Bigotry, shock jocks, and corporate ethics

| May 28, 2014
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You can make plenty of money spreading ridicule and bigotry, and commercial radio and television companies have become masters at it.

And so last week, a Rochester radio duo known as Kimberly and Beck did what their employer was paying them to do: they played to the baser instincts of their listeners. Taking an innocuous news item emanating from City Hall, they used it to launch 12 minutes of ridicule aimed at transgender people – and, along the way, at people with mental illness.

The Kimberly and Beck show isn't a place you'd go to find enlightened discourse about much of anything. Best I can tell from the few segments I listened to online, their favorite topics include sex, sex acts, and genitals. NPR it is not.

So in that respect, maybe it wasn't surprising that their eyes lit up when they heard that Mayor Lovely Warren was going to expand health-insurance coverage for city employees to include surgery and counseling for transgender people. It's one thing, though, to be crude on the public airways. We don't have to listen. Ridiculing people, and fostering bigotry and hatred, is quite another.

This is not, as some have suggested, a question of political correctness. Bigotry is harmful. And the hatred it fosters has real – and too often, violent – consequences.

The day after the Kimberly-and-Beck rant on The BUZZ radio station, their employer, Entercom, fired them, saying their comments "do not represent our station or our community." And on Friday, the media received a press release bearing the "Kimberly and Beck" name, apologizing "for the hurt and pain we have caused anyone, especially those in the Transgender community and their friends and families."

It was a curious press release. It said that the two were sorry for their lack of "sensitivity and understanding of the Transgender people," implying that they weren't well informed about transgender issues. But it also said this: "Entercom has been and will continue to be a strong advocate for the LGBT community and we are proud to have been helpful in Entercom's efforts over our 13 years with the company."

Proud to have been helpful in Entercom's efforts in advocating for the LGBT community? I don't know which would be worse: that Kimberly and Beck are as poorly informed and insensitive as they sounded during their rant against transgender people or that they did know the facts but didn't care because they figured that is exactly what they're paid to do: toss red meat to their audience.

(And, of course, on this particular topic, they had a red-meat two-fer: the news peg was a policy proposed by Rochester's African-American woman mayor.)

Kimberly and Beck weren't the only media "personalities" using Warren's new policy to fire up their fans. Predictably, Clear Channel's Bob Lonsberry had a field day on his blog, ridiculing not only transgender people but the entire LGBT community – the "alphabet-soup community," as he put it.

In the past, Lonsberry has lost his job for things like this, but he always lands on his feet, gets back on the air, and gets right back at it. I assume the same will be true of Kimberly and Beck. Because fueling ridicule and bigotry draws listeners.

It makes money.

It's important to speak out against the Kimberly-and-Becks and Lonsberrys and all the other shock jocks. Important, too, to make sure they become well informed, not only about LGBT issues but also about the real, very serious harm they do by spreading ignorance and bigotry.

But it's also important to remember that they're not the only offenders. Their corporate employers know what they're doing when they hire people like this. The corporations are the ones who encourage them to throw red meat to build audiences. They're the ones who encourage the shock jocks to skate close to the edge.

So far, those corporate apologies feel mighty thin.

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