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Talk Radio: Media Hate "Democracy In Action"

Talk Radio: Media Hate "Democracy In Action"
by L. Brent Bozell III
September 19, 1996

It is the conventional wisdom of the elitist national news media that talk radio is one of those unfortunate casualties of the democratic process, wherein freedom of speech allows for demagogic hatemongers to pollute with nonsense the minds of the poor, uneducated, and easy to command.

As usual, the enlightened press corps is wrong.

The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, headed up by professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson (no conservative, she), has released a year-long study of talk radio that included listening to hundreds of hours of talk radio as well as reading 2,647 print stories on talk radio over a two-year period. Among their findings:

1. "Political talk radio listeners are more likely than non-listeners to consume all news media other than TV news, to be more knowledgeable, and to be involved in political activities. This is true regardless of the ideology of the hosts of the programs to which they listen."

In shorthand: The talk radio listener is smarter than the average American.

This confounds the snooty liberal cocktail banter that inevitably becomes the stuff of published establishment thought. In a Washington Post book review, former CBS newsman Marvin Kalb sniffed: "Cut off the funding for NPR, or gradually reduce its funding to the point where it become a mere shadow of its usual robust, sensible self, and the American people may find themselves left with nothing much more than Rush and his dozens of mini-clones for information about the world. For Limbaugh's 'ditto-heads,' this may be the most splendid of tomorrows, but for other more thoughtful listeners, it may be the bleakest of forecasts." NBC's Bob Faw once put it another way, asking whether "talk radio is not democracy in action, but democracy run amok."

2. "The mainstream media tend to portray political talk radio superficially and as powerful, pernicious, and homogeneous." The study found not only that "the homogeneity of political talk radio is overstated," but that "By focusing on extreme moments of talk radio without indicating how typical they are of the most widely heard shows, mainstream news may invite the inference that political talk is routinely uncivil at best, dangerous at worst."

In shorthand: critics of talk radio are misleading the public.

The Annenberg report might have included Time's Richard Lacayo writing after the Oklahoma City bombing: "In a nation that has entertained and appalled itself for years with hot talk on the radio and the campaign trail, the inflamed rhetoric of the '90s is suddenly an unindicted co-conspirator in the blast."

Or Los Angeles Times reporter Nina Easton: "The Oklahoma City attack on federal workers and their children also alters the once-easy dynamic between charismatic talk show and adoring audience. Hosts who routinely espouse the same anti-government themes as the militia movement now must walk a fine line between inspiring their audience - and inciting the most radical among them."

Or Dan Rather, who defamed talk radio this way: "Even after Oklahoma City, you can turn on your radio in any city and still dial up hate talk: extremist, racist, and violent rhetoric from the hosts and those who call in."

3. "In 61 percent of the cases that the host was mentioned, the host's program was not mentioned...Articles where talk show hosts appeared virtually ignored audiences, callers, guests, and advertisers."

The Annenberg School study found Limbaugh came up in 74 percent of print stories mentioning talk show hosts, more than one in three of them unfavorable. But the study's authors argue Limbaugh is a different animal than most of talk radio: "Limbaugh spends more time than other hosts arguing to his audience that they should assume personal responsibility and can make a difference...It promotes a fundamental value of personal responsibility and efficacy in support of political involvement."

Further, "His ongoing attempts to teach his listeners how to 'interpret' the 'liberal' press are rarely mentioned in the nearly 3,000 articles we read. Yet one can make a case that from the standpoint of the general press, and perhaps the entire political process, these daily lessons are one of the most far-reaching consequences of his program."

In shorthand: Limbaugh performs a public service, extolling his listeners not only to think for themselves, but to practice democracy through involvement in the political process.

The Annenberg study proves what conservatives have said all along: far from enlightened, the national news media are ignorant about, and therefore unqualified to judge, talk radio. Far from objective, their slant is leftist, arrogant, mean-spirited - and wrong.

Need more proof? Every network newscast has run stories getting it wrong about Rush Limbaugh at one point or another; every network refused to report this study. For the print press, more of the same: with the exception of The Washington Times and the briefest of mentions in USA Today, not one national newspaper or news magazine gave the study consideration.

We rest our case.