by Robert Gelfand
we stodgy intellectual types busy ourselves worrying about whether the New York Times has misplaced a semicolon, talk radio is joyfully poisoning the wells of public discourse. It's not that talk radio is a little sloppy in its journalistic practice, it's that talk radio has tossed the entire concept of journalistic integrity out the window. Take the L.A.-based John & Ken Show, for example.
John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou share the coveted weekday drive-time spot, 4-7PM, on the 50,000-watt Clear Channel radio station KFI in Los Angeles. Their show provides the afternoon anchor to a lineup that includes Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlesinger.
The power and influence pf these two hosts is suggested by the fact that ranking Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman and California Treasurer Phil Angelides have consented to be questioned by them over the air even though much of the show involves attacks on liberals in general and elected Democrats in particular.
Those politicians who refuse their invitations to be interviewed are publicly mocked and taunted. It is easier in some ways to go on the air and face the abuse. Sherman and Angelides defended themselves well, but it requires a rare skill that involves dealing with two voices constantly interrupting or talking loudly right over you.
When John and Ken began to develop their show locally, they occasionally provided a real breath of fresh air. When millionaire Republican Michael Huffington challenged incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, they pointed out his obvious lack of qualifications and dubbed him "Michael Nothington." Huffington/Nothington lost a very close election. Going after the other side, they attacked the evasions of Democratic state legislators on the issue of a proposed "three strikes" criminal sentencing bill and arguably were strongly instrumental in its passage.
If they had applied their intellectual gifts evenhandedly to expose political evasions and cowardice wherever they appear, the John & Ken Show would have been a reformer's dream come true. Alas, that has not been the case.
They took no great interest in the administration of Republican Governor Pete Wilson. Most conservative Republicans, such as state Senator Tom McClintock, get a free pass, but Democratic office holders come in for rude criticism. For years, the duo has been obsessed with Governor Gray Davis. They opposed him during his recent reelection campaign, but he won. When the Republican opposition began talking about a recall campaign, John and Ken jumped aboard. They have supported the recall, defended its advocates, and lambasted its opponents ever since.
It goes beyond the exercise of traditional journalism. The recall campaign and its proponents have been given a chance to participate on the show routinely. For example, the Friday (July 18) program included an on-air progress report from the director of the recall campaign, who gave effusive thanks to John and Ken for their support and went on to brag about a recent court victory in favor of getting the recall on the ballot. He publicly credited John and Ken for coming up with the idea for the lawsuit. In other words, a political campaign is now a part of the show.
This process of introducing partisan political campaigning into a discussion format radio show goes far beyond what would be considered acceptable in the print media. This has never been so obvious as when KFI allowed one of the opposition candidates to control the show. Rep. Issa, the first to announce his candidacy for the recall ballot, was offered the chance to guest host the John & Ken Show.
Imagine if Al Gore had been offered the chance to supervise the editorial pages of the Miami Herald in October 2000. In the newspaper world the idea is so unlikely as to be preposterous, yet Issa sat in as a KFI talk show host (by remote feed) on July 11, 2003. The rest of the media basically ignored it. (The station argues disingenuously that it also invited Governor Davis to do a show.)
The attack on Davis continues, and it is a multimedia assault. On their website (www.johnandken.com), you can find links to the recall campaign as well as to articles and opinion pieces attacking Davis. Other newspaper articles reporting on developments friendly to the recall campaign are listed and linked. There are also links to organizations hostile to the recall, but it is a small set that seems to represent the sillier opponents.
John and Ken share with other conservative talk radio hosts an antipathy to Governor Davis that seems to go beyond the merely rational. It is a visceral sort of nastiness. How else can you explain the fact that they refuse to call Davis by his chosen name?
The background is mundane. Before the last gubernatorial election, a losing Democratic primary candidate by the name of Anselmo A. Chavez filed a lawsuit claiming that Gray Davis was not the lawful primary victor because his actual birth name is Joseph Graham Davis Jr. The legal assertion is nonsense, but it gave John and Ken (Jonathan and Kenneth?) the chance to be abusive, and they have accepted the opportunity. On the air and on their Website, the Governor of California is referred to as "Joe Davis." To refuse to call someone by his chosen name is to display contempt that borders on the pathological. As an expression of personal animosity, it represents a lack of objectivity that would force a print editor to take note.
The sum of all these parts is an approach that goes beyond the bounds of what is an acceptable practice in journalism. Traditionally, we think of journalistic integrity in terms of getting the facts straight and in avoiding conflicts of interest. This presupposes an overall intent to find the truth and print it. It involves the well-accepted concept that factual stories and editorial opinions require some degree of separation. Newspapers endorse political candidates, but this is an editorial option that is rightly kept separate from campaign reporting.
When we consider the dormant idea that the broadcast media should operate in the public interest, the current state of affairs ought to be considered scandalous. For a publicly licensed radio station to become an instrument of a partisan political campaign ought to be raise important questions about our overall political health. Usually, to accuse some organization of (figuratively) being a tool of a political party is to be insulting. In this case, KFI and its employees have literally made themselves a tool of the Davis recall movement.
This raises another issue. If the rest of us private citizens want to support someone's candidacy, we can make a monetary donation. Such donations typically are subject to strict reporting requirements and are usually subject to legal limits. Even if you just give food for a fund raising event, provide envelopes to mail campaign literature or offer your storefront for use as an office, that is a donation. Such gifts are referred to as "in kind" contributions and are subject to the same reporting requirements and limits as monetary donations.
Radio stations, like television stations and newspapers, sell political advertising. They fully recognize that this service has monetary value and they collect on it. When a radio station offers the full use of its facilities -- transmitter, staff and audience -- to a political candidate, as KFI did for Rep. Darrell Issa, is this not an "in kind contribution?" Should it not be reported as a gift valued at the political advertising rates KFI charges other candidates?
The question itself suggests there is something wrong in the way we think about political advertising. If we can demand careful reporting for the donation of a case of pencils but look the other way when the political currency in greatest demand -- air time -- is given away by a wealthy media corporation to its political friends, something screwy is going on.
At what point does a radio station's participation in a political campaign cross the line and become a legally defined campaign donation, subject to limits and reporting requirements? Some will argue that talk radio is the constitutionally protected expression of opinion and should never be subject to this kind of governmental regulation. Others may argue that KFI is even now crossing that line.
Of course, journalism as we ordinarily understand it deserves constitutional protection. The fact that talk radio has taken what used to be journalism and made it into outright political advocacy changes the equation. John and Ken make it clear that they are after results, not balance. Depending on which side you are on, you may like or dislike it, but it's no longer journalism. It is naked politic advocacy practiced loudly and effectively on public airwaves.
July 24, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.