Monday, February 2, 2009

Can't See the Forest for the Trees

While I should be pleased that the endless tracking of Idaho's own talk radio shock jock Zeb Bell has earned him a spot among the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage in a recent op-ed by the Idaho Democratic Party's communications director, Julie Fanselow, and among Ann Coulter, Karl Rove and Darth Vader in the Crooks & Liars analysis of Rick Warren as Obama's inaugural invocation choice, I must admit I hesitate to applaud the hard work of exposing the hatred spewed from Zeb Bell's microphone on these two mentions alone.

Why? Because, as I have pointed out many a time, those who comment on the antics of Zeb Bell usually do so out of devotion to President Obama. Their commentary on Zeb Bell is usually a response to the most recent derogatory thing Zeb Bell has said about Obama. A stray comment about Bell's self-proclaimed dislike of Obama (he defines it as dislike, though it borders on a racist hatred of Obama) may be picked up by a news outlet, as was the case last year when Bell first caught the eye of many Democrats and the entire Idaho progressive blogosphere, but by and large outside the usual circle of Zeb Bell commentary, that is this blog, the MountainGoat Report and Gary Eller's In the Middle, there really is little being said about Bell's bigotry.

An argument I have heard far too often is that if I am offended by or disagree with what is being said on "Zeb at the Ranch," I should turn it off or listen to something else. Similarly, Julie Fanselow is making the case that the issue is whether Idaho listeners have a clear choice, an alternative to the extreme right-wing banter of radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, the current target of the left, in the Boise market and Zeb Bell in south central Idaho. She offers the following suggestion to Statesman readers:
So as we enter 2009, Idaho's commercial airwaves are once again awash in regressive voices. Why won't a local station offer an Idaho-friendly antidote to the toxic talk now dominating our radio landscape? If Idahoans who spend their days listening to Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage would give the Ed Schultz Show a try, they'd surely find they have more in common with this hunting, fishing, truck-driving guy with a dog named Buck than they do with his bloviating Republican brethren, never mind low-rent Idaho wanna-be's like Rupert's Zeb Bell.
Sure, it would be nice for progressives all over the state who want to listen to Ed Schultz to have that opportunity on their local station, however giving a listener the option of listening to Ed Schultz over Rush Limbaugh doesn't make what Rush Limbaugh says any less inflammatory and it doesn't solve the problem of hate speech flowing into and afflicting our communities. Along those lines, if there were a progressive program broadcast by KBAR radio to counter Zeb Bell, Zeb would still be guilty of espousing hate speech.

Democrats may mention the Fairness Doctrine as a potential solution to the lack of progressive voices on talk radio and conservatives may mention the Fairness Doctrine when any of their programming is threatened by those who complain of a shows substance, but the truth is the Fairness Doctrine will not solve what plagues the airwaves. Yes, it may offer the Democrats an opportunity to put progressive voices on the air to counter the large number of right-leaning programs, but there is nothing that would prevent the Fairness Doctrine from also giving Republicans an opportunity to put more conservative websites and blogs on the tubes to counter the obvious stronghold progressives have there. Personally, I've never looked at Rush or Zeb and thought, gee, the Fairness Doctrine would fix this.

As they say at Media Matters, "it's not just Limbaugh and Hannity." And, as I am now saying, it's not just about access and choice or even the possible implementation of the Fairness Doctrine. There is a much larger problem on conservative talk radio, especially here close to home, and it has nothing to do with the number of conservative talk radio hosts or the lack of progressive radio options. Hate is broadcast in this state. While we openly complain about Limbaugh wishing for Obama's failure or that we can't listen to Ed Schultz on the radio in the Great State of Ada, we have much bigger problems.

Though some in the communities with radio or internet access to Zeb Bell choose not to listen, and wisely so, it does not prevent them from experiencing the wrath of Zeb, the hatred of Zeb and his listeners or the misinformation campaign Zeb has operated for years. Reading a letter to the editor in the Times-News yesterday was no different than listening to a Zeb Bell tirade. Reading another letter again today reminded me of a show not too long ago where Zeb Bell some how managed to associate the slaughtering of wild horses to the procedure widely referred to as partial birth abortion. These people writing letters to the newspaper may not listen to Zeb Bell, but you can guarantee that in the rather compact Magic Valley they know someone who does. They have friends who listen and repeat the hatred and misinformation or they have family members who listen and believe just as Zeb and his callers do.

While we spout statistics and examples of media bias, lack of choice or access, and ridiculously bring up the Fairness Doctrine, we fail to address the real problem--the price being paid by the communities for what is actually being said. The problem is not about Obama and it certainly isn't confined to Rush Limbaugh, though many choose to see it this way. The problem is the way these people look at other human beings. It is the hatred they express and spread through our communities. From the Columbia Journalism Review:
The election of Obama has done nothing to diminish the frequency or zeal of the attacks against him...These outlets have stoked the politics of personal destruction in America, promoting a mindset in which opponents are seen not merely as fellow citizens to be debated and persuaded but as members of a subhuman species who must be isolated and stamped out.
None of this is healthy and at times it is so incredibly dangerous that I am amazed those who actually do look at their fellow citizens as a "subhuman species" don't take violent action after listening to the vitriolic trash presented on many of these offensive programs.

The danger of what is happening in talk radio, the real problem at the core of the far right-wing talk radio programs, is being ignored and I can't help but wonder how people in the upper echelons of the Democratic party and even the more moderate members of the Republican party can sit idly by while it is happening, only occasionally weighing in on the hate while jumping at the opportunity to blame Rush Limbaugh and applaud the President of the United States for responding to that blowhard. This isn't about Rush. This isn't even about Zeb. And stop making it about Barack Obama!

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