Rush Limbaugh's long-touted "5,000 word response" to FAIR's "Reign of Error" report has been released -- after nearly three and a half months. Unfortunately for Limbaugh, it doesn't rebut; mostly it changes the subject, dodges and wastes thousands of words on tangents and what-I-really-meant-to-say digressions. Whereas the FAIR report offered facts to specifically rebut Limbaugh's claims, his response relies on off-point quotes, non-responsive texts, even passages from opinion columnists.
It's telling that Limbaugh doesn't bother to rebut our original report -- which we provided to him two days before its public release. Instead, his response works from (sometimes incomplete) press accounts of our report. As a result, Limbaugh ignores almost half of the errors that we pointed out. (He also ignores one of our items printed in the Washington Post, a smear of conservative commentator Cliff Kincaid.)
The response is in many ways more disturbing than the original false claims -- because it reveals that even after his accuracy has been specifically challenged, Limbaugh (along with his multi-million dollar broadcasting and publishing operation) is utterly incapable of engaging in factual discourse.
In his "Dear Mr. Journalist" cover letter, Limbaugh writes that "there has been no double checking; there have been no questions asked of FAIR. Journalists were handed a list of items by this group, and they simply repeated them." In fact, journalists repeatedly asked tough questions of FAIR, sought added documentation, and did their own reporting. It is clear from Howard Kurtz' Washington Post piece (7/1/94), for example, that he did his own independent research and interviews.
Even the brief cover page of Limbaugh's response contains errors. In furtherance of a conspiracy theory that was apparently too good to check out, Limbaugh writes that FAIR "was launched in the summer of 1987 with the financial assistance of The New World Foundation He goes on to say that Hillary Clinton chaired the foundation. In fact, FAIR was founded not in 1987, but 1986 -- and the foundation played no role in the launching. Limbaugh makes reference to a 1987 grant of $2,500; he doesn't say that it was a discretionary grant conferred by the foundation's executive director, a decision that did not involve the chair or the board. These are simple facts that anyone could have learned by calling FAIR or the foundation.
(Anyone who's done even a cursory review of FAIR's work would know that we are far from flacks for the Clinton administration, and that we've frequently criticized mainstream media for soft treatment of the president on various issues.)
Limbaugh's cover letter also repeats the claim that FAIR found 43 errors in more than 4,000 hours of broadcasts. As our report noted, our list was far from exhaustive. We assembled those errors from easily available sources -- mainly his books and transcripts of several weeks' worth of his TV show.
What follows is a point-by-point reply to Limbaugh's non-response. We retract nothing -- since Limbaugh has been unable to show that we were wrong on a single point. Limbaugh's "rebuttal" is a sad commentary on a broadcaster who has 20 million listeners per week, but can't document his claims.
1. Student loans
Limbaugh asserted that "banks take risks in issuing student loans and they are entitled to the profits." In reality, as FAIR pointed out, these loans are federally insured.
His "rebuttal" is to offer a quote from a bankers' association spokesperson, who asserts that the "risk" bankers face is that they might fail to comply with federal procedures, and therefore not receive the reimbursement that the federal government would otherwise give them. This is a novel use of the concept of "risk" in lending, which is generally considered to be the chance that a borrower will not repay a loan. With student loans, the federal government assumes this risk.
2. American health care
Limbaugh urged a comparison of "American health care to other industrialized nations." FAIR did so, and found the U.S. running near the bottom on such matters as life expectancy and infant survival.
In attempted rebuttal, Limbaugh offers a quote from "Dr. Elizabeth McCaughey" (not a medical doctor, the Manhattan Institute's McCaughey has a PhD in constitutional law), who writes that high infant mortality and lower life expectancy "have almost nothing to do with the quality of American medical care. Both statistics reflect the epidemic of low-birth-weight babies born to teenage and drug-addicted mothers, as well as the large numbers of homicides in American cities and drug-related deaths."
This is misinformation. Infant mortality, far from having "almost nothing to do with" the quality of health care, is closely linked with the availability of prenatal care. According to figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, the mortality rate for infants whose mothers received little or no prenatal care is almost 10 times that of mothers who received frequent prenatal care.
And the Centers for Disease Control estimate that homicide lowers U.S. life expectancy by about three months -- which would do almost nothing to improve our rank. "Drug related deaths" are far fewer than homicides, and would have even less impact on our life expectancy ranking.
It's ironic that Limbaugh objects to using these statistics as measures of American health. They're the same two statistics he cites on the same page of his book to show that "the health of the American people has never been better."
Limbaugh ignores the second half of FAIR's argument: "The U.S. also has the lowest health care satisfaction rate (11 percent) of the 10 largest industrialized nations (Health Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 2)."
3. Forest acreage
"Do you know we have more acreage of forest land in the United States today than we did at the time the Constitution was written?" said Limbaugh. In fact, in what are now the 50 U.S. states, there were at least 850 million acres of forest land in the late 1700s, vs. only 730 million acres today.
Limbaugh's rebuttal is a lengthy dodge, which compares the amount of forest land in the U.S. today to that in 1920. But the Constitution was written in 1787, not 1920.
4. Chelsea Clinton
Limbaugh asserted that students at Chelsea Clinton's Sidwell Friends school were "required" to write a paper on "Why I Feel Guilty Being White" and added, "My source for this story is CBS News. I am not making it up." In reality, Limbaugh falsely claimed CBS News as his source, and there's no evidence that any such essay was ever assigned.
Limbaugh actually took this claim from an infotainment tip sheet called CBS Morning Resource--which is not part of CBS News, any more than a CBS game show is part of CBS's news operation. Limbaugh also neglected to tell his listeners that his real source for the item, as stated in the tip sheet, was Playboy (which had cited Heterodoxy, a right-wing publication).
As CBS News Vice President Larry Cooper wrote in a letter responding to Limbaugh (USA Today, 7/20/94): "Limbaugh's source was actually Playboy magazine. The story, crediting Playboy, was distributed to radio stations via the CBS Morning Resource.... Morning Resource is not associated with CBS News." Limbaugh seemed to sense -- correctly -- that an item would sound more credible to his listeners if sourced to "CBS News" than to Playboy.
In Limbaugh's rebuttal, he ignores the difference between CBS News and CBS Morning Resource. He still asserts that his claim about the required essay assignment is "a true story," and that "my office did what no other journalist did: We tracked the story to its root and talked to the original reporter (for Washington's City Paper). He confirmed the story."
Did Limbaugh's office do some pioneering research here? Not quite. FAIR's magazine EXTRA! had already tracked down the reporter who first wrote of the purported essay assignment, and published that fact five weeks ago (Sept./Oct. 94). After we asked the City Paper reporter, Bill Gifford, how an essay called "Why I Feel Guilty Being White" could be assigned to the roughly 25 percent of the school's students who are not white, he said he would doublecheck with his source, an unnamed disgruntled parent. Gifford got back to us and said that the actual title of the essay assigned to a 7th and 8th-grade class was "Should White People Feel Guilty and Why?" -- a different, more neutral topic.
After claiming that "no other journalist" had talked to the original reporter, Limbaugh then contradicts himself by acknowledging that we had talked to Gifford. Limbaugh claims Gifford "says he told FAIR the same thing he told my office, that he stands by the story and it's true." Interviewed by a Washington Times reporter doing a story on the Limbaugh rebuttal (10/11/94), Gifford confirmed that his source now says the assignment was "Should White People Feel Guilty?" -- and not "Why I Feel Guilty Being White".
Of course, the "root" of a story about a school assignment is not a reporter, or a shaky unnamed source -- it's the classroom. From inquiring repeatedly among administrators and faculty at the school, we have found no evidence of the essay assignment. Limbaugh and City Paper have produced no written documentation. The school maintains that the story is "apocryphal."
5. Beer and alcohol taxes in 1993
"You better pay attention to the 1993 budget deal because there is an increase in beer and alcohol taxes," asserted Limbaugh during his July 9, 1993 radio show. In reality, there were no such increases in the budget deal.
In "rebuttal," Limbaugh says that beer and alcohol taxes "were indeed considered" for the budget. This of course is very different from saying that alcohol tax increases are in the budget deal. In fact, when Limbaugh made this statement, different budget packages had passed both the House and the Senate, and neither package included tax increases on beer or alcohol.
It's noteworthy that Limbaugh's main source for the point that an alcohol tax was even considered is Bob Woodward's The Agenda, which hadn't been published when Limbaugh made his pronouncement.
In an even wilder tangent, Limbaugh talks of prospective alcohol taxes to cover Clinton's health plan. This, again, has nothing to do with "the 1993 budget deal."
6. Gas lines
"Those gas lines were a direct result of foreign oil powers playing tough with us because they didn't fear Jimmy Carter," Limbaugh wrote in his book See, I Told You So. In fact, FAIR pointed out, the most serious gas lines were in late 1973/early 1974, during the Nixon administration.
Limbaugh says he "wasn't discussing the 1973 gas lines" -- just the "gas lines that Jimmy Carter was responsible for." But the passage that includes this statement begins, "I, for one, remember the long gas lines of the 1970s" -- with no distinction made between the more serious 1973-74 gas lines and the gas lines he blames on Jimmy Carter.
7. U.S. military/Bosnia
Defending his claim that "for the first time in military history, U.S. military personnel [in Bosnia are not under the command of United States generals," Limbaugh's rebuttal claims that "U.S. military personnel have served with forces from other countries throughout history, such as in World War I and II but U.S. generals have always been at the top of the command structure." In fact, in World War I, France's Marshal Ferdinand Foch was in overall command of Allied troops. This factwas noted in FAIR's report, but Limbaugh seems to have chosen to ignore it.
8. Rodney King
Limbaugh's claim that "the videotape of the Rodney King beating played absolutely no role in the conviction of two of the four officers" is clearly unsupportable. Nothing Limbaugh writes contradicts the jury foreman's statement that the video was "crucial" in the conviction -- a statement that Limbaugh says he simply "discounted."
9. C.C. Myers
Limbaugh said that declaring the Santa Monica Freeway a disaster area "eliminated the need for competitive bids."
In fact, C.C. Myers beat out four other contractors who bid on the project. Limbaugh said that Myers did not have to go through the "rigamarole...of giving 25 percent of the job to a minority-owned business and 25 percent to a woman." In fact, affirmative action rules applied. Limbaugh said that "government got the hell out of the way." In fact, state employees worked round the clock on the project, and the whole thing was government-funded. While not disputing any of the factual errors that we pointed out, Limbaugh's rebuttal irrelevantly argues that other statements he made about Myers were true.
"Women were doing quite well in this country before feminism came along," Limbaugh said. FAIR pointed out that before feminism, women couldn't even vote -- since feminism "came along" in the 19th Century. "I was referring to contemporary militant feminism," Limbaugh now amends. But that is not what he said --and "Words mean things," as Limbaugh proclaims in his "35 Undeniable Truths of Life".
11. Anita Hill
Of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Limbaugh declared: "She wanted to continue to date him." In response to FAIR's pointing out that Hill and Thomas never dated, Limbaugh said that his comment "actually demonstrates my recall of the Thomas-Hill episode," citing a statement by Thomas that Hill had invited him into her home after driving her home.
But neither Thomas or Hill ever characterized these or any other interaction that the two had as anything approaching a "date." Hill has said that Thomas asked her out, and that she declined; Thomas denied strongly that "I ever attempted to date her."
Limbaugh also said, "There were no other accusers who came forth after Anita Hill did and said, 'Yeah, Clarence Thomas, he harassed me too.' There was none of that." Angela Wright and Sukari Hardnett did not apply the term "sexual harassment" to what they had personally experienced while working for Thomas. But their descriptions of Thomas' behavior, if true, would almost certainly meet the legal definition of harassment.
"Clarence Thomas did consistently pressure me to date him," Wright told Senate investigators. "At one point, Clarence Thomas made comments about my anatomy. Clarence Thomas made comments about women's anatomy quite frequently. At one point, Clarence Thomas came by my apartment at night, unannounced and uninvited.... He would try to move the conversation over to the prospect of my dating him."
"If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female," Hardnett wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "You knew when you were in favor because you were always at his beck and call, being summoned constantly, tracked down wherever you were in the agency and given special deference by others because of his interest. And you knew when you had ceased to be an object of sexual interest -- because you were barred from entering his office and treated as an outcast, or worse, a leper with whom contact was taboo."
12. James Madison
Limbaugh acknowledges that he misattributed the alleged quote from Madison (saying that Americans must "sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God"). The actual quotes from Madison which Limbaugh supplies to suggest that Madison had said pretty much the same thing, are mostly about the need for the separation of church and state -- which is the opposite of the view that government ought to be based on the Ten Commandments.
13. Native Americans
Unable to provide any evidence to support his claim that "there are more American Indians alive today than there were when Columbus arrived," Limbaugh quotes an article in the Heritage Foundation magazine that claims that "some Indian groups are more populous today than in 1492."
14. Whitewater coverage
"I don't think the New York Times has run a story on [Whitewater] yet," Limbaugh said on February 17, 1994. "There has not been a big one, front-page story about this one that I can recall."
FAIR noted that the Times had actually published the first major story on Whitewater -- a lengthy, front-page piece that appeared on March 8, 1992.
Limbaugh defends this mistake: "The fact that I overlooked one Times article that ran 11 months earlier is hardly indicative of a 'reign of error.'"
First, March 1992 is 23 months before February 1994, not 11 months.
Furthermore, Limbaugh did not overlook one front-page New York Times story on Whitewater, he overlooked half a dozen. We cited the March 8, 1992 story to suggest that Limbaugh, who passes himself off as an expert on press coverage of Whitewater, should have known who it was that originally broke the story.
15. Gulf War I
Limbaugh's original statement was that during the Gulf War, "everybody in the world was aligned with the United States except who? The United States Congress."
After FAIR pointed out that both houses of Congress had voted to authorize the use of force in the Persian Gulf, Limbaugh responded on his radio show (7/5/94): "When I said it, it was true," he claimed -- implying he had said it while the debate was still ongoing.
Actually, Limbaugh made the statement on April 18, 1994 -- more than three years after the vote. Limbaugh now admits that "Congress eventually went along with President Bush's policy -- but they had to be dragged along, kicking and screaming." Yet another "what I meant to say..." response.
16. Gulf War II
"In 1990, George Bush was president and was enjoying a 90 percent plus approval rating on the strength of our victories in the Persian Gulf War and Cold War." Limbaugh does not dispute our point that "our victories in the Gulf War," fought in 1991, could not have influenced Bush's 1990 approval rating. Only after the war did Bush's approval rating reach anything like 90 percent.
17. Canadian health care
Limbaugh says that his claim that "most Canadian physicians who are themselves in need of surgery...scurry across the border to get it done right; the American Way" was "an obvious humorous exaggeration." In fact, the passage it appears in--on page 153 of See, I Told You So--is completely sober and straightforward. In his rebuttal, Limbaugh is unable to produce even a single anecdotal example of a Canadian doctor who came to the U.S. for any kind of medical treatment -- though he does offer examples of Canadian doctors who moved south to work in the U.S.
18. The nicotine controversy
"It has not been proven that nicotine is addictive," Limbaugh declared. Nicotine's addictiveness is only controversial among scientists paid by the tobacco industry. When the New York Times (8/2/94) asked two independent experts to rank nicotine in terms of "dependence" -- defined as "how difficult it is for the user to quit, the relapse rate, the percentage of people who eventually become dependent, the rating users give their own need for the substance and the degree to which the substance will be used in the face of evidence that it causes harm" -- both rated nicotine ahead of heroin, cocaine and alcohol.
19. Ozone and volcanoes
There are many uncertainties about ozone depletion -- which makes it all the more important that the debate not be confused with inaccurate statements. Limbaugh claimed in his book The Way Things Ought to Be that "Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed forth more than a thousand times the amount of ozone-destroying chemicals in one eruption than all thefluorocarbons manufactured by wicked, diabolical and insensitive corporations in history." On Nightline, he said that "Mount Pinatubo has put 570 times the amount of chlorine into the atmosphere in one eruption than all of the man-made chlorofluorocarbons in one year."
Both statements can't be true; in fact, neither are. The "570 times" figure apparently derives from Trashing the Planet, an anti-environmental book by Dixy Lee Ray, but Ray was referring to a different volcano -- Mt. Augustine, an Alaskan volcano that erupted in 1976. Ray in turn gets the number from a 1980 Science magazine article -- but Science was talking about the chlorine produced by a gigantic eruption that occurred 700,000 years ago in California.
20. Effectiveness of condoms
When Limbaugh says that a one-in-five fatality rate is a "statistic [that] holds for condoms, folks," that is not "distinctly different from saying that condom users have a one-in-five AIDS risk," as he claims in his rebuttal. He is clearly suggesting to his readers that if they allow their children to use condoms, there is a one-in-five chance that they will die.
In fact, studies have shown that when a person with HIV uses condoms consistently during sex with an uninfected partner, long-term transmission rates are relatively low--generally 2 percent or less.
21. U.S. poor vs. Europe's mainstream
Limbaugh initially had made the absurd claim that "the poorest people in America are better off than the mainstream families of Europe." In support of this, he cites a Heritage Foundation study that unscientifically compares statistics that were collected several years apart, and singles out a few commodities that U.S. citizens are likely to have more of.
A broader comparison of living standards is available from the World Bank's World Development Report 1994, which calculates "Purchasing Power Parity" -- a comparison of how much people in each country can buy with their money. (Limbaugh has touted this method as the "most reliable measurement of economic strength" --Limbaugh Letter, 1/94.) The residents of four major European nations -- France, Germany, Italy and Britain -- can purchase the equivalent of $18,568 with their average incomes. The poorest 20 percent of Americans can purchase $5,433 worth of goods.
In some countries, like Germany, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands, the poorest residents are significantly better off than their poor counterparts in the U.S. According to World Bank figures, poor Americans are not even better off than mainstream families in many Eastern European countries, such as Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
Watch Rush Limbaugh backpedal. He originally said that there was "absolutely no evidence... not one indictment... not one charge" resulting from the Iran-contra investigation.
Now he says, "I obviously misspoke when I said there were no indictments-- I clearly meant to say there were no convictions, a point I have made on many occasions." But he immediately begins backing off from that claim, since there were convictions -- nine, including guilty pleas, plus two other convictions that were reversed on technicalities.
But these were not on "substantive points,"Limbaugh says, or, as guest expert Ed Meese says, they were "generally on minor offenses." Are felony convictions minor?
23. Michael Gartner
Limbaugh accused former NBC president Michael Gartner of deliberately faking news "with the express hope of destroying General Motors" and other businesses. He has still offered no evidence to back up this serious charge.
Limbaugh's expectation of how reporters should cover his rebuttal speaks volumes about his understanding of journalism. Here's a verbatim transcription from his October 11, 1994 radio show:
"Two weeks ago -- a week and a half ago -- we sent out over 150, maybe 200 copies of this to various columnists, newspapers which had printed the FAIR report originally and so forth.
"To this date, only one newspaper, the Washington Times, has sought to do a story on my response. And the way that it happened was laughable. We sent our response out, a reporter from the Washington Times gets it, and immediately calls FAIR, and says what do you think of this? They then call us and say all right, here's what FAIR thinks of your response, what do you think of what they said? And we got on the phone and we said, 'Listen, bleep-head, you have your response in our hands, that's all you're going toget, run our response.'
"That's what I think is called for here. We're not going to get into a tit-for-tat, blow-by-blow, it's not the point. The point is we've responded to these charges, you have them in their hands and there they are.
"Well, it is my thought, my, my premonition here, that most columnists, and Doonesbury, for example, which ran a whole week-long series in his cartoon strip on this, and the newspapers who ran it are not going to run it as we sent it out or even an abbreviated version of it, our response. They're just not going to do it, for who knows whatever reasons, but leading the list would be bias."
(For the record, the Washington Times did not run a news report on FAIR's original report.)