Playing nice with Rush Limbaugh

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Question: When is an apology not an apology?

Question: When is an apology not an apology?

Answer: When the press corps is covering for Rush Limbaugh.

Last week's spectacle of right-wing talker Limbaugh mocking actor Michael J. Fox for allegedly faking the symptoms of his crippling Parkinson's disease while appearing in a Democratic-sponsored campaign ad was equaled only by the media spectacle of news outlets erroneously, and methodically, reporting that the talker quickly apologized for his outlandish smear. Things got so bad that at one point news consumers were better off reading the Canadian press to find out the actual facts of the American-based controversy. (Fox is a native of Edmonton, which explained the Canadian interest in the story.)

And it's not like the facts were complicated. Fox made a heartfelt plea urging voters in Missouri to support Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, who he stated "shares [his] hope for cures" through stem cell research. Limbaugh promptly belittled the actor, telling listeners the herky-jerky motions Fox was making during the commercial were a con; "purely an act" to elicit an emotional response. Limbaugh even uncorked spastic, in-studio gesticulations to mimic Fox's awkward appearance.

Limbaugh said if he was proven wrong he'd apologized. But the press took that for an apology itself. Days later, as the controversy raged, Limbaugh was even clearer, insisting, "I stand by what I said [about Fox]. I take back none of what I said. I wouldn't rephrase it any differently. It is what I believe. It is what I think. It is what I have found to be true."

That quote was key to understanding the radical, remorseless position Limbaugh had staked out for himself. And here, according to a search of the Nexis database, is a list of major Canadian papers that published the direct, "I stand by what I said" quote from Limbaugh:

The Edmonton Journal, The Gazette (Montreal), the Regina Leader-Post (Saskatchewan), the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix (Saskatchewan), The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia), the Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), and the Windsor Star (Ontario)

Meanwhile, here's a list of major American newspapers that published the same revealing quote from Limbaugh:

(Crickets)

The sounds of silence were fitting for a press corps that treated Limbaugh's allegation as rational, manufactured a central element of the story (his 'apology'), mischaracterized Fox's commercial, suggested his actions had "spark[ed]" the controversy, and absolutely refused to put Limbaugh's attack in any sort of historical context regarding the talker's established record of hate speech.

But this is nothing new. Despite Limbaugh torrent of rhetoric about how the press vilifies him (it's called a schtick; every radio talk show host needs one), the truth is Beltway media players routinely play nice with Limbaugh and his fringe brand of conservatism. Anxious for his right-wing seal of approval (and spooked by his liberal bias charges), the mainstream press corps has for years treated Limbaugh with undeserved respect, worked to soften his radical edges, and presented him as simply a partisan pundit.

Why else would The Washington Post equate Limbaugh to Comedy Central's award-winning late-night satirist Jon Stewart? And why else would washingtonpost.com describe Limbaugh as a "mainstream conservative" who simply "pokes fun" at Democratic "policy" and not at individuals?

As if on cue last week, the press treated Limbaugh's odious, left-field attack as if it were a normal part of the public discourse -- naturally somebody would question whether Fox's body contortions were part of an act. "Rush has done his job well," blogger Jane Hamsher wrote at firedoglake.com last week. "The goalposts are suddenly moved, this is considered a legitimate line of inquiry."

And it was key press players, such as NBC's Matt Lauer, who dutifully helped move those goalposts. In fact, Lauer may have uttered the Quote of the Year when he painted Limbaugh as some sort of Everyman, speaking the quiet truths of most Americans:

LAUER: Rush Limbaugh started a lot of controversy when he said perhaps Michael J. Fox is exaggerating or faking these effects of Parkinson's Disease in that ad promoting stem cell research. Didn't Rush Limbaugh just say what a lot of people are privately thinking? [Emphasis added]

Lauer assumed lots of people watched Fox, who suffers from an incurable brain disorder, and figured, yeah, he's fakin' it.

Shelter from the storm

Unfortunately, that's been the knee-jerk response to dealing with Limbaugh controversies, particularly in the world of network news, where the rule of thumb is to provide the powerful right-wing talker with all sorts of cover. Lauer's former colleague Katie Couric was so anxious to make sure she got Limbaugh's side of the Fox story last week that she personally contacted the host. Limbaugh told Couric the point he had tried to make on his program was that Fox "is stumping for Democrats in the political arena and is, therefore, open to analysis and criticism as we all are." Of course, that was not the point Limbaugh made when he mocked Fox's disease, but Couric pretended not to know the difference. (The only celebrity network TV host I saw who responded to Limbaugh's off-the-chart smear the way any rationale person would (i.e. "WTF?") was Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer.)

Keep in mind that last month, during her first week in the anchor chair at CBS, Couric personally contacted Limbaugh and asked him to contribute a "Free Speech" segment for her nightly newscast. "Free Speech" is where outsiders are invited to tape op-eds and is touted by CBS as a forum to restore "civil discourse." I'm guessing Couric was aware of the multiple layers of ironies involved with including Limbaugh in a forum designed to restore "civil discourse." I assume she and her staff understood that Limbaugh has, among an endless litany of insults, called Sen. John Kerry a "gigolo," mocked Democratic Party chief Howard Dean as "a very sick man," labeled liberal philanthropist George Soros a "self-hating Jew," and announced that Democrats "hate this country." It seems clear Couric was so anxious to have Limbaugh onboard that she didn't much care about the uncomfortable ironies.

Couric's not the only network anchor in recent years to genuflect before Limbaugh in search of a conservative seal of approval. Just weeks after he took over the NBC Nightly News anchor chair in late 2004, Brian Williams told a C-SPAN interviewer that he felt it was his duty to listen to Limbaugh every day and hoped that Limbaugh would get his "due" as a broadcaster.

Earlier that year, and just months after insisting, "What's good for Al Qaeda is good for the Democratic Party in this country today," Limbaugh broke with his traditional no-guest rule and welcomed NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert on his radio show. An appreciative Russert, out peddling a new book, said it was "an honor" to be on the program. In fact, at one point Russert playfully suggested nominating Limbaugh as the next host of Meet the Press. Limbaugh signed off the boys club chat with, "Anyway, this has been fun. I always enjoy talking to you, and I appreciate our relationship over the years."

Make no mistake, careerism is a key element behind the media's kid glove handling of Limbaugh. Very few Beltway press insiders want to cross him or feel the wrath of his press-hating listeners -- the same listeners who helped drive Dan Rather from his job as CBS anchor following the 2004 controversy regarding CBS' report on Bush and the Texas Air National Guard.

Read this back-and-forth between ABC News' Ryan Owens and deputy political director David Chalian and note how nervous they were about offending the mighty Limbaugh. The program was Inside the Newsroom, which is part of ABC's digital and broadband news service. The two were discussing the Fox/Limbaugh controversy and had just aired the shock jock's quote about how Fox was "exaggerating the effects of the disease. He is moving all around and shaking. And it's purely an act":

OWENS: Guess what, I'm gonna stay out of this and toss it right over to you, David. What do you think?

CHALIAN: You know, as for Rush Limbaugh -- I'm not gonna pick a fight with Rush Limbaugh.

OWENS: At least you try to respond, which makes you a better man than me.

Perhaps the timidity isn't surprising considering that their boss at ABC News, Mark Halperin, the director of the networks' political unit, is a longtime Rush admirer. "Twelve o'clock for a normal person might be 'Let's think about having lunch,' but for me it's 'Rush Limbaugh is on,' " he once told a reporter. (Last week, Halperin labeled Limbaugh an "American iconic" figure.)

Keep in mind that Halperin recently agreed with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that the mainstream media have a liberal bias and that his duty at ABC is to convince conservative partisans that his news organization can be trusted. In that context, ABC's continuously skewed coverage of Limbaugh's '"apology'" begins to make sense.

ABC shifts the focus onto Michael J. Fox

For instance, ABC erroneously described the Fox stem cell ad as "tough," insisted Fox had "blasted" Republicans, and that following Limbaugh's attack the actor had publicly "fired back." None of the characterizations was accurate. Tough? The facts-only text of the ad was downright timid compared to traditional campaign mudslinging. "Blasted"? Fox simply took issue with the Republican position on embryonic stem cell research. (They largely oppose it.) "Fired back"? Fox's initial public response to Limbaugh was almost comically reserved; a one-sentence joke about how his meds currently seemed to be working fine.

ABC News also worked overtime to shift the attention away from Limbaugh and place the onus on Fox, as the network falsely reported it was the actions of the sick actor that were "raising lots of eyebrows." ABC insisted there was "a big debate about Michael J. Fox." It pushed the false story that "the political backlash of the Fox ad lasted well into this week." And ABC reported, "The bitterest political battle in the closing days of this campaign has erupted in Missouri. And it centers on Michael J. Fox." [Emphasis added.]

Let's be clear, Fox's commercial in and of itself when it aired in Missouri on October 21 was a non-story nationally. The real-time reaction to the ad in the press as well as by big-time conservatives was virtually nil. (Go back and check the transcripts and the clips. I did.) Without Limbaugh and his baseless, tasteless allegation, the Fox ad would have quietly come and gone, generating only minor interest. But the press, led by ABC, seemed determined to tag Fox for creating the uproar.

And then there was the botched apology reporting. There, ABC had lots of company. Here's what Limbaugh said on October 23:

"So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act." [Emphasis added]

"That's not an apology," John Aravosis correctly noted on his Americablog last week. "It's not even one of those lame 'I apologize if you were offended' apologies." Not matter. The media had their script -- Rush apologized! -- and they were sticking with it. That included news outlets such as CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Time, the Associated Press, The Kansas City Star, The Washington Post, the New York Daily News, the Houston Chronicle, and The Wall Street Journal, just to name a few.

Then midway through last week, Limbaugh, as if irked by the inaccurate press accounts of his so-called apology, defiantly announced "I stand by what I said." Yet even after he erased any doubt, the press refused to adjust its preferred narrative:

  • "Limbaugh apologized for saying Fox was faking." [ABC News]
  • "Limbaugh's remarks caused a furor this week and prompted him to issue a rare apology." [The Baltimore Sun]
  • "Limbaugh apologized later in the broadcast." [AP]
  • "Rush Limbaugh apologizes." ]National Public Radio]
  • "Limbaugh, who was attacked for his comments about Fox, later apologized." [Newsday]
  • "Limbaugh later apologized." [USA Today]
  • "Mr. Limbaugh has since apologized." [The Washington Times]
  • "Limbaugh later apologized." [Los Angeles Times]

Those press mentions of an apology all came within the 48 hours after Limbaugh pointedly refused to express any regret. Yet the media still clung to the quaint, naive notion that Limbaugh, seeing the error of his ways, said he was sorry for smearing a sick man suffering from a degenerative disease.

The press just can't bring itself to tell the truth about Rush Limbaugh.

Network/Outlet
NBC, ABC, Westwood One
Person
Rush Limbaugh, Matt Lauer
Show/Publication
The Rush Limbaugh Show, Today Show
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine, 2006 Elections
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