Hitler deserved Stalin. The Shah was begging for the Ayatollah. And this summer, the karmic equation balanced perfectly once again when rightist mouth Rush Limbaugh attracted the obsessive attention of the pin-counters at the leftist Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
Given the antipodal nature of Limbaugh and FAIR’s politics, it was inevitable that the two would rumble. FAIR struck first in June with a report, based on its examination of millions of hours of Limbaugh’s bellicose radio monologues, that zinged the Fat Man’s political views, habitual exaggerations, wild extrapolations, and outright lies. FAIR’s very public scrutiny of the talk show host’s work, titled “Limbaugh’s Reign of Error,” was grist for stories in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times, and by the Associated Press. “Reign of Error” was even recycled by the satirist of record, Doonesbury‘s Garry Trudeau.
Put on the defensive, the radio zeppelin countered FAIR’s 43-count indictment with an Oct. 3 broadcast openly speculating that the FAIR study—coinciding as it did with the Clinton health care bill churning on Capitol Hill—was deliberately timed to tie him down.
“When the president of the U.S. gets on Air Force One and complains about what’s been happening on this program, and a couple of days later, a couple of weeks later, here comes this massive, thorough report,” said Limbaugh, “you’ve got to figure that there’s an attempt at least to take me out of the game, by forcing me to respond to all these things which have nothing to do with the issues of the time.”
The idea that Clinton would eliminate Limbaugh from the policy debate by assigning a smear to FAIR is laughable. As conspiracy theorists who have studied Arkansas history will tell you, Clinton’s preferred method of dealing with pesky dissidents is dispatching speeding automobiles to mow them down. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if an assassin visited the commentator’s favorite bar and grill and injected an untraceable neurotoxin into his greasy pork chops. In the ensuing cover-up, it would be easy to blame the death on a corpulence-induced “heart attack.”
Until Bill decides to play rough, Limbaugh lives, but as a shadow of his former self. The commentator’s lengthy rebuttal to the FAIR charges, which is available as a 10,700-word download on his CompuServe forum (GO RUSHDL), proves him better on offense than defense. In this battle of the blowhards, Limbaugh is denied the persuasive music of his larynx and finds himself mired in a point-by-point argument on the printed page with the lefty media watchdogs. (Actually, it’s only a partial refutation, as Limbaugh lets some of his most egregious flubs go unacknowledged: “Anytime the illegitimacy rate in black America is raised, Reverend Jackson and other black “leaders’ immediately change the subject”; “It was only 4,000 votes that—had they gone another way in Chicago—Richard Nixon would have been elected in 1960.”)
FAIR has uploaded onto CompuServe both its original critique of Limbaugh and its response to his response (GO FAIRDL), and is likely to duel him to the end of time. Let’s hope FAIR doesn’t become so carried away with its anti-Limbaugh campaign that it redeploys to the Rush front its forward observers who, for the last seven years, have surveilled the fascistic corporate media. It would be catastrophic if the New York Times and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour were to contaminate the mass consciousness with right-wing ideas while the watchdogs’ guard was down!
But what does this have to do with me, the subject of this column? Well, one of Limbaugh’s 43 “errors,” FAIR asserts, was derived from a July 16, 1993, Washington City Paper article, and that means that yours truly—Jack Shafer—is caught in the crossfire of their pissing match.
Luckily, I carry an umbrella. Actually, two umbrellas. But I get ahead of myself.
The City Paper-related “error” is among the least interesting of the 43 cataloged by FAIR. Other topics include the veracity of Limbaugh’s declarations on the amount of forest land in America; whether banks incur risks when issuing student loans; the size of the Native American population at the time of Columbus; whether Jimmy Carter’s foreign-policy weaknesses caused lines at gas stations; and the relative threats to the ozone posed by volcanoes and man-made chemicals.
You get the idea. Many of the “errors” that FAIR claims to have uncovered are debatable points. For instance, since no census of Native Americans was conducted at the time of Columbus, their absolute numbers will always be in contention. Likewise, scientists can’t build a consensus on whether the ozone is in peril, let alone agree on the volcano/chemicals issue. As for Carter, you can either blame him for everything bad that happened in the late ’70s or you can ignore him (unless you’re the current president of the United States).
Yet when FAIR does apprehend Limbaugh in the act of bruising accuracy, he refuses to concede:
FAIR identifies as bogus a quotation Limbaugh attributes to James Madison, and the commentator lamely defends himself by writing that the same mistake “has been made by many over the years.”
FAIR spots this obvious slip of the golden tongue: “In 1990, George Bush was president and enjoying a 90 percent plus approval rating on the strength of our victories in the Persian Gulf War and Cold War.” Instead of graciously conceding that the Gulf War hadn’t yet been fought in 1990, Limbaugh explains the “point” of that particular flawed monologue.
Limbaugh invokes the same butthead response when FAIR whacks him for saying “most” Canadian physicians “scurry across the border” for their own surgery. The talk show host insists that “this is an obvious humorous exaggeration to be sure.” Be a mensch, for Chrissake, Limbaugh, and fold! They caught you red-handed!
But enough about them; let’s return to me. The City Paper article that FAIR and Limbaugh are tussling over was about the political culture of Sidwell Friends, the school attended by the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea. Titled “Hillary’s Friends” and written by Bill Gifford, the piece cited a confidential source who said eighth graders had been assigned to write on the essay topic “Why I Feel Guilty About Being White.”
Though the article engendered controversy, provoking many pro and con letters to the editor in subsequent issues, no Sidwell Friends student, teacher, administrator, or parent ever contested the veracity of the piece to me or my reporter. In fact, the truth value of the “Why I Feel Guilty About Being White” story went unchallenged as it made its way through the media food chain, first picked up without attribution by Heterodoxy, then published in Playboy, and ultimately repeated by CBS Morning Resource, a wire service for radio talk show hosts run by CBS Radio Networks. That’s where Limbaugh spotted it, and he broadcast it on his show sometime around the beginning of the year.
FAIR maintains that no such essay was assigned, and when you think about it, it would be impossible to assign a “Why I Feel Guilty About Being White” essay at Sidwell because the student body is so progressively mixed-race. The black and brown and yellow kids would have to sit on their hands while the honky donkeys scribbled themselves into a white guilt frenzy.
A couple of months after FAIR’s initial Limbaugh salvo, the organization’s fact-checkers finally traced the story back to City Paper and contacted Gifford. He talked to his original source who reinquired and learned that the actual title was “Should White People Feel Guilty and Why.” This is what Gifford told FAIR (which mistakenly quoted him as “Paul” Gifford in the September/October edition of its Extra! newsletter).
As editor of the Sidwell article, I should have been more skeptical and questioned the essay title more vigorously. I regret City Paper‘s error. I hold myself accountable for publishing a goof that I should have collared. And since this is a column about me, I personally apologize to everyone for having fed an inaccurate essay title into the media maw. But I can’t be accused of Limbaugh-style obfuscation when I say that we still stand by the essential thrust of the story, one that the corrected essay title supports: That Sidwell is ruled by sniveling liberals who are busy inflicting their multicultural excesses on the unfortunate sons and daughters of Washington’s ruling class.
This is what I told Limbaugh’s researcher when he called late last month for City Paper‘s side of the story: Aside from that one caveat, I said, I stood behind the story. Limbaugh’s guy was delighted, declaring victory over FAIR as he rang off. Unfortunately, Limbaugh failed to communicate my small but significant equivocation when he blistered FAIR in his Oct. 3 broadcast. Millions listened as Limbaugh told the nation that I stood completely behind the story. Thank you, Mr. Limbaugh.
Naturally, this precipitated a call from a FAIR researcher, who wanted me to confirm what Limbaugh said. When I told him Limbaugh had not included the caveat, he restrained himself from doing a victory jig.
Begin needed Arafat. Sontag cries out for Paglia. And Rush Limbaugh and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting provide one another with the ineffable: Rush gets a permanent sparring partner and FAIR gets fodder for its fund-raising letters.
The hair-splitting will continue until both sides are as bald as beans. But the Limbaugh/FAIR “debate” isn’t really a debate, nor is it much of a dispute about the facts. No struggle for the truth, this squabble is a rigged match between self-promoting propagandists who prefer heat to light.
All About Me, Part II The LSD comeback was one of 1991’s biggest stories, even though there wasn’t a microgram of truth to the LSD renaissance heralded by the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, CBS, and other major media. Since this week’s column is about me and my needs, and because I labored extensively back then to deflate the media’s LSD comeback hallucination, allow me to hype a new book from a scholarly press that confirms my reporting.
LSD: Still With Us After All These Years (Lexington Books, 163 pp., $22.95) draws from the best hard data on drug use compiled by the government and private reseachers to overturn what epidemiologist Leigh A. Henderson and collaborator William J. Glass call the “occasional sensational popular media exposure LSD receives.”
“[A]fter the interest and experimentation it generated in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” Henderson and Glass write, “LSD use has settled into an entrenched pattern among a limited population. In some ways, LSD use resembles an endemic disease—a disease that continuously circulates at low levels in a population.”
Calling LSD a teen-age drug (the average age of first-time users in 1970 was 18.3; in 1991, the average age was 17.6), the authors conclude that LSD appeals mostly to young users who try the drug a few times and then abandon it.
LSD: Still With Us After All These Years also reports that LSD use is still rare when compared to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and prescription-drug use; that adverse health consequences are relatively uncommon; that most LSD users take the drug infrequently, “ “maturing out’ after two to four years”; that LSD has no lasting effects on genes or chromosomes; that it’s not addictive; that the number of visits to emergency rooms by users has “remained fairly constant” and that most “emergency room episodes appear to have been bad trips that resolved quickly.”
The book’s best LSD story doesn’t contribute to my self-aggrandizement, but I’ll tell it anyway: In the early ’70s, the host of a party distributed a white powder for his guests’ enjoyment. The powder was LSD, but eight of the partyers assumed it was cocaine and inhaled milligram amounts of it—upward of a thousand times the normal street dose. Bum trips? You bet. “Five were comatose when first seen and were admitted to the hospital,” the book reports. “Two patients walked in themselves and left after spending several hours in the emergency room. Symptoms included vomiting, elevated temperatures, and mild internal bleeding.” The patients all recovered, and no “psychologic or physical ill effects were noted in a year of follow-up examinations” of the five comatose patients. “Most of the five continued to use LSD.”
All About Me, Part III First Martin Peretz banned Washington City Paper‘s circulation department from delivering a weekly bundle of 25 City Papers to the office of the magazine he bought with his wife’s millions: the New Republic. Then he banished the paper to the office’s hallway; shortly thereafter, City Paper was exiled from the building altogether.
But last week I received a phone call from a Mr. TomPalmer that indicates that Peretz wants to kiss and make up.Palmer works at the Electronic Newsstand, an Internet publishing venture in which Peretz is a major investor. Palmer wanted to know, was City Paper interested in uploading its articles and listings to the Electronic Newsstand?
I almost said yes, if only to let Peretz evict City Paper from cyberspace and earn me a hat trick.
Nibble The New Republic‘s art director isn’t on strike—the magazine’s recent spate of “all type” covers are but one of the inspirations visited upon Editor Andrew Sullivan during his book sabbatical. Sullivan has explained to his staff that the type treatments project the magazine’s “new seriousness.” Senior Editor Michael Kinsley was heard to suggest that if Sullivan seeks seriousness, he should try placing it inside the magazine.
Got a “News Bites” tip? Cyberspace advice for Marty Peretz? Is it true that his wife is purchasing the entire Internet for him? A reaction to the “new seriousness”? Leave a message at (202) 332-2100 (Ext. 320).