I am not a fan of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. I’ve been very critical of him in the past for what I often see as his nasty, personal and downright mean on-air commentary and behavior. I was especially critical of him earlier this year on MSNBC when he went after actor Michael J. Fox during last year’s congressional campaign for doing TV spots promoting Democrats who support stem cell research. Fox, a courageous and inspirational man who is struggling with Parkinson’s disease, had every right to talk about the importance of stem cell research and advocate that voters consider how some Democrats support it.
Instead of simply disagreeing with Fox’s argument on stem cell research, Limbaugh attempted to mimic Fox by flailing his arms and implying that Fox may have not taken his medication before doing the TV spot. Sure, Limbaugh apologized later, but one had to wonder what medication Limbaugh was or was not on that would explain such outrageous and absurd on-air behavior?
Since then Limbaugh has been involved in many other controversies. The latest involves the “phony soldiers” comments that Limbaugh made on his Sept. 26 radio program when talking to a caller who was blasting critics of the Iraq war. Said the caller, “What’s really funny is, they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.” Instinctively, Limbaugh responded: “the phony soldiers.”
There it was, clear as day: Limbaugh, sitting safe and sound in his New York radio studio, far away from the combat, the bombs and the life-and-death realities facing soldiers of all political stripes and beliefs, having the gall to use “phony soldiers” because they disagree with him and President Bush’s policy on Iraq.
Predictably, the media watchdog group Media Matters quickly put up Limbaugh’s comments; all of his words, the entire conversation. Limbaugh responded, of course, that he was “taken out of context.” He said he was in no way referring to soldiers who are war critics as “phony soldiers,” but rather that he was only targeting Jesse MacBeth, a war critic who lied about being an Iraq veteran.
The only catch is that Rush didn't say “phony solider”; he said “phony soldiers.” If he misspoke, he never apologized and took responsibility for what he said on the air. It’s unfortunate, because if he had, then retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark might not have had the ammunition to call for Limbaugh to be taken off Armed Forces Radio.
Clark has argued that public dollars should not be used to support Limbaugh’s attacks on U.S. soldiers. I understand Clark’s position and greatly respect his experience. But as hard as it is for me to say it, and has reprehensible as I think Limbaugh can be at times in his on- air commentary, I believe it’s wrong to take him off Armed Forces Radio.
The fact is, Limbaugh has had a long history of being supportive of the American military. On countless occasions, he’s been there for the troops. I’m convinced he cares deeply about U.S. soldiers, and while I believe he said something really stupid by calling war critics “phony soldiers,” I can understand how in a live, unedited, spur-of-the-moment situation someone who spends so many hours on the air can say something so dumb. It happens a lot. The fact that Limbaugh didn’t own up to it and say it was dumb and insensitive as well as apologize to all the troops, including those who disagree with him on Iraq, is unfortunate. As for Limbaugh’s “I was taken out of context” quote, give me a break. Media Matters just reported what he said and that was all it took. The reason I say Limbaugh shouldn’t be taken off of Armed Forces Radio is that for many soldiers who are dealing with an unimaginable daily existence, Limbaugh provides some respite, some relief, some entertainment, and maybe best of all, a diversion from fighting the war itself.
Clearly, Limbaugh hasn’t helped his own case by not manning up and owning his comments, but that’s not a good enough reason to take him off the air. Further, my sense is that the right and the left on the American political landscape have become so polarized that there is absolutely no benefit of the doubt given to certain members of the media who may disagree with your political ideology. Conservative talk show hosts constantly rail about MoveOn.org and their dumb, wrong headed, full-page ad in The New York Times calling Gen. David Petraeus “General Betray Us,” as if MoveOn.org is in bed with Al-Qaida. Also, MoveOn.org folks don’t help themselves by being against everything a Republican does regardless of its merit. However, MoveOn.org does have a place in the political and media landscape.
They are not un-American, they are just liberals who can’t stand Republicans and conservatives. As for liberals, many look for the slightest opportunity to destroy a conservative media type, like Limbaugh, for the slightest mistake or misstatement. I’m not talking Ann Coulter, and her vicious brand of “I’ll say anything I need to say to sell my books” rhetoric, but others who just happen to have a different political philosophy than most Democrats and liberals and make dumb mistakes. There is a polarizing mood out there that doesn’t allow anyone on the left or the right in the media to get away with anything. We attempt to destroy each others’ reputations, call for people to be taken off the air and accuse those who disagree with us in the media of the worst possible things, including being un- American. No wonder having a meaningful dialogue in the media is virtually impossible. We distrust each other so much, that we think the worst of each other on everything.
Look, like I said, I’m no fan of Limbaugh, and I’ll probably never forgive him for his Michael J. Fox “impression” (which has nothing to do with simply disagreeing with one’s political views.) But I don’t want to see the guy taken off any radio station, including Armed Forces Radio. To do that would strike a blow against real free speech, which often means defending and protecting the right of someone you vehemently disagree with.
In my heart, I can’t believe Limbaugh actually meant what he said. I wish that he had apologized immediately and owned up, but he didn’t. But that doesn’t mean he’s guilty enough to be censored and that American soldiers, regardless of their political beliefs, shouldn’t get to hear him and decide for themselves.
Write to Steve Adubato at Steve.Adubato@stand-deliver.com