I Was a Rush Limbaugh Whisperer
His radio show was once a vital outlet of conservative news—and I was one of his sources. But it became increasingly divorced from reality, like much of right-wing media.
New Republic, February 18, 2021
As most of my readers know, I was a card-carrying conservative for many years. I was working in the Reagan White House when Rush Limbaugh went on the air in 1988 and remember having to go out and buy a desk radio so I could listen to him, which I did almost every day. Even then, however, I didn’t care for his callers—I thought they were ignorant, obsequious fools. But I liked Limbaugh’s monologues at the top of the hour because I learned useful stuff from him.
I know many liberals will disagree with me on this, but in 1988 there really was a liberal media. I found it very hard to get honest-to-God news that interested me as a conservative, even as a White House staffer. It had to be sought out in small-circulation magazines like Human Events and National Review, or from the very few conservative columnists in major newspapers.
I didn’t need validation of my views, as was the case with many grassroots conservatives. I wanted intellectual ammunition I could use to design and promote conservative policies in government. Contrary to popular belief, the Reagan administration took analysis and research seriously. Unlike the Trump White House, which often sent out documents with typos in them (a firing offense when I worked there), the policy development process in the Reagan White House was reasonably competent.
A key reason for making sure that there was proper analysis and documentation for administration proposals is that they would have been picked apart in the media otherwise. Not only was the American press generally skeptical of our philosophy, but it was vastly more powerful in those days and could make or break a policy proposal very easily. Frankly, I think Democrats on Capitol Hill, who controlled the House of Representatives during Reagan’s entire eight-year term, tended to outsource their criticism of Republicans to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Beat reporters for the major newspapers were gatekeepers, refusing to even mention any proposal or idea that was insufficiently worked out, lacked empirical data or academic support, or just seemed stupid. Back when I worked for Jack Kemp, it took me years to get the Wall Street Journal tax reporter to mention Kemp’s tax cut plan—even after it had been endorsed by the Journal’s editorial page.
And in those days before the internet, politicians were very heavily dependent on the mainstream media to get their message out. About the only other way of doing so was direct mail. But printing and mailing newsletters was very expensive, and it took an enormous amount of effort to build a mailing list. Like it or not, conservatives in the pre–talk radio, pre–Fox News, pre-internet era had to work through the liberal media and play by its rules.
I should add that the rules of the once-dominant mainstream media were mostly good ones. When the established media lost its gatekeeper function, it led to a vast proliferation of crackpot ideas that circulate unimpeded today. Even members of the prestige media have found themselves unable to keep nutty conspiracy theories from affecting their reporting, as they document what is in fact motivating Republican voters and politicians. But in reporting the existence of crackpot ideas and fake news, the mainstream media implicitly validates them and publicizes them.
When Limbaugh first went on the air, he was a breath of fresh air for conservatives—even those working in the White House—and an essential source of news. As all of his listeners know, he had a vast “stack of stuff” consisting of news clippings, press releases, faxes, and whatnot that caught his eye and formed the basis for his monologues. He was as much a news consolidator and reviewer as he was a commentator in those days. And he frequently had an intelligent spin on the news, often picked up from the many politicians and policymakers he talked to off the air.
Of course, Limbaugh was also a blowhard, and his massive hubris was off-putting. But it was part of his schtick and one of the reasons he was popular. Say whatever else you like about him, but Rush was a masterful radio personality. He really understood and loved the medium. His foray into television just didn’t suit his style and was soon abandoned.
As is well known, what made Limbaugh’s breakthrough moment possible was abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine by Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission in 1987. Previously, the expression of political opinions on television or radio required that time be provided for differing opinions. Since this was costly, it was easier for stations simply to present no opinions at all.
Those who want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine often fail to note how limited it was. It applied only to over-the-air broadcast channels. It didn’t apply to newspapers, magazines, or cable television, which was already becoming a force: CNN went on the air in 1980. Naturally, it did not apply to the internet or any of its content.
Moreover, the Fairness Doctrine was under heavy legal assault as an infringement on the First Amendment. Personally, I think it was inevitable that the Fairness Doctrine would have been killed by the Supreme Court if it hadn’t been repealed.
The abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine coincided with more sweeping changes in the radio market. For some years, the AM band had been in decline as people switched to FM, where sound quality was better for listening to music. But the AM band was perfect for talk radio, and that became its financial savior. Once Limbaugh showed how profitable talk radio could be, it took over AM radio, where it appealed to a certain demographic of working men and women and others who liked listening to the radio while they worked.
One reason I enjoyed listening to Limbaugh in the early days is that I had his private email address. Oftentimes, while he was on the air, I would have some thought or an obscure fact that fit with whatever he was pontificating about. Literally within minutes, I would hear him repeating what I told him. It was exhilarating.
Perhaps the most important long-term effect Limbaugh had on the media is that his success helped convinced Australian press baron Rupert Murdoch to launch Fox News. Longtime Republican political consultant and television producer Roger Ailes drew up the plans for Fox and helped Limbaugh go national with his radio show. (For almost 20 years before meeting Ailes, Limbaugh had labored in the vineyards of small radio stations in Kansas City, Sacramento, and elsewhere.) Without Ailes’s help, Limbaugh would have never become what he was.
It’s also well known that liberal commentators have never been able to duplicate the success of Limbaugh. Even Al Franken, a skilled entertainer with deep political knowledge, failed to find an audience for a contra-Limbaugh radio show. I think the reason for this failure is simpler than it appears: Progressives already have their own talk radio network with a broad reach—National Public Radio. It’s not as ideological as conservative talk radio, of course, but NPR produces exactly what liberals want radio to do, and it does so very, very well. Moreover, I think liberals are basically content with the mainstream media: The New York Times fulfills their news needs almost perfectly. That’s why they get so upset when it strays from the liberal path by publishing conservative commentary.
In truth, the Times attracts precisely zero conservative subscribers by publishing the likes of Bret Stephens. I know this from many years in the conservative movement. I even remember the first moment when I realized how closed the conservative mind had become.
It was in 2004. As I have mentioned earlier, I had been quoted extensively in an article by the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ron Suskind that ran in the Times magazine. When I asked my conservative friends what they thought of it, they universally said that they never read that leftist rag. I was shocked because I had built my career on getting stuff into the Times and had gotten pretty good at it.
I stopped listening to Limbaugh and watching Fox News in 2006, as I was beginning to shift my perspective leftward. I didn’t do this so much because I no longer agreed with their ideology, but because I disagreed with their news judgment. I found myself paying attention to stupid memes circulating on the right that did not deserve any attention at all. One of the most important things Fox and the rest of the right-wing media do is establish priorities—telling their audience what is news and what isn’t. To this day, I’m not sure if Fox viewers even know what happened on January 6 or that former President Donald Trump was impeached for it.
Even before Limbaugh’s death, there were press reports indicating that right-wing talk radio was dying. (And Fox’s ratings are also collapsing.) I seriously doubt that the Limbaugh phenomenon can be duplicated, although his syndicator will undoubtedly try. I suspect that AM radio will find something other than right-wing outrage to sustain it in the post-Limbaugh era—though what that proves to be is likewise far from clear at the moment.