Rush Limbaugh has apparently angered many people who typically don’t listen to him with comments about the presumed sexual habits of a Georgetown law student and the prospect of using public money to pay for her contraceptives.
The comments, in and of themselves, are indefensible. They were in poor taste. Mr Limbaugh has apologized for them and frankly, in terms of what is to be discussed here, their specific bent and subject have little more relevance, save for their “demeaning” nature, which will be discussed later.
What interests me is the reaction. A call for a boycott of sponsors. Calling Limbaugh a “dummy” for a perceived lack of knowledge of how some forms of birth control work while musing about his supposedly considerable role in shaping public sentiment on such issues. Both are implicit nods his massive audience base and a perpetual reputation for being “inflammatory”.
What we find next is that a schism of logic and aims in this topic opens. It is easy to say that Limbaugh’s continued popularity after a quarter century is at least in part based on the “inflammatory” nature of his commentary. After said quarter century, it is fair to declare him an institution, however painful that declaration may be for some to hear. As such, his pull and cast shadow on multiple facets of our media should be considered beyond his daily audience and his ability to shape their opinions.
It is noted above that Rachel Maddow spent half of her Friday program declaring Limbaugh a “dummy”. It is noted above that Huffington Post blogger/MSNBC contributor Krystal Ball called for the boycott mentioned. While the Huffington Post does make fair disclosure that their parent company is one of Limbaugh’s sponsors, it opens the door to the train of thought I expressed in an earlier piece about the symbiotic relationship between the two ends of the political spectrum structuring media.
It is not hard to think of the uproar over Don Imus’ quips about the Rutgers women’s basketball team (while his program was simulcast on MSNBC, which they quickly dropped in the wake of that debacle) from just a few years back at this point, which effectively cost him a job. It is not hard to expect the blowback, reminding us of the past comments from the likes of Ed Schultz and Bill Maher, where the repercussions, when any, were modest. But all of these are beside the point. It is not the retort, the juxtaposition of the pot calling the kettle black that bothers me.
What is important is a sentiment that I heard voiced during the Imus uproar, which deserves to be built on. We see in in these articles as well as other sources, words like “controversial” and “inflammatory” used to describe Limbaugh, Imus, Glenn Beck et al for years. The words precede them, are a part of their reputation. Maher rose to fame hosting Politically Incorrect, a title marinated in the prospect of controversy via the presumed bluntness of opinion. The point is, as in the case of Imus, in a strictly insensitive sense it is rather odd for a network or other medium to hire, market and maintain a talent with such qualities, only to jettison and punish them for exhibiting exactly the kind of behavior that has been their major- if not their prime- selling point. Its what both got Rush hired and fired by ESPN several years back.
This practice, as morally feeble as it is, approaches the inherit difficulty in any commentary about the case of Rush Limbaugh. We watch Maddow and company (including Schultz) on MSNBC and use terms such as “dummy” to describe Limbaugh while bemoaning his role in appealing and shaping conservative thought. We see the Huffington Post run articles condemning him and calls for a boycott against his sponsors. Yet as we consider the above, we have to wonder: MSNBC’s sister network, NBC proper, has recently begun airing episodes of America’s Got Talent featuring new judge Howard Stern after a lengthy advertising campaign. Stern’s career- which one could fairly describe as another broadcasting institution (and given his self-styled “King of All Media” title, one he wouldn’t argue with), regardless of how the reader feels about it- is not just scraped by or even mired in controversy; it is practically based in controversy, much of it characterized in the same general vein as Limbaugh’s comments. NBC appears on one hand to not only be inviting the inflammatory, but banking on Stern creating a stir while their sister network’s pundits offer a list of Limbaugh’s offenses in poor taste and judgment.
And while Maddow muses for thirty minutes over Limbaugh’s perceived lack of knowledge on the underlying birth-control issue and the potential damage it could cause, while Ed Shultz’s web-page asks how many people would listen to a radio station that continues to carry The Rush Limbaugh Show in the wake of this furor, the world of Facebook and Twitter are littered with links and commentary on this story, not by and from actual Limbaugh listeners, but largely by and from people who never listen to the show. Particulars aside, this was just another day at the office for the MSNBC talent and staff, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are not actually speaking to the audience that matters to their argument: the Rush Limbaugh “ditto-heads”. No thought seems to be given in Maddow’s commentary that virtually everyone watching her opinion of Limbaugh’s failure to “understand what he’s talking about” already classified him as a “dummy” or that hardly anyone seeing Schultz’s poll actually listens to conservative talk radio already. Bemoaning Limbaugh’s influence on conservationism only highlights their network’s virtual non-desire to seriously engage and sway such a large audience in an effective manner, even though that is exactly what they hope to gain by using such rhetoric.
AOL, meanwhile, attempted to have the best of both worlds. Until they suspended their commercials on Rush’s program, one had to wonder about the tactic of advertising on there while having the Huffington Post under their umbrella- a site, like MSNBC, built in large part on ridiculing the Right and obviously Limbaugh by default, if not always directly. By having an interest in two sides engaged in continuous sniping, AOL had the potential to gin up both the effectiveness of its advertising and keep the Huffington Post relevant to many non-liberals, if only to raise Rush’s ire.
But now there is a boycott, effectively self-inflicted . While its own opinion arm may reap short-term benefits, AOL itself lost a major outlet for advertising, as there are few if any real rivals to the numbers Limbaugh has consistently put up. The Post itself may have made one of the few morally honest choices in this situation by calling out its parent company, but we are still left to wonder about the others pulling their ads in the wake of a boycott that is largely being participated in by people who never listen to the Limbaugh show, and by logic, their advertisements. The threat of a boycott under these conditions appears rather blunted and stymied under this light.
Yes, it is possible for even the “inflammatory” to cross the line. Yes, it is fair for them to face repercussions when they do. But when an institution stumbles, who and what gets affected- and how- can be truly breathtaking.