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Eric Boehlert Headshot

Rush Limbaugh's Three-Week Train Wreck

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Fueled by a heady bout of denial as practiced by an egomaniac, and cheered on by a fan base of enablers, Rush Limbaugh's long-running Sandra Fluke saga is still generating national headlines on its 22nd day, an eternity in today's sped-up news climate.

How has the story of an AM talker's offensive chatter been able to sustain itself for so long? Why did the Washington Post run a front-page Style section story about the talk radio tumult 19 days after Limbaugh first called Fluke a "slut"? Because Limbaugh and his conservative cheerleaders have made every possible miscue in dealing with the public relations crisis, thereby stubbornly feeding the damaging story for weeks on end.

The missteps have been innumerable. Aside from the enormous one that was Limbaugh's original three-day misogynistic smear campaign against a law student, the blunders have included Limbaugh refusing to take responsibility for the totality of his actions. They have also included his media defenders refusing to condemn Limbaugh's actions (and often even refusing to describe what they were), while casting him as the true victim of menacing censors.

There has also been the continued public bullying of Fluke, the wildly misguided attack on her boyfriend and her boyfriend's Jewish heritage, as well as the loopy conspiracies about the White House's alleged role in the story and how the grassroots advertising campaign that's knocked more than 50 sponsors off Limbaugh's show isn't somehow real. (It's "astroturf"!)

The blunders, all of which stemmed from an inability (or refusal) to simply do the right thing in the wake of the talkers' obviously offensive behavior, helped transform the Fluke story into a media evergreen.

The punch line from the self-inflected, three-week public relations debacle? Limbaugh gets paid $400 million to be a communicator.

One of the key reasons that the story has unfolded the way it has is because so many right-wing commentators agreed with Limbaugh's nasty evisceration of Fluke's character. (I.e. she's a "slut," a "tool," a "skank" and "rent-a-cooch.") Like him, they labeled her a greedy nympho unable to contain her sexual urges, arguing she deserved to be ridiculed for demanding taxpayers subsidize her raucous campus sex life.

So if Limbaugh's enablers actually believed those wholesale mischaracterizations about Fluke and her public testimony about access to contraception, of course they weren't going to retreat in the face of the controversy. Of course they were going to keep attacking "alleged victim" Fluke and refuse to apologize for the ugliness.

That stubborn ignorance simply added fuel to the fire by emboldening Limbaugh's taunting posture in the days following his two forced and limited apologies. That's what likely led Limbaugh to boast that his listeners didn't even think his smearing comments about Fluke were "that big of a deal to begin with." (Because what's the best way to win back scared advertisers in the wake of a controversy than to suggest the controversy was overblown in the first place?)

And when not openly cheering Limbaugh's verbal assault on Fluke, conservatives did their best to cover-up. At National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg played down the sexual smears by suggesting Fluke was treated by Limbaugh the same way Joe the Plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher, was treated by the press during the 2008 campaign. (Really?)

But the right-wing media's denial has been a hallmark of the three-week Limbaugh controversy, and it began instantaneously. On the morning of March 2nd, just as the Limbaugh story began to make headlines, Republican Carly Fiorina appeared on CBS This Morning and rightfully condemned his Fluke comments as "insulting" and "incendiary."

If most conservative commentators had followed Fiorina's lead the Fluke story would have likely played out in a couple of days as Limbaugh took his well-deserved lumps. Instead, within hours CNN contributor Erick Erickson posted a pointed condemnation of Fiorina. "We should be insulted with Fluke, but Fiorina is insulted by Limbaugh," wrote Erickson, perfectly capturing the siege mentality that quickly enveloped so much of the conservative media.

It was Limbaugh who was the victim; the put-up target of a bully's assault. But what about all those ugly comments he made? They were simply flushed down the memory hole, as his enablers did their best to whitewash Limbaugh's bizarre behavior by making only vague, passing references to the talker's three-day attack, turning them into a single comment, or by completely mischaracterizing his actions [emphasis added]:

-Dana Loesch: "The Left targeted Limbaugh over his disagreement with the sentiments expressed in a White House set-up on birth control."

-Laura Ingraham: "I think he made a mistake."

-Greg Gutfeld: "An unforced error."

-Michelle Malkin: "I'm sorry the civility police now have an opening to demonize the entire right based on one radio comment."

-Tucker Carlson: Rush Limbaugh said some nasty things about a Georgetown law student named Sandra Fluke

Like most hate radio enablers, Carlson never ever actually explained what "nasty things" were said about Fluke. But how could he?

How could Carlson write a column doing his best to downplay the controversy while at the same time detailing Limbaugh's unseemly suggestion that Fluke was having sex as a twelve year old, or that Limbaugh demanded Fluke post sexual videos of herself online so everyone could watch her in the act.

The truth is Limbaugh dealt conservatives like Carlson an unwinnable hand. And yet they tried to play it, over and over again. That's why three weeks later the story's still making news.

Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters blog.