Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh may be returning to television. He recently auditioned for a job as color commentator on ABC-TV's "Monday Night Football." The tryout followed weeks of self-promotion by the self-styled "truth detector" to the millions who listen daily to his syndicated radio show on about 600 stations.
Limbaugh's audition is stirring controversy. Sports columnist Thomas Boswell quipped that if Limbaugh joins "Monday Night Football," then baseball's game of the week broadcasters might "team up with John Rocker." Veteran sportswriter Michael Wilbon, who is black, indicated a boycott might result: "If Rush Limbaugh is put in that booth, I will NOT listen to the broadcast," he wrote in a Washington Post Internet chat session. "His views on people like me are well documented. . . . There are tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, who feel the same way I do."
If ABC-TV hires Limbaugh, it's not clear a boycott would materialize. What is clear is that his expressed views on racial matters--from the spiteful to the sophomoric--would make him an odd color commentator. Indeed, CBS Sports dismissed Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder for ignorant racial remarks less derisive than some of Limbaugh's.
A decade ago, after becoming nationally syndicated, Limbaugh mused on the air: "Have you ever noticed how all newspaper composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?" In 1992, on his now-defunct TV show, Limbaugh expressed his ire when director Spike Lee urged that black schoolchildren be given time off from school to see his film "Malcolm X": "Spike, if you're going to do that, let's complete the education experience. You should tell them that they should loot the theater, and then blow it up on their way out."
In a similar vein, here is Limbaugh's mocking take on the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, a group with a 90-year commitment to nonviolence: "The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies."
When Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) was in the U.S. Senate--the first black woman ever elected to that body--Limbaugh would play the "Movin' On Up" theme song from TV's "Jeffersons" when he mentioned her. Limbaugh sometimes still uses mock dialect--substituting "ax" for "ask"--when discussing black leaders.
Such quotes and antics--many compiled by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, or FAIR, for our 1995 book--offer a whiff of Limbaugh's racial sensibility. So does his claim that racism in the United States "is fueled primarily by the rantings and ravings" of people like Jesse Jackson. Or his ugly reference two years ago to the father of Madonna's first child, a Latino, as "a gang-member type guy"--although he had no gang background.
In 1994, Limbaugh mocked St. Louis for building a rail line to East St. Louis "where nobody goes." East St. Louis is home to roughly 40,000 residents, 98% of whom are African Americans. One of those 40,000 "nobodies" is NFL linebacker Bryan Cox.
Once, in response to a caller arguing that black people need to be heard, Limbaugh responded: "They are 12% of the population. Who the hell cares?" That's not an unusual response for a talk radio host playing to an audience of "angry white males." It may not play so well among National Football League players, 70% of whom are African American.
Compared to some talk radio hosts, racism is not central to Rush Limbaugh's shtick. There has been, however, a pattern of commentary indicating his willingness to exploit prejudice against blacks to further his on-air arguments.
ABC-TV has the right to hire Limbaugh, even at the risk of alienating members of its audience. ("Monday Night Football" is the second-most watched TV show in black households.) Thrust into the world of pro football where Limbaugh himself would be something of a racial minority, is it possible that he'd rise above his history of racial bigotry and insensitivity? Not likely.
When all is said and done, the athletes are the key players on "Monday Night Football." It would be great to know how they'd feel about a color man who seems to have trouble with people of color.