Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Never Discuss Politics or Religion -- Yeah, Right!

America is on its way to finding a way of discussing politics in public, out loud and without reservations. Hey, some of the talk is rough, unkind and disparaging. But a lot of it -- the talk on talk radio -- puts important issues in play.

Meanwhile, has anyone noticed that as loud and sometimes as obnoxious as verbal fights between conservatives and liberals have gotten, the fights occur without violence. No street violence, except for the anarchists who trashed a few blocks of Seattle a few years ago. No repeats of the the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. No new Kent State shootings.

Seems as though more and more people are getting things off their chests without punching anyone in the nose or without exploding into murderous furies. A national movement in which people Shout It Out appears to have relieved enormous tensions, and may well open the doors needed to reach decisions on how to deal with true problems.

Broadcast Broadside -- Rush Limbaugh? Despicable. Randi Rhodes? Convincing!

Sticks and stones may break bones, but right-wing words are killing American politics, according to Bill Press in "Toxic Talk." Mr. Press charges Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio talk-show hosts with employing ugly rhetoric, dirty tactics and outright lies to build their audiences and advance their political agendas. In the process, he argues, the radio talkers have coarsened the political debate and diminished opportunities for bipartisanship. They are, in short, "destroying our democratic process."

"Toxic Talk" tries to buttress this indictment by quoting extensively from allegedly offensive material uttered by various national and local broadcasters. But much of what Mr. Press, who hosts a liberal radio talk show, characterizes as hateful, venomous or deceitful is really just opinion— sharply stated for maximum provocation, to be sure—that doesn't gibe with his own world-view. Is it really beyond the pale, as he alleges, to refer to the influx of illegal immigrants as "an invasion"? Or to hope that President Obama fails to implement his policy agenda if you consider that agenda a disaster waiting to happen? Or to theorize that liberal women dislike Sarah Palin because she's pretty?

Still, as "Toxic Talk" reminds us, some conservative hosts do make cringe-inducing statements. There's Michael Savage declaring that autism isn't a real medical condition; Neal Boortz dismissing the poorest victims of Hurricane Katrina as "parasites" who should be denied the right to vote; and former Tampa talk host Mark Larsen broadcasting in blackface the day after Mr. Obama's 2008 election victory.

"Toxic Talk" also spotlights how some hosts, happy to dish out the criticism, don't take it very well, lashing out at detractors or hiding behind the disingenuous "I'm just an entertainer" defense when they're caught stepping over the line.

Of course, such behavior isn't the exclusive province of the right. Mr. Press weakens his case by ignoring or glossing over comparable sins made by progressive talk-show hosts and media figures. Liberal radio host Randi Rhodes recently aired a song parody that repeatedly calls Mr. Limbaugh, among other things, a Nazi. (Mr. Press says that she is "colorful" and "convincing.")

During the campaign to fill the Senate seat long occupied by Ted Kennedy, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann attacked Republican candidate Scott Brown as a "homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees." Actress and former radio talker Janeane Garofalo has described the Republican Party as a "white-power movement." Liberal talker Mike Malloy's show is "a hell of a lot of fun," Mr. Press says, approvingly noting Mr. Malloy's "fun" nicknames for President Bush, including "Unelected Idiot."

Still, it's hard to see how such foolishness—of any political stripe—endangers our democracy or political discourse. Harsh words and partisan media have been part of the American political landscape since the pamphleteers and fiery orators of the colonial era.

Mr. Press complains that Republican politicians are unduly influenced by conservative hosts—he complains that when Glenn Beck called President Obama a racist (after Mr. Obama chastised a white police officer for acting "stupidly" last year in a confrontation with black scholar Henry Louis Gates), the description somehow "empowered" Rep. Joe Wilson to shout, "You lie!" during Mr. Obama's health-care speech to Congress in September. Don't blame talk radio—in the unlikely event that a politician actually is the stooge of a radio host, it's entirely the pol's fault.

Surely Mr. Press, a former chairman of the California Democratic Party, understands all this. So why write a book bemoaning the "threat" and "corrosive power" of conservative talk? Simply put: to scare the folks on his side of the political aisle and mobilize them to action. With the Republicans in disarray and no leader to function as a lightning rod, talk radio has become the progressives' bogeyman.

Mr. Press ratchets up the fear factor by claiming that conservative talk radio was created and nurtured by a cabal of wealthy conservatives using a media strategy devised in the Nixon era by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to this gothic tale, well-heeled right-wingers bought radio stations, recruited conservative talk hosts and established think tanks to provide these mouthpieces with pro-capitalism talking points.

In reality, conservative talk radio as we know it dates from Rush Limbaugh's rise to national prominence in the late 1980s. The format's appeal to broadcasters is easily explained: It works. Radio stations succeed by attracting and holding a target audience that advertisers find desirable. As Mr. Limbaugh's success first demonstrated, affluent, conservative, middle-age guys love to hear conservative ideas aired—an uncommon phenomenon in the American media—and advertisers love affluent middle-age guys.

According to Mr. Press, progressive talk radio will languish until wealthy liberals get a clue and start buying up media properties. He confesses that he hasn't had much success in selling this idea to his liberal allies. Maybe they saw how well Air America worked out.

The true problem with conservative talk radio is that there's a glut on the market. In the over-leveraged radio industry, which is struggling to maintain its somewhat diminished place in media-saturated American life, cash-strapped station owners have in recent years eliminated hundreds of local talk programs in favor of syndicated right-leaning shows, which the stations receive in exchange for airing network commercials. The result is an off-putting sameness across dial.

The best of this programming retains a strong appeal to older listeners, but it shows no sign of attracting a new generation of fans. The median age of hardcore talk-radio listeners is upward of 58. Thus, while Bill Press has failed to convict conservative talk radio, it may yet die in a prison of its own making.

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Blogger SNAKE HUNTERS said...

While the Bill Press crowd waste precious time knashing their choppers bemoaning Obama's sliding ratings, and blaming the radical right-wing...

Glenn Beck spends his 5 PM slot educating us on the SEIU Union Boss Andrew Stern & Uncle Soros, plus Obama's Medicare fraud, the long history of "progressivism", ACORN's recent activities, colonial history, and why we should care, it's becoming more obvious to old-timers in the now-defunct Democratic Party that Beck is a pretty darn persuasive instructor when he's not making faces and acting the class clown.

Straighten up Beck! Now you've got their attention, do more interviews, show them you've got the right stuff -- November 2nd is coming up fast! - reb

5:02 PM  

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