ANALYSIS: Reputation recovery looks likely for Rush upon return

Thanks to good crisis management and a loyal legion of listeners, Rush Limbaugh's reputation should not be hurt significantly by his drug addiction.

Thanks to good crisis management and a loyal legion of listeners, Rush Limbaugh's reputation should not be hurt significantly by his drug addiction.

The news that Rush Limbaugh publicly admitted to a painkiller addiction and checked himself into a rehabilitation facility earlier this month was met with little uproar, even from the liberals he has so harshly attacked over the years. To be sure, there have been some scattered accusations of hypocrisy, but, by and large, the strongest voices have been the supportive and, surprisingly, compassionate ones of many members of a vast audience that numbers in the tens of millions. If the early support is any indication, Limbaugh's reputation as a giant among conservative pundits won't have suffered a bit when he returns to the airwaves. In sharp contrast to the ruined televangelists of the '80s who leap to mind during this crisis because of their shared rigidity on matters of morality, Limbaugh will likely retain and maybe expand his influence despite a violation of his own well-known moral code. Crisis managers attribute Limbaugh's uncommon resilience to a pair of factors that distinguish him from other fallen conservatives. First, they say, the unfolding of the crisis was handled flawlessly in its early days, laying the groundwork for the rapid recovery of his reputation. The second factor, less easy to explain, is the sheer uniqueness of both Limbaugh's celebrity and the psychology of his audience of "dittoheads," the self-deprecating nickname for his legions of followers. "Your audience defines your reputation," says Karen Doyne, MD of Burson-Marsteller's crisis communications practice. "They set the bar and, clearly, Limbaugh knows where that bar is. He knows his core audience very well." The first two weeks of October were rough for Limbaugh, a public figure who until recently hadn't experienced anything approaching a public crisis of this nature. Before the painkiller issue even reared its head, Limbaugh was taking heat for a comment he made on ESPN, for which he had recently begun working as a football analyst. His comment that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is overrated by the media because he is black led to a furor and, ultimately, Limbaugh's resignation from ESPN. But a report in the National Enquirer would make that controversy look mild by comparison. The supermarket tabloid quoted a former maid of Limbaugh's saying that she had delivered him enough pain pills to "kill an elephant." The maid had turned Florida authorities on to Limbaugh's problem, and following the publication of the story, several legitimate news organizations ran confirmed reports of a police investigation. Limbaugh's response was swift. On his October 10 radio show, he confessed to a drug problem with remarkable bluntness. "You know I have always tried to be honest with you and open about my life," he said. "So I need to tell you today that part of what you have heard and read is correct. I am addicted to prescription pain medication." He went on to describe in some detail the circumstances of the addiction, namely severe pain from spinal surgery he underwent several years ago. Then Limbaugh checked himself into a rehabilitation facility. Little controversy left to report By all appearances, the smooth handling of this crisis left little for the media to chew on, despite the gap between the breaking of the initial story and Limbaugh's response. "Rush Limbaugh did everything that we as crisis practitioners recommend to our clients," says Lea Conner, president of Conner Dudley Communications. "He admitted a problem to the full ability that his lawyers allowed him. You can't just say whatever you want; you have to coordinate your efforts with your legal team." Doyne says Limbaugh's audience has been receptive to his handling of matters so far. "He has handled this with a clear understanding of what his constituency needed from him, and he clearly sensed that once the story was out, he was going to have to step forward and say something," she says. "And only by confessing was he going to be on the road to forgiveness from his audiences." To be sure, not every crisis manager thinks Limbaugh is in the clear. Alan Marcus, president of NJ-based The Marcus Group, believes Limbaugh's reputation is in jeopardy, and would be best helped by engaging in an antidrug campaign. "I'm not sure that somebody of that level of celebrity can come back, but if he's going to, he's got to take advantage of his celebrity and say, 'I know why everyday people like you and me and our kids get trapped in drugs. I was weak, and instead of being critical of those people I'm going to help those people.'" A story published in Newsweek went far in painting Limbaugh as an unsavory character, not only in his politics, but also in a lonely personal life marked by two divorces. At a point midway through the article, the author, Evan Thomas, calls this episode the "fall of a moralist." In retrospect, this reference reads like a vast overstatement because, by the end of the article, Thomas himself admits that Limbaugh will likely suffer little fallout, even quoting no less of a moral zealot than well-known conservative Christian Gary Bauer in the service of this point. Though it is early on, both in Limbaugh's rehabilitation and in the coverage of the crisis, there is no sign that there will be anything approaching a "fall" for the college dropout turned conservative media giant. And that has everything to do with Limbaugh's audience, which has nothing to do with Newsweek and other mainstream news outlets that have been comparatively eager to see Limbaugh's power diminished. In recent weeks, conservative forums of all kinds have been swamped by messages of support. A survey by market-research firm The Benchmark Company found that 96% of 500 people polled said they are listening as much to Limbaugh since the McNabb and addiction news unfolded. Ninety-four percent said they would continue as regular listeners upon his return. "Based upon what we have seen and read, although the circumstances are different, we expect the reaction by Rush's audience to be similar to the Letterman situation last year," says Michael Sitrick, whose firm, Sitrick Associates, is handling communications for the company that syndicates Limbaugh's radio show. On a purely objective level, this amount of support is perplexing given Limbaugh's harsh statements about drug users. The most famous piece of evidence of Limbaugh's hypocrisy is his statement on Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia after his death: "Jerry Garcia destroyed his life on drugs. And yet he's being honored, like some godlike figure. Our priorities are out of whack, folks." Reputation in loyalists' hands But this is rejected by the people who matter most to Limbaugh's reputation: his listeners. "They are looking for reasons to forgive him," says Doyne. "That they are cutting him slack may be surprising to the casual observer. His audience is giving him credit for coming clean even though he didn't until the story was already out. He is being lauded by his loyal core." Apparently possessing little knowledge of the nature of addiction, many are going so far as to distinguish the nature of Limbaugh's addiction from that of crack or heroin addicts. Said Bauer in Newsweek, "From a moral standpoint, there's a difference between people who go out and seek a high and get addicted, and the millions who are dealing with pain and inadvertently get addicted." But why is Limbaugh cut slack when other self-righteous figures, like televangelist Jim Bakker and a host of politicians, are disgraced? To Burson's Doyne, it has to do with the composition of Limbaugh's fame. "Limbaugh is viewed as an entertainer rather than as a politician or a philosopher," she says. "They evaluate his foibles as they would a celebrity. His reputation is evaluated more on a par with Hugh Grant than Bill Clinton. He's not a politician; he's not a role model. He's just a very articulate guy with opinions that a certain audience passionately agrees with."

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