Liberalism, as a political philosophy, has a proud tradition in the United States. Beginning with reform efforts to alleviate the hardships of industrial workers at the turn of the 20th century, progressive politicians and activists have attempted to pursue policies over the last century that make the "American Dream" a realistic goal for all Americans. But, at the same time as advancing the notions of tolerance and equality in the United States, liberals have also shown a remarkable intolerance for dissent from their conservative opponents. A 19-page report recently issued by the conservative Media Research Center, The Real Radio Hatemongers: Left-Wing Radio Hosts’ Track Record of Vile and Vicious Rhetoric, provides the latest evidence that some liberals are as susceptible to making personal malicious attacks as their conservative adversaries.
Shortly after radio became a nationwide medium of communication in the 1920s, liberals began to attack conservatives for using it to spread a reactionary message of fear and "hate". They have tried to curb right-wing radio hosts, from the controversial "Radio Priest" Father Coughlin in the 1930s to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity today, through federal regulations.
The most important of these regulations was the "Fairness Doctrine". This required that every radio station, for a renewal of its licence by the Federal Communications Commission, had to include programming time for the discussion of controversial political issues, with a presentation of both sides of the topic.
Introduced by the liberal administration of President Truman in 1949, the Doctrine was revoked in 1985 by a FCC controlled by Reagan appointees, who argued it contravened the First Amendment right to free speech. In the interim, e President Kennedy and President Johnson had used the measure to blunt conservative criticisms over the airwaves of their policies. FCC enforcement eventually led to conservative Reverend Carl McIntire, in the 1970s, becoming the only radio broadcaster to lose his licence because of violations of the Doctrine. (McIntire attempted unsuccessfully to air Radio Free America from a "pirate" ship off the coast of New Jersey in 1973.)
Democrats have called for a reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine. Former President Bill Clinton argued on a progressive radio show in 2009, "Well, you either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine or you ought to have more balance on the other side because essentially there has always been a lot of big money to support the right-wing talk shows."
Clinton articulated the longstanding fear of liberals that corporations, and tax-exempt foundations supported by corporations, were financing the Radical Right’s spurious attacks on progressive policies. His argument also drew on the disparity between liberal and conservative representation on national talk radio stations, with the right wing possessing a significant advantage in audience numbers. But, at the heart of liberal complaints against conservative radio hosts, from the thirties to today, is the contention that they foment discord in America with their "Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America’s Airwaves", the title of a new book by Bill Press.
Deep in the liberal psyche is the contention that the Radical Right, the so called fright-peddlers and hatemongers of the early 1960s, created the climate for the assassination of President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The MRC report includes the contentious assertion of Mike Malloy (The Mike Malloy Show, August 26, 2009) on his sadness at the death of Ted Kennedy: “I remember feeling that way in 1963 and again in 1968, when his two brothers were murdered by the right-wing in this country.”
Liberals fear that the same fate awaits President Obama, a tragedy that Ed Schultz suggests some right-wing radio hosts would welcome: “Sometimes I think they want Obama to get shot. I do. I really think that there are conservative broadcasters in this country who would love to see Obama taken out.”
And, apparently, conservative talk radio does not confine itself to encouraging the murder of Presidents. Other bizarre claims made by Malloy include: Limbaugh and Beck want to see repeats of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; Bill O’Reilly inspires the killing of doctors who provide abortions; and a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington was killed because of the “poison” pumped out over the airwaves by conservative broadcasters. On a show last September, Malloy declared, "Glenn Beck rails against census workers, and inspires his people to go out and kill one for sport.” And not only did Beck galvanize the murderer, he welcomed the atrocity: “I will guarantee you that O’Reilly and Beck and the rest of these monsters on the neo-fascist right love this stuff. It gives them something else to talk about. It’s sport.”
Liberal radio hosts do not limit themselves to alleging that right-wing figures whip up hate. They also engage in personal attacks on conservatives, some of which contain material that, if aired by Glenn Beck, would lead to his instant dismissal by Fox News. Malloy in October 2008 argued that Michele Bachmann, a Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota, is a “hatemonger” who “would have gladly rounded up the Jews in Germany and shipped them off to death camps. She’s the type of person who would have had no problem sending typhoid-smeared blankets to Native American families awaiting deportation to reservations.” Molloy concluded, “This is an evil bitch from hell. I mean, just an absolute evil woman.”
But even that invective pales compared to Montel Williams almost a year ago when he urged Bachmann, “So, Michele, slit your wrist! Go ahead! I mean, you know, why not? I mean, if you want to – or, you know, do us all a better thing. Move that knife up about two feet. I mean, start right at the collarbone.”
As the most prominent of conservative radio broadcasters, Rush Limbaugh receives most of the vitriol aired by some liberal radio hosts. Malloy has hoped “that Rush Limbaugh will choke to death on his own throat fat”. A parody song for the Randi Rhodes Show in May included the verse, “He’s a fat conservative butthead/Sick Republican sleazeball/Fearmongering scumbag/Egotistical asswipe/Mean-spirited, hog-wallowing, fat conservative putz/With the face of ahorse’s ass/Mega dildos, Rush!” Hardly the way to build a bridge to tolerance and respect for the differing political philosophies in the United States.
Of course, Rush Limbaugh has no interest in helping foster a spirit of bi-partisanship. The liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters for America, features a link to the "Limbaugh Watch". The site also contains extensive scrutiny (and easily accessed archives) of the misinformation presented in media appearances by Glenn Beck and other conservative broadcasters.
On the other side, the conservative Media Research Centre was founded five years ago to counter what it claimed was a liberal media bias on network news shows. Though not as easily searchable as Media Matters, the MRC website offers extensive evidence for the conservative lament that the media is controlled by liberals, a complaint that dates back to the years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
As befits the importance of a free media to a healthy democracy, both these sites illustrate by contrast that political debate can be vigorous in the United States. Since the days of Roosevelt’s "fireside chats", however, liberals have been successful in portraying themselves as the responsible and principled political persuasion, opposed by a hatemongering and rabid right wing. Conservatives, understandably, resent their marginalization as the purveyors of extremism and react in a less than civil manner.
The truth is that, for all the instances of red-baiting in America (which continues today with the claims Obama is a socialist), there are similar occurrences of brown-baiting --- comparing conservatives to fascists --- by liberals. In fact, a credible argument can be made that McCarthyism was the result of an enraged conservative minority retaliating against attempts by liberals during World War II to smear all right-wing isolationists as fascist traitors. Until liberals realise that they are part of the reason for the current incivility in political discussion, there appears little likelihood that the nature and tone of debate will change in the United States.