Anyone who dismisses syndicated talk-show host Rush Limbaugh as a credibility-free joke does so at his own peril. Although he's embarrassed and contradicted himself plenty of times during recent years, he still attracts an audience estimated at 13.5 million people per week, including thousands of locals who switch to KOA-AM/850 during his weekday afternoon broadcasts, and presumably a sizable percentage of these listeners are in harmony with his ultra-conservative opinions.
For that reason, the media rumpus over Limbaugh's gleeful April 23 declaration that he's "dreaming of riots in Denver" during August's Democratic National Convention — which led to high-profile newspaper articles, TV reports and blogosphere babble — was quasi-defensible. And as a bonus, it spawned at least one surprising reaction: unexpectedly harsh criticism from a reliably right-wing yakker, KHOW's Dan Caplis, even as Clear Channel, the company that employs Caplis and Limbaugh, rushed to defend Rush.
Caplis's response undoubtedly caught many longtime listeners off-guard, and not just because his focus on Limbaugh forced him to take a long overdue (and unfortunately temporary) break from portraying the potential presidency of Senator Barack Obama as a danger to America nearly as disturbing as global terrorism or the TV comeback of Kathie Lee Gifford. Unlike colleagues such as AM-760's Jay Marvin, who ripped KOA's Bob Newman in May 2007 when the latter casually suggested that all Muslims in the U.S. be made to wear GPS tracking bracelets, Caplis hasn't been known to go after dubious statements by Clear Channel colleagues. Moreover, he's often displayed a fierce loyalty for institutions with which he's been associated — like the University of Colorado at Boulder, which he defended with pitbull tenacity during the recruiting scandal of a few years back. But on April 24, during the KHOW afternoon program he shares/dominates with partner Craig Silverman, Caplis conceded that when Limbaugh was "talking about dreaming and hoping for riots in Denver," he'd gone "way over the line."
Within minutes of these words, however, Clear Channel Denver put out a press release claiming precisely the opposite. "A review of the full transcript... shows that Limbaugh was not advocating violence in Denver at the Democratic National Convention," the document stated — and indeed, Limbaugh did say that "I am not inspiring or inciting riots" at one point. But this comment represented the briefest of asides amid a rambling, discursive take filled with observations like "Riots in Denver at the Democrat convention would see to it we don't elect Democrats — and that's the best damn thing that could happen for this country."
On April 25, even after the press release had essentially repudiated his position, Caplis kept up the Rush-is-wrong drumbeat, devoting hours to the subject and even providing a forum for Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown to offer the same argument — and Kris Olinger, who, as head of AM programming for Clear Channel Denver, is Caplis's de facto boss, didn't have a problem with it. "Basically, my instruction to the talent was, you can have your viewpoint, but make sure you have all the facts and know precisely what you're talking about," she says. Olinger placed particular emphasis on a non-apology apology Limbaugh made on his own April 25 broadcast. "Just to clarify for those of you in Denver, and especially the great people at KOA in Denver..., my point probably could have been better made had I said it this way," he intoned. "If the Democrats and their allies, such as Re-create 68, want to engage in self-destructive behavior, we'll take it. It is they who protest, it is they who riot, it is they who threaten us. It is not us, it is not me. They're the ones."
Indeed, Re-create 68, a Colorado-based protest organization whose moniker references the riot-filled Democratic convention in 1968, is hardly in Limbaugh's ideological corner. But even if it was, Limbaugh couldn't be held responsible for such actions in court, according to Tom Kelley, an attorney for the firm of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz who specializes in media law. "Certainly, this far away from the convention, there'd be no chance of legal liability," he says. "The only potential basis for liability in this kind of situation is the doctrine of incitement" — a principle based on cases such as 1969's Brandenburg v. Ohio, which established that speech encouraging violence can only be restricted if it's "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." As Kelley sees it, "the word 'imminent' is critical. It has to be in a setting where people are pretty much deprived of the opportunity to think something over before they do it, and it seems to me that Limbaugh saying 'If you want to riot, go ahead, but you're playing into our hands' doesn't sound very inciteful."
Kelley's supposition is underscored by the fallout from a 1994 incident involving Colorado Springs's Chuck Baker, a host for KVOR radio whose remarks about the need for "an armed revolution" seemed literal, not figurative; once a week, his program originated from an area gun shop. That October, just over a month after Baker chatted with a caller who wondered aloud "Who do we shoot?" (other than Ted Kennedy and a couple of other fellow travelers), one of his listeners, Francisco Duran, was arrested for firing almost thirty shots at the White House. Before long, reports about a federal probe into Baker's programs surfaced, but he denied having been quizzed by investigators and he was never charged with any misconduct. Although he voluntarily left his air gig for a time due to stress over the Duran situation, he returned a short time later and remains on Springs radio to this day — currently for a station with the unusual call letters KKKK.
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Limbaugh's gotten his share of bad press, too, and not only because of his well-publicized jones for Oxycontin, which made headlines in 2003. Recall that in 2006, he accused actor Michael J. Fox of exaggerating the symptoms of Parkinson's disease in political commercials advocating stem-cell research, even doing a spastic shudder for the "DittoCam" that captures his broadcasts for the web — and the following year, he stirred more ire when he blasted what he referred to as "phony soldiers" who criticized the war in Iraq. And that's not to mention his sacking from ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown show after contending that Philadelphia Eagles signal caller Donovan McNabb was overrated because "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." Limbaugh's made similar intimations about another African-American leader, Obama, whom he needled last year with "Barack, the Magic Negro," a parody song and video crooned to the tune of "Puff (The Magic Dragon)."
Not that Limbaugh's a paragon of consistency. Westword blogger Joe Horton discovered that last year, he went after Obama for saying that disconnection, hopelessness and despair in forgotten communities constituted a "quiet riot"; in Limbaugh's estimation, "he was inciting riots." (Sound familiar?) Yet as recently as February, he was so negative toward the candidacy of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, whom he saw as distressingly moderate, that he told listeners, with debatable sincerity, that he might endorse Obama. Since then, predictably, he's reverted to type, calling on Republicans in open primary states to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to throw the Democratic race into disarray that would benefit McCain. He's dubbed the scheme "Operation Chaos."
Of course, a riot at the Denver convention would be pretty chaotic, too. Nevertheless, attorney Kelley believes Limbaugh would only face trouble for mayhem of this sort "if he gets on the air during the convention, when he knows a crowd is assembled, and starts exhorting them to violence." His presence in Denver might further enhance this prospect, but Clear Channel's Olinger doubts he'll be heading this way in a few months. She says the folks at Premiere Radio Network, the Clear Channel subsidiary that owns Limbaugh's program, have told her that "he's not planning to attend either convention." Still, she acknowledges, "He's Rush. He can always change his mind."
If he waits too long, he may have trouble finding a hotel suite. Then again, maybe Dan Caplis has some extra room.