Rush Limbaugh is a storied shock artist not inclined to apologize or suffer for his blunt, often offensive language. This is the man who has suggested that parents would abort their pregnancies if they knew their kid would be gay and quipped that the NFL “all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” And yet his verbal assault on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke is still dominating the news, with real financial consequences: nine companies have pulled their advertising from Limbaugh’s show so far. (Update: Make that 12.)
Why now? There comes a time when every blowhard, charged with talking for hours each day and constantly under scrutiny from ideologically opposed enemies, finally crosses the line in a way that allows critics to exact their vengeance. For Limbaugh, in this case, social media and the current political climate have concocted the perfect opportunity for disaster.
1. Contraception is having a moment
A war over birth control has been brewing at least since December, when the Obama administration reversed its planned support of over-the-counter Plan B, angering women’s rights proponents and calling increased attention to culture war battles that also included anti-abortion “personhood” amendments in states like Mississippi, Florida, and Ohio.
Komen’s political decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, only to reverse the move after an uproar, followed soon after. Just days later, the Obama administration compromised on a health insurance mandate that would have required religious organizations to cover birth control for employees. Foster Friess, a billionaire donor to Rick Santorum, recommended that women just use aspirin between the knees to not get pregnant, which, while comically offensive, isn’t far off from the temporary front-runner’s actual position on birth control.
After some high-profile setbacks and invigorating victories, the majority of average Americans that support access to contraception were fired up and ready to fight.
2. The power and speed of social media
As soon as Limbaugh opened his big mouth, his opponents wasted no time in rushing to the giant social networks filled with like-minded advocates. U.S. Army officer Jessica Scott’s #iamnotaslut hashtag quickly went viral, while retailers advertising with Limbaugh had their official accounts flooded on Twitter and Facebook.
The CEO of Tax Resolution, who suspended his group’s ads today, said he was “inundated” by messages online urging a Limbaugh boycott. He compared the experience to working with controversial radio host Howard Stern, but said “social media was nowhere where it is today.” (Limbaugh’s supporters have enacted their own social media push.)
Joining companies like Quicken Loans and Pro Flowers, AOL said today that they too would pull advertising. Tellingly, they made the announcement on their Facebook page.
3. The Republican primary
Locked as we are in an increasingly dull GOP primary fight, every current event and minor controversy is fair game to ask the candidates about. Each time one responds, as all four major candidates have done now, it energizes the conversation a bit more, making meta-news and allowing pundits to grade the responses; the issue was an unavoidable one on Sunday’s talk shows. And because its subject matter dovetails so perfectly with the aforementioned contraception arguments, the feedback loop runs even more smoothly.
4. Big name fire-stokers
Keeping the national conversation on contraception and not, say, the economy, benefits Democrats in this election year, and Barack Obama knows that better than anyone. By calling Fluke personally, Obama gained favor among his base and single-handedly propelled the story forward.
Fluke herself has been more than happy to help, becoming ubiquitous on television. Beginning last Thursday, she has appeared with Megyn Kelly, Ed Schlutz, Matt Lauer, and Andrew Mitchell. Limbaugh’s limp apology on Saturday, while again revitalizing the story, also gave Fluke more ammunition. This morning, Fluke showed up on The View, where she said she wasn’t moved by Limbaugh’s apology, “especially when that statement is issued when he’s under significant pressure from his sponsors who have begun to pull their support.”
Speaking Monday about losing advertisers, Limbaugh told his listeners that the retailers in question “don’t want you or your business anymore.” He added, “So be it,” as if at this point he has the power to do anything besides wait it out.