Only Human, Only Heroes

While right-wing radio dehumanizes liberals, TVUUC proves its strength

One Unitarian parent trying to explain the inexplicable to her child described the shooter's desperation in the face of unemployment and termination of his food stamps. "He should have just come to our church, we would have helped," said the child. The children of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church congregation uniting in song at the vigil after the attack was a moment of glory. That is what Unitarians do: face down the thunder of violence and intolerance with sweet songs of hope.

On July 27, they faced terrorism in their sanctuary. Jim David Adkisson's would-be suicide note made it clear he had more deaths, including his own, in mind. He was foiled by the men who tackled him, but also by an unsung hero, Ann Snyder, who was outside shuttling children on and off the stage. Adkisson tried to enter the sanctuary through the same door. In that position, he would have been harder to disarm, and, if he had specific victims in mind, he could have faced the crowd. Snyder told him to go around to the main entrance, and he obeyed, probably because she tapped into the most powerful life force there is, motherhood.

Another woman deserves accolades for her response to the tragedy, Catherine Howell of WNOX. Normally a reporter, she was filling in for a vacationing afternoon host, and when police announced that Adkisson had targeted TVUUC because of its liberal philosophy, Howell confronted her station's role head on. When she learned about the note found in his vehicle and the books confiscated from his home, "My first thought was ‘He's a listener,'" Howell admitted.

On Monday and Tuesday after the attack, she discussed the shooter's hatred of liberals with guests and callers. If you do not think that took courage, consider what Fox News has done. One of the first national networks to cover the shooting, they subsequently scrubbed the story from their website search engine. You can find their reports through Google, but nothing you type into the search tool will yield anything about the shooting.

Like Fox, the WNOX faithful were not as willing as Howell to confront the role of hateful political dialog in the attack. Instead, they found ways to deny the problem or talk around it. Despite Howell's efforts to keep the discussion on track, callers fixated on blame and missed the larger context. Adkisson is to blame, but how he chose his target is worth talking about because of the threat of another attack in Knoxville or in another town where the primary news station airs Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and others who make a living dehumanizing liberals.

WNOX replaced Savage several months ago with Mark Levin, but Levin's shtick is similar: suck up to the police and military, talk about how much you love animals, and call for liberals to be wiped off the Earth. Not all conservative hosts call for violence against liberals; some merely ridicule them. Though Howell's concern over her station's anti-liberal invective was genuine, she had a bottom-line interest as well. She was concerned the attack could be used as leverage to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, which once required broadcasters to balance opinions with rebuttal. Before it was repealed, Rush Limbaugh eluded the Fairness Doctrine by claiming to be merely entertainment, not political commentary.

The Fairness Doctrine is an anachronism from a time when most markets had just two or three television stations. In today's diverse media climate, it is no longer necessary. Does an opinion and a rebuttal really constitute balance? Interesting topics support more than just two viewpoints. The collapse of everything to liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican is what has left this country so polarized, and the Fairness Doctrine could just reinforce the divide.

Unfortunately, there is a more fundamental issue than balance. Many conservative talk shows suffer an honesty deficit. If they allow a liberal caller on air, they typically hang up on them or interrupt them before they can state their case, then the host fills in the blank with what he expected the person to say. As a result, the host gets to define not only his own point of view, but that of his opponents'. Liberalism becomes a nonsensical caricature of itself, and conservatism merely Not Liberal.

This makes life easy for conservatives. If their small-government president creates the biggest deficits in history, at least he is Not Liberal. If a Republican candidate is an uninspiring flip-flopper, just ratchet up the attacks on his opponent. Conservatives no longer have to stand for anything because it is adequate to merely be Not Liberal. Since they get to define what liberal is, how can they fail?

One of Howell's callers likened liberals to a computer virus. Another said the Unitarians had it coming because they welcome homosexuals. Perhaps in death, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger can cut through that callousness and serve as examples of what liberals really are: foster parents, grandmothers, heroes who are thoughtful and willing to work together for a better world.