This week's sudden unraveling of Rush Limbaugh's radio standing as the untouchable king of conservative media strangely mirrors deep difficulties recently faced by Rupert Murdoch and Glenn Beck, two other far-right press titans.
Limbaugh supposedly boasts 20 millions listeners (in truth, he likely doesn't come close), and is routinely singled out by Republicans themselves as a GOP kingmaker and someone who must not be crossed. As the proprietor of Fox News, and the vanity publisher of the money-losing New York Post, Murdoch is the Godfather of right-wing media in America, stamping his trademark mendacity onto the conservative press. And not that long ago Beck was drawing three million viewers to his Fox News show, which made him the cable channel's most-watched personality and a rising media superstar.
Together, the far-right triumvirate helped define the movement's message on a daily, even hourly, basis. They were also seen as invincible forces.
And now look at them.
In the last year the trio has suffered extraordinary setbacks; setbacks that were entirely their own doing and setbacks that highlight the dangers of not operating under simple guidelines of fairness of common sense. Instead, led by the likes of Limbaugh, Murdoch and Beck, the conservative press has adopted a strange brand of radicalism that embraces falsehoods, smears and even law breaking, all of which places their practice well outside the mainstream culture.
In the last year, that brand of recklessness, built upon a foundation of spite, has produced three very public crises for Limbaugh, Murdoch and Beck. All three players have been badly damaged professionally and all three were led astray by their exaggerated belief that the rules don't apply to them.
For Beck, it was the misguided conviction that he could go on national television and denounce the President of the United States as a "racist" who has a "deep-seeded hatred for white people." For Murdoch, it was a culture of corruption inside NewsCorp. where his newspaper executives felt that the wholesale breaking of the law by hacking phones and paying off public officials was an acceptable way to report out stories. And for Limbaugh, it was the still-shocking assumption that he could dedicate three days of his national radio show to insulting and denigrating a Georgetown University law student, and do it by name.
In the end, Beck's race-baiting cost him hundreds of advertisers and eventually his job at Fox News. Murdoch's professional reputation has been permanently stained by the phone-hacking scandal while his company has been saddled with nearly a $1 billion legal bill to clean up the ethical messes inside his companies. And Limbaugh is now facing the worst crisis of his two-decade career as advertisers flee his program. (He's become so toxic even one non-profit group asked that its unpaid ad be pulled from Limbaugh's broadcast.)
What's fascinating about their startling falls from grace is that each one represented a clear case of self-destruction. Limbaugh, Murdoch and Beck weren't cut down by their political foes or by partisan dirty tricks. They were cut down by their own moral and ethical failings.
Meaning, Limbaugh's opponents didn't make him call Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute, and liberals didn't force him to spend days smearing the woman in the most humiliating ways possible, painting her as a greedy nymphomaniac whose parents ought to be deeply ashamed. Nobody egged him on into doing that. In fact, after the initial "slut" and "prostitute" insults, liberals demanded Limbaugh stop using that kind of ugly language. If anything, Limbaugh's foes tried to save him from himself. (By contrast, many of his partisan fans immediately cheered his Fluke attacks.)
The same is true with Beck and Murdoch. Who on the left would have even dreamt up a plot to somehow to get Beck to call the president a racist, or to later ramble for weeks about how pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt represented a spear tip to a looming American left-backed Caliphate uprising in the Middle East. Who even thinks like that, other than Beck?
As for Murdoch, he's cultivated a culture of corruption that's so firmly entrenched that one of his newspaper executives allegedly tried to secure a vote in parliament from a conservative politician in exchange for offering favorable coverage in a Murdoch newspaper. Again, who does that? Who works for a newspaper and doubles as a vote whip for a political party?
All of this behavior is reprehensible and of course falls completely outside the purview of journalism, as even loosely defined to include cable and AM talk shows. For the conservative media, there are no checks in place anymore. Instead, all the introspection has been eliminated and replaced by robotic, partisan defense regardless of the circumstances.The guard rails have been taken down, leaving the way for reckless drivers like Limbaugh, Murdoch and Beck to crash their careers.