Rush Limbaugh’s foes are striking back at his talk show empire beginning Thursday via anti-Limbaugh ads scheduled to run in eight cities. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters says it will spend at least $100,000 on the effort, which highlights Mr. Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” in an attempt to get local stations to drop his show.
One of the ads urges listeners to call and tell Limbaugh’s affiliates that “we don’t talk to women like that” in our city, according to the Associated Press.
Hmmm. Is this campaign a waste of money – or the coup de grace for a career teetering on the edge?
First, we’ll note that the ads are the latest salvo in an escalating war between Limbaugh and Media Matters itself. The liberal group has been instrumental in organizing an advertiser boycott of Limbaugh on social media, providing lists of target firms and contact phone numbers.
In a March 20 opinion piece in Politico, Media Matters founder David Brock asserted that the sponsor exodus has “disintegrated” Limbaugh’s business model. Well over 100 companies have taken steps to make sure they aren’t associated with Limbaugh’s show, Mr. Brock wrote.
Limbaugh’s harsh attack on Fluke was unprecedented even for him, according to Brock.
“It is for that reason that Media Matters, along with numerous other groups, have begun to educate advertisers about the damage their financial support of Limbaugh’s program can do to their brands,” wrote Brock.
As a practical matter, Media Matters’ increasingly visible attacks on Limbaugh have allowed the talk show host to reframe the controversy to a certain point. Instead of his harsh words against a young, female private citizen, the issue Limbaugh takes on now is the attempt by a group that’s taken money from liberal icon George Soros to force him off-air. It’s a battleground on which Limbaugh appears to feel more comfortable.
“Media Matters and the Democrat National Committee and the Democrat Party are exposing themselves,” Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday. “This is an unintended consequence. They’re exposing that their Astroturf campaigns are not grassroots at all.... They are totally professionally created and executed Democrat Party opposition research-type attacks. And they have nothing to do with consumers.”
Second, demanding that Limbaugh wholeheartedly apologize is one thing. Demanding that he stop speaking is another. Liberal comedian Bill Maher has noted on his Twitter feed that he dislikes advertiser boycotts – perhaps due to his own controversial comments – and he is not alone. An opinion piece earlier this month from feminist icons Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan pushing for the FCC to kick Rush off US airwaves drew negative comments from many quarters. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf warned of a political escalation that could result in “attempts by the left and right to use speech codes as a cudgel against opponents”.
Third, the increasing heat of the presidential campaign will affect the anti-Limbaugh cause to some degree, perhaps further allowing the talk show host to divert attention from his particular anti-Fluke diatribe.
You’ll note that Limbaugh himself links Media Matters and the Democratic Party together in the same breath. Meanwhile, Media Matters criticizes not just Limbaugh, but what the group terms his “conservative cheerleaders” among GOP-leaning pundits.
The further the controversy drifts from the harm done to a particular person, the more likely the chances that Limbaugh emerges from the controversy financially intact. Will his influence diminish, given advertisers’ newfound wariness of controversial speech? That might be the real question going forward.
Meanwhile, the more time Rush spends talking about Media Matters, the less he spends attacking President Obama. It’s possible that will be a main effect, inadvertent or otherwise, of the anti-Rush ad campaign.
“We have to wonder how all of this is actually plain ol’ politics. We’re heading toward the presidential election and Rush’s focus has been taken off his usual ball, onto his own crisis,” writes Carl Marcucci of the media trade publication RBR-TVBR.com on Thursday.