As a general rule, it is a given that comics speak truth to power more often than most journalists do.
For irrefutable evidence of this axiom, you need to look no further than how, for decades, smart, irreverent comedians – unbothered by convention or propriety – repeatedly took America’s “poster boy for contraception” and of rancid right-wing radio, Rush Limbaugh, to the woodshed, rhetorically speaking.
While much of the establishment media routinely extolled Limbaugh’s “iconic” status and “undeniable talents” as an “entertaining” broadcaster who transformed America’s cultural and political landscape, comics like George Carlin, happily, were decidedly less impressed.
This is how Carlin once described the stogie-toting Limbaugh and his equally nauseating “conservative” minions who pollute America’s airwaves: “Haven’t we had about enough of this cigar-smoking s*** in this country? When is this going to end? When is this s*** going to go away? When are these fat, arrogant, overpaid, overfed, over-privileged, over-indulged, white-collar business criminal[s] … going to put out their cigars and move along to their next abomination?”
Unfortunately, Carlin did not live to see the “abomination” put out his final cigar last week. If he had, I am sure he would have responded to the bevvy of sanitised obituaries marking Limbaugh’s death published by an ever-deferential establishment media with his signature scathing humour.
Instead of highlighting Limbaugh’s career-long addiction to ignorance and hate, reporters shared the usual palette of polite, palpable bromides that, taken together, stand as a prima facie example of the establishment media’s stubborn, industry-wide fondness for rewriting history over telling the truth.
The irony, of course, is that many of the scribes doing the sterilised eulogising of Limbaugh’s loathsome legacy work for large, powerful news organisations who publicly insist lately – with varying degrees of sincerity – to have experienced a defining editorial epiphany that now apparently obliges them to call out a lie when they are confronted with a lie.
Today, the tired euphemisms they once regularly employed to camouflage the truth are supposed to be considered a sad, almost irresponsible relic of the pre-Donald Trump era when “civility” trumped (pun intended) candour.
Alas, the establishment media reverted, predictably, to old, courteous form, when the remembrance of a vile and crude grifter demanded a heaping and cleansing dose of Carlin’s honesty.
Exhibit A: The Washington Post
The newspaper that claims on its masthead that “Democracy dies in Darkness” printed an insufferably long hagiography of Limbaugh that suggests that a few of the Post’s news reporters and editors remain in the dark where, beyond democracy, the truth dies.
Here is the alternative universe lead sentence of the Post’s fawning obit: “Rush Limbaugh, who deployed comic bombast and relentless bashing of liberals, feminists and environmentalists to become the nation’s most popular radio talk-show host and lead the Republican Party into a politics of anger and obstruction, died Feb. 17 at 70.”
The phrase “racist charlatan” does not appear in the Post’s 3,102-word revisionist dispatch about Limbaugh’s life. Rather, Limbaugh is called a “provocateur” and a “bad boy”, confirming the use of pleasant euphemisms is still sanctioned by the Post’s allegedly lie-allergic newsroom.
Still, buried in the Post’s agreeable portrait of “the Elvis of broadcast radio” is a passing reference to Limbaugh’s tawdry history of hateful rhetoric and misogyny.
“[Limbaugh] lost some advertisers after an incident in 2012 in which he called a Georgetown University Law School student, Sandra Fluke, a ‘slut’ because she had testified in Congress on behalf of mandating coverage for contraception in health insurance policies,” the Post wrote.
At the time, the oh-so-pithy and fearless provocateur turtled in the face of the advertisers’ revolt and apologised. It was left to another real comic and provocateur, Stephen Colbert, then-right-wing “correspondent” of the satirical Colbert Report, to make plain the full, fetid measure of a bully with a wireless pulpit.
“Folks, I don’t think Rush should have apologized for calling her a prostitute. I mean, it takes one to know one. And, remember, he only apologized to keep his advertisers, proving Rush will do anything with his mouth for cash,” Colbert, in character, said.
Exhibit B: The Associated Press
In its flattering obit, The Associated Press (AP) wire service was determined not to be outdone by the Post in providing readers with a gooey, largely blemish-free narrative about Limbaugh’s ugly, pock-marked trajectory from obscure disk-jockey to notorious hate-monger.
Like the Post, the AP mostly left out any mention of Limbaugh’s nasty habit of not just punching down, but stomping on – with his foul mouth – the sick, the poor and the powerless with a sociopath’s glee from inside his studio turned comfortable man cave.
Limbaugh was a diseased, rich thug.
This, however, is how the AP remembered him: “Unflinchingly conservative, wildly partisan, bombastically self-promoting and larger than life, Limbaugh galvanized listeners for more than 30 years with his talent for sarcastic, insult-laced commentary.”
So, according to the AP, Limbaugh was a big, funny “uniter”, not a “divider”.
Thankfully, comic Wanda Sykes not only understood but punctured Limbaugh’s thuggish nature wrapped in the establishment-media-pleasing imprimatur of so-called “sarcastic, insult-laced commentary” and hurled it back at the gloating goon.
“Rush Limbaugh said he hopes [Obama’s] administration fails. So, you’re saying, ‘I hope America fails.’ You’re like, ‘I don’t care about people losing their homes, their jobs’ … I hope the country fails? I hope his kidneys fail, how about that? He needs a good waterboarding. That’s what he needs,” Sykes told the assembled press at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
Exhibit C: Reuters
The Reuters news agency, not surprisingly, joined its wire-service colleagues at the AP in writing a saccharine-laced obit about Limbaugh that had more in common with back-of-the-book-jacket-like biographical bumph than the truth.
Turns out, Limbaugh was a “provocative and polarizing US talk radio luminary” and “a leading voice on the American political right”.
Think Barry Goldwater with pizzazz.
Forgotten by Reuters were the times when the “leading voice on the American right” said climate change “is nothing but a bunch of computer models that attempt to tell us what’s going to happen in 50 years” or that whiny “millennials” should stop complaining about the catastrophic, irreversible effect of climate change and adapt to it like a group of mid 19th-century American pioneers who turned to cannibalism to survive.
The late-night show host, Seth Myers, gladly took note of Limbaugh’s latest spasm of lunacy (I’m sorry, provocativeness).
“Finally, the Republicans have found a message to run on: Trump 2020. Your neighbours are delicious. This psycho [Limbaugh] … got a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Next time we tune into his show he’s probably going to be gnawing on it,” Meyers joked.
Lastly, I have to address the notion that Limbaugh “galvanised” America’s right-wing.
Note to amnesiac establishment media: You are using the wrong verb. Limbaugh did not “galvanise” the right; he radicalised it by trafficking in lies, smears and fanatical conspiracy theories for three hours, five days a week for more than 30 grinding years.
He infected and indoctrinated millions of Americans, many of whom – no doubt, attracted to his rank brand of polished stupidity – decided, en masse, to attack Capitol Hill in early January.
George Carlin had a joke for that too: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.