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Unless you live in a sound-proof cave protected by fire ants, you know that ten days ago, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on a tirade and deemed Georgetown University Law School’s Sandra Fluke “a slut” for testifying before Congress that her school’s health insurance should cover birth control. And, of course, national outrage ensued. Due to a lightning-fast, coordinated online effort targeting Limbaugh’s sponsors and urging them to drop him, dozens of Limbaugh’s sponsors bailed or suspended their sponsorship, and their numbers grow ever higher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly quickly proclaimed his unequivocal support of Limbaugh’s position.

That’s where I stepped in.

A few things upfront: I’m an ardent President Obama supporter and skew left on most (but not all) issues. I have several loved ones who are moderate Republicans and believe there are intelligent, good-hearted individuals across the political, philosophical and theological spectrum. I’m not out to hurl mud. I also don’t want to give my money to corporations who sponsor those who hurl mud at women. Or at any group, obviously. I believe passionately in free speech and have myself written about loathsome individuals. But condemning an entire group of people merely for existing? We can all agree that’s bullshit, right?

While I contacted Limbaugh’s sponsors via Twitter, email and phone calls, I realized I don’t patronize most of them anyway. My spending habits would change little. So I Googled O’Reilly’s sponsors and two reputable sources listed AT&T among them. Now I was getting somewhere. I’ve been an AT&T customer for over a decade.

Last week I was on several deadlines and headlined a major literary event, so I had to make a concerted effort to carve out spare time. I don’t say this in a self-congratulatory manner, but to illustrate that, like most of us, I had plenty of other things to do. However, I’ve been a feminist since I was a little kid, when I first confronted our third grade P.E. teacher and told him to stop referring to “girls’ sports” and “boys’ sports.” I used to be a domestic violence victim advocate, and over the years have volunteered for NW Women’s Law Center, the King County Crisis Clinic, and Hands Off Washington. I needed to ask AT&T why I should keep giving them my money when they give that money to someone who denigrates women and those who respect us. I wasn’t only inquiring as a writer, but also so I could sleep at night.

Over the course of last week, I spoke with nine AT&T employees, working my way up the food chain at each juncture. I politely explained to those on AT&T’s customer service front line that I realized they had nothing to do their company’s ad buys. I gave them my bio and asked to speak with one of their media executives to discover why I should keep patronizing AT&T. And, of course, I let them know I was writing a story about the resulting answer.

Two patterns quickly arose. The women employees offered their unprompted support of my goal. I would never ask anyone in such a job what they thought of their employer’s sponsorship of someone who conflates birth control with being “a slut.”  (A term that, like a lot of women, I find laughably outdated, but that’s a whole other piece.) But these women, like me, had clearly had it. They were enormously gracious and wished me luck on getting some answers. The second pattern was that the first six women and men insisted they’re not given the names of those in AT&T’s media department. Not that they’re not allowed to give out said names, but that they don’t have access to these names themselves.

The sixth employee, a man, opted to be consistently rude in his responses, so I decided he was guy with whom I’d play hardball. I made it clear I had done this sort of thing before and that I would get the necessary names. He could either ask his supervisor for them or I could. He refused and insisted I email an unnamed address on AT&T’s web page. I told him we both knew no one would read it and I knew he was trying to get rid of me. He snidely advised me “to put your writing skills to good use” and again said to email said address. I curtly ended the call, went to AT&T’s web page, found their Investor Relations phone number and concluded that as an investor, however de minimis, I’d stick to this path until someone finally transferred to me to AT&T’s media relations.

And it worked. The seventh employee, this one in Investor Relations, listened to my question and I gave her my bio and, again, explained I would write about AT&T’s response. She, too, seemed buoyed and assured me someone in Media Relations would call me soon.

Here’s where I feel conflicted. Said woman in Media Relations not only understood the issues at hand, but seemed as disgusted as me. Our backgrounds were similar and we realized it was likely we knew many of the same people. She said that she admired my tenacity and the next time she was in Seattle, she wanted to take me to lunch. We knew we were each doing our respective jobs, to which we were committed, and we understood each other’s point of view. She said she had to refer me to her supervisor for an official statement and graciously wished me luck. Part of me now felt bad that I was still pursuing the story because I didn’t want to complicate this woman’s life. I also knew that was the effect for which this Cool Woman was aiming.

The next morning at 6:45 a.m. PST, my phone rang. Asleep, I looked at my called ID, saw an AT&T number and answered. It was the Cool Woman’s supervisor, calling from his Atlanta office. He said he’d read over his notes and was ready to talk. I asked him, “Did you read the part where it says I write for national publications but reside in Seattle?”

“No, ma’am. I guess I missed that part. Do you want me to call back?”

“Well, I’m up now. Let’s talk.”

“Now, I understand you want to break your contract with AT&T and leave us. We’re going to go ahead and let you do that.”

“I don’t think you’re getting the point, sir. I don’t want to give my money to AT&T because you sponsor Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly made it unambiguously clear he supports Limbaugh. I’m not paying you to denigrate me. When AT&T stuck by O’Reilly, they unilaterally changed the terms of the contract I signed. I had no reasonable expectation that I’d incur said denigration. Are you letting everyone who has been denigrated break the contract? Or just me because I’m in media and told the person with whom I spoke prior to you that I come from a family of attorneys?”

He let out a long sigh.

“Ma’am, we’ll let you break the contract, but we’re not going to let anyone else break it.”

“Then you’re missing the entire point, sir,” I said, equally exasperated. “The woman I spoke with prior to you understands the issues at hand. It’s clear you don’t. And your media department might be in a better position if the two of you switched jobs.”

Again, he sighed. “I can’t give you a statement because I don’t even know to what degree AT&T sponsors O’Reilly. This story broke over the weekend. I don’t work over the weekend.”

I laughed. “Well, I work over the weekend and so does half the country. Furthermore, you might be the only person not up to speed on these events. Which wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except it is your job to be up to speed on these very events. That’s exactly your gig.”

“Well, we’re a multi-billion dollar corporation. I don’t even know if we deal with Fox.”

So, not only had he woken me up, he didn’t know the facts at hand or how to effectively do his job. I reiterated AT&T would be better served if the Cool Woman had his position. Both of us frustrated with the other, he said he’d get back to me soon with a statement.

Two hours later, the Cool Woman called me again. She said her boss had relayed the facts of our stalemate. I asked her how it was that one of AT&T’s upper-level media executives had no idea if AT&T sponsored Fox.

She replied that they’d both been on the phone with AT&T’s Ad Department to confirm this was the case. They insisted that AT&T didn’t sponsor O’Reilly, as I’d read twice, but that they purchased web ads on Fox News’ site.

I asked her who she thought kept the lights on at Fox News? She ceded that Bill O’Reilly generates more money for Fox News than any of their other pundits.

Then I asked her why AT&T is sponsoring both the lauded annual alt-music fest, South by Southwest and a station that has repeatedly announced their contempt for this same demographic.

“Because we’re a multi-billion dollar corporation. We can’t afford to alienate anyone.”

I pointed out how this strategy was panning out for Limbaugh’s sponsors. “I think it’s a little late for that,” I said. “You and I are each too old to think everything corporate is bad and everything indie is good. But I think the time is rapidly passing where companies can target opposing demographics. It’s time for you to choose.”

Now she sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe, eventually we’re all going to have to. Are you still leaving AT&T?”

“Yes, obviously. I’m not paying you to denigrate me and those who respect me. I like you personally, but enough is enough.”

We wrapped up our call shortly thereafter.

This time, she didn’t ask me to lunch.

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LITSA DREMOUSIS' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Filter, Hobart, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, Monkeybicycle, MSN Music, Nerve, The Nervous Breakdown, New York Magazine, Nylon, The Onion's A.V. Club, Paper, Slate, the Seattle Weekly, on NPR, KUOW, and in sundry other venues. Her essay, "The Great Cookie Offering", appears in Seal Press' anthology, "Single State of the Union", she has a piece in Smith Magazine's HarperCollins anthology, "It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs" and she's completing her first novel. She frolics at on Twitter @LitsaDremousis and you can read her archived published work at http://theslipperyfish.blogspot.com/.

22 responses to “Limbaugh, the Ladies and Consumer Activism: Women are Good at Math After All”

  1. Brooks says:

    AT&T never answers the question but still wants everyone’s money.

  2. SAA says:

    I think the reaction to Limbaugh is overblown. When has he ever been on the correct side of any argument? Why start now?

    • No one is just starting now. The effort is certainly more concentrated now b/c Limbaugh transgressed to such a huge degree at the precise time social media allows for a swift, focused retort. In twelve days, he’s now lost 151 sponsors. Wouldn’t it be pathetic, lazy and mordantly self-involved *not* to act?

  3. It’s a thrill to read this, not just because I like someone fighting the good fight, but also, on another level it was fascinating to get your exchange with the “Cool Woman.” You seem to have brought her to the brink of some realization, where she understands the convoluted hypocrisy of her life at a place where the higher-ups don’t know what they own and their customers need to inform them of the ways their product messages directly conflict with one another. It’s a shame; she could have benefitted from a lunch with you.

    • Thanks so much, Nat! Greatly appreciated on all counts!

      The hard thing is, I actually think she does get the larger picture. If I say how she and I probably know some of the same people, I’ll basically give away her identity and I don’t want to do that. Times are tough, she has a family and she says AT&T is one of the best corporations she’s worked at in terms of its treatment and accommodating of families. And that’s good for everyone, of course.

      What I do think she and executives at all multi-billion dollar corporations are going to have to face is that the nation is so polarized now that, to use my example above, courting Fox News’ demographic and SXSW’s simultaneously is going to get increasingly difficult. I.e. don’t expect women, African-Americans, gays and other maligned groups to spend dollars on your product when you give that money to those who overtly and covertly hate them. Enough.

      As always, thanks so much for weighing in, Nat! Cheers!

  4. Karen says:

    This is terrific…but where does it leave us? And by “us” I mean the millions of regular folks without credentials who don’t want to keep paying a conservative company for access to what is by now a basic right: phone & Internet connectivity. Is Verizon any better? And if not…what then?

    • Hey, Karen! Outstanding question: it’s nearly impossible to circumvent doing business w/ those who don’t give our money to individuals or causes that appall us or that treat their workers essentially as slaves. To the best of my knowledge, Verizon is not better. I’m researching Credo Mobile right now, an upstart founded to reinvest some of its profits in progressive causes. A number of my friends use them and are happy w/ Credo’s service. Notably, neither media exec at AT&T claimed to have heard of Credo. Unsure if they were lying or trying to call my bluff.

      Re the credentials, thanks for bringing up that point. That’s why I noted it in the piece. My peers and I can make noise many others can’t. And really, the one-two whammy of my work and my giant Greek family of prominent attorneys is incredibly useful in these situations. It’s also not the norm and, as I pointed out to the clueless media exec in Atlanta, AT&T was cooperating with me solely b/c of said background and that’s unfair to their millions of other customers who feel the same way I do.

      The good news, as of yesterday, 151 of Limbaugh’s sponsors had permanently or temporarily dropped him. As all of us know, consumer activism works b/c corporations care about the bottom line and, indeed, have a fiduciary duty to do so. I’m glad to see so many millions mobilize so quickly on this one. Very much all of us–myself included–set our attention spans to “long”.

      • Gloria says:

        I’ve heard nothing but good things about Credo. They’ll even buy out your contract from one of the big 4 if you want to switch right now.

  5. Trevor A says:

    you’re very reasonable in your approach to this issue, but im curious about your opinion of people like ed schultz or bill mahr who have made dozens of remarks that denigrate women on the right. like calling laura ingraham a “right wing slut” or calling michelle bachman a “dumb bimbo” or sarah palin being called every terrible word you can think of. do you think its fair that there’s virtually no outrage over these comments?

    • JJ says:

      Good question, Trevor. Since Bill Mahr is on HBO, I don’t know if he actually has sponsors. However, you could certainly make a case for going after MSNBC with the same vigor as you would Fox News. I believe Ed Schultz was suspended briefly following his remarks about Ingraham, but there was nowhere near the same level of contraversy as what the Limbaugh comments have garnered. Maybe it’s because Laura Ingraham is also a public figure, whereas Ms. Fluke was not. Regardless, the comments made by both Schultz and Limbaugh are totally unacceptable, and there often appears to be a double standard with regard to how the media covers these types of instances.

      • Hi, JJ! Thanks for your views! I was responding to Trevor when I got an important phone call. You can find my response to his smart questions below. And I appreciate your opinions, too. Cheers!

        • JJ says:

          Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a “right wing slut” on the air. The fact that you don’t know that is kind of my point. It’s always interesting to hear the sort of dismissive reactions from a lot of journalists to Schultz’ derogatory comments. Ingraham is a conservative anti-feminist, so she somehow deserved the defamation. There just seems to be a lack of consistency in how people respond to conservative men who slander liberal women vs. liberal men who slander conservative women.

          • JJ, I Googled Ed Schultz’s comments and you quote him accurately. It’s also worth noting his remarks were covered extensively in the press–including the left-leaning press–and, HuffPo even ran the audio. Schultz’s remarks are deplorable. No woman should be called a “slut” or any pejorative name for stating her views. That said, I think it’s pretty clear from my reply about Maher that I’m out to play fair and am not blindly ideological. As I responded up-thread, I just don’t know much about Schultz, period. The left isn’t a monolith and we’re not all glued to MSNBC all day. If I watched Schultz, I would have spoken out at the time. Unambiguously: I think Schultz was wrong in his deplorable remarks re Laura Ingraham.

            Does it bother you that Limbaugh and O’Reilly called Sandra Fluke and all women who believe insurance should cover birth control “sluts”? And that we should set up web-cams and charge so that others can view our sexual activity?

            • JJ says:

              Yes, the coverage of Schultz’ comments was so extensive that you didn’t even know about them until yesterday? You indicate that you didn’t know about Schultz’ comments because you didn’t watch his show. I bet you don’t listen to Limbaugh’s show either, yet you were probably aware of his remarks about Ms. Fluke the same day those remarks were made. I wonder how that is possible.

              With all due respect, Litsa, you continue to make my point. Media bias is definitely afoot.

              Yes, Limbaugh’s comments bother me. As I stated in my previous comment, his remarks are unacceptable. No woman should ever have to endure such humiliation, regardless of political leaning. Rush Limbaugh is an embarrassment, as is O’Reilly. The fact that so many are influenced by those two makes me genuinely sad for this country. Having said that, I just think it would be nice if everyone were held to the same standard.

              • JJ, we agree on a lot. I respect you for voicing your opinions and for stating your points clearly and respectfully.

                Re media bias, I doubt we’ll change each other’s minds. Fox News has higher ratings than CNN and MSNBC combined. Limbaugh’s audience is vastly larger than Schultz’s and Limbaugh has been a household name for decades. Also, the left does police its own: Olbermann lost his job at MSNBC for donating to Democratic candidates he was interviewing. And I took a lot of heat for saying he should have lost his job or at least incurred significant reprimand.

                In answer to your point, I do listen to Limbaugh and I do watch O’Reilly. It’s important to know the views who repeatedly state they hate you.

                Listen, I wish you all the best. If you rebut my point re media, that’s fine. I have too many other deadlines to continue this thread. So, assuming you don’t say anything bizarre or disrespectful–and I have no reason to believe you will–I’m signing off on this thread.

                Thanks again for your views, Josh.

    • Trevor, incredibly salient questions on all counts. Thanks so much for weighing in.

      I don’t think women anywhere on the political spectrum–or anywhere else, for that matter–should be denigrated for being women. And obviously, this applies to people of color, sexual and religious minorities or, hell, even white guys. WHO someone is: fair game. WHAT someone is: unfair.

      That said, it’s incredibly irksome when women like Palin, Ingraham or Bachmann–each of whom disavows feminism and actively works against the rights of most women–to then cry “Sexism!” when they’re more than happy to let the rest of us take the heat to fight for their rights, too. But no, I don’t think they should be called sexist names or their opinions should be dismissed or belittled b/c they’re women. I’m even willing to praise them to a tiny degree: Ingraham isn’t an idiot and occasionally makes a not entirely reprehensible point; Bachmann has fostered dozens of children; Palin took being Mayor of Wasilla and parlayed it into actual power and millions in cash. So, I give them props for that.

      Truthfully, I’m unfamiliar w/ most of what Ed Schultz says or does, but I’m glad you bring up Bill Maher. I’m among those who first wrote to ABC about him BEFORE his 9/11 brouhaha, when Maher compared developmentally disabled children to animals. And it wasn’t a joke. He repeated it. And Martin Sheen, who was a guest, came right back at Maher and rightfully deemed his views reprehensible. So I’ve long had a problem w/ Maher being perceived as the voice of the left. Is he usually hilarious. Yes. Is he incredibly intelligent? Yes. Is he completely self-aggrandizing? Also, yes. (Side note: his certainty re his atheism gets on my nerves. I don’t think anyone of any stripe can conclusively answer, “Is there an omniscient deity?” and its corollaries, “If so, why do good people suffer?” and “Why are we born and what happens to us after we die?” I think all those matters come down to educated guesses.

      Thanks for asking so many smart questions, Trevor.

  6. Charlie Smith says:

    *SIGH* Ah, AT&T. I quit them back in the 1980s over some issue or other. I’m sure they didn’t notice, but I have felt better.

    • Charlie, I hear you. I don’t think either of us thinks we’re crippling AT&T, but we both know there’s a lot to be said for trying to spend as responsibly as possible, w/ the full realization that one’s money still inevitably supports something reprehensible somewhere. I think we’re all seeking to–at the very least–minimize the damage. And when we’re lucky, we find some genuinely good companies to support. (Seems they’re usually local. Any Seattle transplants, feel free to ask questions: I’ve lived there my whole life and know of some wonderful local businesses worthy of everyone’s cash.)

  7. Love your tenacity, Litsa.

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