Mic v. keyboard 

Radio and Web battle over free speech

For a pair of bloggers, Zeb Bell is a talk radio host who has crossed the line.

"The issue with talkers like Zeb Bell is not that they are expressing conservative opinions. The issue is that the hate speech they are broadcasting daily is infecting communities with an acceptance and tolerance of bigotry and acts of hatred," claims the MountainGoat Report, a blog that has focused on documenting Bell's show since June 2008.

click to enlarge NOAH KROESE

For 10 years, Ronald Zebell, better known as Zeb Bell, has broadcast his AM talk radio program "Zeb at the Ranch" from Rupert across the Magic Valley. In response to what they call Bell's "ongoing bigotry targeting numerous groups including Hispanics, gay people, blacks, Native Americans, women, and Muslims," these two blogs, the MountainGoat Report and the Political Game, are methodically documenting Bell's slurs.

While bloggers debate how to get Bell off the airwaves, Bell hopes for legislation to take bloggers off the Internet.

Bell adamantly denies that he broadcasts hate speech. But he doesn't have kind words for the bloggers either. "Everything I've put on the radio I have to stand behind. And yet those absolute keyboard cowards can put anything they want out and nobody knows who they are. They are gutless, spineless amoebic cells," he said.

Bell's radio program airs four days a week for three hours, and the bloggers listen and record each broadcast. If Bell says anything too inflammatory, the estimated 100 visitors who check the blogs each day, according to the bloggers, will read about it.

Amid a crescendo of trumpets, "Zeb at the Ranch" begins: "There are those that still wish to oppress our freedoms. And there are still patriots willing to stand up and defend life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Men like Zeb Bell, who honor our Founding Fathers and what they stood for. It's time for 'Zeb at the Ranch,' speaking up and defending your freedoms." An almost involuntary reaction to stand at salute carries across the airwaves. And then: "Brought to you by Magic Valley Les Schwab Tire Centers."

On a typical show, Bell highlights community events for the Magic Valley, plugs local businesses and rails on liberals.

MountainGoat describes Bell in one post. "I have known plenty of people like Zeb Bell. These are generally hard-working, God-fearing, salt of the earth type people. They believe in family and church and the 4th of July ... These are otherwise good people who know that racism and bigotry are wrong. They'll even tell you they're not racist, but still will look around at the company they are with before saying that word or telling that joke ..."

MountainGoat blogs anonymously and would not reveal her identity although she agreed to communicate with BW via e-mail. Tara Rowe, editor of the Political Game, signs her name to her blog and reluctantly spoke to BW.

"I feel obligated as an Idahoan to do the blog. I grew up here and I want to live here. I feel obligated to the state and to my friends and family," Rowe said.

While Bell has prompted angry letters to the editor of the Twin Falls Times-News, a June 2008 broadcast thrust his program into the public eye beyond the Magic Valley. The incident in which Bell referred to then-Sen. Obama as "the black Negroid Barack Hussein Obama" was picked up by several Boise TV stations and spread like wildfire through the blogosphere.

Bell told BW that he was misrepresented by the blogs. "I never said [his race] was a factor. I said he was the first member of the Negroid race to qualify for the presidency." Bell then fired off a series of questions. "When he was inducted as our president, what name did they use when they put his hand on the Bible? So what was so wrong with using that here? Aren't blacks Negroes? Why is it wrong to use Negroes? It's honest speech. It's not hate speech."

Gary Eller, an ex-Marine and moderate Republican, authors In the Middle, a political blog affiliated with the Times-News. In a phone interview, Eller described his take on "Zeb at the Ranch."

"It's a typical conservative talk radio program. Some of the callers make statements that absolutely, if not racist, are damn sure prejudiced," Eller said.

For one such caller, as documented by MountainGoat, the threat "people of color" pose to Caucasian civil liberties was a cause of distress.

Caller: "And I am concerned that the freedoms that were given to us by our white forefathers and preserved by white blood will be taken away by people of color in the name of fairness."

Bell: "No matter what you say and no matter what I say, we're going to be called automatically racists by a part of our society. They'll hang the racism and the bigotry on anybody that doesn't go along with them. And I'll tell you what, sir, I think you are right."

The danger of this line of thought, according to the bloggers, is the potential for violence. "Bell fosters and feeds into an 'us against them' mentality, with everyone that doesn't look or sound like him as the 'them.' It's only a matter of time before a violent incident occurs because of someone listening to his program," MountainGoat told BW.

Gary Eller, however, doesn't see violence as the danger.

"I don't think Zeb's advocating violence. I don't anticipate violence coming from people around here. But I know for a fact that home-schooled kids are listening. Parents call and have a little kid recite the pledge of allegiance. There is no balance, no counterpoints," he said.

Bell was not pleased when BW asked about the potential of his program to incite violence.

"Why would you even insinuate that there would be a hate crime if someone listened to my radio show?" he said.

As much as the bloggers would like to see Bell off the airwaves, Bell would like to see them off the Internet. Bell supported a bill that would have cracked down on Internet harassment, but the measure has been tabled this year.

"This is where I'm really in favor of Steve Hartgen's bill. Steve's a friend of mine who would clean up the Web and the bloggers and sue them and put them out of business for false slanderous statements," Bell said.

For the bloggers, the mission is to spur a community uprising. Posts Rowe: "Keeping in mind that Zeb has been known to hang up on and berate callers, I think calling in would be pointless. You gotta get to the root of the problem and boycott the sponsors. If we expose enough hate and get enough people, maybe then Zeb will feel the heat and KBAR will take him off the air."

Bell says he's invited the "liberal left" onto his program but that "it's always easier for them to stab someone in the back rather than have a very good cordial and gentlemanly discussion."

On a program following his BW interview, Bell gave a preview of that potential discussion: "I'm going to do all I can to attack back on these people. I don't want to be ever like the low-life vermin that have no conviction to stand up for what they say. I will continue to denigrate them and I will continue to speak my mind. I will not be politically correct—you can bet on it."

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