Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The One about Belling

If someone had come up to me two months ago and said that my homestate of Wisconsin would be the center of a media controversy, I'd have laughed in her face. Remember, I'm barely old enough to remember Reagan's first term, yet I have clear memories of a sock puppet - yes, a sock puppet - doing the weather forecast on Milwaukee's CBS affiliate. And while the puppet has long since retired, that's still about as risqué as the local media gets around here.

Had that prediction been made, I'd be eating a lot of crow for the holidays.

As of this writing there have been not one, but three separate incidents involving radio talk show hosts in Milwaukee and Madison. Conservative Mark Belling was suspended for five days following his use of the term 'wetbacks'. Madison host John Sylvester faced criticism for calling Condoleeza Rice "Aunt Jemima", and former Milwaukee Alderman Michael McGee was suspended recently for uttering the F word on air.

I've heard discussions on free speech, censorship, FCC regulations, and corporate responsibility that have been spawned by these episodes. That's lovely, but I think they all miss the boat. Do you know why none of this - not the original 'sins' or the subsequent arguments - have inspired me? Because, when it comes down to it this is nothing more then a case of three men filling seconds of airtime with a lousy, ignorant choice of words. Fine them, suspend them, or fire them as the incident warrants, but please spare me the talk of lofty ideals. I don't buy it.

On the other hand, there is some validity to the claim that the 'liberal' media crucified Belling while ignoring the excesses of its own poster boy. But not for the reasons you think.

Yes, there's a wonderful staged atmosphere to the Belling affair. Following his statement the station received only a "couple" of complaints. By their own admission, many of the Mexican-American groups that protested Belling first heard about it days after the fact, from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters looking for (and creating?) a story. And subsequent efforts to have Belling's employer fund Community Centers and college programs to 'make amends' smacks of selfish exploitation.

But when it comes down to it, Belling said the word, and it was inevitable that it would be reported. Mark Belling is a household name in Wisconsin. John Sylvester is not. Mark Belling filled in for Rush Limbaugh nation wide. If John Sylvester has ever broadcast nationally at all, it's not common knowledge.

Put yourself in the media's shoes: if you had two nearly identical stories, one featuring Pam Grier and the other Julia Roberts, which would you play up?

Moreover, Belling's remarks were off the cuff. Sylvester's reek of self-publicity. It's just possible that the media - for once - recognized the truth and buried the story, only to have it dragged front and center by conservatives.

[McGee, by the way, had been the subject of a legal investigation prior to his suspension. Because of this, it's impossible to draw him into these comparisons; the station probably looks at the obscenity as a Godsend]

And you know what? This might have done both Belling and the state some good. Belling has a solidified and angry base at his beck and call. And coming as it did in the wake of the election, he absorbed a lot of the venom of an angry Blue-State electorate - sparing his own supporters the wrath of the left.

Still, it makes you long for the days of the sock puppet, doesn't it?

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