Regular listeners to the Rush Limbaugh program will rarely, if ever, hear the broadcaster cite the work of the American Enterprise Institute. Or the Cato Institute. Or the Manhattan Institute. Or other right-of-center think tanks.
The rival Heritage Foundation does, however, get frequent and favorable mention on the most popular conservative talk show in America. In part, Heritage owes this attention to Limbaugh's genuine admiration for the institution:
"There were a lot of people who nobody ever heard of who were responsible for people like me all over the country amassing and acquiring knowledge that's not available in a classroom anywhere, or not very many classrooms, and then being able to explain it to people who have not been able to access that information. These are academics, people that work at think tanks, laboring in the basements in anonymity, writing, researching, publishing so that people like me — I include Mr. Buckley, but he was well known — but were are all kinds of people who were producing brilliant things, research, opinion pieces that I was able to access, and I was an omnivorous and voluminous reader when it came to public policy and current events and history and things.
"One of the places that was invaluable to me in acquiring a bedrock or foundation, understanding of conservatism — and Mr. Buckley was one, of course, and Ronald Reagan — but the Heritage Foundation, and to this day we quote work that comes out of the Heritage Foundation ..."
But there's another reason that Heritage gets such unique and favorable treatment on the Limbaugh program. It pays for it.
"The Heritage Foundation pays about $2 million to sponsor Limbaugh’s show and about $1.3 million to do the same with Hannity’s — and considers it money well spent.
"'We approach it the way anyone approaches advertising: Where is our audience that wants to buy what you sell?' Genevieve Wood, Heritage’s vice president for operations and marketing. 'And their audiences obviously fit that model for us. They promote conservative ideas and that’s what we do.'
"Last month, in the midst of a flurry of scrutiny of GOP presidential candidates' stances on health insurance mandates similar to one included in the 2010 Democratic health-care overhaul, Limbaugh took to the airwaves to defend Heritage's past support for such a proposal.
"'The Heritage Foundation to this day says they are being impugned and misrepresented in terms of their advocacy for such a thing,' Limbaugh said, explaining that the venerable think tank 'abandoned the idea once they saw it implemented' and realized 'it doesn’t work.'"
(Read the whole Politico story here.)
Understand: We are not talking about commercials, separated from the main flow of editorial content. Heritage work is embedded and inserted directly into the editorial flow of the Limbaugh program, as if selected without regard to the money paid.
Also understand: It's not just Limbaugh, and it's not just Heritage.
Heritage pays for similar treatment on Sean Hannity's radio program. FreedomWorks pays for mentions on the Glenn Beck show. Americans for Prosperity pays to be promoted on Mark Levin's show. The endorsements often obscure the paid-for nature of the broadcaster's endorsement.
Ditto for the relentless advocacy of gold purchases by almost every radio host.
Just imagine if the CBS Evening News were to accept $2 million from a pharmaceutical company, and then run news spots about the excellent benefits from taking that company's medication. Imagine if the Los Angeles Times accepted $2 million from a company promoting a natural gas pipeline, and then published editorials advocating government approval of the pipeline route. Imagine if columnists at the Financial Times accepted money to tout British bonds or German stocks.
Shocking, right? Yet for millions of Americans, conservative talk radio is a news source much more trusted than CBS or the Los Angeles Times or the Financial Times.
The relationships between radio hosts and their ideological sponsors are not exactly secret. But they are habitually presented in ways that blur the bought-and-paid-for character of the promotion and endorsement.
Nor is radio unique.
There are conservative television personalities and staff writers on important conservative newspapers who operate consulting companies that can be hired by companies and individuals who might well have an interest in influencing what these personalities and staff writers have to say. So far, I've heard of no case of a politician buying such promotion. But as talk radio comes under increasing economic pressure due to dropping advertising rates and aging audience demographics, who knows what revenue-enhancing methods may be tried in the future?
None of this behavior would be remotely acceptable at CBS, ABC, NBC, or most major newspapers. It would not have been acceptable at The Wall Street Journal when I worked there 20+ years ago, although standards have been relaxed in recent years.
And yet when it's done by conservative media, the reaction is a big ho-hum from within the ranks. Or else a furious search for arguable analogies to behaviors at non-conservative outlets.
Why are conservatives so ready to accept such dubious behaviors from their own media?
1) Conservative media outlets don't see themselves as part of "the media." They are comfortable demanding standards from "the media" that they defiantly reject for themselves, whether standards of objectivity or standards of ethics.
2) Conservative media outlets believe that non-conservative media outlets engage in all manner of deeply hidden bias, corruption, and general wrongdoing — and that these practices not only justify but virtually require conservatives to match their non-conservative adversaries bias for bias, payoff for payoff.
3) Conservative media outlets are harbingers of an emerging American media culture defined by the collapse of traditional revenue sources. In this new world, revenue will be scarcer, competition for revenue more ferocious —and standards will be everywhere pushed downward by competitive pressure.
If this third theory is right, the media obsession with "objectivity" and "ethics" was a by-product of the short interval in which media companies enjoyed local monopolies and collected abundant revenues. The new technology of the 21st century is thrusting our media culture back toward the standards of the 19th century, when media and journalists candidly advocated the powerful interests that owned or employed them.
These theories do not contradict each other. All could be true. And number three could be the truest and most frightening of them all.