THE WASHINGTON POST’S E.J. Dionne recently wrote a column, titled “Rush and Newt Are Winning,” about how Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are successfully framing the current political debate. Yet after watching “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” — NBC’s testimonial to networks’ free time during the summer — the tandem who better exemplifies the devolved state of pop culture is Limbaugh and Spencer Pratt, “The Hills'” made-for-TV “Celebrity” impersonator.
Disney XD is about to launch a series about skateboarding doofuses titled “Zeke and Luther.” In terms of manipulating the media with fancy footwork, though, can I get an “Amen!” for the duo of “Rush and Spencer?”
Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, and Pratt, the obnoxious reality personality, would at first blush appear an unlikely twosome — except perhaps for the latter’s conversion to Christianity and the former’s contempt for anyone who would dare say the U.S. is not a Christian nation. They also seem like perfect spokesmodels for “Nurse Jackie” — the Showtime series with the slogan, “Life is full of little pricks.”
Both men, however, have intuited that in today’s media environment, the loudest voice usually wins. And they have no qualms about playing the villain to draw fire from others if putting themselves in the crosshairs will advance their self-promotional cause.
Finally, Limbaugh and Pratt are showmen in the worst sense of the word — the carnival barking, anything-for-fame progeny of Lonesome Rhodes, the character from director Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd.”
YET IF LIMBAUGH has slyly set himself up as a hero to his “ditto-head” constituency and a target for detractors, Pratt’s reality-TV iteration is utterly brazen about it. Indeed, he sauntered onto NBC’s “I’m a Celebrity” announcing his plan to be the show’s “villain,” with a clear sense of how he wanted his “character” to be depicted.
Lou Diamond Phillips, another contestant on the pointless survive-the-Costa-Rican-jungle exercise, looked appalled. But it was apparent from the editing in the first episode that Pratt and his equally irritating wife Heidi were rendering themselves indispensable to the series in its hunger to make “noise.” NBC thus became a hostage to the couple’s erratic quit/don’t-quit behavior — caught in its own version of a bad showbiz marriage.
Pratt’s approach — coming into the series determined to function as his own personal producer, director and writer — is what the website the Wrap missed in its overblown expose about how the reality-TV monster exploits and manipulates those unwitting souls who enter its lair. Not only was it an old story, but nearly a decade into the genre’s modern incarnation, it ignored a key aspect of reality’s evolution — namely, how fame-seeking players weaned on such programs now arrive eager to manipulate and exploit right back, determined to shape themselves into “characters” they can transform into a ticket to stardom.
PRATT MERELY REPRESENTS an exaggerated version of this odd and semi-delusional condition. Having spent his formative years in reality TV, it looks as if he no longer even recognizes where the real person ends (if there was ever enough substance for one) and his carefully managed “character” begins. He just knows that so long as the cameras stay trained on him, he’s “winning” by his definition of the game rules.
Limbaugh obviously occupies a different sphere, but his operating strategy is virtually the same. Whatever the topic, his relentless goal is to provoke — whether that entails probing questions of race using language that could easily get a lesser radio talent fired or suspended, or sticking to his guns regarding his oft-quoted remark about rooting for the Obama administration to fail — an attack that prompted another public-relations genius, Howard Stern to trash him during a David Letterman guest shot Monday.
Unlike the politicians who kowtow to him, Limbaugh doesn’t mind being hated in certain quarters, which is clearly liberating. He’ll happily play the villain if that’s the price for getting his point across.
Because half the battle in today’s teeming media marketplace is being heard, Dionne got it right: Love or hate them, guys like Spencer and Rush are winning. And it’s the rest of us who lose.