Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Who Let This Guy In Here?

Monday's Commercial Appeal had a guest column by inveterate letter-writer B. Keith English. He's a well-known name in both the CA and Memphis Flyer lettercols. Why he, a pediatrician, was given a column to write about talk radio is beyond me. The CA almost always limits columns to the person's area of expertise, advocacy or specific interest.

As a couple of Letters to the Editor today show, some readers also wonder:
As usual, English demonstrates a profound inability to find
anything positive. I was acquainted with his drivel by reading his
frequent letters to the editor. His whining, ranting and raving
about anything or anyone of a conservative nature presaged his
feeble attempt to demonize talk radio.
So what's driving all this? An incoherent and sloppy column. Let's look:
Name-calling is the lingua franca of talk radio. It drowns out
everything else, including the rare to nonexistent discussion of
issues. Remarkably, talk radio has received little attention in the
press, perhaps because journalists are uncomfortable applying
professional standards to the conduct of the "disinfotainers" who
host talk programs.
Where to start? Well, first of all "rare to nonexistent discussion" is flat-out wrong. But it depends on your host.

One of the great misconceptions of talk radio is that all hosts are white, male, screaming hate-mongers. Of course that's not true. They are a broad spectrum. In fact, Andrew Clark, Sr., of WREC's Sunday afternoons, is a calm, intelligent black who loves to just talk, softly but with assurance. There are quite a few other talk radio people--Jane Norris, Roger Hedgecock, Walter Williams to name a few--who are thoughtful, moderate and reasonable in their shows. Just as there are insane, name-calling shouters. Try listening to WREC on Saturdays, from 2 to 4PM. They have a rotating block of Clear Channel talk radio hosts from around the country. You can hear the astonishingly loud and awful, and some who make you think. Even Mike Fleming has had a turn, though it's interesting to note that he changed his style for that program! He lowered his voice, slowed his delivery and almost completely cut out the invective. But he was still shallow, emotion-driven and clueless.

Claiming talk radio has gotten little attention is baffling. What is English reading? True, newspapers avoid it, because they fear the information competition and the threat to their monopoly of the community voice. But it's gotten coverage galore in magazines and television. Ask Dr. Laura. However, the King of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, rarely does press and that may what confuses English.

And journalists lambast talk radio for it's lack of adherence to their standards. It's the common trope from their camp--ask the CA's own television/radio columnist, Tom Bailey. Talk radio is a direct communication--no hiding--between the host and the caller. Papers selectively mediate the channels, and the CA in particular keeps its columnists and reporters inside Fort CA. It's talk, for heaven's sake, and public speaking like this cannot, and should not, be held to print standards, or even television news standards. They are different animals.
This situation changed in Tennessee during the recent state
budget crisis. Two Nashville talk radio hosts were credited with
helping to mobilize a series of anti-tax protests this year and last
year that included horn-honking, yelling and screaming, rock
throwing and a near-riot.
Now we know for sure where English is coming from, when he repeats the "rock throwing...near-riot" propaganda. What "changed" was the sudden realization by the press, and Jimmy Naifeh, that talk radio connected to a very vocal and very, very angry constituency! The press had been promoting its own lies and agenda unmolested for years, and to be undercut by the very folks they'd derided for years was a slap they had to take on.
The hosts repeatedly attacked lawmakers who disagreed with
their views. Their antics may have helped fuel some of the more
vulgar insults yelled out of car windows at income tax supporters
- and, in some cases, their young children.
Yeah, it's all about the children. And the CA and other state papers didn't attack the opponents of "tax reform?" They most definitely did, including vilifying talk radio! It's called debate, or its lesser brother argument. If you can't handle adult disagreement on fundamental, volatile issues, don't complain.
Talk radio deserves criticism not because it is influential - there is
little evidence it affects public policy in Tennessee or Washington,
the claims of enthusiasts to the contrary - but because it is
disgraceful, an embarrassment to our community and our country.
And here English proves himself either a liar or an idiot. Talk radio fueled the tax protests in Nashville, he claims, but then he argues it didn't have an effect? Not according to Naifeh, who called Phil Valentine and Steve Gill "the lowest forms of life," or to the papers, which regularly and to this day still mischaracterise the crowds that even they admit influenced the income tax votes.

An embarrassment? Has he watched television? Or is he one of those folks who claim not to? It would explain a lot, certainly. Yes, a lot of talk radio is bad. It's Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of media is crap. (OK, actually science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said, "Ninety percent of science fiction is crap." But since he first propounded that Law in the early Eighties, it's been found to have numerous corrolaries and to fit a vast array of situations.)

Mike Fleming is unquestionably bad. He's shallow and ill-informed. He'll hop and skip over topics like a bee in a field of flowers. He will use all sorts of names and name-calling. He'll dodge tough questions by informed callers and shout down and insult the ones he can dominate. He does the bad press dodge of "I know things you don't, but I can't tell you. You'll have to trust me." Fleming's only concern is to inflame his audience to drive callers and ratings. He's even admitted as much, replying, when accused of trying to drive up ratings by some callers, that "it's not sweeps period."

But then there's Bobby O'Jay, who I would bet English has never heard. He runs the Fun Morning Show on WDIA. He suffers no fools and will actively engage with callers, no matter their education or speaking ability. He's intelligent, knowledgeable and informed, and he operates from a base philosophy called "Bobby-ology." He'll take the black community to task when they need it, in his opinion. He's all about informing and improving the folks who listen to him.
Many Americans bemoan the loss of civility in our political system.
Talk radio is the zenith of incivility. Its supporters say it provides
a unique democratic opportunity for civic involvement. In reality, it
usually promotes the creation of a clique of like-minded (and
like-mouthed) individuals who demonize people who disagree
with them.
Is he talking about the CA now? Yes, politics is incivil now. It's always been incivil! Rutherford B. Hayes was vilified by his enemies for being grossly fat and for alledgedly fathering a child out of wedlock. FDR was attacked by every quarter and in names I couldn't begin to reprint here. Even King George III, from whom we got independence, was attacked by the American press. During the heyday of the American press--the Thirties and Forties--most cities had numerous papers. New York in the Forties had 47! And they fought it out, tooth and nail. They were vicious in a way that makes the CA look like Reader's Digest.

The last time the press was "civil," they were hiding the sexual affairs and physical disorders of JFK. Would you like to go back to that? Or get bare-knuckled, warts-n-all reporting? It's nothing but a reflection of who we are as humans, something that really hasn't changed much through the centuries, despite our "modern" view of ourselves.

Does talk radio draw in "like-minded" listeners? Well, DUH! I doubt you find many NPR listeners hanging on the WDIA morning show. Or jazz listeners around Rock103.
Differing views are tolerated only in small portions, and then
primarily to allow the host and his or her "dittoheads" to attack
the dissenter. Honest, respectful discussion of issues is generally
absent from these stations.
Rush Limbaugh, who he's attacking here, routinely gives liberal callers the head of the line. He allows them to talk until they've tripped over themselves, whereupon he points this out. But Rush is a different animal. He's an entertainer whose topic is politics. Most folks don't understand that, thinking he's a political commentator only. He owes disagreeing callers about as much as a comic owes a heckler.

"Honest, respectful discussion" is tough to do on radio. Some, even Rush, will try to keep a conversation going over the multiple ad breaks, but that's hard to do, especially as listeners tune in and out. But again, is television any better? Look at the shoutfests all over cable. 'Nuff said.

It seems clear that English hasn't listened to Phil Valentine nor Steve Gill. Both are calm and polite, but dogged in their opinions. They will engage callers in discussion, but won't waste time repeating themes they've covered many times before. They expect you to listen. It's one reason I'm especially glad that WREC is now carrying Phil Valentine (6 - 8PM, Monday through Friday). He wipes the floor with Fleming.
Talk radio also could be criticized for its monotonous political
agenda, but this is not its main problem. A left-wing version of
Mike Fleming or Rush Limbaugh would be equally offensive; only
the targets of the name-calling would change. Indeed, the slant
of talk radio may have backfired, leading to the widespread,
unfair caricature of political conservatives as ranting, intolerant
Numerous folks from the liberal end of the political spectrum have tried talk radio--and all have failed. If there was an audience for them, where is it? And again, you have only to look to televison talk shows to see the liberal "name-callers" that English bemoans, but apparently doesn't want to see. Now, locally, Janis Fullilove, again from WDIA, was as liberal as you could ask for, and she had a devoted audience. But she also had a "take no prisoner" style that, while not name-calling, was excoriating. But, again, I doubt if English ever heard her....

And I won't defend the truly execrable Mike Fleming. He is the talk radio stereotype that English decries. But English is slap-dash, wielding a very broad and sloppy brush. And he's weaving in his political and personal opinions, trying to pass them off as fact or received wisdom.
Examples of the offensive drivel that pollutes the airwaves on
talk radio stations are easy to find. Early in his career, Limbaugh
made his mark in part by maligning homeless people, unwed
mothers and victims of HIV infection.

Subsequently, Limbaugh wisely decided to tone down his own
rhetoric, while allowing (and encouraging) his callers to spew the
most malicious personal attacks. This modicum of subtlety is
generally lost on the many Limbaugh wannabes who host local
talk radio programs across the country.
Two words: James Carville. Oh, wait! Two more: Paul Begala. No! Three more: The McLaughlin Group. On PBS no less, and the model for all those screamfests you see on television today, not talk radio as English would have you believe.

Yes, Limbaugh is skilled at making you think you're hearing or learning something he's not actually saying. And despite his protestations, he's unquestionably an East Coat Establishment Republican. He does counter really bad stuff on his show from callers--and he avoids some topics all together, like abortion, religion and the Second Amendment. But, again, he's not a political commentator, but an entertainer who covers politics. Very subtle, but important difference.

English then goes on to make numerous comments about Fleming that I can't really disagree with, so I'll skip over them. But I will say that to argue from Fleming to all of talk radio is sloppy and wrong. It's like finding a Corvair and making generalizations about cars from it.

But now we get to English' nub, finally.
This is not a call for censorship; I support the right of WREC-AM
600 to air such trash. But this is a call for responsibility. A radio
station that broadcasts such programs should be challenged to
explain how this decision squares with its claims to support the
greater community and to promote civil civic participation instead
of discord.
That's fair enough, but will he hold local television news to that same standard? After all, they actually do have laws to mandate that--the Communications Act of 1934! These television stations are legally obligated to the community and its standards.

It should be noted, too, that most callers to talk radio are far more knowledgeable politically than the average. And they vote more often.
ant to be part of the problem? Wake up every morning and
focus on the person or persons you despise most. Dispense with
newspapers, magazines and books; get all of your "information"
from talk radio. Call in frequently to vent your spleen and practice
your name-calling. Then pat yourself on the back for "making a
difference" in your community.
Or write lots of Letters to the Editor? Notice that English doesn't mention television in his list. Is it because it is fair, in his opinion? English obviously doesn't listen to talk radio, except through the filters of his personal and political biases. And again, most talk radio takes its cues from newspapers, magazines and news services; often it assumes that callers have read what's being discussed!
Prefer to be part of the solution? Turn off talk radio and its
television equivalents. Get involved with your church, synagogue,
mosque or temple. Volunteer with any of Memphis's many
wonderful charitable organizations. Give freely of your time and
money to help those who are in need.
Psssst.... It's not an either/or situation. You can do both. Many do, including Half-Bakered.
Become informed about the issues that affect our community,
state, nation and world. Support the political candidates of your
choice. Respect the views of those who disagree with you. Love
your neighbor, instead of calling him a "moron."
That's part of the reason talk radio has become so popular! Many folks came to realize that television and newspapers were lying to them, either by commission or omission. The Internet has only accelerated and confirmed that suspicion.

And I would find it easier to respect and love my neighbor if he wasn't constantly coming over the fence and taking from me and my family, all in the name of good. Expressing their anger at a political system that's now built on taking from Peter to enrich Paul is what made talk radio. Certainly you couldn't do that through the major media. Can you?

Until next time,
Your Working Boy

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