When is a National Public Radio commentator who accidentally uses a four-letter word on the air silenced? When the big, bad FCC begins cracking down on envelope-pushing broadcasters in the wake of Janet Jackson's exposed breast? Or when a sanctimonious public-radio-station manager decides to use that as an excuse for hysteria?
Consider the continuing fallout from the case of my friend Sandra Tsing Loh, the popular author and monologuist fired March 1 from the Los Angeles NPR-affiliate KCRW because an engineer forgot to bleep a four-letter word from a prerecorded segment. Never exactly a beloved figure, general manager Ruth Seymour's overreaction quickly cast her as the Torquemada of public radio.
After just ten days, Seymour made a stab at damage control and offered Sandra her show back, in a much better timeslot. But the gesture came too late. She'll begin her weekly commentaries again in June — but at KCRW's main competitor, Los Angeles public-radio-station KPCC.
"My decision is to never set foot upon the toxic soil of KCRW again as my personal statement about the poor way I was treated," Sandra told me when she turned Seymour down last week. "Aside from that, I wish KCRW the very best."
Of course, she can afford to. She's probably gotten more media spin in the three weeks she's been off KCRW than in the six years she was on it. While staying at her brother's house, she was excited to see that she made the CNN crawl: SANDRA TSING LOH FIRED FOR OBSCENITY. (But her brother, a scientist, put things in perspective. "Is that what it said?" he asked. "Not PERSON LOSES $150-A-WEEK JOB?")
Listeners have been calling and e-mailing the station to complain about the firing. Allan Mayer, who hired Sandra (and me) as columnists at the since-deceased Buzz magazine, now is a partner at the crisis p.r. firm Sitrick and Company. and was so outraged at KCRW that he took on Sandra's case pro bono. Variety society writer Bill Higgins came up with a slogan for an anti-pledge drive campaign: "No Loh, No Dough," and Mayer had 5,000 stickers printed up with that phrase for subscribers to send back in KCRW renewal envelopes.
Last week the L.A. Press Club (for which I help arrange media parties) toasted Sandra at a "No Loh, No Dough" celebration. "Unlike my other work," Sandra said in a speech there, "my firing has been an unqualified critical success."
Some think that Sandra thoughtlessly put the station at risk and deserved to be canned. NPR ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin posted a patronizing piece on the NPR website, arguing that she should have known to "assume that every microphone is on." Dvorkin neglected to mention that the prerecorded vulgarity was meant to be bleeped, as it had been for comic effect many times before, so live mikes were beside the point. He did wind up backpedaling a bit.
The virtual L.A. media watercooler "L.A. Observed" has occasionally devolved into a weird wonderland, with commenters noting the "perverse irony" of a non-leftist like me being concerned with free speech. Or they claim that the situation isn't a free speech issue at all, since the government didn't step in. Do cats eat bats? Do bats eat cats?
Of course, no one is saying that Seymour didn't have a legal right to scream "Off with her head!" when Sandra accidentally talked blue on the air. But it hardly serves a station's listeners if the station manager does something that appears to be an overwrought reaction to the FCC. And overwrought is exactly what it was: The FCC never even contacted KCRW.
In California you often have to explain this to people, but of course free speech is a big issue with on the Right, and it doesn't even have to involve government censorship to fall into that general category. If angry leftists try to prevent David Horowitz from speaking at a private university (as they often do), that is indeed a free-speech issue.
But anger at Ruth Seymour has crossed all political lines. The libertarian magazine Reason compared the KCRW manager's description of Sandra's work to the Los Angeles Times as "trivial and self-serving" to "a pot calling a kettle 'a pot.'" PEN USA released a statement saying that "KCRW has taken the most draconian step" all by itself, with no help from the FCC. Mother Jones, noting that the entire six-year Loh Life archive has been removed from the KCRW website, observed that "it's a shame to see a station that prides itself as a bastion of free expression engage in Soviet-style memory-washing all because of a single lousy word."
One notable revelation about this episode is the spinelessness of supposedly daring public-radio types. "This is so Ruth," an NPR insider told me. "Freak out and immediately do something knee-jerk." My source added that this is why KCRW no longer airs Tavis Smiley's NPR show: "Three people called to complain they weren't hearing their Morning Edition and instead were hearing 'this loud black guy.' She freaked and pulled the show."
Apparently in an attempt at preemptive spin, KCRW leaked an oddly prim in-house memo/press release a few days after the firing, explaining that their former commentator "uttered a certain banned word that could have cost us our license." The secret word, Groucho, begins with "f" and ends with "k," and apparently now you can't say it even in an interoffice communiqué that's talking about the use of the word in question. Geez. I mean sheesh. Or, heck, just fill in the nonoffensive exclamation of your choice here.
Loh Life listeners know that Sandra's not exactly a shock jock. Her material typically deals with children and family life, a la Please Don't Eat the Daisies, not sex. As she noted in her "March Marketplace" commentary (she's still got that monthly public-radio gig), "Friday morning, I did bail on my weekly work rotation at my daughter's preschool. 'Emergency,' I said. 'Um, you know how it is — fired for obscenity.'"
But KCRW acted as if Sandra was another Bubba the Love Sponge, the Florida shock jock known for antics like castrating a pig so listeners could hear its squeals live on the air, and who was fired last month by Clear Channel for raw language.
Some see the KCRW fiasco as a textbook example of the chilling effect tighter government regulations have on speech. But people at KCRW seemed less afraid of the Bush administration's FCC than of Ruth Seymour and her winged monkeys, to borrow one of Sandra's favorite phrases. Except for the mortified engineer, the only person at the station brave enough to offer his axed colleague the professional courtesy of a sympathetic note was Harry Shearer, who also began his Le Show that week with pointed allusions to a new "BleepMation" machine. (Cue disappointed monkeys flapping back to the castle.)
The problem at KCRW wasn't really that Big Brother was watching, but that Big Sister overreacted. Blaming the FCC for Ruth Seymour's foolish move seems like blaming Beavis and Butthead for some idiot kid's setting his house on fire. Maybe some kids need better supervision, and maybe a public-radio station needs to make sure it's got a manager who understands free speech and the public trust.