August 19, 2007

My Brush with Rush

Last Thursday, Rush Limbaugh read close to half of my Denver Post op-ed on Journalism's New Economics over the radio. I neither sent it to him nor alerted him in any way about it. Strangely, he presents a good deal of my argument about the demise of the fourth estate but provides no counterargument whatsoever. He simply calls it another liberal "drive-by" attempting to "stoke market plunge" by scaring Americans about the economy.

It's an extremely odd interpretation of my article as he evidently takes my point about media market failure to be about the failure of the economy. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. My point is not that the demise of investigative reporting threatens the economy. In fact it's quite the opposite, at least in the short-term. As I clearly state in the piece:

What Murdoch has learned and embraced perhaps more than anyone is that in-depth investigative pieces are boring. What's much more alluring is mixing news with opinion to provide a sense of debate no matter how far removed either position is from actual facts. There's nothing like a good fight to keep people's attention. And keeping as many people's attention as possible for as long as possible is what matters to the bottom line. By using this approach couched in a context of right-wing apologetics, Murdoch's Fox News Channel has managed to win the highest ratings of any cable news service.

As a result, all the other news networks now emulate this strategy. Although some networks such as MSNBC do it from a comparatively leftist stance, what passes for news in this brave new media world is less cold hard facts and more opinion and soothsaying. Television "news" programs reveal precious few facts on the actual issues. Instead, discussants provide titillating predictions on which politicians and parties are likely to win. It's cheap and thrilling content, which has the advantage of alienating few advertisers while viewers are soothed by a veneer of fairness (however fake) representing two sides of a debate.

Of course he didn't read that part (at least on the air). So my point is that this stuff is very good for the market. I'm in no way scaring people about the strength of the economy here. And neither is the Denver Post by publishing this, which is really his main point, namely, that the media "wants to destroy the economy or damage it enough to help the Democrats, even if it means damaging themselves:"

....The media wants to destroy the economy or damage it enough to help the Democrats, the friend said, "Even if it means damaging themselves?" Hell, they've been doing that for a long time anyway. But they don't care. The actual practicing journalists don't care about the financial health of their companies, and they don't care about the falling circulation of their papers. Obviously they don't because the content is not changing. The one business where the customer is always wrong and is stupid to boot, and when the customer complains about something, the elite snobs in the Drive-By Media say, "You don't like it? Well, here's more of it," and they cram even more bias and inaccuracy in what they do, as a sort of a knee-jerk reaction.

So, yeah, the bottom line is it wouldn't surprise me a bit. They're going to keep on with this, doing everything they can to get the consumer confidence numbers down. They want people being worried about their next paycheck. We're going to get stories about, "We may be facing one of the most serious market falloffs in recent memory, and it may trigger for the first time in American history the fact that this generation will not do as well as its parents. The Bush administration is the leading cause of all this." Just see how this is all going to happen. So you have been warned.

How my article is damaging the Denver Post is beyond me. I am in no way attacking it. I'm actually trying to save it by pointing out how important newspapers are for providing traditional investigative reporting. But if his point is merely that the media is liberal and not to be trusted simply because it reports disconcerting facts about those in power, as my op-ed does, it's not at all clear why this is a bad thing. That's precisely what I argue we need more of in order to stay informed and preserve democracy. The rub is that this sort of thing isn't selling well enough to thrive.

Limbaugh exhibits some seriously circuitous conspiracy thinking here—that this is an elaborate plot to help the Democratic party. At least he said nothing bad about the argument and actually read a great deal of it on the air, giving voice to a point of view rarely if ever heard on his program. Perhaps I should be grateful for this bit of poetic justice.