Why Rush Limbaugh Should Tell the Truth

I’m catching up on my RSS reader today and found myself on this Reddit AMA with Matt Yglesias. Here’s an abridged version of a fascinating question and answer:

localtaxpayer 15 points  ago

What, if any, solution could there possibly be to the current media and cultural environment in which there are basically two separate realities in which half of the population chooses to live?

[–]myglesias[S] 28 points  ago

Unfortunately, I think narrowcasting is an inevitable feature of some positive technological trends. When we only had three TV stations, the smart strategy was lowest common denominator programming. Thanks to the internet, we have an infinity of distribution channels so now it makes sense to target and specialize. One of my favorite things about Slate is that we’re an old-fashioned general interest publication but it’s still true that in practice we reach a pretty specific demographic.

What I wish is that more writers and hosts would take this reality seriously. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t need to try to persuade people to vote Republican—only Republicans are listening! When he misinforms his audience, he’s not really helping the conservative cause he’s just confusing conservatives.

Everyone should realize that their audience is mostly people “on their side” and so it makes sense to subject that side to scrutiny. Swing voters aren’t listening!

Is it possible that the polarization of media could make it easier, not harder, to tell the truth? I doubt it, but it’s a very interesting argument.

A couple thoughts… Yglesias’ model assumes that partisans primarily spout falsehoods to be more persuasive; another model would argue they spout them mostly because that’s what they believe. And you can argue (as Cass Sunstein I believe does) that people will end up going unchallenged and therefore believing wrong things when they’re not exposed to other perspectives.

Second, just like Mitt Romney has to be careful what he says even when he speaks to a group of loyal followers, so does Rush. Media can be duplicated in an instant, and so you have to care not only about what your impact on the audience is, but whether someone might grab a clip and share it elsewhere. That’s what would happen if Rush ever said “listen, Obama is totally right about X, but all of us who believe on principle in policy Y should lie about it to convince independent voters to join us.”