What's with Howard Stern? Has he finally gone too far by daring to become political?
The long-haired, big-mouthed self-promoting shock jock - who calls himself the "King of All Media" - had in recent years become a cartoon of a caricature of the sexually obsessed boobologist, well before Janet Jackson's Super Bowl stunt bared her you-know-what. When that incident led to investigations of on-air obscenity, Stern went from being a controversial object of the objectionable to a target for the conservative campaign demanding we "do something" to clean up the airwaves.
In short order, Clear Channel stations dropped his show from six stations and started a radio war that some say has turned the airwaves into a political battleground.
Overnight, politicians who had been complaining about too much broadcast regulation insisted on more regulation. And Stern quickly became the poster boy for what offended them the most. His in-your-face-attitude quickly became the issue, his outrageous program a target. Just last week the Federal Communications Commission fined Howard Stern $27,500 for a program broadcast in July 2001 on a Detroit station.
As the specter of a threatening reality intruded into the adolescent fantasy world Stern created for his largely male audience, The Howard began firing up his followers - just as The Donald was firing his. Suddenly an apolitical libertine was on a political crusade for civil liberties.
If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, hell really has no fury like a rebuffed Howard Stern. He is on the warpath - driven by his oversized ego to be sure, but also because of his own commitment to being able to say what he wants - and his listeners want to hear. Ego may be driving him, but Stern is speaking up at a time when so many others in the media world are succumbing to the dictates of censorship and self-censorship. His larger-than-life celebrity is turning him into a high-profile fighter for freedom of speech and a formidable force - if he keeps it up - in the culture wars.
Reuters reports that Stern has "as of this month become the anti-Rush Limbaugh. If the Republicans ever worried what it might be like to have a left-leaning version of Limbaugh hacking them to bits, now they are finding out daily."
With 8½ million listeners (and acolytes) in the white-male demographic so prized by the White House, Stern has turned into an adversary considered dangerous by the very Republicans he had once supported. In his few past forays into on-air politics, he backed Republican governors Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey and George Pataki in New York. He backed the Iraq war and did his share of waving the flag.
But now Stern is on a tear, tearing into President George W. Bush, calling him a "maniac" and an "arrogant bastard," and mobilizing his listeners to take on Bush's Christian right base. Fans as far away as Australia are circulating posters that put Stern's face in Jesus' place on the cross with headlines that speak of "The Passion of The Stern." He is becoming a martyr even as his message seems to be winning support and attention.
"If Stern falls, we all fall" is the mantra of some of his fans. It seems as if they will not abandon him even as some news columnists (and I am sure some of his bosses) want him to get back to being funny, not furious.
Personally, as a former rock radio news director/dissector at a station he later appeared on, I was not expecting Howard Stern to emerge as a warrior for de-Bushifying America. I always found his angry attitude and sexist antics a calculated shtick to turn him from a Long Island boychik into a national bad boy who lived on the adulation of his fans and his ever-expanding ego.
As he built his own persona, he was used skillfully (and enriched significantly) when Infinity (a Viacom subsidiary) syndicated his show and in the process decapitated local radio talent and more community-service oriented programming at rock stations nationwide. Stern's talent was to dumb it down and sex it up at the same time. I never liked that.
But now, in an age when no one knows what will come next, Howard Stern's intensity and talent could give the anti-Bush movement and radio listeners a voice that it has long missed: someone who connects with working-class males and knows how to temper his earnestness with humor. And someone who also stands up for the right thing, just as Larry Flynt has struck a blow for the First Amendment against other know-nothings.
As a long-time Howard- hater, I am prepared to turn and bow, to pay homage to this "King" if he is really serious about toppling the one in power.
Danny Schechter is the editor of the Web site, Mediachannel.org, and author, most recently, of "Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover the War in Iraq."
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