Though racism, sexism and immigrant bashing have long thrived on American radio, one had to go back to the days of Father Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith in the 1930s to find mainstream broadcasters railing against the Jewishness of their political enemies.
But no longer. Welcome to the Savage Nation, the radio show hosted by Michael Savage.
Well-known for his bigotry against non-whites, immigrants, women, gay men and lesbians (see Extra!, 3-4/03), Savage is virtually the only national talk jock targeting progressive Jews with ugly ethnic slurs and stereotypes.
Consider Savage’s December 6, 2002 attack on Jerry Springer. Best known for his trashy TV show, Springer, a liberal Jew who was once mayor of Cincinnati, has been mentioned in recent years as a possible Democratic senatorial candidate from Ohio. This was Savage’s response to that idea:
"Hooked nose"? Savage’s description of Springer is the classic anti-Semitic physical stereotype of Jews throughout the ages. (Words like "filthy" and "degenerate" are also staples of the anti-Semitic lexicon.) All too often, when Savage’s political enemies are Jewish, his invective takes on a disturbing ethnic edge--disturbing and puzzling, given that the talkshow host was himself born into a Jewish family.
Savage likes to single out progressives with Jewish-sounding names and ridicule them with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. Thus Rebekah Wolf of the People’s Law Collective and Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union were mocked as "Communist lawyers" (pronounced "loy-yahs") and "verminous, left-wing garbage . . . with law degrees" (1/9/03). Savage has even invented a fictional ACLU whipping boy, a "loy-yah" tellingly named "Mark Nobodyberg."
Jewish politicians Savage perceives as left-of-center, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, are routinely subjected to crude stereotypes. (Never mind that the conservative Democrat is a co-founder with Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp of the right-of-center Empower America think tank--from Savage’s far-right perspective, Lieberman is on the left.)
"Now he’s throwing his bagel into the ring to be president," Savage commented about Lieberman’s current political bid (12/16/02), before declaring the senator a "weakling" whom only "fools" would vote for. The bagel reference is routine when Savage is discussing the man he calls "Joey Boy Lieberman"; once, while playing clips of a Lieberman speech (1/13/03), Savage asked his engineer to play some Jewish folk music: "I wanna hear some more merry Klezmer music to go with the Lieberman speech."
Savage makes similar ethnic references when talking about other Jewish targets. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is "the brisket baker," whom North Korean dictator Kim Il Jung honored with a "Bat Mitzvah party" (1/9/03). Elsewhere Savage dubs senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer "yentas" (4/8/03) and complains that Dustin Hoffman speaks like he has "matzah" in his mouth (2/24/03).
"I smelled corned beef"
Savage uses these references to Jewish culture to highlight the ethnicity of Jews he doesn’t like. His use of code words and indirection was on display in his June 4 discussion of Chief Charles Moose (6/4/03), the Maryland police official who was back in the news for trying to publish a book about the sniper hunt.
"Red diaper doper baby" is one of Savage’s favorite phrases--as indicated by the fact that he’s condensed it to an abbreviation. Ostensibly it refers to the leftist atmosphere in which people Savage hates were supposedly raised. But Savage’s fixation on this lawyer’s name--which is not a name that particularly evokes the left, let alone any drug subculture--suggests that it’s not just a lifestyle he’s honing in on.
Later in the broadcast, Savage returned to gloat that his suspicions were correct:
So Carp’s being born in Brooklyn in 1945 means that his parents were reds? Or that he took drugs? No. To Savage it means that they likely consumed items (like Fox’s U-Bet, a chocolate syrup used in egg creams) associated with Jewish culture. That’s what Savage was boasting of being able to "smell."
In one of his more bizarre routines, Savage contrasted the teams of lawyers the Bush and Gore campaigns sent to Florida to contest the 2000 election results. The Gore lawyers, according to Savage, were "NYU red diaper doper babies," but also "curly-haired boys from NYU," "little guys from NYU with big glasses" (12/10/02; 12/24/02). Savage made it clear these exotic creatures were no match for the Bush lawyers (12/10/02):
Some people think they’ve figured out what Savage is saying. Fox News commentator Alan Colmes (Hannity & Colmes, 1/6/03) remarked on Savage’s attacks on Jewish liberals, including the imagined "Mark Nobodyberg": "There are some people who might infer anti-Semitism from those comments."
"I like seeing crosses"
Other people might infer an anti-Jewish hostility from Savage’s penchant (as in his riff about Bush v. Gore) for comparing members of other faiths unfavorably to Christians. He routinely reminds listeners that few of the gravestones in U.S. military cemeteries are topped with Jewish Stars of David or Muslim crescents (11/19/02): "And when you look at the graves, could you tell me what percentage of the graves have crosses on them, what percentage have Stars of David, and what percentage have a crescent on them?" Savage clearly relishes making this contrast (11/18/02): "I like seeing crosses on our war memorials. You know why? Because 99.9 percent of those who died were Christians!"
Savage praises Christianity in a way that suggests that he’s talking about himself: In his bestselling book The Savage Nation, he plays coy about his religion, writing in a chapter titled "Christophobia: In Praise of Christianity": "Isn’t it time for us, the liberty-loving people of the world, to demand that those of us who are being assaulted because of our religious and cultural beliefs demand that the attackers be called 'Christophobes'?"
Despite his reference to “our” religious and cultural beliefs, Savage was born Michael Wiener into a Jewish family in the Bronx, New York, in the 1940s. Savage adopted his new name when he began hosting his first radio show in 1994. On-air and elsewhere, "his Jewish upbringing is strictly taboo," reported Salon.com writer David Gilson in a March profile (3/5/03). Brad Kava, a radio columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and himself a Jew, told Salon, "He’s Jewish, but he always acts like he’s Christian." Gilson reported that when Kava noted that Savage was Jewish, Savage reported him to the Anti-Defamation League.
Is Savage a Jew-baiter who believes his Jewish background inoculates him from charges of anti-Semitism? Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, a magazine that tracks racism and anti-Semitism, told Extra!, "Whatever is in his head, he clearly makes statements that are anti-Semitic; if he’s Jewish, he needs to see a psychiatrist." But more importantly, says Potok, Savage’s brand of profitable bigotry resonates with some listeners: "Savage operates in a milieu where it pays to be provocative and where his messages can reach Christian nationalists and anti-Semites."
Another reason Savage may not be criticized for his Jew-baiting outbursts is that he militantly supports the Israeli government, a position mistakenly believed to be incompatible with anti-Semitism. And talk radio frequently flies below mainstream media radar--a point that Savage seems to understand and exploit in a way that suggests that he knows his remarks about Jews are unacceptable. In Savage’s more visible vehicles--his best-selling book and his MSNBC show--he prudently steers clear of anti-Jewish slurs.
Finally, there may be another reason why Savage's slurs and stereotypes escape mainstream media examination: Many of the media outlets we depend on to inform us of such things--ABC and NBC, to name two--profit from Savage’s radio and television shows. If those suspicions are valid, it should give pause; Savage is hot these days. The Savage Nation is heard on over 300 radio stations--many of them owned by Disney/ABC; his book of the same name spent time at the top of bestseller lists in early 2003; and, in March, MSNBC gave him his own national cable show--also called the Savage Nation.
Note: As Extra! went to press, on July 7, 2003, Savage was fired by MSNBC after calling a caller a "sodomite" and telling him to "get AIDS and die."