On one side, there is conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh doing what made him famous on the airwaves – throwing incendiary word bombs. This time, he dubbed a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and a "prostitute” after she said at a congressional hearing that insurance should cover contraceptives.
On the other side, a one-two punch: social media amplifying the concerns of a wave of protesters – particularly women – railing against what they saw as outdated misogyny.
I'm going to put this in terms that Sun Tzu would readily appreciate: asymetrical warfare.
Also known as "death by a billion tweets."
This isn't the first time Rush has mouthed off and been over-the-top offensive, and he's gotten away with it every time prior. It may very well end up being his last, however.
Why? Mostly because his criticism had been from outlets he could readily poo-poo as "liberal mainstream media," like media critics or talk show panels. It allowed him to focus his fire on those symbolic critics without ever addressing the underlying audience. He was fighting other dinosaurs and he was the biggest meanest of the herd. His targets were large and easily fought.
This allowed his fans, all 15 million of them (5% of the US population, believe it or not,) to discredit the criticism easily while ignoring the actual insulting behavior.
Yes, people have tried the boycott advertiser route with Rush in the past, and it hasn't worked because there hasn't been a critical mass-- it's much easier for conservative activists to gather the financial resources to launch an ad campaign-- achieved.
In the world of social media, that paradigm is broken, and in this spew Rush will lose. You don't need money to send a tweet to boycott Carbonite or Sears, and your hundred or thousand followers can read it. Multiply that by millions and then the tens of millions of re-tweets and replies, and next thing you know, AOL is synonymous with Rush Limbaugh.
And therefore, AOL becomes the responsible party for what Rush says. After all, they're paying big bucks to him to say it. Remember, tens and hundreds of millions of tweets will reinforce that appearance. That Rush is hemmoraghing advertisers-- despite his brash "they're coming back" claims to the contrary, he's still down a net of 35 by my count-- is not a surprise.
I mean, it's not like it's been a secret that Rush was offensive, but he had been able to clamp down the controversy quickly and it passed from public view.
Worse for Rush, it would be impossible to find each and every tweeter and start pulling their wings off: first, even if you could somehow devote the resources necessary to investigate tens of millions of tweets, you'd fail miserably in characterizing them because many of them are mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters of his listeners, which would diminish his audience right off the top, and second, the signal that sends is one of abject desperation.
Rush, predictably, blamed liberals. He resorted to "fighting the last war," and Sun Tzu would have chuckled. Meanwhile, the anthill he's stepped in is sending more and more ants (tweets and Tweeters) to attack him. And those tweets are flashing past the screens of people endlessly. Those free commercials for getting rid of Rush are far more common now than the actual commercials the advertisers paid for.
Of course, they ain't selling soap, they're selling the idea that advertising on Rush's program will get you a drop in sales. For companies like Sears, who just announced they were throwing in the towel, this amounts to suicide. And in an economy like ours, as feeble and straining as it is, bad news is not no news. It's bad news and that means a hit to the bottom line where today even a small hit can create a loss.
So Rush is left flailing not because he said something stupid-- as I pointed out, he's done that before and gotten away with it, so there's no reason to think he'd learned from those-- but because he failed to read the environment he was operating in. He believed he was safe from backlash, that if he battened down the hatches for a couple of days, the storm would pass.
It hasn't. It won't. And until Rush comes to God himself and makes a sincere apology taking responsibility for what he said and promising (as Keith Olbermann did last night) never to let it happen again, you can write his career off.