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Sunday, May 06, 2001

Judge vs. host
By John Kiesewetter (The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Judge Nathaniel R. Jones anticipates the question: Why is a federal judge so outspoken about Bill Cunningham and WLW-AM?

“For me as a judge to express some views may seem strange, but my view is that anything that affects the administration of justice is something that should be of concern to judges,” says the Youngstown native appointed to the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit bench in 1979.

For Mr. Jones, the principal NAACP lawyer through the 1960s civil rights movement, talk radio isn't entertainment when racial issues are discussed. His belief that talk radio threatens to undo remedies for decades of racial discrimination puts him on a collision course with Mr. Cunningham.

Mr. Jones, a National Conference for Community and Justice board member, first blasted Mr. Cunningham in 1997 after the talk host questioned the need for debt-ridden Central State University, Ohio's only historically black public college, and criticized Jesse Jackson. A few weeks later, the National Conference started scrutinizing talk radio.

In February, he again took on Mr. Cunningham, calling his WLW-AM show “trash, and filth and profanity.”

The judge also gives WLW-AM low marks for its coverage the first days of last month's protests and riots, while praising the restraint preached by Jonathan Love and Edna Howell-Parrish on WDBZ-AM (1230).

“In the first part of the week, I don't think talk radio acquitted itself well,” he says. “But later on, after the confrontations and the tension became so intense, there was an attempt to calm the atmosphere.”

For years, the judge has been troubled by the code words heard on talk radio — “quotas,” “busing” and “welfare mothers” — which tear “at the fragile seams that bind together our diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups,” he says.

“We have succeeded in transforming what was so wrong into something that's right,” he says, citing the elimination of segregated drinking fountains, swimming pools, hotels and restaurants. “But the means by which that was done is now being severely attacked and savaged by persons who don't have a sense of history.”

Mr. Cunningham, however, sees the judge's attacks as “the liberal left” trying to “shut people like me up, so they have the playing field all to themselves.”

Stephen Bennett, 59, a retired University of Cincinnati political science professor who is writing a book on political talk radio, says the judge's criticisms are typical of “the political and cultural foes of conservative (radio) voices who feel threatened” by talk radio.

So liberals play the race card, says Mike McConnell of WLW-AM.

“I can criticize women, and I'm not called a misogynist,'' Mr. McConnell says. “If you disagree with something Jesse Jackson says, all of the sudden you have "the big R' on your forehead.”

Mr. Cunningham also claims he's the victim of a double standard by African-Americans who have been silent about the comments of talk host Nate Livingston, an African-American. The WDBZ-AM afternoon talk host has been critical of Cincinnati Black United Front President Damon Lynch III and Cincinnati City Council member Alicia Reece.

In 1997, while guest hosting on WLW-AM after two Cincinnati police officers were killed, Mr. Livingston told listeners: “If people have a beef with (then-Hamilton County Prosecutor) Joe Deters and they choose to use violence, which we don't advocate, don't kill a police officer, go kill the prosecutor.”

Mr. Cunningham says: “I've never threatened to kill the prosecutor. Did you hear from Judge Jones when a prosecutor's life was threatened? Why not? Because it came from a liberal talk show host.”

The judge says he's equally concerned about comments broadcast by liberals and conservatives. “I don't cut anyone any slack,” he says.

The National Conference “has concerns about extreme, inflammatory, racist, sexist, bigoted talk from anybody, whether conservative or liberal,” says Robert “Chip” Harrod, executive director.

The National Conference has monitored Mr. Livingston and other local radio hosts. It also has commissioned two studies, “Do Talk Radio Listeners Believe What They Hear?” (1998) and “The Values of Talk Radio Listeners” (1999), by Jennifer O'Donnell. The National Conference has not decided whether to fund three additional research projects to help determine if talk radio is “harmful to people,” says Ms. O'Donnell, 40, a Cincinnati clinical psychologist.

Mr. Jones says that J.R. Gach's calling Japanese “yellow monkeys” in February is further proof that WLW-AM consistently hires talk hosts who don't support “people who are trying to heal this community.”

Mr. Cunningham, however, claims that America's racial wounds will never be healed. “Whites and blacks are like ... the Israeli-Palestinian problem. I think you manage the crisis, but it's one that will not be resolved,” he says.

The judge disagrees by quoting a song he learned in Sunday school, “Brighten the corner where you are.”

“No one person can save the world, but they can brighten up the corner,” he says. “Wherever we are, we have the opportunity to illuminate the world, to offer enlightenment, so people in the dark can see.

“We don't close churches because people are still sinning,” he says. “You don't give up because you face a crisis. Change is slow, but it comes — and you have to keep working at it.”

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