Hot Air: Pleading the First

Originally published in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, this five part series examines the shock jock phenomenon… Colorado-style

Shortly after the Imus firing, Clear Channel management in Denver hauled in its talk show hosts to discuss the “shifting standards of decency” and to remind them to exercise caution on the air in an environment of close monitoring by media watchdogs and bloggers.

Those are the kind of internal conversations Bill Menezes, editorial director of Colorado Media Matters, would like to hear more of. Despite right-wing accusations that the liberal illuminati is working to shut down conservative talk radio, Colorado Media Matters has more high-minded aims: to hold the media accountable for falsehoods, distortions and misstatements made on the public airwaves and in print.

With a small staff of local researchers based in Denver, the group monitors news reports and commentary across the state. It then identifies, analyzes and corrects misinformation that fails to meet tests of accuracy, reliability or credibility, or that serves only to advance conservative agendas.

Denver-based 630 KHOW-AM’s Peter Boyles is a frequent reprobate by Colorado Media Matters standards.

“He’s one of the most egregious offenders in the state, if not this part of the country,” Menezes says. “He might read the results of a poll about people’s attitudes on immigration reform and basically twist the questions and the responses to fit his point of view. We also look for extreme commentary unsubstantiated by fact. Or extreme commentary that people have rejected as irresponsible or improper.”

One example is Terry Anderson, a fellow shock jock from Los Angeles and frequent guest on Boyles’ show. He let loose a real humdinger recently, arguing that he was misquoted when a caller accused him of saying that “Latinos breed like flies.” Anderson claimed that he actually compared Latino birthrates to chickens and rats, not flies. Listen to the audio file.

“Why is this considered an acceptable way to conduct discourse about important public issues using the public airwaves?” Menezes asks. “The American public decided a long time ago that suggesting persecution of a group of people based solely on their ethnicity or religion are not acceptable principles in American culture. As a matter of fact, it’s unconstitutional.”

Whether an incident is simply a host trying to get a rise out the audience or a pattern of offensive speech, Colorado Media Matters uses its website and email alerts to build awareness about questionable yakking, then calls for public dialogue.

That’s exactly what they did when a local Imus-like situation recently came up. Strongly worded statements by civil rights groups and concerted petitioning by first exposed by Colorado Media Matters. To date, at least three advertisers have requested that their commercials be removed from the program. Listen to the audio file.

In addition to public awareness, Media Matters also reaches out to hosts and station managers, asking questions like: “Why do you consider this acceptable? Why are you using racial and ethnic slurs and falsehoods to promote your points of view?” Conservative radio stations have been virtually unresponsive to the group.

“You can embrace the First Amendment without abusing it,” Menezes says.

Read the companion chapters of the “Hot Air” series here. Tune in on Wednesday, when we learn the history behind the hackneyed phrase “fair and balanced.”