Right-wing talkshow host Rush Limbaugh has been one of the loudest, brashest voices on US radio for almost three decades. But has he finally managed to go too far this time? By REBECCA DAVIS.
It’s hard to think of a South African commentator who occupies a similar position in the public space as America’s Rush Limbaugh. Gareth Cliff has on occasion caused whiffs of the of controversy. But Cliff is too liberal to be compared to Limbaugh in any meaningful way.
Perhaps a closer fit would be someone like Jon “Call me names, but gay is not okay” Qwelane (now a diplomat), or David “Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing” Bullard – though neither can boast the kind of public platform Limbaugh has. The truth is that it’s almost impossible to imagine someone like Limbaugh being allowed to command the airwaves as a media personality in post-apartheid South Africa for very long.
The UK has a somewhat comparable figure to Limbaugh in Top Gear‘s Jeremy Clarkson, with his endless jibes at poor people, immigrants and virtually any cultures other than white British. Our own Sipho Hlongwane last year made the point that “political correctness is often capable of unwanted consequences, such as turning Jeremy Clarkson (or Julius Malema, for that matter) into a talisman for freedom of speech”. South Africa, Hlongwane suggested, is running the risk of becoming “a society where free speech and thought has taken a back seat to almost every other lefty philosophy”.
That may be the case in South Africa, as our current Limbaugh-less-ness suggests, but it clearly isn’t the case in America. Rush Limbaugh is the most successful radio talkshow host in the US by miles. His daily show is syndicated to 600 radio stations, and he averaged 13.2-million listeners a week as of spring 2011.
What is the key to his success? If you ignore the content of what he is saying, Limbaugh is by most accounts a technically-accomplished talkshow host: engaging, quick-witted, a good mimic. Although nearly deaf, he has the ability to take complex political issues and translate them into the concerns that appeal to his constituents. A Commentary Magazine profile of Limbaugh in February last year suggested: “He transmutes the anger and frustration of millions of Americans into something more constructive.”
Of course, Limbaugh also courts controversy in the way of any DJ with an eye on his ratings should. But given the number of shockingly offensive soundbites Limbaugh has come out with in the past, his continuing popularity is quite troubling, at least from a liberal perspective. Though way back in 2003, The Boston Globe put it thus: “Limbaugh’s popularity is symbolic of a US that still quietly buys into his stereotypes”. And those stereotypes come thick and fast.
As a young talkshow host in the 70s he once reportedly told a black female caller to “take the bone out of your nose and call me back”. When a Mexican runner won the New York Marathon, Limbaugh quipped: “An immigration agent chased him the last 10 miles”. Just after his show became nationally syndicated in the early 90s, he said: “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” A few years earlier, he said of black Americans: “They’re 12% of the population. Who the hell cares?”
His record on gender has been as problematic as on race. One of his favourite targets are the “femi-Nazis”, which is a term he seems to whip out to describe anyone remotely in favour of women’s rights. In 2004, commenting on anti-sexual harassment advocates, he said: “They’re out there protesting what they actually wish would happen to them sometimes.” When Hillary Clinton launched her presidential bid in 2007 it provided Limbaugh with endless fodder for sexism. He once referred to Clinton as a “B-I-T-C-H” and asked, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”
Through all this, his advertisers appear to have stuck by him. But last week Limbaugh appears to have taken a step too far (although over a rather arbitrary boundary, given his past utterances). In the context of the current war raging between Democrats and Republicans on the subject of birth control, a Georgetown law student called Sandra Fluke testified to congress in support of Obama’s proposed plan to have employers, and institutions like universities and hospitals, foot the bill for contraceptives. Fluke was considered an appropriate person to testify on this subject because she had previously served as president of the university’s Students for Reproductive Justice group.
Early last week, Limbaugh decided to make Fluke emblematic of all his objections to the provision of birth control and to Obama’s healthcare proposals in general. The form this took was a “brutally sexualised” (to quote one commentator) rant against Fluke. “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan[sic] Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex?” he asked. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”
Limbaugh is attacking a straw man – the current proposals tabled by Democrats do not require taxpayers to cover the costs of contraception, but employers. One example Fluke cited in her testimony was that of a friend who needed to be on the pill to control her ovarian cysts, but could not afford the monthly cost. But what seems to have caused most offence was the use of the descriptions “slut” and “prostitute” to describe a woman lobbying for the right to control her reproductive health.
Limbaugh didn’t stop there. Last Thursday he extended the money-for-sex analogy. “If we are 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,” he said.
A backlash (predictably led by left social media) ensued, with the Twitter hashtag #BoycottRush used to mobilise support for advertisers to pull their business from Limbaugh’s show. By Saturday, six companies had pulled ads, and Limbaugh was forced to issue a written apology. He described his choice of words as “not the best” and said that “in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir”. He added: “I sincerely apologize to Ms Fluke for the insulting word choices”.
On Monday the number of companies withdrawing advertising had reached 10. “We have monitored the unfolding events and have determined that Mr Limbaugh’s comments are not in line with our values”, ran a statement by US Internet giant AOL. “As a result we have made the decision to suspend advertising on the Rush Limbaugh show.”
On Monday Limbaugh continued apologising on his show – although managed to work in a swipe at the left. “I acted too much like the leftists who despise me,” he said. “I descended to their level, using names and exaggerations to describe Sandra Fluke. It was wrong, and that’s why I’ve apologised.”
None of this could have happened at a better time for the Democrats, both in terms of the contraception proposals and an election year. While Republicans are now scrambling to distance themselves from Limbaugh, that will be hard: the talk-show host is virtually synonymous with the party. Veteran Republican strategist Mary Matalin was quoted by the Daily Beast, “The Republicans would not have ascended to the majority in 1994 without Rush Limbaugh. There wouldn’t be a moderate conservative movement without Rush Limbaugh. There would not be a voice for the flyover country in mainstream America without Rush, and there will be no victories in the fall without Rush.”
The ability of Limbaugh to make or break a Republican presidential candidate probably explains why all four of the men currently running for the Republican nomination stopped short of harsh criticism of Limbaugh following the Fluke debacle. Mitt Romney would only say, “It’s not the language I would have used.” Newt Gingrich dismissed the media storm over Limbaugh as indicative of “desperation of the elite media” to avoid other issues. Ron Paul said, “He used very crude language, and I think he gets over the top at times.” Rick Santorum opined: “He’s being absurd. But, you know, an entertainer can be absurd.”
In these statements is a deference to Limbaugh’s kingmaker ability and an uncertainty about where Limbaugh currently stands with the public outside the “elite media” leading the backlash. But Politico reports Limbaugh’s popularity among Republicans has also taken a distinct battering following the Fluke incident. A Public Polling Survey taken among Republican primary voters in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia found significant dips in Limbaugh’s popularity since the last poll, when Limbaugh was viewed favourably by 80% of Republicans. Only 45% now see him favourably in Ohio, 46% in Tennessee and 44% in Georgia. His most significant dips in support were among women.
But the public have short memories and few media pundits believe this is anywhere near the death-knell for Limbaugh. For Limbaugh’s lefties, perhaps it would be sufficient revenge to see Barack Obama elected for a second term this year despite Limbaugh’s very vocal opposition to a president he once mocked by playing a song called Barack The Magic Negro. A second term for Obama would be a bitter pill for Limbaugh who, when asked for comment on Obama’s first term, said he could sum it up in four words: “I hope he fails”. DM
- Can Limbaugh survive advertiser boycott? On the BBC.
Photo: Radio show host Rush Limbaugh. REUTERS/Micah Walter.
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