B y L a r r y S m i t h
TIME, AND SPACE, is short when you're a watchdog group of modest means trying to debunk a multi-million-dollar media machine. Such is the task of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), the New York-based organization that monitors the media, and, like so many others during this age of rage, finds itself infatuated with Rush Limbaugh.
Unlike the angry white guy crowd that raises its collective brewski to toast his Rush-ness, or the mainstream media who document his antics with both an envious wink at his popularity and nervous brush-off of his policy-shaping power, the folks at FAIR are in the business of ripping the clothes off the emperor. In meticulous fashion, their highly readable and extremely important new book, The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, strips Rush Limbaugh down to his nefarious, naked core. It's a dirty job, but, as this book testifies, somebody's got to do it.
"That a character like Limbaugh could ascend to the apex of media influence tells us much about the structure and biases of the American media," explain the FAIR writers. "The fact that no commentator today has more broadcasting power than Limbaugh reveals the absurdity of his daily attacks on the so-called liberal media."
FAIR associates Steven Rendall, Jim Naureckas and Jeff Cohen use every inch of space allotted in their 128 pages to expose Limbaugh lies. The discussion gets underway even before the book itself does; on the copyright page that precedes the table of contents, Mose Allison's song "Your Mind is on Vacation" sets the stage:
You know if talk was criminal
You'd lead a life of crime
Because your mind is on vacation
And your mouth is working overtime.
Throughout The Way Things Aren't, you won't know whether to laugh or to cry. If the analysts at FAIR have done their job, which they have, you will probably do both.
FAIR first made an anti-Limbaugh splash by publishing "Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error," a lengthy report in the June, 1994 issue of its bi-monthly magazine, EXTRA! The bulk of The Way Things Aren't is a systemic expansion on that report. Debunking a man with a bully pulpit of 20 million listeners takes the form of "Limbaugh" ("Taxpaying citizens are not being given the access to these welfare and health services they deserve and desire, but if you're an illegal immigrant and cross the border, you get everything you want.") versus "Reality" ("Although illegal immigrants pay taxes, they are ineligible for almost all federal and state programs, including cash welfare, food stamps, student loans, and federally funded health care, except for emergency treatment.") In the mix are lampoons by cartoonists such as Tom Tomorrow, Gary Trudeau and Mike Luckovich as well as the occasional "Limbaugh versus Limbaugh" anecdote (blurbs which reveal how the Clown Prince contradicts even himself--hypocrisies often found within mere pages in his books). Also noteworthy: FAIR's seven-step program for dealing with, confronting and combating Limbaugh-mania on a local level.
But wouldn't this guy have less power if the media simply ignored him? Why should those pesky whiners at FAIR and 'zines such as the Flush Rush Quarterly bother with Limbaugh? Because, as journalist Molly Ivins writes in her forward to The Way Things Aren't, Limbaugh constitutes a real and present danger. "[S]atire can be a cruel weapon," writes Ivins. "It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire as a weapon against powerless people, it is not only cruel, it is profoundly vulgar. When I listen to Limbaugh...I find he consistently targets dead people, little girls, the homeless, and animals--none of whom are in a particularly good position to respond." Legions of people bite, swallow, and re-spew Limbaugh's nasty bait each day; some of it is bound to rub off on the rest of society, including how individuals vote, as the 104th Congress reminds us each day.
Indeed, Limbaugh's antics have received plenty of press. But as The Way Things Aren't illustrates, most of the media nonetheless allow his lies and distortions to go unchecked. The writers argue that the press gives "little scrutiny to a man who is probably the most influential commentator in the country." Take Maureen Dowd's March, 1993 New York Times profile, "At Dinner With Rush Limbaugh." Here the newspaper of record's scrappy star reporter depicts the man who calls himself "The most dangerous man in the world" as merely a big lug. Her Limbaugh is a man whose bomb-thrower exterior masks a hopeless romantic, a guy shy in social situations who is embarrassed when a friend makes a disparaging comment in a female reporter's presence. While she doesn't exactly let Limbaugh off the hook for his attacks on feminists, blacks, the homeless, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, artists, and others, Limbaugh is still treated as a celebrity-style bully rather than the McCarthy-like demagogue that FAIR depicts.
Maybe so, but is it that these New York media watchdogs are just a pack of grouchy complainers, yet another extension of that Liberal Media Conspiracy? Isn't Limbaugh simply an entertainer on the order of Howard Stern or Andrew Dice Clay? While there's plenty to laugh at (as opposed to with) when tearing away at such a mammoth subject, the truth is, what's going on with Rush Limbaugh and the American public just ain't funny. Limbaugh's misinformation can cause great pain for great numbers of people. FAIR offers scores of examples, such as the case of Sherrol Miller, described in the following "Limbaugh" versus "Reality" piece:
LIMBAUGH: "One of the hottest commodities on the talk-show circuit in 1993 was Sherrol Miller, a 44-year-old nurse from Louisville, Kentucky....Let's just say that Ms. Miller (or is it Mr.?) claims to be a transsexual lesbian." (See, I Told You So, p. 212).
REALITY: Sherrol Miller is neither a transsexual nor a lesbian...Limbaugh mixed her up with another talk-show guest mentioned in the same (Wall Street) Journal article. In the weeks after the release of Limbaugh's book, Miller said she received "about 40 telephone messages a day from all over the country--some, she said, of a threatening nature." (Louisville Courier-Journal, 12/2/93) Her libel suit against Limbaugh and his publisher was settled out of court. (Gannett News Service, 10/12/94)
So who has had the gumption to flush Rush? Surprisingly enough, it's another self-made Midwesterner from pop culture's mainstream: "Limbaugh was confronted on his put-down habit when he appeared as a guest on David Letterman's show in December 1993. When Limbaugh--during an anti-Hillary Clinton spiel--said that a photo of Mrs. Clinton made her look like a Pontiac hood ornament, Letterman interjected: "And you can say that because you are the finest-looking human specimen on the planet." The audience cheered wildly. It was a rare TV moment; someone had talked back to Limbaugh."
Buy two of these books: one for yourself (it makes great bathroom reading) and one for a diehard listener in need of deprogramming. If you think you don't know any Rush followers, think again: with Limbaugh broadcasting on 650 radio and 250 TV stations and counting, there's bound to be a Dittohead coming soon to an apartment building, airplane flight, or theater line near you.
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