Why Won’t the FCC Treat Hate Speech the Same As Foul Language?
I thought about this question as news spread of conservative talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s racially-charged comments directed at an African-American caller on an Aug. 10 broadcast. Schlessinger, whose show is broadcast in Los Angeles on KFWB News Talk 980AM, argued with the caller over the use of the N-word, after the caller sought the radio host’s advice on what to do about racist remarks made by friends of her Caucasian husband. Schlessinger repeated the N-word 11 times over the course of the exchange, and accused the caller (and black people) of being “hypersensitive.” You can listen to the full audio on the Media Matters web site here.
Schlessinger has since apologized on her web site and in a subsequent broadcast on her show. But even so, what she said at the end of her rant about hypersensitivity “being bred by black activists” because “it’s all about power,” is just as disturbing and racist. Objecting to the N-word isn’t about hypersensitivity or seeking power. It’s about the fact that black people – and all people – deserve to be respected as human beings, not constantly bullied and insulted by those who abuse 1st Amendment rights on the public’s airwaves.
The Schlessinger incident is just the latest in a long string of ugly race-baiting, religious bigotry and homophobia that is now distressingly commonplace on talk radio and cable television. Talk radio – Schlessinger’s domain – reaches a far broader audience than cable, with about 50 million listeners versus cable news’ nearly 4 million. Because radio operates on the public airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission has the ability, in most cases, to restrict licenses and levy fines on stations whose broadcasts contain obscenity. But the FCC mainly concerns itself with the kind of obscenity that includes the Seven Dirty Words – not racial, ethnic, religious or homophobic slurs.
It seems to be far easier to punish a broadcaster for one f-bomb dropped on the air, than it is if the same on-air personality unleashed a tirade of bigoted garbage. The former is relatively harmless. Nobody is likely to be physically harmed by an utterance of the f-word. But slurs directed at certain groups of people, day in and day out, encourage violence and political instability – particularly at a time of great economic stress.
Some activists want listeners to target the advertisers of these shows that peddle hate speech as entertainment. But that isn’t good enough. Broadcasters will always manage to find new advertisers to replace those lost. And there are those station owners who will push a certain ideological agenda, no matter how much money they lose on advertising.
Hate speech is more divisive and dangerous than mere dirty words. Broadcasters should be held accountable for what they say when those words harm others. I say it’s time for the FCC to clamp down on hate speech, and start fining and revoking the licenses of broadcast stations that harbor hatemongers.