I wrote this book because I felt that this is hurting America. ... I didn't want to feel I left a legacy for my children of this sort of hateful talk. You stand up and say, look, not in my country. I'm not going to stand here and be silent while you go and dehumanize everyone who disagrees with you.
-- Rory O-Connor, coauthor, Shock Jocks, Hate Speech & Talk Radio, America's 10 Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive Alternatives
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We've known Rory O'Connor for sometime and admire his work -- and his determination.
A lot of liberals dismiss the right-wing shock jocks with disdain. O'Connor takes them seriously -- and at their word. That is how he came to write this provocative book about the top ten purveyors of hate speech on the airwaves.
As our readers know, BuzzFlash has been a big supporter of progressive radio, which is slowly but surely finding an audience.
Meanwhile, however, we have a whole slew of right-wing beasts of the airwaves whipping up bigotry, intolerance, and hate. O'Connor explores their malicious and eroding impact on American society.
O'Connor is an award winning television and print journalist.
BuzzFlash: Shock Jocks, Hate Speech & Talk Radio, America's 10 Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive Alternatives. Let's start off with this as a devil's advocate. If you take someone like Michael Savage, or, Michael Weiner, he's got several million people listening to him. You and I and anyone who is probably reading this find him totally repulsive and obnoxious. But the owners of radio stations, will say: Hey, millions of listeners can't be wrong. What's your response to that?
Rory O'Connor: My response to that is that sometimes millions can be wrong. He's the third most listened-to shock jock out there, but I also would say to the owners who are distributing him that they must be concerned about their sponsors and the advertisers opting out of Savage's show as a result of the disgust on the part of some of his listeners and some of us who wish he would refrain from the type of vitriolic speech that he engages in.
I think, economically, there are reasons for the distributors to be concerned as well.
BuzzFlash: Do you think someone like Savage actually believes what he's saying? He used to be a liberal, and now he just says outrageous things. I get the feeling sometimes when I read about what he says, that, like Ann Coulter, he premeditates these things to shock, and draw in more of an audience, to draw more publicity. How much is this him calculating that he can improve his paycheck by drawing the listeners, versus him really expressing a viewpoint?
Rory O'Connor: I'm not a psychologist and I don't even play one on TV, so I don't want to get into analyzing any individual. But I chose the title Shock Jocks with deliberation. I think that most, if not all, of these talk radio hosts regularly engage in trying to shock and to outrage. After all, it's a time-honored way in all sorts of media to break through the clutter that is out there. It's the "I can't believe he actually said that in public" factor.
It's certainly not limited to Savage. When Rush Limbaugh calls for or envisions a riot at the Democratic convention in Denver coming up in August, that's exactly the same sort of thing. - Bill O'Reilly also engages in this on a regular basis. None of these people are stupid - they're very smart. And in some cases they're good at what they do. I think it's a safe supposition to think that they know precisely what they're doing, and in most cases, it's very deliberate.
BuzzFlash: If we didn't have Savage, if we didn't have Limbaugh, if we didn't have Don Imus creating an audience and further coarsening the public arena, would the audiences be thinking these thoughts anyway?
Rory O'Connor: That's a good question. I think they really are leading the audience. First of all, the audience for talk radio for people like Limbaugh and Savage is not a monolithic audience. I've actually spoken to a number of self-identified people on the left who say that they do listen to these shows on a regular basis. Some listen to monitor and then to counter what they're saying. Some listen for the shock value and entertainment value, to be amused. They think it's funny even though they don't subscribe to the beliefs. And there also is a large portion of the audience that is going to them because they believe that they are actually getting news and they are getting factual information.
That's one of the real dangers that I attempt to highlight in the book. These guys are regularly blurring the lines between news, entertainment, information and opinion. In many cases, it is already difficult to tell the difference. So a lot of people go to Rush Limbaugh not just to hear hate speech, but to hear the news. The problem is they're getting a very toxic mix of news and opinion and jokes and entertainment and hate speech all swirling together. It's difficult to tell what is real and what is not.
BuzzFlash: In a sense, America has gone through a period of time for the past fifty years where entertainment and corporate news and politics have really sort of merged. You have someone like Rush Limbaugh who says he considers himself an entertainer, and his goal is to keep his audience listening. There are obviously many radio broadcaster tricks of the trade to make sure people keep listening to your show. And Rush Limbaugh is the proof in the pudding -- he has mastered this ability to keep people listening.
Rory O'Connor: You're right. Let's give credit where credit is due. I have no difficulty telling you that Rush Limbaugh is a master entertainer. He is preeminent. He is the best at what he does. And, you know, in the book I quote people from the left, right and the center who acknowledge that. The Young Turks, for example, told me exactly that. My problem is not with Rush as an entertainer. It's Rush when he's not being an entertainer, when he claims to be entertaining but he's actually engaging in this blurring of the lines and the boundaries, so it's not exactly ever clear what's news, what's entertainment, what's Rush's opinion or hate speech. It's all merged together in the listener's mind, and that's one of the big dangers in what they do. If he just stuck to entertaining, I would probably listen to Rush Limbaugh.
BuzzFlash: Rush Limbaugh was one of the people that Dick Cheney turned to when he wanted to get his message out -- one was Fox News and one was Rush Limbaugh. If I'm a listener, I assume if the Vice President of the United States is on this program, this is a serious program.
Rory O'Connor: That's one of few places that he's given access to, so you would assume that.
BuzzFlash: In a free society, how does one go about cleaning this up? The broadcasters say, well, we're making money. This is a First Amendment issue. If people want to listen to this, they have a right to listen to it. You and I would argue that people like Limbaugh and Savage and Coulter and Ingraham coarsen our public discourse. They really play to the worst and basest instincts of hate in people. Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity have portrayed people who disagreed with them as anti-American. And the hate, in large part, is directed at "them" -- and the "them" is anyone from people opposed to the Iraq war, Democrats, feminists, Arabs. They're all the "them," and they are to be hated because they're anti-American. So they create this hate of anyone who's not like them. But it's not clearly defined as to what being like them is.
Rory O'Connor: Well, I what I would say is it's American to question, to get lots of different viewpoints, a diversity of information, and to make up your own mind. If anything, I would attack Dittoheads for being un-American themselves.
But there are lots of things that citizens can do to respond to hate radio.Most important is to simply recognize it when it happens, and to stand up and say this is unacceptable to me, and this is unacceptable in our country. It's certainly not acceptable on the airwaves that we own.
Now I do make a fairly big distinction between the public airwaves and satellite radio. If you choose to listen to Howard Stern or Opie and Anthony, and pay for it -- it's not something that's publicly disseminated on airwaves that we own, and you have to get a license -- that's a different kettle of fish. I certainly don't want to be in the business of censoring or getting involved in anybody's freedom to speak.
But I think that the answer is for the people who find the Limbaughs and Savages on the public airways to be objectionable to exercise their First Amendment rights such as the freedom of association. First and foremost, people need to recognize this and call people on it publicly. If that doesn't work, you go further, and take action. You organize boycotts or go to the meetings of corporations that are distributing this swill and profiting from it, and you say is this representative of you? If it is not, you should join us and speak out.
This is exactly the behavior and coalition-building that will lead ultimately to Don Imus going from making a joke about "nappy-headed ‘hos" to being publicly shamed, first suspended, and finally fired. That wasn't because CBS and NBC had a change of heart. It was because they were forced to by the combination of the listeners, consumers, advertisers and sponsors, and ultimately by their own employees, who stood up internally and said this is not something we can support as employees of General Electric/NBC. And that's why ultimately Imus was taken off the air.
Is he back on the air? Of course he is. But I've been listening to him and it's somewhat modified, although I did hear him recently referring to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as "pussies." So he wasn't entirely modified. But it is important to recognize that we can stand up, we can have an effect, and that we can have successes.
BuzzFlash: You have a chapter in which you talk about the progressive alternatives, and this has been a passion for BuzzFlash. There are indeed quite a number of progressive talk-show hosts out there in addition to those with Air America. It's becoming a larger universe, and many of these people are now crossing over into TV. Rachel Maddow is certainly, Stephanie Miller, Ed Schultz are all appearing, and others, on television. They represent a little beachhead against the Michael Savages and the Laura Ingrahams and the Ann Coulters. And they're doing a good job of it.
And you've got great radio programs like Thom Hartmann and Mike Malloy and Randi Rhodes and so forth. We're really starting to see progressive radio establish itself. There's been a growing audience for progressive radio. What do you make of the progressive radio counterpoint at this time?
Rory O'Connor: Well, to steal some words from a great orator I listened to, my answer would be this is our time and this is our moment. I think we're going to look back at this present time as the turning point -- not only as the turning point when America turned its back on the war in Iraq and all the hateful years of the Bush-Cheney regime, but also when we turned our back on this corporate domination of the media in the airwaves, and the conservative domination of talk radio, and increasingly, as you said, of cable television.
And why is this happening? For a wide variety of reasons. There is a lot more talent now with more experience than they had before. They did networks. Let's face it -- as I detail in my book -- Air America had lots and lots of problems. I think they're starting to straighten out their ship. But the large corporations, the ones that present or control news shows -- i.e., General Electric, for example -- they see the handwriting on the commercial wall.
This country has made a profound shift, and it's not just a political shift. It's a very, very deep cultural shift. I believe that progressives are well positioned if not leading the way to benefit from that shift. The large corporations are really not rigidly ideological. There are some confluences, of course, between the corporate agenda and the conservative political agenda. But the corporate agenda can shift with the political winds. I predict that that's what we're going to see happening in the next four to eight years on the media front, as well.
BuzzFlash: Well, indirectly the hate radio benefits the corporate world as a whole because one of the key things that the top ten hate shock jocks that you profile do is create scapegoats for what's wrong in America. In other words, if you're working-class white, which became an issue obviously in the Democratic primary, instead of blaming corporations for off-shoring the jobs or for closing down your factory, you hate Mexican immigrants. You hate Arabs. You hate women who want equal rights. It's a way of diverting attention from the class divisions in America, an increasing distance between the very wealthy and the very poor. The shock jocks don't attribute any problems that we have in America to the increasing disparity of wealth.
Rory O'Connor: Even on the Democratic and the liberal side, I found that there's still a great reluctance of confronting the class issue. Even in this long primary season, there's been a lot of talk about race in America, there's a lot of discussion about sexism in America. We need to have those discussions. But the last great taboo in America is to actually speak about the inequity in wealth and in income, to speak about these class distinctions. I'm not so certain that's going to happen any time soon.
But I do think we're just coming out of a period of eight years of the most rigorous scapegoating. I personally come out of a working-class background. My father was a construction worker in Queens. He voted for Nixon, a Reagan Democrat. I grew up with firefighters and police officers. When I talk to them now, I'm finding that they are tired of blaming scapegoats and having nothing in their lives change for the better. They're realizing that no amount of blaming so-called illegal aliens is going to solve their problems, is going to make their son not be shot in Iraq, is going to pay their health care bill or whatever example you'd want to pull out.
I think that this country is really on the cusp of a great turning. And it's about turning of our self-interest, partially, whether it's on the part of the large corporations or on the part of the Working-class people have been following leaders who led them down a dead end road. They're realizing that they, in fact, have been played for fools and suckers, and they're not going to put up with it anymore. It's no longer enough for them to blame the "ragheads," the "illegals," or whatever.
BuzzFlash: What is it about radio that has such an intimate voice? If you're listening to someone like Rush, and you have a certain outlook of scapegoating and blaming others, at the core, they fundamentally view themselves as victims.
Rory O'Connor: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: At the same time, they talk about this country being virile and strong and empire-building. What is it about radio that enables people to listen in sort of a setting of intimacy? Radio is certainly a more intimate medium than television.
Rory O'Connor: It's one of the most intimate media of all. Years ago, I was doing political commentary in Boston. People would come up to me, and say, oh, I loved your commentary last week. I heard it in the shower. Or I was walking through the mall last week, and I heard Imus' voice. What happens with radio is it kind of sneaks up on you. You don't sit down in front of it as you do with the TV, and turn it on, and attempt to control it with that remote. You're stuck in traffic listening.
So it seeps in, I believe, on a subliminal, almost subconscious level. But good radio is going to bring you up to a conscious level. It's extremely intimate. It's almost as if someone is whispering in your ear. That's the power of it.
Twenty years ago, when this whole shock jock movement had its beginning, AM radio was an outmoded, almost discarded media. But there's still AM radio in automobiles, and it does have an incredible intimacy that I would say is unmatched by any other medium that I can think of. That's its value. That's why progressives cannot cede its territory to the conservatives.
It's often been said that the conservatives got talk radio and the progressives got the Internet. But I don't think you can walk away from talk radio. It is a very powerful medium and it continues to be a medium with millions of hours and tens of millions of listeners who are actively engaged. It's an important battleground.
One other point about victimization -- yes, this whole movement was born out of a feeling of outsiders, exclusion, victimization. Rush and the others who followed him succeeded, in part, because he was giving voice to people who felt voiceless and disenfranchised. It's important to recognize that. But his audience of thirteen and a half million people every week are not all horrible, hateful, racist people. They are largely people who are looking for information that they can trust, who feel, as many of us on the progressive side do, distrust of the mainstream media -- what we call the corporate media, and they call the drive-by media. We share certain aspects of our analysis.
The real question is, how do we grapple with that under-served audience of people who feel like they've been voiceless -- and how do we get them real news and information so that they can then go and make informed decisions on their own to the benefit of our democracy?
Also, it's not really about right or left. There are some really good, really rational conservative talkers out there -- a guy like Mike Dowd, for example -- I have a lot of respect for because he's a rational individual. He opposed the immigration reform bill. He met with President Bush along with others. He told him it was a mistake. He was going to go after him. But reasonable people can disagree in the political sphere. So this is not some liberal hit job.
BuzzFlash: We have an award called the BuzzFlash Media Putz of the Week, which readers nominate. They're generally Fox reporters or anchors, or one of the ten right-wing hate hosts you've profiled. I feel it is important to consider that so much of what is said is said in a premeditated way for shock value. Ann Coulter says things to be outrageous. She says Timothy McVeigh picked the wrong target. He should have blown up The New York Times building. I'm paraphrasing. I also recall her saying that she thought Bill Clinton was a latent homosexual. She was picking her words for shock value, you got the feeling. It runs so counter-intuitive to Bill Clinton's reputation that there's no basis for it. It's just for shock value.
Rory O'Connor: Sure.
BuzzFlash: Chris Matthews said to her, so you're saying Bill Clinton is a latent homosexual. And she said yes. So she's trying to get publicity. There's no other explanation for it.
Rory O'Connor: That's my point. How many times do they put this woman on The Today Show? And then Matt Lauer goes, oh, my God, you can't be really saying this. But please come back tomorrow and say some more of it.
Why? Not only does it boost the ratings of The Today Show, but that little quote also gets disseminated by NBC over the Internet. People come to their website. The buzz begins here. It's covered on NBC Nightly News. And everybody says, oh, my God, did you hear latest outrage by Ann Coulter? So, of course, it's a symbiotic relationship between the mainstream media and the shock jocks and the Ann Coulters of the world to scratch each other's back in order to sell more product. Coulter sells books. General Electric sells more ads. It works for all of them. But it's not working for our society.
BuzzFlash: There's a word we use on BuzzFlash for a lot of the right-wing hate radio and Fox News, which is demagoguery. But we as human beings obviously have two sides to us. We have our good instincts, that are supportive of other people and inclusive of other people, and we have our most base instincts that go back to our Neanderthal past of being tribal, of killing outsiders, of hating or fearing them.
Rory O'Connor: The reptilian brain.
BuzzFlash: The reptilian brain. It's us against them. And demagoguery obviously played a role during World War II and World War I. It was used by all sides in a way, with propaganda to elicit an emotional response to the other, to "them," to the outsiders. That seems to me to essentially define right-wing radio today. The shock jocks basically say they -- the "them" -- are hateful. "They're" trying to destroy America. It's about the enemy within -- the Democrats. Ann Coulter says this quite frequently -- the Democrats are, by their very nature, un-American or anti-American. If you're not of the same mind as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, you're like a cancer upon America.
Rory O'Connor: That's why I wrote the book. I had been blogging a lot about this because. What I found was I was getting a lot of comments on progressive sites where I post, and often it was to the effect of, why don't you just lighten up? Why are you being so politically correct, Rory? It's just a joke. It's just entertainment.
Moreover, other people would push back even harder and say that was an act of censorship and they thought I should be an advocate for free speech. Why was I trying to shut down the free speech of these people? If I didn't like it, I should just change the channel.
Frankly, what moved me to write the book was my own shock at that type of response from my audience and the progressive side. There were a lot of people who didn't know or didn't care, and smirked about my talking about the public airwaves -- that we own these airwaves and I'm not going to put up with it as an owner.
Some people are saying, you make too much of this. He did it once and he apologized. Why do you keep victimizing him? I say we've got a real problem here in America. Ironically, I begin the book by quoting two fairly disparate people. One is Senator Trent Lott, who said that talk radio is ruining America and we have to deal with that problem. And the other is Jon Stewart, who said the CNN program "Crossfire" was hurting America.
I wrote this book because I felt that this is hurting America. I have two sons who are teenagers, and they look at this stuff. They come to me and say, Dad, what do you make of this? They often end up playing devil's advocate and parrot back some of the media responses. So it's personal for me.
I didn't want to feel I left a legacy for my children of this sort of hateful talk. You stand up and say, look, not in my country. I'm not going to stand here and be silent while you go and dehumanize everyone who disagrees with you.
The reason for that is I've been a journalist for thirty years. I've covered not only this country, a lot of other countries. I've seen what's happened in other countries when the media was used for hateful purposes, and when people didn't stand up. I don't think it's too great a stretch to look at how radio was used in Rwanda where genocide resulted in 800,000 people's deaths.
There's a slippery slope there. Anyone who does truly care about this country can stand up and just say that this is not acceptable. We're not going to put up with it. We're going to do everything we can to call it out and to stop it. That's what led me to write the book.
And I'm going to keep on writing about this. Every time these guys come up with crap, I'm going to call them on it and say it's crap. And I hope the audience will join with me. I think more and more people are coming to the same realization.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much. We highly recommend the book, Shock Jocks, Hate Speech & Talk Radio, America's 10 Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive Alternatives. Thanks again.
Rory O'Connor: Thank you for your interest.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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