Occasionally, the brutality that rises out of hate and bigotry stirs our national conscience. Last week, it was a gay man pistol-whipped to death because of his sexual orientation. Earlier, it was a black man dragged to his death behind a pickup truck because of his race. Deep down, we realize that we all have a responsibility to promote understanding and respect, instead of hatred and division.
Unfortunately, several days after the shock of such brutality fades, we return to our casual acceptance of racist rhetoric. Take the recent controversy over the KQRS "Morning Show". The June 9th broadcast, where the show's hosts reacted to the tragic murder of a newborn with derisive sneering at the Hmong community and culture, did not offend every Minnesotan. It probably did not even offend every Hmong Minnesotan. But it certainly did not promote understanding and respect. Host Tom Barnard was fostering simplistic stereotypes and racial resentment.
KQRS management never suggests that the program hosts resign-or even apologize.
The station management cowers behind the first amendment, pointing out that they have a constitutional right to be crude and offensive. Nobody is disputing their constitutional right to be offensive. Government should never be able to tell a radio host what to say.
But KQRS station management has confused its rights with its responsibilities. The first amendment allows them to air offensive programming; it does not require them to do so.
The first amendment does not absolve KQRS of its responsibility for decency and respect for people.
Just over twenty years ago, Earl Butz, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture told a crude racist joke. His remarks were picked up by the news media. Nobody doubted that Butz had a constitutional right to say such things. But Butz's boss, President Gerald Ford made it clear that such humor was totally unacceptable. Earl Butz resigned from office.
As the KQRS controversy grows, many Minnesotans have expressed their disgust at the station's irresponsible behavior, and its stubborn refusal to apologize. A growing number of corporate sponsors have chosen to pull advertising from the station.
Corporate decisions regarding advertising are fundamentally business decisions, and it is very rare that ethical concern about program content is great enough to drive advertising decisions. However, there is a time when content becomes so offensive that people need to take a stand. These companies have made a courageous decision, and they deserve our thanks.
But as these sponsors withdraw their ads, they have been heavily criticized for doing so. On the air, the program hosts defiantly ridicule the former sponsors and urge listeners to boycott the companies.
An October 13th commentary in the Pioneer Press suggested that these companies were wrong because they should drop their advertising only if the offensive speech "makes up the bulk of any particular mass medium". In other words, as long as KQRS wraps hate rhetoric in with other programming, the advertisers should continue sponsoring the offensive stuff?
The Morning Show hosts delude themselves into thinking that building racial resentment is ok, as long as they offend others too. Tom Barnard's hate-filled and offensive remarks about Carl Pohlad during the stadium debate last year were equally unacceptable, not a justification for his verbal assaults on people from other cultures.
Like Earl Butz, Tom Barnard has a constitutional right to use crude racist humor. Unfortunately, unlike President Ford, who held Butz accountable, KQRS management has been unwilling to provide even a simple apology. They seem pleased that Barnard is attacking those individuals and businesses who dare to stand up to his hateful rhetoric. They brag that the "Morning Show" ratings are up.
Tom Barnard, his co-hosts, and KQRS management certainly know their rights. It would be a welcome change if they would learn their responsibilities too. They could actually apologize. They could help make our community more welcoming to people of every race and ethnic background. And that would be within their constitutional rights too.