Is it possible to smear Rush Limbaugh?


And does it matter if you smear a smear artist who commits new smears while complaining about the smear against him?

This is a follow-up to a post from Friday that I confess I put up without enough thought or fact-checking. It linked to a piece by lefty media watchdog Media Matters for America alleging that Rush Limbaugh had referred to U.S. soldiers who oppose the war as “phony soldiers.” But did he?

Media Matters clearly wanted to suggest a double standard by raising the question: If, in the Petraeus or Betray Us? kerfuffle, it was deemed inadmissible to attack Gen. Petraeus, why was it admissible for Limbaugh to attack troops serving in the field who question the war by calling them “phony soldiers?”

In comments numbers 3 and 4 of the Black Ink thread under the Limbaugh post, very esteemed commenter Peder linked to this YouTube video in which Limbaugh alleged that he was the victim of a smear.

Macbeth_Jessie.jpgThe essence of Limbaugh’s defense/rebuttal (which he delivered, in high dudgeon on the next day’s show after the Media Matters piece had led to Limbaugh being criticized by several congressmen and senators) is that the full text of the show in which he used the term “phony soldiers” proves that he was referring to only one soldier, Jesse MacBeth, who actually was a phony.

MacBeth claimed to have been an Army Ranger, an Iraq vet, and to have witnessed atrocities. But all of those statements were lies. MacBeth stands convicted of making false statements.

Media Matters’ original piece attacking Limbaugh made no reference to MacBeth or to the possibility that Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” remark had been a reference to MacBeth. Limbaugh argues that any fair-minded person listening to the whole broadcast would have understood that he was referring to MacBeth and that Media Matters is guilty of a willful smear.

There are several problems with Limbaugh’s rebuttal.

In his rebuttal, Limbaugh plays a portion from the previous day’s show, to include the references to MacBeth. But the tape doesn’t really prove what Limbaugh says it proves.

Here’s problem #1:

“Phony soldiers” occurs during a Limbaugh exchange with a caller. The caller complains that the media:

“never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.”

That’s when Limbaugh interjects “the phony soldiers.” At that moment, it certainly seems that both he and the caller are referring to soldiers and veterans who oppose the war. Jesse MacBeth has not been mentioned and is not part of the context.

Several minutes later on the same show, Limbaugh referred at length to Jesse MacBeth and replayed a segment about MacBeth from a previous show.

If, in his rebuttal/defense, Limbaugh had said: “Y’know, I was misinterpreted. When I said ‘phony soldiers’ I was thinking about Jesse MacBeth. I tried to make that clear by talking about MacBeth a few minutes later. I actually believe that soldiers serving in Iraq, and actually every American, has a perfect right to express their views on the war, pro or con, without having their motives or their patriotism questioned…”

Well, personally, I’m a sucker for that kind of tone. It would make me want to open my mind to the possibility that Rush had been misunderstood and that Media Matters owed him some kind of apology.

But no. Limbaugh goes straight to a claim that Media Matters had willfully and maliciously misrepresented what Limbaugh suggests was a clear reference to one truly phony soldier. The evidence for that is not as clear as Limbaugh suggests.

Here’s problem #2:

In that clip about MacBeth, Limbaugh used MacBeth as an example of everything that is wrong with the left.

The story of MacBeth is a story about “who the left props up as heroes,” Limbaugh says, because “for the American antiwar left, the greatest inconvenience they face is the truth… The truth for the left is a lie.”

Just me talking, but if a guy wants understanding or sympathy as a smear victim when one of his utterances is aggressively interpreted to his detriment, this kind of language is poisoning the jury against his plea.

Here’s problem #3:

In his rebuttal piece, Limbaugh goes to some lengths to claim that he is about to play us — unedited and in full context — the portion of his show that runs from “phony soldiers” to “Jesse MacBeth” so we can see Media Matters’ willful decontextualization.

But Media Matters discovered it was edited and the effect of the editing moved the Jesse MacBeth portion closer to the “phony soldier” reference than it was in the actual live show.)

And here’s problem #4 (which is a repeat of #2, on steroids).

Limbaugh calls his defense the “anatomy of a smear.” He specifies that he has been smeared not only by Media Matters, but by the way the incident has been reported on a particular cable news channel, which he describes as:

“MSNBC, whose content is produced almost exclusively by Media Matters for America and”

Any chance that is a smear, Mr. Limbaugh? Or are you prepared to document your assertion that the vast majority of the words spoken on MSNBC have been produced by those two advocacy organizations? Or is it a smear only when it happens to you?

And then, in listing the public officials who have grievously smeared him in this matter, Limbaugh to the most famous of them as:

“John Kerry, whose own soldiers, whose own personnel, fellow soldiers on those swiftboats, at least many of them, said he was lying about his supposed heroics…”

Really? My understanding was that the vast majority (or was it all) of the men who served under John Kerry on those swiftboats corroborated the acts of heroism for which he won medals, while the so-called Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, who questioned Kerry’s heroism, were almost all (or was it all?) men who had not been present with Kerry on those occasions. Are you prepared, Mr. Limbaugh, to specify the portion of Kerry’s actual shipmates who actually questioned his heroism? Are you prepared to apologize is that portion is very small? Please advise.

And before moving on from the topic of Kerry, Limbaugh added that the senator’s presidential ambitions had ended when the senator:

“went out and insulted the intelligence of the troops.”

Really? I presume you are referring to the infamous 2006 Kerry joke, before a university audience, in which he suggested that students should study hard, “and if you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Limbaugh and his allies had a lot of fun insisting at the time that this was a reference to the alleged stupidity of U.S. troops. But the fun turned into an intentional smear after Kerry acknowledged that he had botched the joke that had been prepared for him by his speechwriter (a joke that had been intended to make fun of President Bush, not of any troops), apologized to any troops who were offended and released the original intended written text of the joke, which went:

“I can’t overstress the importance of a great education. Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.”

I don’t know any fair-minded people who have seen that text and continued to insist that Kerry had insulted the troops.

In the course of the back and forth under the Friday post, Jonerik argued that “you cannot smear a smear-artist like Limbaugh by calling him for what he is.” Peder maintains that a smear is a smear no matter the target, and Media Matters smeared Limbaugh.

For what it’s worth, I think the Media Matters piece would have been better, smarter, fairer and more honest if it had made some reference to the fact that Limbaugh had subsequently brought up the MacBeth case. I agree that a smear is a smear no matter the target, although, as I guess I’ve already confessed, I think that a person who smears others has a higher bar to clear when asking for sympathy if he feels unfairly criticized.

Rush Limbaugh has been fabulously successful in his chosen field. But he has neither practiced civility nor shown respect for truth nor for the sensibilities of those it suited his purposes to mock, besmirch and revile. If he feels uncharitably treated, I suggest he look within for both the cause and the cure.