Journalism’s code of ethics asks us to minimize harm. But Rush Limbaugh’s approach was to inflict maximum harm on all enemies, perceived and real. I would know, because I was one of them.
Most of us in the world of journalism subscribe to an ethical code. One of the four key concepts outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics is “minimize harm”—a directive that challenges us to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” and to “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”
The path paved by Rush Limbaugh, the radio raconteur who died of cancer last month at the age of 70, is everything this code is not. I use the word raconteur purposefully because I cannot stand calling him a “conservative talk show host,” as is usually done in the media—because he was not a true conservative, but rather, he radically changed the media landscape in this country.
A raconteur is defined as “a person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way.” Limbaugh made his living feeding millions of listeners a story about an America that needed to be taken back from, among other things, the feminist movement that he so despised. Americans were primed to embrace Donald Trump’s MAGA-mania because Limbaugh had been filling their ears with this anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, anti-gay and anti-diversity rhetoric for decades.
I feel the need to return to the Code of Ethics and establish that, although Limbaugh was a media darling and had a megaphone to the masses, he was not a journalist. He didn’t report, interview or seek facts. He did, however, seek to win hearts and minds. And while the SPJ code asks journalists to minimize harm, his approach was to inflict maximum harm on all enemies, perceived and real. I would know, because I was one of them.
Back in October, I wrote an op-ed for NBC News Think about the presidential debates, noting that the first one was such a disaster for civil discourse that I wasn’t sure I would let my politically curious kids watch the second one.
It turns out Limbaugh read my article. And he bashed it on his morning radio program, calling me “Professorette Prusher” on an episode sardonically entitled “Scarred for Life.”
How did I learn this? Because I got some nasty mail from his listeners—from one in particular whose language read like a thinly veiled threat along the lines of, “I hope nothing happens to your lovely family.” Someone from a far-right group that was present at the Jan. 6 riots, based on a few deep web searches I did, also mentioned the episode on his site, although it since has been taken down.
At the time, I said nothing about this publicly because I was terrified, and didn’t want to push back on social media for fear of bringing any unwanted attention to myself or my family. I own that by writing about parenting decisions in a national forum, I take the risk of facing some blowback.
But I didn’t expect the kind of vitriol that came my way, inspired by Limbaugh. In the show, as quoted to me by one of the people who emailed me (the actual show recordings are behind a paywall and I refuse to pay for access), he said:
“Soon, Professorette Prusher’s precious children are going to grow up. They’ll start to consume the fake news in the hate-filled drive-by media, coming from hate-filled, deranged liberal journalists and journalism professors. Let’s hope they won’t be scarred for life from that experience.”
Putting all the other troubling and twisted things about that statement aside, let’s just talk about “professorette.” It may sound harmless, but it’s emblematic of the misogyny that Rush helped recycle, taking a segment of America back a few decades, to a simpler time when you know, you didn’t need to hear from these mouthy journalists and professors. Reading between the lines, you can see how fervently Limbaugh wishes to silence articulate women everywhere, and to return to a time when we “knew our place.”
I was only slightly assuaged by the knowledge that Limbaugh used this diminutive, dismissive moniker many times over the years, also calling women senators “senatorette” and Supreme Court justices “babe.” His lifelong campaign to belittle women and delegitimize the feminist movement is woefully transparent—but it’s also been impactful. When you go to type the word feminism or feminist in a Twitter search, after five letters, the word “feminazi” will pop up. That is Limbaugh’s legacy to the popular American lexicon.
Besides maligning professional, successful women, Rush made it “okay” to express outright racism and hatred of immigrants, and he demonized anyone with a progressive agenda. Before there was Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham—Alex Jones, even—there was Rush. In fact, without Rush Limbaugh, there probably never would have been a Donald Trump as president.
When someone dies, we send their loved ones condolences and wish that the departed rest in peace. However, the language of Limbaugh will not easily be put to rest. I reside in Palm Beach County, Fla., which has just informed Gov. Ron DeSantis that in our county at least—despite having been home to Limbaugh—we will not lower the flags to half-staff as ordered. That is an honor reserved for heroes who served their country, not slanderers and shock jocks.
By telling our truths, by refusing to lower the Old Glory for a man who died an old bigot, we can exercise the First Amendment rights that allowed Limbaugh’s rancor to ring in the ears of millions.