Anger on the Ariwaves

HAS the proliferation of angry talk radio programs across America caused the Oklahoma City bombing? Probably not. At least not directly.

But President Clinton is completely within bounds to suggest, as he has done, that a certain type of bitter and snide antifederal invective heard daily on many of the nation's airwaves contributes to a negative civil climate in this country.

Talk-show hosts, mainly on the populist right, have naturally used these comments as grist for their own mills -- charging that Mr. Clinton is trying to repress free speech and politically turn the Oklahoma City bombing against his popular radio detractors.

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Some aggressive radio hosts do need to rethink their act. Much of the personal attack and ridicule of the president and his family, the fear-mongering against anything ''federal,'' and the playing on negative passions is not constructive. Some hosts refer to Thomas Jefferson; they ought to re- familiarize themselves with a term for which he had a genuine reverence: civil discourse. Today the phrase sounds elitist because the discourse itself is so substandard.

Nor is it only ''liberals'' who are concerned. Conservative members of Congress like Henry Hyde have worried openly in recent months about the ''dumbing down of democracy'' -- resulting from simplistic mob thinking about something as difficult as the experiment of government with liberty and justice for all.

President Clinton's comments came on the heels of a national tragedy. The tragedy, not the president, is the issue. People tend to be very ignorant of the enormous power that broadcast thought can have. One can be 100 percent for free speech and absolutely opposed to censorship and still raise pointed criticism of the tone and tenor of society. If the president wants to say that speech that makes venomous attacks on government is less healthy than conversation that does not do so, then that is his right. The occupant of the White House is the highest elected representative of that government. If not he, who?

We are sympathetic with a desire to restrain federal intrusiveness and federal sprawl. But government is not made better by bashing and trashing it. To gain media market share by stoking hatred or cynicism of public institutions and sniping at public service is cheap and destructive.

In such a climate, extremists might well feel they have the majority on their side.

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