I’ve never heard WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk-show host Jay Severin say anything racist, misogynistic, or homophobic — at least not in the strict sense of expressing hatred, or of suggesting that minorities, women, and gays are somehow inferior beings. Nor do I believe he harbors any views that could be labeled as such. Severin’s problem is that he talks trash like an NBA All-Star. So it’s no surprise that not everyone sees him in the same warm light in which he sees himself.
On March 2, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi cited a recent Severin comment that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a “lying bitch” as evidence that the culture is becoming more coarse. She also called Severin an “angry white man,” and closed with a syntactical juxtaposition that a reasonable person could interpret as lumping Severin and Eminem together: “Beating up on women — and gays — is the best of all possible worlds because it is a way to sound outrageous while still appealing to the lucrative mainstream. Eminem knows that, and so does any radio host who calls Hillary Clinton a ‘lying bitch.’”
Severin — who also writes a column for MSNBC.com and has worked as a Republican political consultant — erupted in anger during his program on Monday, calling Vennochi’s characterization “vile and incorrect.” Vennochi phoned in, and she and Severin batted it back and forth for a few minutes. And though Vennochi may indeed have gotten it wrong, she surely got it right when she told Severin, “I don’t think that column came close to savaging you the way you savage people on the air.”
I’ve had my own brush with Severin. During the endless Florida recount, I wrote that he had “called on the Army to move in and expressed the view — seriously, I think — that Gore should be shot for treason” (see “This Just In,” News and Features, December 15). When I called Severin this week, he began by berating me for that piece, insisting he had actually said something along the lines of “The military should march into Gore’s office, arrest him at gunpoint, and put him on trial.” (Attempts by station personnel to produce the tape were unsuccessful.) There is a difference, and I’ll concede the point; I had heard Severin while driving and wasn’t taking notes, which is why I hadn’t quoted him directly in the first place.
But Severin doesn’t deny that he lives close to the rhetorical edge, and he says he can understand why some people — liberals, especially — would think he’s “a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, a sexist, a lookist.” He quickly adds, though, that those who hold that view suffer from “cranial trauma.”
I listen to Severin pretty regularly. And though I rarely agree with him, I do think he’s consistent in his views, which he describes as “radical libertarian.” (A refreshing exception: he’s a no-holds-barred environmentalist.) And his taste in music coming out of breaks — classic blues and hard rock — is exquisite. But, oh, that mouth. Here are a few gems, taken down just in the past few months.
• On Bill Clinton: “the Adolf Hitler of American politics ... a domestic enemy of the Constitution of the United States; a traitor.”
• On Hillary Clinton: “that cynical, criminal, sociopathic bitch ... one of the worst people on the planet.”
• On Janet Reno: “she’s a lesbian, evidently.”
• On taxpayer-funded services he doesn’t want to see: “free turkey basters for reproducing lesbians.”
Severin says he doesn’t regret any of these comments except the Reno remark. (“That was just stupid of me to say. Her sexuality doesn’t have anything to do with anything.”) He adds, though, that to pull such one-liners from his monologues is to take them “out of context,” though he also says, “That doesn’t mean it isn’t fair.”
Vennochi told me she didn’t intend to accuse Severin of homophobia or misogyny, nor does she think she did. But she admits she caricatured him, just as he caricatured her as a “mommy journalist” and a “liberal.” (Vennochi mainly — though not exclusively — writes nonpartisan, closely reported columns on the local business and political community.) “I don’t think he’s stupid,” she says of Severin. “I just think he’s intolerant — politically intolerant, philosophically intolerant.”
Severin responds that Vennochi is “being a little disingenuous” in claiming she hadn’t ascribed to him the same views she did to Eminem. “I’m not a hatemonger,” he adds, saying he marched for civil rights and was a friend of the late Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
Locked as he is in a ratings war with Howie Carr, of WRKO Radio (AM 680), it’s not surprising that Severin is being as outrageous as possible. But Severin’s is the only talk show in Boston right now that’s devoted exclusively to politics and public policy, and Severin is, in his trash-talking way, both serious and substantive. He could be more effective if he’d stop contributing to the coarsening of the culture.
Which was Vennochi’s point in the first place.