Racism in the US: How Racist Do You Have to Be Before the New York Times Calls You a Racist?


By Peter Hart

What would you call someone who routinely referred to black people as “savages,” and declared that, as a white person, New York’s nonwhite majority was a “bad thing”? Someone who wondered why it was taking basketball star Magic Johnson “so long for the HIV to go into full-blown AIDS,” and who thought a proper response to a gay rights parade would be “to have a few phalanxes of policemen with machine guns and mow them down”? Someone who used his perch on the public airwaves to promote white supremacist organizations?

A bigot and a racist, one might think.

But read the New York Times obituary (1/3/13) for right-wing talk radio icon Bob, and you get a different sense. Grant, in the Times‘ lead, had a “testy, confrontational manner.” The headline called him “combative.” The paper explains that “Mr. Grant thrived on the radio despite being boycotted for racist remarks.”

It’s not that the Times is unaware of Grant’s record–the piece includes some of the most offensive comments Grant ever uttered.

But the way the paper characterized the comments was certainly odd. The paper notes  that “his arch disdain for liberals, prominent black people, welfare recipients, feminists, gay people and anyone who disagreed with him was familiar to his listeners.” (“Arch disdain” is an interesting way to characterize someone who thought, among other things, that welfare recipients should be sterilized.) The Times even noted that famous white racist David Duke was a “frequent guest on his show in the 1970s.”

The paper added:

He also became less constrained in talking about race.

“You can talk all you want about ‘minorities’ rights,’ but heaven forbid you talk about white rights,” he said on WABC in 1989. “I see a very bleak future for this country, simply because the quality of the citizenry seems to be heading down.”

The country was being overrun, he said in 1991, by “millions of subhumanoids, savages, who really would feel more at home careening along the sands of the Kalahari or the dry deserts of eastern Kenya.”

In a May 1993 broadcast, Mr. Grant referred to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as “that slimeball” and “this bum, this womanizer, this liar, this fake, this phony.”

Those are the words of a racist–not someone “less constrained in talking about race.” But the Times seem unwilling to go that far–preferring instead to write, “Accusations of racism dogged Mr. Grant for years.” Woof!

The obituary also mischaracterizes the history of telecommunications policy:

Mr. Grant was among the first radio hosts to take full advantage of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987; as part of the Reagan administration’s drive for large-scale federal deregulation, the repeal essentially freed broadcasters to vent political views without having to present opposing perspectives.

This is a long-standing claim, especially popular among right-wing talkshow hosts: Free of the government meddling, their brand of speech thrived. But the Fairness Doctrine was no barrier to opinionated talk radio; it explicitly required stations to air programming on controversial matters, and in practice, it was a rather subtle instrument that allowed the public to challenge media outlets to offer substantive programming with a minimal amount of viewpoint diversity, of the sort talkshows are designed to showcase. (Wikipedia credits the Fairness Doctrine with helping Grant get a job at WMCA in 1970, which broke him into the New York City market.) As FAIR’s Steve Rendall wrote (Extra!,1/05), “Not one Fairness Doctrine decision issued by the FCC had ever concerned itself with talkshows. Indeed, the talkshow format was born and flourished while the doctrine was in operation.”

Indeed, it’s hard to figure out how one would credit the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine as a career boost for someone who’d been doing the same schtick on the air for decades. But it’s equally puzzling why the paper finds so many ways to describe Grant’s racism instead of simply calling it what it was.



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