A few days ago, I cynically suggested that part of the reason Rush Limbaugh’s latest remarks were making news was that Sandra Fluke is a “perfect victim”, a white law student who wasn’t actually talking about using birth control for nonprocreative sex. Tom Watson at Forbes is maybe a bit less cynical than I am these days. He notes that this is not exactly the first successful pushback in the last year or so:
It’s the next chapter in many ways to the story that hit the public consciousness with the strong, active online reaction to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood a month ago. The response was quick, massive, and targeted. My own social graph (on both Facebook and Twitter) lit up like a summer fireworks display after sundown – stirring conversation, concentration around hashtags and shared media, and truly crowdsourced action.
Yet it would also be a mistake to view the semi-organized reaction to Limbaugh as purely another battle between left and right on the American political spectrum. While Limbaugh’s sexist words have to been seen in the light of a Republican Presidential race that has, inexplicably, placed an opposition to contraception and women’s health at the center of its increasingly nasty public debate, the roots of El Rushbo’s humiliation also run deeper than spectrum ideology and political parties.
You can see those roots, for instance, in the brilliantly-organized campaign in late 2010 against two prominent liberal voices: filmmaker Michael Moore and talk show host Keith Olbermann. Feminist blogger Sady Doyle took Moore to task for posting bail on behalf of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after rape accusations brought by two women in Sweden confined him to custody in England, and her supporters battled both Moore and Olbermann for being dismissive of those accusations and implying they were a set-up to derail Assange’s exposure of U.S. government secrets.
Watson is decidedly right that if you look at those who have been targeting Limbaugh’s sponsors, there is a much clearer pattern in place than if you look at reactions to Limbaugh over the years. The people who have been pushing the Limbaugh boycott in social media are, loosely speaking, the same people who challenged the New York Times over their appalling coverage of an 11-year-old victim of gang rape in Texas. They are, again loosely speaking, the same people who have been covering the GOP debates live on Twitter with solid skepticism–a skepticism that the media outlets hosting the debates have soundly failed to provide.
Now, the Limbaugh boycott has been larger than any of those efforts, though not that much larger than the Komen push. That may, however, be partly due to the early success the Limbaugh boycott had. Just as people were energized when Planned Parenthood raised the equivalent of an annual grant from Komen in about 24 hours, people were energized when Limbaugh’s sponsors started dropping. Without the broad response from sponsors, people would probably not now be pushing for radio stations to drop his show.
John Avlon at The Daily Beast suggests sponsors may have been primed and ready to go when this started, simply because of who was doing the pushing:
But this latest controversy comes at a particularly difficult time for right-wing talk radio. They are playing to a (sometimes literally) dying demographic. Rush & Co. rate best among old, white males. They have been steadily losing women and young listeners, who are alienated by the angry, negative, obsessive approach to political conservations. Add to that the fact that women ages 24–55 are the prize advertising demographic, and you have a perfect storm emerging after Limbaugh’s Sandra Fluke comments.
As pressure grows for advertisers and radio stations to drop Rush & Co., there will be much talk about the dangers of censorship, with allies talking about a left-wing “jihad” against Rush (language his brother David Limbaugh has already used).
But the irony is that the same market forces that right-wing talk-radio hosts champion are helping to seal their fate. Advertisers are abandoning the shows because they no longer want to be associated with the hyperpartisan—and occasionally hateful—rhetoric. They are finally drawing a line because consumers are starting to take a stand.
And when those consumers are already comfortable with activism, when the technology exists to move them all quickly and publicly, when there is an obvious action to be taken that moves beyond slacktivism…well, then the explosion is a bit more easily explained than I gave it credit for. There is still plenty of room for “perfect victim” effects, but they aren’t necessary to account for what happened.
That does make me feel a little better. What makes me feel even better is that it should make plenty of right wing loons feel very nervous.