MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
This week on NPR, we've heard from a lot of people searching for common ground.
GEORGE W: The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences.
Unidentified Man: The only way to move forward is bipartisanship and openness.
JOHN BOEHNER: Republicans and Democrats can disagree without being disagreeable to each other.
NORRIS: Our series Crossing the Divide explores ways people communicate across differences in politics, religion, business and other areas.
Today, NPR's David Folkenflik has the story of someone with a contrarian view, someone with absolutely no interest in crossing the divide.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Once you know it, you can't mistake that voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Have you seen the video of Hillary sort of talking to Maliki? Laughing it up like a schoolgirl.
FOLKENFLIK: The voice belongs to one of the most famous media figures in America, radio's Rush Limbaugh.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")
LIMBAUGH: You know that cackle that she has, we named that cackle.
FOLKENFLIK: An estimated 13.5 million listeners tune in to the "Rush Limbaugh Show" each week - more than any other radio show in the country. He talks tough and takes unyielding conservative stands. Some critics blame Limbaugh and a crop of imitators for splitting Americans further apart, making it more difficult for people of goodwill to forge a consensus on tricky issues.
In an extensive interview, Limbaugh explains that's not his problem.
LIMBAUGH: I always say my real purpose is to attract the largest audience I can and hold it for as long as I can so I can charge confiscatory advertising rates.
FOLKENFLIK: And that formula has made him a very rich man. But Limbaugh says he is able to make such profits by pursuing his passions, such as politics.
LIMBAUGH: Getting along is not the objective. When it comes to the war on terror, when it comes to tax policy, to me, defeating politically people I disagree with is the order of the day, and I don't think I defeat them by compromising with them.
FOLKENFLIK: You've got to remember, Limbaugh says, there was no Fox News channel when he was coming along and conservatives like him couldn't find their views reflected in the major media. Limbaugh had been a music DJ, but became a talk radio host in Sacramento and New York City. He went national in 1988 and became a standard-bearer for conservative listeners like Jim Stakely(ph). Stakely owns and operates Cheeks Antique Restoration Shop in Gainesville, Florida. Sometimes Limbaugh makes Stakely wince, sometimes he laughs.
JIM STAKELY: Sometimes it's man, I've never thought about that, and then you find yourself, you know, with a power tool, you can't hear him and you can't think but you remember it on the drive home and it spurs discussion once you get home.
FOLKENFLIK: Republican leaders say Limbaugh's ability to energize listeners was a big help to them in winning control of Congress in 1994. Nowadays, the conservative media landscape is far more crowded. But there's no true left of center radio counterpart to Limbaugh. The liberal Air America talk radio network has struggled, and its finances are in shambles. But Rush Limbaugh keeps on going. Even with a changing political landscape, Limbaugh still tells NPR he sees no need to change the format of his show.
LIMBAUGH: I'm the expert. I don't think need to talk to somebody else to find out what's going on.
LIMBAUGH: And that's - I hear you. Uh-huh. That's the mindset and the attitude. I mean there's a whole psychology of doing the program the way that I do it.
FOLKENFLIK: And that often involves barbs aimed directly at liberals. Some feminist leaders become "feminazis." Recently, Limbaugh joked that new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker in U.S. history, might well breastfeed a child sitting on her lap during official ceremonies.
Limbaugh says he's just using humor to make a point. But a rival conservative talk show host, Glenn Beck, says such severe rhetoric only drives people apart.
GLENN BECK: I truly believe it's going to be the death of us. It's going to be the death of our industry. It is going to be the death of our country, if we don't stop dividing ourselves like this. It's not right.
FOLKENFLIK: Beck has TV gigs on CNN and ABC. Despite that criticism, he is unabashed about his own beliefs, and he's taken flak for them.
BECK: There's nothing wrong with pointing our differences. There's nothing wrong with having a heated debate. There's nothing wrong with doing all of those things, even in an entertaining way. But they cannot define you.
FOLKENFLIK: Press critic Tom Rosenstiel agrees with that. He leads the Project for Excellence in Journalism. But he says there is another problem. Limbaugh and other ideological talk show hosts aren't remotely as careful with the facts as the mainstream media outlets they so frequently mock.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Setting aside the question of whether journalists always achieve their goal of being sort of fair and unbiased, if you get a fact wrong, you pay a cost in the news business.
FOLKENFLIK: And Rosenstiel says talk-radio hosts pay little price because that's not their goal.
ROSENSTIEL: They're not there entirely to elevate or energize the public conversation. They're also often members of a team. They're in that netherworld between entertainment, propaganda and journalism.
FOLKENFLIK: That's fine with Limbaugh. He says he's not a journalist. Instead, Limbaugh sees himself as a combatant in what he calls the arena of ideas.
LIMBAUGH: There's no question I am trying to persuade people to agree with me for the express purpose of making them informed, so that when the next opportunity to vote comes up, they do, and they vote in an informed way.
FOLKENFLIK: Crossing that divide? Limbaugh says that's not his problem.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
BLOCK: You can hear more of that interview with Rush Limbaugh and hear other stories in our series at NPR.org.