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President Bush has condemned the torture of Iraqi prisoners, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled it “un-American” and a recent Gallup poll found 79 percent of Americans “bothered” by the abuses. But Rush Limbaugh was gleeful. For weeks, the conservative talk show host has been dismissing the scandal as a “fraternity prank,” mocking Democrats and others for expressing outrage and suggesting the prison humiliation — which he dubbed “a brilliant maneuver” — was “no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation” at Yale. He described the images of torture as “pictures of homoeroticism that look like standard good old American pornography” and assured his listeners “there was no horror, there was no terror, there was no death, there was no injuries, nothing.”
Limbaugh’s increasingly bizarre comments about the military’s widening prisoner abuse scandal — the Pentagon acknowledges it’s now investigating the deaths of 33 detainees, nine of whom were apparently beaten to death while in U.S. custody — have forced a long-simmering question into the open: Why does Limbaugh’s program, as the only hour-long, partisan political talk show broadcast daily to U.S. troops, enjoy exclusive access to American Forces Radio — and American troops in Iraq?
“He says things like, liberals hate Americans, and we’re trying to undermine the war on terror,” says comedian Al Franken, a host for liberal radio station Air America who has also entertained troops on four USO tours. “It’s a bad message for troops to be hearing and is a very skewed picture of what liberals and Democrats stand for. They’re broadcasting a very, very partisan guy — [with] nobody from the other side — and they’re using taxpayer money to do it.”
“The government ought to make a greater effort to give a fair and balanced representation of political viewpoints on its airwaves to soldiers, sailors and airmen around the world listening,” says Tom Athans, executive director of Democracy Radio, a nonprofit group in Washington that promotes political diversity on the airwaves. “It’s important for the U.S. military, when using tax dollars, to not provide just one political perspective without giving consideration to opposing points of view.” According to the Department of Defense’s own broadcasting guidlines, “All political programming shall be characterized by its fairness and balance,” and “equal opportunities” for “balance” are especially important “during presidential election years.”
After the Florida recount in 2000, when overseas military ballots were an important element in Bush’s narrow victory, the influence of what amounts to propaganda beamed daily to U.S. troops must be considered a domestic political factor of no small consequence. “There’s no question when one-side programming like American Forces Network is presented to troops, it’s going to impact their voting behavior,” says Athans.
Melvin Russell, director of American Forces Radio and Television Services, insists that Limbaugh’s controversial show is broadcast for only one reason — it gains big ratings in the United States. “We look at the most popular shows broadcast here in the United States and try to mirror that. [Limbaugh] is the No. 1 talk show host in the States; there’s no question about that. Because of that we provide him on our service.”
Russell says that if Franken, or any other syndicated liberal talk show host, can draw big enough ratings, then American Forces Radio would try to find a spot for that person on the schedule. “I’m hoping, if Air America takes off and someone on that show reaches the same level of audience Rush does, we could look to add them to the service. But there’s nobody on the liberal side that compares to his ratings.”
“To use ratings as an excuse not to offer fair and balanced programming is an insufficient reason,” Athans counters. “American Forces Radio is funded by American taxpayers, not all of whom are conservative.”
And if ratings drive the station’s programming choices, then why not carry Howard Stern, who draws nearly 8 million listeners a week and who in recent months has emerged as President Bush’s most high-profile critic on radio, declaring a “jihad” against the “arrogant bastard” in the White House? Although Stern’s often-bawdy show differs from Limbaugh’s politically, it fits Russell’s criterion of being popular. “Stern today is a mirror reflection of what Americans are listening to,” says Athans. In fact, Stern’s ratings surged this year after he began leveling his broadsides against the Bush administration. “I strategize more about my radio show than Bush does about the war in Iraq,” Stern quipped last month.
“My answer [on Stern],” says Russell, “is we have determined that that show, because of the [sexual] content, was not appropriate for a network that has just one or two stations broadcasting to an audience that ranges from 1-year-olds up to 50-year-olds.”
“Rush Limbaugh is appropriate?” says Franken. “Saying the troops at Abu Ghraib were just blowing off steam — that’s more appropriate than what Howard Stern says? It sounds to me like they’re rationalizing their decision.” Adds Athans: “That sounds like censorship. In one breath, in regard to Limbaugh, they say they don’t censor what the military listens to, and in the next breath they say Howard Stern is not appropriate.”
“We don’t censor, we provide,” answers Russell. “Our troops deserve the same information that’s available to them in the U.S.”
Other critics of the network wonder if it’s proper for the Pentagon to broadcast Limbaugh when he’s calling John Kerry a skirt chaser, labeling female activists Nazis and telling servicemen and -women “what’s good for al-Qaida is good for the Democratic Party in this country today.”
The network, formerly known as Armed Forces Radio, was created by the War Department in 1942 to improve troop morale by giving service members a “touch of home” with American programs overseas. It added a television service in 1950. American Forces Radio beams “stereo audio services to over 1,000 outlets in more than 175 countries and U.S. territories, and on board U.S. Navy ships,” according to its Web site. It reaches an audience of nearly 1 million with an innocuous lineup of classic rock, country and pop music, along with some sports telecasts, CNN’s “Headline News” and Limbaugh’s out-of-place radical rants.
Russell dismisses the charge that his network leans to the right. “That’s not accurate. We carry a number of long-form programs from NPR. If you look at the 1,200 news and information programs we provide weekly, I feel they’re fair and balanced.” Most of those programs, however, are just a couple of minutes long. None of them approaches the entire hour Limbaugh gets every weekday — in length or in pure partisanship. (Limbaugh’s show in the States runs three hours daily, but to fit in as much programming as possible, American Forces Radio airs just the first hour.)
Limbaugh’s actions off the air in the past nine months raise another question — whether he is fit to be broadcast on American Forces Radio at all. Last fall Limbaugh was forced to quit his job as an ESPN football analyst after he made remarks about how the media, busy rooting for black quarterbacks to succeed in the National Football League, went easy on them in public. “When he surfaces outside his radio program, it doesn’t take long for both viewers and news executives to decide his commentary is not acceptable to a mainstream audience,” says David Brock, author of “The Republican Noise Machine.” “What he said on ESPN was not unlike what he says on his radio show.”
What’s more, Limbaugh is currently under investigation by the West Palm Beach, Fla., prosecutor for alleged doctor shopping to obtain thousands of prescription painkillers. If he were in the military, Limbaugh would be disciplined, perhaps even court-martialed, for hate speech and illegal drug use. Now he’s telling troops that the Abu Ghraib abuses were nothing but “a good time.”
Limbaugh made all kinds of outrageous statements this year, even before he began condoning the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. According to the new Media Matters for America Web site, which monitors the right-wing press, between March 15 and April 29 “Limbaugh used the term ‘femi-Nazis’ eight times; he suggested that women want to be sexually harassed; he repeatedly equated Democrats with terrorists; he twice resurrected long-discredited right-wing claims that Clinton deputy White House counsel Vince Foster was murdered; he repeatedly called Senator John Kerry a ‘gigolo’; he called Howard Dean ‘a very sick man’; [and] he said Democrats ‘hate this country.’” Is it appropriate for a military audience to be repeatedly beamed these messages?
Says Brock, who is president of Media Matters: “American Forces Radio makes choices based on content. The content of Limbaugh’s comments has been so inflammatory that this may be an occasion for them to review the choices they’ve made. Has Limbaugh crossed the line? They’ll have to address that.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is upset by the right-wing tilt of American Forces Radio. “Senator Harkin was recently made aware of the situation and he’s very concerned about it,” says Maureen Knightly, his communications director. “He didn’t realize [the station] leans that conservatively. It has raised a red flag. Taxpayers pay for it, and he feels there should be better balance in what’s being aired.” Harkin serves on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending.
Eleven years ago it was Republican members of Congress whose pressure put Limbaugh on American Forces Radio in the first place. In 1993, then Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif., along with 69 other Republican House members, sent a letter to President Clinton’s first secretary of defense, Les Aspin, demanding that both Limbaugh’s radio show and his syndicated television show (on which Limbaugh compared preteen Chelsea Clinton to a dog) be broadcast to the military. “Limbaugh has been called by his liberal critics ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ It appears the liberal leadership at the Pentagon agrees with that ridiculous assertion,” Dornan wrote. “The bottom line is that the troops want Rush Limbaugh, and you should see to it that they at least have that opportunity.”
The Pentagon responded by pointing to an internal survey of 50,000 military listeners that found that only 4 percent requested more long-format talk radio. Most respondents overwhelmingly requested continuous music. The Pentagon also said that Limbaugh’s daily three-hour radio program would monopolize too much of the network’s limited airtime.
Notably, on Nov. 29, 1993, American Forces Radio and Television Services issued this statement: “The Rush Limbaugh Show makes no pretense that his show is balanced. If AFRTS scheduled a program of personal commentary without balancing it with another viewpoint, we would be open to broad criticism that we are supporting a particular point of view.”
Yet just three days later, as the controversy was stoked in conservative media and Republicans cried censorship, Aspin called Limbaugh to assure him that the Pentagon would find a way to get his program on the then-named Armed Forces Radio.
“That’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans,” says Franken, noting that Democrats are much more likely to give in to mau-mauing from the right.
By early 1994, American Forces Radio had begun airing the first hour of Limbaugh’s daily broadcast. Today, he’s the sole long-format talker on American Forces Radio.
The current complaint about the rightward tilt of American Forces Radio is not a new one. In 2000, Democrats Abroad, the official party organization for the 6 million or so American citizens who live outside the United States, included in its platform the fact that the network “broadcast an overwhelming number of ultraconservative radio programs, such as Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, Paul Harvey and news items with commentary from the extreme right-wing USA Radio Network with no programs supporting the Democratic Party as balance.”
Ron Schlundt, chairman of Democrats Abroad in Germany, where Limbaugh’s talk show airs every weeknight, has complained to American Forces Radio for years. “They tell me, ‘You just don’t like him because he’s conservative.’ And I say, ‘No, my objection is that he’s so partisan and that it’s not appropriate on a government radio station to have somebody saying “We Republicans” five hours a week and not have anyone saying “I’m a Democrat” five hours a week.’” Schlundt says American Forces Radio told him that Limbaugh’s show is balanced by the many NPR programs that are broadcast by the network.
Indeed, Russell pointed to long-format news and information programs such as “Morning Edition” and “Fresh Air” as evidence that the station offers a true political balance. But critics say comparing Limbaugh’s malicious, partisan and error-strewn attacks with the content of NPR, one of the largest and most respected news organizations in the world (the closest U.S. news organization to the BBC), is absurd. “Nobody on NPR is doing the type of purely political commentary that Rush Limbaugh is doing,” says Athans. “NPR struggles to be as balanced as it can.”
In fact, according to a new study by the liberal watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting — which analyzed the political affiliation of guests appearing last summer on NPR’s most popular news shows — Republicans outnumbered Democrats on NPR by 61 percent to 38 percent.
“Anybody who listened to Rush for one hour and to NPR for one hour would realize they’re nothing like each other,” says Franken. “Rush’s message is that liberals hate America, while NPR is straight-ahead reporting and journalism.”
Russell defends the programming of Limbaugh as a sensible middle course. “We get correspondence from both sides on the Rush Limbaugh subject, from ‘Take him off’ to ‘Why don’t you air all three hours?’” he says. And as long as Limbaugh remains the only political talk show host on American Forces Radio, Democracy Radio intends “to pressure this as an organization to make sure there’s more balance,” says Athans.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.