Richard Corliss: Rush didn't threaten me

The mystery continues: Which journalist did Limbaugh intimidate into giving him better coverage? Anyone?

Published October 18, 2007 8:59PM (EDT)

On Tuesday I blogged about Rush Limbaugh's claim to have threatened a journalist at a national magazine into writing a more positive story about him. On Wednesday, New York magazine film critic David Edelstein (writing on his blog) suggested the journalist Limbaugh intimidated was Time's Richard Corliss, who wrote a 1995 cover story on Limbaugh (Salon reader Jim H. had also guessed the magazine in question might be Time). Edelstein's reasoning was creative: Rush had bragged that, in addition to telling the writer he'd "find out ... where your kids go to school ... who you knocked up in high school ... what drugs you used," he added an odd promise: "We're going to say that, you know what? You are no different than Al Goldstein. You both masturbate." Some of the kids out there may not be familiar with the work of Al Goldstein, the former publisher of Screw magazine.

My reaction to the Goldstein reference was "Huh?" But Edelstein made an intriguing connection, remembering that Corliss had written a bold essay in the Village Voice back in the 1970s about erotic movies, which began with a confession about masturbating in a porn theater. He put the two pieces together, and suggested that Corliss was Limbaugh's target, and that he'd produced a friendlier piece to Limbaugh after the threat, because he didn't want Time to know about his earlier, edgy Voice essay.

I saw the post Wednesday night and was about to link to it, but I decided to track down Corliss for comment first. He strenuously denies Edelstein's claim. Here's what he e-mailed:

"The David Edelstein column, as it relates to me, is total bullshit, unfounded and irresponsible. Rush Limbaugh never called me, ever, and never uttered a hostile word in my direction. He certainly never defamed me, which leaves him one up on Edelstein.

"The 1995 cover was the third TIME story I'd written about Limbaugh. For the first, in 1991, I interviewed him; for the second, in 1992, a Time reporter did the reporting. The 1995 piece was not a retread of those articles (or of a 1993 TIME cover by Kurt Andersen on Limbaugh and Howard Stern) but a group portrait of right-wing radio jocks, whom we saw as helping the GOP recapture the House and Senate. We didn't need more Rush quotes for it.

"In each of these articles, my take was that Limbaugh's Neanderthal political views were leavened by his performance gifts. Like some other liberals (Norman Lear and Harry Shearer, for instance, whom we quoted in the 1992 piece), I found Rush a superb radio showman. He may have appreciated this Left-handed compliment, or at least the attention: when the first two TIME stories were published, he promoted both on his program. So he would have been unlikely to try stopping me from writing a third. And he didn't. No threats, no blackmail. Nothing. And if he had called me, I wouldn't have caved -- certainly not over the essay in question, which did no harm to my career in the early 70s, and the exhumation of which would not have made me fearful two decades later.

"Edelstein (with whom, by the way, I've had no previous connection, positive or negative) could have determined all this by emailing me before spinning his ludicrous fantasy."

I e-mailed David Edelstein to tell him Corliss said Limbaugh never threatened him, and he replied: "What I wrote was clearly labelled as informed speculation, based on Rush Limbaugh's assertion that he was talking about the writer of a cover story for a major newsweekly and the seemingly inexplicable reference to Al Goldstein and masturbation. I have the greatest respect for Richard Corliss, and I'm happy to hear that I was mistaken." I tried to e-mail Rush Limbaugh, too, but you have to be a paying member of his Web site to send an e-mail, and, well, I'm the wrong demographic. Meanwhile, we'll keep trying to solve the mystery of the journalist Limbaugh bullied into better coverage!

By Joan Walsh

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Rush Limbaugh