Culture War May Find WMD

Election '04

It seems that President Bush's "culture war" may finally succeed where Operation Iraqi Freedom did not. Namely, W and Rove's latest foray seems sure to find those long-sought-after WMDs. Weapons of Mass Destruction? No, not them. I'm talking about White Male Defectors, voters who four years ago responded favorably to Bush's no-nonsense, common man veneer, but now find themselves alienated by his increasingly expansive religious agenda and his assaults on the Bill of Rights.

The march to the culture war began last summer when the Supreme Court overturned state laws that criminalize consenting sexual relationships between same sex couples. Within months, the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy sashayed onto the scene, Britney kissed Madonna, followed by the last straw, one of Janet Jackson's bejeweled breasts appearing at the Super Bowl.

Ex post haste and as predicted by Newton's third law of the universe -- for every force there is an equal and opposite force -- the culture war offensive began. The FCC called for a "thorough and swift" probe of Janet's breast. A five-second delay for censors was instituted at the Grammys and the Oscars. President Bush made an official declaration of war by calling for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage between same sex couples. "The Passion of the Christ," one of the most violent films ever made, stormed box offices with thousands of tickets pre-sold to church congregations. And Clear Channel pulled the plug on Howard Stern.

Off the radar of all of those political pundits who listen to NPR on their morning commutes, this last strike in the culture war may prove to be the fatal misstep.

Since his ouster, Howard Stern has been on the attack, taking no prisoners, and connecting the dots between the Bush administration's far-right social agenda, the religious right, the Patriot Act, media consolidation, campaign finance, cronyism, and freedom of speech. Stern has been making a powerful case that the mainstream media is missing the big picture, that Clear Channel cut him loose not because of vulgarity, but because of a shift in his political views. Far more than a question about decency standards, Stern argues, this is a question about the censorship of political speech. And if Stern is right, then nothing short of the First Amendment is at stake, and arguments about the dangers of media consolidation are no longer hypothetical.

Love Howard Stern or hate him, the show that supposedly caused Clear Channel to pull the plug was no more outrageous or offensive than any other Stern show, and no different from the Howard Stern show that Clear Channel had aired for years. Further, if the issue is truly one of decency, then why would Clear Channel have recently signed a contract with Michael Savage, whom MSNBC fired for calling a viewer a "sodomite" and telling him to "get AIDS and die?"

What changed about Howard Stern's show? In Stern's own words, "There's a lot of people saying that the second that I started saying, 'I think we gotta get Bush out of the presidency,' that's when Clear Channel banged my ass out of here." Stern, previously cited by Fox News as a "pro-Bush celeb," had experienced a political change of heart. On February 23, Stern returned from a week's vacation and spoke about how Al Franken's book had changed his views, saying, "I'm one of those 'Anybody but Bush' guys now." On February 25, just two days after Stern became critical of President Bush, Clear Channel suspended him.

This isn't the first time Clear Channel, the world's biggest radio empire, has been accused of censoring or censuring entertainers for expressing views that conflicted with those of the Bush Administration. Conservative radio host Charles Goyette, who criticized President Bush on his show, claims he was punitively moved to a graveyard shift by the radio megalith. Disc jockey Roxanne Walker is suing Clear Channel for allegedly firing her for disagreeing with the President's policies in Iraq.

Clear Channel now controls more than 1,200 radio stations across America and 70% of live music venues in the country. Lowry Mays, Clear Channel's founder, has been a generous and longtime supporter of the GOP and President Bush, donating tens of thousands of dollars. The media giant's vice-chair Thomas Hicks bought the Texas Rangers from President Bush and his partners for $250 million, three times the original price paid. Bush's cut was $14.9 million, almost 25 times his original investment. Hicks' law firm has contributed nearly $250,000 to Bush's political campaigns.

Stern was the ideal sacrificial lamb for Clear Channel. In one fell swoop they could give the appearance to the FCC, investors and the public that they were cleaning up their act, while demonstrating their loyalty to the Bush Administration. However, at the same time they may have also inadvertently given rise to the opposition radio network that the left has for so long coveted, albeit of a shape and scale that the left never imagined. In contrast to a "liberal radio network" that would most likely preach to the already converted, the Howard Stern network is massive, loyal and composed of exactly those swing voters that both parties woo. What's more, Stern reaches millions of these voters in key election states including Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee.

For his part, Stern isn't going down without a fight. He remains the most popular radio host in the nation and the week after the Clear Channel incident "Howard Stern" was the most frequently searched term on Google. With an estimated 15 - 20 million devoted listeners, Stern knows that his audience can make the difference in a tight election, as they did in the elections of both former Governor Christie Todd Whitman and Governor George Pataki.

Ever since the Clear Channel incident, Howard has been blasting Bush and urging his listeners to, "take back the country," to "remember this show when you are in the voting booth," and to "vote George W. Bush out of office." While his sideshow act of strippers and dwarves still gets airtime, in the course of a week, Howard Stern has become the number one voice of political dissent in America. With Stern's daily political commentary and his influence over swing voters -- those critical white male defectors -- President Bush may find that his undoing in the culture war, just as in the war in Iraq, may be WMDs.

Laurie P. Spivak manages a UCLA research center, is a Fulbright scholar, and is writing the forthcoming book 'Counter-movement.'

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