When Arizona Daily Star cartoonist David Fitzsimmons unleashed a Facebook tirade criticizing Christianity, he probably didn't anticipate a ripple effect that enveloped conservative talk show host Chris DeSimone and Daily Star columnist Tim Steller.
Fitzsimmons' comments were pointed out to DeSimone by listeners of Wake Up Tucson, the show he cohosts weekday mornings at 6 a.m. on KVOI AM 1030.
"He just ranted two or three times, and they were just amazing," said DeSimone. "So we said, if you're going to challenge the Christians out there, this guy is a big part of their editorial board. He's not just a cartoonist. I think most people agree he's a big part of where that newspaper goes, so we said, 'Hey, Christians out there, maybe next time your renewal notice comes, or if you're a Christian business owner and the Star comes in and asks if you'd like to spend $4,000 on the newspaper, maybe you should rethink it.'"
That response ticked off Steller, whose short-term answer to DeSimone's suggestion of boycott was to clash with DeSimone through a number of Facebook threads, and in a March 19 column, and threaten to boycott KVOI, highlighted by pulling his contributions from the Bill Buckmaster Show, which airs at noon weekdays on the station.
Buckmaster and KVOI GM Doug Martin convinced Steller to reconsider his appearances on Buckmaster's program, to which Steller agreed.
"After my outburst I talked to Bill and decided that would be better," said Steller.
Meanwhile, Martin wasn't terribly enamored with DeSimone's approach.
"Personally, I don't agree with the idea of a boycott," Martin said. "David (Fitzsimmons') comments are a separate issue. He's got something in his craw. I know people who have been hurt by Christians and the Church, so I understand that, but I don't agree with the idea of the boycott. David made those comments privately on Facebook, not in the newspaper. Secondly, even if he made those comments in the newspaper it's protected speech and you let people say what they want to say. You don't boycott someone for something you say you disagree with.
"I understand Tim's feeling. That's his employer. You're threatening his livelihood," Martin continued. "I have encouraged Chris to just ease off, but he's going to do what he's going to do, and it's the same thing I said to Tim. You wouldn't want your publisher to tell you what to write, and in this case you don't want station management to tell you what to say. If he did something slanderous or libelous, that's one thing, but other than that it's opinion radio and you let people talk."
The war of words could have stopped there, but instead went a step further when in a March 19 column headlined "Let's End Old Businessmen's Tale About IBM," Steller unloaded on Wake Up Tucson (which he referred to as "The Daily Complaint)," and DeSimone in particular, over a column DeSimone wrote for Inside Tucson Business in 2013. Steller claims the timing of the boycott back-and-forth and the IBM column was not connected, even though they occurred within the same week. According to Steller, the column was designed to stop the spread of an oft-discussed falsehood related to the city's role in the departure of a major private employer.
"In my mind there's no statute of limitations on correcting an error," Steller said. "They don't get to just kind of shrug it off because they published it two years ago. When they're continuing to perpetuate it (on their radio show) year after year and month after month, then it's open for correction at any point. My problem with them is, I think they operate in an echo chamber, which reinforces their preconceived beliefs, and this little episode exposed that because they were willing to believe and perpetuate something that was not true and in retrospect should have been obvious as false. They were saying the city of Tucson was taxing their business, which was outside the city of Tucson. It's not possible. The particular type of tax was not feasible."
The timing of the column, which focuses on an incident that occurred in the 1980s, but came on the heels of harsh Facebook exchanges, did not go unnoticed by DeSimone.
"Like I said on the air, we know it took a lot of work for him (to write that column)," DeSimone said. "First he had to track down (former mayor) Tom Volgy, who was out of the country. We would like (Steller) to use his amazing investigative powers on trying to solve Tucson's problems from this decade, like our disgusting poverty and the idea the roads are starting to look the way they are. Can you use your investigative skills for this decade? That would be good."
Steller said, "If you listen to them, if you read them, they want to be taken seriously, and I'm cool with that, but you have to be open to having their version of events checked. That's part of playing in the public sphere. If they really want to be taken seriously, then they need to be held to some standard, and that's what I tried to do. There are a lot of things in Tucson's history that we like to dwell on, and some of them are true and we really screwed them up and some of them are only partly true. In this case I just wanted to call out one of their out and out falsehoods."
While other varying perspectives will undoubtedly crop up between a liberal newspaper columnist and conservative talk show host, DeSimone hopes this war of words, via radio, newspaper and social media, has run its course.