Why Ignoring Limbaugh and Fox News Isn't An Option

While traveling with the president to California on Wednesday, White House correspondents quizzed Obama spokesman Jay Carney about the issues of the day, and this exchange took place [emphasis added]:

Q: Can I ask you about the California fundraisers, in particular? The President is getting a lot of heat over cavorting with showbiz types. Rush Limbaugh is referring to him as Barack Kardashian, can you believe. What is your response to that?

The claim that Obama spends too much time with celebrities is one that the president's critics have been making for years. And the White House reporter who quizzed Carney about the rather dubious topic could have referenced Republican leaders who have made the claim in the past. Instead, the reporter quoted Rush Limbaugh and wanted to know what the White House reaction was to a talker from the right-wing media world who compared the president to a reality TV personality.

That was on Wednesday. Over the weekend, writing in the New York Times Magazine, Steve Almond, a self-described liberal, announced the problem with liberals today is they spend too much time obsessing over, and monitoring, the right-wing media:

Media outlets like MSNBC and The Huffington Post often justify their coverage of these voices by claiming to serve as watchdogs. It would be more accurate to think of them as de facto loudspeakers for conservative agitprop. The demagogues of the world, after all, derive power solely from their ability to provoke reaction. Those liberals (like me) who take the bait, are to blame for their outsize influence.

Instead, Almond instructed, liberals and Democrats should simply ignore the likes of Limbaugh and Fox News and the far-right blogosphere. If liberals do, he says conservative media players would be rendered powerless because if liberals stop paying attention to them, the Beltway press is sure to follow.

Almond's advice strikes me as being singularly misguided. Indeed, the let's-ignore-right-wing-media guidance represents a truly naïve argument that reflects very little about what's going in American politics and media today.

As I just noted, last week a Beltway reporter thought that quoting one of Rush Limbaugh's endless array of Obama insults ("Barack Kardashian") was an appropriate way to ask a question at a White House press briefing. I doubt the reporter did that because liberals pay so much attention to Limbaugh, as Almond contends. The reporter likely quoted Rush in a question to the White House spokesman because, like so many within the elite Beltway press, the reporter sees Limbaugh as being a hugely influential player in American politics.

If that were the case, how would ignoring Limbaugh, refusing to fact-check him, or turning a blind eye to the rancid contribution he makes to our public discourse do anything but embolden him? How would that do anything but create a path of non-resistance; a super highway of misinformation that would allow the talker to do even more damage to our political culture?

Yet Almond is sure that the Beltway press would lose interest in the right-wing media if liberals did:

Imagine, if you will, the domino effect that would ensue if liberals and moderates simply tuned out the demagogues. Yes, they would still be able to manipulate their legions into endorsing cruel and self-defeating policies. But their voices would be sealed within the echo chamber of extremism and sealed off from the majority of Americans who honestly just want our common problems solved.

In this world, it would be much harder to mislead people because media outlets would shift their resources to covering the content of proposed legislation, the exploding role of corporate influence in our affairs of state and the scientifically confirmed predicaments we face as a species.

If the left ignores Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, D.C. reporters will spend their time reading legislative small print? Well, either that or an unchecked Limbaugh and Fox News will effectively destroy Democratic politicians and their initiatives with an endless barrages of lies and smears.

I'm thinking it's the latter. And that's only because history is on my side.

Ask John Kerry how initially ignoring the right-wing media's meticulously planned-out Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign worked for him and Democrats in 2004. Ask the same question to former ACORN leaders who saw Congress move to defund the group based on the dishonest attacks waged by the right-wing media. Or ask National Public Radio's former CEO, Vivian Schiller, who was forced to resign in the wake of a bogus right-wing smear campaign.

Ask any of those victims if they think the best way to combat the reckless nature of the far-right press is to pay its practitioners no mind.

The truth is, the far-right media in this country is waging a war. It's a war they're fighting while connected at the hip with the Republican Party, and with deep-pocketed support inside the conservative movement. And it's a media industry that often pushes Republican politicians around on important public policy issues.

Faced with that daunting revolution, the answer for the political left is to ignore Fox News while it recruits candidates, allows them to fundraise on-air, and turns over hundreds of hours of free airtime to GOP politicians? The answer is to ignore Fox News, which is now in the business of producing and airing four-minute anti-Obama attack ads

If liberals are going to pay no attention Fox News, they may as well ignore the entire Republican Party because there's no functional daylight between the two.

Fact: Today's conservative movement in America is first and foremost a media one. Therefore, ignoring the media isn't an option.

Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters for America blog.