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THE SIXTEEN-YEAR RUSH! Krugman’s column made us recall what happened to Rush way back when: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, 15 JUNE 2009

Joanne Welch loses an argument: On Friday, Salon’s Joan Walsh appeared on the O’Reilly Factor, debating a bunch of things involving George Tiller. Eventually, Bill O’Reilly blew his stack. This has occasioned a great deal of comment, at Salon and elsewhere. For Joan’s account, and for access to tape of the program, you know what to do—just click here.

We like Joan here at THE HOWLER; for our money, she wins more than she loses on cable. But we thought she was saved by the bell when O’Reilly went postal on Friday night. Before that, she’d thoroughly lost the debate in our view. O’Reilly hurt himself with his conduct.

Instead of complaining about the way O’Reilly behaved that night, we thought it might be useful to look at the way our side had pretty much lost that debate.

Let’s say it again: Joan wins more debates than she loses. And no one wins them all, not even the mighty Pac-10. Put just to make the pill go down better, let’s pretend it wasn’t Joan who argued with O’Reilly last Friday. Let’s pretend it was really Joanne Welch, Jack Welch’s (imaginary) trust-fund daughter.

How did Joanne Welch lose to BillO, until he blew his stack?

For starters, these were the first two Q-and-As. For our money, the debate was pretty much lost at this point:

O’REILLY (6/12/09): Now for the top story tonight. Joining us from San Francisco is Joan Walsh. Do you feel that late-term fetuses deserve any protections at all, Ms. Walsh?

WALSH: You know, Bill, that really is the hardest, hardest issue in the abortion debate. They make up one percent of all abortions. And certainly there are abuses. But the vast majority of that one percent happen to be women who were either diagnosed with breast cancer very late-stage, have to choose between their baby and chemotherapy. That young girl's story was really tragic, but I have also read the story of a 9-year-old who was raped by her stepfather, who didn't know she was pregnant until very late. And women who found out late in their pregnancies, tragically, that their babies really would die in a matter of days, they would be subject to surgery, et cetera, etcetera. So—

O'REILLY: Well, all of that, if they find that out, all of that is, can be taken care of in many hospitals. The Supreme Court as you know has ruled, even in states that outlaw late-term abortion, if the mother's health is in catastrophic danger, abortion can take place.

WALSH: Right. And that is the great majority of these abortions, Bill.

But if the great majority of these abortions can be performed at any hospital, why was Tiller a major national figure over the past many years? (We’ve always heard that it’s very hard to find someone to perform these operations.) We’re not expert on these matters. But uh-oh! It quickly seemed to us that Joan isn’t either. And Bill quickly drove the point home:

O'REILLY (continuing directly): So this Tiller thing is bogus. And I believe you know it. If you don't, I'm going to play you another sound bite that will—should prove it to you.

Given the agreement the two had seemed to reach, that logic had an instant surface appeal.

There’s no reason why Joanne Welch, or anyone else, should be an expert on abortion. But you can’t debate a topic like this with someone who knows, or seems to know, more about it than you do. As in this exchange, for example:

O'REILLY: Ms. Walsh, have you seen the investigative documents?

WALSH: Bill, we just have different sets of facts on this.

O'REILLY: No, it isn't a matter of difference. It's a matter of facts. Have you seen the investigative documents the state of Kansas put together against Tiller? Have you, madam?

WALSH: I have skimmed them.

O'REILLY: You have skimmed them.

WALSH: I have skimmed them, yes.

O'REILLY: You have skimmed them. Then you know—well, if you have skimmed them.

WALSH: I have skimmed them.

O'REILLY: And it's shocking to me that you wouldn't read them if you're going to accuse somebody like me of being a vile accomplice to murder—that you wouldn't read them. But if you skimmed them—

WALSH: I didn't—I said you were vile. I did. I did not accuse you of being an accomplice to murder.

There’s no reason why Joan should have read those documents—we haven’t read them, for example. But in part because BillO was better prepared, she got waylaid like this:

O'REILLY: Save the life of the mother, nobody's arguing with. Tiller was aborting late-term fetuses for casual reasons. That's what he was doing.

WALSH: I really haven't seen any evidence of that, Bill.

[ ... ]

O'REILLY: You just said you haven't seen any of evidence of that, OK? Here's a tape from Dr. Paul McHugh, head of the psychiatric school at Johns Hopkins University, madam. Roll it.

MCHUGH (videotape): I didn't think that those records supported the idea that these women were likely to suffer a substantial and irreversible impairment. They highlighted certain kinds of things, which out of context were hard, of course, to appreciate, but were sometimes of a most trivial sort from saying that I won't be able to go to concerts, or I won't be able to take part in sports to more serious ones such as I don't want to give my child up for adoption.

O'REILLY: Your reaction?

WALSH: I don't necessarily know what makes those men any better judges of these women's conditions than Dr. Tiller. Bill, we live in different worlds. You believe your experts. I believe mine.

O'REILLY: OK.

WALSH: I've talked to dozens of women who support what Dr. Tiller did.

O'REILLY: So you're saying that Dr. McHugh, head of the psychiatric school at Johns Hopkins University, is lying?

WALSH: I don't—no, I didn't say he's lying. I'm not sure what he's looking at and I'm not sure what makes him more qualified just from looking at records than.

O'REILLY: What makes him more qualified is that he's head of one of the most prestigious psychiatric schools that—he's retired now—in the United States.

WALSH: But he's reading from records.

O'REILLY: No, he did his own investigation.

WALSH: He's not examining the patient.

O'REILLY: He did he his own investigation based upon the testimony that was given to the Kansas authorities.

WALSH: Did he, Bill?

Yes, he did—which of course doesn’t mean that his judgment was right. McHugh was originally used as an expert by pro-life Kansas attorney general Phil Kline. He seems to have examined the files on 44 of Tiller’s cases, out of the thousands of cases Tiller actually handled. We didn’t know any of that until we looked it up this weekend. But here’s the deal: It would be better to know such things before debating O’Reilly about Tiller.

(Kline lost re-election to Democrat Paul Morrison in 2006. In 2007, Morrison charged Tiller with nineteen misdemeanors, saying Tiller had failed to get a truly independent second opinion in some late-term cases, as required by state law. His case didn’t involve McHugh’s testimony. Tiller was acquitted on all charges.)

At Salon, many commenters were upset because O’Reilly blew his stack. But in our view, O’Reilly was winning this debate in a walk before he went ballistic. Joan seemed under-informed about the Tiller case, and she seemed reluctant to state her own views about abortion. In all fairness, she didn’t seem to have a developed view on the subject, aside from being pro-choice.

That would pretty much describe us too. But we didn’t go on the air to debate O’Reilly.

Was Tiller performing abortions “for casual reasons” under state law? Kline had wanted to charge him with that—but Morrison didn’t do so. (We’ll quote the AP: Under Kansas law, abortion is allowed after 21 weeks “only when a woman faces death or ‘substantial and irreversible’ harm to a ‘major bodily function,’ though the latter term has been interpreted to include mental health.”)

In our view, Joan wins more debates than she loses—and nobody wins them all. Beyond that, she brings a good sensibility with her when she goes on the air. But it’s easy for libs, Dems and progs to rail about O’Reilly’s temper. More productively, we thought Friday’s discussion helped us see how we must prepare for debate. We thought Bill was winning big—until he blew his stack.

THE SIXTEEN-YEAR RUSH: Over the weekend, we continued to ponder Paul Krugman’s Friday column. The column’s headline was, “The Big Hate.” This was Krugman’s nugget:

KRUGMAN (6/12/09): Today, as in the early years of the Clinton administration but to an even greater extent, right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.

For ourselves, we stay away from the terms “right-wing” and “left-wing.” We think they tend to offer more heat than light. Was race-nut von Brunn a “right-wing” extremist? We’d be more inclined to call him a race nut.

Second question: Were any recent murders fueled by statements from conservative media or politicians? We know of no evidence to that effect. (Krugman didn’t say otherwise.) Disclaimers and shavings to the side, we think Krugman’s column remains very important. Just consider what Krugman said about the work of Rush Limbaugh:

KRUGMAN: And then there’s Rush Limbaugh. His rants today aren’t very different from his rants in 1993. But he occupies a different position in the scheme of things. Remember, during the Bush years Mr. Limbaugh became very much a political insider. Indeed, according to a recent Gallup survey, 10 percent of Republicans now consider him the “main person who speaks for the Republican Party today,” putting him in a three-way tie with Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich. So when Mr. Limbaugh peddles conspiracy theories—suggesting, for example, that fears over swine flu were being hyped “to get people to respond to government orders”—that’s a case of the conservative media establishment joining hands with the lunatic fringe.

We’re not sure that Limbaugh is more significant today than he was in 1993. But to understand where we’ve all been for the past sixteen years or so, let’s remember one of the claims Limbaugh made in 1994.

He made the claim on March 10, 1994. We were driving to Huntington, West Virginia that day; for that reason, we happened to hear it live. To his credit, Howard Kurtz quickly reported what Limbaugh had said, presenting it as part of a growing problem. The headline: “Media Awash in Whitewater Claims, Some Critics Say.” Here was the chunk about Limbaugh:

KURTZ (3/12/94): On Thursday, a newsletter published by the consulting firm Johnson, Smick International alleged without evidence that Foster committed suicide at a secret apartment he shared with top administration officials, and that his body was moved to the Virginia park where it was found. Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh went a step further, saying the newsletter "claims that Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton." White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers called the newsletter report "a complete fabrication," but several media outlets picked it up. "Foster's secret apartment hideaway revealed," the New York Post said.

“Without evidence,” a newsletter had repeated a rumor (fueling a one-day stock market drop). Limbaugh then embellished the claim, turning a suicide into a murder—and gloriously involving Hillary Clinton in the crackpot tale. Later, on a Nightline special, he of course denied that he’d ever suggested that murder might be involved.

The penalty for this disgraceful conduct was, of course: Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

That summer, special prosecutor Robert Fiske found that Foster had indeed committed suicide—and not in Clinton’s apartment. (Because this finding was so disappointing, more investigations ensued, all of which found the same thing.) But looking back with the help of Nexis, it’s astounding to see how little discussion Limbaugh’s egregious misconduct occasioned. There were aggressive complaints in the Arkansas press, by John Brummett and Gene Lyons, among others. But it’s stunning to see the way the mainstream press corps stared into air or hid in the woods concerning Limbaugh’s grotesque conduct.

In fairness, some mainstreamers may have avoided speaking for a sensible reason—when you repeat the ugly claims of a nut, you spread those ugly claims further. But for a bit of perspective, this is part of what Brummett said in his Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column. He had discussed Limbaugh’s conduct with Mike Huckabee, then Arkansas’ lieutenant governor:

BRUMMETT (3/27/94): [My view] was that the horror of Limbaugh is that he gives mainstream legitimacy, before an afternoon radio audience of 15 million people, to the late-night AM radio subculture of conspiracy nuts and assorted weirdos who have nothing else to do with their wasted lives other than stop talking with Elvis or put down the National Enquirer long enough to listen to, and call, radio programs that spread malicious, unsubstantiated rumor as if it were fact.

[ ... ]

Huckabee, to the contrary, asserted that Limbaugh is an entertaining provocateur who advances worthy conservative thought, but that Rush went too far in a limited sphere when he raised conspiracy theories about Vince Foster's tragic death and implied a pattern of Mafia-like intrigue connecting a fire in Worthen National Bank's building, the gangland-style slaying of a security company owner in West Little Rock and the plane crash in bad weather that took the life of Herschel Friday.

By disgraceful insinuation of the kind never before perpetrated to mass audiences under the pretense of sanity, Limbaugh wants his millions of ditto-brains to believe or at least suspect that a band of Clintonian thugs dominates Arkansas through murder, arson and, apparently, sinister control of the weather.

These were isolated tragedies, of course. I didn't need to tell you that, did I?

In Arkansas, maybe not. But at any rate: According to Brummett, Limbaugh regularly engaged in “disgraceful insinuation of the kind never before perpetrated to mass audiences under the pretense of sanity.”

But so what? Up in DC, the “mainstream press corps” seemed to judge that there was pretty much “nothing to look at.” Limbaugh’s ugly, disgraceful conduct barely occasioned a ripple of comment. Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell was peddling that crackpot tape about the murders the Clintons had committed. He remained a regular guest on the nation’s major news programs as he did.

Result? Fifteen years later, go ahead—just read Krugman’s column.

One complaint:

We set the wrong standard when we complain, or seem to complain, that Limbaugh and others may be inspiring occasional acts of violence. (We know of no evidence that they have.) Over the years, they have done something massively worse—they have made a joke of our national discourse, deceiving and disinforming millions of gullible citizens in the process. As the 1990s proceeded, the crackpot claims spread from Bill and Clinton to Bill Clinton’s chosen successor, crazy-man Gore. The “press corps” recited (or tolerated) inane, deranged tales about Gore for two years. And yes—this sent Bush to the White House.

Gene Robinson was one of those who helped spread that war against Gore. (He was editor of the Post’s Style section in them thar days. His section savaged Gore, “the vanilla pudding of the species.” Limbaugh? Not so much!) Ten years later, neither he—nor anyone else in his upscale cohort—has ever explained why this conduct occurred. We didn’t think much of his column last Friday, or of the role he continues to play in our so-called national discourse.

Limbaugh’s been at this a very long time. Way back when this disgraceful misconduct began, the mainstream press ran off and hid in the woods. They were afraid of Rush—but eager to trash the Clintons and Big Liar Gore. They kept it up for a very long time. Happy with how that turned out?

Ted Koppel, feet in the air: Here was Ted Koppel on that special Nightline program, pre-excusing poor misunderstood Rush and baldly misstating the facts:

KOPPEL (4/19/94): Wait—wait one second. In terms of people who are represented on this panel here, and Rush, who is in New York: When he presented that story, as I recall—Rush, you can come in and speak for yourself. You didn't present it as accurate, did you? You represented it as one of the rumors that was going around.

Piss-pitiful, beyond all compare. But there you see the mewling essence of the era in question—and of its multimillionaires.