The Normalization Process

Let’s be honest: Donald Trump was far from the first lunatic the mainstream media normalized.

It was 25 years ago tonight that ABC’s Nightline aired a debate on environmental issues facing the United States at the outset of the 1992 presidential campaign. Normally, a debate would involve two individuals with different approaches to reducing environmental harm, not one individual who recognized that environmental degradation was a real problem and one individual who thought environmental degradation was nothing more than a left-wing conspiracy to swell the size of government. However, things weren’t normal that night. To represent the side of reality, Nightline producers brought on then-Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, who had just released the landmark book Earth in the Balance. To pacify the cranks who regarded Nightline as a left-wing program, the producers also brought on…Rush Limbaugh.

That Limbaugh had no skill, no training and no credibility to discuss what was happening to our environment at the time was of no consequence to Nightline’s producers. False balance–the same false balance that helped Trump walk into the White House–was the only thing that mattered that night.

As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted, Limbaugh used the segment to promote alternative facts:

“If you listen to what Senator Gore said,” Limbaugh proclaimed [on Nightline], “it is man-made products which are causing the ozone depletion, yet Mount Pinatubo has put 570 times the amount of chlorine into the atmosphere in one eruption than all of man-made chlorofluorocarbons in one year.”

On his radio show, his syndicated TV show, and in two best-selling books, Limbaugh has advanced the idea that volcanoes are the real ozone culprits. This theory, like so many of Limbaugh’s claims, has only one problem: Limbaugh doesn’t know what he’s talking about…

Limbaugh didn’t rely on atmospheric scientists for his information about the ozone layer–he dismissed them as the “agenda-oriented scientific community.” Instead, he turned to Dixy Lee Ray, a former Washington State governor and Atomic Energy Commission chair, who wrote Trashing the Planet–“the most footnoted, documented book I have ever read,” Limbaugh says.

If you check Ray’s footnotes, you’ll find that the main source for the volcano theory is Rogelio Maduro, the associate editor of 21st Century Science & Technology, a magazine published by the Lyndon LaRouche network. Maduro is evidently not part of the “agenda-oriented scientific community”–even though he does have a bachelor’s degree in geology.

The volcano theorists can’t even keep their stories straight. In his book, Limbaugh claims that the 1991 Pinatubo eruption put 1000 times as much chlorine into the atmosphere as industry has ever produced through CFCs; yet on Nightline, Pinatubo is alleged to have produced 570 times the equivalent of one year’s worth of CFCs. Both can’t be right. It turns out neither are.

The figure 570 apparently derives from Ray’s book–but she said it was Mount Augustine, an Alaskan volcano that erupted in 1976, that put out 570 times as much chlorine as one year’s worth of CFCs. Ray’s source is a 1980 Science magazine article–but that piece was actually talking about the chlorine produced by a gigantic eruption that occurred 700,000 years ago in California (Science, 6/11/93)…

Limbaugh’s chronic inaccuracy, and his lack of accountability, wouldn’t be such a problem if Limbaugh were just a cranky entertainer, like Howard Stern. But Limbaugh is taken seriously by “serious” media–in addition to Nightline, he’s been an “expert” on such chat shows as Charlie Rose and Meet the Press. The New York Times (10/15/92) and Newsweek (1/24/94) have published his writings.

A compelling case can be made that the mainstream media’s normalization of Limbaugh in the 1990s paved the way for the normalization of Trump in the 2010s. Instead of regarding him as a fringe crank and conspiracy theorist, the Fourth Estate concluded that Limbaugh was the authentic voice of the silent majority–or, more likely, they decided that if they embraced Limbaugh, those who loudly and falsely accused the press of having a left-wing bias would finally shut up (although, of course, they never did).

We might as well call the Trump administration the Limbaugh administration; the 45th President is governing in the exact same way Limbaugh would have had he successfully run for the White House. Trump is a creation of right-wing talk-radio culture, and moved into the political mainstream in the same manner, and for the same reason, that right-wing radio’s biggest star did. It’s repugnant, but it’s reality–and we should never forget how we got here.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.