Barr, Limbaugh go too far

Radio hosts talk of riots in Denver

May 3, 2008

by David Kopel

Rarely does a radio listener hear convergence between the views on Rush Limbaugh's right-wing Excellence in Broadcasting network, and the left-wing Air America network. Unfortunately, they did achieve consensus recently - in favor of riots at this summer's Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Roseanne Barr is Air America's replacement for Randi Rhodes. This Monday Barr told her listeners "we should a bunch of us go there and repeat the Democratic Convention from Chicago. Like, let's just cause a bunch of trouble." She volunteered to use her own money to rent a bus to take troublemakers to Denver.

Although Barr did not explicitly use the word "riot," the implication of a desire for a "repeat" of the riot-scarred 1968 Chicago Convention is straightforward.

On April 23, Rush Limbaugh sang, "I'm dreaming of riots in Denver," which he compared to "dreaming of a white Christmas." A person "dreaming of a white Christmas" is not trying to cause snowfall on December 25, but he is hoping for it. Likewise, Limbaugh affirmed that was not "inspiring or inciting" riots. He said that he dreamed of convention riots because (as in 1968) they would harm Democratic chances in the election.

On April 24, he affirmed "my desire to see the Democrat convention break down exactly as it did in 1968 in Chicago with Democrats beating up on Democrats in the streets."

Of course the people who are most likely actually to riot in Denver are not Rush's legions of right-wing dittoheads. However, Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" has urged his listeners to participate in Democratic primaries and caucuses, and even to seek election as delegates to the Democratic convention. Especially in light of Operation Chaos, Limbaugh's remarks created a risk that a few overenthusiastic dittoheads might take it upon themselves to infiltrate the far-left protesters at the convention and act as agents provocateurs. During tense confrontations between angry mobs and the police, a single loud agitator can tip the balance toward violence.

Limbaugh's proffered excuse for his riot dreams and desires was that the Rev. Al Sharpton had already called for riots in Denver if Obama is denied the nomination. Actually, Sharpton had merely said that people like him would be "demonstrating."

Sharpton's audiences do have a record of violence. Speaking at a 1991 funeral of child in Brooklyn who had been accidentally killed by a Jewish driver, Sharpton's oration was followed by four days of riots and mob violence, including homicide, against Jews. Likewise, in 1995, Sharpton gave a hateful, racist speech in Harlem against a Jewish store renter, whom Sharpton called a "white interloper." Later, one of the participants in Sharpton's picketing entered the store and murdered seven people.

Limbaugh also pointed out that former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, an Obama supporter, had predicted the consequence of Obama losing in Denver: "chaos at the convention" and "that if you think 1968 was bad, you watch; in 2008 it will be worse."

Even if one reads Sharpton's and Wilder's comments in the worst possible light - as thinly-veiled violent threats by Obama advocates - such a reading does not justify a radio commentator hoping that those violent threats are carried out.

On Friday, April 25, Limbaugh pulled back, stating, "My point probably could have been better made had I said it this way: 'If the Democrats and their allies such as Re-create '68 want to engage in self-destructive behavior, we'll take it.' "

There's a big difference between dreaming and desiring a terrible event (which is what Limbaugh was doing on April 23-24) and merely being ready to take political advantage of such an event (Limbaugh's April 25 version).

I don't doubt Limbaugh's sincere patriotism, but this time, his patriotic vision was obscured by his partisanship. The Founding Fathers warned that political factionalism could undermine Americanism.

The best local coverage of Limbaugh's remarks was on KHOW's afternoon Caplis and Silverman Show. The pair had been sparring for weeks about whether some earlier remarks of Limbaugh's had been pro-riot. But the April 23-24 remarks were so unambiguous that Caplis joined Silverman in declaring Limbaugh's words inappropriate.

After Limbaugh's restatement on April 25, Silverman kept up the criticism, while Caplis, unduly credulous, said that he took Limbaugh at his word about the intent of the April 23-24 comments.

On April 24, Sen. Ken Salazar announced that he was writing to Clear Channel, which syndicates Limbaugh's program, to ask Clear Channel to reprimand Limbaugh for what Salazar called "a clear exhortation that those riots are exactly what he wants to happen." To be consistent, Salazar should send a similar letter to Air America about Roseanne Barr.


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