A few weeks ago, I lauded ESPN for its terrific PR and cross-promotional campaigns for its College GameDay show. So it's disconcerting to have to take them to task for the Rush Limbaugh debacle. ESPN hired the loudmouth this season to spice up its NFL pre-game show, which has consistently trailed Fox's program in the ratings. Network brass knew they were playing with fire - they just didn't expect to get burned so badly.
It only took a few weeks before the radio blather-mouth fired off a ridiculous, racially tinged missive on air that landed with the force of 20 Rush-sized lead balloons. His ignorant and misguided statement - that elite quarterback Donovan McNabb receives favorable media treatment because he's black - was precisely the kind of controversial mouthing that ESPN hoped audiences would tune in expecting to hear. They just didn't want Rush to actually say it.
Shockingly, Limbaugh defended himself on his radio show the next day, blaming it all on his favorite target - the good ol' liberal media. The media, liberal and otherwise, wasn't having it, and the Rush to judgment buried him in an avalanche unseen since Jimmy the Greek was creamed for his infamous biological treatise. Limbaugh's PR woes grew worse that same week when he was linked to ongoing alleged purchases of prescription painkillers.
Talk about a fall from grace. He went from the penthouse to the outhouse in a week, and I doubt anyone was more shocked than Rush. After all, he has a large, loyal radio audience that accepts his word as gospel. How could this happen to a broadcasting demagogue who so masterfully spins every story, and pawns it like a snake-oil salesman to a gullible crowd of discontents looking for the proverbial scapegoat?
Rush's false sense of infallibility is a common ill among some top actors with whom I've worked. Much like Limbaugh, some of Hollywood's A-listers believe the hype. Flanked by flunkies and sycophants, they rarely hear criticism. Every utterance is received with admiration, each joke met with forced laughter. People may snicker behind their backs, but when they greet them at the premiere it's all flattery. "What a remarkable portrait of a serial-rapist florist! Such depth!"
ESPN sold out for a cheap, quick ratings push, and they lost in the exchange. They would have done well to remember what my grandfather always reminded me: "When you dance with the devil, he leads."