July 2007


The question the court has been deliberating the past few weeks is the following:

In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

Each justice has presented their own set of arguments regarding the above question, and we as a court have come to a decision regarding the subject at hand.

By a vote of 4 to 2 (3 Abstentions at the moment), the court has decided that indeed Radio Personalities are being held to a higher standard than their peers in Television and Print.

Concurring: Jess, Becca, Aaron, James
Dissenting: Heidi, Matt
Abstaining: Jeremy, Jim, Nikki

Presenting the Majority position will be Justice Aaron and presenting the dissenting opinion on this subject will be myself, Chief Justice Matthew.

The Majority Opinion:

In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

My decision:

In November 2004, a talk radio host based in Madison, Wisconsin, called Condoleezza Rice “Aunt Jemima.” John “Sly” Sylvester of WTDY-AM was referring to comments made by Harry Belafonte that the price of admittance of blacks to the Bush White House was subservience, and that Rice (whose tenure as national security advisor he characterized as incompetent) was being used to present “an illusion of inclusion.” For his opinion, Sylvester was on the receiving end of an uproar that included not only listeners, but the NAACP, the Mayor of Madison, and Senator Russ Feingold.

If the question here is whether or not radio personalities are being held to a different standard than other media, I would say the answer is yes.

Using Condoleezza Rice is an example of a divisive issue, she’s been ridiculed in every form of mainstream media, from television to print to radio. But I’ve never heard of a mass outcry from a television audience that Jon Stewart be beheaded for making fun of Condi (despite John T. Jones’s attempts at chastisement ). Sure, Pravda can get away with saying her problems stem from being single and childless merely by benefit of being European, but when Pat Oliphant makes fun of her by calling her subservient, there may be disagreement, but there’s never a mass outpouring of anti-political cartoon sentiment.

Why, then, did 100 people call WTDY-AM and demand that John Sylvester be fired? Why should he not be allowed to express his opinion, like Jon Stewart or Pat Oliphant or the head of the Russian Liberal and Democratic Party? Is it the medium itself? Does the fact that it’s live somehow make it more immediate?

Sylvester apologized to Aunt Jemima, saying “She wasn’t a self-serving hack politician who got up in front of Congress and lied. Aunt Jemima didn’t kowtow to Don Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney.” He also said “Aunt Jemima never lied about yellow cake uranium; she just makes a damn good pancake.” The NAACP was not amused.

What bothers me in this case is the racial issue, which seems to be at the fore of many of the attacks on radio personalities. When Don Imus used a racial slur, he was suspended; when Al Sharpton denounced him, CBS couldn’t fire him fast enough. One might argue that CBS had employed Don Imus long enough to know the kind of things he said, but as soon as he became a supposed liability, he was immediately turned loose. Soon after, Opie and Anthony were suspended for a bit in which a caller referred to as Homeless Charlie fantasized about having violent sex with Condoleezza Rice. Al Sharpton again denounced the bit, but didn’t call for anyone to get fired. (Fellow blogger Chez wonders if this is because Homeless Charlie is black, and “therefore in possession of a genetic get-out-of-jail-free card.”)

Perhaps there’s a point to be made about race relations here. There are certainly a number of black people in this country who don’t like Condoleezza Rice, and do consider her an Aunt Jemima (Skeptical Brotha for example, as well as Harry Belafonte), but Al Sharpton is not running around insisting that they be fired or boycotted. Why is that? Is there something else going on here? Are radio hosts not, in fact, being held to a higher standard, but in fact just easy targets for people with their own agenda?

If we truly have free speech in this country, then all speech has to be tolerated. The cardinal sin in America right now seems to be offending anyone, especially those considered minority groups. What this seems to have led to (at the risk of being offensive) is a fear among corporations of seeming to tolerate anything offensive toward black people, and some opportunists like Al Sharpton use that to stamp out anything that they don’t agree with. Calling Condi Rice “Aunt Jemima” is not a slur directed at all black people–it’s a criticism of Rice’s place in the Administration. When Al Sharpton calls a white man a racist for criticizing her, what he’s doing is not standing up for the rights of the criticized, he’s attempting (and in some cases succeeding) to stamp out thought he doesn’t like. With a minimum of hyperbole, that’s simply un-American. Because when we decide that there’s a right and wrong way to think, we can easily start applying it to the simple act of stating an opinion. And when opinions are outlawed, that’s a standard that no one will be able to live up to.

The Dissenting Opinion:

The question before the court this week is: In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

To answer that question, we must examine both if radio personalities are held to a different standard than their peers in the other mass media and then determine if they are in fact being held to a tougher standard.

And the tempest that began this whole discussion is naturally the firing of Don Imus and his producer for their remarks about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team (comments that were in part lifted from a Spike Lee movie). The Imus incident had an equivalent immediate effect on the reporting of radio incidents that the Janet Jackson incident had on television… the operative word that is immediate. But the thing to remember is it was public outcry and not a regulatory offense that led to the dismissal of Don Imus. He did not break the law, and no FCC fines were levied in the case, despite the best efforts of people like Al Sharpton.

There are other incidents in the recent past, from a New York City shock jock stating he was looking to have inappropriate sexual contact with the daughter of a rival to someone castrating a pig on the air to even a pair of shock jocks playing an audio portion of the Nick Berg murder with music, jokes and laughter that have caused a stir.

The reason it seems like radio hosts are now being held to a higher standard is now a precedent has been set with the firing of Don Imus… and with the memories of that incident fresh in the minds of other interest groups, they have seen an opportunity to push their own agenda, and because of that, the networks that carry potentially offensive material are a little wary of courting controversy. The three recent widely known incidents (Imus, JV and Elvis and Opie and Anthony) have something else in common besides being offensive to a certain vocal segment of the population… all three programs were on the CBS radio network (Portions of Opie and Anthony’s XM show were being rebroadcast on CBS since April 2006), which means that the Imus situation was squarely pointed at one broadcaster, a broadcaster whose contact information is still fresh on the mind of those with a particular agenda.

Radio personalities, by and large, are allowed to express themselves in a much freer manner than their counterparts in print or on television because they aren’t as reliant on gatekeepers for the distribution of their content. Print journalists are constrained by editors and publishers who are often given the opportunity to have their sentiments and words softened or altered before they are publicly consumed, as well as some time to reconsider the way in which something is phrased. And in the world of television news and punditry, there are similar barriers to such free expression, because the use of scripts and teleprompters as well as a set list of reliable guests who present the information that is expected of them. And in many cases, such guest also employ a set of talking points which they consistently use across programs and networks. There are a lot of safety nets for the people appearing on these shows to avoid the wrong kind of controversy (by approaching the line, and not crossing it through clever editing and framing of issues). And on entertainment shows, it is usually the guests which court the controversy (one example that comes to mind is Sarah Silverman’s appearance on Conan O’Brien in July 2001 where she told a joke about getting out of jury duty by writing “I love Chinks” on her application), and not the hosts.

Therefore, it is general quite difficult to get through the filters and say something truly controversial. However, there is one venue on television where it is far easier to get into trouble, and that is any show that involves open debate of topics (as Bill Maher would likely be the first to admit), is also the most likely place to generate controversy because it is in that kind of setting where an off-the-cuff remark can turn into something much bigger.

Contrast that with the system radio hosts have. Radio personalities often don’t have the same kinds of intermediaries their peers in the other media do. In fact, for the most part, they have the freedom to explore topics at their own pace, and have ample time to fill on a daily basis (from two to five hours), and as such, there are fewer restrictions on what they can or cannot say, because frankly trying apply the same limits on those kinds of relatively freeform shows would require much tighter controls over the entire process which would lose much of its power and appeal. Controversial Civil Rights Lawyer and radio host Ron Kuby has stated, “Once you get beyond the FCC, a host is left to the discretion of a program director, station manager, bosses they’ve never seen, advertisers and a fickle public. What might be fine today results in a boycott tomorrow.”

And they are called shock jocks for a reason. They are encouraged to push the boundaries of good taste and court controversy on a daily basis. In fact, it is that very factor that Imus is using to dispute his firing, as there was a clause in his contract which stated that is exactly the kind of behavior that was expected of him. And in the arena of political punditry, the figures involved say the same sorts of things that draw fire for shock jocks, but because of the kind of reporting, very few groups and individuals try to bring the same kind of lobbying power to having their shows punished for their transgressions.

For the amount of latitude most of these figures have, a little controversy is a small price to pay, and given the sheer amount of work each of these radio personalities produces versus their counterparts on television and in print, the fact that there isn’t MORE controversy generated from their programs is surprising. I mean, if any one of us had to talk extemporaneously for ten to twenty-five hours a week to thousands or millions of listeners, we would probably say something within our first few days which would generate controversy.

Therefore while radio personalities are indeed held to a different standard, it is far from being a tougher one. So no, I do not think that radio personalities are being held to a higher standard than their counterparts in the other media. In fact, if anything, television for the purposes of entertainment seems to be the whipping boy for the entire media industry. I only have to mention such incidents as ABC’s reluctance to show Saving Private Ryan uncut on Memorial Day 2004, an event they had done twice before without major controversy, or Without a Trace’s recent run-in about a teen orgy scene, or even the period where the FCC and groups like Focus on the Family were going full bore against the networks over fleeting swearing during live events. Because the truth is, television personalities could never dream of getting away with some of the things their peers in radio do.

We Elle Woods and Chery Horowitz continue our journey into the judicial abyss of Pop Culture with the second Pop Culture Supreme Court Case.


Pop Culture Supreme Court Case 2:
In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

Opinion
If by standards, we’re talking about public approval standards, my answer is no, radio, television and print are not held to higher standards. When standards are breeched, there are consequences regardless of the method of communication. Unless you are Ann Coulter, in that case you are pretty much allowed to say anything you want without fear of repercussions because clearly you are the devil and nobody wants to mess with you.

Don Imus- Radio Race Ruckus

“My goal is to goad people into saying something that ruins their life.” –Don Imus

The more visibility you have the more likely you are to suffer repercussions for your behavior. There is no way to slide under the wire or request a do-over unless by do-over you mean rehab. In today’s media, public opinion spreads like wildfire via blogs and viral video. In minutes what may have been a few hundred FCC complaints can turn into hundreds of thousands. Consumer watchdog groups and advertisers are in tune with today’s media and can act more quickly when public opinion shifts. As the third most popular morning radio program with a daily audience of over 350k listeners, clearly Imus had the visibility and his remarks were heard ‘round the web. If he were someone with little visibility or he had an editor reviewing his comments before publication, he may have been prevented from making his comments publicly. But probably not, he is after all, Imus. Even if Imus had an editor or censored his comments they could have been leaked and he may have faced the same scrutiny and eventual firing as in the Isaiah Washington case

Isaiah Washington: Television Talent Taunting Talent
While Isaiah Washington’s homophobic remarks were not spoken on air, the news of his onset comments regarding TR Knight’s sexuality was posted on hundreds of websites eliciting thousands of reactions. More people have an opportunity to hear what celebrities have to say as all of the media groups lead with the same story and set it on repeat. Sadly there is a segment of the population that reveres celebrity status and sees celebrities as idols and role models. Celebrities are more visible than ever and along with that visibility comes great responsibility. Kind of like Spiderman.

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Extra, extra: Pen Thinks Before Wielding Sword
The nature of publishing allows for a kind of immediate hindsight. Magazines, newspapers and journals have editors who review content before sending it off to print. It is planned as opposed to live television and radio, which are essentially immediate. While the print medium is accountable to watch dog groups, their subscribers and their advertisers, there is no FCC for print. Magazines and newspapers aren‘t celebrities. Sure writers are famous but they aren’t out front in the public consciousness as much as someone involved in television or radio. If an opinionated reader sends in an offensive editorial and it is printed, that reader doesn’t make headline news and unless his boss gets wind of his remarks and in turn fears for his other employees’ safety or he spews his hatred on fellow employees, it’s unlikely he will be fired.

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Are You Meaner Than a Fifth Grader?
All this talk of consequences is giving me a flashback got me thinking, what we are dealing with here are full grown bullies on the grown up playground of life. How far off are we from the real playgrounds filled with schoolyard bullies when someone is punished by being fired for their remarks? What would the consequences for the same behavior exhibited by the above-mentioned celebrities if in fact they were in the 5th grade. So wearing our most responsible looking ensemble, went to the source consequence distribution: we interviewed a real life grade school principal. Here is what we learned:

Me: What are the consequences when a child uses language like Don Imus or Isaiah Washington used, towards another child?

The Principal: That kind of behavior is UNACCEPTABLE!! We would at least talk to the kids about why
they said that and try to get at why they are being racist or whatever, because that stuff is
racist. From there, depending on the age, we would call the parents and work on some consequences. If it were a 5th grader, the consequences would be serious, possibly suspension.

Me: How about when a kid makes an offensive joke? What are the consequences?

The Principal: This is serious stuff – it is a manner of bullying and we don’t allow students to treat each other that way. We try to maintain a culture where kids don’t want to hurt each other and we try to educate them about how it makes a person feel etc.

Mr. Willis to the Principal’s Office

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“I hate to think we live in a time when you can get fired from your job because of what you say. [Isaiah Washington] didn’t punch anyone. I think we’ll think differently with hindsight.”

– Bruce Willis to Time magazine

So in response to the quote above, yes, Mr. Willis, you can get fired from a job for what you say but only if you didn’t learn the lessons of human decency while on the playground.

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In conclusion: no, radio, television and print aren’t held to different standards – however, the visibility of the speaker may make it appear that way. In this age of wall-to-wall news, off-the-cuff remarks are going to get a lot of exposure, and the nature of print doesn’t lend itself to off-the-cuff remarks. Thus, it’s natural that radio and TV would be seen as having the highest scrutiny.

Fun with the FCC

Pop Culture Supreme Court, Case 2: In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

Does the much-ballyhooed firing of Don Imus suggest that radio personalities are being held to a higher standard than their print and television counterparts? While Imus faced severe consequences for his racially-charged comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, the evidence suggests that the application of any standard to the medium of radio as a whole is, at best, arbitrary and capricious.

Whether it’s a fine from the FCC, a drop in sponsorship dollars, or an outright firing, shock jocks like Imus, Howard Stern, and Opie and Anthony have often paid the price for pushing the boundaries of decency on their shows. Other prominent radio personalities, however, continue to broadcast offensive material on a daily basis without significant repercussions or media scrutiny. Consider Figure 1, comparing the average number of racist, homophobic, insensitive, or otherwise inappropriate comments made by various radio personalities per hour:

Figure 1.1

Okay, so I made up all the numbers in Figure 1. Buy, hey — I’m a blogger. We’re held to no standards whatsoever. The point is that the enforcement of broadcast standards is just as arbitrary in the medium of radio as it is on TV. Networks depict dozens of brutal murders each week on police procedurals like CSI, but it’s incidents like Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” that really twist the FCC’s nipple shield. Sure, Don Imus was fired for his comments, but syndicated radio talk show host Neil Boortz was able get away with the following statement on the issue of immigration during his June 18 broadcast:

…build a double fence along the Mexican border, and stop the damn invasion. I don’t care if Mexicans pile up against that fence like tumbleweeds in the Santa Ana winds in Southern California. Let ’em. You know, then just run a couple of taco trucks up and down the line, and somebody’s gonna be a millionaire out of that.

Compare Boortz’s statement to Imus’ comments on the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Is one really more offensive than the other? Yet, aside from a mention on Media Matters, Boortz’s remarks received no real attention from the media. That probably explains why, just a few days later, he figured it was perfectly safe to advocate sending deportees back to Mexico with “a little bag of nuclear waste” and telling them it’s a “tortilla warmer.”

I’m not defending Don Imus’ comments — quite the opposite, in fact. I’m just pointing out that he wasn’t the first or the last radio broadcaster to make an entirely inappropriate statement on the air. The First Amendment may protect our right to say stupid, awful things, but it doesn’t guarantee us a nationally-syndicated radio forum in which say them.

Thanks to such inconsistencies, I contend that radio personalities as a whole aren’t being held to a higher or tougher standard than their peers in television and print. Some are fined after making an offensive comment, others aren’t. Some attract a media circus, others don’t. Of course, it wasn’t the FCC that sacked Don Imus; it was his employers, CBS Radio and MSNBC. Did he face a harsher penalty than a newspaper reporter or television commentator who demonstrated dubious judgment and questionable professional ethics might have? Ask former New York Times reporter Jayson Blaire. Or former CBS News anchor Dan Rather.

In conclusion, I find that there is no consistent standard of professional conduct applied in today’s media environment. The Imus firing generated such an over-the-top media frenzy in part because it was the exception — not the rule. Other radio broadcasters have said and continue to say much worse on the air without facing any consequences whatsoever. Therefore, claims that radio personalities are being held to a standard any higher than their counterparts on television and in print are based on the inherently faulty premise that a consistent standard exists within the medium of radio. The question of whether Don Imus, Opie and Anthony, or whoever else is being held to a higher standard than their peers in other media must be determined on a case by case basis.

In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

I’m going have to say yes they are generally held to a tougher standard. However, I believe it is because of the environment and history of radio that makes it that way. Yet, there is another factor we have to consider too. Unlike TV and movies, there isn’t a rating system in place for radio. There are only FCC guidelines, which vary. Yet, given the live nature of radio, I don’t see how there could be. Do we really want more regulation from the government on what can be said and not said on the radio? Can we trust the government to oversee this?

Radio personalities do seem to take more flack than say your run of the mill cable network people.

Let me dig a little deeper.

The Shock Factor

After Howard Stern blew up, every radio station wanted to get their own shock jocks. That’s mainly because radio doesn’t know how to create new ideas, and simply clones whatever is marketable. I like raunchy and dirty humor as the next person, there does come a point when it does cross the line.

When the shock factor was then marketed and cloned throughout the US, It would be only a matter of time before someone caused some major trouble.

The Imus Factor

When the Don Imus controversy erupted, I was just a little angry, but as I heard more about the situation. I remember hearing about it not from the Internet, but a local hip-hop station. The DJ, who was a black woman, was really angry, and I understand why. Yet, even after the Imus thing started to settle down a bit, there were discussions about what could be said and what couldn’t.

Looking back on the entire situation, I wished the networks didn’t fire him, not because he was right, but because now anyone can come under fire and lose their job for a mindless remark. Being a black man myself, I know fully well how hurtful the phrase Imus made really was. The remark is generally a way to belittle black women, almost as much as the N-word. Yet, Imus probably should have never lost his job, because I don’t think he was fully aware how cruel the remark was. Imus should be held responsible and apologize, and watched what he said in the future.

Here are some general notes

1. People should demand better radio programming than some of the mess that is out there in the radio industry. We should demand a higher standard of programming.

2. There needs to be a wider range of entertainment and news on radio. When Imus was considered daring and shocking, you know there needs to be better programming. You want to shock people? Force them to think and discuss issues.

3. It’s time to clean up radio, not in content, but by bringing in new blood to change the way radio is run.

Internet notes

The Greaseman Incident.

Opie and Anthony church incident: Why did they think this would be funny? Does this even have an entertainment value?

Howard Stern: Just read his bio.

So the verdict is: Yes, radio personalities are held to a higher standard.

Pop Culture Supreme Court Ruling 2: In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

Radio is an interesting media, almost more diverse than television it informs and entertains with interactivity that television does not and cannot have. Radio has gotten a lot of attention in the last few months thanks to the FCC & others charging some pretty high-profile shock jocks of obscene show content.

The overly hyped Opie & Anthony were fired from WAAF Boston for reporting that a local politician had died in a fiery car crash. The story was fictitious, an April Fools bit gone bad, but the FCC prohibits the broadcast of knowingly false information if it causes public harm and apparently many believed this story. Who does that? Who believes the word of two stupid shock jocks over respected news outlets? How do these same people handle watching programs such as The Daily Show or reading The Onion? I suppose these people think that James Gandolfini Shot By Closure-Seeking Fan or that The Federal governments has three branches, that Dick Cheney is the fourth.

Seth at Dispatches From the Intelligentsia has this to say about the responsibilities of the FCC “When the FCC was originally created, its job was to make sure radio and TV stations didn’t overlap and squelch each other. It has grown into a dangerous anti-free speech arm of the government that arbitrarily determines what we should all hear and see.” And he’s right; if we give up some of our freedoms who’s to stop them from taking more?

The highest profile of the obscenity cases involved Don Imus. On April 4, 2007, Imus referred on-air to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s”during a discussion about the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship. Calls for his dismissal from an angry public started pouring in that day, the media jumped on the bandwagon shortly after and finally reached it’s apex of attention on April 9th when Imus appeared on activist Al Sharpton’s radio program to discuss the controversy. Sharpton called the comments “abominable”, “racist”, and “sexist” and called for Imus’ termination. Despite an apology Imus was suspended on April 10th and his show was taken off the air on April 11th.

I think most of us can agree that what he said was indecorous but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have the right to express himself freely. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey put it best when he said, “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.” And that’s what we have here; one man expressing his opinion. Bizzos.org says “as a country, we are losing the will to fight for our freedom of speech; to have the right to hear the “words” we want to hear.” He also goes on to say we are “…sliding into an era that the opinions and sensitivities of a few dictate what “words” the rest of us can choose to hear.” and this is definitely true of the Imus incident. But aside from the freedom of speech issue here is the hypocrisy that once again TV gets away with identical behavior, sometimes worse.

Jennifer Feng finds that Hollywood does nothing but perpetuate the Asian stereotypes of the Foreigner and the Geek which diminishes “the self-esteem of boys and introduces an internalized racial self-hatred where one associates one’s racial identity with limited personal and social success.” Anastasia Goodstein says racism abounds on reality television and is a true thermometer of the racism in society. “It started years ago with The Real World, where racial tension seemed to be a prerequisite for casting. And in the past year we saw Survivor attempt to divide its teams according to race and Ice Cube attempt to have black and white families swap identities in Black. White. There is the unnerving minstrel quality to Flavor of Love, and we even see mixed race couples on Wife Swap.” If these racially charged television shows had been on radio would they have been received so calmly? Could they have even discussed some of the same topics as openly as they could on TV?

I can’t listen to the radio…and I am a talk radio junkie…for more than an hour these days without one of the hosts trying to skirt around a semi-adult topic because of the FCC or fear of audience lash back. Lou Guzzo thinks that “With regard to the obscenity issue, the FCC’s overly stringent regulations violate a historic constitutional doctrine — one stating that laws should be applied fairly and uniformly to all. If a federal agency tried to regulate newspapers, magazines, and books, as the FCC has controlled radio and television, the print media would have scuttled it in a day.”

“If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our efforts here to keep them free.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Do we really live in this kind of an Orwellian society? If so how long till TV or music or print media is censored because some people don’t like what it has to say…or the government doesn’t like what it has to say. I pointed out a few extreme instances of radio censure but it happens all the time now and it’s just not right. If you don’t like something…change the channel.

“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of all censorships.” George Bernard Shaw