The bottom of the front page of The Washington Post on Friday highlighted in bold, dark gray type part of Michael Wilbon’s sports column: "Limbaugh, every day and very publicly, judges people, turns thumbs up or thumbs down on someone's candidacy or worthiness. Now he's been judged: Thumbs down, not interested." The Post’s front page did not emphasize that Wilbon spread the fake "slavery had its merits" quote on national television, since that wouldn’t reflect very well on the professionalism of journalists at The Post.
Wilbon tries to say that Limbaugh may be a nice guy in person, but on the radio, he "gave cover to bigots everywhere under the guise of conservatism." Then he says he doesn’t want to provide examples, because he already demonstrated he spreads fake ones without much checking (as he did on his ESPN show Pardon the Interruption last Friday):
I've met Limbaugh. I communicated with him last week on the issue of his being a part-owner of a franchise. One-on-one, he comes across as approachable and open to pretty much any discussion. But his radio persona is another thing. I don't listen to his show because his comments about people of color anger and offend me, and I'm not easily offended. I'm not going to try and give specific examples of things he has said over the years; I screwed up already doing that, repeating a quote attributed to Limbaugh (about slavery) that he has told me he simply did not say and does not reflect his feelings. I take him at his word.
But Limbaugh has long history of the same insults and race baiting, to the point of declaring he hoped the President of the United States, a black man, fails. I never understood why someone with Limbaugh's gift for communication was so nasty and, in my opinion, gave cover to bigots everywhere under the guise of conservatism. Clearly I'm not alone.
It's the Bryan Burwell defense: if I spread one absurd fake quote, it's okay. I know there are real ones, but I don't need to locate them.
Do these journalists imagine how it would sound to say "Wilbon's a bigot. I never read his columns, because his columns on race offend me, but I know he is"?
This is how Wilbon tried to excuse his weakness for believing fake quotes. He just knows Limbaugh's a bigot, overall:
The smartest expression I've heard on the entire subject came from Mathias Kiwanuka of the Giants, who said, "I am not going to draw a conclusion from a person off of one comment, but when it is time after time after time and there's a consistent pattern of disrespect and just a complete misunderstanding of an entire culture that I am a part of, I can't respect him as a man."
But here is the essence of the anti-Limbaugh argument in the media. It doesn't matter whether quotes are accurate or not. Conservatives have to avoid even the perception of racial hostility:
Now that his bid to own an NFL team is over and unlikely to be revived, I wonder if Limbaugh has any misgivings about what he says and how he says it. I wonder whether he cares at all that his own history of intolerance (even if it's just perception) has resulted in an institution representing a rather broad spectrum of society, even a private club of men accustomed to wealth and privilege, not wanting to be publicly associated with his views or his bombast. [Italics mine.]
How do you avoid the perception? It wouldn't be hard to guess one thing Wilbon's getting at is "don't criticize President Obama." Wilbon also brought in Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to bolster his defense:
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a smart man on these issues, wrote in his blog that this is a bottom-line issue, that the risk of offending people runs hand-in-hand with the risk of costing the NFL money. Cuban writes, "The problem with Rush is that it's his job to take on all of life's partisan issues and problems. Not only is it his job to take on these issues and problems, it's key to his success that he be very opinionated about whichever issues he feels are important to him and/or will cause his very large audience to tune in....The wrong thing said on the show, even if it's not spoken by Rush himself, about a sensitive national or world issue could turn into a Black Swan event for the NFL....This isn't about free speech. It's about the NFL protecting their business. There is no reason to put it at risk. "
Wilbon and Cuban should face the problem with this argument: newly welcomed partial Miami Dolphins owner Serena Williams. Was her telling a line judge she was going to show a ball down her blankety-blank throat an embarrassment to the NFL? Or did columnists like Wilbon think that event had nothing to do with the NFL? Wilbon called her out in the Post, but made no mention of Miami.
If this is just about the NFL's business, both men avoid the notion that Goodell and the owners could have rationally calculated that if the head of the players' union was campaigning to get Limbaugh sidelined, that was a tiny price to pay before sitting down to negotiate a new contract.
UPDATE: For more of Wilbon's standards when it comes to Limbaugh, see this blog from 2006: "First Amendment Wilbon? Bryant Gumbel Has Rights, Rush Limbaugh Does Not."
Wilbon thought Gumbel was eminently qualified to broadcast NFL games, and reveled in his HBO attack on the too-white Winter Olympics in 2006:
So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something’s not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what’s called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won.