Many years ago, a group of us were at some type of gathering when the conversation turned to Rush Limbaugh, then the radio talk show host with the largest audience. Forbes had recently reported that he was making $33,000,000 annually, just under $50,000,000 in today’s money.
Viewing him as a provocateur, I asserted that there might be no limit to what I myself would say on the radio, given a platform, a microphone, and that crazy amount of money. In the words of Howard Beale of Network, I’d be willing to “tell you any shit you want to hear.” When he said it in 1976, it was satire. When I said it about sixteen years ago, it was a punchline. Today, it’s the gospel “truth.”
“Mendacity. Do you know what that is? It’s lies and liars.” Brick’s explanation of the disgust that is the origin of his alcoholism to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof says it pretty succinctly. Big Daddy’s response catalogs the areas infected by mendacity in those days–marriage, church and those “swindling lodges and social clubs” to name a few. Not that they’ve changed too much.
Sometimes we don’t look the other way when it comes to meting out accountability to liars and their lies. Just ask Alex Murdaugh, convicted last week of the murder of his wife and son. The scion of a dynastic South Carolina family which had tremendous power in its little neck of the woods, Murdaugh mixed his heritage with more than a lethal dose of mendacity, reducing the big fish in a small pond legacy to pretty much pond scum.
Over these last several years, particularly the Trump years, the cable news descendants of Rush Limbaugh have moved their job description from provocateur to huckster. And it’s important to note that there is a world of difference between run-of-the-mill bias and the cynical hawking of known lies for money, spelled R-A-T-I-N-G-S.
The Pandora’s box of emails, texts and other evidence in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against Fox News is not as surprising as the outlets reporting this story (which may not include Fox itself) might have one to believe. Surprising that some of this was put in writing, yes, but not so much the content.
Over at Fox, I’ve not been alone in wondering whether Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and the decidedly lesser lights of that network were getting high on their own supply. But what has been revealed in dribs and drabs makes it pretty clear that they weren’t. They didn’t actually drink the Kool-Aid; they just passed it out, only asking whether strawberry, cherry or grape was preferred.
The cynicism of tailoring their lies to their audience demonstrates they have more in common with “gay-for-pay” porn stars than they do with decent people. To take that analogy one indelicate step further, they placed their bets that their audience would swallow, and not spit. But then again, maybe I have that comparison backward. It’s kind of hard to tell who’s doing who. (Mother would so not approve of this whole paragraph.)
Tucker Carlson, for whom the term “odious” could have been invented, is doubling down this week by whitewashing the January 6 insurrection. But how can one more misdirection, misrepresentation or downright lie make any difference now? Murdaugh had a whole line of defense that could be paraphrased, “Sure I lied about this, that and the other, but I’m telling the truth now. I did not murder my wife and son.” Tucker, sweetums, you know that didn’t work out so well for him, right?
It’s clear that Fox has limited its “news” to what its viewers want to be told, which is eerily similar to someone who is being paid for sex moaning, “Oh, baby, you’re the best!” while secretly thinking the client is just another mark for the con. It’s 21st-century mendacity with its “powerful and obnoxious odor,” as Big Daddy termed it. “It smells like death.”
What isn’t clear is how this is all going to play out in this lawsuit, specifically, and in society, more generally. Perhaps we could start by figuring out how to backtrack to petty hypocrisies from the serious mendacity with which we’re currently dealing. That, and chanting “liar, liar, pants on fire” whenever the occasion calls for it.
As Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice, “At the length truth will out.” And as Jesus said in John 8:32, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
So come on, Rupert and Tucker and Sean and Laura. I don’t think you want to argue with Shakespeare. And you sure as hell don’t want to mess with Jesus Christ. Certainly not with your audience.