x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rush Limbaugh always gets the last word

Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio talk show host, has been dropped from a team of investors bidding to own the St Louis Rams American football team.

The radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was dropped by an investment group looking to purchase an American football team.
The radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was dropped by an investment group looking to purchase an American football team.

NEW YORK // If you were already fearful for the quality of public debate in the United States, this week would have plunged you into utter despair. In particular a single moment on CNN. The cable network was hosting a discussion of Afghanistan and President Barack Obama's difficult decision about what to do next. Should he send more troops to help rebuild the Afghan state or focus on smaller scale anti-terrorism operations? Suddenly, the host interrupted. There was breaking news.

Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio talk show host, had been dropped from a team of investors bidding to own the St Louis Rams American football team. Limbaugh is an iconic figure in a media world where cheap commentary has come to dominate expensive reporting. A provocative right-winger, he broadcasts to millions of listeners across America from a studio in West Palm Beach, Florida, which he calls "Southern Command", as if it were a military headquarters.

Since the departure of George W Bush from the White House, he has become the favourite target of the American left. He was controversial before, but over the past few months, he has filled the void left by the dishevelled Republican party. Not a week goes by without another Limbaugh controversy. And he is rarely defeated as he was this week. The issue was that Limbaugh is considered by many to be a racist. Over the years, he has compared American footballers, two-thirds of whom are black, to Los Angeles gang members, and accused a black quarterback of being coddled by the press, who were desperate for a black man to succeed in a position usually held by whites.

To let him be part-owner of a team would be to risk years of controversy in the sport. When news of his bid leaked, current players and team owners let it be known Limbaugh would not be welcome. Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, said: "The problem with Rush is that it's his job to take on all of life's partisan issues and problems. Not only is it his job to take on these issues and problems, it's key to his success that he be very opinionated about whichever issues he feels are important to him and/or will cause his very large audience to tune in. The wrong thing said on the show, even if it's not spoken by Rush himself, about a sensitive national or world issue could turn into a Black Swan event for the NFL. This isn't about free speech. It's about the NFL protecting their business."

Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist, called owning an NFL team a "privilege" not a right, and one to which Limbaugh was not entitled. Matthias Kiwanuka, a black player with the New York Giants, said Limbaugh had been repeatedly and consistently racist throughout his career. "When it is time after time after time and there's a consistent pattern of disrespect and just a complete misunderstanding of an entire culture that I am a part of, I can't respect him as a man."

Limbaugh, however, seemed fully aware of the outrage his NFL bid would cause. Before news of it leaked, he recorded a television interview in which he said: "They're just gonna go nuts. This is the kind of stuff they've been trying to make sure doesn't happen with me. All this stuff is the mainstreaming of Rush Limbaugh from off this far-right fringe they've tried to put me. I just keep tiptoeing into the mainstream. And it just irritates them."

He also predicted that the media would spend days talking about him, which indeed they did. Once again, he has proved himself a master of the media diversion. Many American pundits have made the observation that the National Football League is not exactly a beacon of moral authority. Many team owners are felt to share Limbaugh's views in private. And barely a season goes by without a player landing up in court for shooting, beating or even killing.

Until the Limbaugh controversy, this season was dominated by the return of Michael Vick, a gifted black quarterback who spent most of the past two years in jail for organising a dogfighting ring, which involved hurting and killing dogs. Rory O'Connor, the author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio, said that for all of the NFL's condemnation of Limbaugh's history of provocation, it came down to money. The NFL is a very profitable business.

"NFL owners were rightly worried that letting Limbaugh join their exclusive club would be akin to asking for a stink bomb to explode in their clubhouse." Limbaugh, of course, had the last word. He said NFL players were using the whole incident to improve their position as they prepare for a round of collective bargaining with team owners. If the owners do not give the players what they want, the players will point to Limbaugh's bid and accuse them of being covert racists.

* The National