The Rush Limbaugh Show, the ultra-rightwing talkshow platform, was syndicated as the scourge of the liberal elite – anti-immigrant, anti-tax, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, anti climate change and later denying Covid vaccines – and always rejecting the evidence that smoking caused cancer. No need any longer for countervailing views. A lifelong smoker, Limbaugh died in 2021 of the very lung cancer he denied.
The United States is a grim warning of what happens when a society dispenses with the idea of truth. Fragmentation, paranoia, division and myth rule – democracy wilts. Fox News, we now know from emails flushed out by a lawsuit from the voting machine company Dominion, feared it would lose audiences if it told the truth about the 2020 presidential election result. Instead, it knowingly broadcast and fed Donald Trump’s lie that the election had been stolen – in particular the known unfounded allegation that Dominion had programmed its voting machines to throw millions of votes to the Democrats.
Fox could have been instructed to tell the truth by its owner, as this month’s Prospect magazine details, but as Rupert Murdoch acknowledged under oath: “I could have. But I didn’t.” There was no penalty for lying, except being on the wrong side of a $1.6bn lawsuit.
But the culture of truth denial is no accident; it was a key stratagem of the US right as it fought to build a counter-establishment in the 1970s, 80s and 90s that would challenge and even supplant what it considered an over-dominant liberal establishment. Unalloyed facts, truthful evidence and balanced reporting on everything from guns to climate change tended to support liberals and their worldview. But if all facts could be framed as the contingent result of opinions, the right could fight on level terms. Indeed, because the right is richer, it could even so dominantly frame facts from its well-funded media that truth and misinformation would become so jumbled no one could tell the difference. “Stop the steal” is such a fact-denying strategy. Ally it with voter suppression and getting your people into key roles in pivotal institutions and there are the bones of an anti-democratic coup.
For years, the right had a target in its sights, rather as the British right today has the BBC – the 1949 Fairness Doctrine. This required American broadcasters to ensure that contentious issues were presented fairly; that both sides to any argument had access to the airwaves and presented their case factually. Like the BBC, it enraged the right and, over his period of office, Ronald Reagan ensured the Federal Communications Commission, which enforced it, was chaired and increasingly staffed by anti-Fairness Doctrine people. Finally, in 1987 the doctrine was ruled unnecessary because it obstructed free speech….