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Radio talk shows can be an occasion of sin.

A Dentist whom I have visited over the years is, to the best of my knowledge, a genuinely kind and gentleman - and a relatively painless dentist. So it came as a surprise that, in recent years, while he is probing his patients' mouths or preparing the necessary potions on the adjacent sideboard, from a small radio on the latter come the oleaginous tones of Rush Limbaugh.

Known to his devotees (his so-called ditto heads) simply as "Rush," Limbaugh spews the kind of vitriol that belies his dulcet voice. Faithful listeners and viewers of his programs are able to list innumerable "lows" during these broadcasts but one in which he chose Chelsea Clinton as his target may have been the lowest of low. Displaying a photo of President and Mrs. Clinton's teenage daughter, Limbaugh smarmed, "Everyone knows that there's a cat in the White House, but did you know there's also a dog?" Columnist Gary Wills called this one of the cruelest remarks ever made by a public figure - and can anyone disagree with him?

But, ironically, while Limbaugh is the best known of the political talk-show hosts, he is by no means the most dangerous. There is, for example, the notorious G. Gordon Liddy, a true sociopath, who justifiably served a prison sentence for his disgraceful part in the Watergate scandal. Liddy, who at the time of the latter loved to show how macho he was by holding a lighted match to the bare palm of his hand, has his own radio talk show. On it, he advised any listeners who were visited by law-enforcement officers to respond by shooting at the officers' heads. "They usually wear bulletproof vests," he cautioned. Liddy also boasted that he uses cardboard cutouts of President and Mrs. Clinton "for target practice."

What most Americans didn't know, at least until recently (I include myself), is that Limbaugh and Liddy are only the tip of a huge mountain of radio talk shows. Many of these are generated by local, often small, radio stations whose managers have learned that they produce higher listener ratings than, say, easy-listening music or even golden oldies. Some of these are syndicated, prepackaged cassettes so that a program aired in Wisconsin may feature call-in contributions from people in Idaho.

The call ins often comprise the most insidious aspect of these programs. Ostensibly exemplifying the glories of free speech, more often than not the callers a applaud the inflammatory hip shooting of the hosts or even "go them one better." Incredibly irresponsible comments by callers are usually unchallenged. Even the wildest, unsubstantiated charges are unlikely to receive even a "tut, tut" in response.

A man calling from a bar somewhere is allowed to say "authoritatively" that the horrible bombing in Oklahoma City was orchestrated by the federal government. Another is permitted to claim that "he knows for a fact" that United Nations troops are training in the U.S. to take away "our guns" or that mercenaries from China will soon be arriving on the West Coast for God knows what nefarious undertaking.

In addition to the many licensed radio stations spewing this kind of garbage, there is a plethora of shortwave stations needing little if any regulation. Many talk-show programs on licensed stations, in fact, offer their listeners shortwave receivers at rock-bottom prices or even as bonuses. Shortwave radio transmissions enable Limbaugh or Liddy wannabes to babble from their living rooms without restraint.

We Americans are justifiably proud of our constitutionally protected right of free speech - and I doubt that any of us wish to impinge on that right even when some are mocking that great document. That's our legal right, but what about our morality?

Are we free to lie either knowingly or through carelessness? Do we have the right to shred the personal character of public figures in matters that have nothing to do with their discharge of public duties? Or to viciously ridicule a child who is a public figure only by association? It is bad enough to cut someone up across a coffee-shop table or in a conversation around a watercooler, but how egregious it is to do that in a public forum.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this subject boldly: "The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown."

Quite clearly then, this passivity can become for us an occasion of sin, a torpor that, on the one hand, allows us to swallow, unquestionably, the calumny or detraction (a sin against the Eighth Commandment) that spills from the airwaves or, on the other, to complacently fail to protest against it.

Much of what is vomited on talk radio is so preposterous as to be laughable were it not so potentially dangerous and such an occasion of sin - sins of lying, of calumny, or, even mildly, of detraction. And don't we listeners mock our obligation in charity and, God save us, to love our neighbors as ourselves if we allow ourselves to be sucked into the creepy, crawly world of so much of political talk radio?


Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

1. I listen to radio talk shows: 23% on a fairly regular basis. 22% once in a while. 24% very rarely. 24% never 7% other

2. The best way to deal with radio talk shows is to just turn them off. 61% agree 20% disagree 19% other

3. I listen to radio talk shows for pure entertainment value. 26% agree 37% disagree 37% other

4. Most radio talk-show hosts are irresponsible about responses and encourage the outrageous. 55% agree 28% disagree 17% other

5. The only goal of mos radio talk shows is higher ratings 67% agree 25% disagree 8% other

6. Radio talk shows prey on people's fears by providing quick and easy answers to difficult societal problems. 62% agree 25% disagree 13% other

7. I have called in to radio talk shows to: 2% complain. 12% express my opinion. 81% I've never called in. 5% other

8. Catholics cannot claim to love their neighbors as themselves if they willingly listen to talk shows that smear reputations. 63% agree 28% disagree 9% other

9. I listen to the following types of talk-radio shows: 23% political (national) 21% political/news (local) 6% sports 14% music 16% social/cultural 11% none 9% other

10. Radio talk shows should be more strictly regulated. 48% agree 41% disagree 11% other

11. Many radio talk shows encourage people to bear false witness. 55% agree 31% disagree 14% other

12. I find many radio talk shows to be informative and pertinent. 38% agree 44% disagree 18% other

13. Irresponsible broadcasters and callers should be held accountable for the content of their broadcasted comments. 88% agree 7% disagree 5% other

14. Along with Michael Mack, I think that listening to radio talk shows can be an occasion of sin. 59% agree 28% disagree 13% other

The best way to deal with

iresponsible radio talk shows is:

Engage the speakers in honest dialogue. Just because one dislikes what is said ought not eliminate the process of free speech. The truth wins in the end anyway. The public is not so unsophisticated as to miss the posturing and entertainment focus of these talking heads. Father Brendan McNulty Cleveland, Ohio

Let them die a natural death. Irresponsible talk shows will eventually lose listeners to more credible sources, leading to a loss of sponsorship D. Dunnigan El Dorado Hills, Calif.

Don't call in. Voice your opposition through other media, such as letters to the editor of newspapers and through letters to the station management. Especially helpful are letters to sponsors of the programs strongly stating your dissatisfaction with the station's irresponsibility but not with their right to express opinions. Susan Danner Montrose, Colo.

Don't turn them on, or if you do, jot down some of the opinions and check them with reliable sources. Then inform others whenever possible - discuss the issues with others. A. N. Parr Fort Worth, Tex.

In the public and political world, give celebrities and elected officials equal time, immediately after the show. T.C. Monturo Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Protest to advertisers by mail Name withheld Kenilworth, N.J.

Let the host, producer, and the owner of the station know that you will not purchase advertised products. Further, you will encourage others not to buy those products. Let sponsors know the same information and why. Brenda Goshe Fostoria, Ohio

The potential danger in radio

talk shows is:

If the material is not well researched or controlled, the opinion of the host can be the final word. Listeners have the responsibility to be correctly informed, so that they can act, not react. Cheryl M. Smith Baltimore, Md.

That they take advantage of the angry, misinformed, and emotionally unstable in American society, and they provide simplistic answers to complex problems. Name withheld Lafayette, La.

That peoples' reputations are tarnished, and that we succumb to the temptation to relish hearing about others' weaknesses. Geraldine B. Knoll Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

I see no danger in people exercising their freedom of speech. Talk radio, as far as I can see, reflects the passions of common, middle-class men and women. Whether we like it or not, it is a barometer of how people feel. Chris Wasmer Buena Park, Calif.

Listeners are often misinformed, subjected to trashy language, and find themselves taking part (even if passively) in unchristian activities. Name withheld Beaumont, Tex.

Misinformation, prejudice, and distortion. Father Steve Bulfer Mariposa, Calif.

They tend to inflame irrational and bigoted people and give them a sense of community. Name withheld Asheville, N.C.

Gullible listeners. Father James F. Kelly McGill, Nev.

A steady diet can numb your brain and conscience and almost brainwash your thoughts, morals, and ideals. Terry Sutphin Wytteville, Va.

They can spread lies and ruin reputations quickly. Free speech has its place, but so do disclaimers. Audiences should know talk shows are opinion based, not fact based. Lynann Morris Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The oversimplification and sensationalism of serious, often multifaceted issues since often only those with extreme views choose to call in. Ann Dehorn Carbondale, Ill.

One good thing about radio

talk shows is:

They stimulate and exercise an intelligent person's mind and can sometimes open the eyes of previously misled people. James C. Jarrett Indianapolis, Ind.

They stir up interest in public issues. The good talk shows can shed light on social and public concerns. Dennis Cherry Fairfax, Va.

They can provide practical information, such as cooking, sewing, household repairs, and use of computers. Theodore W. Sarge Midland, Mich.

They can make people think about critical issues and problems in our society - and decide where they stand on an issue. Name withheld Bloomington, Ill.

They can be company for the lonely. V. Dreier North Charleroi, Pa.

Freedom of speech, and if it's a good topic and there are intelligent people on the program, you can learn a lot. There are some good health programs on today. Julie Ficcardi Lakewood, Ohio

The diversity of opinions they allow - the general public cannot use TV or newspapers like a forum. Name withheld Edwardsville, Ill.

The opportunity for lively public debate and discourse. Patricia Bukowski Newtown, Pa.

If the host is willing to intervene and challenge guests and callers when they become unreasonable and irresponsible, a radio talk show can be a forum for reasoned discussion of pertinent issues. James C. Gorman Boston, Mass.

They can be informative, entertaining, and provide information to blind or sight-impaired individuals. June Vanderryst Plano, Tex.

Radio talk-show hosts should

set the following standards for the

content of their programs:

Opposing viewpoints or equal time (on another program). Opportunity for call-in rebuttal if that is the format. Reasonable expectations of decent language. Some sort of venue for listeners to publicly register complaints or critiques concerning irresponsible hosting. Jeanette Rae Klima-Buchko Lansing, Mich.

Unbiased and informative help to bring out various views and examine them in the light of facts so listeners get a well-rounded view. Terry Trinko Lawrenceville, Ga.

Accuracy. And not damage peoples' reputations for shock value. Joyce Ryberg Carroll, Iowa

Integrity, politeness, and a variety of interest. Alice A. Beck Mission Hills, Calif.

Require more responsibility for confirmation of stories or calls. Opportunity for notification and a chance for reply or debate instead of innuendo and unproven or unsubstantiated stories. Orivlle Iwen Amenia, N.D.

Treat callers as trusted friends - stress the positive. Remember that final settling points on an issue may never surface, but negative points linger on long after the show is over in the minds of listeners. Jean Andersen Kettering, Ohio

Be morally responsible for the truth. Have hosts who have a conscience and know the difference between right and wrong. Aim for the betterment of people and the nation and not dwell on sensationalism. Sister Marian Bauer Marathon, Wis.

Avoid inciting acts of violence as a means of dealing with problems. Titus Trube Warner Robins, Ga.

No rumors. Some opinions. Lots of facts. Santo L. Aramini Parish, N.Y.

Ethics and logic would be a great start. Thomas J. Cooke Tampa, Fla.

Treat their listeners as intelligent people who are capable of sorting out good taste from sleaze. Don't make fun of call-in listeners who differ from the host. Name withheld Rome, N.Y.

I don't think that the problem is lack of standards. I think that the problem is not having a more positive way to deal with the real fears and discomforts of our changing world. Giovonnae Anderson Santa Rosa, Calif.

Encourage more thoughtful positive comments on current affairs. Search for solutions rather than concentrating on the negative. Avoid unproven slanderous statements. Discourage hateful comments. Lucy M. Boschert Alton, Ill.

General comments

Talk shows are a symptom of the disease, not the cause. We have to look elsewhere to change the morality of our society. Shutting down Rush and Liddy won't change a thing. Mike Kerns Urbana, Ill.

I believe that talk radio provides a valuable service with regard to public debate. It gives many people who feel disenfranchised the chance to express their views. As Christians, we should not run around hysterical because we believe the truth will set us free. Jack Bamberger Littleton, Colo.

Because of my rural location I only have talk radio available occasionally. Some I find unreasonable and don't continue to listen; others I find informative and provocative, with viewpoints that talk radio previously considered. I believe that talk radio is useful because establishment media provides such a limited, conservative view Roger Kenney Warne, N.C.

My husband and I have observed with increasing dismay the spreading popular approval of Rush Limbaugh. His dismissive and often cruel remarks give sanction to supporters, many of whom proudly call themselves Christian, to vent their own secret prejudices and disdain of Americans who differ in creed, political views, and cultural background. Beatrice Hettlinger Mentor, Ohio

Radios are available to all ages and classes. They can accompany people anywhere. Radio talk-show hosts could choose to inform and educate. Sadly the majority cater to the lowest common denominator and in the process contribute to the lessening of our social and moral standards. Judy D. Donitzer Leland, Ill.

Religious groups, including Catholics, should, where possible, have a station where people can call in to ask questions or express their views on a national basis. Chuknuka E. Onuorah Lexington, Ky.

I seldom listen to any talk radio more threatening than WGN-AM [Chicago]. However, I have watched Limbaugh on TV and found myself talking back to him, particularly when he, a much divorced and remarried man without children, expounded on the values of married and parental life. Somehow that smacks of talking out of both sides of one's mouth. Name withheld Chicago, Ill.

The most difficult to understand aspect of the talk-show phenomenon is the large number of Catholics who see no contradiction between the crude, hate-filled stuff and their obligation to love. In their minds Rush is prolife; millions watch him; he has glib answers - so he must be great. If you don't agree, it's just your liberal bias. Name withheld Chicago, Ill.

Talk shows can be very beneficial if we pick and choose carefully. I have learned a great deal by listening to Michael Jackson (KABC, Los Angeles). He attracts excellent guests and is open to callers who disagree with him. He covers a wide range of topics. Sister Rita Angeman Northridge, Calif.

I believe that public airwaves should produce programs for the edification, joy, instruction, and common good of the listeners. The devil also uses the airwaves for his purposes. Name withheld Nederland, Tex.

One good thing about radio talk shows is that they show us how far we have strayed from clear, energetic, positive, and direct confrontation of our problems. Provocative radio talk shows at best reveal our laziness, our cowardliness, our cruelty, and our love of sleazy sensationalism. They show us as we really are - much less Christlike than we say we are. Anne Dolloff Arvada, Colo.

All mass media need to be responsible, but the responsibility starts with the viewers. If people are listening and paying for garbage, the corporations, large and small, will continue to give it. We need to show our next generation by example, as Jesus was to his followers. Linda A. Ramirez Helena, Mont.

(All comments used in Feedback must be signed, but we will withhold names on request. We regret that space limitations force us to condense letters and that many letters cannot be used at all. We try to reflect major opinion trends accurately. Our thanks to all who wrote. - The Editors)
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Author:Mack, Michael
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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