"Why," she asked, "do you suppose CNN broadcast Rush Limbaugh's speech in its entirety to all those conservatives at CPAC?"
I respected the question. Everything in politics has meaning. We dare not forget the great Metternich's question during the Congress of Vienna when told by an aide that the Russian ambassador had died during the night. Pacing the floor and looking very thoughtful for a few moments, the Austrian statesman finally said, "I wonder what he meant by that!"
We're wise to wonder what CNN, certainly no ideological friend to Limbaugh's political message, meant by treating Rush Limbaugh only one small notch below a president; running his whole speech without commercial interruptions despite the fact that it ran, as Rush confessed in a moment of typical Limbauchery, "past my alloted time by one hour!"
Something early in my radio experience long ago set off one of those deja-vu beeps. It offers a convincing explanation. At least, it convinces me!
In the late 1960s or early 1970s England was in the grip of a domestic controversy. There was no commercial television in the U.K. and some was about to get started; perhaps. That's what the argument was about. Those in favor touted the increased choice and variety the British viewing public would enjoy.
Those opposed feared the collapse of the high cultural level of the commercial-free British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) would sink all the way down to — horror of horrors — the level of the United States.
One day I got a call from the New York bureau of the BBC asking if they might send a camera crew to my radio studio and shoot footage of me doing my radio show which, the BBC man said, would surely fascinate their viewers all over the British Isles. When a southern boy gets a flattering call like that in a British accent his mind goes soaring like a frisbee in a tornado and he doesn't even stop to think if there might be some ulterior motive.
I told them to name their night and come ahead. You need to know a point or two about my radio show at that time. It was the all-night show on WOR Radio in New York. All-night radio shows tend to be more relaxed, laid-back, and unconventional in several respects. The salient unconventionality was my relationship to commercials. I loved them.
Too many broadcasters then and now have an elitist contempt, often unconcealed, about commercials. You can discern that their true feeling as they interrupt for a commercial break is something like, "After we sweep the pig litter off the stage we'll get on with the ballet." I felt otherwise.
Freedom of speech for the nation resides in the Constitution and an American military strong enough to defend it. Freedom of speech for the individual broadcaster, however, is the commercial.
If you have enough sponsors who are happy enough with what your commercials are doing for their businesses you need never fear word that the program director would like you to come by his office late Friday afternoon. That's "firing time" in radio and if your advertisers love you, the worst you need fear is that you'll have to contact all 35 of them and tell them to start sending their checks to another radio station.
You should also know that I have an accent to match my southern origins and, this being audio without video, there was no dress code to live up to. I did my commercials live night after night and, no affectation here, I just naturally would lean into the microphone windmilling my arms like Elmer Gantry and, with one or both shoes kicked off, extol the virtues of goods and services ranging from therapeutic massage to organic rigatoni.
In other words, the sight and sound of those proceedings were as un-British as a North Carolina Smoky Mountain goat-mating.
And, sure enough, the Brits were using me as an obliging, human scarecrow. By putting me on raging about soothing Mineral Ice for arthritic elbows, the status-quo tacticians at the BBC were saying to Englishmen far and wide, "Fair warning, everybody. This is what you'll get once you allow commercials onto English air!"
And I strongly suspect the tacticians at CNN reasoned along the same lines. Since they abhorred Rush Limbaugh, they joined with each other in the assumption that everybody watching would likewise abhor Rush Limbaugh. And those masses of swing voters would thereupon turn even more sharply away from the right and beg for shelter on the left.
During the Depression the Soviet Union propagandists got hold of a newsreel showing police beating factory workers picketing outside a shut-down plant in Detroit. They thought that newsreel would be the absolute best pro-communist propaganda ever, because it was made in America. They ordered hundreds of copies made for all the movie houses in the Soviet Union.
They ran that film one time and one time only. Then they ordered all copies destroyed. To their consternation the Moscow moviegoers exiting the theater were overheard saying to each other, "Hey! Did you see the shoes on those American workers they were beating? They looked like real leather shoes and they didn't have to stuff newspaper in the bottoms to cover the holes like we do."
I responded favorably to Limbaugh's message. I had the feeling, though, CNN really wanted me to dismiss him as a bloated fascist clown. In a democracy every day is Election Day. Who and how many responded how to Limbaugh's hour-and-a-half address will find its way into the gutwork of America's political programming.
If, in fact, all CNN were doing was offering viewers a nice hunk of entertaining programming, I apologize to them and blame it on Metternich. If they were trying to do what I suggest, they'll know at least one viewer nailed them.
The United Kingdom now has commercial broadcasting and apparently everybody's happy. Their "scarecrow" apparently didn't scare many crows. We couldn't see the shoes on the liberals Rush was beating on, but their ideology did seem to have — and add — a few more holes.
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