Severin: not a border-enforcement martyr

When I blogged last week on anti-Mexican hatemonger Jay Severin’s recent, ill-explained suspension from WTKK-FM--a suspension that remains in effect as of this writing--a host of Severin defenders weighed in with comments. One of their favorite claims: Severin was being throttled for daring to speak candidly about illegal immigration. (As “john” put it: “Stop protecting criminals by gagging people who speak the truth!!”)

This is an utterly bogus argument. Plenty of Severin’s conservative-talk counterparts used the H1N1 (nee Swine Flu) outbreak to raise pointed questions about U.S. immigration policy. Here, for example, is syndicated gabber Neal Boortz (as quoted by Media Matters for America) suggesting that some nefarious party was using Mexicans to wage biological warfare on the US: “[I]f you want to get that epidemic into this country, get it going real good and hot south of the border. And, you know, then just spread a rumor that there's construction jobs available somewhere, and here it comes. Because we're not gonna do anything to stop them from coming across the border.” And here’s Fox’s Glenn Beck (again according to Media Matters) arguing that the H1N1 outbreak highlights the (alleged) idiocy of current immigration policy: “[I]f you are a family and you're down in Mexico and you're dying and those in America are not, why wouldn't you flood this border? Why wouldn't you come across this border? ....Gee, it would be nice if we had some border security.”

But wait. Boortz and Beck are still on the air. So what’s the difference between them and Severin?

Start with rhetorical skill. Yes, Boortz’s conspiracy theory--in which Mexicans serve as viral mules for a biological terrorist--is pretty damn incendiary. Note, though, that Boortz knows where to draw the line: he doesn’t argue that Mexicans are inherently inferior (be it for social or biological reasons) to Americans. Neither does Beck; in fact, as I read it, Beck’s plea for tighter border control actually contains a surprising whiff of empathy.

Then, in contrast, there’s Severin, who’s apparently oblivious to how far he can and can’t go. Severin didn’t use H1N1 to attack immigration policy as much as he used to to paint Mexicans as subhuman--as venereal-disease-bearing “leeches” and “the world’s lowest of primitives.” This is far more toxic than anything the Boortzes and Becks of the world have been peddling. In other words, Severin’s gripe with illegal immigration wasn’t the problem; his own lack of an internal filter was.

But that alone probably wouldn’t have been enough to get Severin suspended. As various Boston media observers have noted, Severin’s ratings have been slipping of late. A hateful host who pulls in listeners, like Michael Savage, is one thing; a hateful host who’s losing his audience is quite another. Throw in the fact that Severin recently had a strange public confrontation with Don Imus, who headlines WTKK’s morning lineup--and that he’s reportedly making more than $1 million a year--and it’s no wonder WTKK decided to give Severin a very public time out.

One more point deserves emphasis here. Severin is, of course, free to say whatever he wants about Mexicans, however abhorrent it is. That hasn’t changed: he could head to Boston Common tomorrow and pick right up where he left off. But his First Amendment freedoms don’t entitle him to say whatever he wants about Mexicans on the WTKK airwaves. WTKK, which is owned by Greater Media, is a commercial concern; they’re paying Severin handsomely because they expect it to redound to their benefit. If it seems, instead, that Severin’s inartful hatemongering is becoming a liability, the station is well within its rights to tell him to get lost. Whether they'll do so, or instead allow Severin to return on a shortened leash, remains to be seen.

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