Update: Rush Limbaugh’s ‘Doubled Ratings’ an Article of Faith or a Lie?

Cross-posted from AOL’s Political Machine

2 p.m. Talkers magazine’s publisher responds. See the full statement at the end of this article. 


3 p.mTalkers magazine’s publisher responds to my followup at the end of this article.

The claim, appearing even on these pages, that Rush Limbaugh’s ratings have “nearly doubled” is under attack today. So far, there are two camps on this: the claim is super-weak, or the claim is a lie. Media Matters stops short of calling the claim, published by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, an outright lie:

I’m especially curious how the Post knows so much about Limbaugh’s ratings success because even people in the world of syndicated radio don’t know since they don’t have comprehensive rating numbers for February yet. And in terms of truly national rating numbers (as opposed to just the top markets), that information is only gathered quarterly, I believe. Meaning, it would be impossible to tell if Limbaugh’s up nearly 100 percent nationwide since January.

An update to the piece quotes Limbaugh saying he doesn’t even know February’s ratings yet. Media Matters misses out, however, on the thin sourcing that Kurtz did provide. I didn’t miss it, and have no qualms about calling it an outright lie: (from Daily Dose)

This is a specific, measurable claim. The word “ratings” is not some kind of pliable, esoteric concept. It refers to a specific type of measurement. So, what ratings was Kurtz using? Arbitron? Nielsen? Zagat?

“The people who love him are a very small segment of the public,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, whose research indicates that Limbaugh’s weekly audience has spiked from 14.2 million to about 25 million since the controversy escalated. “A lot of people still think he’s a shock jock, a hatemonger (ed. where’d they get an idea like that?), a right-wing radical, or hold his personal baggage against him.”

Here’s how strong Harrison’s “research” is: His own magazine wouldn’t cite it without sourcing the quote to Kurtz’s article! He’s the publisher of “Talkers” magazine, but they didn’t publish the “research,” quoting their own publisherfrom another publication.

In the journalism biz, that’s what we call a “closed loop.” This kind of thing is used a lot in the wingnut-o-sphere, gaining steam during the Clinton era.

I’m not sure what came over Kurtz to publish something like this, but it is false on its face. I don’t blame conservatives for running with this. If the Wall Street Journal published an article claiming Rush’s ratings were way down, I would expect the left to run with it.

Now, however, you know the truth. Spread it.

Note: Talkers Magazine has not returned requests for comment, or documentation of Harrison’s claim.

Update: Here’s Michael Harrison’s response to me so far:

The follow up article in today’s Washington Post basically says it all.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/06/AR2009030603435.html 

Keep in mind, I was only referring to Limbaugh’s numbers this past week during the extraordinary media frenzy about him and that Talkers magazine is not in the business of selling ratings. They are only our thumbnail estimates based upon our contacts in the field, tracking of Arbitron estimates and understanding of the business. We make no claims as to “scientific” accuracy. The act of listening to the radio is not connected to any meter or box office. Radio listening is thus unmeasurable in precise quantifiable terms. Thus all estimates are just that, estimates.

Michael Harrison

P.S. Perhaps the following link to a page on our website will be helpful as well…

http://talkers.com/online/?p=71

The Post article seems to say that there’s no way to tell how big Rush’s national audience really is, but they also characterize Harrison’s estimate as a “guess.” Either way, saying that Rush’s “ratings” nearly doubled, even allowing for the imprecise nature of radio ratings, is false. The Post acknowledges this, without retracting the earlier story:

Harrison said his estimate of a big spike in Limbaugh’s audience this week — some 25 million, a figure quoted in The Post — was also based on his discussions with station program directors around the country. Although there’s no actual survey data to support such a figure, Harrison said “it’s what we’re hearing, based on the e-mails, the calls, all the buzz this controversy is generating. We put a little bit of our interpretation on it, added it all up, and that puts you in the ballpark.”

So, they spend an entire article walking back from Kurtz’s claim, without actually correcting the error. There are no “ratings” to measure, and there was no “near-doubling,” even of the guesstimate.

Update 2: I emailed Harrison a clarifying question, and he has responded. Here is that exchange:

Tommy Christopher: To clarify, is it safe to say that the information you gave to Kurtz were not “ratings,” and were not arrived at in the same way that ratings are?

Michael Harrison:Yes, they are not “ratings” per se (as in Neilson or Arbitron). They are Talkers magazine’s estimates of audience figures based upon our interpretation of Arbitron ratings and other marketplace factors. You see, Arbitron needs to be “interpreted” when dealing with the complex task of estimating nationally syndicated hosts. Please see the second Washington Post piece that I sent you. It explains it very well. Interestingly, Talkers magazine is one of (if not the) the most quoted and respected sources of this kind of information — perhaps because we are quite candid about how it is done and we make no pretense about doing something totally scientifically that is every bit as much art as it is science.

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