Pull the plug
Suspension is not enough for John and Ken calling Whitney a 'crack ho'
By Kevin Uhrich 02/23/2012
A few months back, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, hosts of KFI AM radio’s sometimes racially incendiary “John & Ken Show,” came under fire for publicly attacking Jorge-Mario Cabrera, an advocate of the DREAM Act and then giving out Cabrera’s professional cell number over the air. According to Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Cabrera received more than 450 “angry calls,” some of them death threats, as a result of that disclosure.
At the time, we let this issue air itself out, giving Kobylt and Chiampou column space to explain their position. We also gave space to Nogales, who demanded that the two deejays be fired. If that didn’t happen, Nogales said he was going to call for a boycott of the show.
At the time, we did not go that far in opposition to what Kobylt and Chiampou did, instead allowing the public to decide the ticklish issue of just how far is too far when it comes to tolerating forms of what some people consider hate speech.
In response to the column, Kobylt and Chiampou apologized, but not before attacking Nogales and calling his complaints misleading and unwarranted. However, “Even so,” the pair co-wrote in a letter to the Weekly back in November, “the calls [Cabrera] received were wrong, and we’ve apologized repeatedly for that.” So, it seems, they really did put Cabrera’s life in danger and acknowledged doing as much.
We’re all for First Amendment freedoms. What we cannot condone is a continuation of this type of offensive speech aimed at minorities — this time Whitney Houston, an incredibly beautiful and super-talented African-American woman and mother with a drug problem — and financed and at least tacitly approved by the biggest media players in Southern California, including the Los Angeles Times.
What Kobylt and Chiampou’s defenders sometimes forget is speech freedoms are not absolute. Just as one cannot create a public panic by yelling fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire, a person cannot without repercussion simply call someone a “crack ho,” as these two called Houston.
In case they don’t realize it — kind of like they didn’t think so many people would call and threaten Cabrera after giving out his number on the air — what Kobylt and Chiampou said amounted to hate speech in the eyes of many, and hate speech is not protected by the Constitution. Hate speech is a crime, one punishable by fines and possibly jail time. Of course, this says nothing of the civil action KFI AM owner Clear Channel would have surely faced if the pair had said such things when Houston was alive. As it is, they’ve been suspended for 10 days, which is a pretty big deal.
Some, including our colleagues in the media, will disagree with this demand to take these two guys off the air permanently. The Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, for instance, a primarily African-American progressive political action group headed by occasional Pasadena Weekly columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, seems ready to move on.
At first, the group called the pair’s suspension “an ‘insulting hand slap non-punishment’ and demanded that they and other KFI radio hosts undergo sensitivity training, issue a public pledge to end racial, ethnic and gender attacks and that KFI Clear Channel declare zero tolerance for on-air abuse by its hosts,” according to a statement issued Monday by Hutchinson’s group.
KFI Program Director Robin Bertolucci explained that Kobylt and Chiampou were not just suspended for 10 days without pay, but that the station “in the future will be firm in not condoning overt or veiled inflammatory racial and ethnic and personal attacks by its hosts,” according to the statement. In the end, the group called for KFI to closely monitor jocks and suspend or fire those who cross the line, but did not call for the pair’s dismissal.
We are big fans of Hutchinson and respect his judgment. But “not condoning” is a far cry from “condemning” and “prohibiting,” words that appear nowhere in any of the apologies issued over this unbelievably insensitive insult to Houston and her family.
Given the track record of KFI, which, as Hutchinson points out, has had more than its share of racially insensitive incidents over the past two decades, have these two and their bosses not had enough “sensitivity training?” When is any of that training going to start translating into better, more thoughtful, sensitive, civil and respectful on-air behavior?
All of this alleged hate speech directed at Houston would hurt the feelings of her family and friends just as much if these two were confined to just AM radio. But the fact is KFI’s corporate influence and message stretch much further than that. Kobylt and Chiampou currently get a few minutes five days a week to pass for whatever “opinion” content KTLA Channel 5 airs during its 6 p.m. newscast. And Channel 5, in case anyone has forgotten, is owned by Tribune Co., owners of the LA Times, which provides KTLA with content — that is when the TV station isn’t pilfering stories from TMZ. It’s odd, or maybe not, that this little corporate family tie is missing from the story the Times ran on this latest John and Ken controversy.
Kobylt and Chiampou need to go, hopefully from the radio, but especially from TV. To paraphrase a salient element of all free speech debates, reasonable people can disagree on how goals should be accomplished — in this case, resignation, dismissal and boycott are three possibilities. But for many, including us, that these two should ultimately be taken off the air is now beyond discussion.