A Debate Challenge
By Robert Kraig, Executive Director
Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s Radio-Active campaign is an exciting new member-led project of our Organizing Cooperative of Greater Milwaukee aimed at breaking the right-wing radio monopoly. Although the campaign is not yet staffed up (we are hiring a position now) our member volunteers are already turning up a bevy of outrageous statements from the six dominant AM right-wing radio hosts in Wisconsin.
When Citizen Action volunteers recently exposed a particularly hateful statement aimed at Senator Tammy Baldwin by Milwaukee right-wing radio talker Jay Weber, his counterpart Vicki McKenna accused us of violating his free speech.
At first blush this seems bizarre, but it is actually a perfect illustration of the far-right’s distorted concept of free speech. By any reasonable perspective, critiquing bad speech is an indispensable element of free speech.
Let’s start with Jay Weber’s smear of Tammy Baldwin. In mid-May of this year, Weber was talking about the opioid prescription drug scandal at the Tomah VA Medical Center, something all the right-wing talkers are relentlessly working to blame on Senator Baldwin. On top of their usual talking points, Weber added:
This is a disgustingly bigoted statement which attacks Senator Baldwin for her sexual preference. It would be like saying an African American or Latino Senator does not care about their white constituents. Weber’s statement is so over the top that Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Dan Bice wrote a story about it (which, as you will see, becomes part of Vicki McKenna’s defense of Weber).
“This is an effort called Radio-Active. It is being funded by groups like Citizen Action of Wisconsin,. . . It is a nationwide effort as well to try to shut down speech. Because they reckon that those talk radio hosts in Milwaukee are exposing people to information we can’t control.”
You will notice immediately that the exposure of bad speech is re-framed as the “shut down” of speech. As absurd as this sounds, it is actually a major theme in the right-wing narrative. As Jane Mayer documents in her important book Dark Money, the Koch Brother funded operatives behind the Citizens United decision (which legalized unlimited secret spending to distort American elections by right-wing billionaires) decided to re-frame their arguments under the cover of “free speech” and shroud their attack on democracy in the language of the civil rights movement.
This conservative alt-reality frames right-wing radio hosts - who have unfettered monopoly control of the two dominant corporately owned AM stations in Milwaukee - as the people whose speech is being suppressed. As there are no progressive voices on the corporate airwaves in Milwaukee, what is the mechanism of this suppression? The mere exposure of their hateful statements on social media? This flies in the face of the whole tradition of free speech, which presupposes that the contest of ideas leads to better public judgments.
McKenna makes the connection herself between Jay Weber’s supposed right not to be critiqued and unlimited dark money clear:
“It’s what the John Doe was all about, shutting down conservatives speech. It’s what this radio-active campaign is all about, shutting down conservatives speech. Recognize that this is so pervasive, the assaults on our ability to have independent thoughts, speak differently from what the left is demanding of us, that it is now trying to effect your radio dial.”
McKenna here makes the direct link to the right-wing conspiracy to use unlimited money from right-wing billionaires to dominate political speech and the mass media. The John Doe investigation is of course not really about free speech as understood by the founding fathers or at any other time in American history until the last decade. It is about Scott Walker’s shredding of the campaign finance laws on the books at that time in order to direct the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars in dark money and drown out all other speech.
Even while deploying Orwellian doublespeak to create a civil rights defense of Jay Weber’s bigoted attack on Senator Baldwin, McKenna can’t help bragging about the distorting influence of the right-wing radio monopoly in Wisconsin:
“And they [Citizen Action] are looking at the outcomes of statewide elections and they are realizing that being exposed to information that is different from the spoonfed pablum the left wants to give you is having an impact on statewide elections. We actually have an impact on statewide elections. Conservative speech has an impact on statewide elections.”
This is of course the smoking gun of the damage the right-wing radio monopoly is doing to free speech. Why should only one side, the far-right, have access to the most listened to corporate radio stations operating on the public airwaves? Why should only conservative elected officials and candidates get 15 hours a day, which amounts to millions of dollars of free airtime every year? How does this advance the core concept of free speech: the open contest of ideas from all perspectives?
To strike a blow for free speech, I propose that Vicki McKenna agree to debate me on this subject on her program. If McKenna really believes in free speech, which means the free and open discussion of ideas, she will agree. My guess is she will never agree, because the right-wing vision of free speech is a monopoly where only people with big money behind them have free speech. In their view, a rigged political system where billionaires dominate, and a rigged commercial radio system where only one-point of view is heard, is freedom of speech. I hope McKenna proves me wrong and agrees to debate me on the meaning of free speech, but I doubt it. The ball is in her court.
Here the whole Vicki McKenna free speech diatribe here.