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Transcript:

July 24, 2009

BILL MOYERS: There was another voice heard on health care this week -- the voice of anti-abortion crusader Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue. At a news conference in Washington, Terry warned that violence could come if, in the end, health care reform includes coverage for abortion services.

RANDALL TERRY: Do not expect us to betray God, and to pay for the murder of our neighbor. If you do, you are deceived, you are deluded. We will not comply. And there will be unthinkable, horrifying ramifications. People will react -- whether they react peacefully yet forcefully and with forethought, or whether they react viscerally, with eruptions of rage.

BILL MOYERS: As Randall Terry knows well, that rage has erupted many times already. NARAL, the national organization working for women's reproductive rights, claims that over the past thirty years, actions against abortion providers included eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 41 bombings, 175 arsons, more than 5 thousand acts of vandalism and nearly 14 thousand harassing phone calls and hate-mail incidents.

Randall Terry himself has been arrested dozens of times for leading protests at clinics, where women and their doctors were subjected to harassment and intimidation. In 1991, thousands of protestors, with Terry in the lead, were arrested outside the clinic of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas. Operation Rescue dubbed it "the summer of mercy."

Dr. Tiller was one of the few physicians in the country performing late-term abortions for women with problem pregnancies whose health was at stake from life-threatening complications, or whose infants would be born dead or dying. But abortion foes turned Tiller into an object of hate and violent attacks. His clinic was bombed in 1986. And in 1993, he was shot in both arms by a woman with a semi-automatic pistol. Then, two months ago, Dr. Tiller was murdered, gunned down at the Reformation Lutheran Church where he was an usher. After the shooting, Randall Terry said this about Tiller:

RANDALL TERRY: He was a mass murderer. We have to say that over and over again. He was one of the most evil people on the planet, every bit as evil as Nazi war criminals. And I know that offends some people who are watching this, but it is the truth. He was a mass murderer. And he reaped what he sowed.

BILL MOYERS: In demonizing George Tiller, Randall Terry had help from the star of Fox News, Bill O'Reilly. For years, O'Reilly denounced the doctor as someone who would "kill a baby...for no reason whatsoever other than the mother has a pain in her foot." That wasn't true, of course, but 24 times altogether, O'Reilly denounced Tiller as a 'baby killer.'

BILL O'REILLY: In the state of Kansas, there is a doctor, George Tiller, who will execute babies for $5 thousand. [...] Dr. George Tiller, known as Tiller the baby killer [...] Tiller aborts thousands of babies, pretty much for any reason [...] I wanted George Tiller, Tiller the baby killer, going, "Hey! I can make more money killing babies now!" [...] That a man like that could openly operate in the U.S.A. is troubling, to say the least. [...] Dr. Tiller has blood on his hands. [...] I wouldn't want to be these people if there is a judgment day.

BILL MOYERS: Judgment day did come-- on the last Sunday in May. When the suspected assassin was captured a few hours later, police found a single rose in the rear window of his car, a common marker of the anti-abortion movement. Soon after the shooting, O'Reilly himself came under attack as people started asking if demonizing rhetoric inspires violence. O'Reilly, while "condemning" Tiller's murder, dismissed the accusations:

BILL O'REILLY: When I heard about Tiller's murder, I knew pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters would attempt to blame us for the crime, and that is exactly what has happened. [...] every single thing we said about Tiller was true, and my analysis was based on those facts.

BILL MOYERS: Unless the accused killer Scott Roeder tells us, we'll never know what was in his head that day-- where he got the idea to murder, or how it grew in his mind. There's no evidence that he ever listened to O'Reilly or Randall Terry -- just as there's no proof that hateful words lead to violence. But words do have consequences. There's no doubt they poison the air all of us breathe, and no doubt that terrible things can be done by the people who breathe that same air.

As news spread of Dr. Tiller's assassination, and more details emerged, I thought back to what happened in Knoxville, Tennessee, on July 27, 2008, one year ago this coming Monday. Here's a report we broadcast a few weeks later, produced by Peter Meryash and reported by Rick Karr. Those of you who saw it then will remember that some of the language is graphic, provocative and downright raw.

RICK KARR: On a steamy Sunday morning in July a man armed with a twelve-gauge shotgun burst into this church in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened fire. Seconds later, one person lay dead, another mortally wounded, and six injured.

REV. CHRIS BUICE: The man who walked into this sanctuary on July 27th was armed with a gun but he was also armed with hatred, he was armed with bitterness, he was armed with resentments, he was armed with indiscriminate anger. He was armed in body and spirit.

RICK KARR: Members of the congregation wrestled a 58-year-old, unemployed truck driver named Jim David Adkisson to the floor and held him until police came. At first it seemed like just another inexplicable outburst of violence until a police news conference the next day:

POLICE CHIEF STERLING OWEN: It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred for the liberal movement.

RICK KARR: Why did Adkisson hate "the liberal movement?" Police said that he told them "that all liberals should be killed ... because they were ... ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and ... ruined every institution in America...." Police said that Adkisson had targeted the Unitarian Universalist Church "because of its liberal teachings." The church advocates social justice and tolerance, and it openly welcomes gay, lesbian, and transgendered members. According to police, Adkisson said that, "Because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would target those that had voted them in to office."

In the weeks following the tragedy, the congregation and its pastor, Reverend Chris Buice struggled with what they were learning about Adkisson.

REV. CHRIS BUICE: Some have suggested that his spiritual attitudes, his hatred of liberals and gays, was reinforced by the right-wing media figures. And it is beyond dispute that there are a plethora of books which have labeled liberals as evil, unpatriotic, godless and treasonous.

RICK KARR: During that recent sermon Buice told his congregation-- some of who had risked their own lives to stop the shooting-- that he has been reading some of those books.

REV. CHRIS BUICE: One of the books has the title: "Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism." If that author was here in this room right now I would introduce him to some good liberals who acted decisively on that Sunday, acted quickly and courageously to stop the terror that came into our church building. I would introduce him to some good liberals who know how to fight terror with more than just their mouths.

RICK KARR: Buice says even with the outpouring of sympathy from around Knoxville and across the country, Adkisson's lethal anger has left him angry and full of questions.

REV. CHRIS BUICE: People were killed in my sanctuary of my church which should be the holy place, a safe place. People were injured. A man came in here who totally dehumanized us. Members of our church were not human to him. Where did he get that? Where did he get that sense that we were not human?

RICK KARR: Buice admits that no one knows for sure, and says that Adkisson alone is responsible for the shootings. But he keeps thinking about some books that police found in Adkisson's apartment, books by popular right-wing talk-radio personalities who berate and denigrate liberals. One of the books police found in Adkisson's apartment was Michael Savage's "Liberalism is a Mental Disorder." In it, Savage calls liberals "the enemy within our country;" "an enemy more dangerous than Hitler"; "traitors" who are "dangerous to your survival" and who "should be placed in a straightjacket." Like Adkisson, Savage accuses liberals of "[tying] the hands of our military."

Savage isn't just a bestselling author: He also hosts a syndicated radio show

[THE MICHAEL SAVAGE SHOW SOT]: "And now American's most exciting radio talk show, the Savage Nation."

RICK KARR: Savage reaches more than eight and a quarter million listeners a week. And when it comes to demonizing liberals, he's the same on the air as he is in print:

MICHAEL SAVAGE, THE MICHAEL SAVAGE SHOW: Liberalism is, in essence, the HIV virus, and it weakens the defense cells of a nation. What are the defense cells of a nation? Well, the church. They've attacked particularly the Catholic Church for 30 straight years. The police, attacked for the last 50 straight years by the ACLU viruses. And the military, attacked for the last 50 years by the Barbara Boxer viruses on our planet.

RICK KARR: Political liberals aren't the only targets of Savage's wrath. Back when he had a cable TV show, he bashed gay men:

MICHAEL SAVAGE: So, you're one of the sodomites. Are you a sodomite?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I am.

MICHAEL SAVAGE: Oh, you're one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig. You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage. You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis.

RICK KARR: And on his radio show, he targeted kids with autism.

MICHAEL SAVAGE: I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot."

PROTESTOR: Fire Savage now! Fire Savage now!

RICK KARR: That outburst prompted protests by outraged parents, and a few stations dropped Savage's show. So did an advertiser. But Savage hasn't apologized and he's still on the air.

MICHAEL SAVAGE: America is being overrun by an invasion force from Mexico that'll soon take over the country. [...] You psychotic liberals don't even know you're digging your own grave and throwing lime in there. All that's missing is the worm from the tequila bottle to go with it.

RICK KARR: Michael Savage isn't the only right-wing talk radio host who launches blistering, even violent, verbal attacks on people and groups he doesn't like. Glenn Beck, for instance, fantasized about murdering a liberal filmmaker.

GLENN BECK:I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out of him. Is this wrong?

RICK KARR: Michael Reagan, son of the former president, suggested that people who claim that "9/11 was an inside job," a U.S. government conspiracy, deserve to die.

MICHAEL REAGAN, THE MICHAEL REAGAN SHOW: Take them out and shoot them. They are traitors to this country, and shoot them. But anybody who would do that doesn't deserve to live. You shoot them. You call them traitors, that's what they are, and you shoot them dead. I'll pay for the bullet.

RICK KARR: Neal Boortz went after victims of Hurricane Katrina.

NEAL BOORTZ, THE NEAL BOORTZ SHOW: That wasn't the cries of the downtrodden. That's the cries of the useless, the worthless. New Orleans was a welfare city, a city of parasites, a city of people who could not, and had no desire to fend for themselves. You have a hurricane descending on them and they sit on their fat asses and wait for somebody else to come rescue them.

RICK KARR: Muslims are some of Boortz's favorite targets.

NEAL BOORTZ: It's Ramadan and Muslims in your workplace might be offended if they see you eating at your desk. Why? I guess it's because Muslims don't eat during the day during Ramadan. They fast during the day and eat at night. Sort of like cockroaches.

RICK KARR: Reverend Chris Buice says he's heard that kind of language before.

REV. CHRIS BUICE: If you look at the history of like-- situations like in Rwanda in 1994, the talk radio was a big part of leading to the conditions that created a genocide. The Hutu radio disc jockeys would call the Tutsi cockroaches. There's the sense that these aren't human beings. You know, they're not human beings with children or grandchildren. These are cockroaches. And when you hear in talk radio that liberals are evil, that they are traitors, that they are godless, that they are on the side of the terrorist-- that's hate language. You don't negotiate with evil people. You don't live in community with people you consider to be traitors.

RICK KARR: Millions of Americans tune in to right-wing talk radio every day. Rory O'Connor is a media critic and a liberal himself who's written a book on shock-talkers. He says not all of these broadcasters use violent language. But they do all share a predilection for outrage. And, he says, they're all practically addicted to constantly cranking up that outrage.

RORY O'CONNOR: Here's the real problem. When you shock somebody, if you come back the next time and you apply the same stimulus, it's not shocking any longer. It's already happened. So you have to ratchet it up a little bit. So how do you cut through? How do you really shock? I think that in order to continue to outrage, you have to constantly be jacking up the pressure. And ultimately, there's going to be some deranged person out there in that audience who's going to say, "You know what? That's a good idea. Let me act on that."

[THE GLENN BECK PROGRAM SOT]: "The fusion of entertainment and enlightenment."

RICK KARR: Entertainers-- that's what a lot of the shock-talkers call themselves. O'Connor says, maybe, but their words can motivate their listeners to act.

RORY O'CONNOR: Now first and foremost, we have to recognize that many of them are employed across multiple platforms. So they may say something on their radio show, but they may repeat it on their television show. They may then repeat it in their newspaper column. They may repackage the ideas into their best-selling books.

RICK KARR: The debate over the immigration reform bill became a case study for Rory O'Connor. As arguments went back and forth, some of the language turned venomous. Hosts amped up their audiences' outrage with attacks on the bill's supporters and verbal assaults on immigrants:

NEAL BOORTZ: I already have received at least one brilliant email today about the immigration problem, [...] This person sent me an email, said when we defeat this illegal alien amnesty bill and when we yank out the welcome mat and they all start going back to Mexico, as a going-away gift let's all give them a box of nuclear waste. [...] Tell 'em it can, it'll heat tortillas.

BILL O'REILLY: But do you understand what The New York Times wants? And the far left want? They want to break down the white, Christian male power structure-- which you are a part and so am I-- and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have.

RICK KARR: Right-wing talk radio hosts usually reserve their ad hominem attacks for liberal figures. Jim Quinn has his own name for the National Organization for Women:

JIM QUINN, THE WAR ROOM WITH QUINN AND ROSE: The National Organization for Whores, they're whores for liberal politics in general, and they were whores for Bill Clinton in particular.

RICK KARR: Glenn Beck tried to connect former Vice President Al Gore's efforts against global warming with Nazism.

GLENN BECK: What was the first thing they did to get people to exterminate the Jews? Now, I'm not saying that anybody's going to -- you know Al Gore's not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them. It is the same tactic, however. [...] You got to have an enemy to fight. And when you have an enemy to fight, then you can unite the entire world behind you, and you seize power. That was Hitler's plan. His enemy: the Jew. Al Gore's enemy, the U.N.'s enemy: global warming.

RICK KARR: American politics has always been a rough game. But political scientist Jeffrey Feldman, who's written a book on the effects of angry political rhetoric, says this is different.

JEFFREY FELDMAN: Our system is a deliberative democracy. And that deliberative democracy depends on a certain kind of talk, a certain conversation in order to function well. What right-wing rhetoric does, when it reaches that violent pitch, is it undermines that particular conversation, such that the focus of political debate, becomes increasingly hamstrung by fear, and the ability of citizens to engage in the basic act of civics becomes gummed up. That conversation breaks down.

RICK KARR: Knoxville pastor Chris Buice agrees.

REV. CHRIS BUICE: When you blame all your problems on some minority group, then everyone else is exonerated. We exonerate ourselves. We don't have to look at ourselves to see what sort of ways we contribute to the problems of the world. We don't have to examine ourselves, to see what we are doing that is helping to create the problems that we're so concerned about.

RICK KARR: In other words, Buice says, angry talk radio rhetoric simply sets up scapegoats for society's problems. And ever since Jim David Adkisson walked into his church and opened fire he can't help but wonder whether that might lead to more violence.

REV. CHRIS BUICE: I just think a lot of people are hurling insults from the safety of television studios, the safety of radio studios, the safety of cyberspace, which they would not throw if they had to stand right next to a person and look in their face and say the same thing. And so that's a void in our community, the chance to be in the same room and to have these exchanges and remember the humanity of the person on the other side

BILL MOYERS: That report aired on the Journal on September 12, 2008. Earlier this year, when Jim David Adkisson was sentenced to life behind bars, he released what he called a manifesto -- a four-page statement he wrote before his shooting spree. It was a manifesto, all right, spewing hate like fire and lava exploding from a volcano.

"This was a hate crime," he wrote. "I hate the damn left-wing Liberals [sic]. There is a vast left-wing conspiracy in this country & these liberals are working together to attack every decent & honorable institution in the nation, trying to turn this country into a communist state." Among the targets of his malice -- the Democratic National Committee, for "running such a radical leftist candidate, Osama Hussein Obama, yo mama. No experience. No brains, a joke. Dangerous to America."

"Liberals," Adkisson went on, are "evil ...like termites. Millions of them. Each little bite contributes to the downfall of this great nation." He longed to exterminate the traitors one by one. "Who I wanted to kill," he wrote, "was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldbergs [sic] book." --Full disclosure: I'm one of the hundred. "But," Adkisson lamented, "...these people were inaccesible [sic] to me. I couldn't get to the generals & high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chickens**t liberals that vote in these traitorous people."

And that's how Adkisson decided on his victims -- he would go after the foot soldiers, the congregation in the church he described as "a den of un-American vipers." He had a patriotic imperative for anyone who read or heard his manifesto: "do [sic] something for your country before you go. Go Kill Liberals."

Do I think any conservative commentator wished for what happened in Knoxville last year, or to Doctor George Tiller in Wichita two months ago? Not for a minute. The killer who pulled the trigger is the guilty party. But do I wish the vendors of venom, and their sponsors, would think harder about how angry words become accomplices of foul deeds? Yes, I do. Most certainly. Especially as the words and crazy theories of militias and other elements of the lunatic fringe are given even a shred of credibility by their repetition in the conspicuous conservative media. God only knows the price we pay when we turn political opponents to be debated, into mortal enemies to be eliminated.

Now, when some of those who shout through the megaphone of right wing radio hear a critique like this, they immediately throw a fit. They claim that people like me are calling for a return to the Fairness Doctrine. Some of you remember the Fairness Doctrine, adopted 60 years ago by the Federal Communications Commission. It said that opposing points of view had to be presented on radio or TV in a way that was honest, equitable and balanced. If not, said the FCC, a station could lose its license.

Ronald Reagan abolished the doctrine in 1987, but mention it today and the Rush Limbaugh's of the world still scream like martyrs being stretched on the rack. These people earn millions inciting riots in the public mind. If they were required to be fair, they would soon be penniless, out on the street, cup in hand. So when we first telecast our report on the killings in Knoxville last year, some of them threw a tantrum, as if our criticism of their malicious rhetoric was a call for government censorship.

It's true that in this current climate of mean-speak some members of congress and others have called for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. But I'm not one of them. The Doctrine is a throwback to a time when there were a lot fewer ways to hear news and opinion than there are in today's universe of websites, blogs, and tweets. Just last week, the two new commissioners to the FCC expressed their strong opposition to its restoration. The new FCC chairman is opposed, too.

Conservatives nonetheless wave the fallacious threat of its return as a bloody flag, lofted above the straw men they evoke to roil the faithful and keep the cash registers ringing.

So let me say it again: the first amendment protection of a free press extends to The Savage Nation as surely as it does to The Nation magazine. Anyway, you can't coerce taste; fairness is not a doctrine to be enforced, but a choice to be made, a responsibility to be honored.

That's it for this week, but the Journal continues at our website. Log onto PBS.org and click on Bill Moyers Journal, where you can find out more about the history of talk radio and free speech and follow the debate on health care reform.

I'm Bill Moyers. See you next time.

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