Thursday, October 02, 2003

Rush Limbaugh's in the news again. The head of EIB (Erroneous, Invidious, Bombastic) was a major figure in the early 90s but hasn't been heard from much lately outside his own circles. But since there's no such thing as bad publicity for someone in the entertainment business, he can't be upset about the current flap he finds himself in.

First, some background. ESPN hired Limbaugh to be a commentator on one of its flagship football analysis shows. This certainly raised eyebrows as he's the only person on the show who's neither a sport journalist nor a former player. He was hired to "liven things up" and he certainly didn't disappoint.

Last weekend, he criticized Philadelphia Eagles star quarterback Donovan McNabb. Limbaugh said that McNabb was overrated because he was black and the NFL wanted a black quarterback to succeed.

"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," Limbaugh said. "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. The defense carried this team."

My mother didn't understand the flap. She thinks everyone is so hyper-sensitive that any time you criticize a black person, it's considered racist. I disagreed. Limbaugh was the one who explicitly brought the color of McNabb's skin into the equation. He wasn't talking about the alleged overratedness of "quarterback Donovan McNabb." He was talking about alleged overratedness "black quarterback Donovan McNabb." Limbaugh said McNabb's alleged overratedness was DIRECTLY related to his being black.

The thing that bothers me most about the actual comment is its flipness, its unsubstantiated nature. If Limbaugh is going to make a serious charge like that, he should back it up. He didn't. He just threw it out there casually. It could've been a fair comment if he'd offered any kind of substantitive justification for it.

And it doesn't even stand up to scrutiny. McNabb has been named to three consecutive Pro Bowls, the league's all-star game. He has lead the Eagles to two consecutive NFC East division titles and two straight NFC championship games. He's had a rough patch early in this particular season, as any quarterback will at some point in his career.

Saying someone is overrated is legitimate if you back it up. If you say someone is overrated because of their race, then you REALLY better back it up. Limbaugh didn't. I think this is typical of the yapping head profession. Making broad generalizations without backing them up with substance.

Limbaugh caught flack because he was accused of being racist or making racist comments. I think he deserves the heat because of his recklessness in making incendiary comments without having the decency backing them up. After all, shouldn't yapping heads be held accountable just like quarterbacks? But I don't think it's really a race issue (though McNabb understandibly might not be so generous). Limbaugh's attack was really targetting supposedly "liberal" things: racial diversity and the media.

ESPN's reaction was pretty pathetic. First they tried the mea culpa: hey, we hired Limbaugh to stir up the pot. Then, when they saw the way the wind was blowing the changed their tune: we told Limbaugh that he was being a bad boy and should be nice from now on. By their own admission, ESPN hired him to be controversial, to help ratings. Now, when he fulfills his end of the bargain, they hang him out to dry.

The real question is why did ESPN hire Limbaugh in the first place? After all, they saw how much Dennis Miller floundered in the Monday Night Football booth? Then again, if CNN hired Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon to do Crossfire, I'm sure conservatives would rip CNN's "liberal bias." The fact of the matter is that ESPN hired a political yapping head to do their football show. They knew what they were getting. There was no mystery.

Last night, Limbaugh resigned from the ESPN show. Now he, like the rest of us, understands just how risk-averse the CORPORATE media really is.

But I think it's interesting. This is the second time in recent months that a controversial conservative yapping head has made inflammatory comments and gotten sacked. The other was Michael Savage on MSNBC. In both cases, the network that hired the yapping head knew his controversial reputation. In both cases, the network thought that reputation would be great for ratings. In both cases, the yapping head lived up to that reputation, a flap ensued and the network caved to public criticism.

It's also interesting that both of these yapping heads got into trouble when they were no longer preaching to the converted. As soon as they left their comfort zone (talk radio or Fox News [sic] Channel), their comments were exposed to the light of day. They do great when they're in a forum where everyone agrees with them and where they're in total control. Once they leave that venue and have to deal with people who challenge them occassionally, problems ensue.

Does this mean that there aren't liberal or left-wing yapping heads? Of course there are. Ted Rall, Noam Chomsky, Molly Ivins. The difference is that liberal yapping heads tend not to be popular enough to get or maintain network television yap shows. Perhaps liberals don't warm to bomb throwers as much as conservatives, I don't know.

But that points out a fundamental irony. If you're not bombastic, you're labelled boring and get canned because of low ratings. If you are bombastic, you court controversy, the network caves and you lose your show that way.

I'm sorry Limbaugh lost his position in this manner. Sure, he didn't belong on a football show. But once ESPN made the decision to hire him for his ability to "liven things up," they should've stuck by him when he... livened things up. I say this not because I have an iota of sympathy for Limbaugh. But because it underlines the cravenness of the corporate media. Entertainment/news media (and you can't separate the two any more) corporations are so allergic to risk that anyone with a non-conformist opinion is shut out. If your point of view can't be easily pigeon-holed as "standard liberal" or "standard conservative," then the corporate media doesn't know what to do with you. So they either pretend you don't exist or patronize you. Ask Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan about this. This harms progressives as much as those like Limbaugh. And it ultimately deprives everyone of access to opinions that will broaden their horizons.

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