Let’s stipulate that you don’t have to be a thug, racist or fool to oppose taxpayer-supported grants to illegal-immigrant college students. Let’s agree, meanwhile, that you can support financial aid to those undocumented migrant students without being a squishy-headed traitor.
The California Dream Act raises thorny issues about whether non-citizens should get government benefits at a time when many state services are being slashed. The arguments on the two sides are powerful enough that Gov. Jerry Brown has been taking weeks to decide whether to sign the legislation.
Charging into this emotional tinder box are the KFI radio duo of John and Ken, the drive-time talk-show hosts who for weeks have been waging a furious campaign against the Dream Act. They’ve accused their opponents of stealing from true Americans to give to outsiders. They’ve called the people who support government aid to undocumented students “traitors,” “slime,” and “scum.”
Last month the hosts took their objection to a new level — urging their fans to call an advocate who predicted victory for the college aid bill. The result was a barrage of phone calls to Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “Rot in hell.” “Get out of this country.” “Loser.” “Wetback,” snarled the mostly anonymous callers. I would share some even more virulently hateful comments, but Times guidelines prevent me.
The episode has led to a call by about a dozen Latino, immigrant rights and media organizations for KFI-AM (640) to remove John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou from the air for good. The two sides are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the demand, which comes from CHIRLA and others, including the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
But KFI is about as likely to drop its pair of stars as Disneyland is to banish Mickey Mouse. The action will probably turn to a second phase, in which the activists try to persuade KFI sponsors to pull their ads from the program. John and Ken are already protesting that they are just exercising their free speech rights, the way we do here in America.
But that freedom is a two-way superhighway. Listeners and advertisers can just as readily decide they no longer want to associate with that crowd. Advertisers and broadcasters don’t like this kind of accountability, according to one advocate, who campaigns against excessive violence and sexual content on television, but it’s now part of the daily conversation.
“You certainly have a right to free speech,” said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. “You also have a right to accept ads and compensation for that speech. But you don’t have a constitutional right for specific advertisers to pay for your speech.”
When the PTC tries to get big corporations to yank support from TV shows, it tells executives: “Is what you are sponsoring really what you want your company to stand for?” Winter guesses that’s the approach the activists would take against KFI and its parent, Clear Channel, though he is not taking sides in the dispute.
The groups targeting John and Ken will find them a substantial and unpredictable opponent. History (think Don Imus and Glenn Beck) has shown that even those knocked off the air after advertising boycotts and other protests have not had to wait long to plant their acts on new platforms.
John and Ken have been together for a quarter-century and become a drive-time (3 to 7 p.m.) force on one of the most popular local channels in the country. Their show draws a weekly audience just short of 1.1 million listeners, according to figures provided by KFI program director Robin Bertolucci. Their audience has further expanded with a regular “Driving It Home” television feature on KTLA Channel 5, which like The Times is owned by Tribune Co.
While they often take the conservative view, they can’t be easily pegged ideologically, as evidenced by their current push to recall three Fullerton City Council members. John and Ken blame the trio for protecting the police, who have been charged with killing a homeless man, Kelly Thomas.
On the Dream Act debate, they have represented a view that has gotten short shrift in news accounts, specifically the concern among some taxpayers that setting aside money for college students who came to the country illegally will reduce grants available for the native-born.
There has been substantial reporting on how grants to immigrants would help them succeed in college and become productive members of society. Fair enough. I haven’t seen as much written or broadcast about what U.S. citizens could lose as financial aid is spread around.
An article by my colleague Teresa Watanabe, though, offered a clue. The article explained that, conditions of the legislation notwithstanding, it’s possible that in some cases illegal immigrants will get college funds before citizens. Watanabe’s story pointed out that in student fee-funded, campus-based grant programs within the California State University system, it would be possible for money to go to some undocumented students but not to equally eligible U.S. citizens.
It’s no use pretending that new initiatives like the Dream Act, no matter how well intended, don’t re-order spending priorities. That results in winners and losers.
But anyone who listens to John and Ken knows they don’t draw such distinctions without a certain nasty flourish. After giving out the activist Cabrera’s phone numbers early last month, they suggested their audience might call such activists, whom they accused of “screwing American college kids” and “taking American tax money away from American families.”
Cabrera estimated he took a flogging from about 400 callers. After he blogged about the beat-down, the radio guys told their audience “we never, ever tell people to issue threats of violence.” Clear Channel Los Angeles President Greg Ashlock promised in a letter to “scrub” Cabrera’s phone numbers from an online version of the show. I was told it was an honest mistake (quickly corrected) when I found the phone numbers still audible on the KFI podcast, five days after that pledge.
A Times article on the furor last week prompted another John and Ken segment. They told their anti-Dream Act listeners to “be firm, but be polite” in confronting the opposition. “We never said to use hateful rhetoric or to threaten violence,” they added. “Never.”
Pardon me if those admonitions — issued well after the initial mobbing of Cabrera’s phone lines — sounded a little hollow. Don’t be hateful. Be polite. Even “slime,” “scum” and “traitors” deserve your utmost respect.