Migrant Bill Backlash Targets Talk Radio

Migrant-bill backlash targets talk radio
Media critics press for change in broadcasting law

Daniel Gonzalez
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 10, 2007 12:00 AM

Talk radio's role in killing immigration reform in Congress is spurring a backlash.

Some Democrats in Congress, maddened about radio attacks on the bill, would like to revive a federal rule that requires broadcasters to present opposing views on important issues.

Those on both sides of the issue agree talk radio played a major role in derailing the Senate immigration bill.

The constant drumbeat on talk radio stations across the country galvanized voters to jam the Senate's phone system with angry calls.

That helped persuade lawmakers to kill the bill, all but ensuring that comprehensive immigration reform is dead until after the 2008 election.

Talk show hosts say they merely gave voice to existing anger about legislation that would have given people who broke immigration laws a path to citizenship.

Critics say the hosts distorted a compromise bill and inflamed listeners actively to oppose it.

“It's up to the majority of Americans to hold these stations accountable,” said Karl Frisch, spokesman for Media Matters, a liberal, nonpartisan media watchdog group.

Amnesty vs. reform

Frisch said talk radio hosts mischaracterized the proposal as amnesty for undocumented immigrants, even though they would have had to pay fines and clear other hurdles before being eligible for permanent residency.

A 1986 reform measure did not have such requirements.

Mike Gallagher, a nationally syndicated talk radio host, said that talk radio helped defeat the immigration bill by giving voice to grass-roots opposition heard by lawmakers.

“I can't speak for other hosts, but I feel quite confident that I've never 'spread inaccuracies' or lied about the illegal-immigration issue,” he said. “Quite the contrary, I consistently counter the lies and agenda-driven rhetoric from the pro-illegal side.”

Most polls indicate Americans favor giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

'Ugly strain of nativism'

Still, talk radio hosts frequently implied that opposition to immigration reform was heavy, Frisch said.

Frank Sharry is executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a liberal group in Washington, D.C., that backed the Senate bill.

He said talk radio exploited “an ugly strain of nativism along with a legitimate mistrust of government” to help shoot down the bill.

Some Democrats in Congress would like to restore the Fairness Doctrine, in part to counter what they say was a one-sided debate about immigration reform on talk radio.

The federal rule required broadcasters to air contrasting views about controversial issues.

President Reagan repealed the rule in 1987, giving rise to conservative talk radio.

Arizona's senators, Republicans Jon Kyl and John McCain, have come out against reviving the rule, even though both took a harsh beating on conservative talk radio for their support of the immigration bill.

Kyl said he considers talk radio criticism a healthy part of the democratic process in the 21st century.

“The worst thing that we could do is try to impose the Fairness Doctrine,” he said. “They're not paranoid. It's like that old joke: The reason they're paranoid is because they're after them.”

Last week, the House voted against letting the Federal Communications Commission reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.

Boycotts by Hispanics

Some Hispanic groups, meanwhile, are trying another tactic aimed at curtailing talk radio's role in shaping the immigration debate.

They are threatening to launch local and national boycotts against businesses that advertise on conservative talk radio programs.

“If we take away the sponsors, then we will greatly diminish the impact of conservative talk radio,” said Jon Garrido, who runs the Phoenix-based Web site, Hispanic News, and is organizing a boycott.

The boycott is supported by Phoenix-based Imimgrants Without Borders and San Diego-based Border Angels.

Garrido said he will call for a boycott of Bashas' and Food City unless the Arizona grocery-store chain stops purchasing ads on KFYI. Nationally, calls are being made for boycotts of Wells Fargo Bank and Home Depot.

Bashas' defies threats

Mike Proulx, president and chief operating officer of Bashas', which owns Food City, said the chain will not stop advertising because of boycott threats.

He said advertising on a particular station does not mean Bashas' endorses the content.

“This whole issue of boycotting and hurting Bashas' because we advertise on a particular radio station that might cause controversy goes against the grain of this great nation of ours. People have a right to choose,” Proulx said.

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a trade magazine for the radio industry, fears boycotts could force controversial viewpoints off the air, hurting free speech. “Free speech demands more speech,” he said.


Republic reporter Dan Nowicki contributed to this article. Reach Gonzalez at (602) 444-8312.