BILL MOYERS:Welcome to the Journal.How ugly will it get? Very. The campaign has hit bottom this very first week, and seems to thrive there, down where the wild things are, while the country chokes on "Froth and Scum." By the way, FROTH AND SCUM is the title of a book, written by a former colleague, the historian Andie Tucher, on the sensationalist press in 19th Century America. Back then, the American author Oliver Wendell Holmes said that language is sacred, and wrote that its abuse should be as criminal as murder. He called it "...verbicide...violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning..." America has yet to make "verbicide" a hanging offense. Indeed under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, pretty much anything goes. There are some limits Holmes' son was the Supreme Court justice who noted in a famous opinion that you cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theater. That's because words have consequences and not just in politics. People in Knoxville, Tennessee, are asking if one of those consequences could be murder. Our correspondent Rick Karr traveled there to investigate. Let me warn you some of the language you'll hear 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.
REVEREND 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 fifty-eight-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.
REVEREND 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.
REVEREND 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.
REVEREND 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 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.
ANNOUNCER:"And now American's most exciting radio talk show...THE SAVAGE NATION...THE MICHAEL SAVAGE SHOW."
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:"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?"
CALLER: "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 earlier this year 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.'"
PROTESTORS:"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 "nine-eleven was an inside job," a U.S. government conspiracy, deserve to die.
MICHAEL REAGAN: "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:"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. Sorta like cockroaches."
RICK KARR: Reverend Chris Buice says he's heard that kind of language before.
REVEREND 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 gonna be some deranged person out there in that audience who's gonna say, "You know what? That's a good idea. Let me act on that."
GLENN BECK:"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: Last year's 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:O'Connor says the result stunned Washington.
RORY O'CONNOR: There were massive numbers of emails and letters and phone calls. You know, senators said, they had to have two or three people in their office answering the calls. That was all that they could do. They were inundated. And beyond that, how do you get their attention? Well, I tell you. If you send those threatening letter to a senator's home, that gets his attention pretty fast.
RICK KARR: Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez got a threatening letter at home. North Carolina Republican Richard Burr got a threatening call at his office. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told the NEW YORK TIMES that he and others had received threats, too. The TIMES also reported that a mass email opposing the bill suggested that its supporters needed to be "taken out by ANY MEANS". The bipartisan support collapsed, the bill died and right-wing talk-radio hosts took credit.
RORY O'CONNOR: This is evidence of their vast power. I mean, you know, President George Bush was pulling out all his political capital to get immigration reform passed. Trent Lott was backing him up with everything he had. And guess what? The President and the Republican leadership and Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership, they all lost. And they lost to a bunch of radio jocks.
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 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: During this year's Democratic primaries, Rush Limbaugh urged his listeners to vote for Senator Hillary Clinton to foster division in the Democratic Party in the hope that that would lead to violence in the streets of Denver. He called it "Operation Chaos".
RUSH LIMBAUGH:"This is about chaos, this is why it is called Operation Chaos[...]the dream end, if people say what is your exit strategy. The dream end is this keeps up to the convention. And that we have a replay of Chicago 1968, with burning cars, protests, fires, literal riots and all of that. That's the objective here."
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.
REVEREND 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.
REVEREND CHRIS BUICE:I just think a lot of people are hurling insults from the safety of television studios, the safety of radio studio, 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:We may never know what finally triggered the killer's rage, unless he chooses at his trial or later to tell us. But not for a moment do I think any of the talk show hosts mentioned by the police would have wished it to happen.
We asked several radio hosts to come on this broadcast and talk about the story; they either declined or didn't return our calls. The issue of course is not their right to say anything they want on the air. The First Amendment guarantees their free speech as it does mine. Government shouldn't be the arbiter of what the Bill of Rights leaves to one's own sense of fair play. Watching that report, however, I was reminded of a story from folk lore about the tribal elder telling his grandson about the battle the old man was waging within himself. He said, "My son it is between two wolves. One is an evil wolf: anger, envy, sorrow, greed, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is the good wolf: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, generosity, truth, compassion and faith." The boy took this in for a few minutes and then asked, "Which wolf won?" His grandfather answered, "The one I feed." So, too, America's public life. The wolf that wins is the wolf we feed. Media provides the fodder.
We'll be back in just a bit with more about the media's role in America's public life and in this presidential campaign. But first, this is one of those times we remind you that you are the public in public broadcasting. This station needs your support and is waiting for your call. Thank you.