Despite its reputation as a hard-core left-wing propaganda machine, the main job of Media Matters for America is transcribing and/or reprinting the more outrageous lines of right-wing politicians and their water-carriers in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio. Yes, it fact-checks — but how can it be a smear outfit when these are people’s own words? And these words by Rush Limbaugh were freaky and terrifying for all kinds of reasons — some ethical, some psychopathological. But for me, one phrase stood out (italics mine).
I've had journalists tell me this. “Well, we're journalists.” Why are you immune? Why are you immune to the same kind of destructive reporting and behavior that you dish out? You know, we have practiced — I've practiced it once. I am not going to tell you the story because I'm don't want to give it away, and I would have to mention names, and I'm not going to mention names. But there was a cover story on me coming out of one of the big news magazines, and it was going to totally mischaracterize me and what I do and how I do it. And we found out who was writing it and made a couple phone calls to the person writing it. And we said, “You know what? We're going to find out where your kids go to school. We're going to find out who you knocked up in high school. We're going to find out what drugs you used. We're going to find out where you go to drink and do — we're gonna find out how you paid for your house. We're going to do — and we're going to do exact — and we're going to say that, you know what? You are no different than Al Goldstein. You both masturbate. You're no different than Al Goldstein, and you're both journalists, and so forth.”
And the guy started screaming on the phone, just went — “You can't do that.” We said, “Watch us.” And it changed the tone of the story by about 60 percent, I would say, from what it was going to be. But nobody does that to these people. Nobody does it to them. And that would be so much fun. But I'd need to be wearing body armor every day. Oh, no question, these people are playing for keeps.
That italicized part comes out of left field. Masturbation? Al Goldstein? What the hell is Limbaugh talking about?
I think I know. In January 1995, Time’s Richard Corliss wrote a Limbaugh cover story that was, to my mind, rather gentle on its subject — who back then was single-handedly moving public discourse in a new and viciously inflammatory direction. Corliss covered the bases, but he seemed to be pulling his punches. I might be unfair: As its more recent Ann Coulter cover story demonstrated, Time is hardly the place for ringing denunciations of media figures — on any side — with substantial followings. It’s possible the story was edited to appear neutral — to call attention to Limbaugh as an intriguing new phenomenon rather than a reeking fount of lies and misinformation.
But Corliss, as one of the chief critics for the middlebrow, high-circulation Time, likely didn’t want a piece he’d written in the mid-seventies for the Village Voice hauled into the light — a piece from the days when he was a cheeky and passionate young writer trying to push the envelope. The subject was porn, and I remember it beginning (I don’t have the exact quote, but, believe me, it sticks in the memory): “Like many people, I go to porn theaters to masturbate.” (The title of the piece, we've confirmed, was “Confessions of an Ex-Pornologist.”)
Let me be clear: I miss the days when film critics (and essayists) were fearlessly, sometimes recklessly frank. I was impressed by the way Corliss delved into the minds of men in that era who found, so to speak, release in that (long-gone) grindhouse environment. (The former critic Paul Schrader was among them — and one of the great characters in American cinema, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, was born of his experiences drifting from one porn house to the next.) Corliss illuminated an aspect of moviegoing we still haven’t come fully to terms with.
But ask Paul Reubens what masturbation does for a career. Ask Jocelyn Elders.
If Limbaugh was talking about Corliss, he and his cronies must have dug up everything Corliss had ever written for the purposes of intimidation. Gangster stuff. And so reflective of our crazy culture. A blowhard can boast to millions of listeners about blackmailing a member of the press, and someone who once admitted to just doin’ what comes naturally cowers under the sheets.