Rush, media and the importance of context

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This much nearly everyone can agree on — Rush Limbaugh made a remark about “phony soldiers” on his Sept. 26 nationally syndicated radio broadcast. Beyond that, it depends on where you get your information.

Limbaugh has been facing a firestorm of controversy this week, with detractors claiming in one form or another that “Rush Limbaugh, on his show said that those troops who come home and want to get America out of the middle of the religious civil war in Iraq are ‘phony soldiers.'”

Most articles, notably the Associated Press version, used the following context for the partial quote at the heart of this story:

“MIKE FROM OLYMPIA, WASH.”: They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.

LIMBAUGH: The phony soldiers.

A more full context would have included the complete lead-in quote from the caller:

“MIKE FROM OLYMPIA, WASH.”: And what’s really funny is they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.

The added context more precisely indicates what the caller was implying.

Even more illustrative would have been reports that took into account the context of Limbaugh’s exchange with the previous caller, “Mike from Chicago,” who advocated withdrawing troops from Iraq.

When that caller said he was a Republican:

LIMBAUGH: Mike, you can’t possibly be a Republican.

Limbaugh appeared to be suggesting that the caller was merely posing as a Republican, one might infer, in order to get on the show and/or to have the credibility that comes with criticizing one’s own group. The host also expressed cynicism when the caller said he “used to be military”:

LIMBAUGH: Right, I know, and I, by the way, used to walk on the moon.

Limbaugh closed the exchange by repeating his disbelief in the caller’s authenticity:

LIMBAUGH: You’re not listening to what I say. You can’t possibly be a Republican. I’m answering every question. It’s not what you want to hear, and so it’s not even penetrating your little wall of armor you’ve got built up.

He then immediately cut to “Mike from Olympia.”

The inclusion of the earlier context clearly indicates that in talking with “Mike from Olympia” the talk show host was expressing his belief that some people who claimed to be soldiers pushing for a military withdrawal, such as the previous caller, were not actual soldiers.

It is a stretch to suggest that Limbaugh was saying “all those who claim to be soldiers criticizing the war are not actual soldiers but individuals merely pretending to be soldiers.” It is a blatant mischaracterization to claim that the talk show host was directly impugning actual soldiers who voice criticism of the Iraq War.

That did not stop some media outlets from following up on a release from the liberal group Media Matters, titled: “Limbaugh: Service members who support U.S. withdrawal are ‘phony soldiers.'”

MSNBC, in particular, drew the ire of the conservative group Newsbusters, which lambasted the news organization in a release titled “Show after show, MSNBC smears Limbaugh with ‘phony soldiers.'”

Democratic leaders have gone after Limbaugh as well — particularly Sen. Harry Reid, who said in a letter to Clear Channel Communication that “Rush Limbaugh’s recent characterization of troops who oppose the war as “phony soldiers” is such an outrage.” He further stated that Limbaugh’s actions were “beyond the pale.”

Most major newspapers have thus far largely avoided the issue, allowing the various television networks to have the story to themselves. However, Reid’s actions may prompt the newspapers to delve into it as well.

A good newspaper article would do two things with this mess: 1) it would use the complete context to illustrate what Limbaugh was actually saying; and 2) it would track down “Mike from Chicago” to see if he really is a military veteran as he said. If he is, and particularly if he is an Iraq War veteran, then Limbaugh at the very least owes him an apology for suggesting otherwise. If he is not, then it is Senator Reid and others who owe Limbaugh an apology.


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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.



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