Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh continues to face a firestorm of reaction this week, over his throwback misogynistic comments about Sandra Fluke, a young college student who testified before Congress in support of birth control insurance coverage.
After years of derogatory and intolerant rants, Limbaugh is now facing real consequences — to date, he has lost 25 major advertisers and a syndicated broadcast partner. It used to be acceptable to offend great swaths of the American public on the airwaves, because there was no effective way to demand better. Today, community organizing is doing more than ever before to hold media accountable to society – and social media is making that possible.
The impact of losing advertising revenue is not insignificant. Recently, advocates and community groups led by ColorOfChange put pressure on advertisers to pull their money from Glenn Beck show on the Fox News Channel. After about a year without major advertisers, Beck’s show went dark. The pressure on advertisers relied on the power of everyday people speaking out through online petitions, on Facebook and Twitter, and in opinion pieces on websites like this one.
Our goal with the Beck campaign was to keep advertisers away from his show indefinitely. By hitting Fox where it hurts — in the pocketbook — we made Beck’s brand of playing on racial fears no longer profitable to Fox. To put the strategy in motion, we mobilized the ColorOfChange membership and asked them to ask the brands supporting Beck to consider whether they really wanted to associate their brands with a firebrand and alienate customers who were offended by his race-baiting.
More than 285,000 ColorOfChange members participated in this campaign and worked to get roughly 300 companies to abandon Glenn Beck’s show. In April 2011, Beck announced he would be departing from Fox News.
Limbaugh, like Beck, uses his media platform to pass off prejudice and anger as legitimate political commentary. An amazing benefit of living in the digital age, however, is that otherwise disenfranchised voices have the ability to level the playing field by creating microphones of their own. Online organizing means that communities don’t require a nationally syndicated radio or television show to secure a voice as loud as those that the Limbaughs and Becks of the country have had.
And it seems that those in a position of power — especially those who have access to large audiences through the broadcast media — are increasingly vulnerable to the cost of their vitriolic rhetoric. Today, social media allows groups to find their voice and force change.
People like those represented by ColorOfChange are effectively using online organizing strategies to connect communities around the country, and direct their shared frustration about an issue or situation into a positive solution. The effectiveness of these campaigns has a lot to do with the fact that they aren’t necessarily directed against a network’s rating star or celebrity commentator. Instead, they are focused on how the shows are funded, hitting them in the pocketbook, where it is possible for them to feel actual pain.
Limbaugh’s advertisers are abandoning ship because of the outpouring of outrage from everyday people from all around the country. These companies don’t want their household brands tarnished by association with Limbaugh’s misogynistic views. Many brands go out of their way to cultivate women, who tend to make the majority of household purchasing decisions, and they aren’t comfortable being associated with views that alienate their customers. In the past, it was difficult to organize women, or any other marginalized community, into an effective protest. Facebook and Twitter have bridged the gap.
Rush Limbaugh is entitled to his opinions, and we defend his right to free speech. However, freedom of speech isn’t freedom from the consequences of speech. Groups such as ColorOfChange that represent America’s rich diversity are entitled — indeed, obligated — to speak out when broadcasted speech crosses the line into hate.
When we do that, we not only shine a spotlight on the voices of intolerance, but also on those who provide those voices a platform and sponsorship. In doing so, we ensure that dehumanizing messages of intolerance, prejudice, homophobia, racism and sexism don’t go unchecked, and that the voices of everyday people are elevated and heard.
Rashad Robinson is Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org. With over 800,000 members, ColorOfChange is the nation’s largest online civil rights organization. Follow Rashad Robinson on Twitter at @colorofchange.
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