March 15, 2012
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.