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Hate Speech, Media Activism and the First Amendment

Putting a spotlight on dehumanizing language

Candice O'Grady

In just over a month last winter, two Latino men were beaten to death in New York state while their attackers shouted racial slurs and epithets (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/25/09). Such hate crimes, motivated by anti-immigrant prejudice and other bigotries, have spurred a media justice campaign to reveal the potential human costs of hate speech.

When the FBI reported that hate crimes against Hispanics had increased by an astonishing 40 percent between 2003 and 2007 (FBI: Hate Crime Statistics, 2003 and 2007), UCLA professor Chon Noriega began to ask “whether the media plays a role in the persistence of hate speech and hate crimes.” In a pilot study that attempts to quantify hate speech in commercial radio, Noriega tracked language on the Lou Dobbs Show, Savage Nation and the John & Ken Show (Latino Policy and Issues Brief, 2/09). On these programs he found “systematic and extensive use of false facts, flawed argumentation, divisive language, and dehumanizing metaphors that are directed toward specific vulnerable groups”—which results, Noriega argued, in marginalized populations being “characterized as a direct threat to the listeners’ way of life.”

While deeply unsettling, Noriega’s findings should come as little surprise. Last August, San Francisco–based shock jock Michael Savage unleashed this xenophobic tirade (Savage Nation, 8/4/08):

We need to get our troops out of Iraq and put them on the streets of America to protect us from the scourge of illegal immigrants who are running rampant across America, killing our police for sport, raping, murdering like a scythe across America.…The Statue of Liberty is crying, she’s been raped and disheveled—raped and disheveled by illegal aliens.

Savage is hardly alone in advocating violence against immigrants in recent years. Montana radio host John Stokes said of non-English speakers (John Stokes Show, 9/1/07): “Romans 15:19 says that if they break into your country, chop off their leg. We have to forcibly get rid of them.” (Actually, the verse cited says nothing of the kind.) Rush Limbaugh (Rush Limbaugh Show, 3/27/06) cast all Mexicans as a “renegade, potentially criminal element.” MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson agreed on-air with radio host Mark Williams (Tucker, 10/16/06) that illegal immigrants are mainly “drug runners, human traffickers” and “people who engage in slavery and prostitution.” Meanwhile, in 2007 alone, Lou Dobbs connected crime to illegal immigrants on 94 episodes of his television show (Media Matters, 5/21/08). (For further examples, see FCC Petition for Inquiry: In the Matter of Hate Speech in the Media, 1/28/09.)

This kind of racist rhetoric is endemic to the mainstream press and requires urgent attention, says National Hispanic Media Coalition president Alex Nogales. In response, Nogales and his colleagues filed a petition with the Federal Communica-tions Commission (FCC), asking the regulatory agency to investigate the scope and consequences of hate speech. (FAIR has signed on to this petition.) His organization believes that the issue must be identified and understood so that it can be addressed. “We want a spotlight put on this problem, on the people that are doing it…and the companies that are allowing it to go on.”

This has been a controversial move in some media circles. Opponents say that by its nature, an FCC inquiry leads to regulation and inevitably to a chilling of First Amendment rights. Moreover, argues University of Syracuse information studies professor Milton Mueller, “it seems to assume that there is some unambiguous, clearly defined thing called ‘hate speech’ and that we all recognize it when we see it. I don’t think that is the case.… Is it just expression that one group considers offensive or insulting? If so, we cannot regulate that without stifling all manner of expression.”

Nogales counters that hate speech is incendiary, comparing it to a person yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Scapegoating Latinos for the country’s social and economic problems in a time of crisis is deeply irresponsible on the part of commercial media and merits investigation, he says.

We need to be able to discuss immigration and all of us arrive at a consensus about what we’re going to do. But that’s a far cry from just blaming a specific community for the ills of this nation and, in many ways, creating an environment where hate crimes are being committed against a community.

NHMC hopes that with heightened public awareness and criticism, media corporations will choose to distance themselves from the personalities espousing racist views. While the group also supports bringing a greater balance of perspectives onto airwaves and television screens, it does not want to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation—supported by FAIR—that required broadcasters to allow a limited amount of space for dissenting opinions on pressing public issues (Extra!, 1–2/05). Nogales said it led to “dull programming.” The group does not have a specific suggestion for what kind of regulation, if any, could take its place.

Another tool activists are using to combat the negative impacts of hate speech is media literacy—learning to decode how news is framed. “[The news] works to reinforce this idea that its ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says Andrea Quijada, executive director of the New Mexico Literacy Project. Those on the “us” side of that divide, she adds, get the message that they have no responsibility for finding solutions because vulnerable groups bring these problems on themselves, while those on the “other” side get the message they have no power to bring about solutions.

In her community, the news media have fallen under heavy criticism for their reporting on the bodies found in Albuquerque of 12 women, mostly women of color, characterized as drug-addicted prostitutes (, 3/2/09; AP, 4/3/09). The way the story has been told leads viewers to think, “That’s what happens when you’re a drug addict or a prostitute,” she says. Coverage has been so dehumanizing that Quijada and the members of a local women of color group, Young Women United, have begun media monitoring, writing op-eds and meeting with elected officials.

The corporate media’s continued sanctioning of programs that regularly broadcast hate speech is, at the very least, fueling racial animosity in an already volatile time. In Quijada’s words, “There’s no opportunity in the framework that [the news media are] using to actually challenge the system.… Instead, they’re turning it into a Law and Order Special Victims Unit episode every time we’re watching the news.”

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Candice O’Grady is a freelance writer and former FAIR intern living in New York.

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