The purveyors of airwave hate have once again launched a scurrilous campaign against a public figure. This time it's KVI-AM, a Seattle station with statewide reach, whose ultra-conservative host, Mike Siegal, recently broadcast utterly unsubstantiated and discredited rumors about Seattle mayor Norm Rice. The show was simulcast by KGA in Spokane, on a show hosted by another venom-spewing right-winger, Mike Clear.
The smears, first spread three years ago by a disgruntled former city employee, relate to alleged homosexual peccadilloes, favoritism for child molesters, and even a shootout with the mayor's wife. The Seattle Times investigated the rumors more than a year ago and found them to be "without merit."
Rice, who is running for governor of Washington state, has hit back. At a news conference Monday, the black mayor lambasted the purveyors of such talk shows as "cowards." "They are dangerous,"" he continued. "To stop them, we must take a stand. We must say to them, it ends here."
But will it? Doubtful, says Howard Kurz, the media critic for the Washington Post and author of "Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time" (Times Books). We interviewed Kurz by phone Tuesday in his office at the Washington Post.
We associated Seattle talk radio with "Frasier." How typical is this incident of what is going on with talk radio these days?
Apart from the Mike Siegal show, the rumors were simulcast by Richard Clear of KGA in Spokane. Clear, who I write about in the book, is the one who spread the rumor on the air right before the '94 election that Tom Foley was gay. It's a classic case of talk radio being used to spread salacious and irresponsible rumors that would never otherwise make it into mainstream media.
This has been happening for some time. Is there more of it now, or less?
There is more of it than ever before. There's a lot of good talk radio shows, but much of it has become a huge megaphone for all kinds of rumors, half truths and conspiracy theories. In the past couple of months, when I was on radio shows promoting my book, these callers would call up and say, "Why is the mainstream media suppressing the fact that Vince Foster was murdered?" You would think the Foster thing would have peaked and people would have moved on to some sort of other black helicopter theory of the world. But it's still pretty strong.
These radio stations are owned for the most part by mainstream organizations. Don't station managers and station owners have any responsibility to exercise some control over such scurrilous and unsubstantiated garbage?
In my view, it's long overdue. But the fact is, these media companies have it both ways: they get to make nice profits from these programs while claiming they have no responsibility for what callers or guests or even controversial hosts may say. And that's just a cop-out; they have all kinds of responsibility.
This (KVI) program was used as a vehicle to spread an apparently baseless rumor in a way that does real damage to people's reputations. Some people say that people should be able to say whatever they want, it's good for venting. But it puts politicians and other journalists in a position where they have to react to scurrilous garbage that they ordinarily would never even recognize -- because the news is "out there" thanks to the megaphone quality of talk radio. Last time it was Tom Foley, now it's Norm Rice. Who knows who it will be tomorrow?
Mayor Rice says he is taking a public stand in order to curb these excesses. Will he succeed?
This stuff happens every day. If one radio station is chastened by being publicly embarrassed over this sort of episode, it doesn't mean that 50 other stations in other cities won't continue to engage in or even encourage rumor-mongering. I don't see that tide turning. Bob Grant (fired by one New York radio station for making racist remarks, and quickly hired by a rival station) was out of work for just two weeks.
Have public figures brought some of this on themselves by going on shows like Don Imus?
Now you're into a question of taste. It's certainly my view that Bill Clinton and Bob Dole among others are responsible for building up Don Imus. We can hardly be shocked when he decides to turn his unique brand of humor on them. But Norm Rice didn't do anything to put this sort of thing in play; neither did Tom Foley in '94. This sort of thing is particularly sleazy.
Microsoft mogul can't take a joke
Andrew Leonard, a freelance journalist who'd been having fun for several months writing a spoof called "The Secret Files of Bill Gates" for the Hub, New Line Cinema's site on America Online, listened to his voicemail Friday and heard the bad news: his feature had been canceled. It seemed that Microsoft's lawyers didn't get the joke -- they'd threatened action against AOL or New Line or both.
Leonard says that the first message from New Line simply told him "Secret Files" was canceled immediately because of the legal threat. An hour later, his supervising producer, Holly Lim, said that the Gates series had been "underperforming" (though his contract had been renewed three weeks before).
On Tuesday, Lim referred questions to executive producer Billy Kimball, who didn't return our call. Meanwhile, if you visit the section of the Hub where the "Secret Files" used to be found, the graphics-heavy site suddenly reverts to a simple text menu, suggesting a hasty revision (though Lim said this was part of a planned redesign that was already underway).
The Gates series featured imaginary e-mail and memos from the heart of the Microsoft empire. In one column, Leonard dreamed up correspondence between Chairman Bill and China's Communist Party chairman Jiang Zemin; another imagined the fallout from the Microsoft/NBC alliance on some of the network's shows. In the last installment, which won't be published, Gates orders the editor of his new online magazine, Michael Kinsley, to publish some of his poetry. You'd need to be pretty thick not to get that it's satire.
Leonard speculates that his series' cancellation might be incidental fallout from the recent AOL-Microsoft deal placing AOL on the Windows 95 desktop and Microsoft's browser in the AOL software. Or perhaps New Line and AOL simply decided that one little humor column wasn't worth an expensive legal fight.
Either way, it's one more indication that the publishing world's tradition of feisty independence -- however spottily it's upheld in print -- may not translate into the online medium, where "we stand by our story" is not yet part of the culture.
As the Gates of "Secret Files" advises his Chinese counterpart,
"Dissent can usually be boiled down to a failure of marketing."
Radio Free Cuckoo's Nest
"Good afternoon, you crazy people, Loony Radio is on the air! Today, we will hear reflections from Garces, the Emperor of Paranoia, and next we'll have a report from our correspondent on Mars!"
-- Announcer on Loony Radio, a weekly radio show featuring news, interviews, poetry and music produced by patients at the Borda Psychiatric Hospital in Buenos Aires, and broadcast nationwide on 12 radio stations.
"In many cases, the comments of the patients... are much more intelligent and insightful than those we get from callers at home."
-- Nelson Castro, a popular Argentine radio host, whose station broadcasts Loony Radio.
(Full story in Tuesday's New York Times.)