Does It Matter If Advertisers Leave Limbaugh? Yes and No.

What Women Really Think
March 8 2012 7:08 AM

Rush Against the Ropes

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Just how in trouble is he?

Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

The anti-Limbaugh snowball keeps rolling, building as it descends the mountain. Now Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says he would like the Armed Forces Network to stop airing Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. It’s too soon to predict how far this might go; Levin has no plans to legislate this change, so for the time being it’s up to the Defense Department. It’s too soon, too, to predict how much any of the anti-Limbaugh movement matters. Some days back, conservative radio host Michael Medved had an interesting piece in the Daily Beast pointing out the nearly foolproof economics of Limbaugh’s success. Despite liberal and mainstream outrage, El Rushbo lumbers on because his niche appeal is lucrative in radio. “He can remain a media powerhouse with an exclusive audience of hard-core right wingers,” Medved wrote. And those fleeing advertisers? They “will either return when the smoke clears or else find themselves replaced by other companies eager to reach an impressive audience.”

Naturally, Limbaugh himself has dismissed the disappearing advertisers, which appears to be anywhere between 20 and 45, depending on the hour and the outlet reporting it. It's the equivalent of a few “french fries,” he said. Besides, he added, “we have three brand-new sponsors that will be starting in the next two weeks,” and “two of the sponsors who have canceled have asked to return.”

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I have begun to wonder about this over the 24 hours or so, ever since rather unsavory advertisers like pro-adultery website Ashley Madison started courting Limbaugh’s show. As Torie rightly points out, these advertisers seem primarily consumed with the free advertising they can get by barnacling themselves to the Limbaugh controversy. But what if, contrary to what Medved predicts, more respectable companies continue to shy away from supporting Limbaugh’s broadcast excellence, and fringey advertisers wind up being the best Limbaugh can do? What does the flight of so many mainstream companies (like AOL, John Deere and Geico) do to his reputation? After all, Limbaugh’s popularity has long been predicated on the idea that he’s just a common-sense conservative, a guy who tells it like it is, who speaks up for the American everyman. “They want to take your ambition away from you, they want to take your dreams away from you,” he warned listeners recently of Obama and the Democratic party. In another recent show, he spoke of the failures of rampant liberalism, and imagined hordes of Americans are walking “around today in abject fear of being themselves” because they don’t want to be scolded by feminazis and “pantywaist” liberals. His message has long been that We are the normal ones; they are the abberations -- those zany leftists and their co-conspirators in the media. As advertisers flee and the Ashley Madisons of the world scramble to be associated with Limbaugh, his listeners could be forgiven for wondering just how mainstream El Rushbo really is. Is he still speaking for the everyman, or is our culture increasingly relegating his kind of talk to the fringe?  

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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