Their Master’s Voice
Come with us now to The Corner, the blog site for the National Review, where it’s still Morning in America, and people are able to contemplate William Bennett without laughing. It was there, last week, that Boy Pundit Jonah Goldberg expressed himself with regard to a report, issued by the Center for American Progress and Free Press on June 21, concerning “conservative” talk radio and the (so-called!) Fairness Doctrine:
Let’s stipulate that the report is accurate about the fact that conservatives dominate talk radio. Who among us is shocked by this very old news? What I find simply amazing is that liberals see nothing wrong with using the state to police media content when they don’t like the content.
Now, because Jonah Goldberg is wrong about almost everything, I approached this post with what I freely admit was an attitude of radical skepticism. In fact I went so far as to rev up the Indignationizer when Goldberg wrote:
Does anyone really believe liberals would even entertain this renewed passion for the fairness doctrine if talk radio were overwhelmingly liberal? It just strikes me as so transparently opportunistic and unprincipled.
I assume he meant “opportunistic” and “unprincipled” in a negative sense, and I thought, “Hey, hang on–what about the fact that they are public airwaves blah blah blah!”
Yes, yes, I know that they are public airwaves, blah blah blah. But every industry relies on some public accommodation of some kind. Museums and universities get major subsidies, tax breaks etc, newspapers are given all sorts of special considerations, from access to government workings and legal leeway in the courts.
I’ve read the above sentences five…wait…six times, and I am forced to conclude, more in sadness than in anger, that it represents what philosophers call a “dipshit rhetorical move.” “Public accommodation,” by which I think he means, the government granting concessions to private institutions that could, in theory, legitimize further government intrusions into and regulation of those institutions, is not comparable to the definition and regulation of the airwaves, which comparison is not so much one of apples and oranges as one of apples and potatoes.
I would like to personally apologize for the length of the previous sentence. What it tried to mean is: As usual Goldberg is spouting purest bologna. Newspapers and museums (a word which I think should be replaced by “musea”) first come into existence, and then receive subsidies, etc. The news they report or the art and artifacts they display are—sadly, in many cases–a renewable resource.
The airwaves are a finite, pre-existing natural resource (made exploitable by technology)—a fact so obviously true that I find the attempt to obscure it, and to exploit the resulting confusion for petty Boy Pundit gain, to be opportunistic and unprincipled. So, I was all, like, shut up, Jonah Goldberg.
But then I read this, and decided not even to “go there.” Because I decided he maybe had a point:
Meanwhile, in the one area of the media where liberals are at a disadvantage and can’t compete in the marketplace, they want to draft the state to do what Air America couldn’t.
He may be right. Talk radio may indeed be an area of the media where liberals are at a disadvantage, and always will be. Why? Because by its very nature, talk radio may be a primarily “conservative” medium if, by “conservative,” we mean—as I do emphatically mean—“promoting the interests of a terminally-corrupted Republican party and its corporate sponsors through the use of character assassination, distortion, propaganda, and lies.”
(Yes, William F. Buckley, Jr., that is what “conservative” has come to mean. Just look around.)
Radio (especially commercial radio) is and can only be secondarily a medium of explanation. It simply cannot do justice to delivering the abstractions describing the objective world that lead to accurate understanding.
Nor does it claim to. What it claims to be, and is, is a medium that does an adequate job conveying the most basic kinds of abstract information (in the form of news, weather, and sports—and traffic updates six times an hour) but a terrific job, with much more richness and success, delivering entertainment: music, drama, interviews, and the religious form of dramatic monologues known as sermons.
The goal of all of these is the stimulation of emotion. For every interesting five-minute interview on “Morning Edition” or eight-minute instructive exchange on “Science Friday,” there’s a billion hours of pop music, broadcast baseball, and readings from the Bible. This is a good thing, or at least a good-enough thing. Everyone likes to be excited or amused or moved or inspired. Radio is great for all that because it’s primarily an emotive medium.
And that’s why it’s well suited to the right-wing agenda. You don’t have to be Karl Rove (and I suggest you not be) to see that the key to right-wing success, since 9-11, has been the inculcation, in the general public, of fear, hatred and, especially, anger: anger at “terrorists,” anger at “liberals,” anger at “our enemies” and “the far left” and “the media” and “appeasers” and “immigrants” and, yes, “feminazis.”
And, with the general failure of the Bush administration in every god-damn thing imaginable, that will only get worse.
Liberal radio—your Air Americas, your Ed Schultzes, your Stephanie Millers, etc.—can of course also deliver an emotional response, can also leave one in a righteous froth, as I know from personal experience. (And boy, am I personally ready to froth—in a good way–over Stephanie Miller…) But anyone who thinks that a typical show from Rachel Maddow or Thom Hartman or Randi Rhodes on Air America is “no different from” that of Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage or Dennis Prager needs either a brainectomy or an ear transplant. Nothing on liberal radio can remotely compare to the demagoguery from the right.
Besides, people like to get angry. It’s diverting. You feel more alive. And you can find yourself gratifyingly united with other angry people. They call themselves, for example, “Dittoheads,” while we call them…well, something else. So, while liberal radio usually talks, in an explanatory way, about the specific people and acts of the Bush administration, “conservative” radio talks (endlessly) about stereotypes (“liberals”) and unspecific boogeymen (“the terrorists”).
Liberal radio is finding its audience, and any legitimate use or resuscitation of the Fairness Doctrine to help it is defensible. Why? Because the increasing concentration of media ownership puts actual radio stations in fewer corporate hands, and corporations are inherently more eager to disseminate a right-wing viewpoint than one from the left. This, a potential oligopolistic abuse of a natural resource, is something Jonah Goldberg, in his opportunistic and unprincipled way, forgot to mention.
But the right wing will probably always dominate talk radio—first, because “radio” rhymes with “hate-e-o,” and second, because it’s a medium in which appeals to emotion will always win out over appeals to reason.