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Rush to Judgment

Posted: 03/ 6/2012 12:21 pm

Rush Limbaugh has apparently apologized for his intemperate remarks regarding Sandra Fluke. Or, has he?

On March 3, Mr. Limbaugh issued a formal apology to Ms. Fluke after companies such as Quicken Loans, Legal Zoom, and Citrix pulled their sponsorships and groups of citizens from across the country advocated boycotts of both the show and those who advertise on it. With his acknowledgement of misbehavior, it appears that Rush has been called to judgment. Let's freeze frame and examine why and what it means not only in this particular situation but in the broader context.

On February 23, Sandra Fluke, a third-year law student and past president of the Law Students for Reproductive Justice at Georgetown University, testified about the university's policy on contraception at an unofficial congressional hearing convened by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Ms. Fluke argued that birth control should be covered by health insurance.

She gave a variety of reasons during her testimony asserting that, "without coverage, contraception can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school." And: "These denials of contraceptive coverage impact real people. In the worst cases, women who need this medication for other reasons suffer dire consequences." Ms. Fluke continued from there to provide an example of a friend of hers who has ovarian cyst syndrome.

Ms. Fluke's testimony was four pages long and took approximately 11 minutes to deliver. And, as with most testimony, it would probably have disappeared into the congressional institutional memory bank never to be recollected again -- especially given the fact that this was not even a sanctioned committee hearing.

That is until six days later when Mr. Limbaugh decided to make Ms. Fluke the centerpiece for commentary on his radio show on February 29 by asking:

"What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex."

Limbaugh didn't stop there. He doubled down. During his show on March 1, he claimed that Fluke is "having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk." Later Limbaugh suggested:

"So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here's the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

Mr. Limbaugh's critique and commentary on Ms. Fluke and her testimony bore little to no resemblance to reality. In the hyperbolic world of vitriol that talk radio in general has become, it appears that doesn't matter.

It does cause us though to turn Mr. Limbaugh's question around and to ask "What does it say about a commentator who comes on his radio show, fabricates a story, attacks, and then continues to impugn a person's character. What does that make him? A liar? A bully? A stalker?

What does it say about those candidates for office, elected officials and other commentators who write this behavior off as "no big deal'? What does it say about our society in general when we have replaced reporting and journalism with commentary as "blood sport."

We devote a chapter in our book, Renewing the American Dream: A Citizens' Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage, to the media. In that chapter we note, in writing about many people, in the new news media: "The job title doesn't matter. These individuals are in point of fact "opinionators." They get paid a lot of money for stating their opinion in an assertive and sometimes aggressive manner so that it has the strongest appeal to the market segment that they have been targeted to reach. They're in the business of market ratings and market share. If they don't keep or grow their share, they could lose their job or customer base.

These individuals are also opinion leaders and role models. This is where things become more problematic. If opinionators act in a manner that is destructive or dismissive to others, their message is that full frontal assault is okay to those who watch or listen to them. They establish a behavioral norm and code of conduct that is then acceptable for their followers to adapt and employ in everyday life.

Words and language are powerful conditioners and persuaders. They have the ability to incite or inspire. They can be used for good or for bad. They can liberate or repress."

Let us close this by returning to Mr. Limbaugh. Limbaugh began his apology by stating " "For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke." He continued to note that he thought it was "absurd in these very serious political times, we are discussing sexual recreational activities before members of Congress."

At best, Mr. Limbaugh's apology could be construed as insincere. At worst, it could be seen as inauthentic. His statements were not an "analogy." Ms. Fluke was his direct target and his depiction of her activities and testimony was totally inaccurate.

Contrary to Limbaugh's opinion, this was about much more than "insulting word choices." It was about harmful and hurtful statements made about a person for three consecutive days on his show. In his apology, Limbaugh did not deviate from stereotype. He continued to distort and demonize.

In the 1950s, Joe McCarthy was a United States senator (R-Wisc.) who became infamous by making unsubstantiated claims that there were communist and soviet spies at work in areas such as the federal government and the arts and engaging in an unsuccessful "witch hunt' to root them out.

The term "McCarthyism" was coined to refer to McCarthy's practices. Wikipedia states that today the term is "used more generally in reference to demagogic, reckless and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character and/or patriotism of political opponents."

McCarthyism in the 20th century. Limbaughism in the 21st. In our opinion, there is not much distance between the two and the distinctions that exist don't matter much.

What does matter in the end is judgment and our civil society. We live in an increasingly uncivil era. If we do not exercise good judgment and bring Rush and others who would destroy the ability for meaningful discourse and dialogue to judgment, the final judgment will eventually be rendered upon us all and this democracy we hold so dear.