Chafets and Limbaugh: An Army of 1.1

Chafets’s new book provides a comically skewed look at Rush Limbaugh and a cautionary tale to journalists gone astray, writes Eric Alterman.

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Zev Chafets new book provides a comically skewed look at Rush Limbaugh and a cautionary tale to journalists gone astray, writes Eric Alterman. (AP/Ron Edmonds)
Zev Chafets new book provides a comically skewed look at Rush Limbaugh and a cautionary tale to journalists gone astray, writes Eric Alterman. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

When The New York Times Magazine decided it wanted to run a profile of Rush Limbaugh in the summer of 2008, the editors turned to writer Zev Chafets, a former flack for the conservative Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who had reinvented himself in the United States as a columnist, book author, and freelance journalist. The article contained the usual jokes about the so-called liberal media being out to get Limbaugh—“Are you the guy who’s here to do the hit job on us?” asks one of Limbaugh’s aides at the top of the piece. But its content actually shocked many readers by ignoring virtually of all of the political outrageousness that had made Limbaugh so controversial.

Chafets did have a reputation for being awfully sympathetic to conservatives—he is the author of a rapturous book about the Christian right—but he was not yet known to be such an easy a mark. And if you read that article, you would never have guessed at the combination of racism, resentment, and misinformation that forms the foundation of Limbaugh’s radio show.

Chafets presented Limbaugh as a kind of loveable teddy bear who was naturally “tickled to be taken out to eat on The New York Times.” True, he had a few quirks. Limbaugh launched “Operation Chaos” that year, instructing conservatives to vote for Hillary Clinton in crossover primaries in order to weaken the eventual nominee, Barack Obama. He pronounced his work to have “exceeded all expectations,” which Chafets parenthetically explained was Rush’s “customary self-evaluation.”

But Chafets entirely avoided the kind of sustained analysis of Limbaugh’s politics—as well as the source of his appeal—that the Atlantic’s James Fallows employed when profiling the radio host 14 years earlier. In that piece, entitled “Talent on Loan from the GOP,” the author noted the following:

Whenever Limbaugh talks about economics in either book he comes out with statements that invite a “Hey, wait a minute!” response. Limbaugh says that liberal politicians gorge at the public trough and don’t know what it means to earn an honest living. He then praises hardworking Republicans like Clarence Thomas and William Bennett, each of whom, of course, has spent most of his career on the public payroll. He inveighs against big-spending Democrats and deficit spending, but barely mentions the largest budget item of all, Social Security. Last year Limbaugh claimed on the air that as President, Bush faced a level of federal debt comparable to that which John Kennedy had faced—in each case the national debt totaled about 55 percent of the annual economic output. President Kennedy was praised for cutting taxes; therefore President Bush should have been too. He didn’t say that 55 percent under President Kennedy was part of a steep downward trend in the debt level. … Bush’s 55 percent was part of a dramatic rise.

Chafets’ article contained no such substance. It accepted almost everything Limbaugh claimed at face value and asked no embarrassing questions about the many, many, many untruths he has spread in the 14 years since Fallows profiled him or about the moral pollution he has poured into our media ecosphere. (Remember “the Clinton’s dog?”)

The notion that The New York Times—which is so hated by Limbaugh and his cronies and allegedly Ground Zero of the liberal media conspiracy—would actually publish a puff piece on the man should have been enough to cause some to question the entire paradigm that automatically places mainstream reporters on the opposite side of the issue as right-wing blowhards. But American conservatives’ ideology proved once again impervious to reality.

As it happens, we readers only knew the half of it. Chafets was not, it turned out, just a decidedly uncritical journalist when it came to Limbaugh. He was a full-fledged acolyte. His new book-length profile of the man, expanded from the profile, is called Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. It is published by Sentinel, the right-wing imprint of Penguin Books, and could not be kinder or more generous to Limbaugh if the man was Chafets’ grandmother.

New York Times book reviewer Janet Maslin notes, “A funny thing happened to Mr. Chafets’s reporting on its way to the bookshelf: It got declawed. The ticklish parts… vanished. It appears that the price of access to Mr. Limbaugh for Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One has been the purging of any details that might pique him. Quotations are truncated in ways that make them softer, and the boosterism has been boosted.” Maslin compares Chafets to a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, which sounds shocking at first, until one considers the fact that we are dealing with an author who explains, “Republican success in 2010 can be boiled down to two words: Rush Limbaugh.”

The book is filled with examples of what might be called “reality as Limbaugh would like to believe it.” In his profile, for instance, Chafets discussed the burning question of Limbaugh’s surfeit of insanely expensive cars.

Very rich people tend not to stint on transportation. For example, we drove to the house from the studio, Limbaugh at the wheel, in a black Maybach 57S, which runs around $450,000 fully loaded. He had half a dozen similar rides on his estate. ‘I have these cars for two reasons,’ Limbaugh said. ‘First, they are for the use of my guests. And two, I happen to love fine automobiles.’

Bad enough, you say. Now look at what Chafets felt compelled to add to that gushing paragraph in the book version. “What I did wonder is why all of them were black. He told me that he likes black cars, which made a kind of sense. Limbaugh is old fashioned, even elegant, in his personal furnishing. Flashy cars are for hip-hop artists and arrivistes; professional men of substance ride in dignified black automobiles.”

That sounds pretty harmless, I know. But the rewriting of Rush’s history comes on heavier and heavier as the book comes on. Media Matters has come up with a veritable avalanche of examples of Chafets’ need to play fast and loose with the truth, to put it generously. I would place them into the following categories:

Outright lies

Chafets accuses the media of being pro-Obama, using as evidence that Fox News “revealed the political and professional connection between Obama and former Weatherman terrorist leader Bill Ayers.” Fox News certainly engaged in unparalleled misinformation about Obama’s supposed ties to Ayers, but Fox did not break the story.

According to Media Matters: “The truth is that MSNBC, Bloomberg, others brought up Ayers before Fox News. According to a Nexis search, Peter Hitchens wrote about Ayers and Obama for the London Daily Mail on February 2, 2008. Bloomberg (February 15), The New York Sun (February 19), Politico (February 22), and (February 24) followed Hitchens. Then-MSNBC host Tucker Carlson brought up Ayers on the February 22, 2008 edition of his program. Fox News didn’t bring up Ayers according to Nexis until February 27, and then it was by Sean Hannity and Dennis Miller.”

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog wrote of the chain of Ayers articles: “The first article in the mainstream press linking Obama to Ayers appeared in the London Daily Mail on February 2. It was written by Peter Hitchens, the right-wing brother of the left-wing firebrand turned Iraq war supporter, Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens cited the Ayers connection to bolster his argument that Obama is ‘far more radical than he would like us to know.’”

Lies by omission

Chafets writes, “In 2008 Limbaugh rebroadcast part of his debate with Gore. The ex-vice president had since won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize for his environmental endeavors. He had also become an environmental businessman and investor, parlaying his high profile and Washington connections into a multimillion-dollar empire of green enterprises.”

Chafets’ footnote states: “In 2009, while testifying before Congress, Gore was asked if he would personally benefit from policies he was advocating for. Gore said he was proud to be in business and invest his money according to his beliefs. ‘If you believe the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is greed, you don’t know me.’ Like all self-testimonials, this was not dispositive.”

But truth is: Chafets omits Gore’s statement that he donates “every penny” back to his nonprofit. Gore stated that “every penny that I have made, I have put right into a nonprofit, the Alliance for Climate Protection, to spread awareness of why we have to take on this challenge.”

Lies by doctored transcripts

“Chafets claims that Limbaugh learned a ‘lesson’ from his early days in radio and ‘to this day, Limbaugh is polite to his callers,’” Media Matters writes. We wonder how that squares with the time that when a caller asked Limbaugh about earthquake comments, he defended them, and called her a “blockhead” with “tampons” in her ears.

Media Matters also notes that Chafets was willing to edit Limbaugh’s outrageous comments about “phony soldiers” who questioned the wisdom of the war in Iraq to make them appear nearly identical to Limbaugh’s own efforts to doctor transcript and audio to cover up what he had really said. They noted at the time, “Limbaugh responded to the controversy by purporting to air the ‘entire’ segment in which he had referred to ‘phony soldiers.’ In fact, the clip he then aired omitted a full 1 minute and 35 seconds of the 1 minute and 50 second discussion.”

Media Matters also notes that in his footnote:

Chafets compounds his false claims, writing: ‘Media Matters tried to correct its initial mistake by saying that Limbaugh had referred to phony soldiers (plural). Limbaugh responded by posting an ABC News Report titled ‘Phony Heroes’; the story of Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, whose grisly first-person accounts of the war in Iraq were challenged, causing the New Republic to admit that it couldn’t stand by the articles it had published; and the fact that one of the spokesmen for Vietnam Veterans Against the War had later admitted lying about his service record.’

But both Limbaugh and Chafets are deliberately distorting the truth. Limbaugh was not referring to multiple actual military impostors when he made his original comments. “Indeed,” Media Matters notes, “Limbaugh admitted as much in his initial response to the controversy when he repeatedly claimed—also falsely—that he was talking about only ‘one’ soldier. A transcript posted on Limbaugh’s website shows him emphasizing that he ‘was talking about one soldier with that phony soldier comment, Jesse MacBeth.’”

Media Matters explains that “After being confronted with the fact that he had originally referred to ‘phony soldiers’ (plural), Limbaugh changed his story to claim he was actually talking about more than one military impostor—a direct contradiction of his original false explanation. And while Limbaugh did at one point in his response include Beauchamp in his evolving list of ‘phony soldiers,’ he also included decorated Vietnam veteran John Murtha. Limbaugh’s description of Murtha as a ‘phony soldier’ further disproves Chafets’ suggestion that Limbaugh was simply referring to individuals who lied about their military service.”

Just plain crazy

Chafets thinks Limbaugh deserves to be compared to Muhammad Ali because the two of them were both “controversial and dead serious about his political beliefs.” Chafets notes that Ali “became a Black Muslim when it was dangerously unpopular to do so, and he paid for it. He was willing to face prison time rather than serve in a war he didn’t support. And yet, despite it all, white reporters couldn’t quite take him seriously. When he said alarmingly incorrect things, like calling Joe Louis an Uncle Tom, dubbing his fight with George Foreman in Zaire ‘the rumble in the jungle,’ or mocking Joe Frazier as a gorilla, they thought it might be just part of the act.”

Chafets thinks Limbaugh “defeats his enemies in intellectual combat with half his brain tied behind his back, ‘just to make it fair.’” True, he’s not much of a boxer. And also true, no one would have cared what Ali said or respected him for his outrageous claims that Chafets weirdly chooses to make his point if he had not been able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee inside the ring. (Ali did say a number of brave and intelligent things as well, but calling Smokin’ Joe Frazier a “gorilla” was surely not one of them.)

Alas, concerning oneself with intellectual consistency in a Limbaugh love letter feels sort of unfair in the first place. And this brings us to our central point, which is not actually about Limbaugh, but about Chafets: Remember, this man was once a genuinely respected journalist whose work was nominated for awards from his colleagues. But in trying to give Limbaugh’s audience what it demands—and satisfy the man’s ego in the process—he has destroyed his reputation forever.

This is an important cautionary tale for the rest of the journalistic world. Chafets is a “ref” who has been worked all the way to professional suicide. He will have to spend the rest of his life admiring right-wingers’ car collections and helping them to falsify the truth. We wish him the best of luck and we hope he stays out of The New York Times Magazine for the rest of his natural life.

P.S. Like a stopped clock, Rush Limbuagh can be right twice a day. Here are a couple of examples I spotted:

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is,Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically hereand he is a regular contributor toThe Daily Beast.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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