RALEIGH — Where the media are concerned, it’s long been understood that you don’t need to let the facts deter you from taking a swipe at radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. What he says doesn’t matter to the media. It’s what they think he said that’s important.
Most of us are familiar with the Donovan McNabb incident on ESPN. The country seems to believe — because that’s what the media has told them — that Limbaugh aimed some racial smear at Donovan McNabb. This view is buttressed when, every time McNabb is mentioned on any sports talk show or in any news story, some reference is made to Limbaugh being fired for “making a racist comment” on the air about McNabb.
But what did Rush really say? Here’s the exact wording:
You know, I think the sum total of what you're all saying is that Donovan McNabb is regressing. He's going backwards. And my — I'm sorry to say this. I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we have here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.
Anyone with a lick of sense, which immediately disqualifies most in the media, can see that Limbaugh was criticizing the media for mollycoddling McNabb because of his skin color. But Google “Limbaugh ESPN McNabb” and see how many references you get that include the words “racist” and “bigoted.”
Another example is the “Barack the Magic Negro” brouhaha. That was the title of a song parody by Paul Shanklin, who does masterful sendups regularly for the Limbaugh show. As usual, the mainstream media jumped on the parody with glee, accusing Limbaugh of racism for daring to call Barack Obama a Magic Negro. What they downplayed and often obscured entirely was that the song was sartirizing an op-ed column that had appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The column, written by David Ehrenstein and titled “Obama the Magic Negro,” likened Obama to the non-threatening, non-sexual black men that find acceptance among whites.
Adding to the volatile media mix about this time was a statement by Sen. Joseph Biden that Obama was “articulate and bright and clean,” and Don Imus’s “nappy headed hoes” comment, which occurred a month before the Barack parody was discovered by the media, two months after it had first been used on the Limbaugh show. Many in the media wanted Limbaugh fired (an impossibility since he’s self-employed), just as Imus was fired by CBS.
As with the McNabb case, the context of the parody was lost on the media and, therefore, much of the public. All that was seen as certain was that Limbaugh had again done or said something racist. The template — or “action line” as Rush calls it — was secure: Rush is a right-wing racist and we all know it.
But the phenomenon of Rush’s statements being distorted, and his being blamed for things he never said and never meant, reached new levels today. A Harris Poll asking Americans how offensive they find certain racial slurs also asked a number of Americans how offensive they found certain statements by celebrities, among them Michael Richards’ n-word tirade, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant and Don Imus’ “nappy headed hoes” comment.
But there was another “incident” Harris asked about:
Rush Limbaugh’s reference to Senator Barack Obama as ‘Obama Osama’ on the radio.
Not surprisingly, 50 percent of respondents said that was indeed offensive. But what they didn’t know, and weren’t told, by the pollster or most of the media reports, was that it was not Limbaugh who first referred to Obama as “Osama,” it was Sen. Ted Kennedy.
When Kennedy mistakenly referred to Obama as “Osama bin — Osama Obama – Obama” in a National Press Club appearance in January 2005, Limbaugh made great use of the audio of the mistake. Since that time he has often referred to Obama as Osama Obama in an obvious attempt to ridicule Kennedy, but you’d have to be a regular Limbaugh listener — or have a responsible media relating the issue accurately — to know that.
Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper, Carolina Journal.