The Rush To Boycott Rush Is Dangerous

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].

Comments (25)

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Matthew Castonguay says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:04 pm

They’re not boycotting to stifle free speech – they’re boycotting because he’s an ass.

    Christina Perez says:

    March 23, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Right. Rush has every right to make an ass of himself on the air. And advertisers have every right to withdraw advertising support from a serial bloviator misogynist whose time has passed.

Mark Gregory says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:06 pm

This is not a boycott of political speech – How dumb must you be to not see the difference??!!

Bill Thon says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:07 pm

I don’t share the caution here. Rush got caught doing something outside the freedom of speech issue…that of just being a hate monger toward someone, who is not an established public figure or commentator, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute”. It’s hardly entertainment and isn’t enlightening either. Also, I am not interested in seeing a video tape of what he referred to while digging himself a deeper hole. scores of people in the talk business have been fired for much less offenses and somehow with Rush, we need to be taking more stock of the issue? Please, why not make the AM band something more than running a huge support group for bitter white guys that can’t stand a changing world.

Warren Harmon says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Rush is not the object here, FREE CONSERVATIVE SPEECH is under attack caused by the media’s love affair with the corrupt oBAMa administration. HORAY, GO RUSH GO!

Susan Durant says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Harry, i have to agree with you on this one.. I certainly cannot stand up for what Rush said or even for how he tried to re say it… but freedom of speech, yes… Bill Maher said the exact same thing last friday, even though Rush was after him as well.. We are all better off just because Rush is allowed to say it… to be honest, Sandra Fluke’s voice got even louder after Rush spoke.. so in this particular case his foul mouth actually worked against him, and proved the system works!

Brian Bussey says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:27 pm

” In his almost pathological desire to provoke, Limbaugh called a young woman a “slut” and “prostitute. 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 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.”

So we have to defend a demagogue to maintain fairness ? I don’t think so. Nor do I accept your description of the fairness doctrine which was written to force free over the air broadcasters to air BOTH sides of a debate. WHY? Because this is how Public Policy should be formed in a democracy. A small, rich and powerful segment of the American population has been targeted with the longest, most intensive misinformation campaign, in the history of this country. Rush distorts facts. The minnows that come after him are outright liars hiding under the shield of free speech. The result? We are lucky that it only polarization. Why? Because only the right wingers are swimming in guns.

Kevin Wisniewski says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Great piece Harry. Very true. I see a lot of name calling scented with hate in the above comments. We have problems here in America, the discourse has crumbled.

Brian Bussey says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I am so sick of the totally bogus comparisons to Bill Maher. Bill Maher is on a premium tier of pay TV. His distribution is a minute fraction of Rush’s. The broadcast equivalent of gossip.

Eric Koepele says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Mobs are a reality in a social-media-driven world. Big advertisers will always protect their brands and flee the room when the conversation gets too controversial. I agree with Harry that big media companies must be encouraged not to shy away from civic dialogue. Limbaugh’s comments about Fluke are hardly civic dialogue. They are rants from the fringe. Limbaugh’s fate will be determined by his listeners. If they stick by him, the sponsors will be back in three months. He knows that. If they do not return in large enough numbers, he can follow Glenn Beck’s example and move behind a pay wall on the Internet, where Beck has already generated an estimated $40 million in revenue.

Jon Teschner says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Even freedom of speech has its responsibilities. It is one thing to use such foul language against a public figure such as a politician, or celebrity. But to attack an ordinary citizen who is testifying before a congressional body with such a personal defamation of the individual with such language as slut and prostitute and to ask that she send video of her sex acts to him to enjoy, as well as the false statements of the government paying for her contraception is beyond reasonableness and is totally uncalled for in any political debate, regardless of left or right leaning.

BTW: She pays the entire premium, the college doesn’t participate in the premium but only provides the group discount plan for the students, thus is a lie, as well as stating that the more she had sex the more PILLS she had to buy which is also very false, it’s taken only daily for 28 days, not like Viagra – which he got busted for having without a prescription at the airport in 2009 and is paid for by government sponsored health plans.

Personally I strongly defend free speech, but there has to be consequences when you not only lie, but defame an ordinary student in such a way. I also do not support boycotts of radio and TV commentators, but I do think that companies do have a responsibility about protecting their corporate image, and paying for advertising on such a show as Rush can harm their image in the market place. This is not censorship, it is corporate protection as demanded by the market place.

Other actions to silence Rush is a problem, and it is not just the liberals minded that use pressure to silence those they dislike, it is also used by the right-wing minded as well. Mainly against those on the PBS network. Both of these actions are damaging to our first amendment right. Politics does not have to be so nasty toward women as a class, students as a class and others. Policy debate is healthy and should be encouraged, and facts should be check to determine what is false and call out those who state things that are pure lies. Then you have great debate and understanding of the political and social issues. Which is what freedom of speech is all about.

For those who strongly support Rush and his particular language toward this student, would you support him if he used the same words about your wife or daughter and asked them to send in video tape of their sexual activity? I think not, you would be angry and want retribution of Rush for attacking them without cause and with such foul language.

Allyson Mongrain says:

March 23, 2012 at 4:50 pm

To those who would slience anyone, you get Limbaugh, and somebody will Bill Maher, it’s slippery slope. I for one will protect the 1st Amendement from those who seek to control thought ( even stupid thought, turn off the radio or TV that’s how you excerise your rights without taking mine away) defending the speech you hate most is what’s it’s all about . No one yelled fire in a moviehouse, Ms Fluke’s hurt feelings are not worth giving up a right that in the Constition.
Change the discourse not the right to free speech, Media Matters is politcal mission because the do not like Mr Limbaugh point of view, Media Matters be careful what you ask for PC works both ways!

    Kevin Wisniewski says:

    March 23, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Thumbs up!

    B Beebe says:

    March 23, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    this isn`t a first amendment issue but i understand why you want to make it one. it`s because you can`t defend what rush did and said without losing all credibility to claiming you have conservative values.

mike tomasino says:

March 23, 2012 at 5:45 pm

In all of this outrage against Rush I’ve never had this one question answered. Is Ms. Fluke married? If not, is she at least in a commited relationship? If not, maybe the truth hurts! The definition of a slut is a woman who sleeps around. A prostitute is one that does so for money. I have yet to here from anyone that Ms. Fluke needed birth control because she was in a commited sexual relationship. If that was the case then what Rush said could be considered inappropriate. If not, then he was just calling a spade a spade. Not, that Rush has much room to talk. How many wives now?

    B Beebe says:

    March 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    this has nothing to do with flukes values or lack of values. this is about limbaugh`s lack of values while claiming to hold superior conservative values. nobody forced limbaugh to do what he did or say what he did, he chose to do it of his own free will. limbaughs choice to throw civil discousre out the window and delve into vile bullying is not acceptable anymore to many americans. every american who is offended by limbaugh and all the other racist,bigoted radio bullies have an obligation to do what we can to take back OUR radio waves. if there is a big enough market for that type of radio then it will survive. if thereisn`t a big enough market for it then that will be proof enough that the majority of americans don`t want it on our public airwaves and it will become extinct.

    mike tomasino says:

    March 26, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    “Bullying”? “Bigoted”? Isn’t that a discription of how network television has treated people who hold to traditional Judeo Christian values for the last twenty years. The thing that becomes so offensive to folks about Rush’s comments is that the shoe is on the other foot. How many times are people of faith made fun of and marginalized during primetime TV while sexual immorality is being glorified. Meanwhile our society is being devastated by the effects of premarital and extramarital sex. HPV, HIV/AIDES, Herpes, 50%+ divorce rate, etc. The reality is that every one of the female characters on “Friends” were sluts, and the male characters were whoremongers. Not to mention “News Radio” and “Will and Grace”, and other lessor known examples. And now, close to twenty years later, we’re a nation of sluts and whoremongers. And, when anyone says so, we’re offended!

Ellen Samrock says:

March 23, 2012 at 6:13 pm

It could be argued that Rush single-handedly saved AM radio. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started but it seems Americans have become increasingly thin-skinned and all too eager to surrender the principles of free speech in the name of some ethereal standard of decency. Sure, Limbaugh is a blowhard and a nitwit but the Constitution also protects blowhards and nitwits. Harry is right. Trying to muzzle Rush simply because we don’t like what he says is dangerous and against everything the US stands for.

    Kevin Wisniewski says:

    March 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    How’s this…..Ditto!

    Peter Grewar says:

    March 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    There is no constitutional issue here as long as the government doesn’t go after Limbaugh’s program. And Media Matters has the same constitutional free speech right to pressure advertisers as Limbaugh has to say whatever he wants to say.

derek branzell says:

March 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm

The1st Amendment only guarantees that the GOVERNMENT can’t suppress political or religious speech, and even there the government can regulate its expression within reason (nobody has a 1st Amendment right to yell through a megaphone in a residential neighborhood at 2 am, for example). NOBODY has a 1st Amendment right to a radio program, no matter what their political views, an Limbaugh is simply encountering the free marketplace of ideas, NOT “the mob”. The 1st Amendment also gives people who disagree with Limbaugh the right to express THEIR views, which includes complaining to station owners and advertisers! These protests should chill misogynist speech, racist speech and the like, but it’s quite possible to discuss politics without defaming someone or talking about them the way Limbaugh talked about Sandra Fluke (and he was completely dishonest about the core of her message, which is that birth control pills are taken by many women during their lifetimes to treat serious medical conditions such as polycystic ovarian disease (which can be life-threatening) for which there are NO other good alternatives). Limabugh twisted and misrepresented Fluke’s testimony to his audience, but at the same time, the fool unwittingly smeared hundreds of millions of women of all political views who are so enraged by his misogyny they are determined to see him driven from the public airways. I’m one and I’m NOT a liberal: I voted Republican in 2008. This is about MISOGYNY.

B Beebe says:

March 23, 2012 at 6:33 pm

“This anti limbaugh movement…”
some people still just don`t get it do they?
This isn`t an anti limbaugh movement this is a pro civil discourse movement. if other racist bigots besides limbaugh feel the negative impacts of this movement, then they should be considered intended targets and not just collateral damage.
you`ve probably heard it said that the first thing you do if you get sent to prison is to find the biggest dude in the yard and knock his lights out, that puts everyone else on notice that you are not someone to be triffled with.
In the radio racist and bigotry field rush is the biggest fattest loud mouth in the yard.When limbaugh is has his lights knocked out the rest of the racist, bigoted talking heads on the radio will be on notice that the american people have had enough of their national enquirer quality commentary and journalism.
contrary to what limbaugh and some other talking heads on the radio seem to think, civil discourse is not a 4 letter word.

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

March 23, 2012 at 8:38 pm

As Kathy Haley implied, if the Rush backlash resembles a mob, that’s because social media petitions and “movements” are all a form of mobocracy. It’s the messy price we pay for the freedoms gained by ending the Fairness Doctrine. It may take a couple of decades, but wisdom of the American people will inevitably become more sophisticated and critical consumers of social media, and these outbursts will return to the political center — just as 100 years ago, the public tired of “yellow journalism” and radio hatemonger Father Coughlin.

Sadly, one part of the Fairness Doctrine could have hastened this healing process — the part that required stations to produce and carry programs about important local and national issues. Harry is quite right that stations today avoid controversy unless it’s attached to a big payday — and Limbaugh is a master at generating and sustaining utterly phony conflicts. With no NAB Code of Good Conduct, let alone a Fairness Doctrine, maintaining balance relies solely on broadcasters’ own sense of ethics and conscience.

    Kevin Wisniewski says:

    March 25, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    It relies on the marketplace in a free society. Like it or not, ratings matter. Period.

April Davis says:

March 23, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Jessell. I think your defense of the marketplace cramping Limbaugh’s use of public airwaves is wrong. You should learn about what hate speech does. Look up Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. “Do not be afraid, know that anyone whose neck you do not cut is the one who will cut your neck..” That was Rwanda. Radio was instrumental in fomenting genocide. If you don’t know that history, you should not be commenting on the the power of radio.

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