The Ignoble Savage
Shock radio and TV jock Michael Savage, who since March has had a talk show called "Savage Nation" on MSNBC, regularly calls homosexuals "perverts;" women "whores;" Asians "little soy-eaters;" progressives "filthy slime;" and immigrants or people of color natives of "sacred Turd World nations."
So it doesn't seem like Savage would be one to complain about a lack of freedom of speech.
But suppression of Savage's freedom of speech is one of the allegations made in a lawsuit filed against four individuals and one company that run three separate Web sites. Savage claims the sites criticized or parodied him and supported boycotts of sponsors of his programs that had been called for by another organization not named in the suit.
Specifically, Talk Radio Network Inc. (TRN), an Oregon-based company that syndicates Savage's hate-filled right-wing talk show, "The Michael Savage Show," to 305 radio stations around the country, is suing Julie Sigwart, co-founder of the Web site TakeBacktheMedia.com (TBTM); Thomas and Gunilla Leavitt and Leavitt Enterprises, who produce www.savagestupidity.com; and unknown individual "John Doe," who produces www.michaelsavagesucks.com.
The suit charges that by endorsing a boycott of advertisers called for by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the groups are causing Savage financial damage by unjustifiably interfering in his business relationships with program advertisers, specifically by causing Illinois-based Culligan International Company, which makes water filters, to pull its sponsorship from the show.
The suit also charges the defendants with violating the US Copyright Act by rebroadcasting his shows without permission and illegally trading off "The Michael Savage Show" likeness and image to sell merchandise; among other things, the suit describes one of the sites displaying a retouched photo of Savage wearing a KKK hood. The suit also charges the defendants with spreading "false and malicious" information about Savage.
The suit, which was filed May 12 in district court in Illinois, asks for injunctive relief and at least $500,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.
Suppression of Dissent
While TRN is claiming Savage is the victim of efforts to suppress his free speech, ironically the defendants themselves see the suit as a chilling attack on their free speech, especially in an era of increasing media conglomeration in which independent media voices like theirs are ever more marginalized.
"They're trying to chill free speech and freedom of expression," said Julie Sigwart. "They're trying to ruin my life to punish me for speaking out. And I think these kind of lawsuits will become more and more common with the consolidation of the media."
"The right wing isn't satisfied with their overwhelming dominance of the corporate media in this country," added Thomas Leavitt. "They now want to systematically suppress all dissent, in all media, because they know that only one thing will defeat them: the truth. And that is all my site is about -- the truth about Savage, about what he has said and continues to say on the air and elsewhere -- statements that place him far, far outside the mainstream of American opinion."
Sigwart, who founded TBTM along with her husband Michael Stinson, aka "Symbolman," and Don Waller, aka "The American Stranger," points out that Savage has actually made it a point to threaten his critics with lawsuits and other harassment. On his radio show he called the defendants, GLAAD and other critics of his show "stinking rats" who "hide in sewers."
Savage said: "You live by handouts, all of you. You live off grants, all of you. You're a bunch of beggars... If you continue this, we're going to go after your funding sources. And we will do everything we can within the legal realm to cut off that funding. We are also going to go to the Justice Department under John Ashcroft."
The defendants say that the lawsuit doesn't make sense on a logical level for several reasons -- it names Sigwart individually, even though TBTM is a corporation and anything on the site is put there in the name of the corporation. The TBTM item in question is no longer on the site and was only there for a brief time to begin with.
"We took it off because we didn't think it was newsworthy anymore; Michael Savage is nothing to us," said Stinson.
Leavitt says that rather than defaming Savage, as he is accused of doing, he is merely quoting him. "He's the one that is defaming himself, and he's the one responsible for losing his own advertisers," he said.
Savage is also trying to seize the domain name of savagestupidity.com and michaelsavagesucks.com, with a complaint filed with the National Arbitration Forum claiming that they are "confusingly similar" to his site, michaelsavage.com.
"The argument that I've somehow violated his trademark, which he hasn't even yet succeeded in registering, by replacing 'Michael' with 'stupidity' is absurd," Leavitt said.
Stinson also points out that while the suit charges violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act in relation to the loss of Culligan's sponsorship, it doesn't name GLAAD, the actual organization that called for boycotts of Savage sponsors. GLAAD did indeed persuade all six advertisers including Procter & Gamble, Dell Computer Corporation, Casual Male, The Sharper Image and two others to withdraw from sponsoring Savage's slot in MSNBC. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have also run campaigns trying to get MSNBC to reconsider giving Savage a show.
"He's always calling people pussies, but in my book he's the pussy," said Stinson. "He had to get a lawyer to come and serve papers to my wife. And he didn't even name GLAAD [in the suit] because I think he's afraid of them. He only wanted to go after the little guys."
"Bullying is a typical tactic that these right-wingers use," added Sigwart.
Leavitt also points out that calling for boycotts of advertisers is perfectly legal. "It's economic warfare, all legal and above-board," he said. "Eliminate so many of Savage's sponsors that his syndicate drops him, MSNBC drops him and hopefully his station drops him."
In early June the public interest law firm Public Citizen agreed to provide legal representation for the Leavitts. Though the suit has put considerable emotional and financial stress on the defendants, Stinson doesn't expect Savage to win and basically sees the lawsuit as a blatant publicity stunt.
"I've been looking at the different ratings Web sites and I think there are probably more people clipping their toenails at any given time than listening to this guy," said Stinson. "This guy needs PR, so he goes out and picks on someone."
If it's publicity that Savage wants, his critics say his strategy may be backfiring. TBTM has received 31 million hits on its site since its inception in January 2003; recently, all its visitors have been made well aware of the Savage controversy. Shortly after the suit was filed Stinson contacted what he describes as the "13 original Cyber-Colonies" of online progressive media, including AlterNet, asking them to publicize the case. The sites Buzzflash.com and Bartcop among others also have extensive coverage of the issue.
"These guys are going to be pulling the progressives together," said Stinson. "We really are the majority, and we're not going to take it anymore."
Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.