Thursday, March 08, 2012

Media Misogyny and Rush Limbaugh

Kirsten Powers, Democratic news analyst for Fox News and former Clinton Administration staffer, complains, Rush Limbaugh Isn’t the Only Media Misogynist. She is, in effect, accusing the political left of hypocrisy for attacking Rush Limbaugh's decades of undisguised misogyny, because she can identify a handful of ostensibly liberal commentators and comedians who hold or have expressed misogynistic views.
Yes, it’s true. Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, and Ed Schultz have been waging it for years with their misogynist outbursts. There have been boycotts by people on the left who are outraged that these guys still have jobs. Oh, wait. Sorry, that never happened.
I think Powers' heart is in the right place. That is, I think it's appropriate to bring attention to sexist comments and beliefs by powerful media figures, and to hold them to account for their statements. But she picks an odd set of examples, both in terms of substance and degree, and rather than focusing on the underlying issue - the continued acceptance of a certain level of misogyny by the nation's media and population at large - she implies that the worse problem is hypocrisy by those who are outraged by Limbaugh but either didn't know about or didn't express similar outrage in relation to the ostensibly left-wing figures she lists.

My position on Limbaugh is pretty simple: If people wanted to be outraged by his sexism, race-baiting and inflammatory banter, they have decades of examples to choose from. The difference between then and now is not that Limbaugh has suddenly made a statement that's materially different from his more outrageous statements of past years. The difference is that he built himself a juggernaut, and advertisers have to include the potential for his outrage - wild accusations that they're trying to silence him and are tools of the evil political left - in their calculus of whether or not they should pay the high cost of advertising on his show. One or two advertisers quit over this type of statement, they're open to attack. But there's safety in numbers - so once a certain tipping point was reached other advertisers felt comfortable joining in the "boycott".

Limbaugh's future as a radio figure is similarly based upon economics. If he can sustain a sufficient base of listeners and advertisers, his show will go on. If not, he'll probably be off somewhere playing cards with Glenn Beck, reminiscing about the good old days when demagoguery, race-baiting and misogyny were considered to be wholesome American values.

Some of Powers' examples of sexist statements by (ostensibly) liberal commentators are unquestionably sexist. Some are simply offensive, with no sexual component. Some should really have been omitted from her essay, or miss the actual issue.1 But even with her most outrageous example of a left-leaning media figure who holds misogynistic views, Bill Maher, she misses the point. She lists off some of the outrageous things he has said about women, then complains,
Liberals—you know, the people who say they “fight for women”—comprise Maher’s audience, and a parade of high-profile liberals make up his guest list. Yet have any of them confronted him? Nope. That was left to Ann Coulter, who actually called Maher a misogynist to his face, an opportunity that feminist icon Gloria Steinem failed to take when she appeared on his show in 2011.
Okay... let's give credit where credit is due to the right-wing demagogue and misogynistic Ann "If we took away women's right to vote, we'd never have to worry about another Democrat president" Coulter for calling her friend a misogynist during the course of her zillionth appearance on one of the shows he hosts. Who backed her up? The Nation's Christopher Hayes. The audience seemed to enjoy the exchange, and did nothing to suggest displeasure at the criticism of Maher.

If you want excuses not to watch Maher's show, he gives you plenty. He is contemptuous of religion, he frequently makes anti-Muslim statements, he advocates the use of illegal drugs, he holds positions on medicine that would be downright dangerous if followed by society at large, he often plays softball with guests who make absurd statements and panders to those who share his more eccentric views, and of course he's at times disparaging to women. I'm sure I missed a few dozen other reasons not to watch Maher's show. (If you are intellectually dishonest for paying attention to a political commentator who holds a view you find offensive, you may as well throw out your TV and radio.)

Most people in Maher's audience don't watch his show because they agree with him on those issues, they watch Maher in spite of his positions. If he were to make those positions the centerpiece of his show, he would soon be off the air. Limbaugh, on the other hand, is giving his audience exactly what it wants. Why is Limbaugh already back to making misogynistic comments on his show? Because if tones things down, even to the level of Maher, he's over.

It should also be recalled that many of the comments that Powers suggests were excused by the poltical left, in fact, triggered significant outrage and at times significant consequence for the speaker.

Maher stands as a great example of my earlier point. After years of making outrageous statements on a show called "Politically Incorrect", and providing a platform to misogynistic guests like Ann Coulter,2 Maher made a comment about suicide bombers that caught the nation's eye, and created the type of snowball effect - lost sponsors, lost network affiliates - that presently threatens Limbaugh. So his network fired him. Boycotts? There's no indication that any of Limbaugh's advertisers felt any economic pressure, save perhaps from the high cost of advertising on his show, or that the network affiliates who dropped the show were worried about their revenues as opposed to filling the same airtime with cheaper content.

So yes, recognize misogyny where you find it. Criticize it without double standards - or false parallels. But don't forget that at the end of the day, as far as media companies and their advertisers are concerned, it's all about the money. Right now, unfortunately, that means that change almost always needs to come from the top, down.
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1. By way of a small example, Powers finds it inherently sexist that Matt Taibbi called Michelle Bachmann "batshit crazy". But Taibbi has used the same epithet against Rand Paul.

2. Guess which guest on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrectsaid,
I think [women] should be armed but should not [be allowed to] vote. No, they all have to give up their vote, not just, you know, the lady clapping and me. The problem with women voting -- and your Communists will back me up on this -- is that, you know, women have no capacity to understand how money is earned. They have a lot of ideas on how to spend it. And when they take these polls, it's always more money on education, more money on child care, more money on day care.

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