The legend of the liberal media is finally dead. When the mightiest voices of the mainstream gang up on Tom Daschle with Rush Limbaugh, who can believe in that old myth any more?
The historic rumble started after the Senate Democratic leader compared the shrill radio host to foreign fanatics, and complained that he and his family receive threats when Mr. Limbaugh airs a diatribe against him. “What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren’t satisfied just to listen, they want to act because they get emotionally invested,” Mr. Daschle said. “And so, you know, the threats to those of us in public life go up.”
After the discovery of anthrax in his office mail, Mr. Daschle deserves sympathy as well as the best possible protection. But as the losing Democratic leader, his remarks were ill-advised. Combined with his mild-mannered public persona and almost whispery voice, his complaint had a whining sound. Threats are part of public life, especially for Democrats and liberals.
Yet Mr. Limbaugh’s friends and fans in the mainstream media, from Fox News to NBC to The Washington Post , weren’t content to scold Mr. Daschle. They behaved as if Mr. Limbaugh is a paragon of respectability whose listeners would never, ever threaten anyone.
It isn’t so far-fetched, however, that a loony or two or a dozen among the millions who listen to Mr. Limbaugh every day might threaten Mr. Daschle. Why? Because of what Mr. Limbaugh has actually said about Mr. Daschle-and because a serious physical threat has already occurred at least once as a direct result of irresponsible broadcasts by Mr. Limbaugh and others.
On May 11, 1999, Hardball host Chris Matthews coaxed Kathleen Willey into naming Cody Shearer, a longtime Clinton friend, as the man who had allegedly used threats to silence her. That this was a wholly false (and easily disproved) assertion didn’t matter to Mr. Limbaugh, who repeated the inflammatory slander the following day and even spelled out Mr. Shearer’s surname on the air. Several days later, Mr. Shearer started to receive death threats.
Then on a Sunday afternoon, Hank Buchanan, a brother of Pat and Bay, decided to visit Mr. Shearer’s Washington home. He broke into the garage, slashed the tires of two cars and threatened three other people with a handgun before fleeing. Hank Buchanan was apprehended and sent to a mental institution. Mr. Matthews made an on-air apology to Mr. Shearer and to his viewers. And while that was the end of the matter, the assault by the deranged Buchanan showed that ugly broadcasts may have tragic consequences.
That instructive episode was forgotten when Mr. Limbaugh’s media friends rushed to his defense. Mr. Daschle was mocked universally, while Mr. Limbaugh basked in the sympathy of the same mainstream media he laughably describes as “liberal.” To take just one example, NBC’s Tim Russert conducted an hour-long interview with the radio host that was one of the softest he has ever soaped on any guest.
The Washington Post ‘s eminent media critic Howard Kurtz-who covered the Buchanan-Shearer episode-described Mr. Limbaugh as “more policy-oriented than many of the people who shout on cable night after night,” although noting that he can sometimes be “tough” and “hyperbolic.” How hyperbolic were his remarks about the Senate Democratic leader? Anybody who relied on Mr. Kurtz’s column or listened to his CNN Sunday program would hardly know. And the media critic concluded it was Mr. Daschle who had unfairly demonized Mr. Limbaugh.
Readers of online media criticism at Spinsanity.com, FAIR.org and DailyHowler.com could learn, however, that Mr. Limbaugh has literally demonized Mr. Daschle for years. “How many different versions of Satan, the devil, have you seen in your life?” he asked his listeners in July 2001. “Is Tom Daschle simply another way to portray a devil?”
When the Republican line changed for the election year, Mr. Limbaugh denounced Mr. Daschle repeatedly as an ally of the “axis of evil.” On Nov. 15, while audibly pounding his desk, he called Mr. Daschle “a disgrace to patriotism … Hanoi Tom,” and accused him of seeking to “sabotage the war on terrorism for your own personal and your party’s political gain.” In short, a traitor.
How should the Senator have replied? He could have noted how odd it is for Mr. Limbaugh, who avoided the Vietnam draft, to question the patriotism of an Air Force veteran like himself. Or he could have adopted the strategy of Senator John McCain, another frequent target of the radio demagogue’s bombast.
After comparing Mr. Limbaugh to a “circus clown,” the Arizona Republican apologized. “I regret that statement,” he told an interviewer on Fox News the other night, “because my office has been flooded with angry phone calls from circus clowns all over America. They resent that comparison, and so I would like to extend my apologies to Bozo, Chuckles and Krusty.”