How Conservative Radio Creates an Echo Chamber of Hate

Arturo Garcia, AlterNet, August 16, 2012 

By itself, Pamela Geller’s May 2010 appearance on the “Sean Hannity Show” was par for the right-wing talk-radio course. The conservative blogger was brought on to rail against the conservative raison d’outrage of the moment, what she habitually called the “Mega mosque on Ground Zero [3]” (SPOILERS: the whole building really wasn’t a mosque, but that wasn’t going to stop her) that was being planned inNew York City around that time. But a recent study places the Geller-Hannity encounter in a bigger, more dangerous context that observers have noted for years.

The study, released last month by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, used Hannity’s radio show and four programs – the “Rush Limbaugh Show,” the “Glenn Beck Program,” “Savage Nation” and the “John & Ken Show” — as the focus of an investigation of the influence and confluence of specific interests in ultra-conservative radio programming. The results, as you might imagine, were not surprising.

“The findings reveal that the hosts promoted an insular discourse that focused on, for example, anti-immigration, anti-Islam and pro-Tea Party positions,” the study concluded. “This discourse found repetition and amplification through social media.”

Geller’s appearance was part of that amplification. The study notes that her “Mega Mosque” rant became a gravy train for her during 2010, as it garnered her an “exponential” growth in appearances on the talk-radio circuit, thus presenting her as an authoritative source to the conservative audience Hannity and the like cater to. When you add in the fact that four of the five shows featured in the report were syndicated nationally, it became really easy for a microphone in Geller’s hand to become a megaphone – or a pipe bomb.

Using hateful rhetoric, these hosts have cast immigrants as disease-ridden, equated pro-immigrant organizations with neo-Nazis, called Islam an ‘evil religion,’ claimed the Obama administration is promoting ‘race riots’ and made fun of the ethnicity of Asian-American politicians,” Salvatore Colleluori wrote at Media Matters, [4] one of several sites that has been keeping tabs on the homogenous culture and conversations on this section of the dial.

These shows create this kind of social (or anti-social) network, the study says, like any other radio station would: with a tight rotation. In the six weeks measured for the studies, nearly every guest was white (89%) or male (81%). Nearly a quarter of the guests were identified as Fox News talent. And nearly all of the politicians who appeared as guests were either Republicans (93%) or Tea Party members (89%).

Similarly, the topics on the table were usually centered around a few hot-button topics: Undocumented Immigrants Are Bad, Islam Is Evil, etc.

What’s interesting, for a report talking about media influence, is that this study hasn’t gotten much attention in regular media circles. Google “talk radio study UCLA 2012″ and you won’t get any hits on CNN, MSNBC or even Current. The most prominent outlet to offer up a post about it seems to be Fox News Latino, which posted a wire report [5] discussing the anti-immigration rhetoric the study measured.

“It doesn’t surprise me that this type of dialogue is continuing on the radio waves,” Jorge-Mario Cabrera from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles says in the piece from the Spanish news agency EFE. [6] “In theUnited States we tend to greatly protect the right to expression, albeit at the cost of some of the words being said on the air being greatly harmful to certain populations.”

Cabrera can attest to that firsthand. After the “John & Ken Show” released his cellphone number on the air, inviting listeners to complain about a proposed bill that would have offered financial help toCalifornia’s undocumented immigrants, he said he received more than 450 angry calls, including threats against him personally.

The study also mentioned a tragic consequence of Geller’s rhetoric; a New York Times story on Anders Behring Breivik, [7] the man behind last July’s massacre in Norway that left 77 people dead, reported that he “frequently cited” Geller’s own “Atlas Shrugs,” the platform from which she launched onto the airwaves. Naturally, Geller accused the “liberal media” of drumming up hateful sentiments – around her. [8]

And as Crooks & Liars’ David Newert asserts [9], the situation hasn’t been getting better this election season. As Republican rhetoric grows ever bolder in its implications, “what emerges is a discourse that remains insular rather than open and that finds alignment, repetition, and amplification through social media,” the study says.

That might explain why, in the wake of the Oak Park gurdwara shooting, [10] even Republicans have begun calling for people like talk-radio favorite (four appearances during the survey, including three on the Savage show) Michele Bachmann [11] (R-MN) to tone down her efforts to “expose” Muslim influence in Washington.

Yet, the radio element the study examines will not take these kinds of suggestions in stride.

“It is our right and our duty to criticize the people who have put the fate of our country in peril,” Rush Limbaugh told the Times [12] after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting last year. What he fails – or refuses – to consider is whether he needs a mirror to do that.

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Pioneering Hate Radio by Dick Polman, OCTOBER 12, 2009       

Perhaps Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and all their right-wing broadcasting brethren will soon deem it fitting to visit the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Mich.They could place a wreath at the base of the tall, narrow gravestone that marks the eternal resting place of Father Charles Coughlin, their spiritual godfather, the man who first blazed the trail for hate radio.     

Oct. 27 marks the 30th anniversary of Coughlin’s death, and it’s a testament to our characteristic American amnesia that his name barely resonates today. There was a time, during the Great Depression, when the bespectacled, powerfully built, organ-voiced “Radio Priest” hawked his demagogic wares to a weekly listening audience of 45 million. At the peak of fame he received an average of 80,000 letters a week, a volume that nobody else could match, not even President Roosevelt.     

Fortune magazine called Coughlin “just about the biggest thing that ever happened to radio,” and he pulled more listeners than the hugely popular Amos & Andy. Radio was new, but he figured it out fast. For starters, he was blessed with splendid vocal chords; one contemporary lauded Coughlin’s “mellow richness,” his “manly, heart-warming confidential intimacy,” his “emotional and ingratiating charm.” But Coughlin’s true gift was his ability to dumb down his message for mass consumption; as he liked to say, a radio broadcast “must not be high hat…. It must be simple.”     

And what a message it was. Never before had a freelance communicator possessed the technological tools and the instinctive skills to tap the paranoia, ignorance, and violence of the American id. Coughlin’s successors on hate radio owe him a debt of thanks for pointing the way.      

The historian William Manchester once wrote that Coughlin managed to “exploit aspects of the national character which were then but little understood: American innocence, the nation’s yearning for simplistic solutions, its joiner complex, and the carnival instinct for collecting shiny junk.” And these traits were exacerbated during the Great Depression; millions of credulous people yearned not only for easy answers, but also for convenient scapegoats.     

Coughlin’s scapegoats were the Jews.     

As a parish priest in suburbanDetroit- presiding over his church, the Shrine of the Little Flower – Coughlin had already built a big radio following prior to Franklin Roosevelt’s ascent to the White House in 1933. On his CBS-sponsored show – 6 p.m. on Sundays, titled “The Golden Hour of the Little Flower” – he seemed at first to be fairly liberal in his political leanings. He championed the little guy made poor by the Depression and strongly supported FDR in the ’32 campaign, coining the term “Rooseveltor Ruin.”     

But he quickly soured on the new president, and by 1934 he was telling listeners that FDR was a tool of “the international bankers”; he soon amended that phrase to be “international Jewish bankers.” By 1935 he was referring to the New Deal as “the Jew Deal.” He said on the air thatRooseveltwas “a liar” (back then, people didn’t talk publicly about presidents that way), and even suggested in a speech that it might be beneficial if FDR perished via “the use of bullets.”     

Meanwhile, Coughlin broadened his message to the foreign policy realm; the more the Nazis persecuted the Jews, the more virulently the priest attacked the Jews. He did so by adopting the Nazi’s favorite propaganda trick: painting the Jews as both predatory capitalists and predatory communists, this covering all ideological bases.     

During a late 1938 broadcast, he declared that the Nazis had been right to unleash Kristallnacht on Nov. 9 (burning 110 synagogues, arresting 30,000 Jews and murdering 91), because, in his view, the Jews were all communists.  He explained: “If Jews persist in supporting communism directly or indirectly, that will be regrettable. By their failure to use the press, the radio, and the banking house – where they stand so prominently – to fight communism as vigorously as they fight Nazism, the Jews invite the charge of being supporters of communism.”     

He also feared a Jewish-communist conspiracy on American shores, and warned in a speech: “When we get through with the Jews inAmerica, they’ll think the treatment they received inGermanywas nothing.” And he certainly didn’t think thatAmericashould fight the Nazis in battle: “Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews inGermanywho are neither American, nor French, nor English, but citizens ofGermany?” (Actually, by the late ’30s, the Nazis had already stripped the Jews of their rights as German citizens. But hate-radio broadcasters, even back then, were not exactly members of the reality-based community.)     

Coughlin’s isolationism ultimately doomed him; after Pearl Harbor, and after Hitler declared war onAmerica, there was no longer a mass audience for his message. And the Catholic hierarchy made it official during 1942, when the archbishop inDetroitordered Coughlin to zip his lip and tend solely to his parish duties. Coughlin did as he was told; for the last 37 years of his life, before dying at age 88 in 1979, he confined his passions to the occasional anti-communist pamphlet.     

But what’s less well known, and well worth noting, is that even at his peak Coughlin was not always free to pump his filth however he pleased. CBS, discomfited by his stridency and perhaps even seized by a fit of decency, summarily dropped his show (although this didn’t stop Coughlin; with money from his grassroots fans, he put his show on 60 independent outlets). And a 1939 broadcast industry rule – bowing to the federal government’s belief that free speech on the radio was not limitless – ultimately drove Coughlin off the air inNew York andChicago. The stations insisted on pre-approving his scripts; he refused, and wound up exiled to a tiny station inNew Jersey.     

Coughlin’s successors – Limbaugh, Beck, and so many others, all of whom have their own scapegoats and straw men – would surely be aghast at these speech restrictions. Today they are far more fortunate. They have a major political party that hops to their tune. They flourish in a time of deregulation, with few government curbs on broadcast speech. They have a major broadcast powerhouse, Fox News, ready and willing to help them inflame and entertain. And, most of all, they have millions of credulous followers – “frenzied, bitter, hostile, irrational.”     

No, wait… that’s how historian Alan Brinkley described Coughlin’s followers. The American id is a hardy perennial, and Coughlin was the first to prove it on radio.  His successors owe him some graveside homage on this 30th anniversary day. C’mon, guys. It’s a be-there.