Robin Williams’ tragic suicide has affected the nation in a dark way as everyone tries to understand how a man who brought so much joy to so many people could have taken his own life in apparent despair. But while many are contemplating answers to suicide and depression, others in the media are trying to sensationalize the issue for ratings and shock value. The latest in that unsavory list is Rush Limbaugh, the conservative shock jock whose show boasts 15 million daily viewers. Limbaugh discussed the famed actor and comedian’s suicide on Monday on his radio show. He was purportedly trying to make sense the event, but his actual aim was to blame the liberal world view. According to him, liberals are unhappy and never satisfied with what they have, which led to the depression which deprived Williams of life. There are many despicable story angles being taken by the media on Robin Williams’ death, but Rush Limbaugh blatantly tried to politicize the issue in a way that many people have found unconscionable.
On Monday’s program, Limbaugh weighed in on the biggest news in the world. He read reports from various news sources including one by FOX News which claimed that Williams had financial trouble and survivor’s guilt. The conservative news site reported an anonymous source which claimed that he felt the death of friends Christopher Reeve, Andy Kaufman and John Belushi keenly. According to the source, “He was a sensitive soul who struggled with the unfairness of it all.” The conclusion of the news report was that it was a combination of financial and emotional pressures that finally led Williams to take his own life.
Jumping from that report, Limbaugh offered his own theory on the reasons for the tragic loss. On survivor’s guilt, he said, “That is a constant measurement that is made by political leftists in judging the country.” According to him “it fits a certain picture, or a certain image that the left has.” He then went on to expound further on just what exactly that image of the world is according to liberal politics, characterizing it as pessimistic, dark and sad. “They’re never happy, are they?” he concluded. With this analysis in tow, Limbaugh was able to make the correlation between Williams’ political outlook and his decision to commit suicide.
The reaction to such comments has been both angry and disgusted. Comedian Lewis Black, who was a friend of Williams, said on Facebook that Limbaugh’s “statements were beyond cruel and stupid. They were intolerable.” He finished by calling the shock jock an “idiot” and saying he was disgusted by him. Reports on the conservative radio host’s comments have in a similar vein, many focusing on setting the record straight. The FOX News report Limbaugh sited on the show has also been debunked in a couple different ways. Williams’ publicist came out yesterday to say that the financial problems story was “simply false.” Mediaite also noted that Williams’ himself had said he had only talked to Andy Kaufman once out of character. Reports of their friendship and the subsequent survivor’s guilt, then, seem to be largely manufactured for dramatic effect and anything else is speculation.
On Tuesday immediately after the kerfuffle cuased by his comments, Limbaugh again used his time on air to discuss the matter, this time to defend himself. In his version of events, he was simply offering a critique of the media’s coverage of Williams’ suicide. He claimed that he had been misquoted and taken out of context, which he blamed on the left wing media. “What I did was analyze the coverage,” he said. “I didn’t presume to know why Robin Williams committed suicide.” He accused the media of “justifying” and “glorifying” Williams’ suicide, noting that most media coverage of the story was an attempt to explain why it had all happened. Thus, in Rush Limbaugh’s argument, the media was at fault for trying to explain the causes of Williams’ suicide and he was not trying to politicize Robin Williams’ death at all.
There is little doubt that the media coverage of Robin Williams’ story has been lurid and offensive. ABC had to issue an apology for providing live aerial views of Williams’ Bay Area home, a violation of privacy if ever there was one. That coverage has been labeled “ghoulish” and many people are inclined to agree with that characterization. The 24 hour cable news channels have been similarly offensive in their coverage, focusing on the grim details such as how Williams’ committed suicide and even what stage of rigor mortis he was in when found, rather than discussing depression and suicide in broad terms. In providing details of the death, the media has sensationalized Williams’ passing and not engaged in helpful discussion about depression.
Despite the fact of media’s gross coverage, Limbaugh’s defense still does not have the ring of truth about it. The audio of his comments clearly shows him trying to offer an explanation for the suicide in broad terms of worldview which he unequivocally tied to politics. By connecting Williams’ liberal political leanings with a depressive view of the world, the shock jock made it about politics. When he said, “They are never happy” about liberals, he was including Williams’ in that broad category. Additionally, in both his initial comments and his defense there was little discussion of any media other than a left wing version of media which Limbaugh is famous for criticising. That kind of combative partisanship points to a political agenda, not a sincere attempt to discuss how depression robs people of life.
Speculation about the reasons behind someone’s suicide is often a part of the grieving process for the friends and family of suicide victims. In the case of Robin Williams, a whole nation is in mourning, trying to make sense out of the loss of a beloved entertainer. The media plays a role in trying to come to that understanding and in many cases it does so badly. Williams’ publicist gave perhaps the best advice for sensitive media coverage when she said, “We encourage your focus be on working to help others and understand depression.” Using that advice as a measure, it is clear that too many media outlets have fallen short of that goal, including Limbaugh.
Limbaugh’s discussion, however, falls far below even the worst reporting. His defense was a political diatribe in which he blamed the left wing media for attacking him unfairly, not n apology for any offense given, whether it was intentional or not. Even if he had really been trying to analyze media coverage, an apology for the offense he obviously gave to many would have been appropriate. But with the vociferous attempts at self justification in mind, it is difficult to believe he was in earnest about any part of it. With an audience of millions, Limbaugh could be a force for good when it comes to battling depression and suicide, but he has used it to advance a political agenda that has no place in the discussion. Instead of politicizing Robin Williams’ death, Rush Limbaugh and others should be trying to help, not use this tragedy for ratings or a political agenda.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury