Rush Limbaugh’s personal attacks on the law student Sandra Fluke as “slut” and “prostitute” for advocating for insurance coverage of contraception is causing political blowback to conservatives. Leftist activists have mobilized to boycott his sponsors. As of Monday, eight advertisers have pulled out of Limbaugh’s show, including AOL. Is Limbaugh repeating Glenn Beck’s mistakes?
Both the left and right have their fair share of fear-mongering, provocation, and misogyny. Limbaugh in particular has made a career out of controversial remarks and never apologized. This time though, after three days of insistent attacks on Fluke, Limbaugh issued a public apology for “the insulting word choices.” Of course, such cursory effort did little to quell activists’ furors.
Limbaugh’s story runs parallel to Glenn Beck’s attacks on President Barack Obama two and a half years ago. On July 28th 2009, Beck made the claim that Obama has “deep-seated hatred of white people” and continued to call him “racist” the next day. Beck apologized and had a one-week on-air disappearance, which was speculated to be a suspension. As a result of boycotting from liberal groups, most notably Color of Change, advertisers started to back away from his show. Although Fox News’ net gain was not affected as advertisers were only moved to other spots, the news conservative channel had decided to stop endorsing Beck’s messages as CEO Roger Ailes responded in an interview with the Associated Press: “…That story of what's going on and why America is in trouble today, I think he told that story as well as could be told. Whether you can just keep telling that story or not ... we're not so sure.” On his last show, Glenn Beck admitted that his attacks on Obama were his biggest mistake.
Limbaugh is similar to Beck in many aspects. First, his influence in the Republican Party is enormous, as David Frum explained on CNN: “Among TV and radio talkers and entertainers, there is none who commands anything like the deference that Limbaugh commands from Republicans: not Rachel Maddow, not Jon Stewart, not Michael Moore, not Keith Olbermann at his zenith.”
Thus, when his message caused national outrage, harm was also done for the GOP. Second, it is strategically disastrous to attack a student and, even worse, to reframe the argument on contraception instead of the First Amendment and religious liberty. As no company would associate its branding to calling the president “racist,” neither would they with the attacks on college kids.
Radio hosts and TV anchors depend on ratings, not public approvals. However, accountability still exists, albeit in the abysmally low standard of cable TV and radio. David Letterman spent seven minutes apologizing to Sarah Palin for calling her a “slutty flight attendant” while Ed Schultz apologized in person and on-air to Laura Ingraham, in addition to being suspended for a week without pay from MSNBC. Limbaugh’s insincere apology only exacerbated the damages his “word choice” has done to his career.
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