Canceling Jewish talk show prompts claims of antisemitism against WMNF

“Third Opinion” was born out of controversy in 2019 after some Jewish community leaders faulted WMNF for showing a pro-Palestine, anti-Israel bias.
Mike Deeson, at work in his St. Petersburg home studio, said the Jewish affairs talk show he co-hosted has more listeners as a podcast than it did before it was canceled by WMNF-FM.
Mike Deeson, at work in his St. Petersburg home studio, said the Jewish affairs talk show he co-hosted has more listeners as a podcast than it did before it was canceled by WMNF-FM.
Published Aug. 2, 2021|Updated Aug. 3, 2021

TAMPA — Community radio WMNF has canceled a Jewish affairs talk show that it had introduced two years ago to counter criticism of antisemitism.

A co-host of the show, Third Opinion, says the decision is a sign that the station is at it again.

Management, on the other hand, says WMNF declined to renew the show because it violated the station’s standards.

Third Opinion was born out of controversy in 2019 after some Jewish community leaders and the station’s general manager at the time faulted WMNF for showing a pro-Palestine, anti-Israel bias, especially the national show Democracy Now! and the local Middle Eastern affairs program True Talk.

Third Opinion takes a generally pro-Israel approach. Produced by Tampa’s Jewish Community Centers and Federation and aired Sunday afternoons, the show was hosted by Mike Deeson, a retired investigative news reporter with WTSP-TV, Ch. 10, and Laureen Jaffee, an attorney and member of the centers’ board.

“The problem is the radio station broadcasts anti-Israeli, antisemitic tropes on the air on a regular basis,” Deeson told the Tampa Bay Times. “From day one they hated us, they absolutely hated us.”

But in a statement to the Times, WMNF said Deeson and Jaffee had been warned and reprimanded a number of times and suspended twice “for violating editorial standards” before the decision was made to cancel the show.

“It would not be appropriate for us to go into the details of the repeated violations of editorial standards, except to give one example in which the hosts played manipulated audio over the air,” said the statement from Sean Kinane, news and public affairs director, and general manager Rick Fernandes.

The station did not respond to a request for details.

WMNF underwent a number of program changes this summer on its main channel, 88.5 FM, following a review process that happens every two years, the statement said. Two programs were not renewed.

“We did extend an opportunity for Third Opinion hosts to submit a different type of show as a podcast or for our HD channel, but they declined,” the statement said.

Tampa’s Jewish Community Centers and Federation appealed the cancelation of the show to the station’s board of directors but was denied.

WMNF listeners heard sharply contrasting views of the Palestinian conflict in May during the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the political party that controls the Gaza Strip. Deeson and Jaffee defended aerial attacks that destroyed some 1,000 homes in Gaza as a justified response to rockets Hamas had fired on targets in Israel. Other programs vilified Israel for the attacks.

WMNF has taken a “very clear and firm stance against antisemitism, which is poisonous and unacceptable,” the statement from the station said. “WMNF remains committed to our values-driven mission: celebrating cultural diversity and remaining committed to equality, peace, and justice for all.”

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Deeson said Third Opinion, which uses the slogan “Two Jews, three opinions,” now is a podcast with an audience bigger than it had on WMNF.

“I have no heartburn about WMNF canceling the show because I want to be on the radio,” Deeson said. “What I do have problems with is them getting public money. Your tax dollars are going to help support WMNF, and they have taken away the voice of the Jewish community.”

It’s annual report to the Internal Revenue Service shows that nonprofit WMNF receives about $350,000 in public funding each year. About 70 percent of the station’s budget comes from donations.

The cancelation of Third Opinion came a month before WMNF sent a message to supporters June 22 explaining why it had fired on-air host and station founder Rob Lorei nearly four months earlier. The station’s board president said that in an email he sent, Lorei had used “an antisemitic racial slur that is highly offensive to any Jewish person.”

Related: WMNF says it fired host Rob Lorei over email containing ethnic slur

Lorei said the word was “kapo,” a German name for prisoners who aided their captors in Nazi concentration camps. He was writing to a supporter of the far-right Proud Boys.

Lorei told the Times he viewed the word as a political term describing supporters of the far right.

“People who know me and my long record at WMNF know I would never use an ethnic slur,” he said at the time.

In published responses, Jewish community leaders saw the word as less offensive than WMNF did. WEDU-TV, where Lorei hosts a weekly news roundtable, said it stands by him.

WMNF said it sent the explanation four months after the fact because Lorei has continued telling a different story in public forums about his firing.

Lorei figured into the earlier complaints of antisemitism against WMNF.

Former general manager Kopp spent months working with Deeson, Jaffee and Tampa’s Jewish Community Centers and Federation to develop a show to counter programming that Kopp called “unfair at the least, antisemitic at the worst.”

His efforts to get Third Opinion on the air were stymied at first by Lorei’s insistence that the program’s conservative views didn’t fit with the progressive station he helped to create nearly 40 years earlier. Kopp fired Lorei, but he returned after pushback from listeners. A month later, Kopp quit.

In his resignation letter, Kopp said WMNF had become such a “closed system that even antisemitism can be tolerated.”

A small group of employees, volunteers and longtime listeners and donors control the station to an unhealthy degree, he said in the letter, and “are in such lockstep with progressive liberal ideas” there is little room for other viewpoints.

Staff writer Genevieve Redsten contributed to this report.