March 23, 2004
The Clear Channel Controversy, One Year On (Why Howard Stern’s Woes Are Your Woes, Too)
by Maureen Farrell
While March 19th marked the year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, it also marked another anniversary – the day the mainstream press addressed the blurring boundaries between Clear Channel Communications and the Bush administration. "Media giant's rally sponsorship raises questions," the Chicago Tribune declared on March 19, 2003, before delving into some rather unsettling implications of the cozy relationship between America’s largest radio conglomerate and President Bush.
"In a move that has raised eyebrows in some legal and journalistic circles, Clear Channel radio stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio, Cincinnati and other cities have sponsored rallies attended by up to 20,000," the Tribune reported, commenting on participants’ signs, which, in addition to condemning France, targeted the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized the president. [Chicago Tribune]
Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman examined the "close links" between George W. Bush and Clear Channel management (Clear Channel’s vice president Tom Hicks helped make G.W. a multimillionaire) and pointed out how "the absence of effective watchdogs" made this odd merger between the media and the government possible. "In the Clinton years the merest hint of impropriety quickly blew up into a huge scandal; these days, the scandalmongers are more likely to go after journalists who raise questions," he wrote. [International Herald Tribune]
"Should this be happening? No," Dante Chinni, a senior associate with Columbia University’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, told the Guardian. "What kind of company is Clear Channel? What's their mission? Are they a media company, a promotional company? For some people, Clear Channel's reporting, for want of a better word, may be the reporting that they're getting on the war in Iraq." [The Guardian]
Scandalmongers aside, those who raised questions about the war in Iraq (or about the President) soon felt censorship’s sting – with several disc jockeys making a connection between their anti-war or anti-Bush stance and their eventual fate. [BuzzFlash.com] "As soon as I came out against Bush, that’s when my rights to free speech were taken away. It had nothing to do with indecency," Howard Stern said on March 19, 2004.
Though plenty of journalists have pooh-poohed Stern’s concerns, anyone who’s been paying attention knows how accurate his assessments are. When Clear Channel president John Hogan appeared before members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, he openly admitted that though Stern had not committed any fresh sins, the company decided to drop him anyway.
The straw that reportedly broke the Texas-based company’s back occurred when a caller used a racial slur while asking guest Rick Solomon (of Paris Hilton sex tape fame) if he ever had sex with a black woman. "A caller called in and used the 'n' word, and I hung up on him" Stern said. "It was vulgar, offensive and insulting, not just to women and African-Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency," Hogan explained.
So just how concerned is Clear Channel about indecency? On March 16, the Southern California office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-L.A.) filed complaints with both the FCC and Clear Channel over an incident that occurred on March 10, on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles -- after disc jockey Bill Handel aired a skit in which make-believe Muslims made several racist and offensive remarks, including claims that Muslims engage in sex with animals and are obsessed with killing Jews. According to C.A.I.R.- L.A., the skit contained "some of the most hate-filled and Islamophobic statements reported to CAIR in recent years." [Council on American-Islamic Relations]
But, as Reuters reported, "A representative of Clear Channel, which dumped top-rated talk-show host Howard Stern in February under a new ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward indecency, had no immediate comment." And so, as far as we know, Handel is still happily broadcasting over Clear Channel’s airways – as is Michael Savage who told a "sodomite" caller to his now canceled MSNBC show, "You should only get AIDs and die, you pig."
Arbitrary indecency standards aside, the stakes are much higher than tiffs between disc jockeys and radio behemoths. Given that the House recently voted 391-22 to pass a bill to increase indecency fines from $27,000 to $500,000 -- and the Senate is poised to follow – the First Amendment is literally at risk. "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," the First Amendment reads, but given that those hefty fines will be extended to licensees and radio personalities alike (with a cap of $3 million a day) "free speech" could become extremely expensive – especially since "indecency," it seems, is whatever Michael Powell deems it to be.
"I thought by talking about this for two weeks and making my case known, guys like Richard Huff would rise up and say all of our rights are being challenged, but he totally missed the friggin’ point," Stern said, referring to a Daily News article in which Huff chided Stern for whining about his censorship woes. "I now have to sit here and wait and in a couple of months a bunch of guys in the government are going to tell me that I stepped over the line or not. . . We have a bunch of lawyers, our general manager, and me as well, trying to figure out what the government will allow us to do. .. . I have to wait months to find out if I did something wrong, and how much it is going to cost the station and me."
Unless Sen. Byron Dorgan's (D-ND) controversial provision throws an anti-consolidation wrench in the anti-indecency works, [The Nation] the Senate will likely pass this indecency legislation (how many Senators will vote against "decency?") and the effect on free speech will be immediate.
"The very notion (of the legislation) runs counter to everything prescribed in the First Amendment," Marvin Johnson, an ACLU legislative counsel, said. "The vagueness of the language will lead broadcasters and individuals to stifle their remarks and remain silent rather than run the risk of facing an FCC fine. Not only will our First Amendment rights suffer, but so will the national dialogue."
"This is going to be a very dark day in our history,'' Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y) said. "We're going down the slippery slope of eroding our Constitution.''
Tom Shales (who, unlike Richard Huff, understands the deeper significance of Stern’s Clear Channel/FCC troubles) explained the situation more colorfully. "One nipple pops out and the First Amendment gets shot full of holes," he wrote, of the "unconstitutional" "indecent" and "obscene" bill the "lily-livered Congress" passed in the wake of the Janet Jackson’s display. "Who decides what is indecent? Maybe it will be left to the whims of Chairman [Michael] Powell," Shales said.
"Clearly the saddest and most infuriating irony of the whole mess is that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell is demagoguing this ‘issue’ . . . about indecency in the media, thus distracting attention from his attempt to impose a radical relaxation of media ownership rules on the country," Shales reminded – a move, coincidentally, that benefits fat cats like Clear Channel. [TV Week]
And so, we’ve officially arrived at the bizarre place where yesterday’s news is colliding with today’s manufactured realities. And though Neil Young [NewsMax.com], like Howard Stern, [Fox News] was once touted as a "pro-Bush celebrity" the closer he examined the Clear Channel/Bush/Big Brother triangle, the more clearly he saw the danger at hand. "[A] lot of the people's civil rights have been compromised, and we don't know what's going on. If I keep speaking my mind, will I be deported?" Young asked the Guardian last May, before addressing Clear Channel’s monopoly on radio stations, concert halls and cheerleading for President Bush.
"I'm not very happy with the state of things. Music is being banned, and we have people in control of the radio stations who are the same people in control of the concert halls. They're also tied into the [US] administration and are sponsoring pro-war rallies. It's not good. . . In the next couple of months, they'll probably make it unpatriotic to be Democrat. It's pretty crazy." [The Guardian]
Rush Limbaugh, the gem in Clear Channel's showcase, need not worry about similar persecution, however. Following Sen. John McCain's astonishing 19-point victory in New Hampshire during the 2000 presidential primaries, for example, Limbaugh did the right thing by Bush and repeatedly raised questions about McCain’s integrity and credentials. When Sept. 11 widows questioned Bush’s odd behavior on Sept. 11 (and his repeated attempts to stonewall the independent commission investigating the attacks), Limbaugh leapt to the President’s defense -- shamelessly and falsely smearing the women as political toadies. [BuzzFlash.com]. (Why, one wonders, didn’t Clear Channel’s president consider Limbaugh’s blatant lies "offensive and insulting"?)
And though Limbaugh initially defended Stern’s First Amendment rights, he twisted his defense to make it seem as if John Kerry is the boogieman lurking in America’s censorship closet -- rather than blaming the myriad of Republicans involved. In case you’re wondering, the House Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act was introduced in the House by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), while House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Barton (R-TX) pushed for the provision that would also hold fine individual disc jockeys up to $500,000 for each violation. [HillNews.com] And the Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC).
Most blatantly, however, in his haste to blame the Democrats, Rush overlooked the fact that the FCC -- which is fining Stern for ancient offenses which were less racy than Oprah topics [New York Post] -- is headed by Colin Powell’s son.
"Do you think Karl Rove might have made a phone call to little General Powell, little Michael and said, 'Let's get this over with. Let's give him the fine and get this done with before Stern gets us all voted out of office,'" the National Enquirer’s Mike Walker asked Stern.
"First of all, I know that for a fact," Stern answered. "I can't even tell you how, just like you can't reveal your sources. I have two sources inside the FCC. They know exactly what is going on. They had a meeting two weeks ago, freaking out. I seem to be making enough noise that people are realizing we could hurt George W. Bush in the elections. So they are trying to figure out at what point do they fine me. So, you are absolutely right."
"This new fine that just came out is three years old," Stern continued. "It has nothing to do with the new rules that came out. They are coming up with new rules every day. . . So they went back three years ago, found a complaint, trumped one up against me and hit me with a fine. . . as soon as the Senate passes this bill, they are going to hit me up with some new fines." [FMQB.com]
Walker also suggested that Powell’s FCC crackdown on Stern created a "left-wing Rush Limbaugh," and Stern agreed, adding that "they unleashed a monster." (The difference, of course, is that the FCC wants to make sure that "a left wing Rush Limbaugh" will never have a national platform).
"I’m relying on people in the [media] to have a better understanding of this issue than the general public," Stern said on March 16, the same day a New York Post editor phoned into his show and revealed that even at the Rupert Murdoch-owned Post, reporters and editors are frightened of the government.
"People are afraid to speak," Jeremy Lipschultz, a professor of communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha told the Guardian. "When you don't know exactly when you've crossed that line, the tendency is to stay way behind it.'' [The Guardian]
So how far is that line receding? Stern’s woes aside, the Hartford Advocate recently exposed how, under a new policy drafted last year, the government could also imprison editors (and possibly translators) for up to ten years and fine them up to $500,000 for editing manuscripts from nations currently under U.S. trade embargos. "Our government has gone completely loony," U-Mass art historian Walter Denny explained. [Hartford Advocate]
Meanwhile, according to a report issued by the ACLU, Attorney General John Ashcroft is asking the FCC for "sweeping new authority to regulate the design of Internet communications services to make them easy to wiretap," which would require technology companies to install ‘backdoors’ in their systems "and thereby create weaknesses that hackers, thieves and rogue government agents could exploit to invade your privacy and conduct identity theft." [ACLU.org]
And so, bit by bit, the country we thought we knew is slowing slipping away, while the media the Founding Fathers intended to serve as a government watchdog appears to be collaborating with the government instead.
"There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear, but a good guess is that we're now seeing the next stage in the evolution of a new American oligarchy," the New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote of Bush/Clear Channel improprieties. "When one company dominates an industry, it can leverage its monopoly power in all kinds of unpleasant ways, both politically and economically, " Salon.com’s Eric Boehlert warned, while reporting on "Clear Channel’s big stinking deregulation mess." [Salon.com]
"Believe me, people are already collecting tapes of Stern’s radio show and kids will be listening to him under the covers at night, just like I read Henry Miller," Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis explained. "What will really be sad is when kids have to hide beneath the covers to read the First Amendment." [MSNBC]
And that, of course, is the ultimate point. Because though Regular Joes and clueless journalists may fail to see it just yet, Howard Stern’s First Amendment rights are their rights, too.
And while concentration camp survivor Pastor Martin Niemöller’s observations have been misquoted and abused too often, his warnings nevertheless ring true today. [History.UCSB.edu] First they came for the shock jocks. God only knows who’ll be next.
Maureen Farrell is a writer and media consultant who specializes in helping other writers get television and radio exposure.
© Copyright 2004, Maureen Farrell
otherwise noted, all original