During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Hutu-power genocidaires were mobilized by radio extremists. One station in particular had a long history of hate-mongering, and its on-air personalities had previously organized outbreaks of mass murder against Tutsis. But educated Tutsis generally paid little attention to them. They were so gauche, so lacking in subtlety, so juvenile in their call for genocide. How could anyone take them seriously? But in societies undergoing rapid change, hatred often has a singular appeal.
I have a hard time explaining this to educated people in the United States. They never listen to AM Hate Radio, and they aren’t fully aware of the depth of the present crisis. The reality is that AM talk shows have recruited an openly neo-fascist cadre that is redefining American conservatism, promoting hate as a way to galvanize the Republican base. Whereas racial segregation once gave the under-employed "angry white man" someone to hate, now — thanks to AM Hate Radio — he can scapegoat Muslims and immigrants.
According to recent Arbitron ratings, the five leading talk show hosts are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Laura Ingraham. All have a strong family resemblance. They demonize illegal immigrants, often decry global warming as a liberal hoax, promote Islamophobia and support Israel uncritically.
This last characteristic is partly the work of Michael Harrison, publisher of "Talkers" magazine, an industry publication for talk radio. "Talkers" works extensively with America’s Voices for Israel, a rightwing group that supports the settler’s movement in the Occupied Territories. Harrison and the Talker-AVI group have taken some 50 AM talk show hosts on tours of Israel, with Talkers giving free publicity to those who say the right things about Israel. Needless to say, Harrison’s Potemkin Village-style "tours" never include contact with critical Palestinians or Israeli dissenters. And with the U.S. pro-Israel Lobby moving to the right, "support" for Israel all too often includes Muslim-bashing.
Perhaps the most offensive of all the shock jocks on AM Hate Radio is Michael Savage, whose books and radio shows are basically outpourings of frenzied, obscurantist ravings against Islam, the Arabic-speaking countries and anybody likely to defend them. At their worst, his rants become fantasies of genocide, as when he suggested the United States should "kill 100 million Muslims." He also refers to Arabs and Muslims as "bugs" that should be wiped out — a disturbing echo of the Rwandan extremists, who described Tutsis on the radio as "cockroaches" who should be similarly exterminated.
The back story to this crisis starts in the 1980s, when the Federal Communications Commission operated under a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. Under this policy, people and organizations attacked on radio could have airtime to present opposing views. This tended to inhibit extremism, and broadened and deepened public debate.
It also brought democracy to the airwaves, because there are limited frequencies available on radio — and without regulation, corporations have disproportionate power. But former President Ronald Reagan appointed people to the FCC who scuttled the Fairness Doctrine. This opened up AM radio to the conglomerates and got rid of a wide range of opinion, instead serving corporate interests that sought a quick dollar promoting hatred. This has steadily pushed American political discourse to the far right.
I was delighted, then, with the recent campaign against Michael Savage, which has concentrated on dialogue with his advertisers. My organization, the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, is proud to be part of the Hate Hurts America coalition involved in this campaign. It is my hope that, eventually, this can turn into a movement to restore the Fairness Doctrine; and I also hope we can defeat recent moves that would allow conglomerates to have print and electronic media in the same market.
AM Hate Radio is not entertainment, nor is it free speech — it is rather an undemocratic takeover of the airwaves that are supposed to belong to all Americans of all faiths and races.
[Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. He taught for eight years at Pacific Union College, and his academic specialties are American Studies and American literature. His column addresses current affairs from an American Christian and Interfaith perspective.]