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Is Limbaugh too big to fail?

Advertisers flee after the radio host crudely insults a woman, but his huge following is likely to save him.

March 06, 2012|James Rainey and Matea Gold
  • Analysts say the size of radio commentator Rush Limbaugh's audience should allow him to continue to thrive despite a loss of advertisers over his crude comments about a female student's views on birth control.
Analysts say the size of radio commentator Rush Limbaugh's audience… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

LOS ANGELES AND WASHINGTON — A new week greeted Rush Limbaugh with four more advertiser defections, for a total of 11, along with a sharp rebuke from former Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Peter Gabriel asked that his song "Sledgehammer" no longer be used on Limbaugh's radio program.

Even after Limbaugh issued a rare apology, the furor that had erupted when the conservative radio host called an activist law student a "slut" and a "prostitute" showed no sign of abating Monday.

But a backlash that might be a career-breaker for some commentators seemed unlikely to dent Limbaugh's considerable stature among his 15 million weekly listeners and conservative leaders.

The criticism delivered by most Republican officeholders was muted. One political action committee stepped up to buy even more advertising on his program. All of which suggested that "The Rush Limbaugh Show" might be too big to fail.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 07, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Rush Limbaugh: An article in Section A on March 6 about a backlash against Rush Limbaugh's radio show said that controversial talk radio host Don Imus had returned to television on Fox Business Channel. It is Fox Business Network.

The controversy began last week, when the radio host addressed President Obama's proposal that health insurance provide free birth control. Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke spoke at a congressional hearing in favor of that idea, only to be attacked by Limbaugh.

He described the 30-year-old as one of a group of "feminazis" who effectively wanted government to subsidize their sexual activity, and he demanded, "We want you to post the [sex] videos online so we can all watch."

After apologizing on his website over the weekend, Limbaugh told his radio audience Monday: "Those two words were inappropriate. They were uncalled for. They distracted from the point that I was actually trying to make, and I again sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for using those two words to describe her."

Limbaugh may have been enduring a bigger blowback than any in memory -- bigger than when he rooted for the newly inaugurated Obama to fail, or when he called Hillary Rodham Clinton "sex-cretary of state." But to his listeners, anger from mainstream news outlets and Democratic politicians serves as proof positive that Limbaugh is on the right track. And even after his apology Monday, Limbaugh quickly turned to suggest it was "leftists" who had instigated the ugly tone on the contraception debate.

To do permanent harm to the talk radio host, the activists aligning against him -- largely via social media -- would have to expand and sustain their advertiser boycott for months, experts said. The analysts don't expect that to happen, though they acknowledged that, even for the reliably outrageous Limbaugh, targeting a virtually unknown private citizen with sexually charged vitriol was problematic new territory.

"This is more serious than what we have seen before," said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor who studies radio and TV commentators. "But my guess is that it will be short-lived and that other advertisers will come into the marketplace after a suitable interval to replace the ones that have gone away."

At least one advertiser stepped forward Monday to acknowledge increasing its ad spending on the Limbaugh program. A spokesman for Winning Our Future, a "super PAC" backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential bid, said the group purchased more airtime.

"He apologized and we're satisfied," said spokesman Rick Tyler, who said the group began advertising with the program two weeks ago.

The GOP presidential contenders showed no inclination to pick a fight with Limbaugh. Front-runner Mitt Romney said only, "It's not the language I would have used," and Rick Santorum, a conservative Roman Catholic, called Limbaugh an "entertainer" who should be given latitude to be "absurd."

Romney's careful response speaks to the sway Limbaugh holds with conservative voters, said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

"If he had already won Super Tuesday and was on his way to nailing down the nomination, he could have stood up on this," Schnur said. "But he hasn't and so he can't.... No Republican who depends on support from [Limbaugh's] listeners is going to want to start a fight with him."

That did not mean that all party faithful wanted the status quo to prevail. McCain said he understood Limbaugh's popularity among conservatives, but he told ABC News: "Those statements were unacceptable in every way and should be condemned by everyone, no matter what their political leanings are."

Republican strategist Mark McKinnon said he hoped the controversy would mark a tipping point, persuading GOP officeholders and candidates to stay off Limbaugh's program.

"Rush Limbaugh may have done more damage to the brand of the Republican Party than all of Mitt Romney's gaffes combined," said McKinnon, who was a senior campaign advisor to President George W. Bush. "If Rush really cared about regaining the Republican majority and the presidency, then he would never issue such verbal flame-throwing."

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