Talk Radio and the Police

WABC Chills the Air

‘When will you apologize Haniti for the Rape of Abner Louimas character & reputation? It was forethought & systematic you skumbag. The guy should sue you. What you did was outright slander. A vicious hit by a kop lovin’ kreep.’ —One of the faxes sent to Sean Hannity and others at WABC-AM that got Thomas McGowan arrested and imprisoned Talk radio is the closest we have to the American town meetings of the past, where anyone could speak his or her truth to government or private powers. With the precipitous expansion of mass communications, their accompanying technology, and the conglomeration of all forms of media, the only chance of talking back to a newspaper is a letter to the editor--and few of those are printed.

Also, you have a better chance of getting through to the head of the CIA than getting space and time for your complaint on broadcast or cable television.

So, when WABC allowed talk-show hosts Steve Malzberg and Sean Hannity to get a clamorous, insulting faxer arrested on criminal harassment charges, the Disney station was potentially endangering the future of much of talk radio around the country. If Thomas McGowan were to be locked up for two years for speaking freely, a precedent will have been set for other talk stations to insure that the fragile sensitivities of their hosts would not be bruised by impertinent callers.

WABC denies that it was involved in Malzberg and Hannity's criminal complaint calling for prior restraint, but Phil Boyce, the station's program director, first told me that he knew the cops were being called and he did not intervene because it was "the right thing to do." Later, Boyce, changing his story, told me that he initially knew of the police involvement--that is, the arrest and charging of McGowan--only after the fact. But that second story came after more of the press called to ask what was happening at WABC-vaunted champion of free speech. Boyce denies that he changed his story.

Boyce does not deny he told me how he had handled a fax "attack" a year ago. As he put it, a woman listener had been sending "vile" faxes to Lynn Samuels. "I called that woman," Boyce said, "and got her to stop."

This strikes me as cool, responsible leadership that calms down both the aggressive faxer and those stars of the station who can only take so much heat.

I'm not talking about actual threats to a host and/or a host's family. Threats of physical harm should be called to the attention of the police. I did that once myself when a Voice reader sent me a serious death threat.

But not one of Thomas McGowan's faxes contained an actual, specific, immediate threat of death or any physical harm. Just some of the insulting rhetoric some of the hosts themselves use. But the two charges of aggravated harassment in the second degree lodged by Malzberg and Hannity require an intent to threaten. A serious intent.

However, what if Boyce had called McGowan and the by now renowned faxer had refused to cease and desist? I do not believe even then there would be grounds for a criminal charge of harassment. Anyway, could not Boyce, as the mature role model of reason at the station, at least have tried calling him?

Or Boyce could have gone to a justice of the state supreme court and asked for a civil injunction to enjoin the persistent faxer from continuing. If the jurist found grounds for that injunction, he could issue an order which might say that the flood of faxes impeded the flow of messages from other listeners. (This did not happen with McGowan's faxes.)

There would be no time in the slammer if McGowan kept on. At worst, a fine. And then, if the faxer still didn't stop, he or she might be found in contempt of court and be in serious trouble.

In McGowan's case, for the station to allow the filing of criminal charges without even considering an alternative is not only contrary to WABC's self- advertising as a free-speech station, but also, as I've noted, could infect the management of other talk stations with the virus of punitive censorship, with intemperate listeners facing summary arrest.

After all, we already saw recently that the re-nowned civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry-head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission-called the cops on dissident staff members at Pacifica- KPFA in Berkeley.

In fact, one veteran KPFA broadcaster was literally dragged away from a microphone by armed guards. When angry listeners demonstrated in front of the station, cops roughly broke it up.

If that can happen at a progressive Pacifica station, program directors who have to answer to corporate bosses-and that's the case in most cities-might well emulate WABC and exclude not only staffers, but overly annoying listeners.

Rush Limbaugh's three-hour network program uses WABC as its flagship station. I have often defended Limbaugh's free-speech rights (in this column, in TheWashington Post, and on radio interviews around the country) against boycotts of his sponsors by the National Organization for Women and other deeply offended organizations.

Limbaugh, as I've pointed out during this series, gives more than token time to listeners critical of his views. As the king of national talk radio, he could help WABC redeem itself by giving a history lesson to its talk-show hosts and their bosses about Jefferson, Madison, and other creators of our free-speech tradition.

In 1931, President Herbert Hoover rejoiced that broadcasting had not been made a government operation-as advocated at its birth. Under private companies, he said, "free speech has been preserved for the country." Sean Hannity, Steve Malzberg, and Phil Boyce missed the point of free-speech radio.

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