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TV REVIEW : A 'Rush' to Judgment on 'Frontline' Program

February 28, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Whatever else Dittoheads can say about PBS, they can never say again that their declared television enemy ignores Their Guy, The Voice, The Inspiration of the Revolution. As of later this evening, they might even have sat through an entire hour of "Frontline" and found out that, gee, this public TV stuff isn't so bad after all.

Above all, with reporter Peter Boyer's survey-cum-portrait, "Rush Limbaugh's America," the Dittoheads will see something they might not be accustomed to: Balanced reporting of a controversial subject.

Some may ask if Limbaugh deserves such a sober journalistic treatment as this, given his own non-journalistic style of ideological slam-dunks, character assassination and, on occasion, out-and-out rumor-mongering. A more hardened critic, such as Seymour Hersh, would have given back to Limbaugh what he dishes out, only with the leftist gloves off. A milder reporter would have withered in the sheer din of The Voice.

Boyer's a different animal--a solid reporter who searches out every possible angle on a subject--and a much more difficult target for Limbaugh to simply trash. (Limbaugh declined to be interviewed.)

Methodically, Boyer first tells the story of Limbaugh's upbringing in Cape Girardeau, Mo., his start-and-stop career in broadcasting (including terrific clips of Limbaugh as rock deejay "Jeff Christie") and his professional breakthrough on Sacramento talk-station KFBK.

Without psychological indulgence (but with some insights from his brother and mother), Boyer reveals Limbaugh as a lonely person for whom radio was the perfect outlet. But instead of pop listeners or sports fans, Limbaugh found his market with the no-longer silent male voter. This market, unlike those others, intersects with issues burning at the heart of the American soul, and Limbaugh tapped in just as the Reagan-Bush flame was beginning to wane.

Boyer stresses that Limbaugh's listeners, who made up many of the winning GOP vote in November, are women. The dark side of this $25-million-a-year franchise-movement is Limbaugh's use of overstatement, a technique used by past political movements of the right and left. With just a few examples (the Vincent Foster "murder," commentary against Clinton's 1994 crime bill), Boyer shows how Limbaugh uses overstatement to actually sway congressional votes.

But whether Limbaugh's listeners have done their research to verify Limbaugh's claims of the evils of liberalism (which he repeatedly compares to communism) is beside the point. He speaks their mind.

This is where obsequious Clinton strategist Paul Begala has it upside down about the rush for Rush. Limbaugh doesn't tell his listeners what to think; he tells them what they already believe. The biggest question for the GOP is asked at this hour's end: Will Limbaugh continue to be the party man and excuse the inevitable broken Republican promises, or will he lead the Dittoheads in revolt?

* "Rush Limbaugh's America" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15 and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.

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