Last month, I wrote a story, “Climate Change Is Killing Us Right Now,” about how extreme heat wreaks havoc on humans. Though the piece didn’t go viral, it somehow crossed the desk of a certain conservative talk radio host. “This is a story I’ve been holding onto,” Rush Limbaugh said on his July 27 show, which I listened to later that day. “Emily Atkin is the infobabe that wrote it. And it’s typical. The New Republic is a respected journal of liberal opinion.” Limbaugh misrepresented my article and the science behind climate change, saying in his trademark marble-mouth, “The climate of the planet is so complex that I don’t think anybody can really predict it, explain it.”
I could barely pay attention, though. The man had just called me an infobabe.
Conservative and right-leaning folk have been calling me names for as long as I’ve been reporting on global warming. The employed critics usually limit themselves to “alarmist.” Among random Twitter eggs, “libtard” and “snowflake” are the most common insults. But I also get gendered jabs like “sweetie,” “honey,” and “dear,” and every now and then the delightful “dumb bitch.” I’m used to it, as most women journalists are. We can’t let it faze us.
But there was something special about “infobabe.” It made me laugh for a full five minutes. When I wrote about it on Facebook, comments poured in faster than anything I’ve ever posted on the site, including major life events. “I’ve never been so proud of you,” one friend wrote. Another friend’s mom suggested turning the phrase into a custom-made badge of honor to wear across my chest: “Now I know what to get you for Christmas,” she wrote. “An ‘INFOBABE’ tshirt!”
If I’m getting a T-shirt, then a lot of other women in journalism should get one, too. A Google search reveals I’m in illustrious company. CNN’s Kate Bolduan, Alisyn Camerota, and Brooke Baldwin—plus former CNN anchors Heidi Collins and Carol Costello—are all Limbaugh-certified infobabes. So are MSNBC’s Katy Tur and Elise Jordan, and CBS’ Norah O’Donnell. They’re all part of the club—a longstanding one, it turns out. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted back in 1993 that Limbaugh “calls women who work for newspapers ‘reporterettes’ and women who work on television ‘info-babes.’”
Clearly, Limbaugh no longer limits his use of “infobabe” to female cable news personalities. There’s me, as well as Darlene Superville from the Associated Press, author and roving columnist Nicole Hemmer, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum, and Katie Couric, most recently of Yahoo! News. Limbaugh has used the term at least two dozen times since last year alone, according to Media Matters’ Julie Millican.
Indeed, a near-quarter-century of usage has created a formidable army of infobabes—and after speaking with a few of my newfound sistren, it’s clear we have the numbers to do something about Limbaugh’s sexist moniker. Rather than simply laugh it off, let’s appropriate it. This, my infobabes, is a call to arms.
Limbaugh did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. If he had, he likely would’ve been very proud of himself, because he takes credit for inventing and popularizing the term. “Infobabe is sort of a patented comment now,” he said on his show in April. “I mean, the infobabes even like being called infobabes. They might publicly tell you they don’t, but they privately do.”
I have confirmed that infobabes do not privately like the name. “It’s sexist, of course,” said Camerota, who has been called an infobabe multiple times. Other infobabes agreed. “Coming from a guy of Limbaugh’s age and gender, ‘babe’ is meant to reduce you to the fact that you’re a woman,” said Hemmer, whom Limbaugh called “a Politico infobabe” after the outlet published an excerpt of her 2016 book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. “Maybe in a soft way, babe suggests an attractive woman. But it’s about reducing your work to your gender in this way that foregrounds the fact that you’re a woman in a field that is predominantly male.”
The word does even more than that. Whereas “babe” is a slang term for a woman, its literal definition is “infant” or “baby.” So Rush is not only reducing these journalists to their gender, but equating them with children. And there’s no question, given how Rush uses “infobabe,” that he intends to demean his targets. This is how Limbaugh described Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of Rolling Stone’s retracted campus rape story, last November: “You know, an infobabe reporter made it all up and then blamed it on a source. Well, the source may have made it up and the infobabe didn’t question it because the infobabe wanted the story to be true, but none of it was true.” This past May, Limbaugh set up an audio clip in which “a CNN infobabe and reporterette loses her mind on a pro-Trump guest. We’re talking here about Kate Bolduan. She’s the blonde girl who has the perpetual scowl...” Limbaugh uses the term almost exclusively when he’s criticizing women’s reporting—and sometimes their facial expressions, too.
And yet, Limbaugh maintains that “infobabe” is only a joke, and a complimentary one to boot. In 2009, after a poll found a massive gender gap in his approval ratings, Limbaugh held a “Female Summit” on his show, opening his call-in line to women only. One caller suggested he quit using the words “babe” and “infobabe” if he wanted to attract more female listeners. “But what if the fact that being a babe is the most notable thing about a particular liberal blogger?” Limbaugh responded. “If she’s a babe, she’s a babe.” The caller persisted, saying professional women might not find the term complimentary. Limbaugh hit back: “I would say they need to lighten up, for crying out loud! Why do I have to change who I am? Why can’t they just lighten up? Infobabe! Why can’t they laugh?”
A better question would be: Why does Limbaugh think it’s OK? Last year, after Trump famously called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during a debate, The New York Times’s Claire Cain Miller wrote that, according to research by Rutgers psychologist Laurie A. Rudman, “People tend to be most bothered when men and women don’t fit the stereotypes they expect—men as confident, strong leaders and women as humble, cooperative and supportive.... Insults of powerful women by men perform a particular role, researchers say: cutting them down to size, and playing into discomfort with women in power. Attacking women’s appearance serves a dual purpose: the attack itself, and the implication that a woman is valuable for her looks more than her brains.”
For Hemmer, the timing of the insult only compounded it. Limbaugh called her “infobabe” on October 12, 2016—five days after The Washington Post released the bombshell Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. That morning, Hemmer was discussing her book on C-SPAN’s morning show when a male caller made sexually explicit comments about her, using the same language Trump had used in the tape. The host cut the call and apologized. Limbaugh called Hemmer “infobabe” on his show a couple hours later. (Early on the same C-SPAN show, another caller said, “If you could ask Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton one question, what would that be,” then casually added, “and by the way, you’re cute.”)
“I had really reached my limit with sexist bullshit at that point, and it hit home a little harder than I think it normally would,” Hemmer told me. “In that period of time, in places where I was doing my actual job, to have this kind of focus on me being a woman and a reduction to that, I was kind of like, ugh. I didn’t love that.” But she started telling her friends, embracing the ridiculousness of the term. It became what she calls her “Nasty Woman moment.” Just as Clinton appropriated Trump’s insult—both for political messaging and merchandise sales—Hemmer turned “infobabe” into a badge of honor. “I recorded [Limbaugh’s insult] and made it my ringtone,” Hemmer said. “I went and got it printed on a tote bag. I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be your infobabe.’ I said, ‘I’m going to reclaim this and be powerful.’”
“Infobabe” is an easy word to reclaim. It’s sexist, yes, but also a parody of sexism, which lends it humor. (To be clear, though, Limbaugh is no satirist; he’s just an unfunny misogynist.) It’s also a combination of two objectively good words. Daum, of the L.A. Times, likes the “info” part. “It implies that I have information,” she said. “If he had called me, ‘predictable-babe,’ or ‘boring-babe,’ I would have been much more offended.” Even “babe” isn’t necessarily derogatory. As one infobabe, who asked not to be identified, pointed out to me, the word is a term of endearment between women. “When I was a waitress, the other waitresses would call me ‘hun’ or ‘babe,’” she recalled. “So I have a positive connotation about the word.”
Perhaps the best way for women in journalism to take ownership of “infobabe,” though, would be in the service of mocking Limbaugh for his outdated, retrograde humor. “There’s nothing more alarming than laughing at people,” Daum said. “It’s much more effective than outrage.” And there’s probably little that Limbaugh hates more than a bunch of smart, powerful women laughing his insults into irrelevance.