Four years ago, on his February 3, 2020 radio program, conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh announced he had Stage 4 lung cancer, a dangerously advanced form of the disease. The next day, President Donald Trump surprised Limbaugh at the State of the Union, awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in appreciation for Limbaugh’s titanic achievements.
“He is the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet,” Trump told the assembled Senators and Congressman, as well as tens of millions watching at home. “Rush Limbaugh: Thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country.” In the chamber, Republicans jumped to give Limbaugh an enthusiastic standing ovation; Democrats largely sat.
Instead of respectfully permitting conservatives to honor a cherished leader, media liberals felt compelled to use the moment to unleash a nasty stream of rhetoric tarring Limbaugh as a bigot, a “racist,” and a “misogynist” mere hours after he disclosed what would turn out to be a fatal cancer diagnosis.
“Ask yourself this simple question: is the world a better place or a worse place with Rush Limbaugh in it?” ex-CNN host Reza Aslan tweeted February 3, soon after Limbaugh disclosed his illness.
After Trump honored Limbaugh, the pile-on grew. On MSNBC, anchor Brian Williams called the medal presentation “bizarre.” On that same network, PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor complained that “for Democrats and a lot of people, independents and African-Americans, he’s just seen as someone who is the face of racism.”
Over on CNN, American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent April Ryan was furious. “Someone who is a birther received the Presidential Medal of Freedom!” she griped. “I watched Twitter and people were very upset...Does this all equate to the President’s inclusive society?”
Correspondent Jim Acosta agreed that honoring Limbaugh was somehow an affront to black Americans: “While, yes, he was trying to make appeal to the African American community, it can’t be forgotten he was awarding the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, who has a history of making derogatory comments about African Americans.”
On NBC, Chuck Todd accused Trump of being a troll: “It [presenting Rush Limbaugh with Medal of Freedom] was the President trolling the Democrats....Honoring Rush Limbaugh, in that moment....to do it on the House floor was definitely a finger-in-the-eye of [Nancy] Pelosi, a finger-in-the-eye of the Democrats.”
On ABC, White House correspondent Cecilia Vega suggested Limbaugh wasn’t worthy of such a high honor: “Awarding that Presidential Medal of Freedom, not just in the chamber, but to someone as controversial and divisive in this country as Rush Limbaugh, whose past comments on race, whose past comments on women, are already making the rounds on Twitter. People are, many, offended by this.”
“Can’t find the words to express my pain and disgust at seeing Rush Limbaugh receive the nation’s highest honor in the house that my ancestors built,” MSNBC contributor and New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay tweeted that night. “But in their name, I say that this is not the end. We will overcome this hate and live to see a better day. This too shall pass.”
Coverage in the days that followed was just as hostile. “Mr. Trump’s decision [to award the Medal of Freedom] drew fierce blowback from critics who pointed to Limbaugh’s decades of bigoted rhetoric and spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation on his show,” Jason Silverstein wrote at CBSNews.com February 5.
“He’s been so racist and so misogynistic over the years,” co-host Joy Behar screeched on ABC’s The View that same day. “Who’s next? Roger Stone?”
“Limbaugh has lived the American Dream, but, at the same time, he’s used his words to make a mockery of that dream, sometimes sharing xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist sentiments with the masses,” CNN’s Sara Sidner sneered on New Day, February 6.
The Hollywood Left was even nastier. “Only one thing to say about Rush Limbaugh getting a Presidential Medal if Freedom at The State of the Union: I loathe this fucking man,” Rob Reiner erupted on Twitter.
Rush Limbaugh continued to host his radio show for another year, finally passing away on February 17, 2021. Even then, his haters still felt compelled to publicly express their hatred.
“For decades, Limbaugh filled the airwaves with lies and conspiracy theories, racist and misogynistic comments,” CNN’s Randi Kaye derided that night on Anderson Cooper 360. “He often mocked women….Instead of knocking him off the airwaves, his commentary turned him into a national hero for the right and made him a very rich man.”
“He became a singular figure in the American media, fomenting mistrust, grievances and even hatred on the right for Americans who did not share his and his followers’ views, and he pushed baseless claims and toxic rumors long before Twitter and Reddit became havens for such disinformation,” New York Times correspondents Robert McFadden and Michael Grynbaum slammed in their February 18 front page obituary for the legendary host.
But conservatives who knew better saluted Limbaugh as a crucial element of their success over the years. “The conservative movement would not be alive today but for him,” MRC President Brent Bozell wrote in a FoxNews.com piece in 2020, after the cancer diagnosis.
A year later, NewsBusters contributor Jeffrey Lord crowned Limbaugh the “founding father of conservative media....Those of us in the world of conservative media will never forget that we are here because Rush Limbaugh had the vision and the courage to sit down behind that golden EIB microphone and speak his mind.”
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.