But it's a preciously low limit, as a new report by Media Matters, a non-profit monitor of conservative misinformation, points out.
The report shows that there really is no boundary as long as these purveyors of prejudice aim at adult public figures or at large swaths of the population, like women in general rather than under-age, identifiable individuals--and athletes besides. Unless of course, they use a four-letter word. That, or baring a breast even for a tenth of a second, are about the only offenses that incur the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission these days.
The report, "RadioActiveSmears," lists some of the worst offenders plying their ugly trade at local and regional stations around the country. The report gives details of utter falsehoods, such as two jocks' claims that 5 million illegal aliens got subprime mortgages, (despite repeated denials by HUD) or wildly inflammatory predictions, such as KOA's "Gunny" Bob Newman saying that after gay marriage is legalized will come "legal human-animal marriage."
The report singles out KTLK radio host Chris Baker for special censure, describing him as "one of the most prolific purveyors of inflammatory rhetoric."
Baker apparently finds a big audience among men who hate women and respond well to comments like: "I'm not excited about women voting;" and, Sarah Palin "shoulda had a little cleavage going...I noticed a little panty line on her."
He added, "I'm a pig, and that's fine." At least he was right about the pig part.
The press secretary for Media Matters, J. Jioni Palmer, wonders why, if "we don't tolerate sexism on our local television station or local paper," why "should radio get a free pass?"
It's a good question. If the columnist for a local newspaper, or an anchor at a local television station made such comments, they would be censured by an outraged public and probably lose their jobs.
Is talk radio different?
Yes. First, newspaper columnists and TV anchors are journalists, and journalists are expected to adhere to a code of ethics.
Radio shock jocks are not journalists, and have no code of ethics. Apparently, they have no personal ethics, either.
Ethical theorists (I teach a course on media ethics at Hofstra University) speak of journalists' duty to the truth, to their audience and the community. To fulfill those duties requires an effort to find out the truth and to seek balance and fairness.
Radio shock jocks obviously see their duty only as one of increasing their ratings and their pay.
So what's the answer? As Palmer of Media Matters says, should these obnoxious talkers just get a free pass because of both their First Amendment rights and the ability of people to simply turn them off?
No, they shouldn't.
Parthiv Parekh, the editor of an Indian-American magazine based in Atlanta, argues that the mainstream media have a duty to take on the excesses of radio purveyors of prejudice and hate. He contends that by highlighting their excesses on a regular basis, ethical journalists can enlist the public in making advertisers and station owners uncomfortable in letting offenders keep their jobs.
In his essay, "The Unfairness of Talk Radio," Parekh says, "Just as talking heads use their medium to routinely knock the mainstream press, they in turn must frequently call to attention the irrationality of talk radio." So, when right-wing talkers, in particular, take every opportunity to criticize the "liberal" mainstream media, why shouldn't mainstream journalists give it right back to them when these amoral individuals repeatedly ignore the facts and promote disgusting stereotypes?
The motivation to do this is not competition or revenge. What's at stake here is the ability of people in our democracy to acquire good information on which to act as citizens: to vote, first of all, and to decide which public policies are best for themselves and the country.
Unfettered by any requirement or any personal sense of duty to be truthful or even-handed, right-wing talkers reinforce the worst stereotypes and fears of their audiences. This is why we had a significant percentage of the electorate believing before the election, and probably still believing, that President-elect Obama is a Muslim. Some shockers went as far as to label him "the Beast," meaning Satan. (Listen to a 1-minute recording of some of the worst comments compiled by Media Matters by clicking here.)
Newsweek's Joe Klein expressed the danger of media slicing and dicing audiences in 1992:
"The basic principle is centrifugal: market segmentation targets those qualities that distinguish people from each other rather than emphasizing those things we have in common. It is the developed world's equivalent of the retribalization taking place in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia."
Klein was referring at the time to the rise of cable channels focused on particular ethnic and racial audiences, sports enthusiasts and other slices of the public. Far worse is to parse your audience based on their hatreds and fears, but that is exactly what the shock talkers do.
So did Media Matters' report on the shock jocks get covered by the mainstream media?
No. Not a word in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, or even in newspapers or TV stations in the towns where these shock jocks ply their ugly trade.
Pity. Because that silence does give these hate talkers a free pass and the ability to avoid being tried where they should be, in the court of public opinion.