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The Hate Goes On

Michael Savage's departure from MSNBC is unlikely to dent his popularity or the power of hate radio.
 
 
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The bile is dead. Long live the bile.

Michael Savage's abrupt departure from television, like his entry into it, has drawn attention all out of proportion to its importance. Last weekend, Savage's once-weekly cable talk show was cancelled by MSNBC due to an angry exchange with a gay caller. Savage, returning an insult, suggested that the caller die of AIDS. As a result, according to a network spokesman, "The decision to cancel the program was not difficult."

Neither was MSNBC's decision to launch Savage's program last March. It did so knowing full well that Savage's history -- indeed, his media raison d'etre -- was this sort of bile. For adding a single program stuck in the ghetto of weekend daytime, MSNBC got reams of free publicity for its shift to more conservative political fare. Progressive groups from GLAAD to NOW helped out, launching advertiser boycott campaigns that caused two major advertisers, Kraft and Proctor & Gamble, to pull out -- but that probably netted the cable network far more in additional free press. Struggling networks love well-publicized boycotts of controversial programs.

Progressive activists are now claiming victory over Savage's firing, proclaiming that it stands as proof that even the most vile media hatemongers cannot cross certain lines, and that when they do -- as Savage does regularly -- they can be held accountable. But everyone else is happy, too. MSNBC got publicity and credibility among the true believers for its new righter-than-Fox format. And Savage -- whose audience in other media is enormous -- stands confirmed in his bigotries. He will continue to do just fine, thank you.

The talk host issued what must rank as one of the more absurd, and insincere, apologies of all time on Monday. "If my comments brought pain to anyone, I certainly did not intend for this to happen," he said, asking for his "many listeners in the gay community to accept my apologies for any inadvertent insults which may have occurred."

May have occurred? Run the tape, please. Inadvertent? Sorry, when I told you to go die of a horrible disease I meant it as the highest compliment; it just came out wrong.

Savage didn't intend to cause pain -- just titillate his viewers and listeners. And if that audience includes "many" gays, they must surely be of the self-loathing type.

Those fans, tuning in this week on the hundreds of radio stations in every major American city and most smaller ones, are doubtless being treated to Savage's account of his MSNBC demise as filtered through his usual blistering rants on PCness: sodomites controlling the world, and so forth. His cancellation is just more fodder for a guy who rose to media prominence on a local San Francisco AM radio station due to his willingness to stand out for the sheer poisonousness of his anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-minority, anti-immigrant bile. MSNBC knew exactly what it was getting.

Savage still has his radio base, of course; most of the stations that air him do so as part of a day-long, nationally syndicated hate echo chamber alongside Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Dr. Laura, and a handful of others. All of them are relentlessly promoted across multiple media formats. Savage, at the moment, also has a briskly selling book, "The Savage Nation," that packages more of his dubious wisdom.

The problem, ultimately, with figures like Savage isn't that they encourage listeners to hate one or another constituency. It's that they use myths, exaggerations, unrepresentative anecdotes, and tortured logic to stake out extreme political and cultural positions; encourage listeners to identify, as a "community" of their own, with this fantasy club; and then encourage the audience to hate anyone who's not a member of the club.

This is how a figure like Limbaugh or Hannity, at the very center of power of a political party that now controls the White House, both houses of Congress, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures, can still posture either as an outsider or a triumphant bully as needed. Savage, by pushing the envelope, encourages the outsider tendencies even though he himself is wealthy, powerful, and an industry unto himself.

This media phenomenon has been essential in allowing the Bush Administration to set new standards in telling bald-faced lies, confident of its ability to have them endlessly repeated and their critics insulted into silence or insignificance. It also ensures that any genuine public policy debate on any topic can be drowned out in the familiar language of screamed insults followed immediately by a commercial break.

Michael Savage has a loyal audience that is his as long as he wants it, or until he becomes eclipsed by the next hate radio phenom who pushes the envelope still farther. The format itself isn't going away until the audience gets bored or dies off -- neither of which is likely. Media conglomerates see loyal audiences and the profits they bring, and they're under no obligation to care about ancient FCC notions like public service or the Fairness Doctrine. They'll keep hiring Savage and his fellow travelers. Eventually, some outlets will instead embrace alternative figures like Michael Moore, for the same reason -- large numbers of loyal fans who respond to humor, outrage, and appeals to emotion.

In the end, progressives are best off trying to counter-program rather than censor. With figures like Savage, the problem is not one or another talking head, media programmer, or corporate advertiser, but the lack of accountability inherent in corporate media. And ultimately, the "problem" is the audience for such programs -- a segment of America that seemingly prefers to define itself by sneering at everyone else. So long as people hate, until they hear something they like better, Michael Savage will always have a job.

Geov Parrish is a WorkingForChange columnist.