By Richard E. Nicolazzo
One week after conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and “prostitute,” the brand damage continues to mount; unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely Limbaugh will lose his show.
Twice since his remarks, Limbaugh apologized to Sandra Fluke, the student who advocated before a congressional committee for insurance coverage that would cover contraceptives for college students. Some have questioned the sincerity of his somewhat sullen apology.
Not backing down, Limbaugh said on the air, “All of this is trumped up for political purposes, pure and simple…everybody knows what I do here. Everybody knows how I do it.”
The flap, which underscores the divisiveness in America today, reached a pinnacle when President Obama weighed in at a press conference. Obama, who has two daughters, was calculated in his response, saying, “The remarks (by Limbaugh) don’t have any place in the public discourse.”
Others, like some of the late night comics, were not so kind. Jon Stewart cracked on Comedy Central, “So it’s Rush Limbaugh. Is it particularly vile Rush Limbaugh? Of course. That’s like saying, ‘Ehh, this is a particularly pungent bucket of raw sewage mixed with rotting cow guts and typhoid.’ "
Short-term, the fallout has likely damaged his show. Limbaugh has an audience of 15 million listeners and is syndicated on 600 radio stations. While only two stations have cancelled his show, as of this writing more than 30 corporate sponsors have pulled their advertising. Predictably, Limbaugh said, “They (the sponsors) decided they don’t want you or your business anymore. So be it.”
Limbaugh, who built his success on controversy, has been embroiled in nastiness before, but the Fluke comments have raised the noise to a new decibel level. He’s also been severely impacted by social media, the ubiquitous communications phenomenon, which gives anyone on the Internet a conduit to pressure advertisers. Typically, most advertisers will take the safe route and temporarily pull their ads. However, history has proven they come back.
Look at Don Imus, one of the inventors of shock jock radio. Back in 2007, Imus made racially disparaging remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, but he survived the fallout and, some believe, revived his career.
In my view, Limbaugh is too big a money maker for too many stations to be booted off the air. However, one can certainly argue he crossed a line that put a black mark on his reputation. Most Americans, even the ultra-conservatives who religiously follow Limbaugh, can identify with the young college student caught in the crossfire.
Limbaugh’s radio syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks, stepped up and defended their big money maker, but took no responsibility for his comments. Premiere is a unit of Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, a multi-billion juggernaut that uses sharp elbows to get its way.
Limbaugh could also be vulnerable when Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate, hits the airwaves in April with his show in the same time slot. The competition may force Limbaugh to “clean up his act.”
Limbaugh is a polarizing figure. Ironically, in the end, the people who love him will continue to tune in and listen for his next outrageous utterance. The people who hate him will just hate him more.
One thing seems certain: When Limbaugh signs off, in whatever form that takes, he will be remembered as an angry, vile, and offensive yakker.
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Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts
Joe M. Grillo, partner, and Linda Harvey, director of client services at Nicolazzo & Associates, contributed to this blog