Fake News and Real Consequences

There’s still a chance that Hurricane Irma will veer harmlessly to the sea rather than ramming into populous south Florida, and we’ll be praying that it does, but the way America’s luck has been running lately we wouldn’t place a bet on it. If we lived in the south Florida areas where the storm is expected to hit on Sunday we certainly wouldn’t bet our lives on it, and we urge our friends down there to prepare their properties as best they can and get the hell out of there. That’s what all the meteorologists and government officials are advising, too, but talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has other ideas.
“Just as I’m the go-to tech guy in my family and here on the staff, when it comes to a hurricane bearing down on bearing down on south Florida, I’m the go-to guy,” Limbaugh assured his audience on Wednesday, adding as a further credential that “I’m not biased and have no agenda in my analysis of the data.” He then went for another 20 minutes or so about how the “drive-by media” were simply up to their usual trick of scaring the public to increase ratings, propagandize their bogus climate change theories, and try to gin up business for the hardware stores and grocery chains and “Big Water” that advertise on their networks.
Oftentimes in the past we have argued in defense of Limbaugh, and even enjoyed his comically overstated critiques of leftist media bias and outspoken skepticism about the more alarmist claims of the climate change crowd, but we’ve been more inclined to roll our eyes during his broadcasts ever since President Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, and this is just Alex Jones-level crazy talk. There’s still that aforementioned chance that Limbaugh’s sanguine weather predictions will prove correct, but without any biases and agenda and all due respect to Limbaugh’s status as the “go-to guy on a hurricane bearing down on south Florida” we figure there’s an even better chance that all those meteorologists and government officials are right that it’s probably better for our friends in south Florida to be safe than sorry.
Most of Limbaugh’s estimated 20 million or so listeners aren’t in any projected path of Hurricane Irma, and we trust that most of those who are won’t be such “ditto heads” that they take his dubious advice to chill out about the category five hurricane and its 185-mile-an-hour winds that might well be headed their way, but it’s still a worrisome development. Talk radio hosts in general and Limbaugh in particular have by now supplanted such scholarly academicians as Milton Friedman and James Q. Wilson and such erudite print journalists as William Buckley and and George Will as the voice of the conservative movement, and given how awful the left still is we hate to see the right descend to such crazy talk.
Limbaugh is quite right that the overall media generally skews left, but it’s bonkers to contend that their wholly honest reports on what all the meteorologists and federal and state and local government officials are advising about a horrific storm that might very well bear down on south Florida are “fake news.” He’s also right to be skeptical about government officials, but arguing they’re part of a “deep state” conspiracy to promote draconian climate change policies and sell bottled water is basically crazy talk, especially when those same government officials might well be the ones that have to deal with another one of those occasional historic natural disasters that have always occurred even before the industrial revolution.
We suspect Limbaugh’s most cocksure listener in the potential path of Hurricane Irma is Limbaugh himself, who likes to boast about the high-dollar property he occupies in Palm Beach, Florida. He brags about it as unabashedly as his new-found pal President Donald Trump does about his fancy-schmantzy nearby Mar-a-Lago resort, and unlike the safely ensconced president Limbaugh is now obliged to ride out the storm. A columnist for the PalmBeach paper is even hoping that Limbaugh will be  exempt from the evacuation order that’s been issued for the town. As fitting as it would be for both of them to suffer some storm damage, we know some very fine folk in south Florida and will pray that they all the avoid the worst of it.

— Bud Norman


Two Sad Farewells

Maybe it’s the years we spent on the dead beat at newspapers in our youth, or maybe it’s the heightened awareness of mortality that comes with age, but when perusing the latest news our eyes are always drawn to the obituaries. This past week’s obits brought notice of the passing of two men who were important figures in American conservatism but otherwise couldn’t have been more different, and the very different reactions to their deaths says a lot about their lives.

One of the men, of course, was Andrew Breitbart, the new media mogul and flamboyantly unconventional political activist who died of a heart attack on Thursday at the age of 43. The “of curse” is added because his death was widely reported and much discussed, even though Brietbart’s name probably wasn’t familiar to the vast majority of Americans who are happily apolitical. Those who have been paying more careful attention to the news will agree that Breitbart’s exploits were the stuff of legend, however, even if they’ll forever disagree on whether he played the role of hero or villain.

Breitbart was the man who brought down ACORN by publicizing some hilarious video footage of two youthful conservatives badly disguised as a pimp and prostitute receiving business advice and encouragement from the community-organizing rascals. He was the man who exposed the even more hilarious Anthony Weiner photo scandal, then hijacked the podium at the disgraced congressman’s press conference to celebrate the victory. He also broke the story of the Obama administration’s politicization of the National Endowment for the Arts, exposed video of an NAACP convention cheering a Department of Agriculture official’s story about her past disdain for white farmers, and uncovered countless other stories that would have otherwise gone unreported.

In every case Breitbart pursued and presented the stories in ways that not only broke with journalistic traditions, but exploited the predictable reactions of the old media still bound to the old rules. The ACORN videos were at first released in an abbreviated form that was certain to provoke charges of selective editing, then more footage was released, and finally the full and un-cut version was offered, dragging the story out over weeks of coverage to a vindicating finish that made fools of his critics. Worse yet for the television and print news media, Breitbart also re-shaped the journalism industry by playing a key role in the formation of the powerful Drudge Report site, a favorite of conservative web-browsers, helping create the Huffington Post, unaware that it would become popular with the liberal internet denizens, and being the principal player in the influential Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism web sites.

Oxymoronic as it might sound, Breitbart was an iconoclastic conservative. He adapted Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” for use by radical conservatives, defied the stereotype of the right as stodgy, humorless, and square by being brash, witty, and undeniably hip, and charged through life at a heart attack-inducing pace powered as much by the force of his personality as his ideas.

His life inspired much gratitude and affection by like-minded Americans, as is apparent from the genuinely grief-stricken remembrances in the conservative media, from talk radio to the august right-wing publications to the humble blogs. On the left he inspired fear and loathing, with some coyly insinuating that some personality defect led to his early demise, others more frankly exulting in his death, often with the foul language and seething hatred common to today’s liberalism.

There was a noticeably different tone to the coverage of the death of James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist and political philosopher who died Friday from complications from leukemia at the age of 80. The obituaries were rarer, shorter, and likely attracted far fewer readers, but even in the most reliably liberal outlets they all showed the respect that Wilson’s remarkable career commanded.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both emphasized Wilson’s “broken windows theory” of crime, which resulted in the community policing strategies that dramatically lowered crime rates in such big cities as New York and Washington, D.C., which seems apt. While many of Wilson’s ideas were controversial when being implemented, with liberals objecting to crackdowns on squeegee hustlers, panhandlers, and graffiti as an assault on civil liberties, the results were satisfactory to all but the most hopeless ideologues. Wilson’s groundbreaking work in criminology is one of the few examples of an intellectual’s work having a significant and measurable effect on people’s well-being in his own lifetime, and even the editors at those city’s papers know that Wilson is one important reason they haven’t been mugged lately.

There was far more to Wilson’s work than that, however, and it’s easy to see why the more traditional papers would prefer to be brief about it. The son of a salesman and an old-fashioned homemaker, he was graduated from little-known University of Redlands in California and then acquired an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the fancier University of Chicago, then spent 26 years teaching at Harvard before moving on to UCLA and Pepperdine University, a Malibu school affiliated with the theologically conservative Church of Christ. Wilson was one of the first academics to frankly discuss the sometimes unfortunate role that race plays in public life with “Negro Politics,” published in 1960 when the title was considered polite. He analyzed the inherent inefficiency of public administration in 1989’s “Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It.” He questioned the moral relativism of the post-modern intelligentsia with 1993’s “The Moral Sense,” the book he considered his greatest intellectual achievement.

The man was an academic giant and an unabashed conservative, as much as that might sound oxymoronic to the old-line media, and in his own way he was every bit the iconoclast. It was a very different way than Breitbart’s, though. Wilson achieved his fame by the strength of his ideas rather than his bespectacled personality, which by all accounts was genial, easy-going, and pleasantly unexciting. When he defied the norms of his profession it was by reverting to the older, stricter rules, and even his most strident critics could never question the rigor of his scholarship. James Quinn Wilson earned the heartfelt affection of conservatives, at least those familiar with his work, and it’s nice to note that he managed to do so without inspiring a commensurate disdain among liberals.

History will judge which man made the greater contribution, but for now both will be equally missed.

— Bud Norman