Why It's Good That the Rush Limbaugh Boycott Failed

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The only way to beat the broadcaster is to persuade his listeners he's wrong, not force him off the air while leaving his avid audience in place.

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As one of Rush Limbaugh's staunchest critics, it was satisfying to see him acknowledge, after calling Sandra Fluke a slut and prostitute, that his words were indefensible. Perhaps the episode caused some listeners to rethink the esteem in which they hold the talk-radio host. Had it caused them all to do so I'd be celebrating his demise: What a wonderful thing it would be, for the right and America alike, if conservatives demanded more decency and intellectual honesty from their favorite broadcasters. But the campaign against his advertisers? It has reportedly failed to bring about his ouster from the airwaves. That's a disappointment to some of his critics. They insist his broadcast isn't "in the public interest." Any means to its end is fine by them.

To me, pressuring advertisers to abandon a popular broadcast is a mistaken approach. A shortcut. An exercise in coercion rather than persuasion. I'm glad it failed. I don't want him to go out that way.

My dislike of boycotts is general. Public discourse is most likely to thrive when advertising dollars flow to mass-media programs based only on the size of their audience, for once advertisers face boycotts based on content, it becomes difficult to broadcast anything that any interest group finds offensive. What remains is programming that avoids controversial subjects whenever possible. Contested ideas that might benefit from the crucible of public discourse are excluded from it. Dissent from widely held social norms becomes impossible. And society is shaped not by persuasion, but by whoever is most adept at eliciting in others a sense of grievance.

Boycotts inevitably result in terrible incentives.

When it comes to Rush Limbaugh in particular, the best outcome, however unlikely, would be maturation, contrition for his transgressions against accuracy and decency, and a determination to use his impressive talents more responsibly. Barring that, it would be wonderful if so many listeners were persuaded of his pathologies, or attuned to recognizing them, that steadily shrinking ratings resulted in diminished influence and perhaps even cancellation.

But forcing him off the air without denting the demand for his program is no victory at all, for it leaves unaddressed and undiminished the flawed thinking and impulses responsible for his popularity.

Where would those pathologies be funneled next? 

It's hard to tell.

Persuading a demagogue like Limbaugh to reform, or else showing his listeners why supporting him is an error in judgment, is thought to be a hopeless task by most of his critics, who've stopped thinking of Dittoheads as rational actors open to persuasion. While some of them are beyond persuasion, many are reasonable people who'd complicate their ideas about the host if exposed to the right arguments, especially if they came from the conservatives who see Limbaugh's flaws but keep quiet about them for a variety of reasons. A man who gets neither constructive nor harsh but accurate criticism from folks who share his ideology is bound to perform less well in the public arena than he otherwise might, and to bring discredit on the causes he purports to champion. Rather than trying to organize Limbaugh boycotts, his critics outside conservatism would do better to use the frequent occasions when he discredits himself as an opportunity for persuasion. Ask his listeners and apologists, "Why do you continue to associate yourself with a guy who has acted in all these ways you'd never dream of behaving yourself?"

Boycotts are won and lost on media savvy and the fervency of each side's supporters. Given metrics like those, any talk-radio blowhard could triumph. Whereas on logic, accuracy, and decency, Limbaugh cannot prevail. His opponents would do well to ensure that those metrics are ultimately determinative.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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