Illustration by Jared Boggess
It's reached broken-record status: The media "personality" expresses an opinion (often in a paid capacity), a person or group takes offense, and the original speaker gets suspended or fired for the opinion. Of course the network or radio station is shocked — shocked! — that the person they paid to express controversial opinions actually expressed one.
Usually the next step is that the personality, with or without a public apology to the offended parties, finds a new job or returns to the old one. The cycle starts again.
The fight over Rush Limbaugh's comments about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke has taken on a new element: public pressure on advertisers. It's working, at least on businesses if not on Limbaugh himself, who was still on air as of this issue's deadline.
Complaints — simply on their own — used to be enough to get rid of a commentator, but today there are often other motives at work. Doc Thompson, the former afternoon drive-time host on WRVA, has never been shy about giving his ultra-conservative opinions both locally and while substitute-hosting Glenn Beck's radio show. Thompson was dropped from his Cincinnati station, 700WLW, in January during his honeymoon. Eight days later, he was gone from WRVA's airwaves. Both stations are owned by Clear Channel, which didn't respond to my inquiry.
Now, as it happens, Doc had linked to a story about Peanut Butter Cheerios in January on his Facebook page, a story that detailed how some people were mad about possible peanut exposure in regular Cheerios. In other words, big trouble for folks with peanut allergies. Doc commented: "Stop complaining!!! If your kid has Peanut allergies... then don't buy them!" The commenters, naturally, took it further: "I'm so over the food allergy epidemic. We need to bring back survival of the fittest," wrote one. Nice.
Ordinarily, this would be yet another ignorant Facebook discussion, if not for the timing. A 7-year-old girl had died 10 days earlier from eating a peanut at her Chesterfield school.
An email campaign started soon after, led by someone going by "Crusader for Social Justice," who decried "child exploitation" and "racist and bigoted" posts by the radio host. By early February, Doc was gone. But, according to a Cincinnati.com media columnist, WLW was interested in bringing back a former talk show host, Eddie Fingers, who had been on the Ohio city's airwaves for decades. Doc's already back on the air, this time at a CBS-owned AM station in Detroit, a much larger market. Just like Don Imus and countless others, there's always room for a pot-stirrer on the airwaves.
I don't think that a link to a story about peanut allergies is a good enough reason for firing a talk show host, especially when he is paid to inflame listeners. That's how this style of radio goes, and Rush Limbaugh (who has 15 million listeners) has proved it's a winning business. The thing that gets me worked up is the disingenuous way media outlets handle the inevitable complaints about what these talkers say. It's all about "freedom of speech" until the advertisers start to leave or the FCC gets involved, and then the stations back away from the disgraced personality. In that environment, it's hardly surprising that Doc lost his job during his honeymoon.