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Limbaugh, Hannity, and the Right's Faux Fury Over Anonymous Comments

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On Tuesday morning, The Huffington Post linked to an AP news story on the suicide bombing at the gates of the main American base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney.

A miniscule portion of the people who read that story chose to take advantage of the anonymous, open forum nature of comments in our news section to express regret that the Vice President hadn't been killed in the attack.

As soon as these offensive comments came to our attention, they were deleted from the site. But that didn't stop the right-wing hit machine from seizing on the anonymous comments in an effort to prove that "Democrats and liberals" (as Rush, able to divine party affiliation and political philosophy from a username, quickly labeled the commenters) "have a hatred and a disgust for Cheney...that cannot be explained."

Before I get into how ludicrous this claim is, let me be absolutely clear: No one at HuffPost is defending these comments -- they are unacceptable and were treated as such by being removed. They were not made by me, by our editors, or by our bloggers. They were made by anonymous visitors to the site -- visitors that make up a very, very small unrepresentative portion of our readers.

Trying to balance the freedom and openness of the Internet with the desire to be responsible and avoid these kinds of outrageous comments can sometimes be challenging. But the fact remains: only a fraction of Huffington Post readers comment on news stories, and only a tiny fraction of those responded to the Cheney story in such an offensive manner.

But that's not how the crew of the U.S.S. Swiftboat tried to spin it. For Rush et al, this was incontrovertible proof of what Dean Barnett on Hugh Hewitt's blog called "the fury, bile and idiocy of the sub-moronic left" and further proof, according to Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, that the Democratic base consists of "people who would celebrate a successful attack on the life of the vice president."

Besides being an utter and total crock, this is also the height of intellectual laziness. As Glenn Greenwald put it in his brilliant analysis: "Stray, anonymous comments prove nothing. And those who rely on them to make an argument -- especially without bothering to make any effort to prove that they are reflective of anything -- should be presumed to have no argument at all. That is why they are relying upon such transparently flimsy and misleading methods to make a point."

This tactic of digging through open comment threads to find outrageous comments that can then be cited as evidence of "the angry left" has become a favorite of the swiftboat set. So much so that Kevin Drum has created Kevin's Law in reaction to it: "If you're forced to rely on random blog commenters to make a point about the prevalence of some form or another of disagreeable behavior, you've pretty much made exactly the opposite point... If the best evidence of wackjobism you can find is a few anonymous nutballs commenting on a blog, then the particular brand of wackjobism you're complaining about must not be very widespread after all." [via Greenwald]

Harsh -- and frequently hateful -- Internet rhetoric hidden behind the cloak of anonymity is not confined to politics, let alone one side of the political spectrum. Some 10-year old girl posts a video of herself on YouTube singing her favorite song. Inevitably, one of the first comments posted will be, "You suck. You can't sing worth a shit -- and you're ugly. Go ahead and kill yourself. NOW." Are we to assume that all YouTube users hate kids? Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin and company know that this kind of reasoning is blatantly false and pathetic. Which is what makes their fake high-dudgeon all the more manipulative. And disgusting. And beyond hypocritical.

There was Limbaugh on Tuesday morning, reading some of the more offensive comments on the air, pretending to be suitably outraged, and declaring: "How is it that you explain visceral, literal hatred for somebody you don't know? It's one thing to disagree with somebody's policies, but this is crossing a new line... It is sick, and it resides exclusively on the left."

Exclusively on the left? He can't be serious. There are endless examples to disprove this, including the comments that appeared on Little Green Footballs (a site Rush has glowingly praised) after a UN outpost in Lebanon was blown up by an errant Israeli missile: "Too bad Kofi wasn't there too," "I'd be laughing my ass off if somebody launched one right in Kofi's office while he was groping his secretary," "4 less UN terrorist collaborators. Good Job IDF," "Maybe a couple more UN observation posts getting blown to hell would be appropriate."

Does this prove "the fury, bile and idiocy of the sub-moronic left right"? Of course not. But it does prove how wrong Rush was. And how phony was his outrage.

Same with Hannity. He led off his show Tuesday night with this non-story, his knickers in a twist over the very idea that some people had anonymously expressed regret that Cheney had escaped unharmed. He'd clearly never heard such things said before!

Trouble is, this was the same Sean Hannity who just the night before had been joyously joined by his good friend, the infamously toxic Ann Coulter. The same woman who said "We need somebody to put rat poison in Justice Steven's crème brulee," questioned whether it was more appropriate "to impeach or assassinate" Bill Clinton, suggested New York Times staffers be "executed," and titled a column on Lincoln Chafee, "They Shot the Wrong Lincoln." And she did so proudly, openly, and in her own name -- not in an anonymous comment.

So, please, spare us the bogus indignation. And stop trying to build an illogical but politically-convenient thesis on the backs of a few unhinged and clearly fringe commenters.

The faux fury routine is getting very, very old.