BOB GARFIELD: The notion of taxpayer dollars subsidizing TV and radio with a perceived leftist tilt has long obsessed congressional Republicans. NPR and PBS, of course, deny having a liberal agenda, but what if an explicitly political program with extremist sentiments and ad hominem partisan rhetoric were distributed to government employees entirely at taxpayer expense? Well, say hi to the Rush Limbaugh Show brought to millions of U.S. servicemen and women and their families for an hour each day on American Forces Radio. Salon.com senior writer Eric Boehlert discovered this hidden in plain sight, and he joins me now. Eric, welcome back to OTM.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Let's set the stage, please. What's American Forces Radio?
ERIC BOEHLERT: American Forces Radio is what everyone still refers to as Armed Forces Radio. It was created in the '40s by the government as a way to bring a, quote, "taste of home" to the troops serving overseas. It was also as a way to counterbalance the propaganda being broadcast by Tokyo Rose, etc. In the '50s, they added a television service, so today when you're overseas, you can sort of get the greatest hits of American television and radio.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. A little taste of home. Rush Limbaugh, the most popular radio show in America. That would seem to make some sense. What's the problem with it?
ERIC BOEHLERT: If you look at the lineup, it's sort of an innocuous collection of CNN headline news, some country music, some classic rock, some Christian programming on the weekends, some sports, and then for one hour every day you get this rabid, partisan political attack show on the radio. And there is a sense that, a) American Forces Radio is paid for by taxpayers, and probably not all taxpayers want to fund Rush Limbaugh. But, second is that, okay, if you're going to have a right wing talk show host broadcasting to the troops, find someone to create a counterbalance.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there no mandate for greater balance on its airwaves?
ERIC BOEHLERT: The guidelines do call for balance, particularly when it comes to political programming, and they have specific guidelines during presidential election years. I think the guidelines may sort of apply to Pentagon-produced news programs, but it-- the guidelines clearly say that the programming on American Forces Radio and Television should offer diverse political opinion.
BOB GARFIELD: In your piece, you spoke to the director of American Forces Radio, and he says "Why, we do have balance to Rush Limbaugh. We have--?"
ERIC BOEHLERT: NPR.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay, and that, and that counterbalances Rush Limbaugh and his assertion that the Abu Ghraib abuses and torture and possibly murders were nothing more than fraternity pranks. That counterbalances that how?
ERIC BOEHLERT: You know, that's the question. I mean you have NPR, Morning Edition is broadcast; Talk of the Nation is broadcast. If you listen to those shows, you don't hear one person behind a microphone for 60 minutes talking about how women activists are equivalent to Nazis. So the idea that you can have Rush Limbaugh degrade Democrats for 60 minutes a day and then flip on Weekend Edition where you're going to interview poets and do some news updates -- that's not [LAUGHS] a balance. That's not even close.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is all very interesting and easy to get inflamed about, but is there any reason to think that this has any ramifications in the real world?
ERIC BOEHLERT: Yeah. If you look at the 2000 election, and specifically the Florida recount, it's not a stretch to say Bush is now president because of the overseas military ballots that came in. What's the implication of having Rush Limbaugh for 60 minutes a day telling troops, you know, that Democrats like terrorists, that Democrats are against the war, that John Kerry doesn't want to send the right kind of armor to protect them in the battlefield? Again, you're talking about a government-funded communications system that broadcasts worldwide this one, singular partisan talk show host.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Eric. As always, thanks a lot.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Okay. Talk to you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Boehlert is a senior editor for Salon.com. Joining me now is Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Allison, welcome to On the Media.
ALLISON BARBER: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Boehlert's piece raised the question --I'll put it to you: Doesn't American Forces Radio have a-- an explicit mandate to balance politically charged programming?
ALLISON BARBER: American Forces Radio has a mandate to do two things: the first is to provide a channel for commanders to have an access to be able to communicate with their deployed troops. The second mandate is to provide news, information, and entertainment for the morale of the troops that is similar to that of what they would have if they were not deployed.
BOB GARFIELD: Well since you raised the issue of morale of the troops, are you comfortable with programming that dismisses, for example, the Abu Ghraib scandal as a "frat prank" at the same time your own Department of Defense is launching courts martial and investigations of torture and homicide?
ALLISON BARBER: The challenge for us is that part of our policy is also that we are prohibited to manipulate or censor, so not only is that something that is aired, because we're not allowed to manipulate to censor programming, we also air news and information where people are sometimes critical of our troops. But the bottom line is the men and women in the military are smart people. They hear that as just somebody's opinion. They don't have to listen to it. They have options. They can turn off or turn on whoever they want to.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, not whoever they want to. They can't turn on, for example, Howard Stern, the second most highly rated radio program in America and one that has taken a decided anti-Bush administration turn the last six months. If they can turn on Rush Limbaugh to hear him rant about feminazis, why can't they hear Howard Stern?
ALLISON BARBER: To be honest with you, our troops haven't asked for Howard Stern. We have some issues with some of the sexual content of Howard Stern, just like most Americans do.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet a moment ago you told me that you don't censor the information.
ALLISON BARBER: Once we make the decision to show whatever program we're showing, we are prohibited to censor or manipulate that programming.
BOB GARFIELD: But you can certainly stop distributing it. Do you know if there was any consideration when the Rush Limbaugh program took the Abu Ghraib situation and dismissed it as irrelevant, in fact, congratulated it as a brilliant maneuver. Was there any consideration to making the kinds of judgments that you made with the Howard Stern programming and just ceasing to offer it because it was offensive to the ideals of the American military?
ALLISON BARBER: I don't know of any serious consideration that was put to that specific issue. What I can say to you is that we're constantly reviewing what we carry on all of our networks -- 12 radio stations, six television stations -- and we are very responsive to our men and women in the military who is our target audience. And so, it's the challenge. When you open up the floodgates, when you open up these channels and say to them, we're going to give you choices, there's no way that you or I or anyone else would agree with everything you hear on the radio or everything you see on television. But what we have chosen to do is to put it out there and let the troops decide what they watch and what they listen to, just like we do here in America.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, well Allison, thank you very much.
ALLISON BARBER: Okay. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Allison Barber is a deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, why the masses may be smarter than we think.