For conservatives generally, the Limbaugh affair represents an opportunity to reset the terms of the conservative debate on its viral, galvanizing social platform — talk radio — and to come to grips with its shortcomings in the other realm of social media.
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By now you know the back story. Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who was denied the right to speak at the crude facsimile of a contraception hearing sponsored by Rep. Darrel Issa, got her opportunity at a subsequent hearing. Fluke testified eloquently of the need for birth control, invoking not the argument of carnal convenience but making the case for affordable birth control options as part of a full spectrum of tools for the achievement of women’s reproductive rights.
Rush Limbaugh on Feb. 29 asked on the air: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”
He doubled down on March 1, adding, "if we're going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
Limbaugh tripled down during his show on Friday, March 2. "She was not allowed to testify because it was not about women at Georgetown who have so much sex they can't afford birth control," he said.
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The next day, Limbaugh, availing himself of the weekend’s low-information end of the news cycle, backpedals furiously. He issued a rare apology that afternoon, saying he was "sincerely" sorry about his "insulting" characterization of Fluke.
“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. ...
“My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices."
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Another advertiser, the online backup-security company Carbonite, posted a Facebook message announcing plans to end its sponsorship of Limbaugh’s program with a bold personal statement from the CEO.
"No one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well-intentioned young lady," David Friend wrote. "Mr. Limbaugh, with his highly personal attacks on Miss Fluke, overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency. Even though Mr. Limbaugh has now issued an apology, we have nonetheless decided to withdraw our advertising from his show."
By March 6, Stamps.com, Deere & Co., St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Connecticut, Bethesda Sedation Dentistry, Cascades Dental, Allstate, Sears and Bonobos had all reportedly pulled ads from Limbaugh's show. Others that bailed include AutoZone, Bare Escentuals and ProFlowers.
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Huckabee, the affable former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, and now a Fox News Channel commentator, is set to launch “The Mike Huckabee Show” on April 9, under the banner of Cumulus Media, competitor of Clear Channel Communications, which owns Limbaugh’s syndicator, Premier Radio Networks. Huckabee goes up against Limbaugh weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Eastern time, and will initially air on 140 stations,” The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.
But considering what’s happened in the last two weeks, Huckabee may be the beneficiary of uncommonly good timing. There hasn’t been a more clear-cut opportunity to meaningfully capitalize on unanticipated events since the feel-good Beatles landed in a traumatized America in February 1964, about eleven weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy.
"They are going after Rush's affiliates," one radio company executive told Reuters’ Peter Lauria. "They are positioning Huckabee as the safe, non-dangerous alternative to Rush and saying to station owners, 'If you are looking for conservative content, we want you to consider our guy instead of theirs.'"
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From the standpoint of the public’s perception, though, all of this comes too late to change anything. It’s doubtful that Huckabee’s more inclusive, moderate tone can influence in weeks or months the public view of right-wing radio identity that’s been around for decades.
What the Limbaugh debacle also reveals is how dependent the conservatives are about talk-radio, and how they’ve left themselves exposed by their relative ignorance of that other viral platform of our time: social media.
The online social movement against Rush started on March 2, when a blogger named jaybercrow called for action to be taken against Limbaugh advertisers. “Reddit, I believe it is time to organize. Let's take down Rush Limbaugh,” jaybercrow wrote.
The Redditor followed that online cri de Coeur with a list of 14 companies sponsoring Limbaugh’s show, along with their addresses and phone numbers. Others weighed in over the weekend, lending their voices to protest efforts at Facebook and Twitter. Jaybercrow then followed up with a “Phase Two” of the boycott campaign, one intended to focus on small businesses advertising on local radio affiliates.
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Jaybercrow’s bold gambit and its success reflects how the landscape of communications has changed since the heyday of talk radio.
According to MagnaGlobal, a media buying and research division of Interpublic Group of Companies, radio-industry advertising revenues dropped by 25 percent between 2006 and 2011, in part because of the fragile state of the economy, and also because “the medium is struggling” with ad money shifting to “digital channels and TV.” So said Vincent Letang, MagnaGlobal’s director of global forecasting, to The Journal.
Radio’s not the lock on the conservative mind it used to be. But old habits are hard to break. Rush’s passion, sarcasm, hyperbole and vitriol have been intertwined with conservative identity for a long time. Rush Limbaugh spoke for them, he was their champion; Rush said all the things they knew they were thinking and feeling but didn’t dare say themselves out loud.
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So now, Republican lawmakers, candidates and thought leaders who might seek to put a little distance between themselves and Limbaugh can’t do it. That’s why House Speakerphone John Boehner and Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney and the rest can’t or won’t come down on Rush Limbaugh now, when the time demands a willingness to stand on principle.
And they can’t do it for the simplest reason there is: In their minds, to repudiate Rush Limbaugh is to repudiate some bedrock conception of Republican principles, if not the Republican party itself.
So this is the bed they’re in. Rushbo, who jumped into the birth control debate that shouldn’t be one, revealed, with tastelessness and crudity breathtaking even for him, the depth of conservatives’ indifference toward women. Now, as conservative talk radio scrambles to reinvent itself in the wake of a tipping-point moment, what’s revealed is the depth of trouble conservative candidates will encounter when those women go to the polls in November.
Image credits: Rush Limbaugh illustration: Donkey Hotey. Advertisers dropping Limbaugh graphic: MSNBC. Cumulus Media logo: © 2012 Cumulus Media Inc. Huckabee: © 2008 David Ball.