Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Shortly after the Capitol attack on January 6, several media companies leapt into action, scrambling to modify the infrastructures of misinformation that had been a source of steady profits throughout the Trump years.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies pulled the plug on President Donald Trump’s accounts. while Google, Apple and Amazon de-platformed Parler, a social media site popular among far-right users. In its letter to Parler, Amazon Web Services included nearly a hundred examples of posters inciting violence, calling for, among other things, hangings, bombings and targeted assassinations of politicians and journalists.
But perhaps the most surprising announcement came from Cumulus Media. The talk radio company, which carries popular right wing shows hosted by Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino, circulated an internal memo (first reported by Inside Music Media and later the Washington Post) telling hosts they needed to stop spreading false information about the election.
“We need to help induce national calm NOW,” the memo said. “The election has been resolved and there are no alternate acceptable ‘paths.’” Saying otherwise on air would lead to immediate termination.
This announcement stands out because it takes aim at a major sector of right wing media: talk radio. With tens of millions of listeners every week, right wing talk radio has been the backbone of conservative media for 30 years. Stemming the tide of misinformation coming over their airwaves will be a formidable challenge, one that even Cumulus likely will find difficult to achieve. And even if it succeeds, it will have only slowed the supply of conspiracies and misinformation and done little to address the demand.
The insurrection at the Capitol was fueled by a steady stream of misinformation and disinformation about the election, coming from the President, his legal team and the nonstop propaganda networks of right wing media. And while most eyes were on Fox News and Newsmax in the aftermath of the election, where at least some reporters and hosts dealt in the realities of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, on the right’s radio airwaves, there was little dissension about the story they were telling about the election.
Hosts like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh detailed false conspiracies involving Dominion voting machines and mass election night fraud. Conspiracist Sidney Powell, part of the president’s legal team, may have been relegated to the fringes on Fox News after a lacerating takedown by Tucker Carlson, but she continues to be welcomed with open arms as a guest over on the AM dial.
The Cumulus directive threatens to put a stop to at least some of this (though some of the biggest hosts, like Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh, are not distributed through Cumulus so not subject to its dictates). In putting access to Cumulus outlets on the line, the company is threatening to hit its hosts where it hurts: their pocketbooks. And profit is a major driver for what appears on right wing radio, part of the calculus, along with ideology and personality, for which stories and arguments appear on a given show.
Directives from management can have a profound effect on the nature of conservative talk radio. For much of the Trump years, we’ve seen that work in a pro-Trump direction, as radio companies booted anti-Trump hosts and websites purged writers who were insufficiently enthusiastic about the President. Seemingly shocked into action by the horrific scene unfolding at the US Capitol, Cumulus’s leadership reversed course. If other companies follow Cumulus’s lead, it could have a real impact on how these shows talk about the election, and how much misinformation they dispense.
It is, anyway, more likely to have an impact than another idea that is frequently floated by people worried about Trump-era misinformation: the revival of the Fairness Doctrine. A broadcast regulation put in place by the Federal Communications Commission in the late 1940s, the Fairness Doctrine directed stations to cover controversial issues fairly, presenting all sides of the subject. It was abolished in 1987 by Ronald Reagan’s FCC.
But the Fairness Doctrine was the product of another time, a time before cable and satellite opened up the broadcast spectrum to allow more voices. It was also a time when more Americans trusted both journalists and the government to serve as arbiters of what was factual and fair (imagine a Trump FCC dictating the boundaries of debates over climate change or electoral processes if you’d like to see how badly a reinstituted Fairness Doctrine might play out).
Corporate directives that limit the broadcasting of misinformation can have a real impact on radio, though they certainly don’t silence hosts who choose to strike out on their own. Michael Savage, a right wing nationalist broadcaster who has been banned from entering Britain since 2009 for “unacceptable behavior” that could “lead to inter-community violence,” just left Cumulus at the start of the new year. He is now producing a podcast rather than a radio broadcast. The day after the attack, he praised Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot and killed as she forced her way into the Speaker’s Lobby, directly outside the House chamber, and claimed falsely that “she was executed by one of Pence’s security guards.”
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But the real limit to these corporate media directives, and to the moves by social media sites, is that they only address one side of the problem. Make no mistake: These entities are responsible for amplifying and disseminating massive amounts of misinformation and conspiracies, which has done serious harm to the political culture of the United States, and to our democracy more broadly.
The conspiracy crisis in US politics, though, is at least as much one of demand as supply. There are millions of Americans marinating in conspiracy and hungry for more. That is a social problem, not a technological or regulatory one. And while the efforts to fix our media systems over the past few days matter, we cannot lose sight of the larger cultural crisis that continues to fuel our crisis of democracy.