Another 9/11 Media Scapegoat?
When author Susan Sontag and television talk show host Bill Maher disagreed with President Bush's assessment of the September 11th attackers as "cowards," they were chastised. Two columnists were fired from their papers for criticizing the president, and several newspapers pulled a political comic strip that noted Washington had trained Osama bin Laden. So when radio personality David "Davey D" Cook was fired after leading a heated anti-war debate on his program, San Francisco listeners were outraged. Was Cook the latest casualty of growing intolerance to independent views?
In early October, media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications fired Cook from its California affiliate KMEL, ostensibly due to budget cuts. The company -- which caused a furor for distributing a list to stations of songs it suggested not be played after September 11 -- dismissed Cook soon after he aired an interview with Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Lee was the only member of Congress to oppose authorizing Bush with sweeping war powers against terrorists.
Cook, 36, also invited a range of studio guests from the Muslim community on the show with Lee.
"That show was probably ... the first time people had heard individuals with other perspectives," said Cook, a community activist and hip-hop expert who had been working at KMEL for 11 years.
Cook later distributed the text of Lee's speech via e-mail to more than 100,000 people on a listserv, which he'd compiled over seven years from his two Web sites, Rapstation.com and Daveyd.com.
The following week on the radio, Cook led a debate on African American patriotism and the meaning of the American flag. Listeners, who were predominantly black, had reacted angrily when KMEL gave away scores of flags after the tragedies. Some perceived the flag waving as pro-war sentiment.
"That's where it became really heated and knock down, drag'em out," Cook said. "There were people that were very adamant and very critical of the station for giving out flags," he said.
"There are some people that have grabbed the flag because it gives them a sense of comfort now, because they actually belong to a group at a time when everybody's scared and feeling uncertain," said Cook. "Others still feel that the flag is something that symbolizes oppression. Others just see it as a fad."
A number of hip-hop songs have denigrated the flag, and performers have set the flag on fire in well-known music videos.
"That was really the debate -- the debate for the black community wasn't Barbara Lee, it was what the flag meant to them," Cook said.
It wasn't the first heated discussion to take place on the program. Cook regularly invited prominent figures such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Hillary Clinton, as well as black Republicans like Oakland NAACP leader Shannon Reeves.
This may not have pleased Clear Channel Chairman and CEO Lowry Mays, a major contributor to the Republican party.
A week later, Cook was fired. KMEL General Manager Joe Cunningham said Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 radio stations, simply needed to cut costs.
"David Cook's termination had absolutely nothing to do with anything said or done on the air nor is it some corporate attempt to hide behind a false excuse," said Cunningham. "Decisions were made strictly about business and finances and not politics. "
Even if it did have to do with politics, the station was not obligated to keep someone whose opinions it disagreed with, said Tom Rosenstiel of the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.
"I don't think you necessarily have to build your programming day around somebody who believes in something that you fundamentally don't believe in," he said.
In addition to Cook, nine other employees were fired, according to Cunningham. None were as high profile as Cook, and none of the other dismissals raised the hullabaloo that Cook's did.
Hip-hop listeners in the San Francisco Bay Area were angered. Some began a letter writing campaign to the station and to local newspapers, others gathered in community meetings, some called for protests against the station. Cook's dismissal was covered in a host of newspapers including the Oakland Tribune, The San Francisco Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Davey D is a local institution," said Chauncey Bailey, who covered Cook's dismissal for the Tribune, and who also is news director for Oakland's KFBT-TV. "There have not been a lot of forums for people to speak out against the war effort. Davey D provided that with his program."
Bailey noted that Cook's programs clashed with the station's fervent patriotism and that a group of "very patriotic" disc jockeys remain at KMEL fueled listeners' suspicions about Cook's termination.
"The problem is perception drives reality, and if people perceive that this is a response to his activism then that's how people are going to perceive it, whether it's the truth or not," Bailey said.
Neva Chonin, a pop music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, said that, in tough economic times, programs like Cook's are the first to go.
"I just think that in this day and age, where we are in a recession and everybody is looking at the bottom line, socially-conscious programming doesn't rake in the bucks," Chonin said. "Bigger, louder, faster is the operating paradigm and thoughtful analysis of the cultural landscape is just not a big money maker."
Chonin, who recently wrote an opinion piece in the Chronicle about Cook, said she doubted Clear Channel was in dire financial straights. In 2000, the company's net income was $248.8 million.
"I think they are still very lucrative. Radio stations have to turn a profit and I think they're just getting rid of anything that they consider superfluous and superfluous would be something that doesn't draw advertisers to it."
Certainly Clear Channel is known for draconian cost-cutting measures, according to a Salon.com investigation. The article, part of a series on the media conglomerate, also states that Mays, of Texas, is a friend of former President Bush.
"Right now knee-jerk patriotism is very popular and it's a sure-fire way to make people happy and make them want to listen to your radio station," said Chonin. "Questioning what patriotism means and what this war in Afghanistan means is not something that's going to be popular with the people who want to wave their flags and talk about nuking Osama bin Laden."
Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com.