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Limbaugh and the Military: No Story There

Why did the mainstream media shower criticism on MoveOn but find Limbaugh’s plainly anti-military remarks mostly uninteresting?

Last month, we were treated to wall-to-wall media apoplexy over MoveOn.org’s “General Betray Us” ad in the New York Times. The four all-news cable channels mentioned it over 500 times in the week following the advertisement’s appearance. The New York Times published five stories on the controversy alone. The Washington Post immediately declared that the advertisement “provided Republicans a life raft,” and Time’s Joe Klein agreed, saying the advertisement was “potentially very damaging to Democratic candidates running across the country.”

The storyline of a liberal organization going after “the military” in a partisan fashion proved irresistible, however unimportant it ultimately was compared with the issues at hand. Blogger Matt Stoller quipped later on that same week that discussion of progress in the war was detracting from discussion of the MoveOn ad. (Nevermind that while the advertisement did contain a foolishly inflammatory, and to some degree, misleading headline, its content raised the issue of whether a military official who had supported the Republican political strategy Iraq would do so again, despite overwhelming evidence to contradict his position).

Now compare and contrast a far worse offense to common decency and military sacrifice. On September 26, Rush Limbaugh—the nation’s most popular radio talk show host, a mainstay of Armed Forces Radio, and Dick Cheney’s go-to interviewer—characterized active duty troops who opposed the war as “phony soldiers.”

My colleagues at Media Matters initially reported the story. In an exchange between Limbaugh and a caller in Olympia, Washington, the caller claimed that the anti-war movement “… never talk[s] to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.” Limbaugh helpfully added: “The phony soldiers.”

Limbaugh attempted to clarify his comments two days later, claiming he was only talking about one particular soldier who was caught lying about his military record. Alas, the transcript disagrees. Limbaugh added he also considers Vietnam combat veteran and Bronze Star recipient John Murtha a “phony soldier.”

Limbaugh—Bill Bennett’s idea of a “great American”—continued,  two days later, to compare a wounded Iraq veteran who publicly criticized the “phony soldiers” comment to a suicide bomber. Limbaugh’s last word on the matter was to put up a photo on his website of Joseph Stalin wearing a Media Matters logo on his chest.

Anyone getting their metaphorical media umbrellas out in anticipation of similar precipitation—that is, a storm of criticism similar to that showered on MoveOn—likely found themselves all dressed up with no place to go. Limbaugh’s week-long assault on active duty troops, or phony suicide bombers as he called them, garnered far less attention than the two words in MoveOn’s advertisement in the New York Times about the record of testimony by Gen. Petraeus.

After mentioning the MoveOn controversy 50 times in the week after the ad was placed, CNN brought up Limbaugh’s comments only 10 times after he originally made them despite the almost daily gasoline Limbaugh poured on the fire during that week. The New York Times ran just one story on the matter, albeit a good fact-check piece that made short work of most of Rush’s phony explanations on the comments.

And not every outlet did as good of a job checking the facts. As Greg Sargent noted on “The Horse’s Mouth,” the Associated Press simply accepted at face value Rush’s easily disproven claim that he was only talking about one soldier. Few pundits asserted that Rush’s attack would cost those who consistently use him as a microphone any political points at all. Klein, for example, condemned the comments but was silent on any “potentially very damaging” effect on Republicans.

And in an almost textbook definition of right-wing hypocrisy—or else short memories, while the Wall Street Journal editors complained that Hillary did not vote in favor of the silly senate resolution to condemn the MoveOn advertisement, deputy editor Daniel Henninger did worry Thursday morning that Clinton might not “defend Rush Limbaugh’s speech rights against the pressure that was brought upon him on the floor of the Senate by [her] colleagues…” Poor Rush. (And by the way, how’s this for logic?  “Colorado’s Sen. Salazar went so far last week as to say he’d support a Senate vote to ‘censure’ Mr. Limbaugh. Rhymes with censor.” Yes, and “dumb” rhymes with “bum” and “gum” and “plumb.” Is there a point here?)

Also missed by the mainstream media, but reported by Media Matters months before the appearance of the MoveOn ad, was when Limbaugh himself called Vietnam veteran and U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) “Senator Betrayus” after the senator sided with Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a non-binding Iraq withdrawal vote. Remember that media firestorm? Neither does anyone else…

So think about it. What could possibly make the media frenzy around MoveOn’s ad, but comparatively disinterested in Rush’s week-long verbal assault on U.S. troops? One explanation is that the media simply buys the narrative that liberals are anti-military. That’s why a possible insult to the military by a liberal group is perceived as a meaningful and very important event that reinforces the narrative.

Remember, as I’ve noted here earlier, that ex-ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin tells us that liberals “hate the military.” Pundit “Dean” David Broder mocked the political savvy of General Gen. Wesley Clark because he “repeatedly invoked the West Point motto of ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ forgetting that few in this particular audience have much experience with, or sympathy for, the military.” Here Broder gives more polite voice to the same prejudices expressed by Limbaugh, who insists that, by definition, a liberal: “hates the military, hates America, hates Bush, hates the world except for France and Germany.”

All this makes it ok—or barely any story at all—when Limbaugh, who has never served in the military, mocks soldiers who have served for expressing views that, after all, are shared by a majority of Americans. The narrative simply doesn’t fit. Limbaugh’s no “liberal,” and hence, he couldn’t possibly mean what he said over and over and over on his program.

The rule of thumb for too many in the mainstream media seems to be that if the narrative is challenged by the facts … ignore the facts.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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.

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Eric Alterman

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