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Tribune Washington Bureau, Published March 05 2012

Despite apology, Limbaugh loses more advertisers

LOS ANGELES - 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. The quiet reaction suggested that “The Rush Limbaugh Show” might be too big to fail.

The controversy began last week, when the radio host addressed President Barack Obama's proposal that health insurance provide free birth control. Georgetown 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 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.”

The talk radio star may have been enduring a bigger blowback than any in memory - bigger than when he rooted for the newly inaugurated Obama to fail, for example. 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. Frontrunner Mitt Romney said only, “It's not the language I would have used,” while Rick Santorum, a conservative 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, noted Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“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 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 hopes 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."

Evidence that Limbaugh had pushed beyond his normally provocative boundaries came Monday with word that AOL, Heart & Body Extract, Bonobos and Tax Resolution Services would join seven other firms that earlier withdrew advertising from “The Rush Limbaugh Show.”

“Mr. Limbaugh's comments are not in line with our values,” said Maureen Sullivan, an AOL spokeswoman.

Radio executives credit Limbaugh with almost single-handedly demonstrating the potential power and profitability of political talk on radio. His deal with Premiere Radio Networks pays him $400 million over eight years, an amount he can increase by a provision that reserves him a portion of the ad sales on his show.

Berry, the Tufts professor, and Michael Harrison, publisher of trade magazine Talkers, said that Limbaugh's audience is large enough and attractive enough to advertisers that others will eventually take up the slack.

“As long as Limbaugh maintains that major audience and has the brains to apologize when he says something that really was uncalled for, like this, there will be new advertisers who will fill in those positions,” Harrison said. “Since when has the American advertising industry been concerned with taste?”

Glenn Beck left his opinion show at Fox News because of the combination of declining ratings and a prolonged advertiser boycott that came after a series of inflammatory comments by Beck, including comparing liberal leaders to the Nazis.

Talk-radio host Don Imus lost his job with CBS radio and MSNBC in 2007 after making disparaging, racially charged comments about members of the Rutgers women's basketball team. But Harrison said he thought Imus was in a weaker position because his audience was far smaller than Limbaugh's. Imus subsequently returned to television on Fox Business Channel.

Berry said that Limbaugh and other provocative commentators on the left and right never remain for long in a defensive crouch. Indeed Limbaugh on Monday had already begun to rally his listeners against what he said was an attack by “leftists.” He said the opponents “call me and other conservatives the most rude and explicit names, never an apology. ... That's the difference between them and us, and it's one more reason why ultimately we will prevail over them.”