Jul 1 1994

Koppel Covers for Limbaugh’s Rumor-Mongering

Koppel Covers for Limbaugh’s Rumor-Mongering Ted Koppel’s special (ABC Viewpoint, 4/19/94) on press coverage of Whitewater was a perfect opportunity to take Rush Limbaugh to task for spreading unfounded conspiracy theories. But instead, ABC journalists Koppel and Jeff Greenfield let Limbaugh off the hook.

On his March 10 radio broadcast, Limbaugh had announced the following in urgent tones:

OK, folks, I think I got enough information here to tell you about the contents of this fax that I got. Brace yourselves. This fax contains information that I have just been told will appear in a newsletter to Morgan Stanley sales personnel this afternoon…. What it is is a bit of news which says… there’s a Washington consulting firm that has scheduled the release of a report that will appear, it will be published, that claims that Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton, and the body was then taken to Fort Marcy Park.

After he returned from a commercial break, Limbaugh began referring to the story as a “rumor,” but continued to claim that the story was that “the Vince Foster suicide was not a suicide.”

Limbaugh was referring to an item in a newsletter put out by the Washington, D.C. firm of Johnson Smick International. The newsletter, relating a rumor that has no apparent basis in fact, reported that White House attorney Foster’s suicide occurred in an apartment owned by White House associates, and that his body was moved to the park where it was found.

Limbaugh took this baseless rumor from a small insiders’ newsletter and broadcast it to his radio audience of millions, adding his own new inaccuracies: The newsletter did not report–as Limbaugh claimed–that Foster was murdered, or that the apartment was owned by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Limbaugh’s repetition of an unfounded rumor has been credited (Chicago Tribune, 3/11/94; Newsweek, 3/21/94) with contributing to a plunge in the stock market on the day it was aired.

Appearing as an “expert” on the Viewpoint special, Limbaugh denied twisting the rumor: “Never have I suggested that this was murder,” he said. ABC‘s Jeff Greenfield, in a taped segment, further covered for the talkshow host, claiming that Limbaugh “broadcast the rumor as an example of the more wild stories circulating.”

Later in the broadcast, host Ted Koppel also stuck up for Limbaugh when his role in spreading the story was challenged. “As I recall,” Koppel said, “you didn’t present it as accurate, did you? You represented it as one of the rumors that was going around.”

The executive producer of Limbaugh’s TV show, Roger Ailes (a Republican campaign consultant and president of the CNBC cable network), didn’t claim that his star had debunked the rumor–he boasted that Limbaugh’s report of “a suicide coverup, possibly murder” was a scoop. On the Don Imus radio show, Ailes remarked: “The guy who’s been doing an excellent job for the New York Post [Chris Ruddy]…for the first time on the Rush Limbaugh show said that…he did not believe it was suicide…. Now, I don’t have any evidence…. These people are very good at hiding or destroying evidence.”

But Limbaugh doesn’t seem so proud of his scoop. When a caller to the radio show (3/10/94), who identified himself as a pediatrician from Memphis, articulately criticized Limbaugh for spreading false reports about Vincent Foster’s death, the host seemed to take it personally: “One thing I’m not is a rumor-monger,” he said.

Limbaugh later went on to imply that the pediatrician had been calling from the “West Wing of the White House” (even though he had also attacked the Clinton health care plan and endorsed a single-payer approach). “I think that whatis going to happen during the course of this year,” Limbaugh said, “is that a bunch of people are going to call this show that have been given marching orders…. What’s going to happen is there will be numerous attempts,and they’ve gone on all the time, to discredit what occurs on this program.”

The next day (3/11/94), apparently still smarting from the Memphis caller’s remarks, Limbaugh instructed his staff on the air: “You guys be on the lookout in there for more calls from the White House disguised as pediatricians from Memphis.”

FAIR associate Jonathan Eagleman tracked down the “Memphis pediatrician” and found that he was… a Memphis pediatrician. The pediatrician had received a number of hate calls from outraged dittoheads–apparently some of them hadn’t believed their leader’s claim that he was actually calling from the White House.