Thursday, February 05, 2004

Jay Severin's rotten mouth. I can't imagine there are many Media Log readers who take Jay Severin seriously. But I've been thinking about how and when I wanted to give the trash-talking WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) host a whack for his frequent use of the racist - yes, racist - word "wetback." Today he gave me what I'd been looking for.

I was in my car. I wasn't rolling tape, and I wasn't taking notes, so pardon the lack of quotation marks. But, essentially, when I tuned in, he was berating a woman who'd called to complain about his offensive invocation of "wetback" and "wetback welcome wagon" in criticizing US immigration policy.

Severin's angry response (and he was angry; in 20 years of listening to talk radio, I have never heard a host get as hostile to those with whom he disagrees as Severin does) was mainly based on what he called her ignorance of the term. "Wetback" is simply a word for illegal immigrant, he told her. Look it up in the dictionary. It's got nothing to do with Hispanics or Hispanic-Americans, as she had claimed.

The poor woman. She didn't have a dictionary in front of her. Severin had his producer cut her off so that he could spout at length before letting her get back up off the floor. All she could do was mutter that he must know he was being offensive, and that he was relying on a "technicality." Smugly, he replied that the "technicality" she was referring to was the English language.

What arrogant bullshit. Here is the definition of "wetback" from the American Heritage Dictionary (fourth edition, 2000):

Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Mexican, especially a laborer who crosses the U.S. border illegally.

This is what Merriam-Webster Online has to say:

usually offensive: a Mexican who enters the U.S. illegally

MSN Encarta - which threw up a warning screen telling me that I was about to access offensive material - says:

a taboo term for a Mexican person recently arrived in the United States, especially somebody who has entered the country illegally to work as a laborer

The Cambridge Dictionary of American English puts it this way:

a Mexican worker who illegally crosses the border to get work in the US. This is an offensive word.

"Offensive." "Taboo." Get the picture, Jay?

If you follow the links, you will note that virtually every entry for "wetback" traces the origins of the word back to the practice of Mexicans' swimming across the Rio Grande to get into the US. So much for "wetback" having nothing to do with Hispanics.

For a while, Severin got a lot of scrutiny. But it seems like in the past year or so, he's gotten a free pass. WEEI Radio (AM 850) suspended John Dennis and Gerry Callahan for a bit that compared black school children to an escaped gorilla. WRKO Radio (AM 680) fired John "Ozone" Osterlind for suggesting that Israel should "eradicate" the Palestinian people. (Osterlind has denied it, and I've never heard the tape.) Sadly, 'RKO (which pays me to blab about the media on Pat Whitley's show once a week) continues to let Howie Carr denigrate gays and welfare mothers.

But Severin goes about his merry way, making fun of "wetbacks" and "towelheads," and no one says a word. Well, it's offensive and degrading, and WTKK management shouldn't put up with it.

And, no, his knowledge of the English language is not nearly as impressive as he claims. In this one instance, at least, he's dead wrong. He should apologize to that woman.

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