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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Today's Guest on Rush Limbaugh: Narcissus

September 03, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Television: On a recent day, the most-mentioned topic on Rush's show was its host. He referred to himself 44 times in 22 minutes. In fact, 32% of the show was devoted to him or something he's involved in.

Television demands intense scrutiny. For that reason, meticulous, in-depth analysis has always been the goal of this column. So hold on to your hats and behold the following.

Rush Limbaugh: An Autopsy.

Actually, the subject is anything but a corpse on a slab. And it wasn't Rush himself whom I dissected, but Wednesday's edition of his syndicated television series that appears at 3:30 p.m. weekdays on KCOP-TV Channel 13, as well as in late-night time slots on numerous stations beyond Los Angeles. As the nation's foremost radio talk-show host and a burgeoning TV presence, too, Limbaugh has become a broadcasting behemoth, channeling his epic noise and popularity into his very own multimedia cottage industry.

His ratings alone are evidence that his brand of conservatism, laced with humor and hyperbole, is getting a sympathetic ear from a very large segment of the United States, and that even many Americans who don't espouse the bulk of his ideas watch or listen to Limbaugh because they find him flat-out enjoyable.

But what about the issue of fairness? Limbaugh, of course, has a constitutional right to express himself as he does. Yet his shows are Maginot lines of conservatism that unfairly accommodate no opposing views.

He has always described himself as the conservative antidote to what he charged was the liberal bias of the rest of the mainstream media. That bias was at least arguable when George Bush was President, but if there was ever a justification for a half-hour conservative monolith, it disappeared when Bill Clinton was elected President, given the pounding the new chief executive has taken from the media. The evening network newscasts have offered evidence of that.

Yet there Limbaugh is on KCOP, wedged between "People's Court" and "Montel Williams," a shrewdly slanted political harangue in entertainment clothing. What is going on here?

I decided to slide one of his TV half hours under a microscope and study its molecular composition. It was a random selection. Although a rerun, Wednesday's episode appeared to be typical. The day's main target was the proposal that gays be allowed to serve openly in the military. It affirmed just how Limbaugh juxtaposes wisecracks with sober comment on serious issues.

But, in the mode of Howard Stern--Limbaugh's self-obsessed radio/TV counterpart on the opposite fringe--the most-mentioned topic on "The Rush Limbaugh Show" was Rush Limbaugh.

Although a renowned Clinton-basher whose steady blasts at non-conservatives have triggered calls to exhume broadcasting's entombed Fairness Doctrine, Limbaugh on this day made only five references to the President or his Administration.

In contrast, another noted monologist, Jay Leno, made six references to Clinton or his Administration in his "Tonight Show" stand-up segment Wednesday.

Now, about that host narcissism. Even though Limbaugh often displays it self-mockingly, it's still self-servingly pervasive. Whereas Leno mentioned himself only five times during his 10-minute monologue and introduction, Wednesday's Limbaugh show contained 44 references to Limbaugh in 22 minutes. In fact, 32% of the show was devoted to Limbaugh or something that he was involved in (his radio show, for example). His face was on camera 81% of the time.

The message here is that, when it comes to Limbaugh, Fairness Doctrine supporters may be on the right track, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. It's not only liberals and Clinton advocates who deserve to have their views heard in conjunction with "The Rush Limbaugh Show" but also the multitudes who don't share Limbaugh's view of Limbaugh.

Meanwhile, other components of Wednesday's Limbaugh episode bear noting:

* Applying demeaning titles to those he wishes to ridicule. For example, even when a female petty officer first-class echoed his opposition to gays in the military, Limbaugh still referred to her as a "sailorette."

He added: "We say that with, of course, good cheer and no wish to offend."

* Using adjectives with negative connotations to describe groups that he wants to demonize. As in Wednesday's "Have you noticed that militant environmentalists talk about the damage we're doing to the planet?," for instance. Definitions of militancy may vary, but to many, using the term conjures up an image of violence, implying that to be an aggressive environmentalist automatically makes you an extremist.

* Aggressively attacking arguments that have not been widely made, if made at all. This is a favorite Limbaugh tactic when it comes to ridiculing special-interest groups that he opposes, including those militant environmentalists.

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