Hiding Behind Free Speech to Spread Hate

Dean Pagani
8 min readMay 17, 2021

There have been demagogues before and given the pattern of history it is probably safe to conclude there always will be. But has there ever been a time with so many with so much power and no one willing to stop them? Charlatans and their sponsors, who spew hateful disinformation or provide a platform for it, as a means to make a profit no matter the societal cost.

I was wrong about Rush Limbaugh. In the early 1990s his syndicated radio show was catching on across the country. He was entertaining and different. From the perspective of radio industry economics he was also cheap when compared to the cost of producing local programming. For these reasons, both his talent and economics, his show was seen as a smart way to fill three hours of programming a day, especially on AM stations that were faltering.

When the program director of the all-news station where I was working decided to replace local news and talk with Limbaugh in the afternoons I protested. I listened to tapes of Limbaugh’s shows and concluded it was hate-filled, prejudice promoting, and full of falsehood. I was told I didn’t understand. It was only schtick. An act meant to entertain not inform. But how would most of the audience know that? The station I was working for had made an investment in news gathering and presentation. We had a reputation for providing that information in an edited, vetted and responsible way. When Limbaugh’s trash was placed next to the programming produced according to our standards, the audience would believe Limbaugh was operating according to those same standards and telling the truth.

We are in the entertainment business I was told, not the news business. It just so happens our audience is entertained by news and Limbaugh represents a new way of providing news based entertainment.

But here is where I was really wrong. I argued further, after listening off-air for several weeks to Limbaugh’s shows, that there was no way any human being could come in to work for three hours a day, five days a week, spewing hate and bile, over the long term. Knowing something about how a radio show is prepared, I simply could not imagine someone devoting their life to wallowing in that mud. After a year or two, I thought, he would run out of material, it would become emotionally draining, lead to self-hatred and collapse. I was wrong, because Limbaugh continued his sinister use of demagoguery for almost thirty years, until his death. Worse, he spawned imitators looking to cash in on his left-overs, and many of them are still on the air today having made the Limbaughian bargain to put fortune ahead of moral responsibility.

I am tempted here to insert the standard paragraph acknowledging that Limbaugh and his imitators are mere entertainers and the audience has a responsibility to know the difference between entertainment and straight news. I am tempted to acknowledge that no one has the right to tell the Limbaughs of the world how to express themselves, and to note that as Americans, we are generally against anything that restrains free expression or veers toward censorship. This is all true. It is as important to point out, however, that using the mass media to spread prejudice and hatred is irresponsible, dangerous, and at least equally un-American. Just as Limbaugh had a right to spend his life swimming in bile, it is my right and my duty as a citizen, to point it out and call it for what it is. So I won’t dwell on the caveats in this instance.

Limbaugh, his media imitators and those politicians who surf to re-election by appealing to the same audiences, are abusing their right to free speech for profit and power. The free speech argument is a lie. They know exactly what they are doing, but the audience largely does not understand it is being played.

The problem with looking the other way, and leaving it up to the audience to decide whether it is news or entertainment is this; it is very hard to tell the difference. The tainted material, especially when broadcast on television, is often wrapped in the credibility blanket provided by companies promoting themselves as news organizations. Fox News is the most successful and obvious example, but there are also smaller organizations trying to jump on the train by catering to conservative audiences. In their own way, networks like CNN and MSNBC contribute to the problem by giving air time to hosts who promote tribalism from the left side of the spectrum.

There is and should be special concern about the right side however, because some of the loudest and most profitable voices at that end are peddling conspiracy theories and lies that can lead to violence. It so happens that those messages are very appealing to people and groups who are anti-government or one nudge away from making that leap. You can draw a direct line from Limbaugh, to the prime time hosts on Fox News, to Newsmax and OANN, to the riots and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

The attack on the Capitol was the inevitable result of years of fear-mongering by right wing media outlets. Many in the Republican Party have long embraced Limbaugh and his imitators by arguing the so called “main stream media” is biased against them. Limbaugh famously argued he was the balance, by which he meant, all non-Limbaugh news media outlets were and are liberal, and that made him the one conservative voice balancing it all out. It is the same message behind Fox News’ original slogan “Fair and Balanced,” and it is the premise of Kellyanne Conway’s famous assertion that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was not lying, he was providing “alternative facts.”

Politicians are famously short-sighted and even more so when they are in candidate mode, running for office or running for re-election. Republicans saw Limbaugh’s audience as a voting block. They see Fox News viewers as a voting block. So they pander to those audiences as a means of winning elections. If, from time to time, they have to distance themselves from some of the more outlandish comments coming out of the right-wing media ecosystem, they are willing to do that. Most of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill spent the entire Trump administration claiming to reporters that they did not pay attention to the president’s Twitter feed, so therefore could not comment on his hateful rhetoric. This was not only a lie, it put their political self-interests before the best interest of the country. Leaders should be willing to condemn hate when they see it.

Things have almost fully devolved. As a result of its bargain with the right wing media establishment, the Republican Party as we have previously known it, is in collapse. In order to be considered loyal to the party, elected Republicans must; refuse to acknowledge the results of the 2020 presidential election; must refuse to acknowledge that the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was carried out by supporters of former President Trump; and must never criticize the former president in any way shape or form. But it doesn’t stop there. Republicans must refuse to acknowledge the United States is still grappling with race relations; must refuse to do anything to control the menace of gun violence; must be against the use of masks and vaccines to fight a worldwide pandemic that has taken almost 600,000 American lives; and they must shun any Republican elected official who refuses to go along with such nonsense.

What is most infuriating about it all is the extent to which both Republican politicians and right-wing media stars are willing to lie and use their platforms to spread disinformation. It is all an act. They know better.

The votes have been counted over and over again. Joe Biden is the president of the United States.

The January 6 insurrection was led by supporters of Trump. Look at the photos and video. The people in the crowd were carrying Trump flags and draping Trump banners off the balconies.

Masks and vaccines work. To reject common sense public health advice is to deliberately allow more people to get sick or die to satisfy a political position that makes no sense in the first place.

Trump is not a leader of any kind. He is an arsonist. He is a discredited former president who was rejected by the voters after one term in office and is now in exile where he continues to disgrace himself by giving rambling diatribes that are occasionally caught on cell-phone cameras and bootlegged on social media.

The saddest part of it all is that Trump, his right wing media supporters, and most of the Republican politicians who continue to peddle in hate and misinformation are deliberately taking advantage of vulnerable Americans who are looking for someone who will take their concerns and challenges seriously. They are being preyed upon by the very people they are looking to for answers.

The false prophets of Fox News serve up conspiracy theories and encourage their audience to take sides. They claim to be fighting for the forgotten man as they cash their big checks and are moved around New York City in big black cars, back and forth to Mar-a-Lago in corporate jets, and protected from commoners by security teams.

Off the record, Republican politicians are willing to say how disgusted they are with former President Trump and claim they reject everything he stands for, but when the cameras are on their courage dries up, and they too, knowingly lie to the public in an effort to win votes. They may win re-election, but in office they do nothing to help those who put them there. Instead, they keep sowing division, because their next election is only two years or six years away and that is all they care about.

There may be some who read this who believe the lies. They will write to me, most likely anonymously, and call me names. It has happened before. They will feel good about themselves for having done so.

What they don’t realize is that they are being played for fools. They are victims. They are victims of a business model begun by Limbaugh to tap into a certain segment of the population that was being ignored by the main stream media. Not necessarily in terms of news coverage, but in terms of advertising dollars and as a source of revenue. Limbaugh knew he didn’t need to reach all of America to get rich. He only needed a small segment of it. And it would be even better if he had it all to himself.

His imitators continue to get rich off this scheme today and they show no signs of letting up. It’s too easy. The money is too good. A new sucker tunes in every minute and they eat up the garbage being shoveled no matter how bad it smells. But the damage the Limbaugh model has done to the country is substantial. It has taken over and destroyed a political party. It rendered the White House functionally vacant for four years. It diminished our country’s standing on the world stage. It led to hundreds of thousands of un-necessary deaths in the middle of a pandemic and the economic despair that followed.

It might be understandable if there was some true policy philosophy behind it all. If the spewers of hate actually believed in something other than their own money or power, but they don’t. On January 6, as Trump supporters, Limbaugh listeners, and Hannity followers stormed the U.S. Capitol, Trump sat in the White House watching it all unfold on television. He reveled in the scene and did nothing to stop it. He had told the crowd he would be there with them, but he wasn’t then and he never will be, because that’s not the business model. The business model is; you reel them in by telling them what they want to hear, take their money, and send them over the cliff pledging their loyalty.