Wednesday, January 20, 2010


On balance I have to say the American people usually get it right. Whether voting for a legislator or leader, or tuning in to a television program in large numbers, or even buying a consumer product en masse. Oh, I’ve had my moments of disappointment in Americans, like the time that jury found Orenthal James Simpson not guilty of two murders he obviously committed. Or the time that I witnessed America elect George W. Bush for a second term. But generally we Americans come through.

That is why I’m having such a hard time figuring out the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon. If you think phenomenon is too strong a word, let the numbers tell the story. Limbaugh is currently in the midst of a $400 million, eight-year contract, easily positioning him as the highest paid radio personality in the history of the medium. Nobody has an accurate handle on the size of his audience, but it is rarely estimated lower than 20 million listeners. Let me put that in perspective for you: In September, 2009, Nielsen Media Research put Oprah’s television audience at about seven million viewers daily. Limbaugh is heard three hours a day on more than 600 radio stations. The Armed Forces Radio Network broadcasts his show to military service personnel all over the world. It is highly possible that “Rush Radio” is heard by more human beings than anything else on the radio.

Limbaugh is the embodiment of the vulnerability of the First Amendment. He has twisted, distorted and maligned the most precious freedom we have – expression. His comments about the Haiti tragedy are probably his most heinous to date. So I am left to wonder, why are the American people not getting it right with this guy, when I generally trust that they do? What is it about this man that engenders such loyalty?

In case you’re one of the four Americans who haven’t yet heard Limbaugh’s outrageous post-earthquake comments, listen:

As one who communicates for a living, I support Limbaugh’s inalienable right to say such blatantly mean-spirited and hateful things in a public forum. I support it because if somehow Limbaugh’s right to express himself is limited, then so could my freedom or your freedom be limited. Freedom comes with a high price and in radio right now, the price tag is Limbaugh.

Still, many times when the man speaks, I cringe. Of the American military personnel who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Limbaugh said if the Americans are punished, “ we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?”

In 2006 when actor Michael J. Fox appeared in a campaign ad, visibly exhibiting the shaky symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, Limbaugh said, "He is exaggerating the effects of the disease. He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act. . . . This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting."

Limbaugh’s racist and sexist rants are now legendary. Of the black citizenry of the U.S., he once said, “They’re 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?” He labeled President Obama a “halfrican American.” Regarding unskilled laborers, Limbaugh is on record with this: “I'm serious, let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do -- let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.” And, of the women’s movement, Limbaugh offered, "Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.”

I could go on, but you get the picture. If you dismiss Limbaugh as simply an extremist fringe talking head, keep in mind those 20+ million devoted listeners. How many of them are buying into Limbaugh’s bigotry, hatred and negative rants? And how many others are those millions influencing by spreading the Limbaugh ideology? And what does it contribute to a civilized society? Often, Limbaugh is simply fueling the American fire of racism, frustration over unemployment, public disillusionment with government and widespread panic about terrorism. Limbaugh rarely offers reasonable solutions. Recently he told his listeners they should not worry about the cost of health insurance, simply because it costs less than buying a new car. Never mind that many of his listeners have never even owned a new car.

So, back to loyalty: I believe Limbaugh’s followers are loyal because he simply speaks up. Even in a culture that legally protects free speech, many Americans are afraid to voice their views for fear of being categorized, shunned or dismissed as extremists. Rush has no such fear. He has built his fortunes on the misfortunes of others, and he has been increasingly vocal about it for decades. Perhaps his listeners are living vicariously through Limbaugh. Or…more frighteningly, perhaps many of them truly believe what he says.

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