Astro-Turf War: Media Matters After Limbaugh

Is the campaign targeting Rush's advertisers driven by the leftist group's funding desperation?

Stoking the fires of controversy, Media Matters for America has upped the ante in its war with Rush Limbaugh and will spend $100,000 to buy radio ads in 8 cities calling on citizens to force the talk radio star off the air. The ad buy is part of a carefully coordinated war that the left is carrying out against Limbaugh as they seek to silence one of the major conservative voices in the nation.

Limbaugh has responded by accusing the liberal front group for the Democratic party of seeking to censor his -- and any other views -- with which it disagrees. And there has been a spillover effect into government as the Los Angeles City Council has adopted a symbolic resolution that calls on radio stations to police their on-air talent's "hate speech" while arguing that stations need to hire more minorities so that there is a "diversity" of viewpoints.

The ad campaign by Media Matters is just the latest broadside in their long standing effort to purge the radio host from the airwaves. This time, there appears to be a little more urgency to their work. Could it be that the liberal website has been bleeding so much traffic over the last year that they desperately need to stoke the fires of activism in order to boost outside revenue? According to Site Analytics, in February, 2011 Media Matters welcomed 603,000 unique visitors. A year later in February, 2012, that number had fallen off a cliff, as the website got only 276,000 for the month. That's a catastrophic drop of 54%. What better way to increase revenue than gin up outrage and declare war on the biggest target on talk radio?

Writing at Big Government, Ben Shapiro points out that since the Daily Caller's brutal exposé of Media Matters and its weird, paranoid founder David Brock, that detailed charges "including funding from left-wing allies, bizarre office hijinks, anti-Semitic employees, backdoor payoffs to former lovers, and connections with the Obama Administration, the organization remains largely silent" about the substance of the accusations in DC's articles. In a way, Limbaugh's comments have been a godsend to MMFA as it has deflected attention from the DC series while allowing the organization to implement a plan it has actually had in the works for 3 years.

That plan is detailed by William Jacobson of the blog Legal Insurrection. The effort to silence Limbaugh goes back at least to 2009 and is headed up by the Media Matters Director for Online Strategy Angelo Carusone. He admitted to the Village Voice:

I initially rolled it out in late 2009 and early 2010. At the time, the Beck work was doing well. I thought that in dealing with advertisers, some really appreciated being educated about where their ads were running. The ad market took care of this. The word “boycott,” it’s very rare that I called for a boycott or attacked a company. For the most part, I let advertisers know where there money was being spent, where it was going, and what it was helping. They made the decision themselves.

Carusone engineered astro-turfed campaigns on social media, bombarding advertisers for Limbaugh with threats. Limbaugh's spokesman points out:

These Media Matters mobs bear a simple message: Renounce our enemies or become one of them. They distribute target lists of advertiser phone numbers, email addresses, Facebook links and Twitter handles, and then they come out of nowhere, en masse, against selected advertisers in rotation. They barrage small business with threats until they cancel their advertising.

Several dozen advertisers gave in to the pressure, which only made the attacks even more hysterical. There was blood in the water and Media Matters and its sharks were in a feeding frenzy. What is lost in all this social media churning is that only a handful of stations have dropped Limbaugh from their talk radio lineup. He may be losing some advertisers, but the owners of Clear Channel and other networks aren't stupid. It would be economic suicide to cancel a show that attracts upwards of 20 million listeners a day. It's why MMFA and other liberals like Jane Fonda who want the FCC to throw Limbaugh off the air, are dreaming.

Indeed, there has even been something of a backlash against this urge to purge by MMFA from some leftists. Several liberals criticized Fonda for wanting to use government to stifle speech with which they disagree. And Bill Mahar, whose vile comments about conservative women like Sarah Palin have crossed the lines of decency, writes in the New York Times:

The answer to whenever another human being annoys you is not “make them go away forever.” We need to learn to coexist, and it’s actually pretty easy to do. For example, I find Rush Limbaugh obnoxious, but I’ve been able to coexist comfortably with him for 20 years by using this simple method: I never listen to his program.

Of course, there are far more people on the left cheering Media Matters and Jane Fonda on, but it is significant that there are liberals who realize the danger in not just criticizing, but actively working to silence someone with whom they disagree.

Now comes the ad campaign that Media Matters thinks will force Limbaugh from the airwaves. The two ads use Limbaugh's own words about Sandra Fluke. They will run in 8 cities: Boston; Chicago; Detroit; Seattle; Milwaukee; St. Louis; Macon, Ga.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. AP reports that the ads are designed "to support active local campaigns against Limbaugh or because of perceptions Limbaugh may be vulnerable in that market." Carusone told AP, "What we're really looking for is a way to demonstrate the persistence of the effort and the fact that it is on a wide scale."

Some pundits worry that if Media Matters were to be successful, it would start a full scale war with both sides seeking to silence voices with which they disagree. But there really isn't much of a chance that Media Matters will do anything except gin up outrage and fill its coffers. In fact, the more they go after Limbaugh, the more popular he becomes on the right. In a sense, MMFA is playing right into Rush's hands.

But one of the most troubling aspects of the effort to get Limbaugh off the air is how government now feels comfortable getting involved in "hate speech" controversies. The Los Angeles City Council passed a non-binding resolution calling on local stations to police their broadcasts in order to eliminate insensitive remarks and comments that cross the line of decency. The resolution is part of the fallout over controversial comments made by local "shock jocks" John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou who referred to Whitney Houston 3 days after her death as a "crack ho." The two hosts were suspended for a week and must attend sensitivity classes before they return to the air.

But the resolution also mentioned Limbaugh's comments about Sandra Fluke. Jeff Goldstein, a blogger who has been writing about the issues surrounding free speech and language for years, explains what the City Council is actually saying:

[A]s is evident in the proposal by this local city council, this is not really about “offensive” speech at all: it is instead about controlling speech, and that will be accomplished, once the left (with the blessings from a timid “right”) is able to take legal steps to enshrine PC laws, by empowering politically-motivated interpretive communities to decide what comes to count as offensive in the first place. Beyond that even, the empowerment here is extended to pretensions on the part of those putatively offended to determine when a certain type of speech is being “promoted” — which speaks to intent — though real intent will always be bracketed by the complainants should they believe it not to match the formulations they decide are offensive.

Goldstein notes that the trap we fall into is that those who are "offended" by the speech are the only ones with the "moral authority" to determine if something qualifies as "hate speech." There is no objective standard so that those who refuse to "abide by the strictures" of speech as determined by the identity group, "simply don't pass the 'litmus test' designed by the left to guarantee compliance to their ideological and policy agendas."

There's a reason we have a First Amendment. It is to guarantee that even speech with which you disagree is protected by government. Censorship -- whether practiced by government or political organizations -- is hazardous to democracy which lives and breathes because there is an unfettered exchange of ideas. Even when people are screaming at each other, each side must be heard -- even if the two sides aren't listening to each other. The principle has stood us well over the years, and when it is threatened by a front group for a political party, all must rush to defend the principle, if not the speech itself.

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