, that’s really what his listeners were called, though I believe it was Rush himself who gave them that title and I have to wonder how many out there were like me — people who found a lot of what he said repugnant, but listened because we were curious to answer a question: why the heck is this guy so popular?
In retrospect, looking back from mid-February 2021 a day after hearing the news that Limbaugh had died at 70 from cancer, even though I despised most of what I heard from him, I recognize he was a talented broadcaster. He had the gift of gab and he was well-trained with a background as a DJ on FM radio.
That makes sense because one thing he brought to the AM dial was a sense of excitement. Growing up in the 1980s, I associated AM with adults, which meant it was too serious and, well, boring. (It might explain why to this day I can fall asleep to podcasts).
Rush wasn’t boring. Sure, he’d string you along, not really getting to his point and using teasers and other tricks to keep you around through the ads. It didn’t always work on me— sometimes I’d flip back over to those FM classic rock stations so I could marinate in something breezy or something that would give me wings, so I could float through the misty waterfalls from those sprinklers spread out over the junior high school football field.
Eventually, though, I’d dry myself off and the FM dial would throw on something like this that never, ever shoulda been considered classic rock (let alone music!), and I’d migrate back over to AM radio and, well, eventually Rush. Remember: The early 1990s was a very different era in media — options were limited and, like I said, most talk radio hosts were pretty boring.
Unfortunately, Rush wasn’t. And as a result, he grew rapidly and, as Taibbi writes in his brilliant piece on his Substack blog,
“at his height, (Rush Limbaugh was) more powerful than any Republican politician. The Newt Gingriches and George Bushes of the world were hired lackeys whose job was to convince the ordinary person that war, deregulation, and supply-side economics were good for regular folk, not just donors like Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil, and Lockheed-Martin. Those pols weren’t winning elections carrying Bill Buckley and George Will into battle. They had no connection to actual people. Rush did. The Republicans needed him, and he delivered, selling his audience out to a partisan con that among other things convinced a generation of Middle American listeners that their enemies were poor minorities and immigrants whose hunger for tax dollars was being stoked by “race hustlers” on the Democratic side.” (Matt Taibbi)
He was a groundbreaker in many ways. His style helped create a media landscape that has seen outlets that used to do traditional journalism which tried to appeal to a broad audience, like the New York Times, become increasingly aimed at capturing an audience and making us feel smug in our “understanding” of the world. (I can recommend no better book than Taibbi’s Hate, Inc. to truly understand the history of why and how the media has changed since the early 1990s).
As a result, have we all become Dittoheads, spewing forth whatever media narrative we latch onto?
Can We Learn To Be More Objective Media Consumers?
I ask myself that question — am I merely a modern Dittohead, spewing forth the media narrative I’ve latched onto ?— often these days. What media am I consuming and how is it shaping the way I see the world?
But then I think back to how I listened to Rush Limbaugh. I didn’t listen to him because he made sense and thus he could help me make sense of the world. No, I listened to him like an anthropologist would — with detached curiosity. I wanted to make sense of him — and his appeal — not have him be my sensemaker.
I’d like to propose a sensemaking practice for how we take in media. First, pay attention to an outlet you find trustworthy or reflecting narratives that make sense to you and see if you can detach yourself from your agreement and just witness what the outlet is saying. See what is connecting with you, notice your emotional reaction, feel it in your body and then don’t react.
Then, can we take that practice and apply it to media we feel triggered by, whatever your version of Rush Limbaugh is these days? Can you detach yourself enough to listen and perceive why this person or outlet may be connecting with their audience?
My sense is this practice can be valuable because it can help you become less captured by the media you consume and thus, it can help you better hear people whose media is different than yours. I think many of us are experiencing a lot of division — often with loved ones — in how we are making sense of our world. It’s easy to point a finger at others for this division, but how are we contributing to it? How are we being fueled by our media sources to be divisive, or, at the very least, to be less empathetic?
These are just some of the thoughts that have run through my mind as this media icon has passed. I don’t think Rush Limbaugh made our culture a better place in his life. But can we learn from how he influenced our media and then find some sort of silver lining in what he did leave us?
I believe the answer is, to quote a person Limbaugh was no fan of, “Yes we can.”