Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Way Things Aren't

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

Most of us here in the media are what I consider infotainers.... Rush Limbaugh is what I call a disinfotainer. He entertains by spreading disinformation.

--Al Franken at the White House Correspondents' Dinner (4/23/94)

Rush Limbaugh has gotten a lot of mileage out of his claim that volcanoes do more harm to the ozone layer than human-produced chemicals. He featured it in his best-selling book, The Way Things Ought to Be (paperback edition pp. 155-157): "Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed forth more than a thousand times the amount of ozone-depleting chemicals in one eruption than all the fluorocarbons manufactured by wicked, diabolical and insensitive corporations in history.... Mankind can't possibly equal the output of even one eruption from Pinatubo, much less 4 billion years' worth of them, so how can we destroy ozone?"

Limbaugh calls concern about the ozone layer: "balderdash. Poppycock." The only people who worry about it are "environmental wackos," "dunderheaded alarmists and prophets of doom."

Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell (New York Post, 1/14/94) used the volcano theory as Exhibit A to illustrate Limbaugh's "very well-informed and savvy understanding of the political issues of our time." "While far more pretentious people have been joining the chorus of hysteria over 'global warming,'" Sowell wrote,

Limbaugh pointed out in his [first] book that one of the high readings of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere came right after a volcanic eruption--and volcanoes can put more gases into the atmosphere than the entire human race.

The alert reader will notice that Sowell has mixed up global warming and the ozone layer, two different problems. Still, Sowell concluded of Limbaugh, "It is obvious that the man has done his homework--and done it well."

Ted Koppel must have thought so, too, when he invited Limbaugh to be on Nightline (2/4/92) as an environmental "expert," opposite then-Sen. Al Gore. "If you listen to what Senator Gore said," Limbaugh proclaimed,

it is man-made products which are causing the ozone depletion, yet Mount Pinatubo has put 570 times the amount of chlorine into the atmosphere in one eruption than all of man-made chlorofluorocarbons in one year.

On his radio show, his syndicated TV show, and in two best-selling books, Limbaugh has advanced the idea that volcanoes are the real ozone culprits. This theory, like so many of Limbaugh's claims, has only one problem: Limbaugh doesn't know what he's talking about.

A Mountain of Distortion
"Chlorine from natural sources is soluble, and so it gets rained out of the lower atmosphere," the journal Science explained (6/11/93). "CFCs, in contrast, are insoluble and inert and thus make it to the stratosphere to release their chlorine."

Science also noted that chlorine found in the stratosphere-- where it can eat away at Earth's protective ozone layer--is always found with other byproducts of CFCs, and not with the byproducts of natural chlorine sources.

"Ozone depletion is real, as certain as Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon," Dr. Sherwood Rowland, an atmospheric chemist at the University of California at Irvine, told Extra!. "Natural causes of ozone depletion are not significant."

But Limbaugh didn't rely on atmospheric scientists for his information about the ozone layer--he dismissed them as the "agenda-oriented scientific community." Instead, he turned to Dixy Lee Ray, a former Washington State governor and Atomic Energy Commission chair, who wrote Trashing the Planet--"the most footnoted, documented book I have ever read," Limbaugh says.

If you check Ray's footnotes, you'll find that the main source for the volcano theory is Rogelio Maduro, the associate editor of 21st Century Science & Technology, a magazine published by the Lyndon LaRouche network. Maduro is evidently not part of the "agenda-oriented scientific community"--even though he does have a bachelor's degree in geology.

The volcano theorists can't even keep their stories straight. In his book, Limbaugh claims that the 1991 Pinatubo eruption put 1000 times as much chlorine into the atmosphere as industry has ever produced through CFCs; yet on Nightline, Pinatubo is alleged to have produced 570 times the equivalent of one year's worth of CFCs. Both can't be right. It turns out neither are.

The figure 570 apparently derives from Ray's book--but she said it was Mount Augustine, an Alaskan volcano that erupted in 1976, that put out 570 times as much chlorine as one year's worth of CFCs. Ray's source is a 1980 Science magazine article--but that piece was actually talking about the chlorine produced by a gigantic eruption that occurred 700,000 years ago in California (Science, 6/11/93).

Unchallenged Demagoguery
This kind of sloppiness, ignorance and/or fabrication is run of the mill in Limbaugh's commentary, both broadcast and print. From dioxin to Whitewater, from Rodney King to Reaganomics, Rush Limbaugh has a finely honed ability to twist and distort reality.

Limbaugh's facts are almost never challenged on his programs. A hostile caller hardly ever gets through the screeners on his radio show, and his TV show is just him doing a monologue in front of his cheering audience. No one in the history of national television has had such a political platform. He has almost never corrected anything he's said--although he did apologize once to the aerosol industry for implying that spray cans still had CFCs in them. (CFCs were removed in 1978.)

Limbaugh's chronic inaccuracy, and his lack of accountability, wouldn't be such a problem if Limbaugh were just a cranky entertainer, like Howard Stern. But Limbaugh is taken seriously by "serious" media--in addition to Nightline, he's been an "expert" on such chat shows as Charlie Rose and Meet the Press. The New York Times (10/15/92) and Newsweek (1/24/94) have published his writings. A U.S. News & World Report piece (8/16/93) by Steven Roberts declared, "The information Mr. Limbaugh provides is generally accurate."

He's also taken seriously as a political figure. A National Review cover story (9/6/93) declared him the "Leader of the Opposition." Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who recently officiated at Limbaugh's wedding, says he tapes Limbaugh's radio show and listens to it as he works out (USA Today, 5/13/94).

FAIR is publishing a compilation of some of Limbaugh's more obvious whoppers in order to convince journalists and political leaders alike that when Limbaugh says, "I'm not making this up, folks," it's time to duck and cover.

Journalists, in particular, have an obligation to challenge Limbaugh's brand of hysteria. Someone who has amassed a powerful political following through the regular use of half-truth and distortion is begging for tough media scrutiny. In 1954, Edward R. Murrow confronted another demagogue who had a similar allergy to facts and documentation. Today's TV networks don't ask themselves how they can challenge Limbaugh's reign of error--but how they can profit from him. CBS News, the platform from which Murrow denounced Joe McCarthy, has been seeking to hire Limbaugh as a political commentator.

Real democracy is built on debate. But Limbaugh has little use for debates; he has forged a media empire largely on unchallenged monologues. The following confrontation--Limbaugh vs. Reality--is an attempt at stimulating (or at least simulating) a debate.

The list of fallacies compiled here is not exhaustive. It was assembled from easily available sources--Limbaugh's books, The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So; transcripts of several weeks' worth of his TV show; gleanings from as much of his radio show as we could take; and other published evaluations of Limbaugh's accuracy. (There's a publication, the Flush Rush Quarterly (FRQ), largely devoted to chronicling Limbaugh's falsehoods, and a book, The Bum's Rush, by Don Trent Jacobs, that debunks his environmental rhetoric.) As Josh Shenk showed in the New Republic ("Limbaugh's Lies", 5/23/94), scrutinizing the TV show for a month results in errors too numerous to count.

"There's a pathology here, folks," is a phrase Limbaugh likes to use when discussing President Clinton's alleged inability to tell the truth. A psychiatrist might agree--and label it projection.

Read the rest @ FAIR

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