NEW YORK — It isn't what you say that counts, but who you say it about.
That's a lesson from the firestorm set off last week by Rush Limbaugh when he called a Georgetown University student a "slut" and "prostitute."
But maybe, even in the untamed world of talk-show blather, "slut" already held sway as the new s-word, an epithet that crosses the line whomever it targets and is best avoided altogether by gabmeisters.
That's what left-leaning talk-show host Ed Schultz learned painfully way back last spring. On his MSNBC show he referred to conservative commentator Laura Ingraham as a "right-wing slut." Amid the outcry triggered among Ingraham fans, he apologized, announcing that he and MSNBC had mutually agreed to his suspension for several days.
But Schultz's indiscretion was fleeting compared with Limbaugh's repeated attacks on Sandra Fluke.
The 30-year-old law student had been invited to testify to a House committee about her school's health care plan, which does not include contraception. After Republican lawmakers barred her testimony, Democrats welcomed her to speak to them at an unofficial session.
On his radio show, Limbaugh slammed Fluke as a "slut" who wanted the government to subsidize her sex life: "She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex," he said.
Then, the next day, he added this demand: "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, thus pay for you to have sex ... we want you to post the videos online, so we can all watch."
For some reason, these assaults agitated many women and men.
Meanwhile, advertisers by the dozens and even a few stations began dropping Limbaugh's show.
Limbaugh's apology — a rarity (however faint-hearted) coming from this cocksure conservative — only fanned the flames.
"I should not have used the language I did," Limbaugh told listeners, even as he blasted the "double standard" he was being held to: "Rappers can say anything they want about women. It's called art. And they win awards."
Did he have a point? You don't have to be a ditto-head to wonder what the fuss was all about. This, after all, is Rush "Excellence in Broadcasting" Limbaugh, who for a quarter-century of radio dominance has gained clout and wealth with his salvos against Democrats, liberals, minorities, the poor and other disenfranchised groups.
Not to mention women. In Rush's provocative view, women in the media are "info babes," women in Congress get away with being fat while the media harp on fat politicians who are men, and, of course, progressive women are condemned as "feminazis."
So what did Limbaugh do last week that was so different? Wasn't this just Rush being Rush? What got everybody stirred up this time?
Odds are, it was the person he chose for these particular tirades.
If high-profile, take-no-prisoners pundit Laura Ingraham earns immunity from an insult like "slut," shouldn't equal protection be enjoyed by Sandra Fluke, a private citizen Limbaugh bullied with unsought attention?
She came to Capitol Hill "intending a brief dip of the toe in the cultural pool," railed liberal host Keith Olbermann on his Current TV show "Countdown," only to find herself "dragged into the deep end by day after day of searing deliberate personal and indefensible attacks by Rush Limbaugh."
There was something familiar about Limbaugh's gratuitous slurs. They recalled an episode five years ago when shock jock Don Imus slammed a group of women who, like Fluke, were innocent bystanders on the public stage, guilty only of doing yeoman duty that thrust them into the spotlight: the Rutgers University women's basketball team.
In a shameful exchange in April 2007, Imus and a radio sidekick joked about these young women, who had been contenders for the NCAA national championship. Imus referred to them as "nappy-headed hos."
Within days he had apologized, but he was fired from his radio show and by MSNBC, which had simulcast him on TV. By year's end, he was picked up by another syndicator and later returned to TV. But despite what appeared to be sincere repentance on his part, Imus suffered permanent damage to his image and career.
Limbaugh is unlikely to suffer any lasting damage, no matter how his foes might wish otherwise. This week, he smugly likened the impact of defecting advertisers to "losing a couple of French fries in the container when it's delivered to you at the drive-thru. You don't even notice it."
But you sure can't help noticing the clamorous debate that Limbaugh's outbursts have ignited: Is a war on women being waged, with Rush the poster boy?
On "The O'Reilly Factor," Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly has conveniently tried to change the subject. He argued that the real issue framed by Limbaugh's Fluke-bashing wasn't women being bad-mouthed, but the presidential race: "Do we want to have an entitlement-state culture — President Obama and the Democrats — or do we want to go back to self-reliance and smaller government?
"That," O'Reilly said, "seems to dwarf somebody making a mistake on talk radio."
Really? Mistakes were made, all right. But with somebody as powerful and raucous as Limbaugh, "dwarf" is a word that never applies.