One of the most distinctive features of American democracy is its constitutional right to free speech. The idea of a free and open press has been one of the pillars of the country before the founding of the republic. By the 1930s, the United States led the world with mass media through newspapers and radio. The 1960s saw the beginning of talk radio. The concept of talk radio was novel as it produced the first non dramatic radio personalities. Listeners were allowed to phone the radio studio to share their opinions and ideas live over the air with millions of listeners. From the 1960s through the 1970s, talk radio hosts such as Studs Terkel played a key role in the expansion of democracy following the free speech, civil rights and anti-war movements. Talk radio was viewed as a people’s forum where most of the listeners and presenters had liberal and progressive politics.
Talk Radio “Shock Jocks”
By the 1970s, “Shock Jocks” appeared including Murray The K and Don Imus. They gained notoriety also for their use of profanity, explicit sexual innuendo and advocating drug use. While Imus and Murray The K were crude, there was a progressive element to their content. They were popular expressions of anti-establishment sentiment of the country.
Talk radio’s political content changed in the mid 1980’s. Right and and bigoted talk radio began to become mainstream, in part of the shifting political and social climate to the right under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Bob Grant, who hosted a prime time radio talk show on WABC New York, started this trend. He gained the reputation for being insulting and rude to callers that disagreed with him. He would viciously denigrate and abuse callers while hanging up on them. After the Bernard Goetz shooting incident, in which a white man shot a group of Black teenagers he believed were threatening him on a New York City subway train, Grant’s rhetoric became hateful. He openly characterised Black New Yorkers “savages”. He would engage in wholesale slander and libel against 5 million strong Black and Puerto Rican population. Grant’s popularity increased and he became the number one radio talk show in New York.
The Rise of Trash TV
Television programming went through a political transformation as well. Phil Donahue is credited for starting the first successful TV talk show program. His subject matter started as serious and sober. On his program had members of his studio audience interact to ask his guests questions and to comment as well as television viewers phoning in to participate in the conversation. The arrival of The Morton Downey Jr Show towards the end of the late 1980s brought radical change to TV talk programs. Downey’s show aimed for the lowest common denominator. He espoused the right wing politics of Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Downey would scream and shout in the faces of his guests who disagreed with his views. He would interrupt his guests before they could finish a sentence. He smoked on the set and blew it in the faces of his guests he disagreed with. The studio audience was a motley crew of ignorant low lives scrapped off the gutters of Jersey City and the frat houses of New Brunswick, New Jersey. They would bark like dogs in front of the camera. The nastier and more vicious Downey would treat his guests, the more excited and aroused they would become. Fisticuffs would erupt and many of his episodes degenerated into street brawls with the low lives shouting, barking and further instigating the conflict. Geraldo Rivera joined the act. Rivera started off as a serious investigative reporter for WABC TV in New York during the 1970s before degenerating into a trash show host. Many of his episodes degenerated into brawls as well.
The 1990s continued the downward trend. Rush Limbaugh arrived on WABC Radio as well. What made Limbaugh different than Bob Grant and Morton Downey, Jr was his stunning ignorance. Though Grant and Downey was repugnant personalities, they did still presented their opinions based on facts. Limbaugh crossed over into the realm of propaganda. Limbaugh told outright lies and misinformation over the airwaves. Limbaugh accused Bill Clinton of being a “socialist”. When Clinton tried to pass health care reform, Limbaugh led the ideological propaganda assault lambasting it as “socialism.” Limbaugh was seen as a market success and he became the most popular talk show host in the country. Talk radio outlets across the country introduced legions of similarly ignorant hosts who espoused hateful incendiary speech.
On television, more and more talk shows attempted to build off the success of Morton Downey, Jr. There seemed to be a race to the bottom in content. Producers didn’t even attempt to get serious guests on to discuss the pressing issues of the day. Most programming was dedicated to cases of relationship infidelity in which ignorant and uneducated young people would scream and fight each other over men. Jerry Springer, the former right wing Democrat mayor of Cincinnati, became the most successful. His studio audience made Downey’s look civil by comparison. These programs were not even “talk shows” as there wasn’t any dialogue or exchange of ideas, let alone opinions. Instead they were nothing less than shouting matches and physical violence. Indeed, these programs were more psychological programs. Certain topics were selected as the choice of guests were generally repulsive people with whom no one could relate to. These programs were designed to induce and provoke emotional responses with both the studio audience and the TV viewer.
Fox News and The Political Rise of the Far Right
The first political manifestation of this trend was the rise of the Newt Gingrich Republicans during the 1994 Mid-Term elections. Instead of being the dignified representatives of the people, the House Republican caucus was a circus of ignorant, misinformed, reactionary cretins found under the rocks of the most remote caves in far away mountains. Rather than articulating their right wing agenda, they would shout and scream against Clinton and the Democrats. Rather than civil debate on the floor of the Congress, they would take every opportunity to demonstrate that they and only they were the vilest and the most vulgar. When President Clinton gave State of the Union addresses, Gingrich and Trent Lott would glower and scowl at the president. The United States Congress had transformed from an institution from where the work of the country and the issues facing the country were debated and discussed with dignity and sobriety into the TV studios of Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones.
In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News Network. In spite of its trademark “fair and balanced”, Fox News gave airtime to the far right. Bill O’Reilly replaced Rush Limbaugh as the leading propagandist. O’Reilly was not only a propagandist but a violent agitator at that. While one could chuckle ten years earlier listening to Bob Grant as he snarled: “Get off the air you creep!”, there wasn’t anything remotely amusing or funny about O’Reilly. While Bob Grant opposed the holiday honouring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and called him a “trouble maker”, O’Reilly openly called for the repeal of landmark civil rights laws. O’Reilly along with Limbaugh called for the repeal of Affirmative Action and other aspects of civil rights legislation. O’Reilly would threaten physical violence against guests who disagreed with him. O’Reilly is known to raise his hands and fists motioning to assault guests who had the temerity to disagree with him.
The Sibling Society
By 1996, the cultural, political and social climate had degenerated to the point that older intellectuals and artists became alarmed. In his 1996 book, The Sibling Society , the poet Robert Bly declared that the US was no longer a society of adults. Instead, it had regressed to a society of adolescents. He cited the examples above on television. He described Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in Congress as adolescents. Where were the adults? How was it possible that politicians in their 40s and 50s behaved like teenagers in high school. He described the Democrats and Republicans as two high school arch football rivals. He wondered how it was possible during the president’s Sate of the Union Address that the leaders of the country would appear on national television without dignity. Bly warned that the TV programming was creating a nation of adolescent siblings who fought and competed with one another. Rather than a united country based on the common zeal of the community, American culture and politics had degenerated into high school. He warned that this would lead to fascism. He argued that fascism would arise out of conformity. He cited the Super Bowl as the biggest example of fascism. Everyone in the US is practically obliged to watch the Super Bowl regardless if they like football or not. If one is not watching it on TV, then one is an outcast. Bly noted the pressure to conform during adolescence. If one doesn’t conform, then one is outcast as a loser. It warning has come true.
The Far Right Seizes Power
Bly’s warning came true four years later with the Presidential election of 2000. The Republican candidate George W. Bush was the epitome of what Bly characterised as the adolescent. Bush was a candidate lacking any intellectual and communication skills. Meanwhile, his Democrat opponent Al Gore was dubbed Al Bore. It didn’t matter that he had much more experience than his opponent. The entire media, which had degenerated towards the successful Fox News format in order to compete for viewers and advertising revenue, reduced the election to a popularity concert. Rather than asking voters who they believed had a better understanding of the issues, the media asked who they would rather have beer with.
The night of the election was witness to some of the most remarkable events in American political history. Initially, the state of Florida had been projected to Gore by all the major networks based on exit polling. Gore was believed to have won the election. The Bush campaign took the unprecedented step denounce the projections as wrong. Bush went before the cameras and declared that he had won the election. He refused to concede defeat. The networks backed down and declared Florida too close to call. In the early hours of Wednesday, Fox News became the first network to call Florida for Bush, thereby declaring him the victor in the election.
Heading the decision desk, where the network reviewed vote totals and polls to arrive at projections, was John W. Ellis, a first cousin of George W. Bush. Ellis unilaterally called the election for Bush before any determination by the Voter News Service, the consortium of leading newspapers and television networks, after a 2 a.m. telephone discussion with Bush and his brother Jeb who was the sitting governor of Florida. Fox News had politically interfered in the election outcome
Over the next weeks, a legal challenge and recount was conducted in Florida. Angry lynch mobs of Republican supporters took to the streets. In the counties of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, Florida Republican officials and their mobs of supporters physically harassed and threatened election board members from meeting and recounting the ballots. The day after the Florida Supreme Court ordered the continuing recounting of votes, a mob of Bush supporters besieged the Miami-Dade County board of canvassers, grabbing a Democratic lawyer and threatening to assault those involved in manually recounting the ballots. A few hours later the Democratic-controlled board announced it was abandoning its recount. Eventually, the US Supreme Court suspended the recount of votes and effectively handed the election to Bush. American democracy had been hijacked.
The record of the Bush regime is well known and there’s no need to review them. The events of September 11, 2001 transformed the political and social landscape. Fox News led the jingoistic vitriol. It became acceptable to openly espouse hate speech against Arabs and Muslims. American society had been thoroughly militarized. Anyone that questioned Bush, the “War on Terror” and the invasion of Iraq was denounced as a traitor, disloyal, unpatriotic and a terrorist. The 8 year reign of the Bush regime was the most violent in American history. Television and radio had dominated and set the political tone. The liberal media outlets such as the New York Times and National Public Radio had parroted the lies and propaganda of the Bush regime. Journalists such as Bill Moyers and Dan Rather were hounded out of their jobs by the screaming far right for being unpatriotic.
From the White House, the Pentagon and Justice Department down to the TV and radio studios of Fox News and ABC, madness reigned supreme. Lies, propaganda, violence and vitriol was had become part of the national fabric. Mass murder, genocide, plunder, torture and sadism was on practically every TV and radio station in the country. The venerable New York Times lost credibility after having been exposed for publishing fabrications and collaborating with the Bush White House in suppressing information about illegal wiretapping by the government.
By 2006, the vast majority of Americans had been sickened by the debasement of the country under the Republicans. The Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 and lost the White House in 2008. Billions of people within the US and the world celebrated the ousting of the Republicans and hoped that the US would return to humanity.
Unfortunately, the political and social damaged had been done. The election of the first Black president emboldened the far right. Obama was denounced for not being a natural born American and for being a “communist” and “fascist”. 2009 saw a string of far right wing violence. In May of 2009, Dr, George Tiller, a physician who performed abortions in Wichita, Kansas was murdered by a fascist anti-abortionist. Like Congresswoman Giffords, Tiller had long been targeted by the far right wing. Dr. Tiller has survived multiple attempts on his life. His clinic had been bombed repeatedly. Jared Lee Loughner had also been known to espouse anti-abortion views. Loughner had insulted a woman in his community college class for a presentation about abortion she had presented.
Within a week of the murder of Dr. Tiller, a Neo-Nazi white supremacist went on a shooting rampage at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC killing a Black security guard. By the beginning of 2010, the Tea Party movement began its agitation.
Jared Lee Loughner was born and raised in the cultural political and social milieu over the past 20 years. He was ten years old during the stolen election of 2000. Like most American kids growing up during the 1990s, he was probably raised watching Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones. He was 9 years old during the Columbine school massacre. Loughner is a victim of the degenerate cultural and intellectual toxic swamp that the United States has become over the past 20 years. How many youth today are psychologically damaged from the political climate over the past 10 years? How possible could it be for anyone that grew up under the 8 years of Bush/Cheney and the regime of Fox News to be a stable person capable of making sound moral judgements? Loughner is as much a victim as he is a perpetrator of the sado-masochistic psychological violence that the United States has become.
Yes, the Republicans and propagandists such as Rupert Murdoch are to blame. The right wing movement is an ever growing and present danger and threat to the country. However, it would not be in the interest of fairness to lay the blame squarely on their shoulders. Liberals and the Democrats have failed to do their part to resist and undermine the efforts of the far right. This will be the subject of the third and final part of this series.