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Radio Treason? Right Wing Talkers Skirted Disclosure Law

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Headlined to H2 11/30/08
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Revelations by a former right wing radio news director confirm broadcasters aired talking points supplied secretly by the White House, reminiscent of "covert propaganda" violations uncovered in the Armstrong Williams scandal of 2005. Meanwhile, Sean Hannity and his ilk have been "messaging" followers to believe Congressional boogeymen are targeting their free speech by conspiring to revive the Fairness Doctrine. 

If you agree the two most-listened-to radio programs in the U.S. are not making reasonable attempts to provide crucial facts and evenhanded political coverage, find out how you can do something about it at the end of this article.

Preemptive Propaganda "Air" Raids
Airing this week on talk radio shows have been a slew of "issues based" ad buys, confusing listeners into thinking a revived Fairness Doctrine would muzzle partisan talk. Hannity in particular began referring to the law as the "Censorship Doctrine" but quickly laid bare in an L.A. Times piece, we saw the effort was an intentional "cry wolf", meant to begin a messaging campaign - that is, conditioning listeners to have kneejerk reactions at any mention of the Fairness Doctrine. Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who preemptively calls the nonexistent legislation the "hush Rush bill" should perhaps be gearing up to answer different questions about disclosure requirements on public airwaves.

The most serious criticisms of right wing radio aren't about free speech or equal time for opposing viewpoints, rather the deliberately deceptive nature of show content. Unlike truth-in-advertising regulations for commercials, anything goes in show segments. But if you can't legally broadcast an advertisement that says a hearing aid filters out the noise you don't want to hear, why should Hannity be allowed to selectively present only the news items, guests and call-ins that reinforce his bias?

If the limits of free speech fall short of yelling fire in a crowded theater, what might be the negative side-effects of someone urging us to hate and fear eachother in an orderly society every day? Might this not push some to commit violent acts like the unwell man who shot up a "liberal" church in Knoxville?

A reported 90 million, or roughly one third of adult Americans possess fifth grade literacy skills or lower, so it's no news that political debates, ads and discussion have become dumbed-down and low-rent. And it's only expanding - the GOP, RNC and associated "privately funded" organizations save millions on messaging come election season by keeping talk radio and news 'commentary" going year round.

America The Ridiculed
The real harm is plain to see when whole swaths of the country mistakenly believe for example Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, justifying the decision to invade Iraq. We became the laughingstock of the world because our populace is misinformed to an alarming degree on the most important issues of our time, a direct result of choices made in picking sources for news and information. The #1 and #2 radio hosts in the country bear prime responsibility for this, mixing cherrypicked info and incomplete, conflated arguments to "fix the facts" around neocon directives on a host of topics.

As one Australian blog post bluntly recalled: "...someone in Limbaugh's crew slipped up and allowed a very bright young woman to challenge him. She was terrific, very calm, very composed, very reasonable and did she slice the elastic on his underpants. He was completely and utterly unable to counter her points. He was obviously furious that someone other than a dittohead had been allowed to speak to him. It showed him up as a complete and utter twat...to think people take him seriously! Old Rush might just the only person on talk radio in the US who understands the term " Socratic irony "."

Treason Reason #1: Failing the Public Trust
The Fairness Doctrine did instruct FCC licensees to honor their roles as trustees of the public airwaves in making "every reasonable attempt" to present complete and accurate information - in other words, self-regulate according to expected norms in professionalism, journalistic ethics and basic ethical broadcasting standards. But the law used subjective methodology to interpret intent and made any attempt at outside enforcement unwieldy. So the whole thing was scrapped under Reagan - two federal judges who ruled in favor of scuttling the bill were later rewarded with Supreme Court nominations - their names were Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.

With the legal requirement to present balance gone, Hannity, Limbaugh and company openly shirk their moral and civic responsibility to voluntarily present balance. Because these two have led all other US broadcasters for decades, any moral requirement to discuss news in balance was also eroded, making propaganda in talk radio the norm.

Hypocrisy rages as Hannity decries pay-for-play between Democrats and unions or Fannie and Freddie. The last thing he should be asking for are ethics investigations into government/industry collusion after it was revealed Karl Rove covertly pumped talk radio luminaries with discussion points while under White House employ in order to beat the drums for war.

Treason Reason #2: Selling War
This is small potatoes compared to defense spending, however, where arms manufacturers and private contractors cannot just buy advertising to enrich media shills. We know they do fund lobbies, PACs and special interest groups to "recommend" arms build-ups and deployments, but legislators are reticent to sign off on wars without public approval. This need has been met neatly by talk radio's top hosts, always pro-war and full-throttle as if they were secretly being hired to sell war like soap powder.

The real kicker is the questionable legality of Hannity and Limbaugh's broadcasts during the time Karl Rove was sending memos from inside the White House to unidentified "friendly" talk radio personalities, according to Scott McClellan, former White House Press Secretary who once defended Bush's use of faked interviews and videos but later admitted all on a 2008 book tour, describing an apparent violation of domestic law prohibiting "covert" propaganda.

The White House also hired Cuban reporters to plant political stories in Florida papers and in a worse exploitation of public trust, dispatched a cadre of retired military brass to "act objective" in defending detention and the war in public, secretly using Secretary Rumsfeld's talking points.

Presidents Reagan and Clinton have also committed similar media manipulation, so disclosure enforcement has been scant and selective over the years, but Bush quadrupled previous PR budgets to deceive taxpayers with their own money. A furor arose over fake news reports and talk show segments produced to promote Bush's education policies, but largely died down after officials threatened to throw the book at talk show host Armstrong Williams for not disclosing government authorship of information broadcast publicly. Williams reached a settlement with prosecutors but never regained his former stature.

Treason Reason #3: Breaking the Law
In the aftermath of McClellan's bombshell, Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly went to great measures to stress he never received talking points directly from the White House while Hannity and Limbaugh fell silent on the issue. Then earlier this month, Dan Shelley, a former news director for Milwaukee's resident right wing radio home published an article alleging numerous hosts also received emails straight from the White House and used them on the air without disclosure - sometimes verbatim. Should Congress dredge up the political will to probe Hannity's part in violating the same anti-propaganda law Williams did, it might total hundreds of counts of the same infraction.

If cited in a potential legal showdown, Limbaugh and Hannity may argue much of the language in the 1948 law as inapplicable in the internet age, but could very likely lose on a key provision that bans government funding for covert propaganda unless specifically listed in the appropriation funding it. This may explain their current "victimization" campaign - claiming selective enforcement may end up being Rush and Sean's best defense - the classic straw man, though they might have to resort to "we're not the only ones doing it". The crucial legal question is whether Hannity ever used any government-furnished source material on the air without disclosure.

Shelley, a former insider at WTMJ Milwaukee explained in detail the effect of neocon bias at the station, where they also turned away callers with opposing views including sitting U.S. Senator Russ Feingold trying to refute slanted claims made before the public. If this were true for Limbaugh and Hannity's show as well, it would explain the lopsidedness of calls and guests over the years - and also put Hannity's current and former producers, call-screeners and staff on notice that they one day may be asked if partisan imbalance affected any written or oral guidelines given them for booking guests or call screening.

Treason Reason #4: Intellectual Cowardice
Though it may be unrealistic to expect responsible, balanced reportage from any enterprise seeking to maximize profits, it's each broadcaster who must decide for himself whether their success trumps the public right to know the facts that matter, using the "I'm just an entertainer" cop-out.

Should not the biggest radio hosts in America lead by educating and informing? St. Peter I'm not, but surely intentional deception runs counter to Christian ideals - somewhere between responsible journalism and $100 million dollars there is a moral balance, especially in light of the Pope's updated list of deadly sins now including "social injustice" and "the excessive accumulation of wealth for a few". To me, the simplest test is how much informa tion I'd want my own wife or children to have so they can make informed decisions. For example:

On the Iraq war : I'd want my daughters to hear not only the argument that America needs to be kept safe from terrorists by fighting them "over there", but also the first-hand accounts by Bush administration insiders like McClellan, CIA Director George Tenet or Lt. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson who, as Col. Powell's chief of staff stepped down because as he said , the whole lead-up to the war was "a hoax" orchestrated by Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of Bush's Iraq Team.

On the economic meltdown: I want my daughters to know more then the incomplete narrative Hannity drones literally hourly - that it was all due to the Community Redevelopment Act and Democratic pals of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mandating banks write loans for "unqualified" minorities.

These few, beat-into-the-ground facts by themselves constitute a fallacy via omission: because the sub-prime loans were doomed to fail, they were intentionally mixed in with up to ten times as many viable mortgages in securitized packages, intertwined via impossibly complex formulas and sold all over the world for years. Then, even larger credit default swap policies were sold on these securities, essentially side bets that pay out in case the securities do not perform as promised.

The swaps were sold rampantly and recklessly in the belief they would never all come due at the same time - a risk only possible after preventative monitoring was abolished, in large part due to the efforts of Phil Gramm, "the high priest of deregulation".

So the relatively small value of failed sub-prime loans were merely the straw that broke the camel's back, representing but a fraction of the amounts tied up in the bigger securities which are still in large part sound but can't easily be valued. The much worse nightmare was the trillions in side-bet "swaps" that came due and ruined the biggest firms on Wall Street overnight. Knowing this, observers may blame Bush-era deregulation a bit more then reckless sub-prime loan facilitators.

On free-market economic theory: Hannity explains that Reagan created jobs and reduced unemployment and inflation in the longest post-war period of economic growth ever. These stats would be divine if not for the deficits Reagan accumulated, passing unmanageable debt on to the next generation for the first time.

Hannity and his sponsors at the Heritage Foundation expend so much time praising Reagan's greatness without addressing this basic accounting red flag, it makes one wonder if they even believe what they're saying. Worse still, the national deficit which was comendably controlled during the Clinton/Gingrich years have almost doubled under George W. Bush to over ten trillion dollars, ensuring economic difficulty for decades on end.

As bitterly burned future generations analyze what happened, they might uncover clips of Hannity who fought for and defended George W. Bush's unmonitored waste, spending and borrowing on a daily basis against a rising tide of Americans, who by the 2006 elections were sufficiently apprised of the true cost of military deployments and privatized contracts in the Middle East and voted the GOP out in droves.

On the rules of debate: The way our children are taught to form arguments in middle school are clear. State a premise, provide fact, analysis and opinion, preferably in that order. Students then learn how to strengthen their arguments by anticipating challenges, considering diverse perspectives and defending them against well-matched peers in live debate.

In our schools, bullying and deceit are condemned because it is the legal and moral obligation of professional educators to provide an environment where students understand, synthesize, and above all, think . This traditionally extended into the study and practice of broadcast journalism, but has deteriorated as Rush and Sean ascended to make partisan political talk a part of the everyday commute.

All Roads Lead To Tax Breaks For The Rich. Hmm...
Sensational and distractive "infotainment" has become an American staple as media consolidation brought many voices under fewer umbrellas in pursuit of profit, market share and sociopolitical influence. For each issue Hannity covers, he chooses a conveniently finite set of arguments to make his case, and then by his choices of news, guests and callers, limits the discussion to repeat talking points, often leading right back to defense of "Reaganomics" and "trickle down" theories for job growth.

Yet after years of sustained tax cuts for the rich just as Hannity advocated, it has led only to deficits and downturns for the many, disproportionately benefiting those in Rush and Sean's tax bracket - this, even before the October 2008 crisis.

A tax credit for every job created sounds like a more direct incentive then giving whopping tax reductions exclusively to the wealthy in the hope they voluntarily choose to create jobs. But this line of reasoning is censored by Limbaugh and Hannity because they resist debating qualified adversaries who might bring this out.

Tweet Using #hannity For A More "Inclusive" Discussion
In light of today's unprecedented need to unite over economic solutions, I hope to bring attention to a special urgency to call out talk radio deception and propose a citizen initiative using Twitter, in which concerned Americans post tweets each time Hannity misleads, omits crucial facts, obfuscates, smears or bullies. This will help create a running record with a more dynamic, democratic dialog and free and open participation, more interesting and more interactive then the actual radio show.

For newbies, simply register and you can post short messages which include the tag #hannity (the # hashmark denotes a "topic" which users can follow). You can also check for mentions of the keyword anytime HERE and block anyone you wish. Feel free to include links to your blog or this page where you can leave longer comments. Twitter also allows you to send and receive from a mobile device. Tweet from this page!
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(OpEdNews Contributing Editor since October 2006) Inner city schoolteacher from New York, mostly covering media manipulation. I put election/finance reform ahead of all issues but also advocate for fiscal conservatism, ethics in journalism and (more...)
 
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You might want to see the "diary' section... by John Lorenz on Sunday, Nov 30, 2008 at 5:19:10 AM
Although the Fairness Doctrine had its imperfectio... by michal54 on Sunday, Nov 30, 2008 at 10:23:42 AM
Dear Mr. Wynn, Thank you! I have been saying ... by Pulladigm on Sunday, Nov 30, 2008 at 12:04:34 PM
Great article. But i regret that due to a problem ... by Steve Windisch (jibbguy) on Sunday, Nov 30, 2008 at 12:10:05 PM
Agreed that talk radio is 24/7 crap, but I truly d... by Tom Cobb on Sunday, Nov 30, 2008 at 3:14:27 PM
I find this article absurd. Going back 10 or 12 y... by Gray Brendle on Sunday, Nov 30, 2008 at 4:31:56 PM
Hannity is a less talented, more annoying version ... by steve scheetz on Sunday, Nov 30, 2008 at 9:55:03 PM
Indeed.  Anyone truly respectful of the ... by Alan Williams on Monday, Dec 1, 2008 at 2:22:36 AM
Steve, you mistake me as partisan - I fully oppose... by Gustav Wynn on Monday, Dec 1, 2008 at 9:44:34 PM
So the "Democrats did it too, so it's oka... by Gustav Wynn on Monday, Dec 1, 2008 at 8:34:48 PM
Yes.  Conservatism leads inevitably to treaso... by Perry Logan on Monday, Dec 1, 2008 at 5:26:21 AM
Furthermore, nobody is committing treason for simp... by Scott on Monday, Dec 1, 2008 at 6:22:22 AM
Lame.  WingNuts are lame.  Thinking dull... by frank69 on Monday, Dec 1, 2008 at 7:56:07 PM