Words can be powerful weapons, causing serious -- and often undeserved -- damage. Which is why Ron Smith deserves some heat for casually throwing out the term "wetback" on his radio show last week.
In the heat of a discussion about illegal immigrants during his afternoon talk show on WBAL-AM (1090), Mr. Smith used the word, which is as offensive to Hispanics as Polack is to Polish-Americans and Hymie is to Jews. He admits that the word was ill-chosen, and stresses he would never use it in a prepared speech or written communication. At the same time, he refuses to look back.
"I don't withdraw it, I don't apologize for it," Mr. Smith said. "I don't go out of my way to call people names, but at the same time, I'm not going to grovel at somebody's feet and beg forgiveness. Somebody's always offended, and I don't care."
The word, Mr. Smith said, was used "in the context of the fuss over illegal immigration and the preposterous fact that the people of California cannot prevent themselves from being taxed HTC to death to provide for a slew of illegal immigrants."
WBAL vice president and general manager Jeff Beauchamp strongly defended his on-air talent, insisting that anyone who complained about such a term being used was at best a crybaby, at worst a rabble-rouser looking to cause trouble.
"It's absolutely nothing," Mr. Beauchamp said last week. "He did not use it as a racial slur. He did not use 'wetback' in the sense that he was referring to the Hispanic people. He was passionately talking about illegal aliens who come into this country, who collect welfare, who collect food stamps, who have broken the law. He referred to these people and only these people as wetbacks."
(It should be noted that I'm working at a disadvantage here. Because I work during the day, I rarely listen to Mr. Smith's show and did not hear him use the term. And because WBAL refused to provide a taped copy, I probably never will. But both Mr. Smith and Mr. Beauchamp acknowledged the term was used during a discussion of illegal immigration.)
This was not a cardinal sin on Ron Smith's part. He does not deserve to be pilloried or hanged in effigy. He does deserve to be held accountable, however, for casting aspersions on a group of people who don't deserve it.
"I'm minding my own business, driving home, and I hear this hateful word," said Gali Sanchez, a former member of the Baltimore Mayor's Advisory Committee on Hispanic Affairs. "Where do people get off using words like that?"
I believe Mr. Beauchamp when he says Ron Smith is not a racist, but simply a conservative talk-show host fed up with illegal immigrants he insists are at the root of many of this country's ills.
"Our problems are not insensitive language, our problem is a society that is falling apart," Mr. Smith said. "The problem isn't what we call illegal immigrants, the problem is that we have such a flood of illegal immigration."
Maybe so, but there are plenty of illegal aliens in this country who don't hail from Mexico or South America, but nobody thinks of them when the term "wetback" is used.
For a talk-radio host to call people illegal aliens promotes anger against those who have entered this country illegally, and perhaps they deserve it; that's another issue. But to call people wetbacks promotes anger against all Hispanics, and they definitely do not deserve it.
Tom Olson, the local anchor for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" on WJHU-FM (88.1), is in the middle of a 10-day trip to Estonia, where he'll talk with members of the country's National Guard -- known as the Kaitseliit -- about how the American media and government interact.
He'll be accompanying two members of the Maryland National Guard, which has been working with the Kaitseliit for two years helping them develop better community relations within the former Russian republic.
Mr. Olson left for Estonia Wednesday. He'll be back Saturday, and upon his return will be filing stories on the Maryland-Estonia connection and what life is like in a country experiencing democracy for the first time in half a century. He may also be calling in to "Morning Edition" during his visit.
"Morning Edition" airs from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays.
The Texaco-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network is rolling out the big names this month, broadcasting works by Mozart, Wagner and Tchaikovsky to open its 56th season.
The season opened yesterday with Kurt Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." But the rest of the month is nothing to sneeze at: Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" from noon to 5:45 p.m. Saturday, Mozart's "Die Zauberflote" from 1:30 p.m. to 4:50 p.m. Dec. 23 and Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 30.
"They're all masterpieces," says Sun classical music critic Stephen Wigler, suggesting it would be hard to go wrong listening to any of them. But if pressed to choose one, he'd pick "The Queen of Spades." "Russian opera, until recently, has never gotten what it deserves in this country," he explains.
The operas are heard locally on WBJC-FM (91.5).