The landmark confrontation between Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke came wrapped in irresistible media tropes. There was, first off, the reliably charged set of associations that come with pinning words like “slut” or “prostitute” on a heretofore unknown woman, for the trespass of speaking out on a public health question that might conceivably also touch on matters of sex and reproductive rights. There was also the David-and-Goliath symbolism of a media titan such as Mr. Limbaugh brought low by a composed and articulate college student: We were seeing not just the weary politics of “slut-shaming” backfiring at last, but also an overdue and refreshing real-time crash course in debate. After no end of jowly posturing over Ms. Fluke’s alleged sexual license and the aloof cultural mores of liberal elites burrowed into institutions such Georgetown Law, Mr. Limbaugh came off to any fair-minded listener as the terminally louche and untrustworthy figure here—and not just because of his own flagrantly hypocritical record as a Viagra enthusiast and reputed sex tourist. No, Limbaugh was seeking to exercise the crass historic prerogative of the powerful male to smear his antagonist (be it Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, or the numerous accusers of Dominique Strauss-Kahn) as a sexualized nonentity—another soon-to-be-forgotten casualty in the culture war.
But here’s the thing about Ms. Fluke: When it comes to the standard rules of media engagement, she’s something of a conscientious objector.