Back to previous page

Rush Limbaugh should take lessons from Imus, liberal talk-show host Schultz

By ,

Did Rush Limbaugh just have his Don Imus Moment?

With more sponsors bailing and Republican lawmakers adding to the condemnation of the talk-show host on Sunday, the flap over Limbaugh’s comments about a Georgetown law student are beginning to look like radio history repeating itself.

Limbaugh apologized Saturday in an online statement for describing Sandra Fluke, the student who had spoken at a Democratic panel in support of insurance coverage for birth-control costs, as “a slut” and “a prostitute” on his radio program — criticism he intensified a day later by saying Fluke should post videos of her sexual activity online “so we can see what we’re getting for our money.”

His statement Saturday — saying that his “choice of words was not the best” and that he was attempting to be humorous — amounted to a rare act of contrition for Limbaugh. But it only served to intensify the backlash against him, including from among his conservative allies.

In the lead-up to Super Tuesday, the four Republican presidential candidates distanced themselves from Limbaugh’s on-air remarks, with one, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) suggesting on “Face the Nation” on Sunday that Limbaugh’s apology was prompted mainly by the loss of advertisers.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she, too, doubted Limbaugh’s sincerity. “I don’t know any woman in America . . . that thinks being called a ‘slut’ is funny,” the Florida congresswoman said on “Meet the Press.”

At least seven national advertisers have pulled out of Limbaugh’s show in the face of boycott movements that have sprung up on Facebook and Twitter. According to a tally by the Associated Press, the list includes mortgage lender Quicken Loans, mattress retailers Sleep Train and Sleep Number, software maker Citrix Systems, legal document services company Legal Zoom and the flower-delivery service ProFlowers.

After initially issuing a noncommittal statement about its sponsorship of Limbaugh, Carbonite, a Boston company that sells data storage services, decided to pull the plug on Limbaugh on Saturday. “We hope that our action, along with the other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse,” the company’s chief executive, David Friend, said in a statement.

In all, the controversy surrounding Limbaugh is beginning to look like the one that engulfed Imus.

The one-time shock jock’s radio career has never fully recovered after he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” on his syndicated morning program in 2007. The comment ignited a firestorm of complaints and protests, which Imus initially dismissed. When advertisers scattered in the face of the public reaction, Imus offered a more sweeping apology but was subsequently fired by CBS Radio and MSNBC, which had also broadcast his program.

Imus, of course, is no Limbaugh, a widely revered figure of the conservative movement and the most popular talk-radio host in the nation. Unlike Imus, whose program aired on a handful of stations at the time of his demise, Limbaugh’s afternoon show is carried by some 600 stations across the United States and internationally, including WMAL (630 AM, 105.9 FM) in Washington. (WMAL representatives were unavailable for comment on Sunday.) He is so closely associated with the Republican establishment that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas presided over his third wedding.

Limbaugh has escaped lasting damage over inflammatory remarks before, such as when he suggested that Michael J. Fox was exaggerating the effects of Parkinson’s disease in a 2006 ad in which the actor advocated more funding for stem-cell research, or when he aired a song parody called “Barack the Magic Negro” that lampooned Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2007.

Similarly, Limbaugh’s fans are likely to be “energized” by his comments about Fluke and contraceptives, said Randall Bloom­quist, a talk-radio consultant who is a former program director of WMAL.

“The people who listen to him may not agree with the language he used, but they like what he said,” Bloomquist said Sunday. “This is brilliant, in a way. It plays to his existing base and brings back fans who haven’t listened to him in a while.”

But the loss of advertisers should be a worrisome sign to Limbaugh, said Holland Cooke, also a talk-radio consultant. “I think this story is closer to the beginning than the end,” he said Sunday. “This is in the hands of an angry public now. I can’t imagine that he won’t be diminished in some way.”

Cooke says Limbaugh is “too big to fail,” given his presence on so many stations and the financial hit those stations would take if they were forced to find a less popular substitute. However, there are alternatives: Cooke points out that Cumulus Media — which owns WMAL and other stations in major cities — is developing a radio show hosted by another popular conservative, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

In recent years, Limbaugh’s popularity has been called into question by the advent of a new technology for collecting radio ratings, Cooke said. Under the old audience-measurement method used by Arbitron, a sample of listeners recalled what they had listened to and listed these programs in a paper diary. The system favored big names such as Limbaugh and Howard Stern.

But a new system, in use in 48 large cities, employs electronic meters that automatically record what respondents are listening to. The electronic ratings have generally been lower than the old paper ratings, said Cooke, adding, “his audience may have been over-estimated all along.”

Limbaugh’s program — heard from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays on WMAL — finished eighth among all listeners in the Washington area in the most recent electronic weekly ratings.

Cooke says Limbaugh should have learned crisis-management lessons not from Imus but from Ed Schultz, a liberal talk-show host. Last May, Schultz, who has a program on MSNBC and a daily syndicated radio show, called conservative talker Laura Ingraham “a right-wing slut” and “a talk slut” during a radio broadcast. The remark generated a public outcry, prompting MSNBC to suspend Schultz.

Before serving his suspension, Schultz went on the cable network and issued an unqualified apology to Ingraham. Calling his remarks “inappropriate” and “terribly vile,” he said, “I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness. . . . I have embarrassed my family, I have embarrassed this company. This is the lowest of low for me.”

Ingraham responded by accepting the apology — at which point the matter died.

© The Washington Post Company