February 18, 2021

Obituaries for notable figures are written years, sometimes decades, in advance. News organizations don’t want to scramble when someone in the public eye dies. When Rush Limbaugh announced in February 2020 that he had advanced lung cancer, obit desks around the world likely made sure they had an obit prepared.

Presuming that Limbaugh’s obituary was likely ready long before his death Wednesday — and that editors had a chance to review their words before publishing — it’s surprising that some of the news stories deemphasized a key part of his legacy: his racist vitriol.

He had wide influence as an undisputed conservative radio icon. He was known for punching down: He disputed that North American Indigenous populations were victims of genocide, depicted Black people as criminals, equated illegal immigration from Mexico to the storming of Normandy, and made a mockery of Asian languages.

The Associated Press — whose content is picked up by newsrooms around the world — reported that “Limbaugh was frequently accused of bigotry and blatant racism through his comments and sketches.”

AP did not need to hedge that detractors accused him of hateful commentary. AP updated its style in 2019 so that when something is racist, it can be called that. Avoiding plain language reminds me of when Donald Trump said that four congresswomen should “go back” where they came from. The linguistic debate affecting news coverage in mid-2019 was focused on determining the intent of the speaker rather than the impact of the speech.

News media should responsibly report the totality of someone’s influence on the day they die. There’s limited air time, and most readers aren’t looking for an in-depth biography. The opening paragraph — or first moments of a broadcast — telegraph to the audience what you really think. Limbaugh was not a misunderstood broadcaster who happened to have a large platform. He was someone who knew how to wield his power and used it to inflame passions. It’s irresponsible to not clearly flag his history of racism, bigotry, misogyny and homophobia in the same breath as discussing his impact on conservatism.

Some news organizations slowly led up to Limbaugh’s history of racist speech. CNN doesn’t explicitly mention Limbaugh’s racist commentary, though it notes his role in spreading the debunked birtherism conspiracy about Barack Obama. Forty seconds into the embedded 3-minute clip, the reporter says “critics blasted him for racist, sexist and other offensive speech.”

Digital media outlets were more forceful. They used headlines to immediately tell the reader the whole story. HuffPost called Limbaugh the “Bigoted King of Talk Radio”; Vox noted his “toxic legacy.” HuffPost’s obit was powerful because it told readers upfront that “cruel bigotries, lies and conspiracy theories” were Limbaugh’s trade the past 30 years.

Limbaugh is far from the only individual whose controversy in life was glossed over in death. Obituaries for George H.W. Bush were criticized for depicting him only as a politician known for graciousness. He was also elected president on a platform that stoked fears based on racial stereotypes. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t necessarily a champion for racial justice and tribal sovereignty, but those actions are brushed aside to support the narrative of a feminist icon.

News obituaries have a duty to reflect the truth even if it’s not flattering for the subject. That’s when the truth matters most. To neglect Limbaugh’s long history of othering and gaslighting people of color is to let him continue to control the narrative.

The truth about someone’s life isn’t necessarily what their most ardent supporters want to acknowledge — that’s what separates a news article from an obituary paid for by loved ones. People are complicated. Those who actively sought out controversy should be remembered for how they shifted the discourse. News organizations have a responsibility to avoid perpetuating power inequities. A fuller accounting of harms — when relevant — is one way toward creating a more complete history.

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As director of training and diversity at Poynter, Doris Truong is responsible for overseeing in-person training — at the institute and in newsrooms — as…
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