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They Call This “Changing the Tone”?

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  • Eric Alterman
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On Sunday night, just hours after much-admired ABC anchor Peter Jennings died, arch-conservative commentator David Horowitz, who sees a vast liberal conspiracy behind every utterance, wrote on his blog that over the course of his long and distinguished career, Jennings "did considerable damage to the cause of civilization and human deceny [sic]." Truth be told, it’s almost difficult to be offended by such nonsense, as the conservative media machine in this country has lost its ability to shock, so long has it now trafficked in slander and ad hominem personal attacks in order to advance its ideology – with nary a peep from the left in protest.

Take, for example, Rush Limbaugh’s August 2 radio broadcast. As a man who has never served in uniform yet loudly supports the president’s decision to send others to fight, one would think that Rush might temper any criticism of recently returned vets, whom he takes such ostentatious pride in “supporting.” As his August 2 program showed, however, this support only goes as far as Limbaugh’s own brand of ideology allows – on the show, he repeatedly and shamelessly impugned the character and motivations of a veteran fresh off the front lines of the war in Iraq.

The vet who was Limbaugh’s target just happened to be a Democrat – congressional candidate Paul Hackett. Since Hackett was running in a special election against Republican Jean Schmidt for Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District seat, Rush apparently saw him as fair game, labeling him as just "another liberal Democrat trying to hide behind a military uniform" – a phrase he used with numbing regularity – while accusing him of going to Iraq merely "to pad the resumé." Hackett, a veteran of the Marine Corps, had re-enlisted last year and been back in the United States only six months before running for Congress after serving in Iraq in Ramadi and Fallujah.

If this is supporting the troops and honoring their service, the United States military would do well not to count on Limbaugh, who apparently only “honors” the service of our military personnel when they’re conservative Republicans. During the broadcast, Limbaugh also reached back into his old bag of tricks to slander decorated war vet John Kerry, again saying that he was "hiding behind a military uniform," and repeated the mean-spirited Republican talking point that disabled Vietnam vet (and multiple amputee) Max Cleland’s “uniform didn’t help him in his re-election either."

Despite these two examples of conservatives openly slandering the dead and those who have provided a great service to their country, neither Horowitz nor Limbaugh have been taken to task for their remarks. Limbaugh’s comments may be the more egregious of the two, aimed as they were against a man who had already served in the Marine Corps and then volunteered for duty at a time of war. Imagine the outrage if a liberal pundit said the same about a conservative politician just returned from the deserts of Iraq? It boggles the mind.

But these aren’t isolated incidents. Conservatives have long used the narrative of personal attack and false analogy to slime their enemies and score what they consider to be easy points. And for whatever reason, they are rarely – if ever – called on it. Consider the other recent example of James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, who on his August 3 radio show had the audacity to compare embryonic stem cell research with Nazi experiments during the Second World War. As Media Matters has posted in its partial transcript of the show, Dobson claimed that “[i]n World War II, the Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind.”

When afterward some rose up to demand that he apologize to Jews, he played the classic conservative trick of turning the tables on those he offended, saying the next day that his comments were "being spun like a top by the ultraliberals who don’t care about unborn life."

As the Dobson example shows, Nazi comparisons seem to delight some conservatives most of all. Remember when Republican Senator Rick Santorum dropped his own little Hitler comparison in May? He was responding to Democrats in the Senate who were protesting the filibuster-killing “nuclear option” when he said, "The audacity of some members [of Congress] to stand up and say ‘How dare you break this rule’ – it’s the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, ‘I’m in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare you bomb my city? It’s mine.’"

Of course, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin also used a bad Nazi analogy in June, when he compared Americans’ treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to the work of "Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings.” Durbin did not actually say anything objectionable. He was, actually, talking about torture — the very people whom the president has termed “bad apples.” But the mindlessness of the right-wing-dominated discourse is so powerful that he was forced to apologize, which he did quite quickly – something Santorum and Dobson – to say nothing of Limbaugh and Horowitz – will never do. (And remember, Limbaugh is actually making money off this horror, selling “Club Gitmo” souvenirs.)

OK, so some of this is not exactly surprising in light of the recent standards set for bad taste by the likes of Limbaugh and Horowitz–to say nothing of their sister-in-shame, La Coulter. But take a look, as well, at the mainstream media coverage of these respective remarks. As CJR pointed out in June, searching through transcripts of television coverage during the time the two made their Nazi comments, “the Santorum search gets 22 results and the Durbin search gets 121 (including 40 mentions on Fox News, 16 on MSNBC, and 3 on CNN).” Why did the Durbin comments receive so many more hits in the televised news media?

That gosh-darn liberal media strikes again.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

 

 

 

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