By Sam Baker and Alicia M. Cohn - 03/07/12 03:35 AM EST
Rush Limbaugh is facing the most significant controversy of his decades-long career after losing roughly 30 advertisers in the days since he called a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and a “prostitute.”
Media experts say Limbaugh won’t lose his show over the controversy, but the exodus of ad money — and Limbaugh’s nearly unprecedented decision to apologize for something he said — show that the uproar is taking a toll.
Limbaugh’s career has been defined by fights with the media and the political left, but incendiary comments have gotten radio and television hosts fired in the past.
Limbaugh has managed to avoid such consequences, despite a long history of controversial comments about women. But his critics say he finally crossed the line with his personal insults against Sandra Fluke, the law student who testified before House Democrats in support of the White House’s recent contraception mandate.
“What makes this different, like Imus, is the attacks were not on a politician. They were just on a young woman who was asked to testify,” said Karl Frisch, a partner at the liberal consulting firm Bullfight Strategies. “I have never seen this kind of intensity on Limbaugh before.”
Over a three-day span last week, Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” and said she should record sex tapes in exchange for her insurance plan providing contraception without charging a co-pay. He issued an apology over the weekend.
Democrats and their allies have seized on Limbaugh’s comments, pressing GOP leaders to renounce the insults. Democratic Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Steve Cohen (Tenn.) encouraged Limbaugh’s advertisers to drop his show, and Cohen said he wouldn’t buy airtime on stations owned by Clear Channel, which owns Limbaugh’s show.
The controversy has swept social networking sites like Twitter, where users have bombarded Limbaugh’s advertisers.
Some of his biggest sponsors, including Carbonite, disavowed Limbaugh’s statements and said they would not advertise on his show anymore. Other companies, including major advertisers such as Sears and Netflix, buy bulk advertising on local radio affiliates and have directed those stations not to run their ads during Limbaugh’s show.
That will hurt Limbaugh’s bottom line in the short term, but advertisers will either return or be replaced, Boston University Professor John Verret said.
“I think Rush Limbaugh is going to ultimately ride this out,” Verret said. “His following is much more fanatical than the Imus following.”
He said pressuring advertisers has worked “incredibly well” in the past, but can only succeed with hosts who are also losing their audience.
Limbaugh’s fans will only grow more devoted because of the Fluke controversy, Verret said, and advertisers will have a hard time passing up the chance to reach millions of listeners.
“Ultimately, business is business,” he said.
Limbaugh’s critics are making a similar counterargument.
Angelo Carusone, director of online strategy at Media Matters for America, said affiliates will second-guess the value of Limbaugh’s show as they lose advertising revenue and have to spend their own resources making sure certain ads don’t run.
“He did this. He told them he was bad for business,” said Carusone, who has pressured Limbaugh’s advertisers from his @StopRush Twitter account.
The uproar over Limbaugh’s attacks on Fluke has sparked pushback from the right. Pundits have pointed to a slew of derogatory comments from liberal men, accusing the media of a double standard. Current or former MSNBC hosts Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz have all drawn sharp criticism for comments about women, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) said on Facebook on Tuesday that if President Obama is going to condemn Limbaugh, he also ought to return a $1 million campaign contribution from Maher, who insulted Palin during the presidential campaign with off-color anatomical references.
Verret said he doesn’t expect Limbaugh to lose his show the way Maher, who now hosts a talk show on HBO, lost the late-night “Politically Incorrect” on ABC.
The difference between Maher and Limbaugh, according to Verret, is power. Maher is nowhere near as influential on the left as Limbaugh is on the right.
Carusone was also instrumental in the campaign against former Fox News host Glenn Beck, who lost his show on Fox News amid declining ratings and wary advertisers. Carusone said companies can be persuaded that advertising with a potentially inflammatory host isn’t worth the risk, and questioned whether advertisers would come back. Of the roughly 400 sponsors that left Beck, he said, only two returned.
Carusone said Media Matters and other Limbaugh critics are targeting markets where Limbaugh doesn’t perform especially well. Although his show is syndicated in hundreds of cities, it’s not a huge draw in all of them, Carusone said.
Fluke, in an appearance on ABC’s “The View,” said listeners will decide whether advertisers support Limbaugh.
“Americans have a long tradition of supporting companies who share the values that they have,” she said, adding that she would allow Limbaugh’s sponsors to decide whether he should remain on the air.