By TIM RUTTEN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Spend a moment considering the current state of talk radio and you'll quickly come up against a couple of chicken-and-egg-style dilemmas:
Is this medium's relentless transformation of every imaginable question into a political one simply the reflection of a nation bitterly divided along partisan lines? Or has talk radio's calculated reductionism helped to harden the lines between the red and the blue?
Does the mean-spirited vulgarity of the people doing the talking reflect a society that has grown just generally meaner over these past years? Or has their harsh intolerance and habitual incivility actually helped to make so much of our civic conversation coarse and vituperative?
You could find something to support all of these propositions in the controversy that erupted last week over Rush Limbaugh's rhetorical assault on the actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and frequently campaigns for candidates who support public funding of the stem cell research some scientists believe may one day produce a cure for the crippling illness.
Limbaugh took offense to a television ad Fox made on behalf of Democratic candidate Claire McCaskill, who is in a tight race with Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Talent in Missouri. McCaskill supports stem cell research across the board; Talent opposes any such research that requires the destruction of human embryos. They are similarly divided on a controversial state ballot proposition that would amend the state constitution to protect any federally permissible medical research. The Democratic challenger supports the measure; the Republican incumbent opposes it. The actor's ad supports McCaskill's candidacy and attacks Talent by name, alleging that he voted "to criminalize" stem cell research, which the incumbent denies.
Monday -- after Fox's ad had run during a World Series game -- Limbaugh went on the air and alleged that Fox had either faked or exaggerated the Parkinson's symptoms he displayed on screen. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act .... This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting," the broadcaster charged, twitching in his chair in mocking emulation of Fox's tremors. "This is the only time I've ever seen Michael J. Fox portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has," Limbaugh said. "He can barely control himself."
Given Limbaugh's personal history, he's clearly well-qualified to evaluate all sorts of pharmacological side-effects, though later, he made a semi-apology of a roundabout sort: "Now people are telling me they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial," the radio host said. "All right then, I stand corrected .... So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."
Thursday, the 45-year-old actor, shaking so badly his microphone would not stay pinned to his lapel, told CBS' Katie Couric, "Disease is a nonpartisan problem that requires a bipartisan solution."
Limbaugh, however, already had demonstrated that he was not prepared to let loose of his assertion that there was something "shameful" and partisan in Fox's conduct. "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democratic politician," he alleged Monday.
While it is true that the majority of candidates the actor supports are Democrats, the more relevant fact would seem to be that all of them support federal funding of stem cell research, including Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania.
Serious-minded people can have serious differences over stem cell research, which is one of those products of human ingenuity that seem to promise great benefits while posing profound ethical questions. But one of the things made clear by Limbaugh's churlish behavior last week is how ill-suited the commercial talk show ethos is to discussing such issues. In this fevered atmosphere, argument is reduced to mere bullying and the loudest voice and the broadest, most emotionally satisfying assertion simply crowds out the quiet thoughts, doubts and questions most people would bring to such a conversation. Moreover, nobody with whom the tough guys and mean girls of AM talk disagree ever is merely wrong or mistaken. Inevitably, they are liars or conspirators or, on the medium's lacier fringes, the dupes of evil forces or out-and-out traitors.
Going back to those chicken-and-egg propositions, you can pick your own reason for all this, but it won't do to argue -- as too many radio station operators cavalierly do -- that the nature of the medium requires the rhetorical equivalent of a cock fight. These days, public radio is awash in stimulating and genuinely informative talk and journalism, and its audience grows from year to year.
If you want an example of where the casual acceptance of commercial talk radio's modus operandi leads, consider this exchange between two people who presumably should know better on NBC's "Today" show. Matt Lauer, one of its hosts, wondered whether Limbaugh "just said what a lot of people were privately thinking?" Then he went on to ask law professor Susan Estrich, "If Michael Fox goes out there politically and puts himself in the fray, he has to expect to be, you know, taken to account, correct?"
"Correct," she answered, "and he is being taken to account."
Note the presumption here: You don't debate Fox; you don't disagree with him -- you call him to account.
Vast, sinister difference
There's a vast and rather sinister difference between arguing with somebody's ideas and insisting that they should be held accountable for expressing them. You can catch a pretty clear glimpse of just how sinister a difference by wading through some of the amplifications other right-wing commentators gave Limbaugh's charge that Fox is a "shill," cynically "exploiting" his Parkinson's for partisan purpose. Here, for example is Bernard Goldberg on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show:
"Instead of focusing on Rush Limbaugh, which the media loves to do, it should be focusing on a very important question: Is the commercial that Michael J. Fox cut ... honest? Is it dishonest? Is it misleading? But instead of asking those questions, the reason the media won't is because Michael J. Fox is a sympathetic victim. And when you have a sympathetic victim, whether it's Michael J. Fox or a less sympathetic victim, like Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, or the Jersey Girls who campaigned for John Kerry's run for the White House, but they lost their husbands on 9/11. Bringing out victims doesn't encourage debate. It stifles debate ... If Rush Limbaugh had cut a commercial saying I'm deaf, I can't hear and ... I think we need more federal funds to research deaf problems and maybe we should take it away from welfare or maybe AIDS or something, do you think the same media would show Rush Limbaugh the same compassion that they are showing Michael J. Fox? The answer is obviously no. And there's a reason for it. Because Rush Limbaugh is conservative, and liberalism affects everything we do."
You see, once you understand how deep the conspiracy is, it all gets very clear. Liberalism, the media, actors with crippling diseases, the mouthy mothers of dead sons, widows who won't shut up, they're all in it together. Now, about those crop circles and the alien abductions ....
Rutten writes about the media for the Times.