By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Washington radio station WMAL-AM fired talk show host Michael Graham yesterday after he refused to soften his description of Islam as "a terrorist organization" on the air last month.
Graham had been suspended without pay from his daily three-hour show since making his comments July 25. The station had conditioned his return to the midmorning shift on reading a station-approved statement in which Graham would have said that his anti-Muslim statements were "too broad" and that he sometimes uses "hyperbole" in the course of his program. WMAL also asked Graham to speak to the station's advertisers and its employees about the controversy.
But Graham refused both conditions, prompting the station to drop him.
According to WMAL, Graham said "Islam is a terrorist organization" 23 times on his July 25 program. On the same show, he also said repeatedly that "moderate Muslims are those who only want to kill Jews" and that "the problem is not extremism. The problem is Islam."
The comments drew complaints and prompted an organized letter-writing campaign against WMAL and its advertisers by a Muslim group, the Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR) of Washington. The protests led several advertisers to ask WMAL to stop airing their ads during Graham's weekday show, although the station says it didn't lose any advertisers amid the controversy.
In a statement yesterday, Graham blamed CAIR for his firing and defended his comments: "As a fan of talk radio, I find it absolutely outrageous that pressure from a special interest group like CAIR can result in the abandonment of free speech and open discourse on a talk radio show."
Graham, in an interview last night, said he and the station had reached an agreement on terms of his return last week, but the station called back to withdraw. "It was a done deal," he said. "They revoked it because, after further consideration, it didn't contain an apology. And I will not apologize for something that is true."
Chris Berry, WMAL's president and general manager, disputed Graham's characterization, saying in an interview that "no one involved in this decision ever had any contact with anyone from CAIR." Instead, he said, Graham was terminated because he violated station policy and disregarded "management direction" to redress it.
Officials at WMAL, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., had initially declined to take disciplinary action against Graham, defending his comments as part of the overheated rhetoric of talk radio. But that stance began to change as complaints about Graham's remarks mounted.
Graham, 43, is one of several conservative talk hosts featured on the station. WMAL (630 AM) also carries Rush Limbaugh's and Sean Hannity's nationally syndicated radio shows. Graham's WMAL show is not syndicated.
The station had hoped to work out an agreement that would return Graham to the air, Berry said, but it was evident by early yesterday that Graham would not agree to the station's terms. He added in a statement: "Some of Michael's statements about Islam went over the line -- and this isn't the first time that he has been reprimanded for insensitive language and comments. In this case, as previously, Michael's on-air statements do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of station management. I asked Michael for an on-air acknowledgment that some of his remarks were overly broad, and inexplicably he refused." In 1999, Graham was fired from a Charlotte station for saying that the killing of athletes was a "minor benefit" of the Columbine shootings. He apologized the next day.
CAIR applauded WMAL's decision. The organization had asked the station for a retraction or an apology, but "we didn't get specific on what [Graham] should say," said Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman. "We were looking for an acknowledgment that his statements were anti-Muslim and hateful, and harmful to our community and our country's image."
Berry said no permanent replacement for Graham has been chosen because the station until yesterday thought Graham would be returning to work. He said WMAL will try several hosts in Graham's slot over the next few weeks.
Graham has clashed with CAIR in the past. Last year, the group said comments he made on WMAL implicitly advocated violence against Muslims, and it cited him in a campaign called "Hate Hurts America."