MAXWELL:  Rush turns radioland into a mad and frightful place

3/19/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The air is cleared. You are on your stomach on the living room floor in front of the set. Or you are in bed listening with your head under the covers. With radio, with imagination, have it your own way.

_ Jim Harmon, 1967

Harmon’s heroes _ Ma Perkins, Tom Mix, Captain Midnight, the Lone Ranger, Helen Trent, Superman, Sky King, Stella Dallas, Sergeant Preston, the Green Hornet, The Shadow _ have been silenced by time.

The covers Harmon refers to are now musty and have been pulled back, exposing anger, hatred, fear, selfishness. The soothing voices of old-time radio have been muffled by the smut of shock-jocks; by the money-grubbing appeals of electronic Elmer Gantrys; by the spiteful propaganda of assorted right-wingers. In place of the old congeniality, growing numbers of listeners, for example, demand the boorishness of Rush Limbaugh, the Missouri-born spielmeister whose asininity proves that, at least in the United States, a sucker is born every minute.

The St. Petersburg Times had a close encounter with Rush on Friday, March 10. Around 2 p.m., our letters editor received a telephone call from a reader who said: “The Times should stop lying about the school lunch program.” The editor asked the caller to give him the correct data on the program so as to pass the information to the editorial board. The caller hung up.

After the third such call, we suspected that Rush had ordered his legions of brain-dead dittoheads to harass their local news firms about coverage of Republican plans to shift the federal school lunch program to the states. The telephone rang repeatedly until 4. Later, a wire report confirmed that Rush had duped thousands of his disciples into telephoning. We did not learn until Monday morning, though, that many other Rushites had left messages on our letters answering machine. We had a great laugh, but I marveled at Rush’s power to send otherwise sane adults into fits. How does he persuade them to feel, think, say and do whatever he wants them to?

This phenomenon has occurred before in recent years. Remember the Revs. Jim Jones and David Koresh? Like these doomed figures, Brother Limbaugh is using cognitive dissonance _ a form of induced psychological discomfiture _ to mesmerize his flock. Rush knows that people who are stressed-out, confused, angry and ill-informed are vulnerable to demagogues and other charismatic types. And his dittoheads are perfect subjects, for they are predisposed to emulating lemmings.

Cognitive dissonance, according to theory, consists of three basic tenets: selective perception, selective exposure and selective retention.

Let me explain by way of example. Rush brainwashed his listeners into embracing Newt Gingrich, Republicans and their Contract On America. Now, almost six months later, the GOP juggernaut is slowing down. Rank-and-file members are feuding; the push for term limits is a charade; the balanced budget amendment sank; the fine print of parts of the contract is smudged; and Newt is showing himself to be another loquacious pettifogger, a la Jim Wright.

To rationalize reality _ the tenets of cognitive dissonance come into play now _ Rush & Co. deny party faults and blame the liberal media, as they did during their March 10 phonekrieg, for distorting the Republican agenda. They believe only what they want to believe, an example of selective perception. They do not read materials that show Republicans as hypocrites, and they shun individuals and avoid broadcasts that contradict their views. Here we have selective exposure. Finally, dittoheads always forget unpleasant details that condemn their favorite pols or that challenge their positions. They conveniently get amnesia, for instance, when facing the fact that much of the GOP economic plan has been tried before. It is called Reaganomics. It hemorrhaged the federal deficit then; it will do the same now. How soon the dittoheads forget. Selective retention is at work.

Such is the dubious power of cognitive dissonance in the hands of a megalomaniac who has the nation’s airwaves as his forum. Objective thinkers, wary of committing fallacies in logic, steer away from the traps of this condition. But dittoheads use cognitive dissonance to smother truths that might undermine their beliefs.

And make no mistake, Rush is heroic to his followers, just like the fair-minded Jack Armstrong and others were to Jim Harmon and his contemporaries. As a devotee of old-time radio, I understand some of the important differences between the world of Harmon’s heroes and that of today’s talk-show hosts.

“There were some things believed in by our heroes,” Harmon writes in his book, The Great Radio Heroes. “Call it “transcendental utopianism’ or “super-humanism,’ radio morality said that it was wrong to kill people, and right to help them. It was not a complex philosophy, only a standard interpretation of the basic Judeo-Christian ethic. As you grew up, you learned that these standards had to be modified by reality, to be reinterpreted in light of mature experience, but not completely demolished.”

True, Rush also speaks of the basic Judeo-Christian ethic and says that we should not kill people. But rarely do I hear Brother Limbaugh urge his flock to help the less fortunate. Rush is nasty and divisive. When he uses the word “good,” he refers to his kind _ “us.” When he says “bad,” he means welfare moms, environmentalists and others he detests _ “them.”

In Harmon’s day, radio was used for inspiring honor, decency and justice. Rush mouths these sentiments, too. But he uses them as cudgels, pumping his listeners full of skewed data, simple-minded ideas and, of course, meanness.

Rush’s radioland is Orwellian. It is inhabited by humorless people who have difficulty thinking for themselves. They are too frightened to put their heads under the covers _ too frightened to imagine.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.