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Examining The Legacy Of Rush Limbaugh, Who Died At 70


NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has covered conservative media and Rush Limbaugh for years. David, good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What we just heard from Sarah at the end there is right. Millions of people listen to that show and loved Rush Limbaugh. But what did he mean to people who were not listening?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, people would hear the name Rush Limbaugh and think, oh, well, he's a conservative or, oh, well, he's an important voice out there, a successful radio host. And then there were a cohort of people who took great exception to what he had to say. Maybe they listened to it some, maybe they heard about it. But, you know, it's worth pointing out he was a guy who kind of owned the libs before the phrase existed, decades before. He would go after people of color and women, gays and lesbians and even AIDS victims for being AIDS victims, you know, in ways that trafficked in stereotypes and sometimes were outright bigoted. He wove this into what he saw as satire and pastiche. And he was a very charismatic figure on the air. But there were a lot of people who took great exception with what he offered and for very good reason.

INSKEEP: Did you just describe what made him successful, that mixture of racism and bigotry?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you first have to start with the idea that he identified an audience that felt it wasn't being served, people who felt that the mainstream media, people felt that the greater establishment wasn't serving people who were conservatives or culturally conservative. And you have to also acknowledge that he was an incredible beneficiary, perhaps the first big one, of - the Reagan administration set aside something called the fairness doctrine, which essentially said that on radio stations and television stations, anywhere that had a license across the country from the FCC, they had to give equal amount of time to somebody on an opposing side if there was a real strong point of view being expressed. When that was cast aside, Rush Limbaugh could absorb great swaths of real estate without any fear from the owners that they had to do something with somebody equally incendiary on the left. So suddenly, he could do that. And then he spoke to this audience he identified. And then here was the genius for him - he helped to stoke that audience. He helped to instill in it a sense of grievance and therefore built upon it the idea that they weren't being served.

INSKEEP: When you talked with him, what were your impressions?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, I talked to Limbaugh for a series NPR did about bridging partisan divides. It's almost quaint to think that in 2007 we were worried about that compared to the way things are now. And he said, not my problem, not my job. And he was quite upfront about it. He said, I'm trying to both say things that I believe strongly and also to charge what he called confiscatory ad rates. That is, he wanted to gouge people paid for commercials on his show. Here's the approach that he said he brought to it.


RUSH LIMBAUGH: And there is a lot of schtick and a lot of humor to it. But the one thing that I don't do is make things up or say things I don't believe just to cause a reaction because that takes no talent.

FOLKENFLIK: And, Steve, one of the things about Limbaugh is he gave sort of license for the more conservative arm of the Republican Party to give voice to the policies and positions that might have been seen outside the pale in the 1980s and early '90s.

INSKEEP: Although, as we just heard from Sarah McCammon, he also did, in fact, make things up. David, thanks so much, appreciate it.


INSKEEP: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik on the late Rush Limbaugh, who is dead at age 70.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELGE LIEN TRIO'S "JAZZKORAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.