On CBS, Michael Smerconish Slams Talk Radio's 'Horrific Impact on Polarization and Incivility'

Appearing on Friday's CBS This Morning, Sirius XM radio and CNN host Michael Smerconish hocked his new fictional novel about the talk radio business entitled Talk, and denounced the industry: "I think it's entertainment masked as news and I wanted to expose it because I think it's had a horrific impact on polarization and incivility in the country." [Listen to the audio]

Smerconish was teed up by co-host Gayle King, who described the book as "the story of an influential conservative radio personality at a crossroad against the backdrop of a presidential race," before proclaiming: "...many times when I used to listen to talk radio, it's hard to do now, I used to listen to these guys, Michael, and say, 'They can't possibly believe what they're saying.' And after reading your book...the character says it's all for show. Half the time they don't mean what they're saying. It just is a way to just rile up the crowd."

Smerconish replied: "And yes, that's exactly the way that I believe that it is." That prompted King to reference his own talk radio career: "Do you feel you played part in that at any time? Did you always believe what you were saying?" Smerconish asserted: "I believed what I was saying at all times. I look back, Gayle, and I say, "My God, over the span of two decades I've said plenty of ridiculous things." But at the moment that I offered them, they were in my heart."

King cited the book's main character: "Stan Powers, I kept reading thinking, 'Is it Michael? Is it Michael?'" Smerconish claimed the fictional talk radio host was not him:

I'm not Stan Powers, I'm not the protagonist. I didn't say things just so that my star would rise. Listen, to the contrary, guys, and you know this, I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and I did it in a public way. I did it in a public way. If I were motivated by my career interest, I'd have shut my mouth and closed that curtain because that's how you succeed in this business.

Co-host Norah O'Donnell challenged Smerconish's accusation that talk radio was to blame for polarization: "The rise of talk radio has coincided with increasing partisanship in politics. But I'm not sure it's the cause of it. There are a lot of other factors and there's always been partisan media since the beginning of media."

Smerconish insisted: "Norah, I disagree with you, respectfully. I think it is a significant causal factor in this....In the early 1980s, on Ronald Reagan's watch, 60% of the Senate comprised of moderates. Today, literally none." O'Donnell countered: "And that's because of talk radio?"

Smerconish continued to rail against his livelihood:

I believe that it's an absolute contributing factor and it's because too many politicians are taking their cues from men with microphones. And why would they do that? Because we've got hyperpartisan districts, we've got closed primaries, and we've got the influence of money. So it's all related. But, yeah, they're taking their cues from the talk crowd and the cable TV crowd and it's to the detriment of the country.

Co-host Charlie Rose wondered why so many talk radio hosts were conservative. Smerconish explained: "I think conservatives rightfully believed they had nowhere to go. The Big Three networks, the Washington Post, the New York Times didn't give them a feeling that the red carpet had been rolled out. So they carved out this clubhouse for themselves."

Moments later, King observed: "Now you say that talk radio really is a clubhouse for conservatives and that really you don't even want to hear what other people are saying. The goal is to just get on there and talk and spew whatever it is that you want to say. And when you move around in the world, you're saying you don't meet those people."

Smerconish declared:

I don't meet those people....They don't resemble these people. You know the people that I engage with on a day to day basis, they're liberal on some issues, usually social, they're conservative on many issues, usually fiscal, and there are a helluva lot of things they just haven't figured out and they're not afraid to say that.

But turn on the radio or turn on cable television news, my God, they've all got it figured out because they've invested with this microphone and it's either this way or it's this way and I'm telling you that's not the real world.

Here is a full transcript of the May 9 segment:

8:19 AM ET

NORAH O'DONNELL: And if you follow politics, there's a good chance you've tuned in to Michael Smerconish, he hosts a daily program on Sirius XM radio and a weekly show on CNN. He's also a best-selling author and now he's trying his hand at fiction.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Talking the Talk; Michael Smerconish on New Book, Polarized Politics]

GAYLE KING: Yes, he is. It's called "Talk." It's the story of an influential conservative radio personality at a crossroad against the backdrop of a presidential race. The novel is distributed by Simon & Schuster, which we have to tell you is a division of CBS, yay. Michael Smerconish joins us at the table. Good morning to you.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH: Great to see all three of you. Thank you for having me.

KING: It's good to see you because many times when I used to listen to talk radio, it's hard to do now, I used to listen to these guys, Michael, and say, "They can't possibly believe what they're saying." And after reading your book, Talk-  

SMERCONISH: Now you know.

KING: After reading your book, the character says it's all for show. Half the time they don't mean what they're saying. It just is a way to just rile up the crowd.

SMERCONISH: I think it's entertainment masked as news and I wanted to expose it because I think it's had a horrific impact on polarization and incivility in the country. And yes, that's exactly the way that I believe that it is.

KING: Do you feel you played part in that at any time?

SMERCONISH: I don't.

KING: Did you always believe what you were saying?

SMERCONISH: I believed what I was saying at all times. I look back, Gayle, and I say, "My God, over the span of two decades I've said plenty of ridiculous things." But at the moment that I offered them, they were in my heart.

CHARLIE ROSE: Did this happen at a particular time moved by certain events?

SMERCONISH: Charlie, I believe that it grew out of the first Gulf War. That was the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the rise of syndicated talk. When I cut my teeth in this business two-plus decades ago, the only litmus test was one's ability to conduct a conversation. And I remember filling in for a guy, he would do the 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. shift in Philadelphia. His name was Bernie Herman and his shtick, his moniker is that he was the "gentleman of broadcasting." Can you imagine if today you knocked on the door of a talk radio station and they said, "What are you all about?" "I'm the gentleman of broadcasting." You're not crossing the threshold.   

KING: He would not be hired.

SMERCONISH: Correct.

KING: Well, the book – the character in the book, Stan Powers, I kept reading thinking, "Is it Michael? Is it Michael?" Because in the end, he – he really changes-  

SMERCONISH: Don't give it away now.

KING: Okay, I won't give it away, but he changes.

SMERCONISH: Right.

KING: He changes. I won't say how he changed, but he changes. Did that in any way happen to you? I did go back and forth about you, I really did.

SMERCONISH: Many of the incidents that I write about in the book absolutely happened to me. If you're reading the book and you're scratching your head and you're saying, "My God, did this take place?" Chances are it did. I'm not Stan Powers, I'm not the protagonist. I didn't say things just so that my star would rise.

Listen, to the contrary, guys, and you know this, I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and I did it in a public way.

KING: Caused a stir, yeah.

SMERCONISH: I did it in a public way. If I were motivated by my career interest, I'd have shut my mouth and closed that curtain because that's how you succeed in this business.

O'DONNELL: The rise of talk radio has coincided with increasing partisanship in politics. But I'm not sure it's the cause of it. There are a lot of other factors and there's always been partisan media since the beginning of media.

SMERCONISH: Norah, I disagree with you, respectfully. I think it is a significant causal factor in this. And what I would point to is the following. In the early 1980s, on Ronald Reagan's watch, 60% of the Senate comprised of moderates. Today, literally none. Every Republican is more conservative than every Democrat, every Democrat is more liberal than every Republican.

O'DONNELL: And that's because of talk radio?

SMERCONISH: I believe that it's an absolute contributing factor and it's because too many politicians are taking their cues from men with microphones. And why would they do that? Because we've got hyperpartisan districts, we've got closed primaries, and we've got the influence of money. So it's all related. But, yeah, they're taking their cues from the talk crowd and the cable TV crowd and it's to the detriment of the country.

And one last thing, the nation – the nation isn't in this category. You know, this is about the passionate few. 42% of the country, according to Gallup, are "I's," independents, not "R's" or "D's."

ROSE: So, are there more – so the country's independent – but are there more conservative talk radio hosts than liberal or progressive?

SMERCONISH: Absolutely. No doubt.

ROSE: And why is that?

SMERCONISH: Well, it's because when the beachhead was established, Charlie, in 1991 and thereafter, at the time of the first Gulf War, I think conservatives rightfully believed they had nowhere to go. The Big Three networks, the Washington Post, the New York Times didn't give them a feeling that the red carpet had been rolled out. So they carved out this clubhouse for themselves.

What is mystifying is that today with all the choice, with cable, with satellite radio, with the internet, people still gravitate toward the like-minded. And I think, you know, without regard for this show or my radio show, people need to change the dial. You know, sample some opinions. Too many folks rely on Drudge, on talk, and on Fox. And too many others look only at MSN and at HuffPo. My God, explore some independent thought.

KING: Now you say that talk radio really is a clubhouse for conservatives and that really you don't even want to hear what other people are saying. The goal is to just get on there and talk and spew whatever it is that you want to say.

SMERCONISH: Right.

KING: And when you move around in the world, you're saying you don't meet those people.

SMERCONISH: I don't meet those people.

KING: Somebody's listening, though, Michael. Somebody's listening.

SMERCONISH: Gayle, I lead, I think, a very normal existence. I do the grocery shopping, my wife and I co-parent four kids, I'm the one pumping gas in the family cars. And people engage me in conversations. They don't resemble these people. You know the people that I engage with on a day to day basis, they're liberal on some issues, usually social, they're conservative on many issues, usually fiscal, and there are a helluva lot of things they just haven't figured out and they're not afraid to say that.

But turn on the radio or turn on cable television news, my God, they've all got it figured out because they've invested with this microphone and it's either this way or it's this way and I'm telling you that's not the real world.

KING: So you've changed.

SMERCONISH: Well, I'm more open-minded, I think that I've been. I'm more willing, perhaps, to speak out about these things. I could have written this as nonfiction. I wanted to draw attention to it, take some liberties, I wrote it as fiction, but there's a lot of truth in jest.

KING: Yup, people pay attention. Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

KING: Talk is on sale wherever you like to buy your books.

— Kyle Drennen is News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.