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Duly Noted

Tuesday, Mar 13, 2012, 10:44 am

Please Don’t Sic the FCC on Rush Limbaugh

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons.

Feminist luminaries Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem are asking the Federal Communications Commission to consider whether Rush Limbaugh has forfeited his share of the public airwaves by saying hateful things about women, blacks, gays, "overeducated" single ladies, and a litany of other groups and individuals too lengthy enumerate here:

If Clear Channel won't clean up its airways, then surely it's time for the public to ask the FCC a basic question: Are the stations carrying Limbaugh's show in fact using their licenses "in the public interest?"

Spectrum is a scarce government resource. Radio broadcasters are obligated to act in the public interest and serve their respective communities of license. In keeping with this obligation, individual radio listeners may complain to the FCC that Limbaugh's radio station (and those syndicating his show) are not acting in the public interest or serving their respective communities of license by permitting such dehumanizing speech.

The FCC takes such complaints into consideration when stations file for license renewal. For local listeners near a station that carries Limbaugh's show, there is plenty of evidence to bring to the FCC that their station isn't carrying out its public interest obligation. Complaints can be registered under the broadcast category of the FCC website:

Technically, this is not a call for censorship. It's a call for the FCC to consider whether censorship might be appropriate, given Rush's penchant for hate speech. That's a distinction without a difference. Fonda and her co-authors are strongly implying that if the FCC enforced its own rules fairly, the regulators would decide that Rush deserves some kind of official sanction.

I agree with Jill Filipovic of feministe, this is a strategic blunder. There's no question that Rush is hateful. He is, after all, the man who coined the term "Feminazi."

However, Rush's bloviating serves the public interest insofar as it offers clear evidence of attitudes that a significant minority of the population shares, but which most people are too timid to voice on their own.

Apparently, a non-trivial number of people think that birth control makes women slutty. They don't call Limbaugh the Unrestrained Id of the Republican party for nothing. Lots of people on his side were thinking it, but he went and said it. He provoked his own side into showing their true colors. Thanks to Rush, we have been able to counter the misogyny head on instead of solemnly pretending that the controversy over the Obama birth control mandate is about freedom of religion. Think of Rush as a kind of Unholy Fool. 

The attempt to involve the FCC is also tactically shortsighted. Rush and his whiney fans live to feel victimized. Nothing will reinvigorate them faster than a high-profile feminist enemy evoking the threat of government censorship. We laugh at conservatives when they complain to the FCC about "indecency" on Oprah or Glee. Feminists who complain about Rush are going to end up looking equally silly to people who don't already agree with us.

Also, the FCC is unlikely to do anything to Rush. So, this campaign is simultaneously squandering political capital and the moral high ground. 

The FCC campaign is also distraction from the phenomenally successful campaign to get sponsors to pull their ads from the Limbaugh show after his three-day hatefest for Sandra Fluke. Think Progress reports that 140 national companies have requested that their ads not be played on Rush's show.

A campaign to get sponsors to drop Rush is not censorship. Advertisers pay to be associated with media figures whose image reflects well on their brands. In fact, these firms have a duty to their investors to advertise in ways that enhance their corporate image.

If you were the CEO of a floral empire whose two main marketing messages are "Give women flowers, get sex!" and "Buy flowers for your sainted mother!" would it be wise to advertise with an anti-sex zealot who implies that your date, your mother, and 99% of all American women are subhuman garbage because they've used birth control?  Or if you were the CEO of a mattress company that specializes in customizable beds for couples, would you think it wise to support a radio host who is constantly intimating, "That woman next you, her Sleep Number is too high!"? Didn't think so. Rush has the right to say what he likes, but he doesn't have the right to get paid for it. Advertisers are taking their free speech elsewhere because hate is bad for business.

Critics of the advertiser divestment campaign have attempted to muddy the waters by mischaracterizing it as censorship. The Fonda/Morgan/Steinem letter risks tarnishing the divestment campaign by association. The two initiatives are separate, but they may become conflated in the public mind. Rush will certainly do his best to make that happen.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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