Big Sandy, Montana
One recent dreary midnight, coming down with a cold and unable to sleep, I lay in bed listening to a call-in talk show from KOA, Denver’s clear channel AM radio station. The topic for an hour’s discussion, chosen by program host John Caldera, was whether or not it was appropriate to spit a mouthful of tobacco juice and saliva into the face of Jane Fonda.
In Kansas City, Missouri earlier that same day, a man claiming to be a Vietnam veteran stood in line at Fonda’s book signing, waiting for the opportunity to spew into the actress’s face the gob of juice from tobacco he had been chewing in preparation for his attack. Reports from the scene noted that after wiping the yellow-brown slime from her face, Jane Fonda continued signing books. The spitter was arrested, and calling the target of his gooey blast a “traitor,” said he was very pleased with himself for what he had done.
Most who dialed up the Caldera program said they believed spitting on Ms. Fonda was not only justified, but even perhaps an act of heroic proportions. To his credit, Caldera disagreed and made strenuous efforts to enlighten his angry callers, although most of them seemed content with their view that to the spitter belong the spoils. When host Caldera asked one gentleman caller how he’d feel if someone spat tobacco juice in the caller’s wife’s face and mouth, the caller responded that he hadn’t thought about it that way. Still, because of her trip to Hanoi over 30 years earlier, Fonda was fair game for spitters.
Considerable responsibility for the current climate of anger and hostility in America rests on the shoulders of the many talk show personalities who, hour on hour, deliberately stir their listeners’ negative emotions through argument, name-calling, deliberate misstatement of facts. Unfortunately on the night in question, John Caldera was no exception. Although he strongly denounced the spitting incident, he repeatedly called Jane Fonda a “traitor,” making occasional suggestions about how she might atone for her perceived transgressions. He suggested that there may be no statute of limitations for traitors, implying that callers who also found her actions traitorous could bring her to justice in the courts.
As Caldera saw it, Jane Fonda was a traitor who should be dealt with according to the laws governing traitors, but she should not have to suffer the insult of being spat upon.
It was mildly amusing to hear grown men attempt to justify their pro-spit stance with various inane rationalizations. Amusing, that is, until one caller calmly hinted at an act not previously raised during the evening’s discussion. With apparent sincerity, this particular fellow said he’d gladly wait 90 minutes in line for the opportunity to spit in Jane Fonda’s face. But, he added, spit would not be his weapon of choice.
Caldera, a skilled performer, gradually drew forth from this possible stalker a desire to kill Jane Fonda. The man would not, however, risk killing her up close and personal while she was autographing his copy of her new autobiography.
What would you do? asked Caldera.
With calm dispassion, the caller replied, “I’d stand outside across the street and ‘plink’ her when she left the bookstore.”
“So you would kill Jane Fonda,” Caldera said.
The caller answered, “In a heartbeat.”
Caldera paused dramatically and then went to commercial. What interested me was that at no time did Caldera appear to denounce the murder-minded caller’s interest in killing a well-known public figure. Possibly the popular radio host did not wish to further inflame the caller, whose emotionless threat might have found many listeners in agreement with his deadly sentiments.
I wondered if Caldera or the program’s producer had immediately alerted law-enforcement authorities, wondered if they had bothered to contact Random House, Fonda’s publisher. I made persistent attempts to call the station but each time received a “busy” signal.
When he returned to the air, Caldera did not further comment on the assassination-laced incident. He did cut short a discussion with a Vietnam war veteran who supported Fonda’s anti-war stance. As with many such professional talkers, Caldera was not particularly interested in debating an issue that wasn’t part of his political agenda.
Vitriolic call-in personalities know how to foment anger and outrage in their audiences, and the successes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter and others depend on outlandish hyperbole and hypocrisy. They stoke the already-simmering rage of listeners who what to believe the worst, especially about “liberals.” It seems possible the reigning out-of-control political discourse in the nation would cool down if only those filled with anger, hate, bigotry and malice would spend half as much time in self-contemplation as has the daughter of angry-man Hank Fonda.
I e-mailed John Caldera, asking if his station had contacted authorities or Random House about the murder threat. I received no response. Early the next morning, I sent a message to Random House and to producers at the Diane Rhem Show in Washington, D.C. Diane had recently interviewed Jane Fonda for an entertaining hour free of vitriolic overstatement. I related the Denver caller’s interest in murdering Fonda. (The man had, after all, described his plan to “plink” her outside a bookstore.) Nancy Robertson, a Rehm Show producer, immediately contacted Jane Fonda’s publicist at Random House with the information I’d provided, and the publicist planned to contact John Caldera at KOA in Denver to learn more particulars. It seemed obvious, then, that no one had bothered to alert the publisher prior to my contact.
If Caldera and station KOA did not bother alerting either law enforcement or Jane Fonda about the caller’s repeated threats, it may be because stations and audiences are so used to hearing outrageous statement they give them little significance. However, to this writer, ignoring the publicly-uttered statements and plans of those who openly threaten the lives of others seems negligent . Perhaps if the target of the threats had not been Jane Fonda — if instead it had been Colorado’s governor or the President of the United States — the station might have leapt into action. Or maybe not.
To my knowledge, President Bush and other political leaders who benefit from the publicity given to them by call-in “entertainments” have not stepped forward to vigorously condemn the hostile atmosphere stimulated by such programs. In an Omaha appearance, President Bush responded to a heckler by saying with a touch of cynicism, “We love free speech in America.” These days one wonders if, perhaps, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is now afflicted by a mean-spirited cowardly streak that loves wallowing in hostility and anger even more than it loves free speech. “Plink.”
DOUG GIEBEL is a writer and analyst. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org