Author Topic: Unintended Consequences: how Sandra Fluke led to Russians on the Kansas airwaves  (Read 264 times)

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Offline jmyrlefuller

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Unintended Consequences
How Sandra Fluke and Media Matters opened up an opportunity for Russian propaganda on American radio

by J. Myrle Fuller
February 13, 2020



The New York Times this morning reported on the arrival of Radio Sputnik, the radio arm of Russia’s propaganda arm, on two tiny radio stations in Kansas City, Missouri. As the Times put it, this January, a brokered programming agent out of Florida named Arnold Ferolito convinced the station’s owner to sell him airtime to carry Radio Sputnik, which supposedly sells the message that America is in disarray and headed toward doom, in a way that would make the old World War II propagandists like Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose proud.

To understand how we ended up in a nation where radio stations willingly accept money to disseminate Russian propaganda, we have to go back a few years. About a decade ago, political talk radio was a healthy business enterprise—this was especially true of conservative talk. AM radio stations were able to turn profits, and in 2008, Rush Limbaugh secured a contract worth an estimated $50 million a year. Now to be sure, there were always a few fringe stations out there that specialized in talk from hosts that can only be described as kooks. (More on these stations later) Yet these types of stations were typically relegated to the rapidly diminishing shortwave band. It was getting to the point in the late 2000s where even a third-tier conservative talk station could at least sustain itself.

That all started to change in the early years of the Obama era. That was when Angelo Carusone, an agent for turncoat political operative David Brock and his front organization Media Matters for America, began a campaign against conservative talker Glenn Beck, who leads into Limbaugh’s program on the network (Premiere) that carries both shows. Beck was certainly a prominent host, and the harassment eventually led to advertisers abandoning his TV show on Fox News Channel at the time and forcing Beck to start up his own channel, which has struggled for much of its existence. Carusone went on to launch a number of other attacks on talk radio hosts, including having a hand in the firing of Don Imus and Laura Schlessinger from their shows. By 2012, they set their sights on the biggest target of all: Rush Limbaugh.

Carusone and Media Matters had tried in 2007 to take Rush out by taking a segue into a story about stolen valor out of context to imply that Limbaugh claimed soldiers critical of the Iraq war were “phony soldiers.” That effort had largely failed. This time, however, they found a talking point that had stuck: in discussing activist Sandra Fluke and her push for government-funded birth control, Limbaugh noted that the only way someone could need birth control to that extent would have to be a slut. Flawed as the argument may be (as there is no real correlation between the quantity of routine birth control taken and how often one can have sex without becoming pregnant), Media Matters had its dirty word, Fluke went along with it wholeheartedly, and rushed (no pun intended) to harass his advertisers while Fluke refused any attempt at apology.

What happened next had wider-ranging implications than even Media Matters could have imagined. Not only did Rush’s advertisers pull their spots from his show, but from stations that carried his show. Not only was his show affected, but any political talk radio, be it conservative or even progressive talk radio, was now having an even harder time securing sponsorships. In the long run, it did not harm Rush substantially—his long-term contract would not expire until 2016 and it’s been renewed twice since then—but Media Matters and their scorched-earth campaign had long-lasting impacts on what could be said on radio. It also arguably had an impact on the advertisers that pulled their shows: it is no stretch to conclude that the reduced exposure from pulling advertising may have reduced foot traffic at the retailers that advertised on Rush and other shows like his, leading them to adopt more desperate measures like opening on Thanksgiving or closing round after round of stores in an effort to restore sustainable profits.

Yet the craving for controversial, topical discussion did not go away. Though the traditional advertiser-supported model was being attacked, this opened up the opportunity for brokered programming deals—the types of people who are not beholden to advertisers or subject to boycotts because they buy their airtime. It is no mystery that many of the same stations taking money for Radio Sputnik also carry Alex Jones, who uses his airtime to sell nutritional supplements to listeners. So, naturally, an opening exists for foreign governments, backed by the tax dollars of their people, to invest in American radio programming. They can absorb losses that individuals and corporations cannot.

Many of the personalities employed by Radio Sputnik and its television counterpart, RT, were former progressive talk hosts on commercial radio. Ed Schultz hosted a program on RT before his death, and Thom Hartmann, one of the longest running progressive talkers on radio, has been hosting his show on Radio Sputnik since the decline of progressive talk, ironically led on by friendly fire progressive activists, left him with a minimal affiliate count.

The Russians have defended their efforts by stating that they are merely providing an outlet for voices that do not have a say on other American outlets. While their likely sinister intentions cannot be overlooked, on this account they are very much right. Americans are distrustful of the sanitized, homogenized product they receive from news organizations that operate largely as an oligarchy and desire opportunities to see other perspectives; with commercial radio, once an outlet for these perspectives, now neutered by these boycott campaigns, this has left an opening for foreign agents to provide those perspectives.

I wonder if, somewhere, Sandra Fluke is aware of the consequences of her indignance.
"The people (...) have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms, saying that they know what is best, and getting it consistently wrong." —Michael Gove

Offline jmyrlefuller

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As originally typeset:
"The people (...) have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms, saying that they know what is best, and getting it consistently wrong." —Michael Gove

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A great article, @jmyrlefuller!  Thanks for posting it here!
We need to re-coin the expression, "Press Bias" to "Media Bigotry."
I will NOT comply.
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