NEW YORK — Rush Limbaugh's opponents are starting a radio campaign against him Thursday, seizing upon the radio star's attack of a Georgetown law student as a "slut" to make a long-term effort aimed at weakening his business.
The liberal Media Matters for America is using a past campaign against Glenn Beck as a template. In Limbaugh, however, they're going after bigger game. He's already fighting back and the group's stance has provoked concerns that an effort to silence someone for objectionable talk is in itself objectionable.
Media Matters is spending at least $100,000 for two advertisements that will run in eight cities.
The ads use Limbaugh's own words about student Sandra Fluke, who testified at a congressional hearing that contraception should be paid for in health plans. Limbaugh, on his radio programs, suggested Fluke wanted to be paid to have sex, which made her a "slut" and a "prostitute." In return for the money, he said Fluke should post videos of herself having sex. Under sharp criticism, Limbaugh later apologized.
In one of the anti-Limbaugh ads, listeners are urged to call the local station that carries Limbaugh to say "we don't talk to women like that" in our city.
Ad time was purchased in Boston; Chicago; Detroit; Seattle; Milwaukee; St. Louis; Macon, Ga.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The cities were selected to support active local campaigns against Limbaugh or because of perceptions Limbaugh may be vulnerable in that market, said Angelo Carusone of Media Matters.
"What we're really looking for is a way to demonstrate the persistence of the effort and the fact that it is on a wide scale," Carusone said.
A spokeswoman for Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates Limbaugh's show to more than 600 radio stations nationally, said Media Matters has gone beyond criticism of Limbaugh's words to an attempt to silence him and intimidate advertisers.
"This is not about women," said Rachel Nelson, Premiere spokeswoman. "It's not about ethics and it's not about the nature of our public discourse. It's a direct attack on America's guaranteed First Amendment right to free speech. It's essentially a call for censorship masquerading as high-minded indignation."
Limbaugh, on his radio show Wednesday, said he's being targeted in an attack that was long-planned — not mentioning it was his words that lit the fuse.
"They're not even really offended by what happened," he said. "This is just an opportunity to execute a plan they've had in their drawer since 2009."
Determining how much of a financial impact the Fluke comments have already had on Limbaugh is murky business.
Radio stations in Hawaii and Massachusetts have dropped his show. Media Matters claims that 58 companies have specifically asked that their ads be excluded from Limbaugh's show. Radio-Info.com's TRI Newsletter said Premiere has circulated a list of 98 advertisers who want to avoid "environments likely to stir negative sentiments," essentially all politically pointed talk shows.
There's more. TRI also said a group with several stations that air Limbaugh sent out a list of 31 advertisers who don't want to be on Limbaugh's show.
Premiere notes that a list is sent out four times a year reminding stations of advertisers who don't want to be part of controversial programming, and suggests a reported exodus is exaggerated. The company offered no list of its own, or a comparison that could show advertisers resistant to Limbaugh or other controversial shows that predated the Fluke comments.
Some companies said not to want to advertise within Limbaugh's program — JC Penney, NAPA Auto Parts, Chapstick, Gold Bond, Green Mountain Coffee — did not respond to requests to clarify their policies. One company listed, NBC-TV, said the network was unaware of any policy or past efforts to advertise with Limbaugh.
Valerie Geller, a veteran radio consultant who worked at Limbaugh's WABC flagship in New York, said it appears that advertising money coming into Limbaugh's show is slowing down. "I think it's a very big wakeup call," she said.
Whether the advertisers return is another question. Limbaugh has a daily audience estimated at between 2 million and 3 million people, according to Talkers magazine.
"I suspect some people will permanently stay away," said Tom Taylor, executive editor at Radio-Info.com. "I suspect some people will drift back to Rush. What you won't see is a press release of someone saying, 'Hey, we're back with Rush!'"
While a law student, Carusone was active in a campaign to reach Beck's advertiser that began after the commentator said in July 2009 that President Barack Obama had "a deep-seated hatred for white people." Eventually, more than 400 advertisers said they didn't want to be part of Beck's show and, for Fox, the ad revenue was nowhere near what would be expected for a TV show as popular as Beck's. When Beck left Fox in June 2011 to take his show to the Web, the parting was mutual.
The idea with Limbaugh is similar: take advertisers away so rates go down, Carusone said. Couple that with the need to keep track of ever-changing lists of who will advertise with Limbaugh and who won't, and Media Matters hopes that station managers, market by market, may someday conclude that it's just not worth the trouble.
Conveniently, many stations will soon have a choice. Former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is launching his own syndicated radio show in April that will air at the same time as Limbaugh's, and Huckabee's backers are touting the show as a more civilized alternative.
Beyond the First Amendment concerns, industry experts like Talkers magazine publisher Michael Harrision are concerned that Media Matters' effort will simpy take some advertisers out of radio altogether when they have different options.
Carusone said Limbaugh has a chilling effect of his own. "There are plenty of people who self-censor out of fear that Mr. Limbaugh will smear them," he said.
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The means of protest puts Media Matters and the conservative Media Research Center in the unlikely position of agreeing with each other. Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative media watchdog, said his group also informs advertisers of things it considers objectionable.
"We all have free speech," Bozell said.
That's where the agreement stops. Bozell this week called on MSNBC chief Phil Griffin to resign, citing objectionable things said in the past by Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton, both MSNBC show hosts. It's in part retaliation for attacks on Limbaugh, he said. The Fluke story was covered extensively by MSNBC.
"There's a great sense of selective outrage that is going on here," he said.