An increasing number of corporations have announced that they will no longer advertise on the show of the undisputed king of political radio talk, Rush Limbaugh, in the wake of caustic and sexually charged comments he made about a Georgetown Law student.
An apology over the weekend failed to quell the controversy, as both corporations and conservative commentators denounced Limbaugh's latest provocative remarks. It is far from his first such episode. Part of Limbaugh's appeal involves getting listeners to tune in to hear just what shibboleth-bursting thing he'll say next.
"I always say my real purpose is to attract the largest audience I can, and hold it for as long as I can, so I can charge confiscatory advertising rates," Limbaugh told NPR in 2007. "Getting along is not the objective."
But two things make this episode stand out: the nature of the target and the timing of his comments.
The law student, Sandra Fluke, had appeared before a panel of Democratic lawmakers to call for federal health care coverage to include the cost of contraception.
Last Wednesday, Limbaugh labeled her a "slut," adding that Fluke's call for such coverage "makes her a prostitute." A day later, again on his nationally syndicated talk show, Limbaugh said that since the taxpayers would be subsidizing her contraceptives, Fluke should tape her sexual activity and post it online for public consumption.
An outcry ensued. Limbaugh is renowned, of course, for controversial remarks. Watching U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi surrounded by grandchildren as she became the first female House speaker led him to speculate about whether she would breastfeed kids on the floor of the House. He claimed the actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, exaggerated its effects for political advantage as some Senate candidates clashed over stem cell research policy. Those comments, among others, drew criticism.
In this case, however, Fluke is not otherwise a known public figure, though she appeared in a public setting. And some conservatives joined many liberals in denouncing Limbaugh. Among them were the commentators George Will, Jeff Jacoby and David Frum.
On Saturday, as several advertisers peeled away, Limbaugh apologized for "the insulting word choices" – and reiterated his apology on Monday, saying he did not believe Fluke to be either of the things he had called her. But that apology did not extend to the content of his remarks – which indicated that she must be promiscuous if she could not afford contraception without the federal health care subsidy.
Limbaugh rarely backtracks and almost never apologizes; this particular episode flared as Republican candidates are vying to become the party's presidential nominee. Limbaugh has been deeply skeptical of frontrunner Mitt Romney, saying he is insufficiently conservative.
But Limbaugh became the distraction.
Because of his influential role among the party's conservative base, the Republican candidates sought to distance themselves from Limbaugh's words without denouncing him altogether.
President Obama, seeing advantage, personally called Fluke to extend his support and told her that her parents should be proud. For her part, Fluke told ABC News that Limbaugh's remarks were "outside the bounds of human discourse."
Insensitive comments from other radio and cable talk show hosts – Ed Schultz, David Shuster and Don Imus – led to punishments from their employers, from suspensions to firings. On Monday, AOL added itself to the roster of advertisers canceling commercials on Limbaugh's show. But he remains the most popular draw on talk radio.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Rush Limbaugh rarely says he's sorry, and by the time the conservative talk show host did apologize for recent sexually offensive comments that caused much outrage, he'd already lost some of his big-name advertisers.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And he's continued losing them. The object of Limbaugh's derision was a Georgetown University law student. She testified before Congress in favor of insurance coverage for contraception. Limbaugh's apology came in an online statement and did not stop the controversy.
MONTAGNE: As of this morning, nine advertisers, including Allstate and AOL, have pulled their spots from his show. NPR's David Folkenflik joined us to discuss the fallout. Good morning.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Why, after all these years of very provocative statements, why are advertisers reacting so strongly to this?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, these statements were pretty raw, and I think it's probably worth hearing what he had to say about this woman. And I'd like to warn listeners a little bit to brace themselves. This is pretty noxious stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM)
RUSH LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke that 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?
FOLKENFLIK: Her name, of course, actually is Sandra Fluke, but nonetheless he calls her a prostitute and then he goes on the next day to say, you know, if we, the federal taxpayers, will be subsidizing her sexual activity, she should post videotapes of this on the Web. And I think there's two reasons really why there was some genuine outrage as well as some opportunistic ideological criticism of Mr. Limbaugh.
I think first is that she's what we in the press kind of call a civilian. She's not a politician. She's not a public figure. She happens to be testifying before members of Congress, but she really is somebody who's just a citizen, and he went after her in the most personal possible way.
MONTAGNE: And what else, though? Again, this has blown up in a way that very few things have done for Rush Limbaugh.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's also happening in the context of a presidential primary. You know, Limbaugh likes to see himself as an influencer, even a king-maker among conservatives. There's been a lot of question about whether the clear frontrunner, Mr. Mitt Romney, is sufficiently conservative, and it means that you have all these candidates being asked to comment on this episode. And the candidates are kind of squirming to distance themselves from his remarks and at the same time not be too condemnatory because so many of the potential voters are fans.
MONTAGNE: And then there was the apology. What exactly did Rush Limbaugh say?
FOLKENFLIK: Limbaugh didn't distance himself from the sentiment. What he did instead was say that, you know, it was a poor choice of words. It was perhaps too severe. But he really didn't back off from the idea that somehow someone who thought that it was appropriate for a healthcare policy to cover contraception was somehow promiscuous and therefore open to criticism for it.
And also it opened him up to criticism from a number of conservative voices, including people like George Will and Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe. So the apology itself doesn't seem to have contained the storm that raged around his comments.
MONTAGNE: You know, David, though, other talk show hosts on both sides of the ideological divide have said things that are incendiary and insulting. What is different about Rush Limbaugh?
FOLKENFLIK: What makes Limbaugh different, of course, is the role that he plays as an influencer in conservative circles, is essentially unmatched by anybody on the left. And for that reason, I don't think you're going to see Limbaugh go anywhere. But this is a moment where he's been forced to step back and acknowledge that perhaps he went too far over the line.
MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
MONTAGNE: NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.