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Sustained Audience, Trust, and Rush

Tuesday, May 30, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Since my Sunday morning appearnce on CNN’s Reliable Sourcs with Howard Kurtz, (Expose the Left has the video) I have been receiving the usual run of angry e-mail from lefties who don’t ever want to have their beliefs challenged. In this case the cause of their ire is the following exchange, specifically my comments about Rush:

KURTZ: You were recently at a conference on the future of news and all the hand-wringing about how we do we find an audience and hold an audience and expand the audience. You said that the major problem in the news media today is the ideological imbalance in the work force.

Now if that’s the case, is it because news organizations are biased against conservatives when they hire? Or is it because many conservatives don’t apply for these jobs? They go into opinion journalism. They don’t want to be a police reporter at the local paper?

HEWITT: A little bit of that, but the most important think in the elite media is its self-selection. You hire your friends. If you go to the Harvard and you comp (ph) on the Crimson and you come out of the Crimson and you want to go to “The New York Times”, or one of the other similar elite media institutions, a place will be made for you. It is old boys and old girls network which has functioned for the last 100 years. It’s got Columbia School of Journalism mixed into it. It’s sometimes…

KURTZ: Are conservatives knocking on those doors?

HEWITT: No. That’s not true. KURTZ: A lot of times I find they’re applying to the “National Review” and the “Weekly Standard” and maybe FOX and other places. And therefore, then there’s a complaint, well, newsrooms aren’t well represented on the right.

HEWITT: Well, they should do some recruiting, if we believe in affirmative action for all sorts of characteristics. Big media that wants to correct that imbalance should go back out there.

KURTZ: To include people who have — who have openly advertised conservative views for a job in which you’re not supposed to tilt one way or the other?

HEWITT: But we all know that everyone tilts one way or the other. They just hide it better or less.

And my argument at this conference was that transparency means tell people what you believe so that they can correct for the lie of the green. And if you want trust back — that was what our big thing was, how do you get trust? The most trusted journalist in America — it might shock you — is Rush Limbaugh. He has the highest sustained audience. And I made that argument to them. And people can’t argue with his rebranding as America’s anchorman.

KURTZ: But Rush Limbaugh would make no pretense of being an objective journalist. He’s a commentator.

HEWITT: Though he also does information dissemination, which is what I do and what you do.

KURTZ: Don’t you think there’s a place for people who at least try, however flawed, however imperfect they may be, who try to tell both sides of the story, as opposed to a radio talk show host who’s paid for his opinions?

HEWITT: No, I actually try and bring, for example, when I do constitutional law, Irwin Shimmer (ph), John Eastman, left and right together to clash. Because it’s in confrontation we learn in the trial system.

KURTZ: You’re an opinionated guy.

HEWITT: I am, but I make sure that people know what my beliefs are and that I let other people come onto my program, left, right or center, to debate with me.

I think what is most important in big media, Howard, is that we got to get people to tell people what they believe, who they are aligned with. Because I don’t trust folks who won’t tell me what everyone else in America will tell me.

KURTZ: All right. Hugh Hewitt, thanks very much for joining us.

The objections fall into three braod categories.

The first category is that Rush lies, distorts, reads talking points etc. Of course he has made mistakes as his show has been on for, what, 17 years, five days a week, three hours a day. But his work product is exceptionally accurate though of course his opinions are conservative and always openly expressed as opposed to smuggled into the story. He lays out facts, calls attention to stories and comments on them. He does a few interviews, but mostly he is an analyst, and as he has shrewdly rebranded himself, an anchorman, doing exactly what Brokaw, Jennings, Rather, Chancellor, and Cronkite did for all those years –selectiing the news he thinks you should hear, but doing so with much more transparency as to his view of it.

The second set of objections assert that Rush isn’t a “journalist,” but an entertainer. This is absurd. Was Murrow a journalist? If so, so is Rush. Both were deeply opinionated communicators, and savvy entertainers. Any serious definition of “journalist” will include Limbaugh, just as it will Matthews, Russert and the Powerline gents. People who communicate facts –with or without analysis, and whether or not that analysis is transparently or secretly impacted by their political beliefs– are journalists.

Finally, some want to argue about the size of Rush’s audience relative to other’s audiences.

First, because of measurement difficulties, it is very difficult to accurately assert someone’s audience, though The State of the News Media study of 2005 concludes 16% of Americans listen to talk radio. That’s more than 40 million to start.

Various estimates of Rush’s audience peg it at between 15 and 20 million, but I believe that this range understates his influence given who is listening to him and his impact on his listeners. Very, very few broadcasters have such an impact on the listener that he or she says “Did you hear what Rush said today….” When that impact occurs on a voter, it is much higher in terms of consequence than when it occurs on a non-voter. When it occurs with an “influencer,” the impact is greater by far. (There are “political influencers” just are there are “tech influencers.”)

Rush talks to voters –predominantly center-right voters, of course, but voters– and the people who influence voters, and he built and sustained this tremendously influential audience over nearly two decades. This is what makes him a model to be studied by old media desperate to attract and retain voters and their influencers into their audience mix.

Right behind Rush are Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved and, of course, me, as well as dozens of very influential smaller syndicated shows or powerfully influential local shows. Each on of these shows is builing an audience via the accumulation of trust and great product –crucial news delivered in an entertaining format.

Spend any time with television ratings or newspaper circulation numbers and you quickly conclude that radio dwarfs the other two for direct communication with voters on issues of politics. Executives in either television or print who want to add audience would be well-served to study, not mock, Limbaugh, and lefties upset with the tattered condition of their influence should note a few things about his delivery if they ever want to learn to communicate.

There’s a chapter on the built-in advantage the center-right has over the left when it comes to communication skills in Painting the Map Read. The bad news is that it wouldn’t be difficult for the left, old media, or both to improve their skills in this area.

The good news is that they will never read the book much less listen to Rush or any other successful center-right political journalist to learn how to do what they must do if the fromer were to regain majority or the latter their dominant audience position.

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