ABC Leads with Limbaugh “Arrest” But Doesn't Touch What CNN Calls a “Sweet Deal”

News broke on MSNBC at approximately 6:15pm EDT Friday night about the “arrest” of Rush Limbaugh on a “prescription fraud” charge. While the 7pm EDT Situation Room on CNN led with the “Breaking News” of the “arrest” -- which was really more of a booking session that did not put Limbaugh into handcuffs or any jail -- reporter John Zarella reported how it was really part of “a deal” between Limbaugh and the Palm Beach County prosecutor's office and CNN's legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin soon told anchor Wold Blitzer by phone that “the winner here is very clear: Rush Limbaugh. They cut themselves a very sweet deal.” But while the reports on the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News conveyed how in exchange for 18 more months of drug treatment by Limbaugh, the one single charge would be dismissed, World News Tonight viewers were left assuming Limbaugh was in dire trouble. [UPDATED below with ABC's more informed West coast feed.]

“Rush Limbaugh, one of the most popular and influential radio talk show hosts in America, was arrested in West Palm Beach today. The charges involve allegations of prescription drug fraud,” anchor Elizabeth Vargas announced at the top of the ABC newscast. Brian Ross explained: “He turned himself in today, Elizabeth, about 4:00 this afternoon. He was held for an hour and has since been released on $3,000 bail. What this involves is whether he used phony prescriptions to get oxycontin and other highly addictive prescription painkillers." Without anything about the deal, Vargas repeated the charge against him: "The allegations that he was doctor shopping, going to several doctors at once for big, big numbers of prescriptions." Ross affirmed: "Exactly, and the term 'prescription fraud' would apply to that directly." (Transcripts follow. UPDATED with Olbermann's "we have mug shot!" celebration of how Limbaugh has gone from "one half his brain...tied behind his back" to "both his hands cuffed behind his back.")

On the CBS Evening News, Bob Orr outlined: “According to a statement put out by Mr. Black's office, this is the result of a deal. Apparently Mr. Limbaugh will agree that the state can go ahead with one charge that he shopped for a doctor to obtain prescriptions, with the understanding that after 18 months, the charge will be dropped, as long as Mr. Limbaugh seeks treatment.” NBC avoided the term “arrest” as anchor Brian Williams referred to how Limbaugh had “been booked.” Williams noted then charge and then observed: “His attorney said the charge will be dismissed in 18 months, as long as Limbaugh stays in treatment."

[UPDATE, 9:40pm EDT: Keith Olbermann's opening teaser for MSNBC's Countdown: "Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? Mug shot: We have mug shot! Comedian Rush Limbaugh arrested on charges of prescription drug fraud. One-half his brain, as he likes to say, tied behind his back. Symbolically, at least, both his hands cuffed behind his back." Later in his show, Olbermann snarkily set up his nightly "Worst Person in the World" segment: "And what a twofer in this news hour, Rush Limbaugh arrested and Bill O'Reilly urges his listeners to telephone a dead guy. First, time for Countdown's latest list of nominees for Worst Person in the World, those two bottomless cups of coffee of worstness notwithstanding."]

Transcripts of the April 28 EDT/CDT distributions of the broadcast network evening newscast coverage of the late-breaking news, gathered with the assistance of the MRC's Brad Wimouth

ABC's 6:30pm EDT World News Tonight led with the development:
Elizabeth Vargas: "Good evening. We'll get to news about the economy in just a moment, but we begin this evening with breaking news from South Florida. Rush Limbaugh, one of the most popular and influential radio talk show hosts in America, was arrested in West Palm Beach today. The charges involve allegations of prescription drug fraud. ABC's chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross is with us. You've been following this story for the 2-and-a-half-years that authorities have been investigating. Mr. Limbaugh has admitted being addicted to painkillers, but denied any fraud in getting those drugs."

Brian Ross, at the anchor desk with her: "That's right. This has been a long drawn-out affair that went to the Florida Supreme Court. He turned himself in today, Elizabeth, about 4:00 this afternoon. He was held for an hour and has since been released on $3,000 bail. What this involves is whether he used phony prescriptions to get oxycontin and other highly addictive prescription painkillers."

Vargas: "What makes this case unusual is the amount of money and the amount of painkillers involved."

Ross: "Yes, as we first reported here, he was taking out amounts of about $10,000 in cash every week to buy huge quantities of these painkillers, which led, further, to the investigation. Normally somebody who's addicted to painkillers would not be charged criminally, and that's what his lawyers argued in this case, that he shouldn't face criminal charges. This took on a different flavor because of the amount of money involved and the extent of the fraud."

Vargas: "And the allegations that he was doctor shopping, going to several doctors at once for big, big numbers of prescriptions."

Ross: "Exactly, and the term 'prescription fraud' would apply to that directly."
[UPDATE, 1:45am EDT Saturday: In the West coast feed of World News Tonight, ABC aired a nearly-identical conversation between Ross and Vargas, but Ross caught up with what the other networks noted earlier. Ross reported that “what's happened here is a deal that he's made with the prosecutors” in which “he pleads not guilty to this charge. And if he is free of addiction for 18 months, the charges will be dropped, he'll face no prison time, and merely pay a fine of $30,000. His lawyers are calling this a huge victory for Mr. Limbaugh." Ross also relayed: “As one lawyer said, Mr. Limbaugh's nightmare may well be over."

A transcript of what aired on the West coast feed, which I caught in an 11pm EDT re-play on Washington, DC's NewsChannel 8 all news local cable channel owned by DC's ABC affiliate:
Elizabeth Vargas: "Good evening. We'll get to news about the economy in a moment, but we begin this evening with breaking news from South Florida. Rush Limbaugh, one of the most popular and influential radio talk show hosts in America, was arrested in West Palm Beach today on one count of prescription drug fraud. ABC's chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross is here now, and this has been a 2-and-a-half year investigation. Mr. Limbaugh has always admitted being addicted to prescription drugs, but denied until tonight that he was ever committing fraud in getting them."

Brian Ross: "And he continues to deny that. He pleaded not guilty today after turning himself in, he was in custody for about an hour, and then released on a $3,000 bail. But what's happened here is a deal that he's made with the prosecutors in Palm Beach County by which he pleads not guilty to this charge. And if he is free of addiction for 18 months, the charges will be dropped, he'll face no prison time, and merely pay a fine of $30,000. His lawyers are calling this a huge victory for Mr. Limbaugh."

Vargas: "Prosecutors have always alleged that he was, in fact, doctor shopping, using several different doctors to get huge sums of drugs and spend huge sums of money. Well, how big are we talking about?"

Ross: "A large amount, as we first reported here, about $10,000 a week, according to what we learned. His lawyers and Limbaugh today again reaffirmed his statement that he did not doctor shop. He has pleaded not guilty. The prosecutors thought otherwise, but this went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Florida as to whether they could use his private records. And now this seems to have been resolved. As one lawyer said, Mr. Limbaugh's nightmare may well be over."]

The 6:30pm EDT CBS Evening News led with the UN report on Iran's nuclear violations, followed by a full story on Iran's defiant reaction and a CBS News exclusive on an incident in which U.S. Marines are being investigated for shooting dead several women and kids in Iraq, a case Bob Schieffer suggested “could be far worse than Abu Ghraib.” Schieffer, anchoring from Washington, DC with the Capitol in the background, then arrived at Limbaugh:
"In Florida, law enforcement officials say radio commentator Rush Limbaugh has been arrested on prescription drug charges. CBS News correspondent Bob Orr is in our Washington bureau with more details on this. Bob, what have you found out?"

Bob Orr, at CBS's DC bureau: "Well, Bob, the story is still developing, but this appears to be a resolution to an investigation that goes back a couple of years. Many people will remember that Mr. Limbaugh was under suspicion for possible prescription drug fraud. This afternoon at 4:00, apparently he showed up, turned himself in to authorities in Florida with his attorney, Roy Black. And according to a statement put out by Mr. Black's office, this is the result of a deal. Apparently Mr. Limbaugh will agree that the state can go ahead with one charge that he shopped for a doctor to obtain prescriptions, with the understanding that after 18 months, the charge will be dropped, as long as Mr. Limbaugh seeks treatment. Now, this has been a very big deal for a lot of people for a couple of years because, as you know, Bob, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host, has a huge audience. According to Arbitron, 14 to 20 million people listen to his show every week."


NBC Nightly News, as aired at 7pm EDT in Washington, DC, began with Bush's press conference and his comments on the solid 4.8 percent GDP as well as on other topics, such as Iran and nuclear weapons, followed by a piece on the controversy over the Spanish version of the National Anthem, a story which included a l soundbite from Limbaugh. Then Williams, from a street in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, got to Limbaugh:
“We just heard talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, among the voices there talking about the national anthem. It turns out, we learned just before coming on the air tonight, he made some news himself today. [over video of Limbaugh's mug shot] He's been booked by the Palm Beach County Sheriff on a charge of fraud and concealing information in order to obtain prescription drugs. This is the culmination of a two-year-long investigation into Rush Limbaugh's alleged illegal purchases of painkillers. His attorney said the charge will be dismissed in 18 months, as long as Limbaugh stays in treatment.”

The AP's story, “Limbaugh Reaches Settlement in Drug Case,” also noted that as part of the agreement Limbaugh will pay $30,000 to defray investigative costs.

The DrudgeReport has posted the statement from Limbaugh's attorney, Roy Black, who asserted:
"I am pleased to announce that the State Attorney’s Office and Mr. Limbaugh have reached an agreement whereby a single count charge of doctor shopping filed today by the State Attorney will be dismissed in 18 months. As a primary condition of the dismissal, Mr. Limbaugh must continue to seek treatment from the doctor he has seen for the past two and one half years.”
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center