Howard Stern, the radio shock-jock who delights in tweaking minorities, gays and women, is emerging as liberalism’s newest and most unlikely poster boy after unveiling his latest persona: dump-Bush militant.
Stern, who has habitually endorsed Republicans and helped elect at least two Republican governors, announced his opposition to President Bush’s reelection earlier this month, protesting moves by Washington Republicans to impose new broadcast decency standards in the wake of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl flap. Stern said on-air that Bush, whom he previously supported, was pushing a “medieval” Christian agenda on the nation.
But Democrats are sharply divided on whether to welcome Stern’s support. While some favor embracing him in order to reach his millions of fans, others fear being tainted by his scatological image. “I don’t think Democrats want to embrace Howard Stern,” Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, told the Forward.
Complicating the feud, Stern is claiming politics drove the February 26 decision by Clear Channel Communications Inc., the Texas-based radio giant, to drop his program in six markets, including the key swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Clear Channel denied any political motive, citing decency concerns.
The House of Representatives voted last week to pass the sweeping Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004. The bill, which passed by a lopsided 391-22, would sharply raise fines on broadcasters and boost the Federal Communications Commission’s power to define what is indecent. Several opponents charged that the bill was part of “an election-year ploy to silence Bush bashers,” in the words of Daily Variety, the entertainment industry journal.
Commenting on-air a day after the House vote, Stern and his longtime sidekick Robin Quivers acidly noted that the few lawmakers who voted against the bill were predominantly Jewish, black and Latino.
Stern, who is Jewish, and Quivers, who is black, said minority ethnic groups seem better able to understand the dangers of the bill. “Those people represent people who have had their right to free speech suppressed in their history so they understand what’s at stake,” Quivers said.
Clear Channel had cited sexual lewdness and a caller’s use of a racial slur in announcing its decision to drop Stern’s program.
Of the House bill’s 22 opponents, all but six were black, Hispanic or Jewish. “It’s ironic that Howard has so much fun at the expense of minorities, and those are the folks who are still with him in the end,” Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat who voted against the bill, told the Forward.
The bill’s defenders countered that it was a legitimate response to the Janet Jackson incident, in which the popular singer’s breast was revealed during the February 1 Super Bowl broadcast, and had nothing to do with Stern’s political views. Several lawmakers said the bill’s massive, bipartisan support proved it was not an election-year political measure.
The main goal of the bill is to guarantee the viewer’s right to know what to expect from a program, said Frank, who is known as an outspoken defender of civil liberties.
“I would not go after Stern,” Frank said. “I would go after Jackson. My view is that enforcement should be aimed at inappropriate sexually graphic things in venues when the viewers were not on notice.”
Opponents blamed political expediency for their colleagues’ support of the bill. “Many people who voted for it knew it was absurd,” said New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, “but the problem in modern politics is that you face 30-second ads. The easy thing to do politically is go along with it.” Nadler called the bill “draconian and ridiculous.”
Stern, 50, a Long Island native, has been one of the most popular and successful broadcasters in radio history since bursting onto the scene in Washington 24 years ago. He is perhaps best known for his edgy on-air banter, laced with sexual and racial references.
A political maverick who briefly ran for New York governor as a libertarian in 1994 — he dropped out rather than disclose his income — he has repeatedly endorsed Republicans, often to great effect. His influence on his fans is credited with helping the previously unknown Republican George Pataki to unseat New York’s Democratic governor Mario Cuomo in 1994, and boosting Republican Christie Whitman into the New Jersey governor’s mansion in 1992.
Stern, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has claimed that he decided to oppose Bush’s reelection after reading a book by television comic Al Franken, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
He has since become scathing toward Bush, mockingly accusing him and FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, of trying to silence him. He has also lambasted Bush for halting funding of stem-cell research.
Stern is exhorting his listeners to vote for Democratic contender John Kerry. The Massachusetts Senator so far has kept his distance, saying Clear Channel had a right to take Stern off the their stations.
Several Democratic officials said that by ignoring Stern, their party was missing an opportunity to reach his estimated 8 million listeners. “I don’t think Democrats have a clue about the ability of Howard Stern to deliver votes,” Serrano said.
Another New York Democrat, Rep. Gary Ackerman, said: “I think we have to light a fire under the strategists in our party.”
Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio network with 1,200 stations, announced a new zero-tolerance policy against indecency February 25, the day after it fired Florida disc jockey Todd Clem, whose “Bubba the Love Sponge” program drew a record $715,000 fine from the FCC in January.
The company abruptly took Stern off the air in six markets when it learned a parents’ advocacy group had filed a complaint with the FCC about a sexually explicit interview Stern conducted with Paris Hilton’s ex-boyfriend, according to news reports. The racial slur came from a caller who asked the guest if he had ever had relations with any famous black women.
The head of Clear Channel’s radio division, John Hogan, called the segment “vulgar, offensive and insulting, not just to women and African-Americans, but to anyone with a sense of common decency.”
Stern and his supporters say Clear Channel is closely linked to the GOP and to Bush himself. Company CEO Lowry Mays is described as a Bush family friend. Clear Channel vice chairman Tom Hicks made Bush a multimillionaire by buying the troubled Texas Rangers baseball team from him, and “chaired a state university board that steered most of its endowment to firms with Bush and GOP ties,” according to the Village Voice, a left-wing New York weekly.
Infinity Broadcasting, which syndicates Stern’s show, is still airing him on 71 of its own stations.