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Freedom of the airwaves or hate radio?

Rush Limbaugh, the well-known US radio talk show host, knew exactly what people should think of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Last Modified: 06 Jun 2004 15:07 GMT
Some US radio hosts have defended the Abu Ghraib abuses

Rush Limbaugh, the well-known US radio talk show host, knew exactly what people should think of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Following the revelation of the abuses, Limbaugh lauded them as "a brilliant manoeuvre".

Describing the photographs as "standard good old American pornography", he insisted in spite of reports to the contrary "there was no horror, there was no terror, there was no death, there were no injuries, nothing."

But, for many, such speech is nothing new.

The talk radio industry has recently come under fire for its frequent use of inflammatory language and aggressive rhetoric on the air, especially with regard to the Arab and Muslim world.

Some contend that this errant use of free speech has exploited the anxieties of its audiences, while others believe that even the worst of these incidents is still an accurate reflection of popular opinion and the upholding of free-speech principles.

Freedom of speech

Talk radio emerged as a unique phenomenon in the early 1960s, as more private radio stations began to devote air-time to a new programme format that allowed for open discussion of current events and gave listeners the opportunity to join the conversation. 

Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers, an industry magazine, believes talk radio grew out of the principles of freedom of speech and press enshrined in the US constitution, among other traditions.

"I tell you right now - the largest percentage of Americans would like to see a nuclear weapon dropped on a major
Arab capital. They don't even care which one ...
I think these people need to be forcibly converted to Christianity. It's the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings"

Michael Savage,
US talk radio host

"The first amendment is the main foundation upon which American talk radio is built," Harrison says.

"Other elements include Americans' love of politics as a spectator sport and the sheer number of radio stations in need of diverse programming. Put all those things together and the scene is set for a healthy talk radio scene to emerge." 

By the early 1980s, following reforms of federal regulations that loosened restrictions, talk shows rose in popularity as more conservative personalities took the reins.

Former CBS Radio producer Elizabeth Dribben said the result was that "the quality became less substantive".

As Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group, explains: "Talk radio was born in backlash. Conventional wisdom has something to say about the style: loud, shrill and very opinionated."

By the late 1980s, the number of talk shows increased further, with popular hosts such as Rush Limbaugh commanding a national audience of millions. 

Conservatives on air

Perhaps the most unexpected outcome of the loosening of government restrictions was that talk radio took a sharp turn to the right of the ideological spectrum.

Unlike most other forms of media, conservatives overwhelmingly dominate talk radio.

Of the top-20 hosts, according to Talkers, nearly all are avowed conservatives, many of them expressing views to the far right of mainstream Republicans.

The top three, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity, maintain audiences in the millions for their daily three-hour block programmes and regularly espouse views that many deem to be intolerant.

"The reason [talk radio] has grown so strong during the past 20 years is that conservatives make a fertile target audience," says Harrison.

"They rally around media that expresses their point of view because they feel left out of the dialogue expressed in most of the other mass media.

"The popular conservative shows are simply an active and attention-getting slice of the talk radio pie."

Many of the leading personalities got their foothold in the industry in a similar fashion.

Inciting hostility

Since taking to the airwaves, leading personalities have come under intense scrutiny for their statements, many of which frequently target women, racial minorities, gays, immigrants, and political liberals.

American Muslims have suffered
a backlash after media attacks

And after the attacks of 11 September, Savage and others have expressed particular disdain for Arabs and Muslims.

A broadcast in mid-May by Savage included the following:

"I tell you right now - the largest percentage of Americans would like to see a nuclear weapon dropped on a major Arab capital. They don't even care which one ... I think these people need to be forcibly converted to Christianity. It's the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings," Savage told his listeners.

Many observers fear the cultural effects that such violent rhetoric could have on the US population during a time of heightened sensitivities due to the global "war on terror" and the ongoing turmoil in Iraq.

Dribben believes such statements have already had "terrible effects" and could be potentially devastating to US efforts to promote important values in the region.

American Muslims, who have borne the brunt of his attacks of late, take exception to such vitriolic outpouring.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that chronicles hate crimes against American Muslims, has been particularly interest in the role of the media.

"Talk radio is perhaps the main factor in driving hostility or exploiting the growing hostility towards Muslims," Hooper said.

"They give licence to those who hold hostile views and make bigotry widespread."

Political consequences

But while many analysts dismiss the possible effects of US talk radio on public opinion on the Middle East, some critics suggest that hate speech by some commentators could be partly responsible for creating the climate in which human-rights abuses, such as the ones that took place in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, could occur.

Statements such as those made by Limbaugh, Rendall asserts, are not harmless.

Limbaugh, he points out, is a highly influential political figure that was credited with the Republican victory in the 1994 midterm elections in which the party regained control of Congress after a decades-long absence.

In recognition for his role in promoting the Republican ticket, Limbaugh was invited to Washington, where he was made an honorary member of the 104th Congress.

Fighting talk

More recently, it was revealed that Limbaugh's programme is exclusively aired on Armed Forces Radio, which broadcasts to hundreds of thousands of US troops abroad, including those in the Middle East.

"The reason [talk radio] has grown so strong during the past 20 years is that conservatives make a fertile target audience. They rally around media that expresses their point of view because they feel left out of the dialogue expressed in most of the other mass media"

Michael Harrison,
talk radio expert

Once again, regarding the Iraqi prison scandal, Limbaugh commented on the victims saying: "They are the ones who are sick. They're the ones who are perverted. They are the ones who are dangerous. They are the ones who are subhuman. They are the ones who are human debris, not the United States of America and not our soldiers and not our prison guards."

Others disagree.

"That sounds almost on a par with Tokyo Rose," Dribben said, in reference to the Japanese-American broadcaster who aired anti-Allied propaganda to US forces during the second world war. 

"The aim is shifting people's attention and allegiances. We all know that terrible things are done in the name of patriotism, but this was especially disturbing. There was something blatant about it," she said.

Widespread

Even former Vice-President Al Gore sensed the severity of Limbaugh's remarks, issuing a call to President George Bush to condemn him.

Harrison on the other hand believes views such as Limbaugh's are more widespread than most critics think.

"There are many different voices on talk radio and for the most part they reflect, as opposed to influence, American public opinion." 

For his part, Sean Hannity has earned the ire of Islamic groups for his own comments and for inviting guests on to his programme who make controversial remarks.

Hannity's programme has featured Pat Robertson, who described Muslims as worse than Nazis, and called Islam's messenger, Muhammad, a "wild-eyed fanatic".

As recently as last February, Hannity featured Congressman Peter King (R-NY) who referred to American Muslims as "an enemy living amongst us".

Groups such as CAIR have become directly involved in a number of instances where anti-Muslim rhetoric was heard on America's airwaves.

"We catalogue them and we act on the most egregious ones, especially those from prominent commentators with an influential voice," says Hooper.

Backward trend

The latest effort to instil balance and tolerance was initiated with the launch of Air America, a liberal radio station owned by Progress Media that appeared for the first time in April.

Al Gore has urged President Bush
to condemn Rush Limbaugh

According to Rendall, however, Air America's presence is still modest compared with the hundreds of stations that carry the major network stars.

"They debuted in only 11 markets with New York as the only major market," he said.

This may be the case because radio is a very difficult medium to break into, given the conglomerates already in existence, Dribben said.

Talk radio's influence can be said to exceed that of other media.

While Limbaugh, Savage, and Hannity have all made the crossover to television and have authored best-selling books, they continue to use their favourite medium to promote their views.

"It's a theatre of the mind. It's what you imagine. It's very personal and very intimate, and there's no rewind," continues Dribben, who is not optimistic that the intolerant commentary by talk radio hosts will end any time soon.

"We've come a long way in this country and if we're not careful, this is going to take us back."

Source:
Aljazeera
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