Debate continues about boundaries for inflammatory talk radio

Friday, July 28, 2000
Steve Rendall

Radio talk-show host Dr. Laura
Schlessinger asserts that homosexuality is “deviant” and a
“biological error.” Critics call for consumer and advertiser
boycotts of her show, with some success.

In New York, WNEW’s Opie and Anthony
encourage women to bare their breasts on the street for the enjoyment of
passing men.

Don Imus, on his talk show, refers to
sports columnist Bill Rhoden as a “New York Times quota hire” and
PBS anchor Gwen Ifill as a “cleaning lady.”

Such is the context in a continuing debate about free speech on the

On one side are those who note that the First Amendment protects what
many call a steady stream of racist, sexist, anti-religious or downright mean
comments on radio talk shows around the country.

On the other are those who try to counteract – some would say
squelch – such speech through boycotts, incessant editorials and
campaigns of indignant phone calls and letters.

Legally, there’s no First Amendment violation of free-speech
rights unless the government takes action against the speech. But the
tug-of-war mirrors the public’s ambivalence about free speech, as
reflected in the First Amendment Center’s latest
of the First Amendment survey.

The 2000 survey, released in June, shows public support for the
expression of unpopular opinions, but also public antipathy toward potentially
offensive comments about race and religion. Nearly 70% of respondents expressed
strong support for the right of their fellow citizens – presumably
including talk-show hosts – to express unpopular opinions, with another
26% mildly agreeing.

But 53% opposed allowing public comments that might be offensive to
religious groups, and 67% disagreed with the right to make public comments that
might offend racial groups.

Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter
Janis Ian is among those who defend
controversial performers (including, for example, shock jock Howard Stern),
and who believe that full freedom to share opinions and thoughts is decidedly

“One of the points of being an American is that there is free
speech,” Ian said during a recent taping of “Speaking
Freely,” a First Amendment Center television show. “Without free
speech, this country is no different from any dictatorship. Part of our
responsibility is to make sure that Howard Stern, as despicable as you may find
him, gets the opportunity to talk locker-room trash on the air. I don’t
like it, but I defend it.”

But Steve Rendall, senior analyst at the liberal-leaning
media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, says it’s
legitimate to campaign against offensive talk-show hosts, as FAIR does. On a
recent panel discussion in New York on what FAIR calls “hate
radio,” Rendall stressed that FAIR is careful to avoid doing anything
other than to counter free speech with more free speech.

“While we were publicizing (New York radio host) Bob
Grant’s bigotry, we were accused several times of trying to silence him,
but in fact at no time did we ask WABC to fire him,” Rendall said.
“In fact, FAIR has never called for anybody’s job.”

“What we asked WABC to do,” he said, “was publish
its policy on on-air slurs. We also asked [station officials] to put somebody
on the air (in another time slot) who had … a history of working in the
civil rights movement, who might be seen as a counterweight to the bigotry of

Grant was taken off the air, only to land at a rival station, WOR, a
week later.

Still, FAIR considered the outcome a success. The victory, Rendall
said, lay not in WABC’s removing Grant from the air, but in its
“reaffirming the values that FAIR has insisted on from the beginning:
that racial slurs and calls for violence are not a healthy part of public

Joining Rendall on the FAIR panel, former New York magazine media columnist Philip Nobile
outlined his efforts against syndicated talker Don Imus, who has drawn fire for
his well-documented slurs against homosexuals, minorities and women.

Philip Nobile

Imus’ defenders, and indeed Imus himself, say he is an
equal-opportunity offender.

Nobile said he was trying to persuade Imus’s regular media
guests – including NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC’s
Cokie Roberts, The New York
‘ Frank Rich and CNN’s Jeff Greenfield –
to criticize Imus or boycott the show.

Another media watcher who was not on the panel, Ruth Bayard Smith,
assistant professor of journalism at Montclair State University, also has
concerns about “hate radio” – but she disagrees with
Nobile’s approach.

Smith, who is also working on a book, TALKTALKTALK: A History and Analysis of Talk Radio,
The Freedom Forum Online:

“I can’t presume to know what (writer) Anna Quindlen or
Cokie Roberts is thinking before they go on [Imus's] show,” she
said. “But they are on regularly. They chat it up with him and they are
pals. But I don’t think by doing it they are endorsing that he’s a

“I find his program fascinating. On the one hand, he conducts
really thoughtful, interesting interviews with people in politics or (with)
journalists … it’s incredibly intelligent. And then in a second,
they’ll hang up, and he’ll start talking about whomever he’s
talking about and say racist things or homophobic things or misogynist

Smith said she was much more worried about WNEW’s Opie and
Anthony, who take most of their shots at women and who, during their infamous
“Whip ‘Em Out Wednesdays,” encourage women to bare their
breasts on the street.

“That kind of shock radio I find incredibly disturbing,”
she said. “It’s that kind of on-air fraternity party that leads to
what happened in Central Park,” she said, referring to the gang of men
accused of sexually assaulting scores of women after last month’s Puerto
Rican Day Parade.

Smith said it was not her role to determine what goes on the air, but
that by criticizing and writing about radio she hoped to provide helpful
perspective. “My issue is to make people aware of what’s out there,
so they know what’s part of popular culture,” she said in an
interview. “Because radio is so powerful, it’s easy for it to
become part of the popular culture.”

In a recent New York Times
op-ed article, she stressed, “Over the last several years,
there has been no dearth of soul-searching and criticism of the ways in which
popular culture has coarsened society. Radio is less often cited as a factor.
But shock radio … deserves plenty of blame.”

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