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Al Franken is the former Senator from Minnesota. He wrote this retrospective on Rush Limbaugh in the New York Daily News.
Rush Limbaugh died this week. His impact on our nation’s discourse and polity will long outlive him.
Many Americans had been puzzled when President Trump bestowed upon Limbaugh our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After all, previous honorees include Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King and the crew of Apollo 13. I, however, was not surprised. Because without Limbaugh, there is no (former) President Trump.
Rush was the first broadcaster to take full advantage of the FCC’s little-noticed 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. Since its adoption in 1949, the rule had required broadcasters to present controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. Its repeal cleared the way for disreputable broadcasters to present manifestly dishonest and unbalanced content, and Rush, it turned out, had a real talent for just that kind of thing.
And when I say talent, I mean it. Limbaugh created right-wing talk radio, holding court three hours a day, five days a week for 32 years, attracting an audience of 20 million listeners because he was compelling, sometimes funny, always provocative, if routinely sexist, homophobic and racist.
Racist? He once asked his audience, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?”
Homophobic? In 1990, Limbaugh ran a recurring segment entitled “AIDS Update,” in which he’d mock the death of a gay man who had just recently died of AIDS, cheekily playing ironic popular songs like Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”
Sexist? You may remember Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who testified before Congress in 2012, on an exception within the Affordable Care Act that would allow religious institutions to opt out of covering contraception. Here’s Limbaugh referring to her testimony that contraception can cost as much as $3,000: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke (sic), who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”
Rush went on like that for quite a while. He had three hours to fill.
But mainly, he was a shill for the right wing of the Republican Party. Along the way, he promoted conspiracy theories: Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered; global warming is a hoax; Barack Obama was born in Kenya; COVID-19 is no worse than the common cold and is being used by the media to prevent Donald Trump’s re-election. And, yes, the election was stolen.
Here’s what he told his listeners on Jan. 7: “There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence…lot of conservatives, social media who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable regardless of the circumstance…I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord didn’t feel that way.”
In 1995, I wrote a book, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot And Other Observations.” The book was satirical, but its intent entirely serious. Limbaugh’s radio show had become an effective arm of the right wing of the Republican party. The previous November, Republicans had won the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and the new Speaker, Newt Gingrich, named Limbaugh an honorary member of the class of ’95.
At the time, Limbaugh had a TV show in which he referred to “The White House dog” while the control room put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton.
The show’s producer, Roger Ailes, would go on to run Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, whose slogan, ironically, would echo the “fair and balanced” language of the Fairness Doctrine, purporting to provide a balance to the liberal mainstream media.
Fox’s right-wing propaganda machine had built a huge, rabid audience by relentlessly attacking Democratic administrations and then functioning as virtual state TV for President Trump. Currently, the network is faced with a $2.7 billion lawsuit from election software company Smartmatic, for spreading false rumors that the company had helped Joe Biden steal the election in several states (none of which, by the way, had used Smartmatic’s software).
Right-wing radio. Right-wing TV. Then came the internet, where websites like Newsmax and Breitbart and social media platforms like Facebook have created a more opaque world where far more extreme and untethered worldviews fester and grow.
This is how you get QAnon. How not a small number of Trump supporters believe that not a small number of Democrats are blood-sucking pedophiles. It’s how you get a member of Congress who blamed Jewish lasers for starting the wildfires in California. It’s how you get Jan. 6.
The most dangerous problem facing America today is the existence of two universes of information. The second universe, a universe of disinformation, has been expanding since 1989. Rush Limbaugh was the Big Bang.
Bette Midler wrote about Limbaugh’s death on Twitter and was not as polite as Franken.