Media frenzy

Posted: Jan 06, 2004 12:00 AM

A president of the United States will be elected this year, but right now, public attention seems to be drawn to the legal problems of media and entertainment stars. So just for this week, let's wander away from the regular fare of this opinion column -- public surveys on politics and policy -- and look into the troubles of one star-crossed superstar.

I've made predictions on the eventual fates of Michael Jackson and others. But it's not my place to pass judgment on his or anyone else's legal problems. And that includes radio titan Rush Limbaugh. In fact, it's fair to ask why all this hoopla over Limbaugh's alleged "doctor shopping" for prescription pain pills. According to The Palm Beach Post newspaper in Limbaugh's home of south Florida, his alleged crime has seldom been prosecuted in that area. And to be fair, investigators say they have yet to take action against the conservative talk show host.

It's perfectly understandable for all those Democrats and "liberals" Limbaugh has taken on for so many years to give back to Rush a taste of his own. Limbaugh even believes politics is behind the potential legal case against him. That charge is unproven but would certainly be disappointing if true.

Less expected is to find that some who benefited from Limbaugh's trailblazing style -- which arguably launched a whole new world of conservative mega-media stars -- are either publicly or privately putting him down or, at minimum, abandoning him before the liberal onslaught.

Bill O'Reilly, one of Rush's fellow superstars, recently wrote a column that made no bones about denouncing those who are smearing Limbaugh. But at the same time, it categorized Rush as an "ideologue." The column hinted that "extremists" on both ends of the spectrum often meet sad endings. I certainly agree with O'Reilly when he cites surveys showing that most Americans consider themselves to be moderates or "in the middle." He's right, and many a Republican activist would do well to take note of his evaluation of the electorate. But that having been said, I'd like to present a slightly different take on Rush Limbaugh.

Can anyone even name a conservative talk show star before Rush? Probably not. From the late '60s through most of the '70s, the norm in the world of syndicated talk radio was liberal and maybe some moderate hosts. The presence of conservatives or libertarians was marginal at best.

I remember the first time I heard Rush on the air. Upon hearing his refreshingly pro-Republican message and his affected voice -- it reminded me of the Ted Baxter news anchor character on the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- I wasn't sure if this was serious programming or a parody. But soon enough I realized this was something fresh on the airwaves.

Had it not been for Limbaugh's brash views and outspoken delivery, it's possible the legions of conservative and moderate listeners who now cling to every word from Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity might never have provided the market share conservative talk needed to prosper and affect America's political dialog.

Is Limbaugh an ideologue? Of course, that's his shtick. Just as Al Franken -- Rush's media nemesis -- has a funny, liberal shtick that I find entertaining even if I disagree with it. Can't most writers and talk show personalities be considered "extreme" in some of their views? Remember, their job is to express opinions and to encourage us to offer our own. The truly expert talk radio masters, including Limbaugh, Hannity and Neal Boortz, all bring passion to their broadcasts. That doesn't put them outside the pale. It makes them good at what they do.

Certainly Rush Limbaugh has had days riding a too-high horse; days of making tough judgments on this person or that cause. But his positions are usually well thought out, and he's rarely mean-spirited. I've never heard him treat a caller rudely, no matter how vigorously he might disagree with them. Some despise him for taking himself and his views too seriously, but I've always found him to maintain a sense of humor and proportion.

Ever notice that when Hollywood stars or professional athletes have personal problems, their colleagues tend to rally on their behalf? And who can forget congressional Democrats rallying around Bill Clinton during his impeachment troubles? But too often, in my experience anyway, conservatives or independents are more likely to leave their friends floating in the cold water.

Rush Limbaugh an ideologue? Perhaps. Has he had problems? Sure. Could he use a pat on the back, some words of appreciation and some support as he faces up to an addiction? You bet. After all, even the purest of knights falls off his horse now and then. Here's guessing the critical group of Americans that Bill O'Reilly correctly calls "moderates" understands that better than most.