ABC and the rise of Rush Limbaugh

The following brief history of ABC offers a perfect snapshot of everything that has gone wrong with the media. This remarkable story includes ABC's takeover by a conservative parent corporation, the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, the rightward shift of the evening news, the rise of conservative talk radio, and the cozy relationship between a state and a press that are supposed to be separate.

In 1985, ABC was taken over by Capital Cities, a conservative, Roman Catholic media organization with extensive ties to the CIA.

(If you think we're making this up, you should know that the Capital Cities takeover of ABC is one of the most analyzed in history, and the subject of many books by Wall Street experts and scholars. Especially recommended is Networks of Power, by Emmy Award-winner Dennis Mazzocco.) (1)

Capital Cities was born in 1954, and rapidly prospered. Many of its founders had previously worked in the U.S. intelligence community and had a great amount of wealth, social contacts and influence in government. Yet they opted to keep the company's actions out of the public eye -- they did not flaunt their wealth with private planes and lavish offices the way so many successful companies do. Just exactly how well-connected Capital Cities was to the CIA is unknown, but it is clear that the CIA concerned itself with the company at various times. The fact that the CIA has often used private businessmen, journalists and even entire companies as fronts for covert operations is not only well-known by historians, but legendary. (Recall Howard Hughes and Trans-World Airlines...)

One of Capital City's early founders was William Casey, who would later become Ronald Reagan's Director of the CIA. At the time of Casey's nomination, the press expressed surprise that Reagan would hire a businessman whose last-known intelligence experience was limited to OSS operations in World War II. The fact is, however, that Casey had never left intelligence. Throughout the Cold War he kept a foot in both worlds, in private business as well as the CIA. A history of Casey's business dealings reveals that he was an aggressive player who saw nothing wrong with bending the law to further his own conservative agenda. When he became implicated as a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, many Washington insiders considered it a predictable continuation of a very shady career.

Another Capital Cities founder, Lowell Thomas, was a close friend and business contact with Allen Dulles, Eisenhower's CIA Director, and John Dulles, the Secretary of State. Thomas always denied being a spy, but he was frequently seen at events involving intelligence operations. Another founder was Thomas Dewey, whom the CIA had given millions to create other front companies for covert operations.

Capital Cities prospered from the start; its specialty was to buy media organizations that were in trouble. Upon acquisition, it would improve management and eliminate waste until the company started turning a profit. This no-nonsense, no-frills approach, as well as its refusal to become side-tracked with other ventures, made it one of the most successful media conglomerates of the 60s and 70s. Of course, the journalistic slant of its companies was decidedly conservative and anticommunist. To anyone who believes that the government should not control the press, the possibility that the CIA created a media company to dispense conservative and Cold War propaganda should be alarming. Rush Limbaugh himself calls freedom of the press "the sweetest -- and most American -- words you will ever find." (2) Apparently, he is unaware of the history of his own employers.

By the 1980s, Capital Cities had grown powerful enough that it was now poised to hunt truly big game: a major television network. A vulnerable target appeared in the form of ABC, whose poor management in the early 80s was driving both its profits and stocks into oblivion. Back then, ABC's journalistic slant was indeed liberal; its criticism of the Reagan Administration had drawn the wrath of conservatives everywhere, from Wall Street to Washington. This was in marked contrast to the rest of the White House press corps, which was, in Bagdikian's words, "stunningly uncritical" of Reagan. Behind the scenes, Reagan was deregulating the FCC and eliminating anti-monopoly laws for the media, a fact the media appreciated and rewarded. The only exception was ABC. Sam Donaldson's penetrating questions during press conferences were so embarrassing to Reagan that his handlers scheduled the fewest Presidential press conferences in modern history.

Another controversy involving the liberal slant of ABC was its airing of the anti-nuclear war movie The Day After. This movie angered conservatives like Henry Kissinger, who believe that the willingness to use nuclear weapons is actually a deterrence to war. But Kissinger got a chance to respond to the movie on national television. Nightline followed the movie with a group discussion that included Kissinger and other conservative pundits. The reason why ABC was so even-handed, presenting both a liberal and conservative viewpoint on nuclear war, was because they were required to by law: the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 by the FCC. Reagan had staffed the FCC with prominent media businessmen who were intent on slashing government regulations… the equivalent of letting the fox guard the chicken coop. Among the many other regulations slashed during the Reagan years were anti-trust laws that prevented the media from becoming a monopoly. Much of this was done under heavy pressure by corporate lobbyists.

In this atmosphere of deregulation, Capital Cities found the perfect time to take over ABC. Not only were all the legal restrictions removed, but by now Casey was head of the CIA, and whatever contacts existed between the CIA and Casey's company (in which Casey held substantial stock) were immeasurably strengthened. Capital Cities soon began buying out ABC stock. The facts of the acquisition remain curious and unconventional. Capital Cities was only one-fourth the size of ABC, and there were much wealthier corporate giants who were salivating over a plum like a television network. But word got out on Wall Street that the Capital Cities takeover bid was "protected" by Warren Buffet, a legendary trader often described as the "Darling of Wall Street." (Until 1995, Buffet was the richest man in America.) With Buffet's help, Capital Cities took over ABC. According to one source, a high-ranking CIA official teased Casey, saying, "I understand Sam Donaldson is working for you now."

Sam Donaldson would not be tormenting Republican presidents for long. By the Bush Presidency, Donaldson was removed from covering the White House and paired with Diane Sawyer in a weekly news magazine that covered political fluff. Brit Hume, a staunch conservative, would take his place, and the same torment that ABC once reserved for Ronald Reagan would now be directed towards Bill Clinton.

The new conservatism at ABC was subtle but apparent. Peter Jennings, noting that the program's "American Agenda" had a liberal slant, stated that the news would pay more attention to conservatives, since their ideas are "more provocative and less predictable on some issues."

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales noted that of all the networks, ABC was the "friendliest to and least critical of the Bush Administration and its policies." After the war, ABC marketed a video of General Schwartzkopf's famous briefing of the war, entitled "Schwartzkopf: How the War was Won." It sold 80,000 copies. Later, it would market a video on life and times of Richard Nixon.

It would be wrong, of course, to conclude that ABC had gone Attila the Hun. ABC News remained a source of somewhat balanced coverage; both Sam Donaldson and George Will continued to do battle every Sunday on This Week With David Brinkley. Indeed, some of the most scientific pieces warning about the destruction of the ozone layer came from ABC. The owners at Capital Cities/ABC couldn't make the Evening News blatantly conservative because such a change would be too controversial. But this did not defeat their effort. They could still create a conservative forum from scratch, and in this regard, the dying market of AM radio offered the opportunity of a lifetime.

There are about 11,000 radio stations in the U.S., and Capital Cities/ABC is by far the largest player. Either through outright ownership or the sale of numerous services, they reach about half the radio stations in America, and this number is growing. With the Fairness Doctrine repealed, Capital Cities was able in 1988 to begin broadcasting one-sided editorials on conservatism. ABC Radio Network President Edward McLaughlin scoured the nation's radio stations for conservative talent, and his search led him to Sacramento, to a little known disc-jockey named Rush Limbaugh. Rush had attracted an audience with his vigorous and spirited defense of Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings. McLaughlin brought him to New York City for a one-month "on-air" trial at Capital Cities/ABC's flagship radio station, WABC. For the next two years, ABC put him on the fast track, handling all his marketing, advertising and promotion. For legal purposes, and to protect ABC's image of supposed objectivity, Rush formed his own media company, Excellence in Broadcasting. But to this day Rush continues to broadcast out of WABC's studios in New York.

ABC initially promoted Rush by arranging his appearance on other debating shows, from Nightline to Donahue to MacNeil/Lehrer. (Unfortunately, he did so poorly against real live experts that this practice was eventually stopped.) Perhaps the most eye-brow raising example of Rush's promotion was when he appeared on an episode of ABC's 20/20 for an interview with Barbara Walters. Given Rush's criticism of feminists as "feminazis," this interview was built up as a confrontation between a female reporter in the mainstream media and Rush's supposedly misogynist views. The fact that Barbara Walters herself is conservative was nowhere mentioned. During the interview, Rush came across as charming, humorous, reasonable and moderate, and Walters closed the segment by stating that she actually liked him.

Ted Koppel's incessant praise of Rush Limbaugh is also an attempt to bring him into the mainstream. The back cover of See, I Told You So blurbs: "As no less a liberal than Ted Koppel... said, 'You ignore him at your peril.'" On television, Koppel has laughed with admiration over Limbaugh, calling him "terribly articulate." But the anchor of Nightline is far from liberal; indeed, Rush Limbaugh had to publicly apologize to Koppel for calling him one. And researchers have criticized Nightline for featuring a highly disproportionate number of experts who are white male conservatives.

Rush Limbaugh explains his success as the result of his individualism, of his refusal to do it someone's else's way. But the fact is that his success has been orchestrated, financed and promoted by Capital Cities/ABC. He also seems extraordinarily well-connected to the Republican leadership in Washington, carrying out their campaign strategies so faithfully that it is difficult to distinguish his promotions from their campaign commercials. For example, when Rush's television show debuted nationally two months before the 92 election, his producer was Roger Ailes, who was Bush's media advisor throughout the campaign. Many of the themes that Ailes had inspired earlier in the campaign showed up in identical form on Rush's show, which resembled a program-length commercial for the Bush campaign. When asked to give equal time to his opponents, Rush responded "I am equal time!"

In 1994, not only the Rush Limbaugh Show, but hundreds of other conservative talk shows dutifully raised the issues that Newt Gingrich's Contract Information Center faxed to them each morning about the Contract With America. Many went so far as to read them verbatim over the air. And when the Republicans captured Congress in 1994, they held a ceremony in honor of Limbaugh, naming him "an honorary member of Congress" and "the Majority Maker." That night, the conservative propaganda machine had reached its full potential.

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1. This history of ABC and the rise of Rush Limbaugh is based on Dennis Mazzocco, Networks of Power (Boston: South End Press, 1994).

2. Rush Limbaugh, See, I Told You So (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 380.