Looking for a Health Care Scapegoat: Networks Try to Marginalize Talk Radio

If you can’t beat them, ban them. That’s the new model for CNN, “the most trusted name in news.”


As Democrats in Washington, D.C. struggle to impose their idea of an ideal health care system on the United States, opposition to their efforts grows. Rather than accept that the substance of reform proposals is the source of the push-back, some on the left and in the media are looking for a “boogeyman” nefariously ginning up taxpayer anger. That “boogeyman” – conservative talk radio.


Earlier in August, CNN U.S. President Jonathan Klein urged the cable news network’s producers to avoid booking talk radio hosts on CNN news programs. Recent CNN guests have included the likes of conservative talkers Neal Boortz, Steve Malzberg and Martha Zoeller. By banning talk radio hosts, the network made off limits the one area of media where conservatives hold sway.


The cable news blog TVNewser on Aug. 11 quoted Klein as saying, “Complex issues require world class reporting.” He added that talk radio hosts too often add to the noise, and that what they say is “all too predictable.”


And CNN hasn’t been alone. Its competitor MSNBC, which has been decidedly more in favor of President Barack Obama’s policies, has also participated in the “Hush Rush” movement, accusing conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck of propagating “hate” to hinder Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.


A Misinformation Campaign?


It’s not just executives and opinion pundits who have expressed their “concerns” over talk radio’s contributions to the health care debate. Ed Henry, CNN senior White House correspondent, called some of the criticism coming from talk radio “outlandish” on “CNN Newsroom” Aug. 14.


“It took this White House kind of a long time to respond to some of the outlandish allegations,” Henry said. “And so what happened is some of the opponents of reform through talk radio, other media, online, have really been pushing some of these lines of attack. They went unanswered for some time. That’s what we are seeing here. The president realizing he has to step it up a little bit as he continues to make this sales pitch. But let’s remember, it’s still an uphill battle. This is at a critical juncture in his administration.”


The Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus used CNN’s Sunday media program, “Reliable Sources,” on Aug. 16 to make her give her own critique of talk radio. To Marcus, associating this brand of health care reform, which may or may not include a public option according to the Aug. 19 New York Times, with socialism is “false information.”


“Look, things are much more understandable and this sort of the – to talk about the concerns generally is not as powerful as seeing it expressed in the clearly very heartfelt, very deep-felt views of people,” Marcus said. “But there’s a really interesting loop that's going on, which is – I happen to listen to a lot of talk radio as I drive around, and the conservative talk radio is ginning people up with, I believe, a lot of very false information and a lot of scary words like ‘socialist.’”


Others have used the CNN platform to make the bold accusations that pushback on the president’s health care is “coded racism.” For example, Tim Wise, the author of “Between a Barack and a Hard Place,” appeared on CNN anchor Don Lemon’s Aug. 16 program.


“We’ve got right-wing radio talk show hosts who for months now have been playing the white racial resentment card to get their forces revved up,” Wise said. “You have Glenn Beck saying just the other day on two occasions that the health care bill is really not about health care, it’s Obama’s way to get reparations for black people. Now, that’s absurd. What kind of reparations do you have to get sick first in order to get paid?”


The Usual Suspects


But it hasn’t just been CNN with these harsh accusations about talkers and talk radio. MSNBC hasn’t instituted a ban, but the network predictably has featured guests offering some unkind criticisms of conservative radio. MSNBC and CNBC regular and UC-Berkeley economics professor Robert Reich said conservative hosts were “preying upon fears” in the health care debate.


“I think that you’ve got, you know, right-wing talk radio and a lot of purveyors of fear out there preying upon the fears that a lot of people have right now,” Reich, also a former Clinton administration Labor Dept. secretary, said on MSNBC’s Aug. 16 “The Ed Show.” “You know, America is very scared – job losses, potential loss of home, potential loss of savings. In fact, losses of savings. A lot of people are scared and if somebody tells them they’re going to lose even the health care they have, they are going to pay attention and they’re going to be very, very upset.”


MSNBC host Rachel Maddow accused conservative talkers of peddling “kooky conspiracy theories” that ObamaCare would mandate abortions and free sex changes and “kill the elderly.”


“Conspiracists from right-wing talk radio to street corner screamers to Republican members of Congress – all maintain that the provision and the health care bill that says Medicare will pay for the consultation if you want to get a living will, even though it was that championed by conservative pro-life Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, that’s actually, secretly a plot to kill your grandparents,” Maddow said on her Aug. 10 program. “The theory has been presented as fact by Republican members of Congress on the floor of the House of Representatives. It has been promoted by conservative talk show hosts on both radio and on television.”


And MSNBC “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann has been all too eager to play the race card, especially when it has come to Glenn Beck, but also Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and the even not-so conservative Lou Dobbs.


“If you appear on reactionary media and call a president of the United States a racist, advertisers will still abandon you and will abandon you faster than ever before,” Olbermann said on his Aug. 14 program. “A cheese company, a popular clothier, SC Johnson Wax, Procter and Gamble, Lawyers.com and two – possibly three insurance firms have now bailed out on ‘Glenn Beck.’ Beware the snowball, lonesome roads.”


“The research into conservative radio listening habits, the more hate they hear, the longer they listen, the more Limbaugh and Savage and Dobbs and Beck make – explaining their hate-for-hire stance on health care reform,” Olbermann continued. “Except, you can still go too far. How much trouble is Glenn Beck in after a seventh, possibly eighth major advertiser cancels its commercials on his programs?”


But MSNBC hasn’t just been the originator of these liberal attacks. An Aug. 5 post by The Weekly Standard’s Mary Katharine Ham shows how these stories originate – usually on far-left blogs, then are used for show material on MSNBC programming and then there’s the possibility they wind up in the more mainstream media outlets like the evening broadcast network news or major newspapers.


Given the angry accusations from the left, if health care reform is defeated, even in victory conservatives may face another dire fight: the one for the life of talk radio.


Renewed Calls for the Fairness Doctrine: A Sign of Things to Come?


Some of the circumstances surrounding this health care debate are eerily familiar. The last big policy issue that was defeated when an upset constituency pushed back was the bipartisan 2007 effort to reform immigration. However, it was thwarted when people flooded the switchboards on Capitol Hill. Some pointed at the power of talk radio to command action from voters, suggesting it was time to look at the Fairness Doctrine again.


“I remember when there was a Fairness Doctrine,” Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said after the immigration debate, accusing the format of “dramatizing” and “taking things out of context on Fox News Sunday on June 24, 2007. “And I think there was much more serious correct reporting to people.”


More recently, another voice in Washington, D.C. has come out voicing concerns about conservative talk radio’s position in the current media marketplace. Left-wing Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went on MSNBC’s Aug. 14 “Rachel Maddow” show – as liberal a forum as could be – and complained that the media outlets on the right were drowning the message out.


“I’ll tell you what else we need to do,” Sanders said. “We need to understand that it is very, very hard for the president or anybody else to take on not just the Republican Party, that’s the easy part – to take on all of right-wing talk radio, which covers 90 percent of talk show hosts, a whole Fox network which is nothing more than an arm of the Republican Party and the Democrats got to think long term. Why is there not a progressive television network? Why aren’t we supporting good and effective personalities on radio as well and building up a network there so that we can that kind of political consciousness-raising that the Republicans, in fact, are doing so well right now.”


Some members of Congress, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow, are still publicly calling for the Fairness Doctrine. And some have done it privately, according to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. Inhofe said that then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (now Secretary of State) and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had made references to it. But, even though it may have public and private supporters in the U.S. Senate, the Obama administration came out early on opposed to any revival of the Fairness Doctrine, as Fox News reported in February.


“As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated,” White House spokesman Ben LaBolt told FoxNews.com Feb. 18. 


However, Brett Joshpe, writing for the June 22 American Spectator, explained the Fairness Doctrine could still be applied to talk radio, but just under another name as stealth effort. He explained that the FCC has been discussing plans for it calls “locally-oriented programming,” known as localism, to control content on conservative stations.


“If one thing is clear several months into the Obama presidency, it is that the administration is not afraid to empower bureaucrats at the expense of individuals,” Joshpe wrote. “Maybe the Fairness Doctrine has, in fact, been sent to the dustbin of history, but we cannot be so sure about stealth regulations that will have a similar effect. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we carefully ask administration officials what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” 


If history is any indicator, a defeat of ObamaCare that winds up being what Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called the president’s “Waterloo,” it wouldn’t take much for a Democratic-controlled Washington, D.C. to take another look at the Fairness Doctrine.

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