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'Devil' in the Eye of the Beholder

By Jeff Cohen
September 23, 2006

Editor's Note: The U.S. pundit class, which cheered when George W. Bush used his 2002 United Nations speech to effectively announce an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, has reacted in horror and fury over Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez giving a speech to the U.N. that referred to Bush as "El Diablo."

In this guest essay, Jeff Cohen -- media critic and author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media -- looks at times when some of the same outraged pundits thought it was fine to toss around the d-word and other epithets. (This article also has appeared at Alternet.)

Across the U.S. political and media spectrum, there was wide agreement: Name-calling and personal attacks are bad for national and global dialogue. Prompting the unity were Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's comments that President Bush was the devil incarnate, "El Diablo."

Among those exercised (and exorcized) about Chavez's name-calling were some of the loudest name-callers in American media today -- including Rush Limbaugh and other rightwing talk hosts. Limbaugh tried to equate Chavez's remarks with the alleged Bush-bashing that comes from top U.S. Democrats. In case you've forgotten, it was Limbaugh who ridiculed Chelsea Clinton, then 13, as the "White House dog."

It was Limbaugh in 2001 who routinely referred to Democratic leader Tom Daschle, literally, as "El Diablo." Along with "Devil in a Blue Dress" theme music, Limbaugh would carry on at length about how Daschle may well be Satan in soft-spoken disguise.

Bellowed Limbaugh in July 2001: "Just yesterday, as Bush winged his way to Europe on a crucial mission to lead our allies into the 21st century...up pops 'El Diablo,' Tom Daschle, and his devilish deviltry, claiming that George Bush is incompetent." (Months later, Limbaugh started describing Daschle more as a traitor than a devil, who'd decided to "align himself with Iran, North Korea and Hussein.")

Also incensed by Chavez was MSNBC host and former GOP Congressman, Joe Scarborough -- who last night played a lengthy excerpt of Limbaugh pontificating about the Chavez remarks. Somehow Scarborough couldn't dig up the tapes of Limbaugh declaring that Daschle was the devil.

In my new book Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, I dissect the hypocrisy of a TV news business that has long catered to hateful rightists like Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell and Ann Coulter. In TV land, vicious epithet-hurlers get to define and denounce outnumbered or silenced progressives as the name-callers.

When I worked at MSNBC on Phil Donahue's primetime show in 2002-2003, management often complained that Phil - who never named-called and was one of the most courteous hosts in TV history -- was "badgering" guests. His patriotism was questioned. As the Iraq invasion neared, an internal NBC management memo described Donahue as "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." Why? Because he insisted on presenting guests who were "skeptical of the administration's motives."

With Donahue terminated on the eve of war, MSNBC brass turned to hosts like Scarborough and talk radio bigot Michael Savage, known for his declarations that developing countries like Venezuela were "turd world nations"; that Latinos "breed like rabbits"; and that women "should have been denied the vote." In a TV industry bent on placating the far right, Donahue was "a difficult public face for NBC." But Savage was deemed an acceptable face.

Three weeks into the Iraq war, Scarborough was gleeful at boycotts and cancellations aimed at antiwar "elitists" like Janeane Garofalo, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. As a guest on Scarborough's show, Savage declared that "Hollywood idiots" are "absolutely committing sedition and treason." Responded Scarborough: "These leftist stooges for anti-American causes are always given a free pass."

Let me be clear: Those of us who use facts instead of rant; reason and argument instead of name-calling and personal attacks; evidence instead of intimidation and accusations of disloyalty -- we have the moral authority to tell Hugo Chavez that his comments were out of line.

But the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Scarboroughs and O'Reillys are in no position to point any fingers. Nor are the executives at Disney, GE and News Corp who have made them the loudest voices in American media.

Nor, for that matter, is Team Bush -- whose strategy has been to demonize and intimidate critics and other members of the "reality-based community."


Jeff Cohen is the founder of FAIR, and author of the new book: Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media

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