September 29, 2003, is a day that will live in radio infamy.
It was a day when two delinquents got away with a crime against conscience --- aided and abetted by a culture of government dysfunction and radio-industry corruption.
It was a day when two words sent a city back three decades.
It was also a day when, for a brief moment, I found myself forced to choose between being a realist and being a Republican. I chose poorly...
On that day, Boston Herald sports columnist Gerry Callahan and his sidekick John Dennis --- a longtime sports anchor for Boston's NBC affiliate, WHDH-TV --- were engaging in their usual mindless banter on their morning sports-radio show on the then-vibrant (and now-faltering) WEEI-AM, owned by Entercom Communications. At one point, both men began discussing the morning's news headlines. One story from the cover of that morning's Boston Herald featured the brief escape of "Little Joe," a gorilla, from the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.
Noting that the gorilla was finally located at a nearly bus stop, Callahan and Dennis said the following:
Dennis: "Yeah, yeah --- he's a METCO gorilla."
Callahan: "Heading out to Lexington."
METCO, of course, stands for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, a program founded in 1966 that allowed nonwhite children in Boston's then-segregated public schools to attend suburban schools (such as those in Lexington, Massachusetts) with better resources. The likening of nonwhite schoolchildren to gorillas led to widespread denunciation of the two hosts, but not to their exit from the program: Callahan and Dennis ultimately received a slap-on-the-wrist two-week suspension for their animalistic oratory, and soon returned to pollute Boston airwaves with far-right sports commentary.
In a brilliantly written October 2003 editorial, the Boston Phoenix explained why our public airwaves were being filled with such verbal sewage [emphasis added]:
On WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), Jay Severin, who presents himself as an intelligent alternative to Carr, nevertheless refers to illegal Latin American immigrants as "wetbacks" and Muslims as "towelheads." His ruminations on the mass and volume of Senator Hillary Clinton's posterior betray an equally degrading, dismissive attitude toward women....
Dennis and Callahan, of course, have a First Amendment right to say anything they like. But they do not have a First Amendment right to be paid to say it on the airwaves.
The larger problem here is the federal government's shameful abandonment of the public interest with regard to radio. Starting with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, most of the country's radio stations have been gobbled up by huge media conglomerates who place profits --- by any means necessary --- above the legitimate needs of the communities they purportedly serve.
Entercom, for instance, is based near Philadelphia, and owns dozens of stations in 19 cities ranging from Seattle to Buffalo, from Milwaukee to New Orleans. Does anyone really believe Entercom's top management cares what happens in Boston as long as the revenues keep rolling in?
The contamination of the public airwaves due to corporate consolidation --- corporate consolidation enabled by the action (or inaction) of the federal government --- is a public health risk Brad Friedman and Sue Wilson have tried to call attention to over the last several years. As a result of the federal government allowing predatory practices by commercial conglomerates, there has been a race to the bottom on our public airwaves, with hosts such as Callahan and Dennis being able to get away with rancid rhetoric while avoiding accountability.
Ten years ago, I was stunned to see Callahan and Dennis get off virtually scot-free. Even if both men weren't actually racist, I reasoned, they were uncommonly stupid to make the "gorilla" remark, which reminded many older Bostonians of an infamous 1974 remark from the late Boston School Committee member John J. Kerrigan, who said that the late ABC News correspondent Lem Tucker (no relation) was just "one generation removed from trees." If I were the head of Entercom, I would have ordered both men fired on the grounds of such stupidity.
Yet I kept my thoughts private, not even writing a letter to the editor about the controversy. I remained silent because I didn't want to acknowledge what this incident really suggested.
Consider the context of the controversy. In the ten years prior to the incident, Boston had been roiled by a series of legal challenges to affirmative action programs in the Boston public schools and in the Boston Police Department. The plaintiffs in these cases contended that Boston had moved beyond the bad old days of the 1970s, and that the discriminatory practices that gave rise to these affirmative action programs had been remedied.
The only discrimination that remained, according to these plaintiffs, was discrimination against whites --- and such discrimination had to be remedied via the nullification of these programs.
This was an argument I wholeheartedly agreed with, largely thanks to my avid reading of African-American Republican pundits such as Thomas Sowell, Walter E. Williams, Armstrong Williams, Ken Hamblin and Larry Elder, all of whom contended that affirmative action was more trouble than it was worth, and did nothing but stigmatize its beneficiaries while antagonizing working-class whites. (I was also strongly influenced by the late Boston talk-radio host David Brudnoy, who denounced affirmative action as nothing more than "active retribution" against whites, and lashed out at political figures who supported the policy, which in the mid-1990s meant President Clinton and his Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, future Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.)
Because I believed that the "bad old days" had in fact passed, and that the policies and programs enacted during the "bad old days" had outlived their usefulness and were no longer necessary, I was mortified by the METCO remarks of Callahan and Dennis --- but I could not say anything about those remarks. To do so would have been to acknowledge doubt about whether the "bad old days" were in fact over. To do so would have been to negate the conservative case against continuing affirmative action programs. To do so would have been to effectively betray conservatism.
This is why September 29, 2003 is a day that will live in personal infamy, because it reminds me of just how much of a coward I was as a Republican. It was that same cowardice that drove me to defend Rush Limbaugh when he trafficked in racist rhetoric. It was the same cowardice that caused me not to raise objections when Brudnoy himself seemingly downplayed the Callahan/Dennis remarks; it was inappropriate for Brudnoy to imply that the rhetoric on African-American progressive radio was just as bad as the Callahan/Dennis shtick.
As an African-American, and formerly a Republican, I know too well that it's against African-American Republican protocol to acknowledge the continued existence of "old-school" racism; to do so is to cast your lot with so-called "race hustlers" (the right's description of any African-American who isn't a Republican.) The protocol is to highlight offensiveness from Democrats and Democrats only (i.e., the African-American Republican tactic of constantly reminding people that the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia and the late Congresswoman Louise Day Hicks of Massachusetts were Democrats). I was too much of a coward to break that protocol, which is why this incident, in addition to being an example of unregulated radio at its worst, is such a poisoned political memory for this writer.
I've noted before that the emergence of "birtherism" on the right made me realize that the folks who emphasized the critical importance of diversity in education were not "politically correct do-gooders" but concerned citizens with a valid point. Of course, I should have realized this in the wake of the Dennis and Callahan incident --- or, perhaps I really did, and I just found it easier to keep my mouth shut.
That was a shameful decision, and that shame cannot be dialed back.
D.R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and a former contributor to the conservative website Human Events Online. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Boston Herald, ClimateCrocks.com, FrumForum.com, the Ripon Forum, Truth-Out.org, TheNextRight.com, and BookerRising.com. In addition, he hosted a Blog Talk Radio program, The Notes, from August 2009 to June, 2010. You can follow him on Twitter here: @DRTucker.