Radio station-sponsored rally draws thousands backing war

But national phenomenon leads critics to question whether bias is involved

War In Iraq

March 30, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HARRISBURG, Pa. - If you somehow missed the hundreds of waving flags and the signs that read "Ditzy Chicks" and "Deport the Anti-War Protesters," you couldn't escape it once Bob Durgin started talking. You knew you were in talk radio country.

"I want to send a message to the war protesters," the talk show host told a cheering crowd of thousands on the steps of the state Capitol yesterday.

"I'm not going to call them un-American ..."

"Un-American!" someone yelled for him. "Traitors!" shouted another.

"I want to say to you appeasing, U.N.-loving, self-loathing, pro-abortion, self-anointed, poetry-reading, anti-capitalism, peace-at-any-price, socialist, egg-sucking elitists," said the denim-wearing, cowboy-hatted host, "Bite me!"

It wasn't a pro-war demonstration, organizers said, but a "pro-America" rally to show support for the troops fighting in Iraq, one of about 20 held so far around the country. Many of them are organized by Philadelphia-based talk show host Glenn Beck, whose syndicated show is heard in more than 100 markets.

Yesterday's rally, which police estimated drew 3,000 to 5,000 people in the rain (organizers put the figure at well over 8,000), was sponsored by the Harrisburg news and talk radio station WHP, which airs Beck's program.

Families came with their flag-bedecked dogs. There were veterans of every war since World War II. Parents and grandparents of troops came with signs heralding their loved ones on the front lines. "We're proud of you Daddy. Happy Birthday," read one sign that featured a photo of a uniformed serviceman.

They chanted "U-S-A" and sang "Proud to be an American." During the Pledge of Allegiance, the volume went way up when they came to the part "one nation, UNDER GOD!"

Be thankful, syndicated columnist Mychal Massie told the crowd, "that we have a president who is not afraid or ashamed to say, `In God we trust.'" Pointing out a sign that read "Freedom is Priceless," he said: "It's not priceless. It was paid for in blood."

Collectively the rallies have attracted tens of thousands, but also some controversy. Radio host Beck, who organized many of them, is syndicated by an arm of Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio station operator with about 1,200 stations.

Many of the rallies are paid for by local Clear Channel stations, with contributions from one of Beck's advertisers, clothing manufacturer Bills Khakis of Reading, Pa.

Critics have questioned whether support for the rallies might undercut Clear Channel's credibility in news reporting. The company has a reporter embedded with a Marine unit in Iraq.

A spokesperson for Clear Channel didn't return calls, but company officials have said in the past that the company has "no hidden agenda," and that Beck and the local stations organized the rallies on their own.

Officials at WHP in Harrisburg, which is owned by Clear Channel, said their rally was organized entirely by the local station, independently of Beck, although he promoted it on his Web site and his program.

Yesterday's rally cost very little, station officials said, because the steps of the Capitol are available free of charge, and local companies donated T-shirts and sound equipment. A portion of the proceeds from T-shirt sales will go to a support group for the families of a locally based special operations unit.

"We proudly take a public stand, no matter who owns us," said Rob Kauffman, WHP's assistant programming director. "We proudly support the troops."

Critics point to the fact that Clear Channel's vice chairman, Tom Hicks, acquired his share of the Texas Rangers from President Bush, and suggest the company might be trying to gain favor with the administration in regulatory matters.

R.J. Harris, a rally organizer and talk host at WHP, says that is untrue. "Nobody from Clear Channel has ever talked to me about this. Do they support us? I'd be crazy to tell you no. They own us.

"But nobody from Clear Channel has ever told me to do anything, and I'm the operating manager of the radio station."

Harris said the rallies in no way compromised the station's news broadcast, which holds to the same standards as any other news organization.

"When the news ends at six after the hour, it's my show and I'm not a journalist," he said. "I don't feel any obligation to be fair and balanced. I do have an obligation to make the station successful."

As Hollywood and the clergy stake out their positions on this war - both institutions have generally sided against it - big radio seems to have lined up on the other side.

Its voice was heard loudly recently when the Dixie Chicks were banned from the playlists of Cumulus Media stations after the group's lead singer, Natalie Maines, a native of Lubbock, Texas, said, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

Clear Channel stations, however, did not drop the Dixie Chicks from their playlists.

Demonstrators said yesterday that they had no trouble with a radio station showing its bias.

With opinion polls showing that more than 70 percent of Americans favor the war, demonstrators said it's about time their side got attention.

"Sometimes I feel slighted that it's the people laying in the street that get coverage," said Roger Hayslip of Quakerstown Pa., referring to the recent die-in demonstration in New York City.

"I'm not a warmonger. It's a dirty job; no one wants to do it," said Hayslip, carrying a sign that said "Liberal media are Saddam's best soldiers."

"But people like Saddam and Osama bin Laden aren't going to sit down and talk."

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