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KILLING MUSLIMS?
Jay Severinís Muslim moment
BY DAN KENNEDY

Did WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk-show host Jay Severin say "letís kill all Muslims" last Thursday, as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) charged? No. But what Severin did say remains controversial enough that CAIR this past Tuesday renewed its call for Severin to be fired.

On Friday, CAIR posted an "Action Alert" on its Web site claiming that Severin had said, "Iíve got an idea, letís kill all Muslims." The alert attributed the wording to WTKK general manager Matt Mills, who also said, according to an e-mail that he sent to CAIR, "I have spoken to Jay Severin and he knows we take this seriously and do not condone offensive remarks toward any religious groups and he will be apologizing on his show Monday afternoon. He did not intend to offend anyone." The alert listed the stationís advertisers, urging supporters to call and demand that Severin be fired. (In an interview with the Phoenix this past Tuesday, Mills denied being the source of the Severin quote but confirmed sending the e-mail to CAIR.)

There matters stood until Sunday, when the Boston Globe published a story on CAIRís complaint. The article, by correspondent Jessica Bennett, used the "Iíve got an idea, letís kill all Muslims" line. But Bennett made it clear that her source for the quote was CAIR. She also reported that Mills declined to comment, and that she was unable to reach Severin.

On Monday, in his opening monologue, Severin said, "If we were to make a tape of it, I could find maybe 1000 recordings ... with my saying the following words: all Muslims are not terrorists, all Muslims are not our enemies. But, so far, all the terrorists killing us are Muslims." Severin added that his exact words ó spoken in response to a caller who wanted to "befriend" Muslim terrorists ó was, "I have a different notion, a different policy. I think we should kill them."

Severin did apologize, sort of, saying, "I certainly regret any misunderstanding. I certainly regret any discomfort that may have been caused by the misunderstanding of my remarks." But he said that he has been "very clear, very contextual, very consistent" in saying that the US should kill its Muslim enemies ó not that it should kill all Muslims. And he blasted the Globe for going to print without talking with him, saying, "Iím in a 24/7 business. Everyone knows how to contact me."

The Globe returned to the fray on Tuesday with a story by Michael Rosenwald, who had obtained a tape that confirmed Severinís version of his inflammatory quote. Rosenwald quoted from it at some length and interviewed Severin, who, among other things, said that anyone who has listened to his show for "any length of time longer than 10 minutes" would have understood that he was not calling for all Muslims to be killed. In addition, the Globe ran a correction that attributed the initial misquote to "a reporting error."

On Tuesday afternoon, Matt Mills allowed me to come to WTKK and listen to a CD of the approximately six-minute exchange. Severin was talking with a caller named Chris, from Rhode Island. Among other things, Severin said, "I believe Muslims in this country are a fifth column.... My suspicion is that the majority of Muslims in the United States, who regard themselves as Muslims first and not as Americans really at all, see an American map one day where this is the United States of Islam, and not the United States of America. And I think it pays to harbor that suspicion." And, yes, he said in response to Chrisís plea for friendship, "I have an alternative viewpoint. Itís slightly different than yours. You think we should befriend them, I think we should kill them."

CAIR communications director Ibrahim Hooper, with whom I spoke after he read Rosenwaldís story, which contained many of those same quotes, said of WTKK management, "Theyíre claiming that this article vindicates them. Iím a native English speaker; it confirms and reinforces everything we said." A short time later, CAIR sent out a new press release, once again calling on the station to fire Severin.

In a prepared statement, Mills said in part, "We want to sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding that was created as a result of comments allegedly made by 96.9 FM talk-show host Jay Severin on his program last Thursday. During his program ... Jay clarified his remarks, which were incorrectly reported." Mills also told me that he "canít believe" Hooper would say that Severinís actual remarks were as bad as the initial misquote, and he accused CAIR of having "an agenda."

When I spoke with Severin on Tuesday afternoon, shortly before airtime, he continued to express anger at the Globeís first story. "They made no effort to communicate with me. I happen to think that it is an act of journalistic perversion," he said. Of the correction, Severin added, "As far as Iím concerned, victory is mine. A reporting error is a reporting error is a reporting error."

But was it? Bennett accurately reported what CAIR told her about Severinís remarks, attributed it to CAIR, and then couldnít reach Severin for confirmation. "There were numerous efforts to get in touch with him," says the Globeís metro editor, Carolyn Ryan, of Severin. As for the correction, Ryan says the paperís desire was to set the record straight ó but adds, "We should not have described it as a reporting error, and in my view we shouldnít have run a correction."

Iím inclined to believe Severinís explanation, and to accept what strikes me as sincere regret on his part that he didnít make it clear that he was referring to terrorists, not "all" Muslims. Indeed, Iíve heard him make the distinction on numerous occasions. But Severinís language ó his talk of "towelheads" and of dropping nuclear bombs on enemies of the United States ó is reprehensible. Even Mills admitted, as I was leaving his office, that he wished Severin would ease up on the rhetorical blowtorch, though he hastened to add that he wouldnít force him to do so.

Severin defends his remarks as those of a "hawk, with a capital H." He told me, "As far as Iím concerned, the enemy are not people, in the fine tradition of demonizing the enemy, as we did in World War II, with Hitler or someone like that." Severin also complained that broadcast standards have shifted from George Carlinís seven dirty words to what one listener might find offensive. "I really think thereís only a 50-50 chance that talk radio as we know it will exist in another five to 10 years," he said.

In fact, Severin has no one but himself to blame for what happened during the past week. Starting last summer, a boatload of Boston talk-show hosts have gotten into trouble for making racially loaded remarks; one, John "Ozone" Osterlind, of WRKO Radio (AM 680) even got fired, for suggesting that the Palestinian people be "eradicated." (Disclosure: Iím paid to talk about the media on WRKOís Pat Whitley Show every Friday at 9 a.m.) Severinís a smart guy and, as a former political consultant, heís got some interesting things to say about politics. Heís also gotten to where he is by insulting, belittling, and, in this case, whipping up the worst kind of anger among his listeners.

If any good can come of this, itís that more people are on to him now.


Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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