Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Anti-immigrant talk radio rhetoric is analyzed in new UCLA report

Photo by Ben McLeod/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A new UC Los Angeles study examines anti-immigrant rhetoric on talk radio, measuring its use on segments of popular conservative talk shows. Put together by the university's Chicano Studies Research Center and titled "Quantifying Hate Speech on Commercial Talk Radio," the report released today comes as several Latino groups in Los Angeles are pushing to get one one locally-produced talk show off the air.

The content of three talk shows was analyzed for the pilot study, including Lou Dobbs' radio program, Michael Savage's The Savage Nation, and the John and Ken Show, a Clear Channel show on KFI-640 AM that has drawn criticism since its hosts gave out the number of a Los Angeles immigrant advocacy group's spokesman on air, subjecting him to a barrage of hate calls.

Transcripts of three individual shows, one from each program, were analyzed for their content. Especially interesting is an analysis of terms used in the samples, including what are termed "code words." From the report:

Readers found that the speakers used indexicality in four ways in the sample segment: 1) the use of codes words to establish Latinos, immigrants, and immigrant rights advocates as “other” to the nation; 2) the use of rhythm, stress, and intonation (prosody) to emphasize nativist attitudes; 3) the reinforcement of nativist attitudes through word repetition; and 4) alignment between the hosts and guest.

Readers identified twenty passages in which indexical terms (code words) were used to identify certain groups as “other” to the nation. Terms such as illegal alien, gangbanger, killers, anarchists, calamity, and domestic terrorism indexed Latinos, undocumented immigrants, and immigrant rights advocates, thereby associating these groups with crime, terror, and a foreign enemy.

Heightening this message was the juxtaposition of theses terms with indices for a vulnerable home nation: community, civilized community, freedom of speech, founding fathers, city, and country. In seventeen passages the speaker’s rhythm, stress, and intonation heightened the indexical associations. Rising pitch and syllabic emphasis on the indices for crime, terror, and the enemy added a sense of urgency. Stutters and pauses when uttering usually positive or neutral words (advocates, endorsing, supporting, preference programs) to describe immigrant rights proponents indexed ridicule, disgust, and condemnation.

Four terms were repeated between three and six times each over the course of ten minutes: illegal alien (6), anarchist (3), community or communities (5), and free speech or freedom of speech (4). The first two index a foreign enemy, and the last two index the home nation.

The report also features transcripts from the shows analyzed, including this conversation from a July 2008 "John and Ken" segment in which the hosts weren't directly discussing immigrants or Latinos, but the lack of healthy food options in South L.A. A snippet from the transcript:
John:...You know, you could offer them a veggie panini sandwich, and they're going to look at you like you dropped from Mars. They don't care. You know, what are they eating? There's a lot of chicken joints down there, there's a lot of burger joints, there's a lot of taco joints. I mean, especially – I don't know how much of these areas are now taken over by the Mexicans, but, you know, good luck changing the Mexican diet.

Ken: Well, that's interesting, because –

John: Seriously. The Mexican diet is what's shot up the obesity rates in Los Angeles. And that's their culture.

According to the UCLA report, the definition of "hate speech" used in the study was derived from hate crimes legislation and from a 1993 federal report that defined hate speech as "either (1) 'words that threaten to incite ‘imminent unlawful action,’ which may be criminalized without violating the First Amendment'; or (2) 'speech that creates a climate of hate or prejudice, which may in turn foster the commission of hate crimes.' "

The report also cited a 25 percent jump in anti-Latino hate crimes between 2004 and 2008, noting a potential link to "media-generated negative discourse against immigrants."

In a statement recently after a protest outside its Burbank offices, Clear Channel said that it did not condone the hate calls resulting from "John and Ken" releasing the advocate's phone number, and that the show's hosts were "extremely sensitive to language that could be viewed as inciting threats or violence.”

The entire report can be downloaded here.