by Conor Friedersdorf

Yesterday I encouraged Rich Lowry and other conservatives to ponder the consequences of the way movement magazines treat the right's entertainers, and suggested that on the whole staffers at institutions like National Review don't level with their audience when it comes to assessing talk radio and cable news personalities. Today, I thought it might be useful to delve into what their coverage is actually like. Imagine a rank-and-file conservative who trusts the National Review name, and heads over to NRO in an effort to assess how he should think about Rush Limbaugh. That talk radio host is the single most popular living figure in movement conservatism, so you'd expect his work to be scrutinized by its flagship publication.

I went to NRO, put Rush Limbaugh into the search box, and went through the results in the order they were presented, starting with content that appeared in the print magazine. Here is what I found:

– A short article by Rush Limbaugh himself about his experience meeting William F. Buckley. It includes this passage:

When I started my radio show in New York in 1988, I profusely commented on Buckley and quoted him and NR. Not long after, I was invited to a gathering of NR’s editors at Mr. Buckley’s apartment, the maisonette on Park Avenue. When the day arrived, I had my driver circle the block four times while I mustered the courage to get out of the car and go in. That night I was made to feel welcome in the “conservative movement” by its leader. Eventually he became a confidant and a friend and an adviser; it was just like having another father.

– Jay Nordlinger reviewing the Zev Chaffets biography of Rush Limbaugh. Its treatment of Limbaugh is glowing without exception. The closest the reader gets to criticism of the talk radio host is this:

His role in conservatism is “controversial,” of course. (What a dumb, recurrent word “controversial” is hard to avoid, too.) When people bash Limbaugh, they sometimes like to use WFB. “Oh, Limbaugh’s no Bill Buckley,” they say. Yeah, so what? Each is his own man. And they have a lot in common. Moreover, WFB loved Rush, and got a huge kick and great satisfaction out of his success. I know this to a certainty. I vas dere, Chollie. People also like to use Reagan, to beat Rush even people who had nothing remotely good to say about Reagan when he was alive and working. In December 1992, the former president wrote to Limbaugh, “Now that I’ve retired from active politics, I don’t mind that you’ve become the number one voice for conservatism.” He also said, “I know the liberals call you ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ but don’t worry about it, they used to say the same about me. Keep up the good work.”

– A Ramesh Ponnuru piece that mentions criticism of Rush Limbaugh (specifically, his drug use) as an aside to demonstrate that the person making it, Howard Dean, was being hypocritical.

– A single sentence in a Mark Hemingway piece: "Even Democrats have had trouble choosing an elected GOP leader as a target of national attack ads, so they recently settled on radio host Rush Limbaugh."

– A Byron York piece that mentions Rush Limbaugh was amont several conservative targets attacked by MoveOn.Org.

– A Ramesh Ponnuru piece that includes this line: "Even when Republicans aren’t talking about the 2012 race, they are debating who speaks for the party sometimes explicitly, as when Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele feuded this spring."

– This passage from Ed Gillespie:

Today, newspapers are folding, Washington bureaus being shuttered. And as the national media have become smaller, they have become even more homogeneous and that makes it easier for them to indulge their cultural biases and be swayed by liberal blogs. The recent mainstream-media flap over Rush Limbaugh, generated and fueled by the Obama political machine, is only the latest evidence of the changed media dynamic.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs helped move the story along by suggesting that reporters ask Republican members of Congress whether they agree or disagree with Limbaugh’s comments.

Now, this is the kind of suggestion that operatives from both parties give reporters from time to time, but it’s usually whispered at a campaign event, or after half a bottle of wine at one of those painful black-tie press dinners. President Obama’s press secretary can say it right out loud from the White House podium. And instead of being insulted, or asking Gibbs whether it’s proper for a public official paid with taxpayer dollars to say such a thing, the reporters carry out the hit.

– A description of a paywalled piece by Byron York:

After the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, there was an explosion of talk and information on the radio, and today the business is dominated by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bill Bennett, and a long list of other conservatives. Their commercial success, along with the failure of a number of liberal talk-radio ventures, has led some influential people in Washington to argue that the Fairness Doctrine should be revived. 

– In a piece on Michael Steele, Ramesh Ponnuru says this:

Republicans began reconsidering Steele just weeks after he won the race for chairman of the Republican National Committee. He trashed Rush Limbaugh on CNN calling his show “ugly” and then apologized to him. As a coda to the controversy, Steele told the Washington Post, “I’m in the business of ticking people off.”

– Jay Nordlinger writes:

Frankly, one of the best things I know about President Obama is that he plays golf...The legendary teacher Harvey Penick once wrote a book with a memorable title: “And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend.” I imagine that President Obama and Rush Limbaugh would enjoy a round of golf together. I’d like to make a third!

– A humor piece by Rob Long that I can't really describe, but isn't germane to this exercise.

– A piece by Jeffrey Bell that asks this question:

For conservatives, the populist question is front and center once again.

It began last year with divergent reactions among conservative elites to John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. That controversy continued beyond the defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket and is far from over today; it has branched out into a debate over Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, other conservative cable and radio hosts, and the town-hall/tea-party phenomenon of vigorous pushback against President Obama and his policies. Is the negative, take-no-prisoners style of the conservative talkers and tea-partiers gratifying in the short run but fatal to the prospect of a conservative comeback in the medium and long run?

Later in the piece he adds this:

As for the supposedly hate-filled radio and cable hosts, I remember their mood in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s inauguration as rather fatalistic. They of course welcomed the populist upsurge, but in its initial stages they seemed as startled as anyone that it was happening so fast and in so many different places, with so little evident top-down leadership or coordination.

If the populist upsurge had little to do with Republican officials or the talk-radio/cable-TV jockeys, how did it begin?

The piece never answers the question it posed about the negative, take-no-prisoners style, except to assert (accurately, I think) that talk radio didn't have much to do with conservative entertainers one war or another.

– In a piece on the Grammy's, Jonah Goldberg writes, "Politics has nothing to do with the selection process. This was a straightforward judgment based solely on merit, damn it. So if you’re listening, Ted Kennedy, you’d better bring your A-game if you hope to beat the likes of Rush Limbaugh!"

This is an imperfect look at the content of NR – the  magazine publishes a lot of stuff online, after all, and the magazine search function only goes back to 2004. Still, I think this is sufficient for a fair idea of what our hypothetical conservative would get if he turned to the magazine as a source on this subject: Rush Limbaugh was a confidant and friend of William F. Buckley; Ronald Reagan himself passed the baton to the talk radio host; his biography is uniformly positive, as it should be; Obama acts improperly in efforts to stop him; he plays golf; he is often unfairly or hypocritically attacked by liberals; he's been criticized by Michael Steele; the notion that his brand of populism does long term damage to the right isn't backed up by any persuasive evidence, although some people do think it; and he desserves to win a Grammy.  

This reader would be completely in the dark about the strongest critiques of Rush Limbaugh, the actual arguments offered by people think that he hurts rather than helps the conservative movement, thoughtful commentary on the role that populist entertainment should play on the right, or the fact that lots of NR writers themselves have cogent criticisms of the talk radio host, whatever their overall assessments of the man.

The fact is that if you were improbably friends with Jay Nordlinger, Ramesh Ponnuru, Rob Long, Jeffrey Bell, Jonah Goldberg, Byron York, Mark Hemingway, and Ed Gillespie  – and if over the course of a few weeks you sat down to dinner with each of them and asked their candid, off-the-record thoughts on Rush Limbaugh, the substantive quality of his commentary, and his relationship with the conservative movement – you'd come away with a wildly different impression than what you get reading the print magazine. And if you broadened your sampling of NR writers the gulf would only widen.

Obviously I am known for my belief that talk radio and cable news are doing grave damage to the right, and hurting the country generally by lowering the quality of its politica discourse. But one needn't buy into my critique to acknowledge that there is a real disagreement on the right, even among self-described conservatives, about the role of the movement's entertainers – a debate NR is failing to adequately cover.

To drive home that point, consider a recent project I undertook: back in the autumn of 2009, I e-mailed Republican Party County Chairmen all over the United States, asking them a number of questions, including one on the subject of talk radio: There's been a lot of debate about the role that talk radio and cable news hosts should play on the right. Particularly controversial are Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Mark Levin. What do you think about these folks? Do they help the right or hurt it (or is it more complicated than that?) How should Republicans interact with them?

Unsurprisingly, the most common answer was that these figures were a boon for conservatism. Still, various GOP County Chairmen were willing to go on the record to express these sentiments too:

Their listeners do not always or ever understand that they are entertainers. I'm not discounting their ability to formulate opinion or the good they might do as watchdogs. However, we must understand that in order for them to be successful, they have to have good ratings. Their decisions therefore are not based on the good of the Republican Party, but on how certain subject matters will affect ratings. We have to clearly delineate between members of the Republican Party and entertainers. We should be careful to ensure that people do not feel they are speaking for the Republican Party.

Here's another man's answer:

They could actually help the Republicans get their message out, but that would be a problem as it seems the Republicans don't actually have a concrete message. And I am not trying to slam the GOP. Many state officers are working on messages, that is great. But overall, there seems to be a national problem. And if they try to get a message out, good luck with any news media. (I will give a positive here; the networking through the web is a great move for dispersing information. In my state we are doing this.)

It seems many Americans see these news people as entertainers who sometimes actually have a message. The news people seem to enjoy stirring the pot, but nothing ever comes of what they talk about, no solutions are ever reached. Glenn Beck would maybe one exception here, but he doesn't necessarily cover all that many conservative issues, but he has made some efforts in getting a voice for issues. People seem to searching for a leader through these news people. Somebody is in for a let down. More than anything these news people seem to be pacifiers for a restless public.

And another:

Its more complected than simply help or hurt. Remember that it was 3 Clintonistas who have reincarnated as Obamunists, Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala, and James Carville, who started the '"Limbaugh strategy" to deflect attention from what Obama was doing. The talk show hosts and their staffs do the research and disseminate the information that main stream media won't. Overall they help. The Party should listen to them, as I do, but not let them set the policy.

Yet another:

Put them in their place by subordinating them to a cadre of true Republicans Leaders. True Leadership should speak for and be the face of Republicanism with the 'boys" as cheerleaders.

Still another:

It is certainly more complicated with that. However, most of these men are critical in getting the conservative word out to the public. Hannity wears me out quickly, same shit over and over. I’ve tried, but can’t listen to Levin; the constant Libertarian stuff also wears me out. I watch O’Reilly, agree with about half of what he says, but he is certainly not a leading conservative or Republican. Only NY and DC would think he is a Republican. Limbaugh has been a conservative voice for a long. I don’t listen to him anymore, but I appreciate the fact that he is out there keeping people stirred up and informed. Beck is really something else. He has struck a nerve with people who are fed up with Washington and corruption. I probably agree with 75% of his views. He alone is responsible for the groundswell of conservative, patriotic resistance that will kick the liberals’ asses in 2010. He is a little scary, but God bless him.

Another response to the same question:

Levin, Limbaugh and Hannity are genuine and fine leaders of conservatism in their own ways. O’Reilly and Beck are not genuine, both have moved their positions to attempt to be popular over the years. Interestingly as well, both O’Reilly and Beck are clearly lacking a depth of understanding of conservative political philosophy. Hannity rarely shows depth on his radio show but seems to have it. The GOP should deal with them just as any candidate or party does with an old fashioned editorial board – attempt to persuade when possible, to win over when needed, and recognize that at times the Party will be at odds with them.

And one more:

I have never watched any of them, so I cant comment on specific content. I think they helped in 1994 because it was a new phenomenon, and the American public mistook it for alternative news. In 2009, it just frustrates the conservatives more to hear it. I don’t think berating the President is proper under any circumstances, but I also think that the American people are becoming very cynical about politics. I don’t think they (Rush, Hannity etc) make that any better, but I have never seen them so I don’t know. I think we have to be careful not to push the conservatives away from politics because they are frustrated and feel the game is rigged. We need to send the message that participation can help to oppose those things you do not agree with, not simply point out how soft the media is on him. I am sending invitations out to a fund raiser for our county party, and apathy is a problem right now. I think conservative talk radio has a lot to do with that.

To me, it's striking that America's GOP County Chairman, emailed at random, have a broader, more forthright, and sophisticated debate about the role of talk radio on the right than does the print version of NR, which draws on some of conservatism's sharpest and most knowledgeable writers. And it leads me to believe that if the magazine was more forthright in reflecting the diversity of views among its staffers, readers out there in the rank-and-file might be more open to the conversation that one might imagine. As I've proved, even staunch fans of talk radio can have their minds changed about the value of their favorite hosts!

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