These words defined Rush Limbaugh in 2012 after he smeared Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who testified before Congress about women's health care. Limbaugh's misogynistic attack, which spanned three days of his radio show, did incalculable, long-term damage not only to Limbaugh's brand, but also to the right-wing talk-radio format he helped to build and the conservative movement he has shaped for decades.
Limbaugh's attacks on Fluke led to a paradigm shift in talk radio, as advertisers reassessed their support for inflammatory hosts. Limbaugh's toxic rhetoric helped shine a glaring spotlight on the broader conservative movement's policies toward women, focusing public attention on the radical right-wing effort to dismantle reproductive rights and the social safety net.
Limbaugh's unique brand of misinformation was not limited to sexist rhetoric. Throughout 2012, Limbaugh was an architect of the right-wing bubble that pushed conspiracy theories and denied reality, notably helping to create a false narrative that Mitt Romney was on the verge of winning a landslide election. As that right-wing bubble collapsed, so, too, did Limbaugh's four-year campaign of hoping - and trying to ensure - that President Obama would fail.
It is for these reasons that Media Matters recognizes Rush Limbaugh as the 2012 Misinformer of the Year. Past recipients include: Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011); Sarah Palin (2010); Glenn Beck (2009); and Sean Hannity (2008).
Attacks On Sandra Fluke
On February 23, 2012, Sandra Fluke testified before a congressional panel about women's health care and the benefits of insurance coverage for contraceptive care. During her testimony, she spoke about a woman who needed birth control pills to treat a medical condition, but who was denied coverage by her insurance company and couldn't afford the medication.
On February 29, Limbaugh began a series of attacks on Fluke, pointing to her testimony and calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” In a complete distortion of Fluke's actual testimony that was shocking in its ignorance, Limbaugh claimed that she was essentially asking to be “paid to have sex” :
LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke [sic], 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. 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.
Limbaugh continued his screed against Fluke the next day, saying: “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.” Over the course of the March 1 and March 2 editions of his radio show, Limbaugh spent nearly six hours directing a hate-filled tirade at Fluke, saying that she was “having so much sex it's amazing she can walk,” saying that she had boyfriends “lined up around the block,” and saying that Fluke admitted she was “having so much sex that she can't pay for it.”
Limbaugh's sexist tirade quickly found support throughout the right-wing echo chamber. CNN contributor Erick Erickson wrote on his blog, RedState, that Fluke “really believes that American tax payers should ... pay for her birth control pills so she can have sex.” Conservative talk radio host Dana Loesch wrote on Breitbart.com that Fluke was “testifying that she simply cannot stop getting it on and her inability to control her urges constitutes infringing upon everyone else for a bailout.” Fox News Radio reporter Todd Starnes posted more than a dozen comments on Twitter supporting Limbaugh's attacks. Blog posts at National Review Online, Hot Air, and NewsBusters also defended Limbaugh's points.
But outside the right-wing media bubble, Limbaugh was savaged from a variety of sources. Republican and Democratic congressional leaders as well as commentators from the left, right, and center all offered criticism for what Sen. John McCain called comments that were “unacceptable in every way.”
Limbaugh was quickly forced to offer an apology, if an inadequate one. But the damage was already done.
Backlash: The Rush From Limbaugh
Under heavy criticism, Limbaugh posted a statement to his website on Saturday, March 3, addressing the controversy: “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.” Limbaugh opened his next radio show by explaining his decision to apologize:
I don't expect -- and I know you don't, either -- morality or intellectual honesty from the left. They've demonstrated over and over a willingness to say or do anything to advance their agenda. It's what they do. It's what we fight against here every day. But this is the mistake I made. In fighting them on this issue last week, I became like them.
Against my own instincts, against my own knowledge, against everything I know to be right and wrong, I descended to their level when I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke. That was my error. I became like them, and I feel very badly about that. I've always tried to maintain a very high degree of integrity and independence on this program. Nevertheless, those two words were inappropriate. They were uncalled for. They distracted from the point that I was trying to make, and I again sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for using those two words to describe her.
But Limbaugh's attack was not limited to “two words.” He launched 46 personal attacks on Fluke over the course of three days. Many media and political figures agreed that Limbaugh's apology could never make up for the outrageous nature of his attacks.
But the real damage was only beginning. On March 2, Carbonite CEO David Friend issued a statement saying that he was “offended and very concerned” about Limbaugh's comments. Friend's statement was notable because it came from a key sponsor of Limbaugh's show. And his reaction to Limbaugh's apology the next day helped set in motion a chain of events that continues to reverberate throughout the radio industry:
No one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well-intentioned young lady. Mr. Limbaugh, with his highly personal attacks on Miss Fluke, overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency. Even though Mr. Limbaugh has now issued an apology, we have decided to withdraw our advertising from his show.
Carbonite was not alone. Advertisers began fleeing Limbaugh's show on March 2. By early April, more than 60 companies had publicly announced that they would no longer advertise on Limbaugh's program. Entertainment news website Deadline reported on March 30 that “sponsors considered him so radioactive that Premiere ordered about 600 stations that carry his show to suspend national barter spots for two weeks.” Soon after the advertiser exodus began, veteran radio and advertising journalists suggested that Limbaugh had created a long-term problem for his show.
The damage created by Limbaugh's comments spread throughout the industry. Major companies asked Limbaugh's syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks, to avoid placing their ads on radio shows with content “deemed to be offensive or controversial.” A March 9 memo to traffic managers specifically identified Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage as hosts with programs now considered too toxic for major advertisers. At the same time he was losing advertisers, Limbaugh also began losing radio affiliates.
While Limbaugh began publicly denying that his show was suffering from the loss of advertisers, privately he was going into crisis management mode. The New York Times reported in March that he hired a reputation and crisis manager. And while Limbaugh was bragging about his ratings on the air, Politico reported in May that his show “took a significant radio hit in some key radio markets” in the wake of his Sandra Fluke attacks.
Limbaugh's partners were soon losing millions of dollars as a result of the loss of advertisers. The New York Times reported that less than two weeks after his attack on Fluke, Premiere Radio Networks had lost nearly $2 million in advertising revenue. In May, Limbaugh affiliate Cumulus Media reported losing several million dollars in revenue over two quarters. In August, Cumulus suggested it had lost more than $5 million on its top three radio stations alone due to factors related to the Limbaugh advertiser boycott.
As Daily Beast columnist John Avlon noted: “Rush Limbaugh made the right-wing talk-radio industry, and he just might break it.”
Rush Limbaugh And The “War On Women”
At the same time Limbaugh came under fire for his slut-shaming campaign against Sandra Fluke, it became impossible to separate his misogynistic comments from a larger critique of the conservative movement.
In targeting Fluke, Limbaugh was specifically reacting to testimony about the benefits of using health insurance to expand access to contraceptive care. That testimony came as conservatives were fighting against efforts to require insurers to provide this basic health care coverage to women. Limbaugh, long identified as a leader of the conservative movement, explained the opposition by likening health insurance coverage of contraception to a woman knocking on his door in the middle of the night and demanding money so she could "have sex with three guys tonight." Sean Hannity echoed Limbaugh's explanation of the movement's opposition, saying that requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for contraceptive care amounted to “the taxpayer bearing the cost of the sex life of students at Georgetown University law school.”
Throughout the year, as questions were raised about the negative effects fringe conservative positions would have on women, Limbaugh was at the forefront. In February, when conservative lawmakers in Virginia came under fire for pushing legislation that would have required women to undergo an invasive ultrasound prior to seeking an abortion, Limbaugh downplayed the concerns. When Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin came under fire for saying it was “really rare” for women subjected to “legitimate rape” to become pregnant, Limbaugh first called on Akin to put the country first in weighing whether to remain in the race. But as it became clear that Akin was going to remain in the race, Limbaugh was quick to move on, touting polling numbers suggesting the Republican Party had forgiven Akin for the comments.
After women voters helped to reelect President Obama, Limbaugh lashed out in typical fashion, saying that one way to get women to vote for conservative candidates was to have them marry men:
If they stay single, then they are going to turn to government to provide what they want.
The more Limbaugh talked in 2012, the more difficult it became for him to mount a convincing case that the “war on women” was contrived.
Rush Limbaugh Inside The Bubble
“Everything - except the polls - points to a Romney landslide.”
So said Rush Limbaugh on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, an election that has come to be defined by the right-wing media's absolute denial of reality and embrace of paranoid conspiracy theories in order to convince themselves that Obama would fail to secure a second term.
When conservatives accused the Labor Department of cooking the books to make the unemployment rate seem lower than it was in order to help reelect Obama, Limbaugh was there. When conservatives warned that pollsters were colluding to unfairly bias their samples in favor of Obama, Limbaugh was there. Limbaugh pushed poll trutherism so far to the fringe that he began stoking fears of violence in the aftermath of a Romney election victory.
On Election Day, Limbaugh did offer a helpful hint to listeners should his predicted Romney landslide fail to pan out:
You know, I could be proven tonight to be so wrong and so all wet that nobody should be listening to me.
Limbaugh's Ultimate Failure
Rush Limbaugh did not react well to being proved so wrong and so all wet. The day after the election, he told his audience that “we're outnumbered” and “we've lost the country.” He also suggested that “one of the most outrageous thefts of an election in the history of elections has taken place.” On November 15, Limbaugh declared that “freedom did not win in this election.”
Limbaugh also blamed Romney's defeat on voters being swayed by the promise of free stuff from government:
Small things beat big things yesterday. Conservatism, in my humble opinion, did not lose last night. It's just very difficult to beat Santa Claus.
Limbaugh's reaction to Obama's reelection came after a failed, four-year campaign to bring down the Obama administration. Days before the 2009 inauguration, Limbaugh famously said of the incoming president: “I hope he fails.” He elaborated:
Look, what he's talking about is the absorption of as much of the private sector by the US government as possible, from the banking business, to the mortgage industry, to the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don't want this to work.
But government did work. Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been credited by experts with increasing economic growth, creating jobs, and lowering unemployment. The auto rescue was only made possible with the use of taxpayer money to successfully shepherd the three big auto companies through bankruptcy -- saving well over a million jobs. The Affordable Care Act survived Supreme Court scrutiny. And voters opted for four more years.
If It Weren't For Rush
Rush Limbaugh may still rank at the top of the talk radio industry, but he has also undeniably weakened the very industry he has dominated for so long. The advertiser backlash did not just damage Limbaugh and his business partners short-term; the entire talk radio industry is still suffering massive financial losses due to his utterance of “those two words.” Radio Ink reported in November that syndicator Dial Global lost just shy of $100 million during the first 9 months of 2012, which the company blamed in part on “advertisers' response to controversial statements by a certain nationally syndicated talk radio personality in March 2012.” Zimbio reported on November 18 that Cumulus Media, which has carried Limbaugh on many of its radio stations, saw its stock price steadily and steeply decline “ever since” Limbaugh attacked Fluke.
In October, Courtside Entertainment Group CEO Norm Pattiz delivered a speech at Talkers' New Media Seminar on the impact Limbaugh's attack on Fluke had on the talk radio industry, specifically, “the dwindling advertiser support for conservative talk radio, on a national basis.” Discussing the campaign to bring Limbaugh's smears to the attention of advertisers on his show, Pattiz said that “some advertisers were just so stricken by this, that they decided to just blow off talk radio entirely.” He went on to say that “a tremendous chunk of advertising revenue was wiped out in terms of support for national talk radio programs.” Pattiz highlighted the effect Limbaugh's actions had on the entire industry: “It's not just affecting Rush Limbaugh, it's not just affecting conservative talk radio, it's affecting all talk radio.”
Yet despite all the wreckage that has followed his grotesque attacks on Sandra Fluke, Limbaugh pushes on. When reports surfaced in November that Fluke would be a contender for Time's Person of the Year honor, Limbaugh opined that the honor should instead be bestowed upon him, arguing that “nobody would know who she is if it weren't for me.”
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.