Nothing brings out the hypocrisy of America's political class like the high-profile blunder of one of its celebrity members. Consider, for example, Rush Limbaugh's recent Tourette's moment, in which he defamed a law school student and woman's activist as a "slut" and "prostitute" because she favors contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans.
Democrats in Congress, attacking the conservative talk show host, claim to be outraged, shocked and offended. But, like Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca ("I'm shocked! Shocked to find gambling going on here!"), they are actually delighted! delighted! at Limbaugh's failure of self-censorship, and not remotely surprised by the sentiments so revealed. For liberals in Washington, Limbaugh's gaffe is like a warm, sunny day in February.
Conservatives are no less hypocritical. While distancing themselves from Limbaugh's remarks, Republicans in Congress emphasize the "sincerity" of his apology and criticize liberals for not accepting it at face value. But conservatives don't for a minute believe that Limbaugh didn't mean what he said. He is sincere to be sure: sincerely regretful that, because of his remarks, at least two radio stations have announced they will no longer carry his talk show, while over 40 advertisers (as of this writing) have severed ties to the besieged pundit.
In apologizing, is Limbaugh saying 1) he said it but didn't mean it, or 2) that he meant it but shouldn't have said it, or 3) that he meant it and said it but has since changed his mind on both counts? Option three seems improbable. And options one and two are not easily squared with a sincere apology.
President Obama, too, could not resist joining the fray while pretending to rise above it. The President reached out to the target of Limbaugh's verbal assault, Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University law school (and, you can count on it, future candidate for Congress). But if Obama wished to give her emotional support, rather than score political points, why go public with his phone call?
Worst of all are the advertisers who have fled Limbaugh's show, ostensibly to defend principles of decency and civility in broadcasting. (ProFlowers: Limbaugh's comments "do not reflect our values as a company;" Carbonite: "We hope that our action, along with the other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse.")
But under what rock have Limbaugh's ex-sponsors been hiding? His intemperate remarks in this latest incident are not out of character. This episode is nothing new. The rant against Ms. Fluke is typical of Limbaugh's rants, which are an essential part of his radio persona. Advertisers have flocked to his program precisely because of the popularity of his incendiary and controversial commentary.
The same advertisers are now leaving because they fear that the intense publicity surrounding Limbaugh's contraceptives gaffe will cause some of their customers, or potential customers, to view them as complicit in Limbaugh's tirade. Although Limbaugh's show is always offensive to someone, the advertisers worry that this time he has managed to offend lots of their customers, too. Because advertisers are by nature risk-averse and have many advertising options, they are choosing to take their ad dollars elsewhere. A simple business decision.
Limbaugh can have no complaint with his listeners who, fed up with his over-the-top rhetoric, opt to turn him off. Their shopping in the "marketplace of ideas" is an exercise enshrined in the constitution. The metaphor of a competitive marketplace implies the right not to buy, or to reject one seller in favor of another. The corollary is that no single seller can force itself on unwilling customers.
While advertisers are subject to no First Amendment constraint in canceling their ads on Limbaugh's show, and while Limbaugh assumes the risk that he may lose advertisers who are frightened by his extreme positions or personal attacks, the haste of advertisers to pull the plug on a controversial program -- whether on radio, TV or the internet -- is always regrettable.
It is regrettable, though not illegal, because it induces self-censorship by the programmer. You may welcome self-censorship in the case of Limbaugh (or Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly). You may be less enthusiastic about self-censorship by Rachel Maddow or Paul Krugman. (Or vice versa).
The flight of advertisers from Limbaugh will be defended by many as the market mechanism through which the public's views are expressed. To me, it's just cowardice.
Peter Scheer, a journalist and lawyer, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. www.firstamendmentcoalition.org
Follow Peter Scheer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pscheer1stA