Hate Radio

Communication's Keith tunes in to the radical right and reveals how fringe groups use media

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The research Senior Lect. Michael Keith (Communication) did for his forthcoming book was unusual, even unnerving at times: accessing World Wide Web sites containing unvarnished racist language and advocating violence against the government and minority groups; joining, briefly, the electronic mailing list for an extremist group; and attempting to conduct a phone interview with a suspicious, hostile neo-Nazi leader.

But these endeavors allowed Keith to gain an understanding of the nature and impact of right-wing electronic media in the United States. Keith and co-author Emerson College Professor of Mass Communication Robert Hilliard share their findings in Waves of Rancor: Tuning In The Radical Right , the first in a series on media, culture and communication in America that Keith is editing with colleague Assoc. Prof. Donald Fishman (Communication).

Tracing the origins of the right-wing media, Keith and Hilliard also include exclusive interviews with major figures like David Duke and Bo Gritz, and profile organizations combating the efforts of radical right groups.

Senior Lect. Michael Keith (Communication)-"The purpose here is to reveal, as explicitly as possible, what these groups are and how they use the media to achieve their ends. In the revelation of their agendas, to be forewarned is forearmed." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

For all the controversial subject matter, Keith sees Waves of Rancor as consistent with his previous works, which analyze how groups "out of the mainstream" - such as Native Americans and members of the 1960s counterculture - utilize and influence American media.

"The purpose here is to reveal, as explicitly as possible, what these groups are and how they use the media to achieve their ends," explained Keith. "In the revelation of their agendas, to be forewarned is forearmed."

Not all groups or individuals Keith researched espouse violence and racism, he notes - some are survivalists, for example, more concerned with Doomsday scenarios like the Year 2000 problem. While mainstream conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy are included in the book, Keith stresses that he and Hilliard have been careful to distinguish them from the "fringe" of the radical right.

"We don't lump them together - in fact, Limbaugh and Liddy have been threatened for being 'too liberal,'" he said. "We make the distinction that there is a middle ground, although there may be some common threads between there and the outer fringes."

To describe such groups as the Patriot Network or the Phineas Priesthood as "fringe," however, does not mean they are so isolated as to have little impact on the US, Keith says.

"When hundreds of armed militias are training people to have the capability of committing acts like the Oklahoma City bombing, that's something you can't ignore," he said. "We don't have an Oklahoma City bombing every day, but there were approximately 8,800 hate crimes in the US last year, most of which only made local papers instead of the national media. It's quite possible to draw lines from some of these factions to those crimes."

Keith was prompted to begin the project after hearing broadcasts of extremist right-wing rhetoric on shortwave and AM radio, and found similar views expressed on cable and satellite television, and even music CDs. But following the strong public reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing, and debate over the role anti-government advocates may have played in the tragedy, many in the radical right took refuge on the Internet, Keith says.

"There are literally thousands of World Wide Web sites maintained by militias, white supremacists, secessionists, conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis," he said. "It's a way they can keep reaching out, and recruiting, without attracting the attention radio or TV broadcasts create."

Through their attention to image and the use of media, Keith said, radical rights groups and individuals often attain an aura of legitimacy. Keith found Duke and survivalist leader Kurt Saxon, for example, to be "amicable, level-headed, cordial and helpful" in discussing their media operations. His experience with Ernst Zundel was different, however: The reputed neo-Nazi rebuffed Keith and accused him of working for the CIA, although Keith was added to his electronic mailing list and for a few weeks received Zundel's daily "Zundelgram."

Keith feels the publication of Waves of Rancor will be timely, given recent events such as the murder of Matthew Shepard and the imminent release of several films, such as "Apt Pupil," which deal with questions related to hate crimes and the climate in which they take place. Such questions, he notes, also have been much discussed at Boston College over the past few weeks.

"We're never too far away, even in a bastion of kindness and compassion like Boston College, from these issues," said Keith. "It's not easy to confront them, but we have to understand where this hatred is coming from, and what brings it forward into the public."

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