David Brock, the former self-described “right-wing hit man” turned “progressive” activist, is escalating his campaign against conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Brock runs a new organization called Media Matters for America, which, according to Brock, was created to fight “conservative misinformation” in the media (see “David Brock is Buzzing Again,” NR, June 14, 2004). Earlier this month, Brock and Media Matters produced a television commercial attacking Limbaugh for comments about the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal. Brock, who has raised more than $2 million for his new venture, spent $100,000 to air the spot on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox, and ESPN.
Now, Brock has written a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asking that the Pentagon remove Limbaugh’s program from the American Forces Radio and Television Service, formerly known as Armed Forces Radio. Arguing that Limbaugh has condoned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Brock wrote, “It is abhorrent that the American taxpayer is paying to broadcast what is in effect pro-torture propaganda to American troops.” Brock asked Rumsfeld to consider removing the Limbaugh program to “protect” American troops from Limbaugh’s “reckless and dangerous messages.” Brock also expressed concern that Limbaugh “continually uses prejudiced rhetoric that divides rather than unites Americans.”
Brock based his letter in large part on a story that appeared Wednesday in the anti-Bush online magazine Salon. That article, “Rush’s Forced Conscripts,” in turn relied on Brock and other critics, like Limbaugh competitor Al Franken of the new liberal talk-radio network Air America, to accuse American Forces Radio of a “rightward tilt” and of airing a generous portion of Limbaugh while not allowing liberal voices to be heard. Limbaugh, according to Franken, provides “a bad message for troops to be hearing.”
Salon editor David Talbot followed up, in “Turn Off Rush, Turn On Salon,” by denouncing military broadcasters who, he said, give soldiers “a daily dose of poison from Rush Limbaugh.” Talbot wrote that American Forces Radio “bombard[s]” military men and women with “Limbaugh’s incendiary tirades, to the exclusion of all other voices.”
“Rush’s Forced Conscripts” discounted the argument of American Forces Radio chief Melvin Russell, who told Salon that his service included Limbaugh on the basis of Limbaugh’s popularity, and that American Forces also provides programming from National Public Radio. That’s not the same thing, Franken explained: “Rush’s message is that liberals hate America, while NPR is straight-ahead reporting and journalism.”
But American Forces Radio provides not only NPR programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered but NPR commentary, as well. American military men and women abroad have access, for example, to the talk show of liberal host Diane Rehm. Indeed, Rehm’s biographical sketch on the NPR website says her program is “heard on U.S. military instillations around the world via Armed Forces Radio.” (For a schedule of NPR programs provided to American Forces Radio, click here.)
Military listeners can also hear NPR’s Tavis Smiley Show, Talk of the Nation, and Fresh Air programs. Beyond NPR, listeners can also hear brief commentaries by former talk-show host Jim Hightower and CBS News anchorman Dan Rather. Viewed as a whole, the list of names suggests that military listeners, if they want to hear a variety of views, can do so on American Forces Radio.
But according to those who design its programming, the point of American Forces Radio is not to provide some sort of perfect ideological balance but rather to give military men and women a representative sample of the programming they could hear at home. To that end, American Forces Radio provides about 1,200 different programs to military radio stations around the world, which then make up their own schedules. “We try to provide a cross-section of programming that they would have available to [soldiers] were they stateside,” says Melvin Russell. “We feel that the variety, the 1,200 programs that we offer each week, gives us that balance that we’re looking for.”
Most of those programs are music shows, but there is a significant news and talk lineup as well. If you liked to listen to Dr. Laura Schlessinger at home, and you’re stationed in South Korea, you can listen to her there, too (the first hour of her program is included in American Forces Radio, just as the first hour of Limbaugh’s program is provided). If you liked NPR’s Car Talk at home, you can listen overseas, too. If you preferred Dan Patrick’s ESPN Radio show, that’s there, too.
Given that, it would be odd if American Forces Radio attempted to replicate the menu of radio choices available in the United States and decided not to include Limbaugh, who produces one of the most popular programs in America.
The reality is that the talk-radio market in the United States is not balanced; conservatives have been far more successful than liberals in making a product that people want to hear. That fact is the premise for the creation of the Air America network. Maybe that network will grow into a significant force, but for now, there is no dominant, single liberal voice on national radio today whose inclusion would be mandatory if one were making up a representative sample of American radio programming. Liberals have said as much many times as they (unsuccessfully) searched for that very thing.
As for Air America itself, it has been on the air less than two months, is heard on only a handful of stations, and faces an uncertain financial future. If it succeeds, portions of its programming might well be included in the American Forces lineup. For now, people on military bases with access to the Internet can listen to Air America on the web–just like they would at home.
The critics’ real argument, it seems, is not so much with American Forces Radio, and the way it makes its programming decisions, as it is with Limbaugh himself. And that is nothing new.