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On October 24 and 25, a number of media outlets -- including ABC News, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press -- falsely reported that nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh "apologized" for recent comments he made about actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease. As Media Matters for America documented, Limbaugh alleged on the October 23 edition of his radio program that Fox's physical appearance in a recent campaign advertisement endorsing Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill for supporting embryonic stem cell research, in which Fox was "moving all around and shaking," was "purely an act." Limbaugh then added that "this is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting, one of the two." But while Limbaugh also stated on October 23 that "I will apologize to Michael J. Fox if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act," Limbaugh not only did not apologize, he defended his comments on his show the next day. Pointing to Fox's statement in his book, Lucky Man: A Memoir (Hyperion, April 2002), that he testified before Congress in 1999 "without medication," Limbaugh declared on his October 24 show that "all I said yesterday was: 'He's either acting or he's off his meds.' I was right. He was off his meds."
According to an October 25 New York Times article, "[a] spokesman for Mr. Fox said his tremors were caused by his medication."
Although Limbaugh was referring to the ad Fox did for McCaskill, Fox has also filmed ads on behalf of Maryland Democratic Senate nominee Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) and, as noted by blogger Atrios (Media Matters senior fellow Duncan Black), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) in the 2004 general election.
Below are examples of media outlets that falsely reported Limbaugh "apologized" for his attacks on Fox:
- On the October 24 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper reported that "[a]fter listeners contacted Limbaugh to say it was no act, the radio host apologized."
- On the 9 a.m. ET hour of the October 25 edition of CNN Newsroom, CNN national correspondent John King stated: "I think we should take Rush at his word. He has issued this apology."
- In an October 25 New York Times article, Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley reported: "Mr. Limbaugh later apologized for accusing Mr. Fox of exaggerating his symptoms, but said that 'Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democrat politician.' "
- In an October 25 Washington Post article, staff writer David Montgomery wrote that "[l]ater Monday, still on the air, Limbaugh would apologize, but reaction to his statements from Parkinson's experts and Fox's supporters was swift and angry." Like the Times, the Post reported that after "apologizing," Limbaugh "renewed his attack on Fox" by accusing him of "shilling for a Democratic politician."
- In an October 25 Associated Press article, writer Jim Salter reported that "[c]onservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh claimed Fox was 'either off his medication or acting,' though he later apologized."
- On the 3 p.m. ET hour of the October 25 edition of CNN Newsroom, CNN anchor Don Lemon said, "We should note that Rush Limbaugh offered an apology."
From the October 24 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: ... Inside Edition, and I'm sure, by the way, that his PR people are behind this -- I know journalists well enough to know that they don't know this stuff even happened unless somebody sends them a fax or gives them a phone call to tell them. And this is the entertainment media. They curry favor with Hollywood celebrities, and so this is obviously going to be a hit piece filled with out-of-context quotes from me.
I think what they're going to focus on is my statement yesterday that he was either acting or off his medications when he was doing these commercials. It turns out he was off his medication. He was not acting, but he was off his medication, and he has admitted in his own book that he goes off medication before Senate Appropriations Committee hearings and the like in order to illustrate the ravages of the disease.
LIMBAUGH: And look -- you know, you said it. Life isn't easy for you.
LIMBAUGH: This, this is -- I was telling, I was telling Mr. Snerdly during the break and I -- in fact, I walked into the control room on the way, on the way back in here and I, I was laughing and I said: "OK, get ready, gang, because starting this afternoon, tonight, and tomorrow, all guns are gonna be aimed at me," which you intuited.
But, you know, that's actually nothing new.
LIMBAUGH: Yeah, yeah. I have, I have -- you know, what everybody's harping on, [caller], from yesterday is I made the statement, I said -- you know, almost everything I'm saying today, other than the analysis of the ballot issues in Missouri and these other states -- but in terms of this commercial -- I said it all yesterday. They're just ignoring it, which I also know is going to happen when, when I do these things.
But, regardless, I have never seen Michael J. Fox the way he appears in this commercial. And I've seen him on television, and I've seen him at political conventions. I've seen him making speeches and I've never seen him this way.
LIMBAUGH: We've always done this in a bipartisan way. That's what's wrong with politicizing all this now.
LIMBAUGH: There's no prob -- but, but all I said yesterday was: "He's either acting or he's off his meds." I was right. He was off his meds. And he's --
LIMBAUGH: -- he's done it on purpose.
From the October 24 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:
TAPPER: That's one of three TV ads so far Fox has recorded for candidates this season. This one goes after Republican Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, where embryonic stem cell research is also on the ballot as a referendum. Today, the Talent campaign called the Fox ad, "false," since Senator Talent supports "stem cell research that doesn't involve destroying a human embryo." Rush Limbaugh went much further, actually suggesting Fox was acting.
LIMBAUGH [audio clip]:In this commercial, he is exaggerating the effects of the disease. He is moving all around and shaking. And it's purely an act.
TAPPER: After listeners contacted Limbaugh to say it was no act, the radio host apologized.
KING: Well, Rush Limbaugh is trying to fire up a base, like many conservative voices are in this country. Many liberal voices are doing just the same thing. His last statement, where he says Michael J. Fox is out shilling for a Democratic candidate, shilling is perhaps a word some would take as a pejorative. But that fact is, that's a true fact. Michael J. Fox is out supporting Democrats and Rush Limbaugh has every right and every reason, if you do what he does for a living, to point that out.
I think we should take Rush at his word. He has issued this apology.
KING: But, look, Tony, it does two things. It reminds us that in the final two weeks, there's going to be some heated, pointed, some would say inappropriate and distasteful rhetoric. And it also reminds us, though, of the issue, the stem cell debate. It's important in Missouri. It's important in the Maryland race, a few other races around the country. It's a very emotional and divisive issue. And when you have issues like that, sometimes people say things that they later want to take back and wish they had closed those lips.
HARRIS: Well said.
The plea is as disturbing -- and arresting -- as a hostage video from Iraq. In a navy blazer and preppy Oxford shirt, the actor Michael J. Fox calmly asks viewers to support stem cell research by voting for several Democratic candidates in Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin, while his body sways back and forth uncontrollably like a sailor being tossed around in a full-force gale.
In short, Mr. Fox's display of the toll Parkinson's disease has taken on him turned into one of the most powerful and talked about political advertisements in years.
Republican strategists who saw how quickly the commercial was downloaded, e-mailed and reshown on news broadcasts certainly thought so. Rush Limbaugh rushed in to discredit Mr. Fox, though he mostly hurt himself. Mr. Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host, told his listeners that the actor either "didn't take his medication or was acting." Mr. Limbaugh later apologized for accusing Mr. Fox of exaggerating his symptoms, but said that "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democrat politician."
From the October 25 Washington Post article:
To Rush Limbaugh on Monday, Michael J. Fox looked like a faker. The actor, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has done a series of political ads supporting candidates who favor stem cell research, including Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who is running against Republican Michael Steele for the Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes.
"He is exaggerating the effects of the disease," Limbaugh told listeners. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act. . . . This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting."
Limbaugh, whose syndicated radio program has a weekly audience of about 10 million, was reacting to Fox's appearance in another one of the spots, for Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, running against Republican Sen. James M. Talent.
But the Cardin ad is similar. It is hard to watch, unless, for some reason, you don't believe it. As he speaks, Fox's restless torso weaves and writhes in a private dance. His head bobs from side to side, almost leaving the video frame.
"This is the only time I've ever seen Michael J. Fox portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has," Limbaugh said. "He can barely control himself."
Later Monday, still on the air, Limbaugh would apologize, but reaction to his statements from Parkinson's experts and Fox's supporters was swift and angry.
After his apology, Limbaugh shifted his ground and renewed his attack on Fox.
"Now people are telling me they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial," Limbaugh said, according to a transcript on his Web site. "All right then, I stand corrected. . . . So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."
Then Limbaugh pivoted to a different critique: "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democratic politician."
The Fox ad has triggered a backlash, with some criticizing it as exploitive. Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh claimed Fox was "either off his medication or acting," though he later apologized.
Dr. John Boockvar, a neurosurgeon and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical Center at New York's Presbyterian Hospital, called Limbaugh's claim "ludicrous." Boockvar said those with Parkinson's have "on" and "off" spells.
"If there is one single disease that has the highest potential for benefit from stem cell research," Boockvar said Tuesday, "it's Parkinson's."
From the 3 p.m. ET hour of the October 25 edition of CNN Newsroom:
LEMON: We should note that Rush Limbaugh offered an apology, saying: "Now, people are telling me that they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial. All right, then, I stand corrected. ... So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and will apologize to Michael J. Fox if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."
Now, after his apology, Limbaugh added this: "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited, and in the process, he is shilling for a Democratic politician."