Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher Are Alike–and Also Very Different

As he loses advertisers by the handful over his comments about Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh’s supporters (there are a few!) and a few other commentators have found what I guess they believe is a good counter-argument: If you’re so offended by Limbaugh’s sexist, demeaning rants, they why are you silent about Bill Maher?

Some see a clear double standard. Fox News liberal Kirsten Powers wrote a column denouncing the left’s near-silence on the misogyny of Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi and Ed Schultz. And as one adviser to a Gingrich Super PAC put it, “Did USA Today call advertisers on Bill Maher’s show after what he said about Sarah Palin?”

That would be a pretty good argument if Maher’s commercial-free HBO show had advertisers.

One thing should be clear: Bill Maher has said some awfully offensive things. (He’d likely be the first to point this out to you.) He’s talked about the perils of dating Arab men (“Talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good”), called the Qu’ran a “hate-filled holy book” and expressed alarm about the popularity of the name Mohammed in Britain. (“Am I a racist to feel that I’m alarmed by that? Because I am. And it’s not because of the race, it’s ’cause of the religion. I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?”)

His misogynistic outbursts, many directed at Republican women, are numerous–Sarah Palin is a “dumb twat,” a Fox News anchor is a “blonde twink” and so on. Maher’s comments have provoked controversy, and leading feminists have taken him on over the years.

No sensible person would argue that Maher’s comments aren’t offensive. The real issue here, though, is the attempt to compare Limbaugh to Maher.

On that score, there’s no contest. Rush Limbaugh is a key player in the right-wing media machine, arguably still the most important voice in the conservative movement. Republican politicians–as we saw from the reactions of most of the presidential candidates–are leery of being seen as criticizing Limbaugh. The former head of the Republican National Committee quickly apologized for some critical remarks he made in 2009. Limbaugh’s power in (or over, perhaps) the Republican Party goes way back; he addressed the GOP freshmen who were of the 1994 “Republican revolution” after his tireless promotion of the Gingrich Contract with America.

And Bill Maher? Well, he hosts a television show on HBO. Politicians appear on it, as do liberal commentators (and more than a few Republicans and conservatives). That is not to diminish the ugliness of his rhetoric or the media power he has. But the two are clearly not in the same business. Limbaugh’s daily commentary on politics is heard by millions, and is part of a Republican messaging infrastructure that includes dozens of other talk show hosts and a national cable news channel.The same cannot be said for Maher. He’s donated a million dollars recently to an Obama Super PAC. Limbaugh’s in-kind donations to the Republican Party are many times greater.

Should people be offended by Maher? Sure. He’d like that. And, of course, he’s not unfamiliar with the concept of losing a media gig over comments that advertisers find toxic. If anything, the right’s frantic, fruitless search to find a Limbaugh of the Left tells you a lot about what kind of media system we have in this country.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.