This anti-Limbaugh movement is starting to look like a mob. Other radio personalities without Rush’s bank account or following may pull back from lusty debate for fear they could be the next target of advertiser boycotts. And it will give TV broadcasters one more reason to avoid political speech (or anything else) that would rile viewers and risk unhappy advertisers. Not that they need another reason. Perhaps conditioned from all those years operating under the fairness doctrine, TV stations for the most part have acted as if it were still in effect.
This August, broadcasters across the country will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the FCC’s repeal of the fairness doctrine. Truth is, they won’t celebrate it, but they should. The odious, misnamed regulation discouraged broadcasters from airing their opinions and stood as a symbol of broadcasting’s second-class status.
Free of the impossible obligation to air all sides of every issue they raise, TV and radio stations were suddenly able to speak their minds.
As it turned out, TV stations never really took advantage of the freedom. Radio did. The repeal of the doctrine gave rise to opinion-laden talk radio, mostly of the conservative variety. Better than anyone else, Rush Limbaugh rode the opportunity to wealth and fame and considerable influence within the Republican Party.
Among the reasons I opposed the fairness doctrine was that it was simply superfluous. Extreme speech on the airwaves would be regulated by the marketplace — by viewers and listeners switching channels and by advertisers withdrawing their support. There was absolutely no need for a government role.
Now we are seeing that marketplace regulation in action.
In his almost pathological desire to provoke, Limbaugh called a young woman a “slut” and “prostitute” for advocating insurance coverage of birth control. He picked absolutely the wrong target. Nothing about Sandra Fluke fit the ugly stereotype of liberal women that he has been fostering over the past two decades. Even the president of Jesuit Georgetown University, where she is a law student, rose to her defense.
The marketplace backlash was immediate and powerful. Mainstream advertisers have been abandoning the show to such an extent that show’s syndicator, Clear Channel Communications’ Premiere Networks, called a barter holiday. Local affiliates could fill the national time with whatever they wanted.
The show is now limping along mostly with DR ads for things like indentify theft protection and IRS help.
Much of the reaction has been whipped up by Media Matters, which has strayed beyond its mission statement (exposing conservative misinformation) to try to put the kibosh on a speaker with whom it doesn’t agree. It’s been leading a boycott of Limbaugh’s advertisers. It’s even airing radio ads in eight markets inciting people against their local Limbaugh affiliates.
This anti-Limbaugh movement is starting to look like a mob. Marketplace regulation of speech is looking a little more sinister than it does in theory.
Last week we posted a broadcast editorial that New York radio broadcaster Bill O’Shaughnessy had aired in defense of Limbaugh.
“We broadcasters are ever alert to incursions against free speech from government bureaucrats,” he said. “But censorship from corporate timidity in the face of economic boycotts is just as dangerous as the stifling of creative and artistic expression by government fiat, decree, sanction or regulation.
“You don’t have to be a First Amendment voluptuary to realize this is just as treacherous as any racism, sexism, bigotry or vulgarity.”
He’s got a point.
I have no sympathy or concern for Limbaugh. He’s a demagogue, despite the veneer of reason he tries to layer on his arguments.
I suspect that while he may have lost advertisers, he hasn’t lost many listeners. They like it when he attacks people they don’t like — the stronger the language, the better. Or else why would Limbaugh do it? (I like H.L. Mencken’s definition of a demagogue: “One who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”)
Working under a contract that reportedly pays him in excess of $50 million a year, Limbaugh is a wealthy man. If he is somehow forced off his current show, he could buy his way back onto radio. Or, he could simply slide over to the Web and stream his show from there. It’s not as ubiquitous as radio, but its reach is getting longer every day.
Limbaugh will be silenced only if he decides that he is tired of the game.
But if Limbaugh were chased off the air or even if he suffers financial harm, it would be a victory for the mob, and would stand as a vivid demonstration of how “corporate timidity in the face of economic boycotts” can be used to muzzle or suppress political speech in ad-supported media.
This should concern everybody who cares about free speech.
Other radio personalities without Rush’s bank account or following may pull back from lusty debate for fear they could be the next target of advertiser boycotts. According to Tom Taylor, who covers radio for the respected Taylor on Radio-Info e-newsletter, some advertisers have already begun pulling ads from other shows as a prophylactic measure. Those shows are the collateral damage in the Fluke affair.
And it will give TV broadcasters one more reason to avoid political speech (or anything else) that would rile viewers and risk unhappy advertisers. Not that they need another reason. Perhaps conditioned from all those years operating under the fairness doctrine, TV stations for the most part have acted as if it were still in effect.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].