Talk radio a little more civil after Limbaugh controversy

Almost 25 years ago a group of people en route from the Mexican border for what they thought would be a better life in the United States never realized that dream.

Two days before the Fourth of July in 1987, the bodies of 18 illegal immigrants -- reportedly headed for Dallas-Fort Worth -- were pulled from a railroad boxcar in the West Texas town of Sierra Blanca. They had suffocated in a 120-degree deathtrap.

It captured the nation's attention and shed more light on the risks many undocumented immigrants were willing to take just to get to America.

But one area radio talk show host, appealing to his largely conservative anti-immigrant audience, was unsympathetic about the situation, declaring on the air that those who died "deserved" their fate.

"I know I'm going to really stir it up again," began then-KLIF personality David Gold, "but you know the 18 illegal aliens tragically killed in a railroad car? That's a tragic thing. But I don't know if your mind works like mine, but those people got what they deserved. I have no sympathy for people trying to get in this country illegally."

The outcry was immediate, with many calling for a public apology, Gold's dismissal and a boycott of the station and its advertisers.

KLIF did not fire Gold, who ironically was known as the "conservative freight train." Station management did announce that they had reprimanded their most popular host and promised to be more sensitive to the minority community.

What is interesting, and has bearing on the controversy about talk radio today, is that within days of that horrific railyard discovery, there were three other similar incidents (minus the deaths) involving illegal immigrants: 53 were found confined in a tractor-trailer in San Diego; 88 were discovered suffering in a closed trailer in San Clemente, Calif.; and 19 were found trapped and dehydrated in a locked railroad trailer near Laredo.

But because of the reaction to Gold, the tone on talk radio regarding illegal immigrants had changed substantially in two weeks. The "shock jocks" were held in check by station managers and advertisers and those special interest groups ready to call a boycott.

About three years later I joined KLIF as a talk show host, doing on-air duty for the three hours before Gold, who would become my debate adversary and my friend.

I know the pressure to be both controversial and entertaining because, we were told, that got ratings. The big question for me, who never had a problem being controversial, was can one also be civil by refusing to call names, denigrate social and political "enemies," and deliberately offend those who are different? I thought so, although I'm not sure I always succeeded.

That brings me to today, in the wake of superstar Rush Limbaugh's latest controversy and his attack on a young woman who had the audacity to talk about contraception before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

The widespread condemnation of Limbaugh, the call for boycotts and especially the retreating of national advertisers has talk radio talking -- maybe even thinking.

Even though I criticized Gold for his statement, I've never called for anyone to be fired or to resign for something they said.

At the same time, I believe in economic boycott as a means to an end. I've felt that way since the civil rights movement.

What conservative talk show hosts are learning is that when they preach that the concepts of free speech and free enterprise go hand-in-hand, they can't object when people use enterprise (in the form of boycott) to object to their speech.

Remember how the Dixie Chicks were vilified and boycotted in 2003 for something one of them said about George W. Bush?

At least for the moment, as other talk show hosts have come under fire, talk radio is a bit more civil though still incendiary.

Advertisers are more cautious and syndicates are more nervous as some local stations look for alternatives -- like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- to flame throwers.

That's all good. But how long will it last?

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.


Twitter: @BobRaySanders