Rush, Roger, Rupert, and The Donald May Ride Forever
By Robert Lipsyte* – TomDispatch
As Do Pestilence,
Famine, War, and Death
The Four Horsemen of our media apocalypse — Rush Limbaugh,
Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump — have ridden roughshod over us
this past half-century leaving their hoofprints on our politics, our culture,
and our lives. Two of them are gone now, but their legacies, including the News
Corporation, the Fox News empire, and a gang of broadcast barbarians will
ensure that a lasting plague of misinformation, propaganda masquerading as
journalism, and plain old fake news will be our inheritance.
The original Four Horsemen were biblical characters seen as
punishments from God. By the time they became common literary and then film currency, they generally went by the names of
Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Matching each with Limbaugh, Ailes,
Murdoch, and Trump should prove a grisly but all-too-relevant parlor game. The
originals were supposed to signal end times and sometimes, when I think about
their modern American descendants, I wonder if we’re heading in just that
Reflecting on the lives of those modern embodiments of
(self-) punishment makes me wonder how we ever let them happen. Isn’t there any
protection against evil of their sort in a democracy, even when you know about
it early? Maybe when evil plays so cleverly into fears and resentments or is
just so damn entertaining, not enough people can resist it. Hey, I even worked
for one of the horsemen. It was my favorite job… until it wasn’t.
But first, let me start with Rush Limbaugh. The nation’s leading right-wing bullhorn
died last month at 70. His vicious wit (“feminazis”) and ability to squeeze complex
subjects into catchy sound bites (“In Obama’s America, the white kids now
get beat up with the Black kids cheering”) stirred and nourished a devoted mass
who would become a crucial part of Trump’s base. Limbaugh, earning by the end
more than $80 million a year, left his heirs a reported $600 million.
Those numbers, I believe, defined him far more than any
political stance he took and, at the same time, made him indefensible. He was
Pestilence, spreading poison without either genuine ideology or principle of
any sort. He was doing shtick, whatever worked for him (and work it certainly
did). He was, by nature, a great entertainer. One more thing: don’t kid
yourself, he was smart.
I realized this in 1995 when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal
Ripken, Jr., was approaching Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive baseball
games. The Yankee star set that record in 1939 when, after 17 big league
seasons, he finally took himself out of the lineup because he was suffering
from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later known as Lou Gehrig’s
Tongue-in-cheek, in my then-weekly New York Times sports column, I called on Cal to take a day off to avoid
breaking the record. I wrote that, if he did, he would “be remembered forever
as an athlete who stepped proudly over the statistical rubble of his sport to
lead us all into a higher level of consciousness. He will end up a bigger
Calvin than Klein.”
The response from pundits, sportswriters, and fans was
overwhelmingly negative. I was called clueless and stupid or, at least, a
running dog of a new, much-mocked and demeaned “participation culture,” unaware
of the competitive nature of sports. Worse yet, I was trying to deny a hero his
It seemed that, of all people, only Limbaugh picked up on
the mindless paradox of the situation — after all, Ripken would merely have to
show up at work that day to claim his trophy — or even how obviously I had been
offering my advice tongue in cheek. And he said so on a national radio network
carrying his shows.
As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. That he saw
what I was actually doing convinced me that he, too, often had his tongue
tucked firmly in that cheek of his and away from anything that might pass for
his rational brain. And this would, in the end, make it all that much worse. My
guess: he wasn’t ever truly a believer in the right-wing trash he talked. From
the beginning, he was a mercenary, a commercial provocateur who found fame and
fortune by spreading ever more toxic takes.
Down Under with
Of the Four Horsemen, I came upon Rupert Murdoch first — in
early 1977, soon after he bought that once-liberal newspaper, the New York Post.
Among his earliest hires as columnists (strange indeed, given what we
now know of him) were progressive icon Murray Kempton and me.
I already knew something about Murdoch’s Australian and
British reputation as a venal press lord, but the lure of a no-holds-barred
cityside column and the possibility of sharing an office with Kempton proved
irresistible. Murdoch and I first met in the crowded, raffish Post newsroom in
lower Manhattan. He was brisk but pleasant that day, asking me at one point how
I would improve the paper. I answered breezily: “For starters, I’d hire more
women, Blacks, Latinos, gays, so the city can be properly covered.”
He regarded me coolly. “Hmm, yes,” he said, “but instead I’m
hiring a liberal like you.”
At that moment, I sensed that he was a monster and that this
would end badly. I lasted all of seven months, mostly thanks to another
monster, the serial killer Son of Sam, who terrorized the city that
year. Like so many other tabloid writers of that moment, I spent the summer
writing about the hunt for him, which mostly kept me out of trouble, since
Murdoch loved sex, violence, and crime. But then there were those
off-his-message columns I wrote about Israel, the South Bronx, and his favored
candidate for mayor, Ed Koch.
And there were my shoes. They were soft Italian suede.
Beige. I felt cool in them. One day, a new Australian editor took me aside and
said, “Lose the poufter boots, mate. The boss hates them.”
Of course, now I had to wear them every day despite that
boss’s homophobia. It was about then that whole paragraphs simply began to
disappear from my column (without anyone consulting me), while the column
itself was often shoved ever deeper into the paper, especially if I wrote
about, say, marching in a women’s movement or gay pride parade with one of my
kids. Sometimes the column would be cut entirely.
I resigned from the Post live on Dave Marash’s 11 p.m. local
CBS TV news show. The next morning, in answer to a question during a press
conference in Los Angeles, Murdoch claimed that he had fired me. When that
didn’t fly, he said that I had never been much good anyway. By then, thanks to
TV, more people had heard about me than had ever read anything I wrote at the Times
or the Post — a lesson about the new world we were all being plunged into.
As it happened, there would be no escape from Rupert
Murdoch. After quitting the Post, I went back to writing books for
HarperCollins, the publishing house that he had bought. Thank goodness he never
seemed to make the connection. Not so far anyway.
Soulmates Without a
Soul in Sight
Among the Four Horsemen, Murdoch is surely Famine. Given the
sports and gossip-driven sensibility of his newspapers and the role of Fox News
as a tool of right-wing and Trumpian political propaganda, he’s helped starve
people on at least three continents of the kinds of information they would need
to truly grasp our world and make educated decisions about it.
His most reliable collaborator in those years was Roger
Ailes, who became the chairman and CEO of Fox News. He would prove so skilled
when it came to purveying misinformation that he deserves a horse of his own.
And no question about it, Ailes represented War, both against the truth and
(within journalism) for circulation, eyeballs, and the clicks that always favor
profit over facts.
Of all four horsemen, I had the least personal interaction
with him. One evening in 1990 (I think), I went to see him at his poorly lit
midtown office. It was evening and I had the feeling he might have been
drinking, though he didn’t offer me anything. I was then the host of a nightly
local public television show and we wanted to put him on a political panel we
were forming. By then, after all, he had successfully advised presidents
Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush (though he wouldn’t join
Murdoch for another six years). He had blown off all the producers who tried to
book him on their shows but had agreed to let me come in for a pitch.
I didn’t know it, but around then he first met his future
co-horseman Rush Limbaugh who, at the time, was still trying to invent himself
as a radio star. Limbaugh had walked into New York’s posh 21 Club looking for
famous people to buttonhole. He soon spotted Ailes but was too intimidated to
As Rush would later tell
it, Roger was the one who first swaggered up to him and boomed, “My wife
loves you!” Soon after, they began talking and, so Rush reported, he felt that
he had met his “soulmate.” Ailes would soon be producing a short-lived Limbaugh
TV show. Alas, it would prove long-lived indeed by becoming a model for the
bogus news/talk format of Fox News a few years later when Murdoch hired Ailes
as the devil’s consigliere. Later, Ailes would use that very position to advise
George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Still, when I met Ailes that was the unknowable future. It
comes back to me now as if in a dream, brief and weird. He listened to my
description of my show, “The Eleventh Hour,” and why we wanted him as a guest.
I may not have been as fawning as I remember myself being. (I hope not anyway.)
He nodded along as I made my pitch, offered me the most perfunctory thanks for
coming, and dismissed me with body language suggesting that he had checked me
out and found nothing he wanted. He simply turned away and began murmuring to a
woman I could barely see in the darkened office.
In 2016, after years of commercial and political success
together, Murdoch dumped Ailes in the midst of an ever-spreading sex scandal.
He had not only personally harassed Fox employees but had created a
company-wide climate of abuse and intimidation. He left with a reported $65
million. A year later, he died in Palm Beach (as would Limbaugh four years
after that). He was 77.
A “Great Show” for a
Of all the horsemen in those years, I spent the most time
with Donald Trump. (By now, haven’t we all?) He’s our greatest shame because
while we in the media may have thought that we were using him — listening
sneeringly to his lies and braggadocio since it pushed our media products so
effectively — he was using us bigly.
Making the “fake news media” his very own accomplices may have been his
I was no exception to the media patsies who flocked to him for easy stories. Maybe I didn’t take him
seriously enough then because we both came from Queens, a scorned outer borough
of New York City, or because he was already a well-known publicity hound and
boldfaced tabloid name.
Honestly, who could have taken an obvious buffoon like him
seriously? And back then, we didn’t have to, as long as we took him. And here’s
what I do remember from those days: he would always respond to a question, no
matter how negative, as long as he was its subject. That’s all he truly cared
about. Him, him, him, and him again.
The first time we met, in the early 1980s — he was then an
ambitious real-estate mogul and B-list celebrity — he insisted that he didn’t
much like attention, but felt obligated to do the interview because I
represented “a great show” (“CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt”). He would
then go on to lie about his scheme to pressure the National Football League
into admitting to its ranks the New Jersey Generals, the United
States Football League team he then owned.
In a later meeting, I remember him offering me his supposed
credo as a public figure, one that in retrospect seems grimly ironic, if not
satiric: “I tend to think that you should be decent, you should be fair, you
should be straight, and you should do the best you can. And beyond that, you
can’t do very much really. So yeah, you do have a responsibility.” Then, as if
adding a note in the margins of his bland comment, he added, tellingly enough,
“I’m not sure to what extent that responsibility holds.”
Once, for reasons I can’t recall, I returned to that
supposed sense of “responsibility” of his, asking him if he’d like to “run the
country as you have run your organization.” That was in 1984 (no symbolism
intended) and he responded, “I would much prefer that somebody else do it. I
just don’t know if the somebody else is there.” So, 32 years before his election,
he was, it seems, already imagining the unimaginable that would become our very
own surreal world in 2016. “This country,” he added ominously, “needs major
“Are you the surgeon?” I asked, innocently enough.
“I think I’d do a fantastic job, but I really would prefer
not doing it.”
I would have preferred that, too, but it’s much too late now
and, sadly enough, there’s no reason to think that the ride of the modern Four
Horsemen is over. Limbaugh and Ailes have left their vast poisonous pools behind
and they won’t dry up soon. Murdoch, turning 90 just days from now, is still
running his empire. And Donald Trump, of course, continues to gallop toward the
future astride his pale horse, as the rider called Death.