Right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s lascivious rant against Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who testified to Congress on the subject of contraception last month, continues to provoke controversy.
A media campaign has taken off around the Twitter hashtag #BoycottRush, with more companies heeding the call to pull ads from his radio show every day (The Atlantic is keeping a running tally here). By Wednesday, 38 companies, including AOL, Netflix and CapitalOne had cancelled their ads, according to a list compiled by MediaMatters.org; other sources put that figure above 50. The show has also been dropped by two stations: 1420 AM WBEC in Pittsfield Massachusetts and KPUA-AM 670 in Hawaii. And musician Peter Gabriel, whose song “Sledgehammer” was actually playing in the background during the tirade in question has asked Limbaugh to stop using his music in a statement on Facebook.
Rush apologised again on Monday, but once again expressed contrition for the words he had used, rather than for the equally offensive meaning behind them. He also took the opportunity to take a swipe at the “leftists”, whose level he feared he had descended to. Fluke appeared on ABC talk show The View, and said she did not accept this apology, noting that Rush had insulted her and the women of Georgetown no less than 53 times. Her fellow students at Georgetown had a mixed response to events, though some feared speaking their minds would attract similarly unwanted attention.
No one likes a ‘gout-ridden white supremacist’. John Cook described Rush on Gawker.com as a “distended gout-ridden white supremacist who ruined his hearing with illegal prescription pain-killers” and likened his behaviour to internet trolling. Adam Serwer on MotherJones.com pointed out that Rush’s comments betrayed a complete lack of understanding of basic reproductive biology. On Tuesday night’s Colbert Report, fake conservative newsman Stephen Colbert tore Rush’s “logic” to pieces, arguing that Limbaugh was the true prostitute, his insincere apologies proving that “he would do anything with his mouth for cash”.
Rush continues to hate women. Gawker’s Cook pointed out that this latest outrage simply underscores the assertion that “Rush Limbaugh obviously and unambiguously hates women.” Erin Gloria Ryan reported on feminist blog Jezebel.com that this week, Rush attacked another “overeducated” unmarried young woman on his show, author Tracy McMillan, a recent college grad whose book on how America eats is gaining her attention. Asked Rush, “What is it with all of these young single white women? Overeducated doesn’t mean intelligent.”
Republican response derided as weak. Many commentators felt that responses by the pack of would-be Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, lacked the necessary punch. As Greg Sargent commented in The Washington Post, Republicans are finding it almost impossible to fully repudiate Rush without appearing to be surrendering to the liberal media who are pressuring them to do so.
Liberals no innocents in the “war on women”. But while the “liberal” media continues to shame Rush for his apparent hatred of women, Kirsten Powers of the The Daily Beast pointed out that liberal media types are equally guilty of sexism. Powers, who served in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1998, listed prominent liberal talking heads Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, and Ed Schultz amongst liberals guilty of their own misogynist outbursts.
Defending Rush. But while conservatives aren’t exactly circling the wagons to protect one of their own, some are leaping to Rush’s defense. Sarah Palin, for one, sees the whole kerfuffle as evidence of a liberal media plot. She told CNN: “I think the definition of hypocrisy is for Rush Limbaugh to have been called out, forced to apologize and retract what it is that he said in exercising his First Amendment rights and never is that the same applied to the leftist radicals who say such horrible things about the handicapped, about women, about the defenseless.”
However, Rush may weather the storm. Rush’s show is broadcast on over 600 stations nationwide to up to 20 million weekly listeners; with those kinds of numbers, industry pundits such as Talkers publisher Michael Harrison believe Rush will survive. Moreover, David Badash pointed out on thenewcivilrightsmovement.com that “suspending advertising does not mean permanently quitting.” And Rush has survived similar controversies before: Lowlights include accusing Michael J. Fox of exaggerating the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease; suggesting soldiers who disagreed with the Iraq war were “phonies” and airing a song by Paul Shanklin entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” (same tune as Puff the Magic Dragon). When the orange juice he was promoting was boycotted by the Gay and Lesbian Americans and the National Organization for Women, Limbaugh fans fought back with organised “buycotts”. He has said so many outrageous things that you could write a book about them. Oh wait, somebody did!
Different this time? But the power of social media has grown exponentially in the last few years and online campaigns have successfully taken down Fox News’s Glenn Beck and The News of the World. Simon Dumenco, media correspondent and columnist for Advertising Age told the BBC: “pre-Facebook and Twitter, [this] would have died down quicker.” He credits the social media-driven pressure for Rush’s rare apology. The BBC‘s Brian Wheeler also quoted Brian Stelter, media correspondent for the New York Times, who commented that social media allows the public to contact companies direct and that those companies, who now spend millions on managing their online reputations, must take notice. Advertisers will weigh the number of complaints they receive against the audience they reach on Limbaugh’s show.
Could this help Rush? The controversy might even temporarily boost his audience, argued the Washington Post, as curious non-listeners join his loyal supporters, known as “dittoheads”. Meanwhile, a $10,000 bust of Rush was commissioned by Missouri State House Speaker, Steven Tilley, for the Missouri Capitol’s “Hall of Famous Missourians,” where he will be joined by President Harry Truman; authors Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom in 1857. Missouri Democrats have pledged to stop the sculpture, which is due to be unveiled in May.
The most potent political tool is the OFF button. In a piece on the Washington Times website Gayle Lynn Falkenthal pointed out that the only way to stop Limbaugh is to turn off the radio – more eloquent than any amount of Tweeting, this is the democratic way to vote him out of media office.