October 2007 Ethics Dunce
Air America's Jon ElliottIn the realm of talk radio ethics, what can be lower than the vicious, hate-infused rants of ultra-conservative ("Liberalism is a Mental Disorder") sneer-master Michael Savage? Easy question! For while willfully encouraging hate and distrust between Americans with differing political views is unethical, misinforming listeners and using the false information to foment rumors that feed fanatic paranoia is far, far worse.
And this is what late night Air America radio host Jon Elliott did.
Elliott began his show by announcing, with obvious tension in his voice, that "it is with sadness that tonight I inform you that my Air America colleague Randi Rhodes was assaulted last night while walking her dog near her New York City home."
Noting that had no purse or jewelry at the time, Elliott speculated darkly that "this does not appear to me to be a standard grab the money and run mugging."
"Is this an attempt by the right wing hate machine to silence one of our own?" he asked provocatively. "Are we threatening them? Are they afraid that we're winning? Are they trying to silence and intimidate us?"
But Randi Rhodes was not mugged. The New York Daily News reported that "Rhodes' lawyer told the Daily News she was injured in a fall while walking her dog. He said she's not sure what happened, and only knows that she fell down and is in a lot of pain. The lawyer said Rhodes expects to be back on the air Thursday. He stressed there is no indication she was targeted or that she was the victim of a hate crime."
Thus did Jon Elliot, over the airwaves, report a news story ---sort of, given that only the approximately 127 regular listeners of Air America have a clue who Randi Rhodes is---based solely on rumor and hearsay, without checking the facts. That's unprofessional, incompetent, irresponsible, and wrong---unethical, in short. But as misconduct it is but a frolic in the meadow compared to his next outrage, which was leaping to the entirely unfounded and slanderous speculation that she was mugged by conservatives. That constitutes planting a rumor, which is a particularly destructive form of dishonestly in case like this.
Since the staff of Air America are so obsessed with assailing "hate speech" and "hate crimes," the Scoreboard would like to enlighten them: this was both. Too many Americans on both the left and the right have made policy disagreements and ideological differences the basis for personal, moral and intellectual denigration. If you disagree with them, you're not merely wrong…you're stupid, venal, mean-spirited, traitorous, perverted, and evil. This is the primitive ritual of making your opposition less than human…monsters, in fact. And it is an invitation to fear, cynicism, community polarization and even violence.
Sadly but predictably, some of Elliot's listeners swallowed his ridiculous musings whole. The Daily News article quoted blogger "needlenosehanty," who posted on watchingthewatchers.org,
"What the %$#$ is WRONG with you people?? Are you that SICK in the head that just because you don't agree with someone's political views you believe that they deserve to be mugged? Are you on the right that DEMENTED??"
"Needlenose," in the classic tradition of gullible rumor-mongerers from the beginning of recorded time, took Elliot's insidious suggestion and turned it into fact. Now there's proof, or all the proof Needlenose needs, that the emissaries of the Evil Right are not just trying to oppress women and gays and minorities but are also out to kill her and those who think like her---you know, the good people! Jon Elliot, a trusted speaker of the truth said…well, implied…well…well what difference does it make what he said, exactly? We all know these are the people that bombed their own city so they could declare war and make money for their friends and steal our Constitutional rights!
Nice work, Jon. Eventually, Elliot came out with a retraction and apology, saying in a written statement, "I shouldn't have speculated based on hearsay that Randi Rhodes had been mugged and that it may have been an attack from a right wing hate machine. I apologize for jumping to conclusions based on an emotional reaction."
Too late. Jon Elliot can't be trusted. He's irresponsible, and biased beyond all rationality. The First Amendment means that hateful people with hateful opinions can have radio shows (or, in the case of Air America, radio networks) as long as enough people want to listen to them. But nothing in the Constitution says that talk show hosts who lie, recite rumor as fact and spread vicious rumors themselves can't be fired for unprofessional, unethical conduct. If Air America has any integrity, it will send him packing. Right away.
Get well quick, Randi.