First of all, Rush Limbaugh did not rise to power because of the brilliance of his own political acumen, but because of the cleverness (and dumb luck) of the business model created by his managers. Back in the 1990s radio music was moving heavily away from AM to FM, leaving AM stations in the red, looking for cheap content to fill up their hours. In comes Premiere Radio, swooping down on many, many stations in the small rural markets, offering Rush’s show for free, in return for preferential advertising deals. Thus, the station doesn’t need to pay anybody to broadcast during that bloc; Rush probably doesn’t want you to know that he did more than anyone to wipe out local jobs, and local radio voices, in those rural areas. Soon, the only thing on in a lot of those rural areas was Rush, and once all those stations adopted conservative formats, it became very difficult to mix liberal and conservative on the same stations, so conservative radio, by getting in the door first, made liberal radio almost impossible to launch (although Air America has bounced back its market penetration is dwarfed by Rush). And the only reason this Limbaugh Invasion was possible, was that Reagan had eliminated the Fairness Doctrine a few years earlier.
While Premiere was building Rush a massive nationwide platform to shout from, the Republican party was destroying itself, leaderless, creating a power vacuum. Rush jumped in. Now, everyone fears him: with his unequalled ability to mobilize large numbers of people to make calls and write emails, and to coordinate his message with folks like Fox, Republicans can’t even question Rush’s statements on the record. The party has lost control of both Rush and the wingnuts at his command: they know, and he knows, that he could split the party in two instantly.
So Rush was aided by the entertainment vacuum in AM radio, the power vacuum in the GOP, and then…the election of Obama. Rush’s audience had peaked at about 25 million during the Clinton era and then dropped to 14 million, but Obama’s arrival pumped it back up to 20 again. Nevertheless the onslaughts from rival media sources like the internet, the decline of AM radio, the rapid aging of his audience, the prospect of the reinstatement of the hated Fairness Doctrine, and the fact that his broadcasts are loaded with obvious lies and bullcrap, will in time bring Rush down.
But in the meantime, Rush is much more dangerous than Fox.
In Jean Anouilh’s “Becket”, the doomed archbishop pointed out that the kingdom of God must be defended like any other kingdom. John Milton optimistically argued that we should just let truth and falsehood grapple, and truth inevitably would win, but my view is more “Becket-like”: the truth must be actively defended from falsehood. We must take up arms. The political system cannot function if the lies are crowding out the truth, and if the media won’t do their jobs and separate truth from falsehood, Obama must do it himself.
In 1928 FDR was elected governor of New York. At that time, the state of New York was blanketed with small-town Republican newspapers, and there were wide swathes of the state which were only hearing Republican viewpoints, just as there are wide swathes of the country that are only hearing Rush’s voice now. FDR took action and spent $100,000 on a reporting bureau to help shoot down the Republican lies and attacks in New York. By the same token, Obama, as America’s political leader, has every right to see to it that the truth gets the same play as the lies, and to help truth to fight on a level playing field with bullcrap: the President is allowed to defend himself, and he is allowed to refute lies (he is also allowed to deny a bully pulpit to people who lie all day – presidential access is not a First-Amendment right, which is why the supermarket rags aren’t invited into the White House press room). This is all the more important since the media won’t both to do what it used to do, shoot down the lies – as we learned when the mainstream media utterly failed to shoot down all the kill-grandma death-panel lies this summer.
So not only is Obama absolutely justified in calling Fox out for their endless lies, he needs to expand the attack and take down Rush.