The passing of longtime radio personality Rush Limbaugh has sparked discourse on media bias and speaking ill of the dead.
To me, Limbaugh is one of many people on the American right who have dressed up bigoted hate speech as free speech, therefore making it patriotic.
A prime example of this behavior is Limbaugh’s public slander of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke. In 2012, Fluke stood before congress in support of covering medicinal contraceptives with health insurance from religiously affiliated institutions such as her aforementioned alma mater. The following quote was taken directly from Limbaugh’s program The Rush Limbaugh Show.
“What does it say about college coed Sandra Fluke who goes before [a] congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex, she can’t pay for her own contraceptives,” Limbaugh said.
This statement heavily aids the argument that men should not be involved in decisions made about contraception. A month’s worth of nearly every birth control is the same amount no matter how sexually active the woman using it is. Because hormonal birth control is used to treat symptoms such as acne and menstrual cramps, this includes women who are not sexually active at all. Limbaugh did not stop there.
“Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,” Limbaugh said.
The list of abhorrent and hateful statements Limbaugh directed towards women, Black people, indigenous people, and the LGBT+ community is extensive. It is important to note that this commentary would not have been allowed on national airwaves one year before Limbaugh’s syndicated radio premier.
For almost 40 years, the Federal Communications Commission upheld a policy called the Fairness Doctrine. Under this doctrine, the FCC expected radio broadcasters to inform listeners on controversial issues in an honest and balanced way. President Ronald Reagan vetoed congress’ effort to turn this doctrine into federal law in 1987, as recorded in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library online archives.
By August of that year, the policy had been entirely abolished in a 4 – 0 vote by the FCC. While only two of the commissioners on this vote were Republicans, three were appointed to their position by President Reagan and the last was appointed by President Richard Nixon. The Rush Limbaugh Show was purchased and premiered only months later in 1988.
When speaking about paying respect to those who have passed away, I am reminded of a segment from Limbaugh’s show entitled “AIDS Update.” According to a 1998 article from the Los Angeles Times, Limbaugh used this segment to say “gays deserved their fate,” and play Donnie Warwick’s song “I’ll Never Love That Way Again.”
I want Limbaugh to be remembered in a way that is accurate. By this, I mean that his legacy must include his blatant misogyny, homophobia and racism. This man profited off of hatred as soon as the FCC permitted it, and rode it all the way to the highest honor an American civilian can receive. In 2020, former President Donald Trump awarded Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, putting his name with the likes of Stephen Hawking, Rosa Parks and Niel Armstrong.
As a woman, and someone with goals of working in political media, I am ashamed to share the field with someone like this man. If free speech on American airwaves allows for bigotry and conspiracy, perhaps it should be reconsidered. To quote the court ruling of the 1969 case Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, free speech is “the right of viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters.”