I spent last weekend with my two-year-old twin nieces. They both love riding on this little rocking zebra. And if one of them is rocking, you can be sure the other is going to come running up to try to take it from her. The best way to head off lots of yelling and crying is to distract the one who isn’t on the zebra with some other toy. Jiggling something shiny, like my keys, normally works well.
If we’ve seen anything the last few weeks, it’s that some prominent conservative media personalities treated their viewers like two-year-olds, distracting them from real important news with shiny stories that have been thoroughly debunked. In doing so, they’ve shown a fundamental, patronizing, even disdainful disrespect for their viewers’ intelligence.
If you are one of their viewers, it is not liberals who don’t respect you, no matter how much conservative media personalities pretend that’s how it is. No, the people who really disrespect you are the conservative media personalities themselves.
In recent weeks, hyperbolic conservative shock jocks like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Alex Jones have been pushing the thoroughly discredited – and cruel – conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a murdered DNC staffer, was killed by Democrats because he leaked information to Wikileaks. To be clear, this "story" is completely false, and Mr. Hannity, Mr. Limbaugh, and Mr. Jones either know that or are perhaps being willfully ignorant.
Fox News itself retracted the story, Fox News’ own staff were "disgusted" by coverage that "damaged [their] integrity," and Rod Wheeler, the private detective who started the conspiracy, admitted he had no evidence. Mr. Rich’s family penned a heartfelt plea that people like Mr. Hannity stop using their crushing pain to peddle a lie.
Mr. Hannity, Mr. Limbaugh, and Mr. Jones waving around this story shows a fundamental disrespect to their viewers and listeners. They are treating them like two-year-olds, trying to distract them with jiggling keys.
And what are they distracting their viewers from? The Trump-Russia matter, of course. Whether the allegations turn out to be true or not, there can be no denying that from May 15 to May 22 was a bad week for President Trump, and that he used poor judgment in some of those matters. Urging former FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — or even being alone in a room with a man he was planning to fire — was careless.
The president angrily taking to Twitter to deny allegations, rather than calming stating his innocence, was impulsive. Being anything other than extremely guarded with the Russian foreign minister was undisciplined.
President Trump has the most difficult job on the planet, so it is not a surprise he would slip up. Americans are smart — they understand that even a person they support can make mistakes. They’re not children, and it is grossly disrespectful of people like Mr. Hannity or Mr. Jones try to distract their loyal viewers the same way I distract my two-year-old nieces.
What makes their actions all the more infantilizing is they know President Trump is hardly the first president to have a bad week caused by poor judgment. President Obama is still trying to live down his "red line" comment on Syrian President Bashar Assad using chemical weapons.
George W. Bush’s decision to name Michael Brown, a man whose "qualification" was supervising judges at an Arabian horse show, as FEMA director in the run up to Hurricane Katrina betrayed terrible judgment. Hurricane Katrina remains a black mark on President Bush’s record. Mr. Hannity should know his viewers are capable of remembering back 12 years and understanding that presidents make mistakes. Yet as his relentless attention on Seth Rich proves, he acts as though his viewers can’t even remember last week.
There’s a reason they treat their listeners like children, of course. Rush Limbaugh is worth about $470 million. Sean Hannity made $29 million in 2016. It’s in their best financial interest to distract their listeners from what matters, rather than treat them like adults.
But their listeners should be insulted and feel grossly disrespected. When I waive my shiny keys at my two-year-old nieces, it’s to avoid a temper tantrum. What’s Mr. Hannity’s excuse?
Neal Urwitz is the Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a defense and national security think tank in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in media and congressional relations, having also worked for Fortune 500 companies on crisis communications and policy matters. He writes regular commentaries on the state of media in America. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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