Let's face it, when it comes to alternative facts and deliberate misrepresentations, Rush Limbaugh is practically in a class by himself — and one presumes many listeners of his Florida-based radio show may even understand that. Like Donald Trump, he is given to exaggeration and outrage, conspiracy theories and media scapegoating; his goal is seemingly to entertain, not inform. Part of the shtick is to go so far over the top that there's a kind of naughtiness that his audience may find titillating: Did he really just say that? Will liberals lose their minds? Is he politically incorrect or what? He doesn't apologize for his racism (he once suggested Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin deserved a Medal of Honor) or misogyny (having popularized the term, "feminazi"); he revels in it. He is a shock jock with fewer tunes and an extra heaping of braggadocio.
But last week as Hurricane Irma approached Florida, Mr. Limbaugh went too far even by his freewheeling standards. In extended remarks about the approaching storm, he suggested Irma was a hoax and that its ferocity and impact was being blown out of proportion by the media in an effort to promote a climate change agenda. This wasn't some aside, some failed attempt at humor but an extended soliloquy. He spoke of how TV broadcasters have a vested interest in public panic, that stores make money when people stock up on bottled water and that those retailers "spend a lot of advertising dollars with local media." It was, in Mr. Limbaugh's mind, a media-driven conspiracy, a "vicious circle" from those who sell water and batteries.
And then what happened? Two days later, Mr. Limbaugh revealed he was evacuating his Palm Beach mansion. That storm he regarded as over-hyped proved just as terrible and historic as all those meteorologists had predicted. And when he was called on the carpet for his exaggeration and irresponsibility (weatherman Al Roker warned his audience on Twitter on Sept. 6 that Mr. Limbaugh's behavior "bordered on criminal"), he retreated back to his media conspiracy theories, telling his audience this week that, in essence, he never said what he said. "My whole point about this was never that it was fake, that the warnings were never fake, that the strength of the hurricane was fake. I never said anything of the sort. I questioned how the media deals with all of this stuff." Of course, the tapes of his earlier shows tell a different story.
It appears what really happened is that an iconoclast — although the more apt description under the circumstances is "blowhard" — was caught doing the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater, only worse. He was yelling at theater patrons to ignore an approaching fire that could easily have killed them. As of this writing, the Irma death toll in the United States is up to 22, and it would surely have been far worse if all those members of the group Mr. Limbaugh so frequently ridicules as the "mainstream media" and purveyors of "fake news" had not been giving a more honest and authentic evaluation of the hurricane — which amounted to mostly reflecting what scientists at the National Hurricane Center had to say on the subject.
Obviously, Mr. Limbaugh's show is not a place to go for reliable information. That's par for the course. But in times of emergency, showmanship is an insufficient excuse for such behavior. Who knows if one or more of the victims was a listener of his broadcast and decided not to evacuate or take proper precautions? Even the usual attacks on "fake news" seem outrageously irresponsible at times like these when so many Americans rely on those same broadcasters to keep them informed of approaching threats. Does anyone seriously believe the Weather Channel is a tool of the "deep state?" Alas, maybe some do. At what point do the Rush Limbaughs and Alex Joneses of the world get held accountable for their actions? Will it require a lawsuit by a victim's family to demonstrate the "crowded theater" exception to the First Amendment?
Mr. Limbaugh's backtracking earns him alternative fact of the week honors. He spent a lot of time railing about how the media exaggerates storms as a historic storm approached. People were rightfully appalled. Now, he's trying to run away from what he did. Shame on him.
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