In his Sunday profile of right-wing talker Rush Limbaugh, New York Times Magazine contributor Zev Chafets set the scene by describing his visit to Limbaugh's studio in Palm Beach, Florida. Chafets wrote that when he was buzzed into the control room adjacent to where Limbaugh broadcasts, he was greeted by a Limbaugh associate, a very large man wearing a beret who "glared" at the reporter and demanded in a deep voice, "Are you the guy who's here to do the hit job on us?"
After holding the menacing tone for a long moment, Chafets reported, the associate burst into emphatic laughter.
Get it? The joke was that Limbaugh and his inner circle despise the liberal media so much that they were going to give the Times writer a hard time right from the get-go.
Limbaugh had nothing to fear from the toothless tiger that came to Palm Beach to profile one of the most controversial media figures in politics today. The Times' resulting valentine was couched in such a creepy, tell-me-more-Uncle-Rush vibe (he was crowned "a singular political force") that readers could almost picture the reporter at Limbaugh's knee, eager to record the next morsel of wisdom.
How squishy-soft were the practically nonexistent edges of the Times puff piece? So supple that giddy staffers at NewsBusters were doing cartwheels in the halls. The right-wing media site alerted readers with an all-points bulletin moments after the Times piece was posted online: "NYT Article on Rush -- This is NO Hit Piece." (It likes him! The New York Times really likes him!)
For Limbaugh, the ego-stroking profile was quite an achievement: The mighty, and allegedly liberal, New York Times conducted what appeared to be a lengthy, in-depth, and objective profile of Limbaugh and came away very impressed by the titan talker. The Times, quite emphatically, provided its editorial seal of approval to Limbaugh, complete with the flattering, Tony Soprano-like cover photo.
But let's go back to that mock stare-down inside Limbaugh's control room for a moment. Because there was another layer of humor involved, but one that was lost on readers -- because they weren't made aware of the fact that the writer who profiled Limbaugh for the Times is pretty much a Dittohead, a Limbaugh devotee who thinks the "liberal media" are "unfair" to the right-wing host. So of course there was no reason to fear a "hit job." The whole notion was literally laughable.
I assume Chafets' right-leaning politics explain why Limbaugh referred to the writer as "a friend" in the article and why Limbaugh allowed Chafets unprecedented access not only to Limbaugh's studio, but to Limbaugh's house ("the first journalist ever to enter his home") and to his friends and his shrink. Limbaugh granted the access because he pretty much knew exactly what the outcome of the profile would be (or at least what the glowing tone of the piece would be), and he knew that Chafets wouldn't come within a country mile of making even a passing reference to the hate speech and unhinged attacks that Limbaugh routinely engages in on the airwaves.
Indeed, out of the 7,700-plus words Chafets wrote about Limbaugh, I counted exactly two in the entire piece in which the writer quoted a Limbaugh critic (apparently secondhand) saying something unkind about Limbaugh's craft.
Does every Limbaugh profile need to be a hit piece? Of course not. Should every serious Limbaugh profile at least try to convey to readers what's so controversial about the host and what he says on his radio program? Of course. And that's where the Times, rather obliviously, took the pratfall with its Limbaugh article.
I understand that Beltway media players routinely play nice with Limbaugh and his fringe brand of conservatism. Spooked by his liberal-bias charges, the mainstream press corps has for years treated Limbaugh with undeserved respect, worked overtime to soften his radical edges, and presented him as simply a partisan pundit. (Time's Mark Halperin has labeled Limbaugh an "American iconic" figure, while NBC News anchor Brian Williams fretted that Limbaugh doesn't "get the credit he is due" as a broadcaster.)
The lengthy Times profile took that trend to a whole new level, because unlike most previous half-hearted attempts to outline, in very general ways, what Limbaugh says and explain why he's controversial, the Times clearly never had any intention of shedding even the dimmest light on the content of Limbaugh's program. Instead, it hired a conservative writer to wistfully dismiss Limbaugh's critics in two or three sentences. And in exchange for playing dumb, the Times was granted unusual access to the talk-show host.
That kind of obvious quid pro quo is the type of thing that's practiced on a daily basis at celebrity magazines, where editors angle for access in exchange for puff pieces. It's not journalism, and it ought to be beneath the Times.
As I mentioned, the result was a win-win for Limbaugh. But what did the Times get out of the cozy deal, besides a very long, dull profile in which quotes like this were supposed to pass as insightful: "He's a liberal. I oppose liberals. That's all that's involved here"?
That's Limbaugh, referring to the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama. Scintillating, no?
Elsewhere in the piece, we're told important people (on the right) take Limbaugh "seriously as a polemicist and public intellectual." So, too, does Chafets, who pontificated on the talker's "belief in American exceptionalism" and toasted Limbaugh's ability to produce "funny," "fluent, often clever political talk" on a daily basis and his "virtuoso" performances.
For the Times writer, Limbaugh is much more than a talk-show host; he's an educator: "Limbaugh entertains, but he also instructs. He provides his listeners with news and views they can use, and he teaches them how to employ it." (FYI: Chafets also described Limbaugh as "the first white, Goldwater Republican soul shouter." Don't ask.)
To recap: Limbaugh's a "funny," "public intellectual" who produces "fluent, often clever political talk" and who also "instructs" and "teaches."
Honestly, I'm not sure how much research Chafets did on his subject (besides rounding up nifty quotes from Limbaugh's best buds, like Karl Rove and Roger Ailes), but any cursory Google search, let alone a stroll down Media Matters' memory lane, would have turned up lots of instances in which Limbaugh made news for his hateful rants.
But Chafets clearly never intended to inform readers about who Limbaugh is and what he actually does for a living. Instead, the reporter set out to paint false portraits of Limbaugh as a deep thinker as well as a powerful GOP insider. (More on that later.)
That's why there was no mention in the very long profile about the fact that Limbaugh has called Sen. John Kerry a "gigolo," mocked Democratic Party chief Howard Dean as "a very sick man," agreed that liberal philanthropist George Soros is a "self-hating Jew," denounced then-Sen. Tom Daschle as an Al Qaeda sympathizer, mocked anti-war crusader Cindy Sheehan, whose son was slain in Iraq, by teasing, " 'Oh, she lost her son' -- well, yes. Yes. Yes. But you know, this is [sigh] -- aaah. We all lose things."
Or that Limbaugh has claimed Democrats "hate this country" (i.e. "What's good for Al Qaeda is good for the Democratic Party in this country today"); denigrated members of the U.S. Armed Forces, calling military men and women who criticized the war in Iraq and advocated withdrawal "phony soldiers"; toasted photos of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib as "good old American pornography"; suggested actor Michael J. Fox faked symptoms of his life-threatening illness while taping a pro-stem-cell-research commercial; called Sen. Barack Obama a "Halfrican American"; and announced Obama and Osama bin Laden are "on the same page."
There was not even a whiff of those odious attacks in The New York Times. Who knows? Maybe Chafets, given his clear political leanings, didn't include those nuggets because he didn't think the smears were particularly controversial. Maybe Chafets agreed with all of Limbaugh's pronouncements.
It's certainly possible. Reading some of Chafets' previous work (he used to be a columnist for the New York Daily News), I often got the feeling that he was applying to be a Limbaugh ghost writer, the way he dumped all over Democrats and cheered lustfully for a war with Iraq.
One scurrilous Chafets column in particular really captured just how far out on the Democratic-hating fringes he has operated. The column was published less than three weeks before the 2004 election, and Chafets relayed a story, which he had heard secondhand, about the time Sen. Kerry made an official visit to Israel some 20 years earlier. According to Chafets, Kerry walked away dry-eyed after visiting a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. When an Israeli host told Kerry that then-Sen. Al Gore had been emotionally overwhelmed by the museum, Kerry, determined to match his stateside "rival," asked for time alone and then allegedly returned with tears in his eyes.
They were manufactured tears, according to the New York Times contributor whom Rush Limbaugh now calls "friend."
Safe to say that during the 2004 campaign, Chafets did everything he could to slime the Democratic nominee, who was nothing more than "the standard bearer for the unbearable" and a "Giant New England Slack-Jaw."
Chafets chuckled at Kerry when the Swift Boat Vets spread their smears about his war record, and wrote: "[Kerry] made a career out of being a proud Vietnam war hero who came home and threw away his medals."
Chafets has done lots of Dem-trashing in recent years. Surveying the field of possible presidential contenders in 2004, he announced that "Florida's Bob Graham is a flake with a heart condition." John Edwards resembled a "smarmy gigolo," was "pretty close to a cipher," and "lack[ed] even the most elementary qualifications" to be president. And former Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart was remembered as "the arrogant young senator from Colorado who lost his bid for the 1988 nomination by getting caught with his pants down."
And just like Limbaugh, Chafets was a loud cheerleader for the War on Terror (i.e. Islam "is an aggressive, violent political ideology") as well as the Iraq war, which Chafets anticipated with a somewhat demented sense of glee:
A lot of people feel guilty for enjoying the war. After all, some terrible things are happening. But worse things would happen if America failed to rid the world of Saddam. This time, right and might are on the same side. And there is something undeniably enjoyable about being on the sunny side of an uneven struggle between good and evil.
Unfortunately, it turned out Chafets was about as accurate as Limbaugh in his pronouncements about the Iraq war: "It's now clear that the military has a lid on the violence," the columnist confidently proclaimed a little more than four years ago this week.
I'm all for giving editors leeway in assigning writers for magazine cover stories. But I can't help wondering if Times public editor Clark Hoyt ought to look at this situation and determine whether the Times has ethical guidelines that generally frown upon hiring, in this case, a Democrat-bashing opinion writer to pen a magazine cover story about a Democrat-bashing media figure without ever letting readers in on the political alliance at play.
Journalism isn't supposed to hide perspectives and context. It's supposed to add them. Here, the Times deliberately did the opposite; it purposefully duped its readers.
That said, knowing more about Chafets' background now certainly helps explain why the whole Times Magazine piece was written in such solemn terms, as if the writer were being granted an audience with the great and powerful Rush Limbaugh: "I had come to talk to Limbaugh about his role in Republican Party politics."
The overall point of the piece seemed to be to document how wealthy Limbaugh is and what a powerful force he is within the Republican Party. There's no question Limbaugh is among the super-rich. (His new Clear Channel contract will ensure that.)
But the Times' ego-stroking premise that Limbaugh pulls the strings within the GOP remains laughable. It was just a few months ago that Limbaugh put his reputation on the line when he announced Sen. John McCain was not a true Republican (neither was Mike Huckabee) and that conservatives should vote for Mitt Romney to be the party's presidential nominee.
So what did millions of Republican voters nationwide do in response to Limbaugh's clarion call? They completely ignored him and voted for the guy Limbaugh said was a bum.
I mean, boy, how much more influential can he get?
But for whatever reason, the Times made an editorial decision regarding Limbaugh and paid Chafets to play dumb about the talk-show host.