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Debating the firing of radio host Graham

Cullum and Sharpton discuss the issue with 'Hardball' host Matthews
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Washington, D.C. radio talk show host Michael Graham was fired on Monday after refusing to apologize for comments he made about Islam.  On July 25, Graham said  "We are at war with a terrorist organization named Islam.  The problem is not extremism.  The problem is Islam." 

His station, WMAL, said he referred to Islam as a terrorist organization 23 times during that same show.  For his part, Graham has refused to apologize, and that's, apparently, why he was fired. 

Did Graham cross a line or was he simply exercising his free speech rights?  'Hardball' host Chris Matthews discussed the topic with Blanquita Cullum, the host of "Cullum and Silk" on Radio America and chair of the Talk Radio Association and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I have got to start with Blanquita, because you're in the business. Should he have been fired for not apologizing?  Where do you stand on this?

BLANQUITA CULLUM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, you know, I'm a strong proponent for freedom of speech, I have to tell you. 

But he had a contract with WMAL.  So, WMAL basically holds the cards there on whether he gets to be on the air or not.  I think a lot of people say a lot of things that are very controversial, a lot of things I hate, a lot of things I like.  But I really like to see the First Amendment have a chance to work well and to survive, even in speech I don't like. 

MATTHEWS:  Reverend Sharpton? 

AL SHARPTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think he had the right to say it.  And I think they had the right to fire him for saying it. 

I mean, as one who has been a civil rights activist all my life, you know, if you cross the line, you're going to pay for it.  I did 90 days in jail one time for leading a protest.  If he felt that strongly about it, he should have said it and he should take his unemployment status like a man. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, maybe he is.  Let me ask you about the business.  Now, you've both been on both sides of contracts with people in this business we're in right now.  I want to ask you, Blanquita, at the risk of your own career, do you think there may have been some hypocrisy here?  When you hire people like Michael Graham, aren't you in fact saying, we want a mouthy, outspoken, provocative troublemaker, to some extent?  I think the Yiddish term is tummler.  You want somebody to shake things up. 

Then, when he shakes things up this way, you say, 'Oh, we did not mean that, because we got some calls on it.' 

CULLUM:  Well, yes.  I mean, when you put a talk show host out there, you're not asking for someone to be namby-pamby.  You're asking for someone to have a point of view.  But look at famous people who have taken a point of view who have really ticked off some of the people who have advertisers, such as Dr. Laura.  You've seen people like Howard Stern who have taken positions where the advertisers said, you know what?  If you don't pull the plug, you know, we are not going to pay for time on that network.

So, consequently, it is a fine line.  But, frankly, the freedom of speech should prevail, because it is a dark day in the country when the light of freedom of speech is turned off. 

MATTHEWS:  By the way, you used a phrase that it grabbed me, Blanquita, "people like Howard Stern"?  ... Is there a group of those people out there and he is one of them?  I mean, help me out here. 

CULLUM:  ... Well, they're shock jocks.  ...They're people who have taken a point of view and slam it on the table, and they basically cause you to think. 

They use words that are very provocative, that cause a person to maybe pull by the side of the road and say, I'm going to pick up that phone and I'm going to call.  I'm going to tell the person I either disagree with him or agree with him.  I love him or I hate him.  I'm going to call the advertiser.  I'm calling the station.  And that's how talk is put out there in the talk show world. 

SHARPTON:  I don't think this was shock jock. See, I think that there's a difference between Stern being bizarre or even obscene and someone labeling a religion a terrorist organization.  Would we want someone to say that about Christians or Jews? 

CULLUM:  They do it all the time.

SHARPTON:  Imagine the outrage if it had been -- this is a biased statement against a group of people, that advertisers have a right to say, I am not going to engage in bias. Stern, with all of his obscenity, I don't know if we would let him get on there and say, all Jews or all Christians or all anything is one way.  And there's a big difference between shock jock and an outright biased statement.  And that is what this guy made.

CULLUM:  But there are times, though, Reverend, when certainly you've heard, popes,  the pope called a cracker.  We've heard Jews called diamond merchants.  ...

SHARPTON:  And we've not heard them from-we have not heard them from talk show hosts. 

CULLUM:  We have heard white people called white interlopers. 

SHARPTON:  We have not heard them from talk show hosts that were sitting there with advertisers paying for their right to say it.

CULLUM:  Oh, sure we have.  Sure we have. 

SHARPTON:  If he wants to be - just a second - if he wants to be a speaker, if he wants to be on the circuit and say that, fine.  But we're talking about, does WMAL, who has a contract with him, who also has a contract with advertisers, have a right to say he can't say that as a paid spokesman for us?

MATTHEWS:  Let me raise the H-word, Blanquita, hypocrisy.  Was he fired because he refused to apologize for what he had said about Islam being a terrorist organization in itself, or was he fired because there was pressure put on that radio station, WMAL in Washington, by Islamic American groups?

In other words, was it the pressure that got him fired or what he said that got him fired? ... I'm talking about hypocrisy and money here and power. 

CULLUM:  Well, I can't tell what you went on behind the scenes with WMAL, because I certainly wasn't in the meeting. 

MATTHEWS:  Use your imagination, Blanquita.  If there had been no phone calls, would he have been fired? 

CULLUM:  ... No, of course not.  Does it happen in the Congress, when a member of Congress gets 100 phone calls from people taking an issue opposing their position on a bill?  Does it happen when Chris Matthews says something that people get ticked off and they call up and they say, listen, tell Matthews, we don't appreciate what he said?

People reconsider things.  But certainly.  And, in a way, frankly, it says a lot about the station when you have that many people willing to put it on the line and call a station.  Do I think it would have been better if he had been fired because I think that they -- he should have apologized?  I don't know. 

But I will tell you, I think it is important that the freedom of speech be tested like this.  And I think it is important that we are having this discussion, because, really, it says a lot about the country that we can. 

MATTHEWS:  To repeat, this is what Michael Graham said. He said a terrorist organization named Islam.  He referred to it as -- itself as terrorism.  Here it is now: "We are at war with a terrorist organization named Islam.  The problem is not extremism.  The problem is Islam." 

Reverend, I guess what -- I'm not defending what he said 23 times, but I wonder if he got into this hole he got into by saying the president or the people around him were saying, we're really at war with extremism.  Remember, they were fighting over the locution a couple weeks ago? 

SHARPTON:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And they were saying, we're not against terrorism.  We're against extremism.  And maybe he was belching intellectually here by saying something he shouldn't have to make a point. 

SHARPTON:  Well, I mean, I don't know the circumstances under which he said it. 


SHARPTON:  I do know that, if he did it 23 times, that's more than one or two belches in reaction. 

MATTHEWS:  Exactly. 

SHARPTON:  And I think he then decided to take a stand by not apologizing.  And, again, I think all of us that take stands need to say, I will pay the price for that.

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