Environmentalists are "green Nazis... pure, unadulterated satanic evil...vile vomit."
Does that hateful tone sound familiar? Radio and television commentary tycoons—Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their ilk—often use that kind of language against their targets, including not only environmentalists, but also liberals and gay people. Their broadcasts encourage destructive politics.
But recently, a Western community sent a message indicating that hateful blasts can have repercussions. Tune in to the 600 AM radio frequency in Montana's Flathead Valley and you hear static now. "Shock jock" John Stokes and his KGEZ station used that frequency for nine years to broadcast vicious attacks against environmentalists–including the "vile vomit" slur quoted above. Stokes also attacked the government and the very notion of respecting the other side in any disagreement. His rants on his daily talk show, "The Edge," earned nationwide news coverage.
Stokes burned wooden green swastikas to symbolically destroy environmentalists at "anti-Earth Day" rallies in 2001 and 2002. He even implied that his listeners should attack environmentalists and liberals, according to the Missoulian, with lines such as: "Finish them off and make sure they don't have babies."
Inevitably, Stokes caused many kinds of people to come together to oppose him. They organized and pressured businesses not to advertise on his radio station, and eventually Stokes went too far. During a dispute with neighbors who own land where he has radio towers, he accused them on the air of committing bank fraud and perjury. In response, they sued for defamation of character, and last year a jury ordered him to pay them $3.8 million. He also had other debts, his station was reportedly losing money and he admitted that he hadn't filed tax returns for more than a decade. With all that weighing on him, he filed for bankruptcy eight months ago.
A bankruptcy judge appeared fed up on Sept. 21, ruling that Stokes had concealed millions of dollars of assets including "vehicles and at least one boat." The judge appointed a trustee to take over Stokes' assets and sell them to settle debts. On Sept. 24, cops seized the radio station and Stokes abruptly signed off. The trustee might sell the station or turn its license
over to the Federal Communications Commission; the Montana Human Rights Network wants the FCC to yank the license.
Stokes was part of the explosion of right-wing hate radio and TV "news" shows since 1987. That's the year Republican President Ronald Reagan killed the FCC's Fairness Doctrine—a requirement that broadcasters over time had to present a balance of points of view. So today the likes of Limbaugh and Beck provide no balance (or accuracy) as they shout that Democratic President Barack Obama is a coward, a communist, a socialist, a treasonous Muslim operative and a faker of his birth certificate. Of course, there are progressive commentators who also go too far, but the right-wing talking heads have mastered that tone in the media.
The message is clear: Stokes' hateful rhetoric was his downfall. Ultimately "he didn't damage any of his major targets," says Ben Long, a local political consultant. Environmentalists, for instance, helped defeat a county commissioner who was a frequent caller on Stokes' show, and they helped elect a commissioner who is more aligned with their goals. They've put together a successful campaign to preserve local land with conservation easements. Gays and lesbians and their supporters, also targeted by Stokes, staged Kalispell's first gay pride march last summer.
"This is still a conservative community," Long says, "but we can have a conversation, good democratic disagreements."
Stokes still has fans. He's blogging and appearing on other right-wing stations around the country, complaining that his station was "murdered." He's seeking donations to raise $75,000 to hire Bob Barr, a Georgia libertarian lawyer, to handle his appeal of the bankruptcy judge's order and other court actions. He vows that he'll be back on the air someday.
Fat chance, says Kate Hunt, a local sculptor who created a website to challenge Stokes' claims over the years. "We're thrilled" that Stokes is off the air, she says. "The sentiment around here is: It's about time."
Stokes' downfall could be seen as an audio milestone in the West's prolonged amble toward reasonableness. Even better, his fate might encourage more resistance to national loudmouths like Limbaugh and Beck.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior correspondent in Bozeman.