If there's one thing the last two weeks have proved it's that it doesn't matter whether you're a politician, journalist, or a media pundit, when it comes to personal indiscretions you want to be judged as an entertainer.
Republicans have long called Rush Limbaugh "just an entertainer" whenever they wanted to distance themselves from one of his embarrassing rightwing radio rants, as if that somehow put him beyond the pale of political judgment. But as the communications industry has bulldozed the boundaries imposed on different professions, folks are trying more and more to exercise the rights of one role while they are personally judged by the standards of another.
Limbaugh, especially now that he's desperate to rehab his image as a racist in order to purchase the St. Louis Rams, is a case in point. By the Boy Scout standards we pretend to apply to politicians in this country, the thrice divorced, oxycontin-addicted Limbaugh shouldn't be able to run for dog catcher. Yet here he is, sitting for a sympathetic, two-part interview with Today Show correspondent Jamie Gangel that NBC injected into every MSNBC news show as if it were an exclusive with a head of state. Can Rush say anything good about what Obama's done? Is he the head of the Republican party? Who are his "picks" for the next GOP presidential candidate?
The interview begins with tape of Rush bloviating ludicrously ("Barack Obama has the inside track on becoming the worst president in the nation's history"). But it quickly segues to sad celebrity-overcomes-obstacles music as we see grainy photos of a son of privilege who nevertheless "did not fit in." Rush struggles, Rush gets fired again and again, then (here comes the happy music) he finds his place in the world as a famous rightwing personality with a $400 million contract and a new gal to date.
But the fawning biopic intro, gliding gently over all the felonies and ugliness, has the cheesy affect of an interview with Valerie Bertinelli about her eating disorders. Even as Limbaugh claims, in a Web-only clip, that those who call him an entertainer are trying to "discredit" him (they never "take me on on my ideas," he says--like, for example, his ideas about having domestic servants buy his drugs and run the risk of violence or arrest for him), he basks in his untouchability as an entertainer. Asked, for instance, about his bigot ditty, "Barack, the Magic Negro," Rush whips back: "Would you ask anybody who writes for Saturday Night Live these questions?"
Of course, David Letterman basks in that same untouchability, and Gangel's question about Letterman, for which Limbaugh dons his "social commentator" hat in order to reply, evokes the question, How is Dave any different from you in terms of personal responsibilty? (a question Gangel, however, never asks). Still, Rush seems a bit rattled in his answer, enough to exaggerate Letterman's offenses, saying he apologized to his wife only "on television" for having "sex with interns."
But who factchecks entertainers? Well, CNN, for one (starting around 1:10, but it's all hilarious):
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
Stewart's right, on one obvious level: Factchecking a joke is like sifting straw for gold. But he's also denying the confusion spread by the crisscrossing of roles and rules in our national political debate, and downplaying the fact that entertainers are having a greater impact on politics than ever before. SNL's Tina Fey almost single-handedly shifted Sarah Palin's aura as a pitbull in lipstick to a ditz in lipstick, and Stewart himself was voted "America's most trusted newscaster" in a Time poll a few months ago.
Politicians and journalists are hemmed in by all sorts of rules--don't lie your way into a war, don't report from unreliable sources--because we don't want political power to be handled irresponsibly by irresponsible people. Those rules, like banking regulations and the Fairness Doctrine, have been pretty much dispensed with, and this country just went through an eight-year-long orgy of irresponsibility in both politics and journalism. The establishments of each profession are being hosed off the sidewalk of reality right now, and in the ensuing vacuum people are turning to anyone with a conspiratorial or emotionally satisfying grudge to voice.
It would be nice if pols and reporters started living within their traditional rules for a while, but don't hold your breath.
Let's face it: When it comes to moral flaws, who wouldn't rather be judged by the public standards governing, say, Keith Richards, rather than those we reserve for an assistant high-school principal? Jimmy Kimmel saw where this was going when former House majority leader Tom DeLay appeared on his show last week with a coterie of fellow performers from ABC's Dancing With the Stars. Kimmel asked, "Do you think this will inspire other indicted politicians to dance?"
And Delay answered, honestly, I think: "Hey, it keeps you out of jail."