WASHINGTON -- Ed Schultz and Sean Hannity have found something they can agree on: It was wrong for liberals to launch a campaign targeting Rush Limbaugh's advertisers after he called a law student a "slut."
Schultz is one of the most outspoken liberals on the left-leaning MSNBC network, recently taking up the cause of the labor movement in the Wisconsin recall elections. Hannity is the Ed Schultz of Fox News. Both are forces on talk radio in their own rights.
But at the Talkers New Media Seminar on June 7 in New York City, Schultz broke with the progressive community and criticized it for going after Limbaugh. "If we start attacking advertisers because of what somebody said -- it's the wrong thing to do," he said.
Schultz told the audience that he called Media Matters founder David Brock earlier in the year and expressed his displeasure with the fact that his group was targeting Limbaugh's advertisers. Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog group, had demanded that the advertisers drop the right-wing radio host over his controversial comments about Sandra Fluke, the law student.
"I need you to know what's happening," Schultz said he told Brock, recounting his conversation. "'This is what's happening. There's a lot of people getting hurt. This is going too far. It's my opinion, you can take it for what it's worth.'"
A source familiar with the call between Brock and Schultz confirmed that Schultz reached out and they had a "short" conversation, which was "cordial" and "polite."
"Media Matters has a philosophical disagreement with Ed here," Brock told The Huffington Post.
Schultz was concerned that other talk radio hosts would become collateral damage in what was supposed to be a precision strike on Limbaugh. "Don't attack advertisers. It's too hard on the spoken word," he said at the Talkers conference.
The concern is not an idle one. Interviews with industry insiders on the left and right reveal that Schultz's fears were well founded: Corporate advertisers, in the wake of the Limbaugh-Fluke controversy, have broadly pulled back from talk radio across the political spectrum, unwilling to take the risk of being associated with comments that could offend half of their customer base or more.
"People pull out when it's too polarizing. They don't care what you're talking about," said one producer of a popular conservative show.
In the wake of the Limbaugh controversy, nearly 100 advertisers asked Premiere Radio Networks that their ads not appear on any "controversial" show -- a request that extended beyond Limbaugh. And recently, the CEO of Cumulus, one of the biggest radio companies in the country, said the Limbaugh campaign cost him "millions" in lost revenue.
Sam Seder, co-host of the liberal show "Ring of Fire," which can be heard on more than 60 affiliates across the country, said that the broad pullback is reminiscent of a blackout that Air America once faced, where ad buyers, worried about offending conservatives, would tell stations to avoid placing its ads on programs affiliated with the now-defunct progressive network.
"It really seems to me to be similar to that blacklist. Essentially they're saying, 'Take our radio budget, but don't place us on political talk radio,'" Seder said. "It's not a new dynamic, it's that the scope of the risk-averseness has grown."
For Schultz to bemoan the attack on Rush in front of a talk radio audience, said the producer for the conservative show, doesn't erase the fact that he promoted it on his own program. "Every night Schultz was on TV keeping a count of the advertisers Rush was losing every day," said the producer, who requested anonymity so as not to raise attention from commercial sponsors. "To flip flop and kind of align yourself with what makes sense at any given moment, that's not OK ... If we're gonna play fair, you do something like Sean [Hannity] did. You say, if you don't like it, turn the dial."
The rise of social media has made talk radio a fatter target, as an idle comment can quickly throttle around the Internet. Meanwhile, corporations watch their Twitter mentions with the sensitivity of a seventh grader. "It's hurt progressive/liberal talk radio," said one progressive talk radio insider in an email when asked about the fallout from the Limbaugh assault. "The issue is the transparency that comes with social media. Programming doesn't even have to BE controversial. It just has to be PERCEIVED as controversial. If 10 people on Twitter claim your program is controversial and point their attention in the direction of a sponsor, the noise they create is enough to make an advertiser skittish."
The insider, who didn't want to draw attention to the show for which he works by speaking on the record, added that "this goes beyond political talk radio. It's impacting news broadcasts as well. Some well regarded news operations are feeling the effects because their content just HAPPENS to be on a station that carries Limbaugh. Of course, that trickles down to the hardworking people on a more local level. If the intention was to cause maximum damage to Rush Limbaugh, they missed the target by a mile."
The medium is also getting hit by structural trends working against it, Seder said. With the growth of satellite radio and online streaming, commercial AM/FM radio has a diminished audience and influence.
"Talk radio is struggling as an industry, so the cost-benefit analysis is different than it was five years ago," he said. "So corporate advertisers are simply saying, 'It's not worth it for me to take the risk that there's some type of blowback that I'll be associated with some talk or controversy.'"
Listen to the biggest talk radio hosts today -- Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and others -- and you're likely to hear ads from as many political as commercial entities, a sign of a corporate retreat. Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation and the ultra-conservative Hillsdale College appear regularly as sponsors. (The producer at the national conservative show noted that commercial brands such as 1-800-FLOWERS still advertise on right-wing shows.)
At the Talkers summit, Hannity said that people who disagree with what a talk radio host is saying should simply tune out, rather than go after advertisers.
"If liberals don't reject Media Matters crossing this line -- and they keep going out there on NBC News at night, and they keep saying, 'Rush lost another advertiser! Rush lost another advertiser! Glenn Beck's going down!' -- then the very people that came into my office that want to silence them and shut them down are going to fight back," he said. "And there's plenty on the left and plenty on the right, and I think the obvious answer is, we tell people we disagree, but change the dial."
Limbaugh's situation is not totally unfamiliar to Schultz. In May 2011, he referred to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham as a "right-wing slut" on his radio show. He apologized for his remark before MSNBC put him on a week-long suspension.
MSNBC said Schultz was out of town and unavailable for comment.
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