Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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MARCH 8, 2012 10:11AM

The Somewhat False Equivalency of Bill Maher & Rush Limbaugh

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Just as Rush Limbaugh has his many detractors, he has his many supporters, and almost in a chorus, those supporters have spent the last couple of days arguing that the other side says horrible things about women, too, but never seem to face this kind of tidal wave of public criticism.

Their case in chief: Bill Maher.

The argument is not entirely without merit. Maher is one of a class of political pundits whose various hang-ups about women frequently leak into their commentary. It’s not that hard to talk about the many flaws of Sarah Palin without employing the word “cunt.” Or to debate the merits of Michele Bachmann without calling her a “bimbo.” Maher’s never been able to make that leap. (Remember, this is the guy who opined back in 1993 that “though claiming to be feminists, don’t many women – when it suits them, when it’s convenient – retreat back to their pre-feminist role of manipulating men through helpless, deferential behavior?”) And while it’s incorrect to claim that Maher is never criticized for his more outrageous comments by the feminist movement in general, it’s accurate to say that high-profile Democratic and progressive women have been somewhat reluctant to call him on those statements.

At the end of the day, though, it’s comparing a rotten crab-apple to a rotund, mealy orange.

Rush Limbaugh is on hundreds of radio stations across the country and, thanks to the government, around the world, three hours a day, five days a week. Bill Maher has weekly one-hour show on a paid cable station for between 20 and 30 weeks a year.

Maher hasn’t been around as long as Rush, doesn’t have the cultural reach, and doesn’t hold himself up as the Grand Poohbah of an entire political movement – all of which makes him a much smaller target.

Just as a functional matter, his place on HBO, with no sponsors to contact and no recourse other than to cancel their  service, limits that type of action the public can take to hold him to task for offensive comments (a fact Maher was quick to point out in his most recent episode of “Real Time.”)

It completely wrong to say that the “elite liberal media” has given Maher complete cover over the years. Keep in mind that the main reason Maher is on HBO is because of public pressure after comments he made on his ABC show, Politically Incorrect. On the September 17, 2001 broadcast, talking with Dinesh D’Souza, he said: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.

Sponsors pulled their support and affiliates began dropping him. Maher went on an apology tour that allowed him regain his footing and stay on the air through the end of the season. ABC dropped him in 2002, ostensibly because low ratings, but more likely due to the controversy and subsequent difficulty in finding sponsors.

One of the people who spoke in Maher’s defense that fall was Rush Limbaugh. “In a way, he was right,” Limbaugh said on his show in response to a comment over how Maher was likely to be fired after the controversy. “To get canned over this – it’s strange. What is the title of the show? It’s called ‘Politically Incorrect.’”

Yesterday, Maher sort of repaid the favor, posting on Twitter: "Hate to defend #RushLimbaugh but he apologized, liberals looking bad not accepting. Also hate intimidation by sponsor pullout."  

In fewer than 140 characters, Maher summed up the problem of on-air controversy and the solution: you can’t really “apologize” for basing a good part of your lucrative career on casually denigrating an entire gender, gender bashings is not so much a “liberal” issue as a “human” issue….and contacting sponsors to say this is not the type of attitude that should be rewarded or funded is pretty much all the general public can do voice their displeasure. 


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Interesting analysis. Thanks for bringing it forward.
When I read your title I thought I was going to disagree -- Bill Mahr can be just as bad as Rush and I don't much like that about his show. Your post makes great sense....Maybe Rush should go to Showtime and then he can be as big a pig as he wants. Great view point here.
The difference between the two, for me at least, is that Maher is funny and Limbaugh is not. That's an opinion, of course, but like every other asshole, I'm entitled to mine, and I'm entitled to spend my money where I like. The defenders of capitalism, or crapitalism as it's practiced these days, can't very well use the argument that sponsors shouldn't be threatened if they don't pull their ads and dollars from Limbaugh. Hell, that's the very essence of capitalism.

Frankly, I've been expecting Rush to self-destruct long ago. Since you opened up the wonderful world of metaphors with this -- "At the end of the day, though, it’s comparing a rotten crab-apple to a rotund, mealy orange" -- I hope you'll permit me a couple. In my neighborhood, we call Rush's over-reaching "stepping on your dick", but in his case I don't think that's possible. For him, this is more a case of him"getting his tit caught in a wringer".
Like Tom, I often think that Maher can be funny. Not always, but he has his moments. He also has five guests on his show every week. Some are completely a-political, some are conservative, and many are liberal, so at least he has a variety of viewpoints represented.

Wonder if he'll have Rush on anytime soon?
Oh, almost forgot...it probably doesn't mean much in the big scheme of things, but I think Bill Maher is one of the best-dressed men on television. From what I've seen of Rush, he definitely dresses for radio. ;-)
Thanks for your analysis. It's a good one. I would defend Maher in that he does provide substance and support for much of his commentary. He contributes to debate and ideas and thinking. Where what little I hear of Limbaugh seem to consist mostly of diatribes, mud slinging and name calling. While Maher appears acerbic and brutally critical at times...Limbaugh appears to be little more than brutish and thuggish. Wit versus bullying. Okay and I am biased.
I am glad that I shut out 99% of the political blather, mostly emanating from the far right. I don't like Maher but he is not in the same league as Limbaugh in terms of the cruelty Limbaugh displays. it is insane for people to claim that Limbaugh is some kind of comedian or entertainer. He is a right-wing extremist with a cruel streal and not funny at all, in my view.
I think that's a convenient rationalization.
I rather have an out there republican asshole like Limbaugh than a shmuck democrat like Maher. Maher pretends to be a good guy, but is not.

Can't stand them both , but dislike Maher even more.
Interesting take, but you, as a WOMAN, have done the same thing everyone else has done, given a guy a pass on calling a woman a derogatory name. This is something ingrained in our culture, so you are not to blame, but the fact that you defend is troubling. Here's why? This idiotic argument has turned into left vs right and the hypocrisy on BOTH sides. Sure, Rush is getting the big blame now but that's because it's a political year and he will be fine in spite of people insisting on hyping this up. When Ed Schultz of MSNBC called Laura Ingraham the 'S' word, the WOMEN on "The View" laughed it off and said they called each other that all the time.

So, if anything this overblown broo ha ha has shown that women are willing to accept bad behavior from people they "like" but want to crucify those they don't. It has been the women who have made this into a circus, and you know what, the issue Fluke was raising awareness of has been lost. No one is discussing it since she has become nothing but a political pawn in an election year. Sorry ladies but look for your rights heroes at people doing it without trying to get a book deal and on talk shows to keep saying how wronged she was.
I find it interesting that so little is said about the idea that both of these men are entertainers, entertainers who hide behind that word and try to change public opinion, oh you know they want to influence people, but hey they are just entertainers, right? But my point is, if their opinions on this issue are important, what they say regarding THIS THING matters, doesn't that sort of mean that everything they say has the potential to matter, and if you listen to everything Rush says, it will scare the hell out of you. Why do we need to have a voice on the radio that is a direct representation of a gimick from the comic novel, V for Vendetta?
I enjoyed your post, but I was surprised Rushs comment was compared to Mahers. When I first hear the uproar over Rushs uncalled for comments and that his sponsors were pulling their ads, I wonder why Ed Schultz/MSNBC didn't suffer the same wrath after twice calling Laura Ingram a "right wing bitch" just last year. He apologized and it was blown off. The ladies of the View sympathized with Ms. fluke, yet when they briefly covered the story last year on the name calling against Laura Ingram, the ladies laughed it off and jokingly said they call each other those same names on a regular basis. I find it completely unfair.
@fitnessnut - A couple of points about the Ed Schultz comment - First, he didn't call her a "right-wing bitch," he called her a "right-wing slut" - not an improvement, certainly, but more accurate. He clarified the remark to say that she was a "talk slut," meaning that he was criticizing remarks she had made about Obama and wasn't using the word in any sexual sense - unlike Limbaugh, who was clearly using the slur against Ms. Fluke in the sexual sense. None of this excuses the Schultz comments, of course, but it does put them into better context. And you're completely wrong when you say that "he apologized and it was blown off" - yes, he apologized (a very sincere and personal apology, by the way, unlike Limbaugh), but he was then suspended by MSNBC for a week. Limbaugh, on the other hand, has not been suspended - in fact, I don't think he has EVER been suspended, despite his horrific record of offensive comments over the years. But then, keeping him on the air is probably a good thing in that it allows him to damage the Republican brand more and more every time he opens his mouth.
Gee, for me the fundamental difference is their relative standing. Would be in anyway accurate to call Maher a thought or opinion leader in the Democratic party? Is it imaginable that Maher would be invited to give a keynote address at a liberal equivalent of CPAC? I don't think so. Has a Democratic speaker of the house ever appeared on a Maher show? The most prominent person that I can think of is Darrel Issa. If you polled Democrats, and listed 50 prominent liberals, would he even be in the top 1/2 of opinion makers? I tried to think of a liberal equivalent to Rush, and the best I could come up with is either Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert.
People saying that Bill Maher 'can be funny', need to look at right wing poster boy Dennis Miller.

He really could be funny, until he started huffing GOP right wing ass candy... Now, he's just as vapid and vacuous as the best of the right wing. He loves to play victim, and finds his new found 'humor' just hysterical...

He thinks that he is 'misunderstood' and is going to 'make it big' just any day now... Yeah, Dennis... Don't quit your vainglorious day job. At least you have a very small group of people that will listen to you.

And then there's Victoria Jackson... Who knew she was really that mental when she worked at SNL...

Maher is a punk. He is a slightly refined version of the turd slinging Limbaugh's, Hannity's and O'Reailly's of the right wing. The biggest difference is that Maher thinks he's a lefty. He's not as left as he thinks...
Your idea of some equivocation that each of these guys trys the same measure of attack is only, on the surface, a point of contention. Maher is a satirically inclined comic, who makes broad attacks on Repubs' nonsensical statements and behavior. The intent is to be funny -- furthering his cache -- but he only wants to draw out what we want to laugh at and do anyway. With Mr. Lowbrow, we are in a wider kettle of blow fish and related upstream swimmers, not least of which is to make outrageous statements, like Maher, to build his own importance in the cultural -political market place. The difference is that Lowbrow is one to attack and make this register with the Right -- and , likely in his fantasy sphere,
he could hope to draw in the independents who do not read, partake in political debate or other exchanges. He thinks that it does not matter if he is right or wrong, but to build the slam against progressives and maintain his spokesman-like status for the unspoken for right, his dumb heads, aka Ditto heads, which are a demagog's dream.
Each of these arbiters of low to middle brow intake are there for those who like to hear the beat, music, for the lyrics that are to be yielded in their ready to be amused heads. Maher is often right on in his attacks of Palin, Bachman and the posers that he targets, most of whom are bumbling men. Lowbrow went way beyond the scale for even this carnival barker for the Repubs, not content with his criticism, but to make it wholesale water cooler stuff. It is obvious that he wants to continue to create a name for himself, whether it is right or wrong. Maher would never intentionally hurt an innocent person the way this character has. I will give you that Maher has made the wrong move, in a stage sense -- but it ends there. The other one is his own cartoon for fierce incivility and bad taste.
Have you watched Maher lately. Since my now dead husband loved him when i did not for the last year he, in another but not so different form, and I, so to speak watch Bill Maher every Friday night. I think you simply can't put Limbaugh in the same post as Maher. His stuff with women used to bother me but it's now almost non-existant. i often think he's so good he should win an emmy over our beloved Jon Stewart. i mean his show rocks. WO
What Del said: "When Ed Schultz of MSNBC called Laura Ingraham the 'S' word: SLUT, the WOMEN on "The View" laughed it off and said they called each other that all the time.

So, if anything this overblown broo ha ha has shown that women are willing to accept bad behavior from people they "like" but want to crucify those they don't."

Just remember Bill Clinton: adultery, lying, sexual deviancy, taking advantage of interns in the White House: N.O.W. defended him the entire time and called his accusers Trailer Trash. If they have a "D" after their name, they can call women cunts, if they have an "R" after their name, they are not allowed to say a thing.
Soooo killing someone with a sledge hammer carries more guilt than killing them with a mallet?

This is exactly the kind of reasoning that keeps minority victims of a democratic republic right where they are....felling sorry for themselves and without the courage of independent thinkers like Herman Cain.

The fact that Open Salon put this article on their front page says volumes about their journalistic integrity and their associative timidity in the face the the big bad bugaboo of political correctness.

C'mon over to a real debate forum and let's see if you have the courage much less the facts of your conviction.

Yup, sometimes people have double standards. Quelle horreur!

Here's the way I look at it. It's somewhat easier to tolerate boorish behavior from a person you don't viscerally despise. I'm sure Maher is a little prick, but Limbaugh is an infected pustule on the anus of humanity. (Kind of like the condition that got him out of serving in Vietnam.)
Both of them display misogynistic attitudes. Neither of them appear to contribute anything other than controversial rhetoric which I find, quite frankly, disgustingly lame.
Never put much stock in Maher or Rush, Maher is a smarmy libertarian and Rush is just a bloated fool, making a ton of money pandering to other fools... Neither of them are funny nor entertaining. Where are Lord Buckley, Lenny Bruce and Joe Pyne when you need them?
Wait a minute what about this Jon Stewart fellow and his buddy Stephen Colbert... I heard on a PBS genealogy show that Colbert is "...literally one of the whitest men in America."
Not to condone Maher, but the difference is he is taking shots at people who have chosen to live in the public sphere as their profession and are known to say outlandish things themselves. Limbaugh went after a private citizen who became involved in a public deposition.
"without the courage of independent thinkers like Herman Cain."

damn that's funny.
Interesting opinion piece and I agree with you -- there is no comparison between the two when it comes to entertainers behaving badly.

I also agree with previous posters who said that Maher is occasionally very funny whereas Limbaugh isn't.

The main distinction for me is that Maher went after public figures in his attacks on Palin and Bachman. Limbaugh, on the other hand, went after Fluke, a private citizen who had asked to address a congressional committee to speak out about women's health care concerns. Limbaugh's attack lasted 3 days and he unleashed 53 different slurs against Fluke. Maher's attacks were like sniper fire whereas Limbaugh's attacks were like a nuclear bomb.

For a comparison of Fluke's testimony vs. Limbaugh's comments, see the following link:

Fox news gets a pass for lies that play to right wing paranoia because they are categorized as an entertainment program vs. a news program, yet many people use them as their sole source for "news". It is appalling.
Maher should get no passes for his on air misogamy. You want to do stand up comedy, fine. You want to do political commentary, then using words like "cunt" have no place in the discourse.
Don't care what party or ideology Maher supports or how big his audience is or isn't: Wrong is wrong.

I pay as little attention to Maher as I do to Limbaugh, and that's going some. As far as I'm concerned, they're both obnoxious, ill-informed, pretentious blowhards.
It's too bad that so many people don't know what misogyny is, or how to distinguish it. What a waste of time.
Look, Limbaughs remarks received much more attention in the media not because he is a conservative, or because feminists complained, which they did about Mahers comments too (and have about many other comments whose briefer remarks received much less publicity) but because the the language and accusations were so much more extended, salacious and tittilating. They made for better TV. He was using sex to gain attention. But when others used his use of salacious material to gain attention, it backfired on him. (That "give us the videos" comment was a real attention grabber and money maker.)

Women politicians and national figures are all subjected to sexist abuse online and in the media routinely -- check out the sexists things said about Pelosi, Clinton, Boxer et al -- including comments made by "mainstream" commentators and, over the years, people like Matthews and Maher -- as well, of course, about high profile Republican women like Palin and Bachmann. (Research the obscene tee shirts featuring Hilary Clinton that have sold so briskly at CPAC and other conservative confabs over the years -- they're real eye-openers).

For the most part sexist and off color comments about women -- of any political persuasion -- AND the objections raised to them by feminist and others -- simply don't cause a stir in the media. Why? 1. Because they are so routine, and 2. because feminist viewpoints, especially their complaints ABOUT the media, don't get much airing IN the media.
its hard for me to figure out what exactly you're saying here. maher is an interesting dude & I like him a lot esp due to his incendiary 911 comments, but basically that episode seems to show that hes very much as vulnerable as rush to public backlash, has indeed suffered it, and lost his show as a consequence. so in a sense his show is demonstrably more fragile.
another angle you havent considered. bill maher is a lover of women based on those he dates. its an interesting list. most interesting on that list, perhaps, is a remarkable woman named karrine steffans who coincidentally has a blog on here [bill maher did too for awhile-- I wish he would reactivate it!]. if you want a wild story, look up the history of karrine steffans. she seems to have faded from the public limelight last few yrs, but years ago had a huge cultural impact.
Sometimes an apology isn't enough. Bill should know this, but he is also in the offend somebody sometimes business so I can fully understand why he wouldn't want to suffer the consequences of saying something that truly offends not just a person, but a group of persons. Call it an occupational hazard Bill, then live with it. You're guaranteed the freedom to say things, not that things said will be things accepted. Congrats on the EP interesting article.
There was an interesting comment on the most recent The Listening Post (linked below) about this topic. Pulling advertising seems like a good strategy, but the power is still in the hands of the corporations. What if they choose to stop advertising a show because it covers topics like corporate greed. . .

While this method worked to get an apology out of Rush, it may not be so pleasant if companies choose to pull funds next time.

bill maher said he would rather live in a country where there is freedom of speech, hence his support of rush. does it really matter all that rush called someone(ms. fluke) as slut? or maher sometimes refers to the president as blacky mcblack or palin as a cunt? i just want to know when joan walsh will have an idea of her own...i suppose when chris matthews tells her to. though i have to say having to pay money to comment on the salon main page has made the management, well..."prostitues." where's the outrage. i thought so.
To argue that Limbaugh is worse than Maher because he has a larger audience is pretty thin reasoning. Limbaugh used the words "slut" and "prostitute," but he apologized for them, and I know of nothing comparable that he has said about women or anyone else. Never in a million years would he used the C-word to describe anyone, on the air and probably off. Limbaugh has a larger audience than Maher because he is better at what he does, more credible, and except for this one, recent slip, far more prudent.
Maher is indeed not Limbaugh! Not even close. Maher is not really even worthy of having his name mentioned on the same page as Rush, much less the same sentence.
While I don't resort to name calling, if I ever did, I would call Maher a dictator, leaving out the second syllable.
Last time I checked, no politician has been compelled to apologize to Maher, in person, on his show. I can think of 2 examples of Republican pols having to do that, one being Phil Gingrey. His sin was telling the Great Pill-Popping Pontiff of Perpetual Pissant Prattle to "back off."

The point is Rush is the de facto leader of the GOP and Maher is a comedian who doesn't speak for a party. The other point is it's hilarious watching the low IQ ideologues of the Right trying to find an equivalence beyond that they're both personalities with audiences. If the Right doesn't like being criticized, they should grow adult brains. Their "leaders" have adolescent minds, implying their followers do as well.

If that isn't true, why the constant display of Neener-Neenerism?
Fluke stopped being a private citizen a long time ago. She is part of a women's lib group and now has a White House lead PR firm booking her around. She sought out the attention and thus gave up the mantle of private citizen.
It comes down to ideology. If you are a far right republican you find Rush funny and Mahr offensive. If you are a far left democrat you see the opposite. We forgive those who share our own beliefs and want blood from those who don't. Even if they both are doing the same exact thing.

Since I am neither a democrat or republican nor conservative or liberal, I find them both pandering hate mongers. They both use stereotypes, blanketed bigoted statements cloaked in humor and sell it as enlightenment. Both claim they are open minded and the other is closed minded. Both are selling is fear that plays to the base them/us mentality that has caused this massive gridlock in every level of government and society. Maybe the only good they are both doing is convincing the middle majority that a third party is the answer for the future not the same old tired political hate from both parties.
You forgot to add that Maher's show is genuinely funny and entertaining (neither traits that The Fat One has ever had). Especially the last ten, fifteen minutes, when the real guest appears and lays into the political morons. By comparison, Rush Limbaugh is a retarded iguana.
Alright, maybe that was going a bit far. My apologies to all the genuinely handicapped iguanas, like over at Fox and MSNBC and CNN. Let's say, a lizard with a goiter and a brain tumor. Wouldn't want to be all insensitive anyhow.
I think this blogger over at Yahoo! borrowed your idea, with a different twist, and a more positive spin on Maher:

It was one of the most trafficked blogs on the site this morning.
I find Bill M. often funny, but his tolerance for misogyny is rather high, and he has definite sexist leanings.

There is nothing wrong with intimidation by sponsor pullout. It's about the only way that the public can voice disapproval of media content. It's a result of free speech.