In the old days for anyone who cared to think about talk radio or talk radio show hosts there was an axiom: in order to maintain their audience talk show hosts deliberately escalated their provocations, until finally the day came when they crossed a line, were fired, and eventually migrated to some other market distant enough to provide cover.
Quaint old world. But don’t cry for the radio talk show host. In the new imperium of social media, there may be no hiding, but there’s also no provocation that represents a beyond which. Rush Limbaugh the case in point. It turns out that when he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut because she defended insurance-covered birth control last spring, he was just warming up.
His latest assault on reason can be read here: the comically insane suggestion that Al Qaeda “gave up” Osama Bin Laden to the U.S. in order to help guarantee President Obama’s reelection. It is so idiotic that it’s funny, but here’s the trouble with operating in world with no line too far. With his brain torqued by addiction, and positively sodden with constant immersions in narcissistic fantasias of power, Limbaugh lives in a world with no limits whatsoever. His small poison will endlessly infect the body politic, and his coalition built out of an audience of dead enders, many of whom appear to be defenders on the last redoubt of open racism the country has on offer, and backed by high-powered media companies and advertisers, guarantees a limitless future.
The only problem with this glowing scenario is that Limbaugh is now officially crazy. But it doesn’t matter. He will go on, and will even continue to have some small measure of influence—though an infinitely smaller amount than he’s given credit for. Tomorrow will come, and he will once again respond to the urgent need to jack the intensity level up one more notch, to heighten the provocation.
There used to be, or at least it’s possible to imagine, a time when talk show hosts, sad wayfarers moving endlessly from job to job, dodging the floating debris of their tattered reputations, possessed a weird nobility as they fought over the scraps in a bizarre corner of the American dream. But without checks, what we have now is simply the deterioration of a mentally ill person—in public, every afternoon, on Clear Channel radio stations.