Conservative talker Rush Limbaugh used to tell his listeners that the government was trying to silence him, based on a completely bogus tale about what the Fairness Doctrine would do.
This time around, it's an ad campaign by the liberal group Media Matters for America directed at some of the stations that air Limbaugh's show. The group is encouraging citizens to contact stations and let them know they object to Limbaugh's degrading, sexist comments about Sandra Fluke.
So what's the controversy? Fox News host Bill O'Reilly thundered (3/22/12) that "the far-left is a primary source of censorship in America." He went on:
There is something very fascist about all of this. Shut down your opposition, don't let them speak. Punish people who support them. In every totalitarian state in the world, that is tactic No 1. Silence the opposition.
It's not surprising that O'Reilly–who's got a history of calling for boycotts to punish artists he doesn't like–would say this, but even in mainstream coverage there are some curious ideas floating around.
Radio stations operate on the public airwaves, and in theory are obligated to consider the public interest of their communities. These Media Matters ads encourage listeners to tell stations that they don't think Limbaugh's rhetoric is appropriate for their community. This is apparently causing some consternation. As the Associated Press (3/22/12) reports,
the group's stance has provoked concerns that an effort to silence someone for objectionable talk is in itself objectionable.
It'd be interesting to see someone make that case. The AP doesn't really have that, though. The most strident defense of Limbaugh comes from his syndicator:
"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."
Rush Limbaugh, of course, has no First Amendment right that prohibits people from criticizing him. The AP account goes on to say
Beyond the First Amendment concerns, industry experts like Talkers magazine publisher Michael Harrison are concerned that Media Matters' effort will simply take some advertisers out of radio altogether when they have different options.
So the real story isn't so much about the First Amendment; it's about activists who are encouraging advertisers to stay away from Limbaugh's show. There's something ironic about this; Limbaugh once bragged about the "confiscatory" rates he was able to charge advertisers, so perhaps some of them might have decided it was time to stop getting ripped off.
But the role of advertisers in a commercial media system is worth examining. FAIR has long argued that sponsors have considerable power to shape content– a failure to secure corporate sponsorship makes some programming less viable from the very outset. In 2006 FAIR reported on an internal memo from the ABC Radio Networks that instructed stations to keep an array of commercials off of liberal Air America programming. Apparently those companies did not want to be associated with that kind of programming.
So the need to produce a product that will not offend corporate sponsors has a direct effect on what kind of programming is deemed viable in a corporate-dominated commercial system. For decades, Limbaugh's far-right, routinely offensive chatter was OK with corporate advertisers. The same would likely not be true for a progressive talk show.
Corporate advertising, in other words, is not value-neutral. Far from it. Advertising is what has made Rush Limbaugh's radio career so lucrative, for himself and the stations that air him. Citizens who speak out against his show aren't infringing on his First Amendment rights. They're using their First Amendment rights to challenge him.