On February 29, Rush Limbaugh, conservative media’s most famously outspoken commentator, called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” (among other things) for testifying before House Democrats in favor of contraception coverage by private insurance. In a political moment where reproductive issues have been both especially visible and particularly divisive, these remarks initiated a controversy large enough to merit its own Wikipedia page. A social media-driven campaign called for a boycott of companies that sponsor Limbaugh’s show, and, despite Limbaugh’s March 3 apology to Fluke, over 50 advertisers have pulled their funding.
Although Limbaugh’s comments have been generally acknowledged as inappropriate by members of all political parties, the situation lent fuel to liberal accusations of Republican misogyny and the existence of a “War on Women.” Conservatives have dismissed these accusations as a contrivance of the liberal media, meant to distract from more pressing campaign issues and to portray conservatives as extremist and backwards. They have labeled the media’s attention to the controversy as hypocritical—on CNN, Michelle Bachmann noted, “I’ve had [misogynistic] things said about me during the course of running for the presidency. There was zero outrage about these statements on the left … This is something that is completely wrong.” Commentators have specifically targeted Bill Maher, who called Sarah Palin a “boob,” a “twat,” and a “bimbo,” insisting that if Limbaugh’s comments are considered reprehensible enough to boycott his sponsors, an Obama-supporting super PAC ought to return the $1 million recently donated by Maher. This sentiment has been echoed by commentators pointing out that the sort of misogyny expressed by Limbaugh isn’t confined to the conservative side—in addition to Maher, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Matt Taibbi, and Ed Schultz all have histories of sexist outbursts against political women, but have never be held accountable in ways as high-profile as the recent Limbaugh controversy.
At the core of these accusations is the oft-invoked conservative refrain of liberal bias in the media. According to this narrative, journalists and media outlets are liberal to a degree that is unrepresentative of mainstream America and spin the news to reflect this. Limbaugh is a particularly vocal proponent of the idea that the mainstream media leans to the left, though the notion can be traced back to the Nixon administration, which, as the pioneers of the White House propaganda machine, invented the strategy of condemning media criticism as unfairly liberal.
All concerns with the truth of it aside, this conflict as used by Limbaugh is an ingenious rhetorical tool—it not only creates a specific niche for Limbaugh to fill. On his website, he notes that his show’s archives are “fabulous for… battling liberal media bias.” It also automatically undermines any attempts to oppose him (anyone against him is just a part of or brainwashed by the liberal media). Finally, it gives conservatives (or at least, the kind of conservatives who listen to Limbaugh) a persecuted identity around which to rally. These sorts of tactics are not limited to conservative commentators. Jon Stewart’s brand of satiric “infotainment,” for example, uses a similar rhetorical strategy to hamper any opposition. If anyone wants to criticize him, Stewart may always retreat behind his primary identity as comedian, thus making opponents look stupid for taking him seriously.
Commentators like Limbaugh, though ostensibly media figures, seem to play an oversized role in conservative political discourse. There are definitely equally outspoken liberal media stars—Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow—but none of them has a regular audience as huge as Limbaugh’s, which is estimated at over 15 million listeners a week, making it the top-rated talk radio show for 15 years. Wendy Schiller, political science professor at Brown, points out that Limbaugh’s huge and dedicated audience makes Republican leaders wary of crossing him—“Republican politicians are fearful that Limbaugh can erode support for them among the most conservative members of the Republican party,” she said. This was evident in the GOP candidates’ lukewarm responses to the Limbaugh-Fluke controversy.
The correction of liberal media bias is also taken on as a model for other conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly (whose Fox News show bears the slogan, “the No-Spin Zone”), as well as networks and journalists meant to communicate news (as opposed to “talk”). The Fox News Channel’s various pointed slogans—“Fair and Balanced,” “We Report, You Decide”—explicitly highlight the network’s emphasis on correcting the apparent liberal bias, while also implying that Fox is the source for unbiased coverage. The late Andrew Breitbart’s electronic journalism empire at Breitbart.com was established explicitly to “capture the lies” he saw perpetuated by mainstream media.
Regardless of whether or not these sources actually present the unbiased news they purport to offer, they all invoke the mainstream liberal media bias as part of their foundation. And despite the usefulness of the “liberal media bias” as a rhetorical device, there appears to be a real demand for alternative conservative media analysis like that of Limbaugh and other conservative commentators. In 2011, the 13 most viewed cable news programs were all on Fox News Channel, making it the top cable news channel for the past ten years. If these conservative-leaning shows and conservative talk radio are so overwhelmingly popular, they must fill a certain niche—the bias they aim to correct seems, at the very least, to be something perceived by their audience.
There are countless media watchdog organizations and websites devoted to exposing and correcting media bias from both ends. Among the most active, Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center work against the liberal media bias, while groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting or the Media Matters Action Network aim to reveal “conservative misinformation”—and all of them have enough content to be fairly convincing. Accordingly, a Pew study released in February shows that the number of Americans who believe that there is political bias in the news has increased in the past four years, and though Republicans tend to express more concern about this than Democrats (49 percent and 32 percent, respectively), the percentage of people who see a “great deal” of political bias in news coverage has risen across party lines.
Schiller notes that “people have become saturated with a purely ideological stream of news and they want a little more balance … so you’re seeing some business decisions made by networks that reflect [this].” She points out that some cable news networks have recently begun to shift toward the center—“the president of Fox News is trending Fox a little more centered than it used to be. And MSNBC has hired a whole slew of Republicans … as commentators.”
That this shift is a business decision points to an understanding of how news media works that transcends the party bias described here. Above all else, news media is a business in the hands of only a very few huge conglomerates (the “big six” control 90 percent of media) and is accordingly motivated by revenue. Sensationalism, which is what Limbaugh is known for, is generally in the interest of media corporations because it is entertaining and leads to quick ratings and advertising profits. Similarly, the discord created by schismatic issues (like reproductive health) produces impassioned public interest and therefore leads to more viewers while also creating the illusion of productive political discourse. Limbaugh’s infamous insensitivity, then, is really just good business.
CHRISTINA MCCAUSLAND B’12.5 reports, you decide.