In the weeks following the election, the debate over the issue of media bias, and of whether the press was overly kind to Barack Obama, has continued to swirl. Much less attention has been paid to another, more troubling aspect of the coverage, and that’s the relentless and malevolent campaign that the right-wing media waged against the Democratic candidate. Few people who did not regularly tune in to the vast, churning combine of bellowing radio hosts, yapping bloggers, obnoxious Web sites, malicious columnists, and the slashingly partisan Fox News have any idea of just how vile and venomous were the attacks leveled at Obama. Day after day, week after week, these outlets worked determinedly to discredit and degrade Obama, accusing him of being a Muslim, a Marxist, a radical, a revolutionary, a socialist, a communist, a thug, a mobster, a racist, an agent of voter fraud, a black-power advocate, a madrasah graduate, an anti-Semite, an enemy of Israel, an associate of terrorists—even the Antichrist. Supplemented by a flood of viral e-mails, slanderous robocalls, and Internet-based smear campaigns, these media outlets worked to stoke firestorms of manufactured rage against Obama and the Democrats in what was perhaps the most concerted campaign of vilification ever directed at an American politician.
In light of Obama’s victory, one might be tempted to let it all pass. That would be a mistake. For the effects of that campaign remain with us. What’s more, the campaign itself is still going on.
Any inventory of the right’s media bombast must begin with talk radio. In reach and rancor, it had no equal. Leading the way was Rush Limbaugh. An estimated fourteen to twenty million people tune in to his show every week, and he treated them to nonstop character assassination, calling the Democratic candidate the Messiah, a revolutionary socialist, a liar, “Osama Obama,” a man with a “perverted mind” who wants to destroy America and the middle class, a front man for terrorists who wants to turn the country into a version of Castro’s Cuba or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. According to Michael Savage (eight million listeners), “Barack Madrasah Obama” was “hand-picked by some very powerful forces both within and outside the United States of America to drag this country into a hell that it has not seen since the Civil War.” Laura Ingraham (5.5 million listeners) spent her nights fuming over Chavez, Ahmadinejad, Hamas, Hezbollah, Ayers, Wright, ACORN, and, in the campaign’s final days, the “racist-terrorist” Rashid Khalidi. She urged listeners to call a toll-free number with any information they might have about the “terrorist party tape” that showed Obama at an event honoring the Palestinian professor.
The noxious clouds emitted by these national windbags were further fed by gassy eruptions from scores of local and regional radio hosts. As documented in a recent report by the group Media Matters, these hosts harped on the notion that Obama is a Muslim whose true loyalties lay outside the United States. “Let’s ask Obama how many prayer rugs he has,” sneered Neal Boortz of Atlanta. “Gunny” Bob Newman of Denver called Obama a “blowhard, make-believe thug” and a “far-left terrorist-hugging politician” whose election would lead to “an invasion of Muslim terrorists.” Cincinnati’s Bill Cunningham stated that Obama wants to “gas the Jews,” while Minneapolis’s Chris Baker called him a “little bitch” who “won’t even stand up to a smoking-hot chick from Alaska.”
The vitriol circulating in the blogosphere was no less extreme. “Terrorist Bill Ayers Votes in Obama’s Neighborhood,” proclaimed the endlessly strident Michelle Malkin on her site on Election Day. Nearby, she offered a helpful link on Ayers’s “relationship to Cuban intelligence.” Obama’s message, said the mephitic Monica Crowley, “is a thoroughly negative one: America stinks, the economy stinks, Iraq stinks, our efforts around the world stink, coal stinks, wealth stinks, plumbers stink, conservatives stink, religion stinks . . . .” But “confiscatory taxes, socialism, domestic terrorists, anti-American racist rants, and convicted felons are swell, apparently.” Ayers and Khalidi, insisted the hardcore Hugh Hewitt, were not simply associates of Obama’s but actual advisers. Far-right Web sites like World Net Daily and Newsmax.com floated all kinds of specious stories about Obama that quickly careened around the blogosphere and onto talk radio. One particular favorite was the claim that Bill Ayers ghost-wrote Dreams From My Father.
As for columnists, one could read Michael Barone warning about “The Coming Obama Thugocracy,” Jonah Goldberg jeering about Obama’s “pals from the Weather Underground who murdered or celebrated the murder of policemen,” and Charles Krauthammer lambasting Obama for being a celebrity, a narcissist, a rigid ideologue, a cynical pragmatist, ambitious, mysterious, and underhanded. “By the time he’s finished,” Krauthammer fumed, “Obama will have made the Clintons look scrupulous.” The National Review Online came to resemble a barnyard, in which strutting roosters spent their days hooting and hollering while littering the ground with manure.
In the end, no institution devoted more energy to assailing Barack Obama than Fox News. Any pretense that the network is anything other than an arm of the most rigid reaches of the Republican Party was dispelled by its relentless campaign against the Democrats. On The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly offered nightly reports on Bill Ayers, including one “exclusive” in which a reporter staked out the Chicago professor’s house for days, then confronted him so aggressively that Ayers had to call the police. Greta Van Susteren, when not gushing over Sarah and Todd Palin, seemed to offer up a series of Republican talking points. “Next: Who Is Rashid Khalidi?” went a typical teaser. Appearing regularly on the network were a series of professional Democrat detractors, including architect-of-the-most-unpopular-presidency-in-American-history Karl Rove, onetime-Bill-Clinton-adviser-disgraced-after-having-been-found-consorting-with-a-prostitute Dick Morris, and the always-welcome-on-Fox-no-matter-how-foul-her-views Ann Coulter. “I feel,” she said on one show, “like we are talking to the Germans after Hitler comes to power, saying, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t know. I had no idea he was going to be like this.’ ”
When it comes to Obama-bashing, however, Sean Hannity was in a class by himself. Consumed with a hatred for Obama that at times seemed pathological, Hannity waged a nightly campaign to depict him as a treacherous enemy of the people, who, if allowed to take office, would subvert every value and tradition Americans hold dear. The centerpiece of this effort was an hour-long special, “Obama & Friends: History of Radicalism,” that drew on a series of marginal and shadowy writers and researchers to offer up a series of allegations and half-truths about Obama’s supposed ties to Tony Rezko, ACORN, Louis Farrakhan, Muslim fundamentalists, black-power advocates, and, of course, Bill Ayers. In one especially lunatic segment, Andy Martin, a writer with a history of making anti-Semitic statements, claimed that Obama, in deciding to work as a community organizer in Chicago after college, had “probably” been recruited for the job by Ayers, who was seeking to test his suitability for joining his radical political movement, the aim of which was to bring about in America a “socialist revolution.” Martin offered not a shred of evidence to back up this charge. Nonetheless, the image of Obama-as-Ayers-front-man became a staple on talk radio and in the blogosphere.
For years now, Fox has tried to promote the idea that, while its prime-time lineup of O’Reilly, Hannity, and Van Susteren might have a conservative bent, its newscasts are fair and balanced. Fox’s campaign coverage revealed the utter emptiness of that claim. Over the final weeks of the campaign, for instance, the network offered near-hourly updates on acorn and what Fox insinuated was its campaign to steal the election for the Democrats.
During the campaign, of course, MSNBC emerged as a left-leaning counterweight to Fox, and the two were often discussed as somehow balancing or canceling out each other. This is a false analogy, for while MSNBC was highly partisan and even shrill at times, it did not try to portray John McCain and Sarah Palin as anti-American figures determined to destroy and destabilize the nation. More generally, the Republican candidates (especially Palin) were subjected to often brutal and sometimes excessive criticism in the mainstream media, but they were never called thugs or accused of trying to turn America into a fascist state. After weeks of watching Fox, of listening to Limbaugh, and of surfing the Internet; after hours of hearing repeated references to terrorists and thugs, radicals and revolutionaries, Muslims and madrasahs, I came away feeling that these outlets were helping to foment such hatred and fear of Obama that some members of their audience might feel justified in resorting to violence to stop him. The climate seemed no less toxic than the one that arose in Israel in the months leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
That climate still exists. The election of Obama has done nothing to diminish the frequency or zeal of the attacks against him. As I write in late November, you can turn on Sean Hannity and see him still raging about Obama’s ties to Ayers; you can tune in to Rush Limbaugh and still hear him decrying the radical socialist regime Obama is seeking to impose. These outlets have stoked the politics of personal destruction in America, promoting a mindset in which opponents are seen not merely as fellow citizens to be debated and persuaded but as members of a subhuman species who must be isolated and stamped out.
So what is to be done? The excesses of talk radio have fed support in some quarters for bringing back the fairness doctrine, the legal provision that required broadcasters to provide equal airtime for opposing sides of an issue. Such a move, however, would likely result in the presence of less rather than more speech, and the right is already using the prospect of such a policy change to incite and mobilize its constituents.
A more effective approach, I think, would be to use the tools of public suasion. For too long, moderate voices—not wanting to appear intolerant, perhaps, or to be attacked themselves—have shied away from speaking out against these hatemongers. Mainstream news organizations, when not ignoring them, have tended to coddle them. Last July, for instance, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Limbaugh that read like an ad for his show. Calling him an “American icon,” it commended his “basically friendly temperament” and quoted Ira Glass as saying, “Rush is just an amazing radio performer.” Not to be outdone, Barbara Walters included Limbaugh on her “ten most fascinating people” list for 2008, an honor Limbaugh promptly trumpeted on his show. This seems unaccountable. Rather than celebrate such extremists, the press should seek to expose their xenophobia, intolerance, and fanaticism.
Moderate conservatives should join in as well. Speaking out against the malignancy in their midst would be not only moral but also astute, for these zealots have done nearly as much harm to Republicans as to Democrats. During the primary season, Limbaugh, Hannity, and the rest spent months attacking John McCain as a phony Republican and apostate conservative. When McCain received the nomination, they did a quick about-face and redirected their fire at Obama, but by then McCain had been so bloodied that many Republicans decided they could not vote for him; millions, in fact, stayed home on Election Day. It’s time for reasonable Republicans to step forward and denounce the Limbaughs and Hannitys for what they are—un-American.
No doubt the thunderers on the right would respond by pointing to their huge audiences. “We’re just giving people what they want,” they would say. On one level, the millions who tune in to these messages would seem a powerful rebuttal to any argument for restraint. Throughout history, though, demagogues have never lacked for an audience. That, in fact, is what makes them so dangerous.Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.