Our president continued to thumb his nose at the world, his attorney general continued to flex his muscles, and Kodak unleashed another round of bad news. But the really big story in Rochester this past week was Bob Lonsberry.
Being outrageous is nothing new for Lonsberry. He and WHAM, which has been airing his program, thrive on it. But I doubt either of them anticipated the reaction to Lonsberry's comments about an orangutan and a monkey running for county executive.
Clearly, Lonsberry was referring to Mayor Bill Johnson, whom he seems to despise. Lonsberry has insisted that he didn't mean the comments to be racist. Maybe he's naïve and didn't know that references to black men as apes and monkeys have been common racial slurs for years. You'd think somebody at WHAM knew, though.
WHAM fired Lonsberry on Monday, and so he's off the air until another station picks him up. (And there must be some out there who are positively drooling at the prospect of inheriting his ratings.) But the events leading up to that firing are instructive.
The station's initial response was to suspend Lonsberry for two days. After the NAACP and local religious and political leaders protested, Lonsberry and WHAM got a bit more contrite. WHAM released a statement saying its management "finds Bob Lonsberry's on-air comments unacceptable and uninformed." And the station released a statement by Lonsberry, apologizing for his "shameful comments" and saying he was beginning "diversity training."
But those statements did not come until 5 p.m. Thursday, September 25. Lonsberry's first primate slur took place in late August, the second on September 18. The stuff had started hitting the fan the weekend of September 20, when the Democrat and Chronicle first reported Lonsberry's remarks. (In a bizarre bit of news management, rather than handling the story as news, the D&C buried it on its insipid Saturday Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down column.)
The racial slurs are every bit as egregious as Lonsberry's critics have said. They are also dangerous, feeding the racial tension, fear, and hostility that simmers just below the surface in Rochester. It is not being "politically correct," as some Lonsberry fans have insisted, to protest Lonsberry's language.
But it's not enough to focus solely on the racism. And it's not enough to focus solely on Lonsberry. This is not about free speech. It's about civility. It's about responsibility: Lonsberry's and WHAM's.
Bob Lonsberry is a complicated human being. He is a devout Mormon. He hosts a show on a Salt Lake City radio station. His website includes links to the Mormon Church. The times I've talked with him personally, he has been quiet, exceedingly polite, humble. He's not a Southerner, but he says "yes, ma'am" the way well-brought-up young Southerners do when they address older adults. I believe he's sincere when he says it.
But for years, he has been spewing vitriol, in print and on the radio. And when one media company gets weary of fielding the public outrage, he moves on to another.
Like many talk-show hosts, Lonsberry specializes in exaggeration, and in pandering to fear and prejudice. In a recent column on his web page, he lashed out at Jack Elliott, a public defender who is running for City Court judge.
"Public defenders are the worst lawyers," Lonsberry wrote. "There might be some good ones, but have you ever met one? ... Aren't the public defender's clients usually guilty? ... what kind of message is it when a guy who's spent a decade trying to get guilty people off announces he wants to be a judge? Who knows how many people this guy has represented in court who have later gone out and committed more crimes against the people of Rochester."
That kind of loose, inflammatory talk draws listeners. And big ratings. And advertiser dollars. And increasingly, that's the only thing that matters to big media.
In his web column on Monday --- written, apparently, before he was fired --- Lonsberry was lashing out again at the mayor, at local religious leaders, and, incredibly, at the leaders of the Republican Party. The column is emotional, scathing, full of hate and incitement to action.
It's tempting to view Lonsberry as an exception in this presumably progressive, tolerant community. But if you want to see the depth of the division in this community, go to Lonsberry's website: www.boblonsberry.com. Read the e-mails he's receiving from his fans: letter after letter after letter urging him not to back down, telling him that he voices their own fears and worries.
In its press release on Monday, Clear Channel said that it is "adamantly opposed to comments and suggestions that would divide or damage our community."
"Although Mr. Lonsberry expressed a willingness to change," said the statement, "it became obvious to us that he is not embracing diversity or the beliefs of the station."
It should have been obvious long before now.
Subbing for Bob
And speaking of damage and division: It is no small matter --- to me, at least --- that some prominent local Republicans have guest-hosted Lonsberry's show. Among them: County Executive Jack Doyle, exec candidate Maggie Brooks, DA candidate Ann Marie Taddeo, and that Man Who's Everywhere, Bill Nojay.
I don't see how you can host a show like Lonsberry's if you don't condone the kind of stuff he has been spewing out.
Kodak's news last week left me as depressed as I've been in a while. Sure, we've all known that the layoffs would keep coming. And for years there's been the threat that the company might someday have little presence here. But the announcement of Kodak's new direction brought the threat closer. Maybe we'll be able to persuade the company to do its digital work here. But maybe not. (And ink-jet printing as a path to a brighter Kodak future? Good grief!)
The Kodak news did take my mind off the pain of President Bush's speech to the UN, though. The Bush administration has led us down a horrifyingly dangerous path, and there seems no way back. KofiAnnan, grieving over the deaths of UN staff members in Baghdad, warned of the consequences of the US policy of unilateral, pre-emptive action. And he reminded the world that terrorism isn't the only threat to world peace and security. Others, he said, include "the persistence of extreme poverty, the disparity of income between and within societies... the spread of infectious diseases... climate change and environmental degradation."
Annan urged UN members to prove that the world's concerns, including terrorism, can be "addressed effectively through collective actions." "We have come to a fork in the road," he said. "This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was Founded...."
Terrorism isn't the only threat to the US, either. President Bush and his extremist advisors, however, seem determined to fight only terrorism (and anything they can pull in under a "terrorism" umbrella. And they seemed determined to insure, through the insanity of their tax cuts, that the US is able to finance only that fight, and only in nations of their choosing.