by | Apr 30, 1995 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It is foolish to think whoever bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City only did it because of radio.

It is also foolish to think that’s impossible.

The horror of the Oklahoma wreckage — and the suggestion that the perpetrators followed a militaristic cult that broadcasts nightly — has sparked an angry debate about the airwaves.

Particularly the right-wing airwaves. You can’t tune in any major American city now without hearing some angry white man bash government and suggest that liberal thinking is for the stupid and weak.

Some even tell you where to hide your guns — so you’ll be ready for the revolution.

“We have an obligation to fight back,” President Bill Clinton said last week, referring to right-wing “hate mongers” on the air. “These people are threatening the American way of life.”

Naturally, those “people” went berserk. No, Bill, they bellowed, the American way of life is free speech! And on they went.

Let’s face it. Paranoia sells. Being antigovernment today is like being pro-chocolate. You almost can’t lose.

But at what cost? A misguided following

I make my living by the First Amendment. I will go to my grave fighting for the rights of a free media. Without unshackled journalism, the rich and powerful can take over this country in about 20 minutes.

But there’s journalism, and there’s rhetoric. Besides, if you know anything about the Constitution, you also know that even the rights of the press are limited when it comes to matters of national security.

For example, our forefathers said the press should never reveal information about war ships sailing. If the enemy got such information, it could hurt the country.

How big a leap is it from that to this: G. Gordon Liddy, the ex-Watergate figure-turned-talk show host, telling his audience how to wound a federal officer if he tries to search your house. “Shoot him in the head or the groin. He doesn’t have protection there.”

Shoot him?

In San Francisco, a radio host regularly says he hates “the Japs.” In New York City, a host calls Dr. Martin Luther King “a scumbag.” In Colorado, a host suggests killing a government official is good for the country.

Yet people balk at Clinton’s suggestion that something be done about hatred on the airwaves. Why? You can’t say most curse words on radio. You can’t show actual sex on television.

Which is worse? Watching people make love, or hearing a mind-bender tell you how to kill your neighbor?

Let’s face it. Quite often, the people who commit random acts of terror are disturbed loners, drifters, people looking for something to follow. Is it all that absurd to think Radio Free Hatred might inspire them to action?

There was a movie a few years back called “The Fisher King.” It followed an acerbic talk show host, who, one night, in his frenzy for ratings, tells a caller he should “kill the yuppie scum” that are bothering him. He forgets about the caller as soon as he hangs up. But the caller does not forget.

That night, he goes into a restaurant and opens fire.

Farfetched? We’ve already had killings inspired by movies and TV. If, in the name of free speech, we stoke the flames of hatred — and remember, each new host has to be angrier than the last in order to attract an audience — it may just be a matter of time before a terrorist act is blueprinted on the air.

At that point our ideals will come face to face with our idiocy.

And that will be some showdown. Bring pressure to bear

Now, I do not advocate the government taking people off the air. The precedent is too dangerous. But I will say that while many of these radical hosts would have you believe they are martyrs for free speech, the truth is, they are more concerned with ratings. The bigger the rating, the more money they make. Rush Limbaugh — who is mild by radical standards; his biggest crime is getting his facts wrong — gets $16,000 for reading a commercial on the air.

That’s one commercial.

Which brings me, finally, to the action Clinton should have suggested: Boycott the advertisers.

If you find certain radio shows offensive, forget the host, who is likely to put you on the air, then rip you to shreds. The sponsors are the ones pulling the strings. If enough people say they will avoid their product because of the show, I promise, the ads will disappear, and so, quickly, will the show.

By the way, you are well within your rights to do this. And if the ultraconservatives say you’re un-American, an evil force out to get them?

Isn’t that what they’ve been telling you about everyone else?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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