Anyone paying the slightest attention has heard of right-wing talker Rush Limbaugh’s three-day rant against a female Georgetown University law student whom Republicans refused to allow to testify at a congressional birth control hearing. It wasn’t about one or two words Rush said but about days of misogyny and crazy-making bloviating.
What did we learn from this latest display of Limbaugh?
(1) Absolutely nothing new about Rush. If we’re shocked, we’ve been living under a rock.
From his beginnings on national radio, he’s been caught, lying, distorting, and misrepresenting anything and anyone that doesn’t sound right-wing enough for him, and calling it entertainment.
Al Franken said at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner back in April 1994: “Most of us here in the media are what I consider infotainers….Rush Limbaugh is what I call a disinfotainer. He entertains by spreading disinformation.
A year later the media watchdog group, FAIR, published the 128 page paperback The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error: Over 100 Outrageously False and Foolish Statements from America's Most Powerful Radio and TV Commentator, which chronicled his lies only until 1995. Lie after lie after lie have been identified since.
And as for anti-women talk? Remember in 1993 when on TV he showed a picture of 13 year old Chelsea Clinton as “the White House dog?”
I remember tuning in briefly in curiosity even before then, concluding: this guy must be on drugs. And, sure enough, he was.
(2) To stay in the news, be outrageous. The media declares something “old news” quickly.
The Fred Phelps cult of Topeka, Kansas discovered this long ago. In order to get the attention they needed for their tiny, insignificant family-church, they’d have to act outrageously, and, to keep getting attention, to become progressively more outrageous.
Their protests lost the attention of locals and the regional press. So the Phelps clan painted even more vile slogans on their signs.
Their protests against those who died of complications from AIDS were old news. So they decided to picket memorials of the famous and soldiers and put their money in travel around the country to hit well-publicized funerals.
The best thing one can do to a Phelps’ picket is to ignore it. However, when they show up in a new place, the media won’t.
We can’t know what’s really in the head of someone who talks like a sociopath with a microphone, but as an entertainer Rush knows he can get the psychological attention celebrities crave by being in the center of things. Rush needs that. So he practices: “it doesn’t matter what people are saying about you, as long as they’re talking about you.”
Sure, he might lose some sponsors for now. But how many people who don’t agree with him will tune in waiting for the next crazy thing he’ll say?
And how many will do that because, they tell us, we have to know what the “other side” is saying, even though the gist of it all never changes?
(3) How to “apologize” without apologizing. In an 191-word statement on his website mostly explaining how he was right on the issue, he did what most leaders do that’s called an “apology.”
“My choice of words was not the best and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir,” he wrote. “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
Even regularly offensive right-wing talker Don Imus called this “lame,” and referred to Limbaugh as an “insincere pig.” It probably takes one to know one.
But this is the nature of most responses that are called apologies today. They actually place the blame on the offended party.
Stephen Pastis captured this in his popular comic strip, “Pearls Before Swine.”
Rat told Pig: “I’m going to start apologizing to all the people I’ve insulted by telling them ‘I’m sorry that you were offended.’”
Pig questioned whether that was a real apology. So Rat responded: “No. That’s what’s so great. It allows me to retain the impact of the original insult while taking on the implied bonus insult of ‘You are an oversensitive ninny.’”
To that Pig observed: “But that’s kinda rude cause it’s sorta saying the guy is too dumb to realize that.” Rat, of course, replied “I’m sorry that you were offended.” And clueless Pig said: “Apology accepted.”
A real apology would be: “I apologize. I should not have said that. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” But as long as a non-apology is accepted as an apology, no one has to take responsibility for what they’ve said.
(4) There is no free speech issue in sponsor boycotts. Boycotting sponsors is capitalism at work.
Journalist A.J Liebling, who said “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news,” famously observed: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Agreed: Everyone should have the right to express their opinions no matter how offensive. And, at least in theory everyone has the constitutional right to express opinions in public discourse.
But speech in corporate media isn’t free or equal. It never has been. It’s bought and paid speech, bought and paid for by media owners and their sponsors.
Media corporations are already the arbiters of who gets to speak on their networks. And it takes big money to buy a media megaphone.
We are fortunate now to even have some mainstream alternatives with a few liberal talkers and much of the lineup on MSNBC. They’ve changed the whole media landscape.
But we must remember that the customers of commercial media aren’t the viewers and listeners. Viewers and listeners are the products whose attention is delivered and sold to the sponsors.
I’m unconvinced that boycotts are always the best tactic, but no one has to be an unwilling product sold and used by corporations to spread what offends those being so used. The right-wing shouldn’t be the only group expressing their discontent with their being sold to advertisers.