Streams

Commentary: Dittoheads Take Note

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Rush Limbaugh has recently disappeared from both the radio and television programs he was on, after sparking a racial controversy, and acknowledging a drug habit. WNYC's Brian Lehrer says Limbaugh's problems in the two media may be different, but they are related.


Brian: On the radio, Rush Limbaugh is, in effect, a politician. His reputation and his success derive from his personal credibility with his audience, and his ability to convince millions of listeners daily that he is right, and those who disagree with him are wrong on the issues of the day. People who routinely look to Limbaugh for political guidance call themselves dittoheads.

Now let's be honest. The circumstances suggest that Limbaugh did not go into rehab for its own sake, or simply because he got outed by the press as an addict.

It was also revealed that there is a criminal investigation into how he may have obtained thousands of pills from a South Florida drug ring, and going into rehab before any indictment or plea bargain helps him to spin himself to his public as responsible and credible.

After all, one of Limbaugh's main public policy arguments over the years has been that almost anything about the state of a person's life is a matter of personal responsibility, not social context. Entering rehab AFTER getting busted could have destroyed his career.

And as with elected officials who get into trouble, it's also worth comparing Limbaugh's situation with his public positions on such cases: Presumably, Limbaugh is not going to volunteer to go to prison. But the press has been unearthing relevant quotes from past Limbaugh programs, such as this one published in Newsday on the disparity between whites and blacks prosecuted for personal drug use. Quote:

"Too many whites are getting away with drug use." "The answer to this disparity," "is not to start letting people out of jail ... The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river too."
Am I arguing for prison time for Rush Limbaugh for drug possession? Actually, no. But hopefully, his case will inspire a fresh look at the issue of incarcerating any non-violent drug offenders, and the disparity between how the system treats rich white guys like him and 20 year olds in the ghetto caught with crack.


Then there is Limbaugh's brief television career as an ESPN football analyst.

As you've probably heard, Limbaugh got canned after four weeks for saying that the media overrate Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles because they want to see a Black quarterback succeed. But almost no one agrees with him that sportswriters are hyping the intelligence on McNabb. Even that great football expert Bill O'Reilly opined as much on his show, and you might expect him to take Limbaugh's side.

But such is the disparity between talk radio and pro sports. The sports world is among the most successfully integrated industries in America. Talk radio is overwhelmingly dominated by conservative white male hosts, and conservative white male listeners. In that context, diminishing the accomplishments of Black people makes good business sense. But for ESPN, it's like injecting poison into a well-mixed drink.

Sadly, ESPN must have thought that by hiring Limbaugh, their largely white male conservative football audience would get a few grins, and overlook Limbaugh's lack of football experience, and their Black viewers - who would generally know and be revolted by Rush Limbaugh - either wouldn't notice, wouldn't care, or just didn't matter enough to the company's bottom line.

Is it a coincidence that Limbaugh had to disappear from both his shows at once? Maybe. But the two issues are not unrelated, and probably contain lessons for all talk show hosts, this one included. Twice in two weeks, Limbaugh's cavalier studio rhetoric has been exposed as having a tenuous relationship to actual experience in the real world. Dittoheads take note.

WNYC's Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call in show weekdays at 10am.

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