“Talk radio was ahead of the pack because it’s tied into the people,” Michael Harrison of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts (NARTSH) told John Tierney of the New York Times (4/30/95). “The mainstream press is out of touch…. That’s why it didn’t see the Waco connection right away.”
According to Harrison, who edits the talk radio publication Talkers, while mainstream media were blaming the deaths in Oklahoma City on Arab terrorists, nearly as many talk radio callers were citing the Branch Davidian debacle as the probable motivation for the bombing.
As evidence for this claim, Tierney cited Harrison’s “sampling of talk shows that was conducted the day after the bombing”–although when contacted by Extra!, neither Tierney nor Harrison could provide any documentation for this survey. We were interested in Harrison’s evidence, because it seemed to us that most of talk radio in the days immediately after the blast was even more reckless and extreme than TV journalists in its rush to blame Muslims.
“You know why these Middle Eastern terrorists chose Oklahoma City?” one Chicago host asked the day after the bombing (cited in the Chicago Sun-Times, 4/24/95). “Because it’s in the heartland of America, and if they can strike there, they can strike anywhere.”
“What are we going to do with these towelheads?” demanded Boston’s Howie Carr (WRKO, 4/20/95). He referred to imaginary suspects as “heathen savages” from “Towelhead Nation.”
One talk show host, Bob Grant of New York’s WABC, even spoke of killing a guest who suggested that we shouldn’t rush to judgment in blaming Muslims. “What I’d like to do is put you against the wall with the rest of them, and mow you down with them,” Grant responded (4/20/95).
Such rhetoric seems to vindicate President Bill Clinton’s charge that there are “purveyors of hate and division” on U.S. airwaves who “leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.” Clinton was roundly condemned by right-wing talk radio hosts and their allies for “politicizing” the Oklahoma City bombing, but his basic point is undeniable: There is much speech on the radio today that advocates or justifies violence.
These broadcasters range from race-baiters like Grant to militia advocates like Chuck Baker who have called for an “armed revolution.” (Extra!, 3-4/95) They include Ray Appleton, a host on KMJ in California’s San Joaquin Valley, who’s promoted a bumper sticker reading, “Lee Harvey Oswald: Where are you now that we really need you?” (L.A. Times, 4/28/95).
At times, even Rush Limbaugh has flirted with such rhetoric: “The second violent American revolution is just about–I got my fingers about a quarter of an inch apart–is just about that far away,” he was quoted in the Washington Post (4/25/95). “Because these people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving in to town and telling them what they can and can’t do with their land.”
The most notorious practitioner of hate radio today is G. Gordon Liddy, whose instructions about shooting federal agents in the head seemed to epitomize the kind of speech Clinton condemned. Liddy, a convicted Watergate felon who is heard on some 250 stations, likes to give the impression that he speaks for an armed movement that is ready to use its extensive weaponry against government forces.
Liddy’s newsletter (Liddy Letter, 10/94), for example, claims that “veterans of the Phoenix program in Vietnam and other Special Warfare experienced personnel” are “advocating proactively hunting down and killing rogue BATF agents.” He refers to such would-be assassins as “citizen patriots.”
Talkshow hosts strenuously rejected the idea that they might bear some responsibility when members of their audience take such inflammatory rhetoric seriously. Limbaugh wrote a full-page column on the Oklahoma City bombing for Newsweek (5/8/95) headlined, “Why I’m Not to Blame.”
“Those who make excuses for rioters and looters in Los Angeles now seek to blame people who played no role whatsoever in this tragedy,” Limbaugh wrote–a strange complaint from someone who devoted a chapter in his book See, I Told You So to arguing that “Dan Quayle Was Right” to blame the L.A. riots on Murphy Brown.
It wasn’t just Limbaugh that rallied to the defense of violence-preaching talkshow hosts–less than a month after the bombing, the national board of NARTSH voted to give its “Freedom of Speech” award to Liddy. The award, which is supposed to go to “the individual who best embodies and boldly defends those freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment,” has previously gone to Salman Rushdie, CNN‘s Peter Arnett and columnist Jack Anderson.
Ironically, Liddy has admitted that, as an aide to President Richard Nixon, he started to plan an assassination of Jack Anderson, who had written columns critical of Nixon. “The rationale was to come up with a method of silencing you through killing you,” Liddy told Anderson on the CNBC program the Real Story (6/13/91). Liddy’s efforts were aborted by higher-ups at the White House.
Normally, someone who plots to kill those he disagrees with is not regarded as a defender of the First Amendment. But the publicity given to Liddy’s bizarre remarks spells high ratings for talkshows–and for NARTSH, that’s always worth defending.