Exposing Falsehoods and Revealing Truths
There are a few left-leaning folks near the top of the list – the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart (#5), Bill Clinton (#8) and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann (#9) – but the rest of the top 10 is filled out by Sarah Palin (#6), conservative radio host Don Imus (#7) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (#10).
Also noteworthy, as one scrolls down the list, is its striking pale maleness. There are a grand total of nine women represented, and only one of them – Condoleezza Rice (#36) – is a woman of color. (Also, only a few of the women, including Arianna Huffington (#15) and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (tied for #30), are liberals.) Overall, people of color take up only seven slots on the list, by my count. The highest ranking person of color is President Obama, who appears nearly halfway down the list, tied for #19.
You may be asking yourself, in what sick, twisted world are a bunch of conservative talk show hosts more powerful than the president of the United States? According to Newsweek, a world in which money is king. The magazine (which, incidentally, just went through a period of financial upheaval and was ultimately sold for $1) ranked the country’s current and former politicians, media personalities and political consultants based on their estimated 2010 earnings.
Most Powerful American Rush Limbaugh is pulling in an estimated $58.7 million this year – nearly twice as much as #2, Glenn Beck -- earning him the cover of the magazine and an accompanying feature article. Written by Limbaugh biographer Zev Chafets, the article notes that the radio personality’s annual income “is greater than the combined salary of the entire U.S. Senate (and you can toss in a few dozen congressmen and cabinet secretaries for good measure).”
Some of the more left-leaning media personalities on the list aren’t doing so bad for themselves – Jon Stewart is raking in an estimated $15 million, Keith Olbermann $7.5 million and Bill Maher $4 million. And a lot of former and current politicians aren’t exactly hurting either – Bill Clinton will make $7.7 million this year, George W. Bush $4.2 million and Barack Obama $4 million.
But the combined $133.7 million haul being pulled in by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly is, well, a lot of money. Compared to most people on the list, the top four are in an entirely different earnings strata, which is significant for at least two reasons: 1) They are conservative mouthpieces whose paychecks are signed by the Republican-owned media outlets Clear Channel and Fox News; and 2) the Limbaugh Newsweek cover, in which the word POWER is scrawled across his chest, was released just before midterm election day.
One could argue that "money = power" is a false equivalency, as Michael Scherer of TIME has done:
Look at CEO pay: The top CEO earner over the five-year period that ended in 2009 was Larry Ellison of Oracle, a smart guy with a good company who took in $944 million. But try to make an argument that he has more power in the industry than Apple's Steve Jobs, who took made about one third less in the same period.
Earning power in political entertainment is not the same thing as political influence....Rush Limbaugh (#1 on the Newsweek list) had a bigger audience than Tom Delay, but Delay decided what happened in the U.S. House, not Limbaugh. So it will be the next time Republicans regain control of Congress and the White House.
Scherer may be right about Limbaugh and his ilk not directly calling the shots in Washington, but I’m not too sure that negates their power. The media is a potent tool, and as we’ve seen time and again, the loudest voices usually frame the political narrative and determine what many Americans believe. There’s no question that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly are some of the loudest voices out there, and are pushing an agenda that is generously backed by individuals with a far-right conservative agenda. Newsweek putting Limbaugh on its cover, thus framing him as “all powerful one,” the week before an expected Republican landslide only helps cement his position.
So is the list accurate? If by “most powerful,” Newsweek means “most likely to influence opinion,” I’d have to say, unfortunately, yes. But the magazine really missed an opportunity to shape what powerful could and should mean (“most forward-thinking,” perhaps?) by filling the list with the same rich, white men who are already given a platform at every opportunity.
Lauren Kelley, author of this article, is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Change.org, the L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn.