A LUCKY WEEK FOR LIMBAUGH?
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- It was a lucky week for Rush Limbaugh, what with the media spotlight being on Arnold Schwarzenegger. This seems to have relieved Limbaugh, at least so far, from experiencing a media firestorm that he richly deserves. Since Sept. 28, Limbaugh has been roundly criticized for remarks he made about a black football player, was forced to resign from his position as football commentator on ESPN, and in a separate inquiry is being accused of being a big-time drug abuser. It's getting a little hard to keep track.
The first part of the story is incontrovertible, involving what Limbaugh himself said as a television commentator. This year, Limbaugh added to his already busy career as the nation's most successful talk radio host to take a position as commentator on NFL Sunday Countdown, a show carried by sports television network ESPN. On last Sunday's show, Limbaugh took off in a manner by now familiar to talk radio listeners, dredging up the old accusation about black Americans receiving unfair advantage.
Anyone who listens to Limbaugh for any length of time is familiar with the Limbaugh approach to racial relations, perhaps best characterized by his penchant for lispingly referring to Jesse Jackson as "The Rev--erand Yack-thon."
This time, instead of Jesse Jackson or other black political leaders, it was Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb who was the target.
Limbaugh's remarks, as transcribed and reported by Los Angeles Times media reporter Tim Rutten went as follows: "Sorry to say this. I don't think he has been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well, black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve ... "
Rutten;s Oct. 3 column in the Los Angeles Times, critiques this statement not only from the media standpoint but also as incompetent football analysis. "Were the sports media being politically correct when they chronicled the exploits that made McNabb one of the most honored student-athletes in the history of Syracuse University? When he tied the school's single-season passing record? When he set a record for total offense? Was it an act of social engineering - there's a phrase beloved of talk radio - that made him the runner-up in the voting for the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2000? Were the other teams throwing games when McNabb led the Eagles to their first NFC East championship in years?
The flurry continued. The sports pages of the Los Angeles Times ran a column by Mike Penner which excoriated ESPN: "Let's go to the videotape. On Sunday's 'Countdown,' Limbaugh set out to do what he was hired by ESPN to do - turn the network's once-respected NFL pregame show into a cheesy carnival act. Step right up! Step right up! You with the big mouth! Get up here and throw some beanbags and try to knock over the former Pro Bowl players sitting there like metal milk bottles!" Penner is referring here to Tom Jackson, Michael Irvin and Steve Young, other commentators on what was, after all, supposed to be a discussion of football.
Perhaps the best response of all was to be found in the letters column, where Steve Kehela wrote, " I'm sure Rush Limbaugh would have us believe that Barry Bonds is also overrated. As were Jim Brown, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Jackie Robinson was nothing special. The evil, liberal media thought it 'very desirous' that these black athletes do well."
Pretty good so far, but Kehela takes tongue out of cheek long enough to deliver his summing up: "It is not shocking that a known bigot such as Limbaugh would show his true racist colors. What I find hard to believe is that he would be stupid enough to make these comments on ESPN, instead of the Fox News Channel (where he would be hailed as a genius)."
The controversy expanded as people began to ask why the other panelists on Sunday NFL Countdown failed to respond to such provocative remarks. The following week's show (Sunday, October 5) provided an opportunity, as reported on SI.com, the Sports Illustrated section of the cnn.com Web site. Countdown hosts Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, and Steve Young all took their digs at Limbaugh. "It was not our decision to have Rush Limbaugh on this show." . .... Limbaugh "refused to recognize that in the last 20 years the quarterback position has become blind to color." . . . "I'm angry for all the hurt ..." (Jackson, Young, and Berman, respectively).
Tim Rutten's piece in the Los Angeles Times may have said it best: "What occurred in this case has nothing to do with sports journalism's purported political correctness and everything to do with what happens when provocateurs of his ilk venture too far outside the ideologically sheltered workshop of talk radio."
"Over the past decade, the dripping-fang school of right-wing polemic has squeezed every other shade of opinion off commercial talk radio, in large part because station owners would trade their first-born-children for a larger share of 18-to-34 year old audience with which these shows are so popular."
Rutten finishes by observing that Limbaugh's assault failed not only because the audience recognized the athletic context correctly, "but also because the calculated ideological provocation that is a staple on talk radio does not translate to television. Ask Michael Savage, who this year lost his MSNBC talk show for making homophobic remarks. In this country, though, nothing provokes like race, which is why talk radio has become an electronic safe house for cagey race-baiters."
This is a nice summary of what is already evident to those of us who follow talk radio. It raises the question of why and how the situation came to be this way and implies the corollary question as to whether there is any way to change the current situation.
By Wednesday, October 1, Rush was gone from ESPN television, but his troubles were not quite over in what was becoming a very long week for him.
The Oct. 14 edition of The National Enquirer, now available at supermarkets everywhere, has a five-page spread revealing "Rush Limbaugh Caught in Drug Ring," followed by a subhead declaring "Rush Limbaugh: A Secret Pill-Popping Drug Addict." Disclosure: This is the first issue of The National Enquirer I have ever purchased. My wife looked embarrassed as we went through the supermarket checkout line with it.
The article begins, "Popular conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh has been secretly battling addiction to narcotics - and he's embroiled in a high-priority drug-ring investigation, The Enquirer has learned exclusively." What follows is a story that asserts Limbaugh secretly purchased thousands of prescription-level narcotic pills including hydrocodone and OxyContin, opioid narcotics similar in mode of action to morphine.
The story refers to an ongoing police investigation that has already resulted in several arrests and details the relationship Limbaugh developed with his housekeeper-turned-drug dealer, who supplied him with pills but eventually went to the authorities. The Enquirer rubs it in just a little in a side bar quoting Limbaugh's own remarks against drug legalization.
The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 3 ran a carefully worded piece describing the Enquirer story. The Times also referred to a New York Daily News report "that it had independently confirmed the probe involving Limbaugh and reported that he had been turned in by his former housekeeper, who said she kept him supplied with pills for four years."
This story, if correct, should be the proverbial bombshell. The Los Angeles Times ran it on page A14. Page 1 was devoted largely to the California recall election and the fact that Arnold apologized that he behaved badly.
It was a lucky week for Rush Limbaugh. The rest of us should only be lucky enough not to have such good luck.