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.