A Teachable Moment
March 9, 2012
After over a week of the Rush Limbaugh thing, the most memorable thing for me was reading this line in the Los Angeles Times:
"This is more serious than what we have seen before," said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor who studies radio and TV commentators.
Oh, I don't really care what he said. I care about the second part. There are people who study radio commentators? For a living? Really?
Wow. Who knew, back when we were sitting around before shows saying "okay, whaddya want to talk about today? Got anything?," that there would be professors paid to dissect what we were talking about? They made an academic discipline out of it. Wow. If I'd known that would happen, I'd have become a radio-researchin' professor-type instead of actually going into radio. Seems like easy money. Maybe I'd have gotten some government grants for in-depth studies of the sociological ramifications of "Hawaiian Shirt Fridays."
But that also served as another example of how stories like this become way, way bigger than the actual facts warrant. This isn't to say that what Rush said was acceptable or not, or offensive or not. It's to say that the nation lost its collective mind over what some radio guy said. We're not talking about an elected official, we're talking about... one of us. An old disc jockey. And he called someone -- whether she was a public figure or not -- a couple of nasty names. That's it. That's what triggered everything. And through a combination of political maneuverings and a slow news day, plus Rush's own compounding of the problem with a couple more days' worth of defiance, the thing took on SCANDAL!!! proportions.
So we have a still-struggling economy, the Iranian nuclear issue that carries the threat of war and has helped push gas prices past four bucks and rising, a crumbling infrastructure with no money to fix it, and many more critical problems, and the nation's expending its energy on this, at least until the next Kardashian eruption. No wonder politicians get away with what they do.
I think we've learned a few things here. One is that there's no benefit to attacking someone that the public perceives is a "little guy." It doesn't matter if the target is really an innocent victim -- in this case, if you would classify her as a political activist rather than a mere law student -- as long as people THINK she is. You get painted as a bully, whatever you say, whether or not the substance of your comments are in any way justifiable. And it's not so much a political thing as a David-vs.-Goliath thing; The mainstream news media loves that kind of story, like when a consumer takes on a big corporation. Everyone supports the underdog. (Except Yankees fans, that is) And when you use terms against that "little" person that are loaded enough to turn off even many of your fans -- "slut"? Really, you think that's a good word to throw around? -- you can't be surprised when people react.
Another is that while apologies tend not to work -- everybody assumes it's insincere, the aggrieved is likely to reject it (it used to be the "bigger" move to accept even an insincere apology to show that you're above it, but no more), and if your opponents smell blood, they'll ignore anything you say -- you have to address the matter somehow, and you have to do it fast. Rush kept the comments coming for a couple of days; he doubled down, and by the time the apology came on Saturday, there was no chance for that apology to stick, and it gave his opponents time to get the social media drumbeat going. He'd have been better off getting out in front of the matter and getting to the apology sooner, or not apologizing at all. Waiting until the weekend just let the fire spread.
And one more thing: Rush and talk radio in general really need to work on their social media skills. The opposition was able to marshal a lot of outrage using tweets and Facebook, reaching a large number of younger people who, let's face it, don't listen to talk radio, period. Those people inundated Rush's sponsors with tweets, and the sponsors reacted the only way they know when someone threatens boycott. Where were Rush's listeners' tweets? Where was his support? It was scattered and delayed and nowhere near as fast and furious as the other side. By the time pro-Rush comments showed up, the damage was done. If you're a host and you run into controversy, could you marshal your listeners into an online army to back you up? You might want to get working on building a critical mass of Twitter followers who will go to bat for you in a crisis.
I'm sure this controversy will linger for a while, so we'll have more to talk about here as events warrant. At least, it'll give "professors who study radio and TV commentators" more justification for their employment. Really, I should have been one of those guys. "The Effect on Public Discourse of the Departure Of Jackie the Jokeman from the Howard Stern Show" -- THAT would have been one hell of a thesis.
Whether you're planning to say something outrageous and get in trouble or you're planning to behave, you'll find plenty to talk about at Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports, with hundreds of topic ideas and news stories and kicker items available for free by clicking here, and all the topics are also linked on Twitter at @talktopics. As always, you'll also find the radio industry's first-best-most complete coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess.
As I mentioned last week, I'm walking again this year with Fran in the Revlon Run/Ralk for Women here in L.A. on May 12th, and your donations will help in the fight against breast cancer, so please go to do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon2012 and give what you can. Thank you!