IT'S TIME FOR SOME PAYBACK
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Whoopi Goldberg did a few jokes about the president and within days she got fired. Once again the right taught us an important lesson that the left and center still refuse to learn.
Goldberg's offense was to joke indecently at a Kerry fundraiser, thereby providing the Republicans an opportunity to tar Kerry by association.
As usual, the Republican political machinery was well oiled with self-righteous crocodile tears. No matter that my local talk radio titans have gotten away with telling their listeners (to paraphrase the Bill Cosby joke here) that former governor Gray Davis' parents have never been married. Yes, they used the B-word on the air.
Then we have the other guy who has made a living tauntingly saying that facts are to liberals what kryptonite is to Superman. I once started to make a list of all the angry words that the John and Ken radio show (KFI 640, Los Angeles) were using, but realized that under American Reporter standards of usage, I could not print them without expurgation.
We could go on, but there is no need to further document what talk radio has been doing for years. As mentioned here previously, you can check it out on mediamatters.org, or for a little more partisan fire, on moveon.org. The lying goes on, the nastiness goes on, the ugly language goes on, all documented fully. But Whoopi got fired.
For those who have not followed this story, it can be summarized briefly. Whoopi Goldberg made her services available for a Kerry fundraiser in New York about a week ago. She did some off-color jokes which made light of the president's last name, a word which is sometimes used vulgarly to refer to women as sexual objects. Not exactly wholesome, but not much separated from the spirit of bad taste pioneered by the right wing propaganda machine.
Whoopi got a little risqué. It is how the Republican opposition responded that is the lesson here.
They went right to her sponsors with self-righteous fury and with threats. In this case, the target was Unilever, makers of the diet product Slim-Fast. Goldberg had been hired to do ads for this product, which according to Bloomberg News (reprinted in the July 15, 2004 Los Angeles Times) had been suffering declining sales.
According to stories in U.S.A Today, Bloomberg and many others, the Bush campaign went into action. As reported in the Bloomberg News story, the Republican presidential campaign was involved directly: "Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman called for a public release of a tape of the event."
The attack accelerated with threats of a boycott of Slim-Fast. (What a great straight line - late night comedians take note.)
Within days, Unilever pulled its ads featuring Goldberg and made the usual mealy-mouthed statements.
We will publicly take note of the fact that Republican hatchet men don't accord the same degree of fascination to the outrages perpetrated by Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. The target was partisan, narrowly focussed, and irrelevant to the great questions of the day, but it was a chance to take a pot shot at the Kerry campaign and to do a little intimidation as a bonus.
The right wing got its way.
The important lesson that faint hearted liberals miss is that this can and should be a two-way street. Conservative Republicans are not the only people who can complain to sponsors about perceived slights. Of course the object is a little different - to get the story told rather than to shut the other side up - but the tactics would be similar. The goal is hugely important. The ability to get access to the people in order to get the message across is what is at stake, and it won't happen without a real battle.
Once again the liberal side has been revealed to be ineffective. The contest for media availability is a street fight and the Democrats are not hitting back.
Kerry supporters can tearfully bemoan the lack of artistic freedom in the advertising world, or they can learn something of value from the experience. They have the same right to protest as the other side does. They have the same right to complain to sponsors as conservatives have.
What has been missing in the liberal world is the simple understanding that it is long overdue to respond in kind.
The lesson should not be missed. This presidential campaign is just now gearing up, but the right wing attack machine has been using its propaganda-radio for months, nearly full-time, to bad mouth Kerry. We can talk about Whoopi Goldberg's obscenities, but that word also applies at least figuratively to what goes out over the airwaves hour after hour.
Payback is overdue. And, contrary to what some people think, it can work. Stay with me for a few paragraphs as I explain.
What has puzzled me for years is how Los Angeles area consumers have allowed the monopolization of our airwaves by the right wing attack machine to continue. It is not because liberals are in the minority here. To the contrary.
Consider the voter registration figures for Los Angeles and Orange Counties (available online at the California Secretary of State web site). We consider these two counties together because they form the main population base that Los Angeles area radio stations appeal to.
Republicans make up just 33.5 percent of the registered voters, almost exactly one-third of the total. Democrats make up 45.5 percent, and independents (called "decline to state" in California) are another 16.4 percent.
In this greater Los Angeles listening area, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 600,000 voters, which is 12 percent of the total. Combining Democrats and independents, the non-Republicans represent more than three-fifths of the total.
It is an overwhelming majority, yet what passes for political and intellectual discourse on the area's AM stations is largely partisan right wing ranting.
What we have in effect is the available frequency spectrum being devoted to getting George W Bush reelected, in spite of the political leanings of the area's population. If you talk to liberals and moderates, you will find that they are aware of the situation but resigned to the fact that they can do nothing about it.
They should take a page from the Whoopi Goldberg story by complaining to the sponsors.
Let's make one thing clear. It's not a First Amendment issue or even an issue of censorship. It's not a First Amendment issue because we are not an occupying army, merely consumers able to exercise choice in the marketplace.
It is not an issue of censorship for a different reason. Liberals should not want to stifle discussion or dissent. That is not our philosophy. But at the same time, we have been denied the ability to have our say in that marketplace of ideas that the right wing trumpets so gleefully. The issue is the fight for access. We should demand of sponsors that they make the local radio stations give the other side (that's us) the chance to have our say.
We are not talking about half measures. Not the chance to call in and be abused, not the right to be subjected to the technical tricks that radio shock-jocks use to make their callers sound stupid.
It is the ability to have our own air time, even if only in rebuttal, that we should be fighting for.
The conservatives have shown how effective it is when large numbers of people complain directly to the advertisers. Even the threat seems to work nowadays, as the Whoopi Goldberg story illustrates.
Obviously not all sponsors will be susceptible to such pleas. Some will relish the opportunity to be viewed as belonging to the Republican community. But how can this be the case for the Southern California Audi Dealers, Southern California Edison or Krispy Kreme Donuts? All of these are listed as advertisers on the KABC web site. All of them are contributing advertising dollars that are working to defeat the Kerry - Edwards ticket.
We liberals need to let them know that we are displeased. It is a project that could be taken up by the Kerry campaign here locally, and by other groups in other cities that also have a liberal demographic.
Just imagine the effect if a few hundred people write to Krispy Kreme - something like this, perhaps: Dear Krispy Kreme Donuts: I am a liberal, I live in Los Angeles, and I love your raspberry filled donuts. I eat them every week. I am hurt that you pay a radio announcer to tell the world that facts are to liberals like kryptonite is to Superman.
This is insulting and untrue. I will continue to buy your donuts because I like them (honestly, I can't do without them). Perhaps your company could ask the radio station to be less insulting to your customers and to give our side a chance to be heard. P.S. I am boycotting Slim-Fast because it doesn't taste as good as your donuts. Perhaps you can hire Whoopi Goldberg for your ad campaign. I hear she is available.