A moment in the culture.
A moment like Columbine, like Fort Hood, like Oklahoma City, yet different; different because the madman's rampage that targeted Tucson, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was predictable.
It's hot in Tucson --- temperatures soar to 117 degrees in the summertime. But that's nothing compared to the political heat generated recently in this community just an hour north of the Mexican border. Nowhere in the country were the 'Tea Parties' angrier than in Arizona; rage over health care and immigration reform boiled over in Tucson.
It had been bad already, even before Obama had been elected to office in 2008. Take a look at this remarkable list of eliminationist rhetoric coming from the Right, as compiled as long ago as March 2007. But, as if that wasn't horrible enough, things have gotten even far worse since then.
Who wouldn't be incensed? Reports of increased crime, beheadings on the borders, government takeover of health care, death panels. Given all that, who would not stand and fight to protect their grandmothers?
If all that were actually true. But of course, it is not true. Those reports and other fabrications like them are a creation of Right Wing Talk Radio. It isn't just the vitriol spewing from Savage and Hannity and Boortz and others, it is what is behind the vitriol: a genuine fear born of propaganda. And as a culture, we the people are buying into it.
So, regardless of whether the alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner actually listened to any of the six "Conservative" stations on the dial in Tucson, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was correct when he blamed the attack on a cultural environment built of Talk Radio...
Dupnik is talking about the culture that has emerged as a result of a 24 hour, seven day a week drumbeat of hate and misinformation that emanates from Right Wing Talk Radio, a culture that readily accepts violent extremism as part of our national conversation, a culture that thinks that whoever's voice is the loudest must be the one that is correct. A culture that no longer can decipher the difference between fact and opinion, nor does it care to try."I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear, day in and day out, from people in the radio business, and some people in the TV business, and what we see on TV, and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it's time that we do some soul-searching," the sheriff said in a press conference the evening of the January 8, 2011 attack.
Limbaugh's Billboard in Tucson by Mother Jones
Earliest radio owners understood the extraordinary power of allowing someone to express their views directly into someone's home or car, and so they created a voluntary code of ethics of fairness for broadcasting. Congress thought fairness was too important to be voluntary, so it codified those public interest standards into law with the 1934 Telecommunications Act. Then, post World War II and "Tokyo Rose", the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), tasked with protecting the public interest, created the Fairness Doctrine in 1949, which provided that various sides of controversial issues be told on radio and TV.
But in 1987, Ronald Reagan's FCC chose to "deregulate" broadcasting. One sided political diatribes? That was the plan. Personal attacks? Fair game. Fairness? "The market will create fairness," the FCC said.
In hindsight, the "market" did not provide fairness, but programs like Rush Limbaugh's certainly created profits. This was not lost on corporate giants like Clear Channel, who lay in wait for the 1996 Telecommunications Act to allow them to gobble up nearly all the best radio real estate, stations with 100,000, 50,000, 25,000,15,000 10,000 and 5,000 watt signals, stations that reach a lot of people and hence make for easy profitability. (See Right vs. Left radio station coverage maps here.)
They left the little 1,000 watt crumbs for the progressives, stations that reach almost nobody, and are nearly impossible to break even, let alone make money. Then the Right Wing giants deride progressive stations for being uncompetitive.
The Giffords rampage created a moment of reflection. A moment, perhaps, where we as a nation would listen to our better angels.
Could this be the moment when the Clear Channels of radio would hearken back to an earlier age and voluntarily create fairness? Create discussions instead of diatribes? Put as many progressives as non-progressives on the air? Make sure every area is served by the local voices that bring communities together?
I wish it were so. But after listening to Rush and the rest since Saturday, the answer is no. The Right Wing media has chosen this moment to fight for the territory it staked out in 1996, the Republic be damned.
"Do not kid yourself," Rush said Monday after the shooting, "what this is all about is shutting down conservative media."
Rush is right about one thing: this is a critically important Free Speech issue. If we all had real Free Speech on the nation's radio stations, we could have a national discussion about many issues of importance. As it is, only one of every twenty talk radio shows in the country make any mention of the progressive point of view. As I've written before, radio speech is not free speech: it is owned and managed by pro-GOP corporations for their own self promotion.
It wouldn't matter if the numbers were small. But consider: 50 million American views are informed by right wing hate and lies. One of six people, one of five adults, in a nation where Presidential elections are decided by 500 votes.
Words do matter. And those words, hate and lies repeated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in every town, in every corner of the country, to the exclusion of all other thought, is changing our culture. Dupnik recognizes it; millions of others in "Red State" America know it, too.
There is a spirit that has been lost in this country in the generation since one-sided political talk radio began to dominate the airwaves. Where radio once was the glue that held communities together, it now is the wedge that drives us apart.
There are remedies: rewriting radio ownership rules, reviving discussions about the Fairness Doctrine, requiring stations to adhere to public interest standards.
But Right Wing Radio will howl" and politicians will bow. (At least they have up until now.)