Rush’s Apology, His Power, and His Responsibility

They're coming, Rush!

The Sunday morning talk shows had a real Rush Limbaugh bash-fest this morning, and that’s fine: he earned it, with his ill-considered and vicious attack on Sandra Fluke for stating her opinion. This is a real career crisis for Limbaugh, I think, and he knows it. His initial reaction to the furious criticism of his offensive comments about the Georgetown Law student was to refuse to back down, as has been his response to controversies his entire remarkable career, and it has served him well. Then he realized that this controversy was different. He had crossed a line of decency, fairness and civility that the culture as a whole, not just political adversaries, would not tolerate. He apologized, saying.

“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.

“I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.

“My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

Was it a “real” apology? I’m going to discuss the issue of apology ethics in the next post, but yes, it was as real as most apologies. If one’s definition of apology is ” a statement of contrition and regret freely and sincerely given,” the answer is no. Very few apologies meet that high standard, if only for the reason that few of us will apologize unless an apology benefits us in some way or is unavoidable. Rush’s reputation is based on daring, outrageousness and his refusal to back down from the ‘truth” despite assaults from the “drive-by” media and the politically correct; he, of all people, would never apologize for anything he said on his show if he had any choice in the matter. In this case, I assume that Limbaugh was hearing from his affiliates, his sponsors, other talk show hosts, and political figures that he was courting disaster if he didn’t back down.

Nevertheless, I think the apology was sincere at its core: Limbaugh did not intend to launch a personal attack on a private citizen. He intended to use her as a prop (which is unethical enough) to ridicule a position he disagrees with and to set up some over-the-top jokes. Based on my observations of Limbaugh, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole, nasty rant began with one joke popping into his head, the idea that if “we” had to pay for this woman to have sex, “we” should “get something out of it,” so her sexual encounters should be placed on YouTube “so we can watch.”  Har. In pursuing the joke, however, he lost sight of the fact that he had a real human being, not a political figure but a private citizen, in his cross-hairs. Rush began riffing and free-associating on a theme, which is what he does, and went too far. His apology acknowledges that, and he says he’s sorry for it—not “sorry if it offended anyone,” not “sorry because I’m in big trouble,” but sorry because he hurt Fluke. He apologized directly to her, as he should have.

Now, I don’t expect Limbaugh-haters and partisan warriors on the left to accept that analysis, and I can’t guarantee it’s the correct one. I do know that progressives, liberals, Democrats and everyone who Rush has been poking in the eye for 20 years has an interest in framing this incident as decisive proof that he should be driven from the airways. There is no benefit in their being gracious or forgiving. Forgiveness would be ethical, but here powerful rationalizations usually hold sway, like “he has it coming” and “he’s never fair to us…and especially the reverse Golden Rule argument, “If he were in our position, he’d never show us any mercy!” That’s true. It’s also not the Golden Rule.

It would be impressive if Ms. Fluke publicly forgave Rush, and possibly a gesture with lasting cultural importance. Imagine if she came before the cameras and said,

“I want to say to Rush Limbaugh that I accept his apology for his cruel words about me earlier this week, and I forgive him. I also want to say that  we have an opportunity to use this unfortunate incident to take a step back, and examine what extreme rhetoric and hyper-partisanship are doing to this country. We should be able to disagree about the important issues facing us without adopting the rhetoric of hate; we have to be able to do that, or we will never thrive. All of us must learn to respect dissent and opposing views, no matter how misguided we may think they are, or how passionately we oppose them. We have to break the habit of resorting to ridicule, denigration and personal attacks as our tactics of choice, and instead master logic, language, civility and reason. This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon advocacy, debate, humor, or satire. It only means we have to remember that we are all human beings and Americans, and that all of us—men, women, progressives, conservatives, Rush, and I—want the same thing: a strong, prosperous, human and free United States. And part of remembering that requires that we forgive each other.”

Sandra has a great opportunity, for a very short period of time. I am not expecting her to take it, but I wish she would.

Returning to Rush, I have two somewhat contradictory but related observations. The first is that it is amazing that this hasn’t happened to Limbaugh earlier. His act is a dazzling one that perhaps only those of us who speak extemporaneously for a living can fully appreciate. As his statement said, he does engage in three hour monologues every day, improvising jokes, barbs and political satire while mixing in substantive commentary, intentionally getting as close to taboo subjects and opinions as possible without getting singed. He does this articulately, energetically, often cleverly and sometimes profoundly with remarkable success; it really is a virtuoso performance. Even if you violently disagree with him, you should be able to appreciate what a high-wire act it is, and how talented Rush is at it. I believe he is absolutely accountable for what he said about Fluke, but I also believe that people who work without a script at a high level of difficulty deserve some level of sympathy, understanding and forgiveness when they crash and burn as they inevitably must. As Limbaugh knows better than anyone (except maybe Don Imus), you can’t aggravate people for years on end and expect them to give you a break when you finally give them an opening by saying something really stupid. I am saying, however, that since mistakes are inevitable in the profession, forgiveness is appropriate.

Only, however, if the mistake is accompanied by change. Rush Limbaugh shouldn’t be as prominent a cultural force as he is. He is not especially brilliant or well-educated; he has no managerial, policy or leadership experience.  He has one significant talent, and some useful tools and character traits: a good voice, a quick mind, diligence and a strong work ethic. None of that qualifies him to be an opinion-leader, a policy-maker or an icon. Limbaugh is aware of this; he frequently protests that the media and Democrats, as well as his listeners, attribute excessive power and influence to him and his opinions. Jon Stewart has made similar objections to the weight given to his commentary. Like Stewart, however, Limbaugh knows the truth: he does have influence, and he likes it. The perception that he is influential, moreover, is what drives his unique popularity. Rush has power—more than he should, maybe even more than he wants, and certainly more than he is qualified to have. But he has it, and he knows he has it.

With great power comes great responsibility, and when you know, or should know, that a joke or rant that misfires can have national significance and do serious damage to public discourse, you have an absolute obligation to take care. Your ethics alarms must be in perfect working order; your judgment must be sound. If, like Rush, your methods involve risk, you must be sure that you can mitigate the damage that results when your dice roll comes up snake-eyes. And if you feel this is unreasonable, since the very nature of what you do guarantees the occasional fiasco, then either make sure you don’t have excessive influence and power, or do something else for a living. Does this sound like strict liability?

It is. Whatever happens to Rush Limbaugh as a result of his Sandra Fluke meltdown, he is completely accountable, and has no one to blame but himself.

22 thoughts on “Rush’s Apology, His Power, and His Responsibility

  1. Nothing will come of it, Jack.

    I concur that Rush crossed the line, and you pointed out the challenges that come from a high-wire act like Limbaugh’s.

    From the standpoint of realpolitik, Limbaugh’s biggest error lay in hanging a big fat meatball over the plate for liberals. He allowed himself to be a vehicle for changing the debate from substantive to non-substantive matters (and some of the dummies remaining in the Republican horse race were foolish enough to go with him).

    But the fact is that the bulk of Rush’s audience understands that he was using his usual jocular hyperbole to make a point and went too far; a significant minority agrees with him without getting the joke, and the remainder are people who positively HATE him but listen anyway just in case he serves up a gotcha moment. Which he did.

    At least this time they got him dead to rights, rather than taking him out of context, like they usually do.

    And you know what? Nobody else listens. Many of the non-listeners are disinclined to like him anyway because of what outfits like Media Matters and liberal talking heads tell them.

    No net change. Limbaugh is a polarizing figure and the poles have long since sorted themselves out.

    • That was true of Imus too. And Joe McCarthy (and I am not saying that they are equivalents in any way…only that popularity can evaporate fast.) Limbaugh’s comment was not just crude and illogical, it was also dumb, and worse, it warped the discussion. This implicates trust. He’ll probably survive this, but he’s wounded, and anything else similar will sink him.

  2. As the maven of the “especially brilliant or well-educated” Ethics Alarms, shouldn’t the range of your ethical radar have extended beyond talk radio to pick up the activist political manipulations of Ms. Fluke?

    • Someone like Fluke is the opposite of Rush—whether her opinions have any traction in a national debate are 100% dependent on the persuasiveness of her ideas and expression of them, not who she is or what her ratings are. This is especially true for anyone named “Fluke.” I don’t see how anyone can criticize her for legitimate advocacy, even if one concludes that it’s in favor of a flawed objective.

  3. P.S. If I were to create a blog called ‘Pretensions Alarms,’ I would immediately include your following statement:

    “He is not especially brilliant or well-educated; he has no managerial, policy or leadership experience. He has one significant talent, and some useful tools and character traits: a good voice, a quick mind, diligence and a strong work ethic. None of that qualifies him to be an opinion-leader, a policy-maker or an icon.”

    In other words, Jack, in your mind Limbaugh’s none but an amusing commoner, hardly worthy of comparison to a Hawved man like Larry Summers.

    • Now, now, don’t put words in my mouth, especially those. One of Rush’s talents is spotting phonies and fakes, as well as hucksters. Critics have their uses, but critics are also seldom qualified for the jobs of those they criticize. Practical experience makes a difference, as the current President proves, and academic credentials don’t make up for other deficiencies…as the current President also proves. And when we mistake verbal skill for substantive knowledge, we will end up following amateurs.

      I think you’ll agree that the Summers comparison is a cheap shot.

  4. Can I say, I really don’t care much about Rush? I don’t want him driven off the air. I haven’t listened to him regularly since the Clinton administration, but back then I usually disagreed with him but thought he was sometimes funny, and I suspect I’d feel the same way now, if I listened, which I don’t.

    My strongest objection to Rush is on the issue of drugs. My impression is that Rush sometimes talks harshly about drug users, and favors harsh criminal penalties for drug users; that’s a combination of hypocrisy and lack of compassion that really pisses me off. But Rush is hardly unique in that regard; there are lots of politicians of both parties who have used drugs illegally themselves but favor harsh laws for drug users. Scumbags, all of them.

    • I don’t see it. Rush got hooked on pain-killers—oxycontin isn’t a recreational drug, or at least wasn’t in Rush’s case. I agree he should be more sympathetic and empathetic with addicts, but there is nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about a former addict believing that drugs are dangerous and should be controlled by law.

      • Rush did not, before his arrest, make the distinction you’re making, Jack. He didn’t aim his criticism only at “recreational” users — and as an drug user himself, he was surely aware of the distinction. (Also, the illegally-obtained viagra he was caught with was presumably for recreational use.) A perfectly typical statement by Rush was “Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. … And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.”

        If Rush believes there;s good “violating the law by doing drugs” (those who illegally use prescription painkillers for non-recreational reasons, or who use illegally obtained viagra) who shouldn’t be “sent up”) and bad “violating the law by doing drugs”, then he could certainly have said so — it’s not like the man isn’t extremely articulate and clear-spoken. He never made that distinction.

        The hypocrisy there is obvious, and I don’t think the kind of post-hoc rationalization you’re making here gets Rush off the hook..

        That said, I’m normally forgiving of a bit of hypocrisy; it’s Rush’s own lack of sympathy and empathy, as you say, that makes his hypocrisy seem so appalling.

      • I used to listen to Rush semi-regularly and I never heard him spend any meaningful time discussing recreational drug use and punishment. It’s simply never been one of his issues. He may have bemoaned taxpayer funded drug rehabilitation programs, needle exchanges, etc.; but it was always from the perspective that the government shouldn’t be spending money on such things. That said, I agree that his addiction to pain killers should him more compassionate toward others addicted to drugs.

  5. Rush may even increase his audience with this..for all the reasons
    Arthur in Maine states people listen to him, a few will want to be there, if nothing else, to witness firsthand the next meltdown.

    As to Ms Fluke: her attendance at Georgetown law, on scholarship I read someplace, certainly puts her in the final-four in someone’s best-and-brightest competition. Being of that apparent intellect she should take into account that appearing at a Congressional committee hearing to address a very controversial topic might strip away some of her “private citizen” armor, at least for the immediate future, leaving her open to public criticism.

    • Public criticism yes–below the belt personal criticism, no. Hundreds of citizens testify before Congress and maintain their relative anonymity. Rush’s kind of attack would discourage public participation in the democratic process. You can’t say she asked for it, or should have seen it coming.

  6. One of the big issues facing kids now days is bullying. If adults keep on accepting ANYONE saying the demeaning things that pundits and political satirest spew, how are kids going to learn that there is a difference? People thinking it’s alright or funny for Rush to talk that way especially in public should have their head examined.

    • Umm.. as have already noted, Limbaugh was over the line… but (ahem) pretty much coast to coast, the kids are in school when his show airs. Or should be, and I have a hard time believing his show is a feature of many classrooms.

      If the kids are getting exposed to his “bullying”, it’s courtesy of the news media, not of Limbaugh.

  7. Arthur, Maybe you can enlighten me as to when people talked like that on radio or tv before the likes of Rush came along? Really? You don’t see how tv thinks it’s cute for stuff like that. I don’t remember growing up with that kind of entertainment on tv or radio. If you tell me differently that is exactly why I think you along with so many have been desensitized. I have been in situations where people depended on everyone around. If one person said such a thing…. that person might be the last one on the Christmas list if you know what I mean. You can call me or my arguement silly, but that is what I am talking about. For God’s sake we are Americans. Our forefathers did not intend for that kind of dissent. That kind is not patriotic. Someone talking like that would be watched. There are better and more articulate ways to openly disagree with policy. Not being able to use different words and ideas to get his point across is dumb and makes his audience that much smarter. He didn’t just go too far. If I was that woman’s father regardless of what I believed….he would be messing with the wrong man’s daughter. That should give you a big hint on that it was way too far. And yes kids might not hear it first hand, but how do you explain to your kids watching a weekend news program what people are talking about with that sort of language? Way too far!!! I fought for him to be able speak his peace, not abuse it!!!! So explain it to me like I am 8 yrs old, Arthur!!!

    • ,You can call me or my arguement silly

      I appreciate the offer, but first I have to get past the part where I call your argument incomprehensible.

        • Far as I’m concerned, pointing out spelling and typo errors – except in rare and particularly egregious examples which are relevant to the content and/or qualifications of the submitter – is a diversionary tactic employed by those who lack a better argument.

          Besides, all have sined and come short of the gory of God. ;->

  8. Jack: this is the best analysis I’ve seen of this story thus far. Exceedingly fair-minded. I actually enjoyed Rush’s commentary and found it clever – right up until the point where he crossed the line into crass, juvenile name calling. It’s a shame because he was making valid points, ultimately obliterated his inability to refrain from cheap, insulting humor.

  9. Now that we know that Limbaugh’s remark was taken out of context,not that I defend or like him,and we’ve discovered that Fluke is not the innocent private citizen she pretended to be but was in fact a paid shill do we feel differently about this? Does it make a difference?

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