On Monday, CNN Newsroom anchor Rick Sanchez reported as fact that radio host Rush Limbaugh had uttered a "racist diatribe" on the "merits" of slavery. "He once declared that had 'Slavery built the South. I'm not saying we should bring it back; I'm just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark,' said Limbaugh," Sanchez told his audience.
But Sanchez cited no source for the quote other than a vague caption of "Rush Limbaugh on the Radio" in the accompanying on-screen graphic, and Limbaugh had on his show that day already explicitly denied he ever said it before Sanchez ever went on the air.
But on Tuesday's show, Sanchez did not retract his use of the quote or provide any evidence that Limbaugh said it. Instead, he briefly summarized Limbaugh's denial - claiming "we want to be fair to Rush" - before suggesting that whether or not CNN got its facts right is irrelevent: "Obviously, that does not take away the fact that there are other quotes which have been attributed to Rush Limbaugh, which many people in the African-American community and many other minority communities do find offensive."
Earlier on Tuesday, MRC President Brent Bozell had challenged  CNN (and MSNBC) executives to document the source of the inflammatory quote or they are "100% guilty of character assassination." Sanchez did not provide any evidence that the quote is genuine.
The quote seems to have originated with pranksters who tampered with Limbaugh's Wikipedia page  several years ago, and migrated into a left-wing book published in 2006, 101 People Who Are Really Screwing America . The book had no footnote documenting the date on which Limbaugh had supposedly uttered the remark. Recently, the quote was cited by St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports writer Bryan Burwell in an October 7 column  about Limbaugh's joint effort to purchase the St. Louis Rams. Other sports writers soon cited the quote as well, including Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp writing in the October 12 USA Today .
On Monday's Newsroom, Sanchez used the inflammatory quote in a discussion of Limbaugh's bid for the Rams, pairing it with a genuine quote from 2003:
Limbaugh is a big football fan and for a very brief time in 2003, he got a commentator's job on ESPN. He lost that job after he suggested that Philadelphia Eagle's quarterback, Donovan McNabb, was overrated because he's black.
Here's what he said, he said, "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve."
By the way, I should let you know that McNabb has turned out to be a legitimate NFL superstar quarterback. Limbaugh's perceived racist diatribes are too many to name but here's a sampling: He once declared that had "Slavery built the South. I'm not saying we should bring it back; I'm just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark," said Limbaugh.
But before Sanchez had even uttered his smear, Limbaugh had categorically denied it  on his radio show:
There's a quote out there that I first saw it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week that I somehow, some time ago, defended slavery and started cracking jokes about it. And, you know, you say a lot of things in the course of 15 hours a week, over the course of 21 years. We've gone back, we have looked at everything we have. There is not even an inkling that any words in this quote are accurate. It's outrageous, but it's totally predictable. It's being repeated by people who have never listened to this program, they certainly didn't hear it said themselves because it was never said.
On Tuesday's show, Sanchez relayed Limbaugh's denial, but neither agreed that CNN should not have aired the quote nor defended the quote by citing a source. Instead, he seemed to argue that the larger criticism of Limbaugh as racially divisive was still intact - sort of like Dan Rather's twisted defense of his 2004 hit piece  on George W. Bush a year after the fact: "I believed in the story, and the facts of the story were correct. One supporting pillar of the story, albeit an important one, one supporting pillar was brought into question. To this day no one has proven whether it was what it purported to be or not....The story is accurate."
Journalism 101: If the facts are false, the story is false.
Here's Sanchez' on the October 13 Newsroom, as transcribed by MRC's Matthew Balan:
SANCHEZ: Rush Limbaugh [has] been getting a lot of heat lately. Some people are saying it's not fair at all. All he has said is that he wants to own a NFL franchise, the St. Louis Rams. Much of the criticism has come from some NFL players, who are actually saying, we're not willing to play for somebody like that because he has been divisive.
But one of the quotes that has been attributed to Rush Limbaugh is the one about him saying that 'slavery built the South, and I'm not saying that we should bring it back.. I'm just saying that it had it's merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark.'
Among the news organizations that reported that yesterday was our show, at 3 o'clock. Limbaugh's response to this is- and we want to be fair to Rush- he says, 'We've gone back. We have looked at everything else, and there is not even an inkling that any of the words in that quote are accurate. It is outrageous.' So Rush Limbaugh is denying that that quote has come from him.
Obviously, that does not take away the fact that there are other quotes which have been attributed to Rush Limbaugh, which many people in the African-American community and many other minority communities do find offensive. Nonetheless, it is a major controversy, not only in sports, but it's also entered the news arena, when members of the NFL Players Association came out yesterday and said, they, too, were going to tell the commissioner that he should not allow Rush Limbaugh to own a team.
It's at least some progress for CNN to note that Limbaugh disputes the accuracy of the quote, but putting such a racially inflammatory quote on the air in the first place without knowing if it is true is truly irresponsible journalism. Faced with Limbaugh's denials, Sanchez should either prove he's right to cite it, or retract it.
-Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center.