'Hate Speech’ On Cable?

In a petition to the Federal Communications Commission last week, the National Hispanic Media Coalition claims hate speech is “prevalent” on national cable-news networks and wants the government to do something about it.

That was one of the assertions made by the group in a formal request that the commission open a notice of inquiry into “the extent, the effect and possible remedies” to what it said was a pervasive problem, and not just on conservative talk radio.

NHMC, a nonprofit Los Angeles-based media-advocacy group, cited a 2007 Media Matters study that concluded “the alleged connection between illegal immigration and crime” was discussed on 94 episodes of CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, 66 times on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor and 29 times on Glenn Beck’s Headline News show.

Lou Dobbs’s ongoing criticism of immigration reform and border enforcement, or more specifically the lack of it, has often drawn criticism from immigrants’ rights groups.

NHMC defined hate speech as speech whose cumulative effect is to create an atmosphere of hate and prejudice that “legitimizes” violence against its targets.

NHMC was looking for a sympathetic ear from an FCC under Democratic hands, citing candidate Barack Obama’s fall 2008 speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about immigrants “counting on us to stop the hateful rhetoric filling the airwaves.”

It also sent a copy of the petition to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, asking it to update its 1993 report to Congress on the role of telecommunications in hate crimes.

The group said it was not asking the FCC to reimpose the fairness doctrine — something some congressional Democrats have suggested they might want to do — but it does want the agency to collect data, seek public comment, explore what they say is the relationship between hate speech and hate crimes and “explore options” for combating it.

At least twice during the campaign, an aide to then-candidate Barack Obama said the senator did not support reintroducing the doctrine, which was FCC policy to ensure that holders of broadcast licenses address controversial issues in a manner that’s fair and balanced.

Saying its critics would raise the “red herring” of the doctrine, NHMC said it “has not … called for any such remedy.”

A CNN spokeswoman said the network has no comment at this time. Fox News Channel officials had not commented at press time.

Acting FCC chairman Michael Copps was not commenting on the petition, either, but he did indicate that he stood by comments he made in 2007 about regulating hate speech, a conversation prompted by disc jockey and then-MSNBC personality Don Imus’s comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. At the time he said there were roles to play by parents, programmers — which he said needed to provide “some sense of practical self-discipline” — Congress and the courts.

“As an academic I taught the beauties of the First Amendment for many years, so nobody is looking to supplant or run roughshod over it,” Copps said in 2007. “But we have a pressing national problem that I think lots of people are determined to get a resolution of.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.