The matter might have ended then and there had not G. Gordon Liddy quickly jumped into the fray. In one of radio's all-time cheap publicity stunts, the former Watergate thug devoted a subsequent show to the most effective way to thwart a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: "Have a prearranged cellular call for members of the militia who can come and protect you. And if they shoot, try to kill you, shoot back."
On the strength of advice such as this, Clinton's admonitions against
sanity of these broadcasters had suddenly been
validated. Smelling blood from their upstart radio brethren, the mainstream press jumped to the president's defense; they have been piling on against the talk radio czars ever since.
For instance, in the April 29 edition of The New York Times, Bob Herbert pointed out that "vile comments can be heard morning, noon, and night on radio stations from coast to coast. Not only are they seldom condemned, the hosts are regularly courted and praised by public officials who ought to know better." Writing in the same publication a day earlier, A.M. Rosenthal explained: "After the Oklahoma City massacre, Mr. Clinton warned Americans of what so many of them knew and smelled - the civic air we breathe is being befouled by hatred, spoken, written, and marched, and that this could have bitter consequences. In the face of this ugliness, he said to remain silent was unforgivable." A similar column from William Raspberry allowed that, "It's not enough for these men [talk radio hosts] to satisfy themselves that they meant no harm. They need to reflect on the possibility that their excessive language can lead other people over whom they have no direct control to do harm."
While tempting, one must resist the urge to jump on this blame-game bandwagon. Liddy is crazy, and he should be disciplined by the FCC for his remarks. But the majority of conservative talk radio hosts in this country are right wing poseurs who bear as little responsibility for Oklahoma City as the fundamental Islamic terrorists who were the initial focus of blame. Sure, Rush Limbaugh and his dime-a-dozen imitators are mean spirited in their criticisms of current White House policies. Yet these criticisms fall within the agenda of the GOP and, to a larger degree, the values of corporate America. Above all, Limbaugh generally stands up for the status quo, for the rights of big business and for the freedoms one can attain through unfettered economic advancement. Although Limbaugh did announce himself as a state militia supporter after the Branch Davidian inferno, he shares very little with this movement and those who allegedly sponsored the April 19 bombing.
If only a now-skeptical nation was completely convinced of this point. Ironically, the Limbaughs of this country must now defend themselves against vague and unsubstantiated accusations, the same type of accusations that they've made their fortunes hurling against others over the last three years. Americans are looking for a simple answer to explain what may have twisted the bomber's mind into such an act of hate. For now a convenient scapegoat is talk radio, the wellspring of intolerance that has flooded the country over the last several years. Defending the genre amidst such charges are family values stalwarts like Cal Thomas, Jr., a right wing moralist who has now become a leading voice for the virtues of total freedom of speech. Gee, where was old Cal when Luther Campbell really needed him?
Until he began equivocating on the matter, President Clinton was holding down the other end of this debate. In his infamous Minneapolis address, he argued that talk radio has also fostered a certain atmosphere that legitimizes hate and intolerance in this country. To this line of thinking, Limbaugh and others become indirectly culpable for the April 19 tragedy because they regularly satirize and ridicule those elements in our society least able to defend themselves: women, the poor, homeless people, and minorities. True, this type of sophomoric humor remains repulsive and unacceptable. Yet blaming these antics for an event such as the one that occurred in Oklahoma City is even more demeaning to the conscious facilities of most Americans to distinguish between right and wrong.
Moreover, the fact that Limbaugh is so widely popular does not mean that all listeners believe his entire schtick. Give the man credit for doing something a little different and pumping new life into the tired AM wavelength. Like him or hate him, you have to admit that Limbaugh has brought a great deal of energy and imagination to the airwaves. And, to a large degree, this formula for success has now moved far beyond the conservative ideology he chooses to endorse. Those who claim that the masses will not embrace someone with an equally liberal perspective have apparently not been paying attention to Lone Star populist Jim Hightower, whose lively and entertaining weekend call-in show is quietly adding city after city while amassing some very impressive ratings.
That the success of this show would have been impossible were it not
breaking work of various right wing hosts is hard to argue against. Moreover, Hightower's program lends hope to the promise that political debate in this country can now extend beyond the narrow perimeters to which it has traditionally been defined. This is the hope that a wide range of new and challenging ideas can be discussed in this nation, and that reasonable citizens should continually challenge our society's most basic assumptions. It is a move away from the paternalistic guidance of the mainstream media towards a community in which a number of different perspectives are given equal value.
Unfortunately, much of this promise seems to have crumbled in the aftermath of the April 19 explosion. The accusations against Liddy and Limbaugh could well have a ripple effect throughout the talk radio industry, with progressives such as Hightower eventually suffering as well. For if Madison Avenue begins to perceive that a sizable percentage of Americans have come to equate this medium with random violence, the advertising dollars will become scarcer and scarcer. If this comes to pass, these programs won't disappear overnight - not even for several more years. Some special-interest shows will probably survive well into the 21st century, but the audience that these programs command will be of little overall consequence. At the zenith of its power, talk radio now lays crippled and defenseless, one more unwitting casualty in this gruesome act of senseless terrorism.
As much as I hate fact-twisting, hate-preaching demagogues such as Limbaugh, the demise of the genre he has made so popular would be a regrettable loss. Heralded as a revolutionary medium that was to give common people an equal voice as the media elite, talk radio has enjoyed a surprisingly short life span. Unfortunately, the capricious rumors, innuendoes and half-truths that now plague it are the same nutrients that fueled its massive popularity. Worst of all, the potential downfall of talk radio does little to solve the underlying factors behind the Oklahoma City tragedy. What America needs right now are more voices, more perspectives, more discussions, more opinions - not fewer of them. Blaming the media for an event plotted and perpetrated by a few crackpots makes absolutely no sense.