Can conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s program survive the firestorm of criticism that’s been leveled at him since he labeled Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” because the law school student argued before the Congress that her school’s health insurance should cover contraception for female students?
Experts say Limbaugh is so powerful that he’s likely to weather this latest controversy. ”The Rush Limbaugh Show” is the top-rated radio show in the country, reaching an estimated 15 million listeners on nearly 600 stations. So far, only two stations — WBEC in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and KPUA in Hilo, Hawaii — have dropped his program because of his comments.
“It has never been our goal to allow our station to be used for personal attacks and intolerance,” Chris Leonard, president and general manager of New West Broadcasting, said Monday in a statement. “The most recent incident has crossed a line of decency and a standard that we expect of programming on KPUA whether it is locally produced or a syndicated program like the Rush Limbaugh show.”
Musician Peter Gabriel has gotten in on the act, too, telling the talk show host he can no longer use the song “Sledgehammer,” which was playing in the background as Limbaugh lambasted Fluke.
And at least nine advertisers, among them AOL, ProFlowers and Quicken Loans, have pulled their advertising, even as there are growing calls for a listener boycott and for Limbaugh to be fired.
Asked about how she feels about the pressure that Limbaugh is facing now, Fluke told ABC News’ Dan Harris: “I don’t think it’s going to be a bad thing for the women of America if we don’t hear this type of rhetoric again.”
But that’s unlikely. Even those advertisers who’ve pulled their sponsorship will likely come back, experts said.
“We’ve seen this many times in the past,” Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, which covers the talk radio industry, told Forbes magazine. “Some of the advertisers that left will come back, and some will be replaced. Life will go on.”
Some experts believe this latest controversy could actually benefit Limbaugh by bringing him more publicity.
The talk show host is certainly no stranger to controversy. On his show he’s mocked actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease, and played the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” which made reference to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. He has also made disparaging remarks about Chelsea Clinton’s and Amy Carter’s physical appearance.
Limbaugh apologized for his comments about Fluke on Saturday, and again on Monday, but he doesn’t seem fazed by the continued censure.
“Those advertisers who no longer want your business, fine. We’ll replace them,” he said on his show Monday.
The tumult started Wednesday, when Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” on his radio show for arguing to Congress that women’s birth control should be covered by the health insurance plans offered by employers and other institutions, including schools.
“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who 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? It makes her a prostitute,” he said. “She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”
Criticism of the talk show host hasn’t been limited to potential customers of the advertisers. Representatives on both sides of the political debate have condemned Limbaugh’s comments.
Limbaugh apologized Saturday and then Monday. In the Saturday apology, he said in a statement: “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
On Monday, he against said: “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for using those two words to describe her. I do not think she is either of those two words.”
But Fluke was not impressed by Limbaugh’s about-face, saying in an appearance on ABC talk show “The View” that she believed the apology was prompted by the outcry.
“I don’t think that a statement like this issued, saying that his choice of words was not the best, changes anything, and especially when that statement is issued when he’s under significant pressure from his sponsors who have begun to pull their support,” Fluke said.
And Fluke said she doesn’t want to hear from Limbaugh personally.
“I don’t think there’s any way to put those words back in the bottle,” she said. “The damage to my reputation is done.”