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Rushing to Smear

The ConWeb defends Rush Limbaugh in a way it used to deplore just a few short years ago -- by attacking the accusers and through slanted reporting.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 10/7/2003

"You come to love what you used to hate." -- Matthew Sweet

When Rush Limbaugh got hit with the double scandal whammy of accusations of racism and drug addiction, the ConWeb knew just what to do -- if only because it spent the Clinton years criticizing others for doing the exact same thing.

That is, the ConWeb did all the deflecting, equivocating and smearing it accused others of doing to critics of the Clintons.

The scandal saga began Sept. 27, when Limbaugh said on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve." Much criticism ensued, and Limbaugh resigned from the show.

Unsurprisingly, the ConWeb leaped to Limbaugh's defense. Both WorldNetDaily and NewsMax trotted out stories saying that others have said that McNabb was overrated, though none of the sources they cite follow Limbaugh's contention that it's because McNabb is black, which is the real issue here. NewsMax also obediently rehashes Limbaugh's defense that his comments "were directed at the media and were not racially motivated."

The Media Research Center, meanwhile, was fretting over how Limbaugh was being portrayed by the (liberal) media as a racist. After noting an ABC report that stated Limbaugh "once reportedly said of black Americans, 'They’re 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?'" MRC CyberAlert writer Brent Baker wrote: "But in picking out one comment, without any context of reaction to a caller, from tens of thousands of hours of air time, Reynolds failed to explain that his source was an eight-year-old book from a far-left group and it cited as its source for the quote an even earlier book titled, Flush Rush."

Baker went on: "I can never imagine trying to prove the liberal bias of Peter Jennings or Dean Reynolds by citing one ten-year-old quote I read about somewhere else, but never heard or saw myself and therefore have no idea if accurate. But that’s the pathetic standard of ABC News."

Yet this is pretty much what Baker does for a living with his weekday CyberAlert newsletter -- pluck examples of alleged liberal bias out of context to the hours of network news programming that appear each week. If Baker put his examples against coverage that could be considered favorable to conservatives (devoting, of course, the same millions of dollars to that endeavor that the MRC has in documenting alleged liberal bias), then compared it to the total airtime given to network news, he might have something. (Here's the funny part: At the end of Baker's above-quoted segment is a plea for donations that begins, "You don’t get this kind of penetrating media analysis anywhere else on the Web.")

(No, wait, this is the funny part: Baker, who has a history of telling Clinton sex jokes, suddenly is concerned bout the sensitivity of his readers. Baker frequently reprints the Top 10 list from "The Late Show with David Letterman" in his CyberAlerts, but merely offered a link to the list in the Oct. 4 CyberAlert because the subject was "Top 10 Items on Rush Limbaugh's To-Do List," and he urged those readers who are "sensitive to derogatory comments about Limbaugh" to avoid it.)

The MRC's Brent Bozell, though, attempts to come up with an example or two of what Limbaugh didn't -- evidence that McNabb is overrated because he's black. "There are countless examples – we’ve all heard them – of commentators, columnists, and editorial writers agitating for more black coaches and quarterbacks in the NFL," Bozell wrote; he cites writers from the New York Times and the Washington Post (who reads them for sports, anyway?) doing that. But "agitating for more black coaches and quarterbacks in the NFL" and overrating a QB because he's black are two separate things, and Bozell apparently can't tell the difference since nothing he says proves the latter.

But what really set the ConWeb into contrarian behavior, though, was allegations in the National Enquirer that Limbaugh bought thousands of painkiller illegally through a black-market drug ring.

WorldNetDaily began with a story that combined the drug-abuse allegations with the story that Limbaugh resigned his ESPN gig, followed quickly by a story that, in addition to relaying President Bush's concerns over Limbaugh's condition ("according to (an anonymous) senior administration source who spoke with the Drudge Report"), tried to cast doubt on the allegations because they were reported in the Enquirer. WND editor Joseph Farah, in his Oct. 3 column, explained further:

I don't think I need to remind you who is behind the National Enquirer. I don't think I need to tell you how politically motivated this sensational story about drug abuse is. But I will anyway.

Remember how the National Enquirer rushed to the defense of Bill Clinton when he was accused of rape. Don't forget the tabloid's attorney is none other than David Kendall, Bill Clinton's own legal counsel.

This is where the ConWeb starts getting all contrarian on us. WND has a history of reporting stories that originated in the National Enquirer -- Jesse Jackson's love child, allegations that the accused snipers in the Washington, D.C. area were homosexual lovers, an allegation that Bill Clinton and Denise Rich, ex-wife of a controversial Clinton pardon recipient, had an affair -- and no concern was raised about Lindsey's employment there when those stories were written.

NewsMax has always had a schizophrenic relationship with the supermarket tabloids (headquartered not that far from NewsMax's Palm Beach offices) that can be boiled down to this: Tabloids are truthful when they report nasty gossip about Democrats but lying when they report nasty gossip about Republicans. (Sounds a lot like WorldNetDaily's approach, doesn't it? As WND's Paul Sperry wrote in a July 2000 column, "When the Clintons and their elitist media pals say a story can't possibly have any legs because it came from the National Enquirer, chances are it's more truth than trash.") Both NewsMax and WND take tabloid-style approaches to their coverage of events. And NewsMax pretty much admits as much in an Oct. 2 story, spun its own way of course: "The Enquirer's credibility has a mixed record. In recent years the supermarket tabloid won kudos for its coverage of the O.J. Simpson scandal and for breaking the news of Jesse Jackson's love child. But it has also run repeated cover stories about Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton – almost all of which have never been covered by the major media."

Which takes us to the next step in ConWeb contrarianism: attacking the accuser. Both WorldNetDaily and NewsMax ran stories designed to erode the credibility of the woman who said Limbaugh went through her to illegally buy the painkillers by detailing her husband's arrest record. (At this point, WND has run more original stories defending Limbaugh than it has on the alleged outing of a CIA agent by the Bush administration.)

Let's go back in time to see how the ConWeb addressed another similar case. Remember Kathleen Willey, the woman who accused President Clinton of groping her outside the Oval Office? She had some questionable things in her past that would cast a cloud over her accusations:

  • Time magazine reported that Willey told a lover that she was pregnant with twins even though she wasn't. She allegedly told him that she scheduled an abortion, then "changed her mind" only to later allegedly have a miscarriage.
  • There were also reports that Willey was seeking a $300,000 book deal shortly before she went public with her accusations against Clinton. This is noteworthy because the WND story deplores commerce-based journalism by pointing out that the Enquirer "has a regular practice of paying for interviews."

Searches of the WND and NewsMax archives have determined that neither of these accusations have ever appeared in any story there; rather, there are several stories critical of the Clinton administration as "smearing" those who accuse wrongdoing. Typical is a March 1998 column by WND's Farah, who wrote: "It will be interesting to see if the creative staff over at the White House can come up with a new spin to diminish the impact of the Willey accusations." In a March 1999 column Farah added: "This is what the Clinton White House does best -- victimizing women, blaming them for the commander-in-cheat's disorders, laying waste to those little human inconveniences that get in the way."

Yet when a conservative -- more than that, actually, a personal friend of Farah's, who collaborated with Limbaugh on one of Limbaugh's early-90s books -- is accused of impropriety, Farah does what he once deplored, blaming others for Limbaugh's problems. WND also rewarded Willey's story by paying her in the form of booking her appearances through WND's speakers bureau (though she's not on the current list of speakers).

When the final report from independent counsel Robert Ray came out, dismissing Willey as an unreliable witness who changed her story about Clinton's alleged groping, NewsMax ran Willey's rebuttal as well as a rehash of the rebuttal by the lawyer who wrote it.

Speaking of commerce-based journalism: The fact that Gennifer Flowers was paid upwards of $140,000 for her story of an alleged 12-year affair with Bill Clinton didn't stop either NewsMax or WND from believing her story without reservation -- though neither WND nor NewsMax have ever reported the payment to their readers. (NewsMax's John LeBoutillier did acknowledge the existence of the payment but tried to downplay its importance by alleging that "we have since learned that all the media pay sources – all the time.")

And NewsMax's Christopher Ruddy appears to be trying to keep a straight face when he wrote Oct. 6 that he's not rushing to judgment on Limbaugh "because I am an American who believes in fair play. I want to hear all the facts first before making a judgment. We hold this standard for everyone, no matter their politics or creed or race or whatever." He also writes that "the liberal “mainstream” media are freed from all journalistic standards, ethics and fair play" when it comes to Republicans. In other words, the same freedom NewsMax enjoys when reporting on Democrats.

Coverage at the MRC's has been relatively tame by comparison, with lengthy excerpts of Limbaugh assessing his situation on the ESPN and drug incidents, sprinkled with fairly extreme examples of criticism of Limbaugh's remarks by his "ideological opponents." Both stories, written by Marc Morano, end with quotes from syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams; both note Williams is "an African-American" even though race is not an issue in Limbaugh's drug allegations. Another story quotes "Conservative commentators and media watchers" coming to Limbaugh's defense, though the story contains only one of each -- and the designated "media watcher" is an MRC employee. (While CNS has thus far not gone after Limbaugh's accusers, it also has never reported on the problems with Willey's accusations.)

What all this means is that the ConWeb -- and especially WorldNetDaily and NewsMax -- have no credibility when it tries to downplay unfavorable accusations against Limbaugh since it has a history of refusing to report exculpatory information on the Clintons in their various alleged scandals. And, given business relationships like the WND speakers bureau, they have financial reasons not to tell the whole story. So maybe LeBoutillier is right after all.

For the ConWeb to denounce tabloids all of a sudden because a conservative demigod is the subject, after years of swallowing every word they produced on alleged Clinton peccadilloes is the height of hypocrisy. The ConWeb has truly come to love what it used to hate.

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