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The Right-Wing Theatre Of Cruelty: Rush Limbaugh, 1951-2021

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Before Fox News and Donald Trump, there was Rush Limbaugh. A talk radio trailblazer who chased ratings by stoking bigotry and shielding his listeners from uncomfortable truths, Limbaugh reshaped right-wing media and eventually the Republican Party itself.

On February 17, Limbaugh's wife announced on air that he died after a battle with lung cancer.

The Rush Limbaugh Show began broadcasting nationwide in 1988 and the host soon amassed an army of "dittoheads," a term which came to signal fans with unquestioning support for Limbaugh's views. According to Talkers Magazine, more than 15 million unique weekly listeners tuned into his show in December 2020.

Not only was Limbaugh syndicated on hundreds of stations across the country, but most other conservative talk radio hosts who came after him were — with few exceptions — Limbaugh wannabes. His disciples included future Vice President Mike Pence, who once described his own 1990s talk radio personality as "Rush Limbaugh on decaf." The cumulative effect was a never-ending stream of Limbaugh or Limbaugh-like rhetoric available day or night to anyone with access to a radio.

GOP leaders recognized the hold that Limbaugh, the self-described "titular head of the Republican Party," had on their voters. They responded by heaping praise on the host and fashioning their politics to fit his monologues. After the 2012 election, when some Republicans pushed to expand outreach to minority voters, the party instead chose to double down on Limbaugh's exclusionary politics.

As my colleague Matt Gertz observed, Republican leaders' constant appeasement of Limbaugh foreshadowed their approach to candidate and then President Donald Trump. Trump and Limbaugh understood the value they offered one another; Trump as the fighter Limbaugh's audience always wanted, and Limbaugh, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Trump last year, as the sycophant who could be counted on to spin or ignore Trump's failures.

Weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Trump turned to Limbaugh once again, participating in a two-hour interview in which he knew his lies would never be questioned. And throughout the final days of his program, Limbaugh continued to falsely insist that President Joe Biden had not legitimately won the election.

Media historian Brian Rosenwald notes that talk radio is an intimate medium, one in which hosts develop a deep and lasting bond with longtime listeners. Limbaugh manipulated that bond to convince his audience of things that were not true and to turn them against Democrats, the news media, and anyone else who failed to share his hardline views.

Bigotry And Lies Were Essential To His Appeal

Limbaugh entertained an audience that was primarily composed of older, white conservative men by mocking women, minorities, and anyone else who did not embody his default listener — setting the tone for the toxic, cruel politics of the modern-day conservative movement.

Sexism was one of the most reliable features of Limbaugh's program, and women were regularly referred to on the show as "babes" or even "feminazis" — a term which Limbaugh boasted about coining. Feminism, according to Limbaugh, was created to enable "unattractive women" to have "easier access to the mainstream."

In 2012, the host faced widespread backlash and advertiser boycotts after he referred to a law student who testified in favor of health care coverage for contraceptives as a "slut." During the #MeToo era, Limbaugh mocked and attacked women who reported sexual assault. The host was also virulently opposed to reproductive health care, once comparing abortion clinics to "death camps" and attacking groups like Planned Parenthood as "death squads."

People of color and members of the LGBTQ community were also frequent punching bags on Limbaugh's show.

Limbaugh once remarked that "all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson" and that "the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons." During Barack Obama's presidency, the host fed into birtherism and the conspiracy theory that Obama was secretly a Muslim.

Limbaugh repeatedly downplayed racial discrimination and espoused white nationalist talking points, arguing that immigrants are trying to "invade" the United States. Once, when discussing genocide against Native Americans, Limbaugh asked, "They all have casinos -- what's to complain about?"

After the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Limbaugh described the decision as an "assault" on American culture that would lead to incest and polygamy. Limbaugh referred to transgender people as mentally ill and blamed the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandals on "the gay infiltration of the Catholic Church."

When confronted with facts that contradicted his conservative worldview, Limbaugh promoted conspiracy theories and obvious lies.

A staunch climate denier throughout his entire career, Limbaugh once bragged about his role in undermining the American public's belief in climate science.

After a Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and media organizations in 2018, Limbaugh suggested that the attack was a false flag designed to damage conservatives. The host made similar remarks in 2019 after the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand.

And when the coronavirus first began to spread through the United States, Limbaugh assured his audience — one of the oldest in conservative media — that it was merely "the common cold." As the death toll continued to mount, the host claimed that the virus had been weaponized by Trump opponents, mocked mask wearers, and accused journalists and hospitals of inflating COVID-19 case counts.

Limbaugh's Toxic Legacy Is Secure

For more than 30 years, Limbaugh's show helped to set the agenda for hosts across the country, and it's not clear who is likely to succeed him as talk radio's unifying voice.

One possible replacement may ironically be the only Fox News prime-time host without radio experience. Tucker Carlson's monologues are already frequently cited by right-wing radio hosts, and his emphasis on culture war topics — particularly his xenophobic, anti-trans, and misogynistic content — aligns well with standard talk radio fare.

But even Carlson is unlikely to match the hold Limbaugh had on a now-declining industry. Today, conservative talk radio is just one facet of a much larger right-wing media ecosystem, where television hosts and conservative writers all sound somewhat like Limbaugh. This ecosystem controls a political party whose latest president regularly sought the counsel of Fox News hosts.

Even without one of its central architects, a right-wing media machine built on outrage and cruelty will continue to deceive its audience long into the future.

Fox “Frontline Doctor” Was Capitol Rioter — And Source Of Deadly Disinformation

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Dr. Simone Gold was among the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. But unlike many of her fellow rioters, Gold was there not just to undermine American democracy, but also to attack public faith in coronavirus vaccines.

According to an interview Gold recently gave to The Washington Post, she delivered a speech inside the Capitol similar to one she gave at a pro-Trump rally the day before, in which she referred to the vaccine as an "experimental, biological agent deceptively named a vaccine." Her anti-vaccination comments at the Capitol riot were part of a monthslong effort by both Gold and the medical misinformation group she founded, America's Frontline Doctors, to erode public confidence in pandemic response measures.

Gold, who has since been arrested for her participation in the Capitol riot, founded America's Frontline Doctors in 2020. The group received national attention in July, when former President Donald Trump retweeted a video of a misinformation-laden press conference the group held that was organized by the Tea Party Patriots.

Members of America's Frontline Doctors have publicly questioned the effectiveness of masks and social distancing measures, falsely promoted the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, and urged Americans not to take newly approved vaccines. In each case, their comments have been circulated by right-wing media, attaching a veneer of medical credibility to dangerous, baseless objections to public health measures during a deadly pandemic.

Gold Falsely Argued Masks Are Ineffective

Gold first received significant media attention in May when she authored a letter to Trump, cosigned by other physicians, calling for states to reopen as quickly as possible. At the time, Gold was affiliated with the Save Our Country Coalition, a network of conservative groups opposed to COVID-19 lockdowns. Fox News immediately latched on to Gold's letter to press the case for rapid reopening, and Gold appeared on the program America's Newsroom to discuss it.

After the letter was published, states that reopened quickly suffered spikes in coronavirus cases.

Other members of America's Frontline Doctors also pushed for an end to certain social distancing measures, contradicting the advice of public health experts. In the infamous July video that was later retweeted by Trump, Dr. Dan Erickson pointed to Sweden's looser virus restrictions as an example of a model the United States should emulate, falsely claiming that "lockdowns aren't decreasing significantly the amount of deaths."

For months, references to the Swedish model were popular on Fox News and throughout right-wing media. Yet Sweden's initial response was widely considered to be a failure after the country "suffered a vastly higher death rate while failing to collect on the expected economic gains," and the Swedish government later implemented stricter virus precautions.

Gold also questioned the use of masks to slow the spread of the virus, despite clear evidence that masks are an effective tool in the fight against COVID-19.

In what Gold claimed was initially a piece solicited by USA Today — before the publication supposedly decided not to publish her argument — she asserted that the "scientific usefulness of a mask has been so aggressively overstated" and that "most Americans already know that masking everyone is superstition."

Gold's comments were again picked up by right-wing media. For example, former talk radio host Michael Savage cited Gold's piece during a tirade against masks in June.

"America's Frontline Doctors" Repeatedly Promoted Hydroxychloroquine

Another member of America's Frontline Doctors, Dr. Stella Immanuel, made headlines following her appearance in the July video. During her portion of the press conference, Immanuel falsely claimed that hydroxychloroquine is a "cure" for coronavirus and denounced studies proving otherwise as "fake science."

The day after Immanuel's remarks, The Daily Beast uncovered bizarre comments she had made in the past about "alien DNA" and other medical conspiracy theories. Right-wing media, which had been relentlessly promoting hydroxychloroquine, immediately came to Immanuel's defense. Hosts like Rush Limbaugh lashed out at criticism of Immanuel as designed to silence support for hydroxychloroquine, and other right-wing stars attacked tech companies for removing the video of the press conference from their platforms.

Gold has also been a vocal promoter of hydroxychloroquine. The day after the press conference, Laura Ingraham — one of the most prominent hydroxychloroquine boosters on Fox — hosted Gold for a segment on the drug. Gold argued, "The American people have been told that this is just something that they need to have a lot of fear and a lot of panic over, and it's simply not true. There's a cure, there's treatment for early COVID disease and that's hydroxychloroquine and zinc."


From the July 28, 2020, edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle

Gold Is Encouraging Americans Not To Get Vaccinated

Most recently, Gold and other members of America's Frontline Doctors have been promoting misinformation regarding coronavirus vaccines, despite evidence they are safe and effective.

Gold has repeatedly referred to the vaccine as "experimental" — in an effort to suggest that the vaccines have not undergone rigorous testing. She has also falsely suggested that the vaccine can cause infertility.

During an appearance on Newsmax in December, Gold argued that young people should not receive the vaccine. Gold claimed, "The only reason a person should do this is if the benefit outweighs the risk. In the younger age groups, the benefit cannot outweigh the risk because the risk of death from COVID-19 in very young ages is exceedingly low."


From the December 17, 2020, edition of Newsmax's National Report

Another member of the group, Dr. James Todaro, appeared alongside Gold during the Newsmax segment. Todaro suggested that receiving the vaccine could be dangerous due to "antibody-dependent enhancement," despite the fact that no evidence exists to support this theory.

At every stage of the COVID-19 response, Gold and America's Frontline Doctors have sought to undermine the advice of public health experts, providing cover for right-wing outlets to spread misinformation and potentially helping to prolong the pandemic.

As Local Newsrooms Wither, Right-Wing Disinformation Is Burgeoning

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

In a year when local news has been arguably more important than ever, newsrooms across the country have faced drastic cuts. The decimated industry has left many Americans without a clear avenue for getting relevant and reliable information about their communities -- and nefarious actors have taken advantage of this opportunity to fill the void with hyperpartisan narratives and conservative misinformation. While this tactic is not new from right-wing media, the stakes were higher and the consequences greater in 2020.

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic was particularly devastating for an industry already in decline before the virus hit. Newsrooms strained by shrinking ad revenues and consolidation found they could not weather the pressures of COVID-19 without cutting staff or shuttering entirely. Thousands of outlets have been impacted this year, according to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which maintains a database tracking these cutbacks. Local newspapers were hit much harder than local TV newsrooms, according to the Pew Research Center and NiemanLab.

In the absence of trusted local reporting, partisan commentary and right-wing misinformation can thrive. Conservative activists have already proven willing to seize on the decline of local news -- and the perceived trustworthiness of local outlets -- to further their agenda. For example, Media Matters has previously reported on the dark money-fundedFranklin Center's network of state "watchdog" sites, which provided partisan coverage of state governments earlier in the decade. A similar strategy is now taking hold in Georgia as the state heads into contentious January runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.

We are seeing the likely consequences of this dynamic already, as many stories were missing from the pages of local newspapers and the airwaves of local broadcast news in 2020. Local news outlets failed to warn viewers about health risks of political rallies, declined to inform people that a politician running for national office was making racist statements, and omitted right-wing extremist violence from their reporting. While local outlets fail to cover vital stories in their community, right-wing media have plenty of room to fill the gaps with misinformation via local talk radio, news stations owned by conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, and hyperpartisan local sites.

Local Broadcast TV Falls Dangerously Short

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially after it began affecting the 2020 presidential campaigns, local TV news stations sometimes failed to give important public health context in their coverage -- potentially putting viewers at risk. This has ranged from omitting new local COVID-19 developments in stories about national pandemic policy, ignoring problematic decisions by local governments or federal institutions with local impacts, or neglecting to report when local representatives spread misinformation related to the pandemic. Local news stations in several states repeatedly failed to connectPresident Donald Trump's superspreader political events to their area's status in the ongoing pandemic -- even failing to warn viewers about the health risks of attending these Trump rallies after several had been tied to infections and even deaths.

There were also serious failures in local TV coverage of voting procedures and controversial candidates for federal office. In Florida, most TV news coverage in the state failed to properly explain how a new court ruling would make it nearly impossible for residents with former felony convictions to vote -- a measure that disproportionately targets Black potential voters. Broadcast news stations in Pennsylvania and Minnesota also mostly neglected to explain proper procedures in the immediate aftermath of court rulings which changed how mail-in votes can be counted close to the presidential election. Local TV news coverage also largely overlooked the reported sexual misconduct and bigotry of then-candidate and now Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). They also neglected to mentionprint reports with new information about Sen. David Perdue's (R-GA) stock trading scandals before voting for the Georgia runoffs began (newspapers throughout the state also failed to cover this in their print editions).

Sinclair Broadcast Group Spread Misinformation

Sinclair Broadcast Group owns one of the largest concentrations of local television stations in the United States and uses it to broadcast conservative propaganda to unwitting local news audiences. In recent years, it hired Fox News castoffs who were fired for sexual misconduct to push right-wing misinformation.

Stations owned or operated by Sinclair have had their own unique failures related to the pandemic and the election. Around the end of August, at least 55 Facebook posts and 36 Twitter posts from Sinclair stations' social media accounts shared articles from their own or other Sinclair stations' websites which lacked context about data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effectively misleading people into believing COVID-19 isn't as deadly as it's proven to be. And when it came to broadcasts, the Sinclair station in the Florida congressional district where bigot Laura Loomer won her Republican primary election failed to mention the anti-Muslim hatred she is known for while covering her victory. Georgia's Sinclair stations in May similarly failed to cover recent insider trading news about Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, while non-Sinclair stations in the state did multiple times.

Locally produced newscasts are not the only way Sinclair has spread misinformation through the country this year. Sinclair employs several national correspondents who produce short news segments which are distributed throughout its network of local TV stations to air around the country in local news broadcasts. Over the summer, many of these national Sinclair news segments hid violence by police and others against protesters who were marching against police killings of Black Americans and repeated debunked falsehoods about the topic. On the weekends, the company also airs two news-like programs, Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson and Eric Bolling's America This Week, which have spread similar -- and at times more dangerous -- misinformation.

Sinclair's COVID-19 Misinformation Was Pulled Twice

Earlier in the pandemic, Sinclair's national correspondents would cover the right-wing protests against COVID-19 precautions without including warnings from health experts against the consequences of lifting those restrictions too early. Later on, these news reports amplified Trump's attempts to downplay how dangerous the novel coronavirus is and his lies about his mishandling of the pandemic, or distracted from his attempts to politicize the coronavirus vaccine effort. One of Sinclair's weekend programs, Full Measure, also touted the discredited use of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment.

But it was on Sinclair's America This Week where the really deadly misinformation happened. The program started out by downplaying the threat of the pandemic, using racist terms, and pushing conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus. As the pandemic grew worse and worse, host Eric Bolling repeatedly agreed with his guests that public health restrictions needed to end. Bolling brought up a Trump-boosted conspiracy theory downplaying the deadliness of the coronavirus. He aired a segment advocating for a "natural herd immunity" strategy that would kill millions -- and later interviewed the White House adviser who proposed that strategy to the president while failing to bring it up. Bolling also allowed Trump to spread COVID-19 misinformation via the town hall interview he conducted in October. In November, he floated a partisan conspiracy theory after Pfizer announced on November 9 that it had developed an effective vaccine, calling for a congressional investigation and suggesting the timing of the announcement was politically motivated.

On two occasions, Bolling's COVID-19 misinformation was so dangerous that Sinclair simply pulled it off its stations' airwaves. The first time was in late July, when he interviewed a conspiracy theorist from the Plandemic viral video which had been banned from social media platforms for its harmful misinformation. After widespread criticism, Sinclair pulled the entire episode after it aired on one station -- though not before defending the interview as an expression of free speech. The second occasion was in mid-October, when Sinclair cut a part of Bolling's opening monologue in which he falsely claimed face masks and lockdown precautions do not help slow the spread of COVID-19, though The New York Times reported that the Sinclair host "stood by his unsubstantiated claims that Chinese scientists had tampered with the virus."

Sinclair Also Spread Misinformation About Voting

As the presidential election approached, Sinclair spread misinformation about voting from both its national correspondents and its weekend program America This Week. In late June, a Sinclair news segment pushed Trump's debunked lies about fraud in absentee voting and included so little pushback against the lie that one local anchor had to more thoroughly explain the security features of mail-in voting following the prerecorded segment. In mid-July, Bolling used his program to amplify Trump's attacks on mail-in voting by using his interview of a former secretary of state in Washington state to validate claims that voter fraud is rampant. And a series of Sinclair national news segments which covered Trump's false attacks on mail-in voting made no mention of his deliberate weakening of the Postal Service prior to the election.

After the election, Sinclair stations also spread debunked misinformation that originally came from right-wing video group Project Veritas, which is known for infiltrating progressive organizations, campaigns, and nonpartisan institutions and heavily editing recorded undercover footage to allege wrongdoing. For example, multiple Sinclair stationsspread their lie that a post office was illegally backdating ballots in Michigan the day after local and national media debunked it.

Talk Radio Undermined Public Confidence

For decades, local conservative talk radio has served as a source of hyperpartisan commentary on community issues and as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Without trusted local sources to provide the facts or hold these hosts accountable, misinformation and dangerous rhetoric can run rampant on local airwaves.

Throughout the pandemic, talk radio hosts have attempted to undermine the work of local officials to control the spread of the virus. In the spring, right-wing hosts across the country were at the forefront of efforts to promote protests against stay-at-home orders. Local radio hosts in Arizona rejected mask mandates implemented by cities there in June, when COVID-19 cases were surging. When coronavirus numbers surged in Wisconsin this fall, the hosts in the state downplayed the spike and complained about new public health orders.

Listeners' faith in the electoral process was also under attack ahead of the 2020 election. After Trump claimed "bad things happen in Philadelphia" during a debate, local radio hosts in the city suggested that local Democrats were planning to steal the state's election, and some even helped local Republican leaders recruit poll watchers. As Pennsylvania continued to count votes following Election Day, conservative hosts across the state suggested that the additional time needed to count mail-in ballots was actually a sign of a widespread conspiracy by Democrats engaged in election fraud.

Hyperpartisan "News" Pages Were Misinformation Superspreaders

In the days after the 2020 election, a site called the Milwaukee City Journal falsely claimedthat certain wards were reporting more votes than registered voters. A site called Peach Tree Times added to the ever-growing pile of voter fraud conspiracy theories by suggesting that ballot rejection rates in Georgia portended election shenanigans. Ahead of Georgia's runoffs in January, Georgia Star News -- a new website with deep ties to Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon -- began to pepper audiences with stories of election fraud and conspiracy theories aggregated from the right-wing fringe.

Georgia Star News is the latest project of Star News Digital Media, which was founded in 2017 by tea party activists and now operates half a dozen conservative news sites. From the beginning, the company's explicit aim was to flood residents of battleground states with pro-Trump propaganda and to coat local news in the same grievance- and conspiracy-filled venom as used by outlets like The Daily Caller and Breitbart.

Metric Media, which runs the Milwaukee City Journal and Peach Tree Times, operates nearly a thousand such pages. A New York Times investigation revealed that the company's sites amount to little more than content farms for right-wing political groups and PR firms.

Those sites and hundreds of others like them are part of a growing trend of hyperpartisan "news" pages designed to look like legitimate local news outlets that have taken advantage of the collapse of the local news industry. Such sites have been around for nearly a decade, but their numbers have grown dramatically over the past few years.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the local news industry in providing critical on-the-ground reporting that cannot be replicated on the national level. Cuts to funding and to whole newsrooms and outlets during the pandemic present a crisis point that will continue to be exploited by social media echo chambers and right-wing news outlets filling the void with misinformation.

Social media's replacement of local news outlets as the primary source for community information will likely contribute to an absolute deluge of conservative misinformation and the spread of local conspiracy theories in the years ahead, both issues we have already seen play out this year during the election cycle and the pandemic. The year 2020 has proven yet again that protecting resources for local reporting is essential -- and could even save lives.

Georgia’s Right-Wing Feuding Jeopardizes Republican Senate Candidates

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

The lie that Georgia's presidential election was rigged through voter fraud is a right-wing fantasy — but these baseless claims could have a very real impact on the upcoming Senate runoffs. And that has some members of the state's right-wing media apparatus panicking.

Groundless allegations of voter fraud in Georgia's presidential election have pitted members of right-wing media, and the Republican Party as a whole, against one another ahead of two crucial January runoffs that will determine control of the Senate.

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GOP Civil War Erupts in Georgia Senate Runoffs

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

The lie that Georgia's presidential election was rigged through voter fraud is a right-wing fantasy — but these baseless claims could have a very real impact on the upcoming Senate runoffs. And that has some members of the state's right-wing media apparatus panicking.

Groundless allegations of voter fraud in Georgia's presidential election have pitted members of right-wing media, and the Republican Party as a whole, against one another ahead of two crucial January runoffs that will determine control of the Senate.

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Rush Limbaugh Is Talk Radio’s Coronavirus Super-Spreader

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

On February 24, as cases of COVID-19 were just emerging in the United States, radio host Rush Limbaugh declared, "The coronavirus is the common cold, folks." The dangerously inaccurate comparison prompted a wave of criticism, yet Limbaugh doubled down. The next day, he told his audience that he refused to "join a panic" over the virus, claiming, "I have no interest in lying to you about anything." In fact, that is exactly what Limbaugh did for the next five months.

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National Talk Radio Hosts Reject Calls For Masking

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Conservative talk radio hosts across the country are mocking the use of masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, even in states like Arizona where cases are surging.

Masks are an essential tool in the effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Infected people are less likely to transmit the virus to others when wearing a mask, and while no mask can completely prevent inhalation of virus particles, even cloth masks provide some protection for healthy individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that Americans wear cloth face masks when interacting with people outside of their households.

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