Media Matters has criticized me for my recent comments about Rush Limbaugh’s so-called “phony soldier” statement. On the Fox News Channel, I said that “about 30 seconds” after Rush used the term “phony soldier” he began talking about Jesse MacBeth (the war critic who lied about his military record). According to Media Matters, it is actually one minute and fifty seconds later: I was off by eighty seconds.
This hardly seems a critical distinction. If it wasn’t completely clear who Rush was referring to when he used the initial phrase, it became clear shortly thereafter. I hadn’t timed the lapse between the “phony soldier” term and the start of his next “Jesse MacBeth” statement—in the midst of a heated conversation, I used the term “thirty seconds” when what I really meant was “a short period of time later.” However in hindsight, given Media Matters’ increasingly desperate efforts to save face, I ought to have been more precise.
So let’s get more precise, because there is far more to the timeline of the “phony soldier” term than just these noted calls to Limbaugh’s program.
On Wednesday, September 24th, Rush Limbaugh recorded his Morning Update, which aired the following morning. He talked about how the antiwar left had made another celebrity of "Army Ranger" Jesse MacBeth, who claimed to have witnessed gruesome atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq. It turned out that MacBeth wasn’t really an army ranger, and has since been sentenced for falsifying his Army records. [The Morning Update] Also, on the evening of September 24th, ABC's World News with Charles Gibson [video] aired a package on military imposters, which used the phrase “phony heroes” three times and “phonies” once, and specifically discussed Jesse MacBeth. [link]
The day after that “morning update” on Jesse MacBeth aired, Rush took a call from "Mike in Chicago," [transcript] during the second hour of his show. Mike repeatedly claimed to be a Republican, and mentioned in passing that he used to be in the military. With regard to his claim to be Republican, Rush said, “You're not listening to what I say. You can't possibly be a Republican... the limitations that you want to oppose–impose–here are senseless, and they frankly betray or portray no evidence that you are a Republican.” He then took a call from, “Another Mike. This one in Olympia, Washington.” [transcript
Rush: It's not possible intellectually to follow these people.
Caller: No, it's not. And what's really funny is that they never talk to real soldiers. They pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue –
Rush: The phony soldiers.
Caller: Phony soldiers. If you talk to any real soldier and they're proud to serve, they want to be over in Iraq, they understand their sacrifice and they're willing to sacrifice for the country.
The caller then digressed into a discussion of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Byron York reports that Rush explains that during the rest of that call, he asked a staff member to print out the previous morning’s “Morning Update” on phony soldiers. And as soon as the call was concluded, Rush immediately returned to his phony soldiers comment to reprise “the morning update that we did recently, talking about fake soldiers. This is a story of who the left props up as heroes.”
The next day (September 27th), Media Matters announced on its website “Rush Limbaugh called service members who advocate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq ‘phony soldiers,’” and cited the brief portion of the transcript where the “phony soldiers” comment was made, ignoring his comments less than two minutes later on phony soldiers and the Morning Update from September 25. A few hours later, Democrats begin denouncing Rush based on Media Matters’ characterization of his comments.
By October 1st, Democrats were in full attack mode. There are numerous examples of irresponsible attacks on Rush—a private citizen, not a politician or political action group—but Senator Harkin’s stands out: [transcript] “I find it offensive that Rush Limbaugh, who never put on the uniform of this country, would attack the patriotism and the dedication of any soldier fighting in Iraq….What's most despicable is that Rush Limbaugh says these provocative things to make more money. So he castigates our soldiers. This makes more news…maybe he was just high on his drugs again.”
It is important contextually to know that it wasn’t only after, but before the “phony soldier” comment, that Rush was discussing phony soldiers who falsify their military records and so was the rest of the media. Yet Media Matters has ignored this evidence. It also has ignored Limbaugh’s explanation of what he was saying and his long record of respecting members of the U.S. military, including those who disagree with him.
Surely Media Matters recognizes that at most, it might initially have been unclear to whom Rush was referring when he first used the term “phony soldiers.” Yet a review of the evidence strongly suggests Rush was thinking specifically of soldiers (such as MacBeth) who falsify their records. Certainly nowhere does Limbaugh state that “phony” refers to service members who support U.S. withdrawal—a strained interpretation that Media Matters presents as hard fact. I suspect it’s precisely because Media Matters knows their assertion has so little merit that they are making an issue over a few dozen seconds in the timeline. If these seconds are critical to their case, then clearly they don’t have one.