Bruce Maiman

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Viewpoints: What radio dust-up was really about: Lawyers

Published: Sunday, Sep. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 2E
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 30, 2012 - 8:28 am

The outrage over last week's mini-suspension of radio hosts Armstrong & Getty provided yet another example of melodrama common in our society and corrosive to our discourse.

Radio is replete with stories of broadcasters punished for uttering words that cross swords with management, but given the context of the insipid video that sparked much of the latest contretemps in the Middle East, it's understandable why reaction to the suspension was driven by familiar, albeit misguided missives on free speech, Muslim appeasement and corporate cowardice – in this case, Clear Channel.

It's common, too, for media of all stripes – radio included – to reduce stories to single sound bites, further fueling the misinformation rock pile. Indeed, "molehills into mountains" is the typically "instant coffee" practice of today's digitized media. Just add water – provided it satiates our ADD culture – and voilà, controversy!

As a longtime radio broadcaster, I wasn't buying this suspension. Urging listeners to "bombard" Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news network, with homemade "anti-Muhammad ads until they grow up"? How does a company suspend someone over words like that, which are perfectly legal, given that fellow Clear Channel broadcaster Rush Limbaugh has faced no such company wrath despite saying far worse?

As the duo explained in their on-air return last Thursday, the suspension had nothing to do with what was said on the air. Insiders told me the day before that the suspension involved a support staffer issuing a press release containing rhetoric from the broadcast. Issued without approval – a violation of corporate policy – it included Clear Channel's corporate logo, making matters worse.

"I cannot confirm or deny that," Joe Getty told me.

While Clear Channel employees are legally prohibited from describing the contents of the news release, concern was understandable and the suspension explicable if its contents reflected what was said on the air.

If a subsequent violent act occurred, would it surprise anyone if a lawsuit filed against Armstrong & Getty and Clear Channel blamed the ill-begotten news release? Recall the tragic "Wee for a Wii" incident wherein both station and parent company were sued.

We all know what little it takes to provoke imbecilic violence. We also know that today, anything can be litigated.

I posited to Getty that the suspension provided time to consider legal ramifications while representing a preventive attempt to limit any potential liability against the company.

Yes, it leaves the radio duo twisting in the wind, but hey, the news release ultimately falls on their shoulders, even if a rogue subordinate was the one who ultimately issued it.

"We are squarely into the part I am not at liberty to discuss," Getty said.

Perhaps this is less about any appeasement to Islamic fanatics in a fragile world, and more about an appeasement to trial lawyers in a litigious society.

Never mind what Armstrong & Getty said, whether it's right or wrong, or our loathsome compulsion for lawsuits. This is how things are. Shall we have a conversation about tort reform, the continued refusal of lawmakers to address it, and how free speech can be constricted by the lack of it?

You could easily argue that, in such an environment, a corporation has little choice but to protect its interests. They have no general obligation to the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects against the government, not the whims of corporations.

Interestingly though, Clear Channel was instrumental in boycotts against the Dixie Chicks that profoundly impacted their career.

Lead singer Natalie Maines told a crowd at a London concert in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, that she was ashamed to be from the same state as President George W. Bush. Clear Channel, then the owner of 1,200 radio stations nationwide, pulled the band's music from on-air playlists. CDs were burned, death threats against the group made. "Rally for America!" events sprang up, spearheaded by then-Clear Channel syndicated talker Glenn Beck.

Those who defiantly supported Armstrong & Getty, whose words you liked, did you support with equal vigor the Dixie Chicks boycott because their words offended you?

Clear Channel has always denied any conspiracy, but they saw value in tacitly supporting the boycott. They were simply protecting their corporate interests, as is their right, even though they could've easily ended the boycott in the name of defending the First Amendment, which would've been right, since its fundamental protection allows one to criticize government, even if we disagree with the critic – indeed, especially when we disagree.

Free speech is valued, we say, but sometimes, we give it a price tag when we let fleeting words take precedence over enduring principle. As George Orwell might've put it, all speech is free, but some speech is more free than others.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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