Talk radio is dangerous. Why? Because audiences believe what they hear, and much of it is false.
I've been listening to a lot of talk shows since 1992. Lying isn't the problem. I believe these guys just feel the need to have an opinion about everything. The ones I have been listening to are way out of their depths on most - yes, most - topics they take on. They don't know what they don't know.
So much of it, most of it taken as a whole, is trashy.
Why? In "Inside Talk Radio" (Birch Lane Press. 270 pages. $19.95), Peter Laufer says it is because it is entertainment pretending to be journalism. "Radio talk shows," he writes, "usually play the same role as the supermarket tabloids. They offer frivolous entertainment, not credible news. The comparison breaks down, however, because while the tabloids clearly refuse to take themselves too seriously (witness the plethora of Elvis and alien sightings in their pages), more and more radio talk show hosts are believing their own harangues."
Mr. Laufer has been there.
The day after he was fired as news and program director of Washington radio station WRC, he says in the book's epilogue, Andy Bloom, the national program director of parent Greater Media lectured the staff:
"I don't care if you take the high road or the low road. I don't care about educating people. I want to get rich and I will do whatever it takes to win. If that means getting down and rolling around in the mud, then I will get down in the mud."
Robert Longwell, the new general manager of WRC explained further. "We don't give a [expletive] about Bosnia. We want to hear more about Lorena Bobbitt."
Tom Milewski, the chief operating officer of Greater Media, put a slightly different spin on it. "The formula for a successful talk show these days is to find out what your audience's bigotry is and play to it."
Since the main theme of Laufer's book is that talk radio is dangerous trash, some might decide the book is getting even. He says the book was almost completed when he was fired. So I prefer to conclude that it was Greater Media that did the getting even. The corporation decided it had a malcontent if not traitor in its bosom and got rid of him.
This book comes along at an interesting time. In the past 10 days, (1) Mario Cuomo has been welcomed to the talk radio scene as the Great Liberal Hope to offset the right-wing tilt of talkers; (2) Gordon Liddy has received the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts' "Freedom of Speech Award," and (3) Baltimore's WJHU has gone from mostly classical music to practically all talk.
Hot, hot, hot. Liddy got the award as a response to criticism of his telling listeners how to shoot law enforcement officers who might be wearing bullet-proof vests. Some think the award was an attempt to silence critics. I think it transparently was an attempt to provoke them. Part of the explanation for talk radio's growth is that traditional journalists have criticized it so often in - yes - pieces like this one.
Laufer quotes Carl Jensen, a journalism professor, to the effect that talk radio has "a built-in credibility" from the days when only news, not opinion, came over the air. "Now that trust is being violated by talk show hosts running fast and loose with the facts," says Jensen, "and the audience believes the words just because they come from an authoritative voice on the radio. I think the public cannot distinguish between Edward R. Murrow and Rush Limbaugh. The public thinks that Rush Limbaugh is the successor to the Edward R. Murrows of radio."
Limbaugh is a recurrent character in this book, as he is in other literature on talk radio. There is even a journal devoted to criticizing just him, The Flush Rush Quarterly. Sample editorial content: "What is the difference between Rush Limbaugh and the Hindenburg? One is a flaming Nazi gasbag and the other is a dirigible."
Those readers old enough to remember the Hindenburg disaster probably remember the man who made talk radio a popular and effective element in journalism and public affairs in the first place. Will Rogers, the Broadway star turned lecturer turned newspaper columnist, began a radio series in 1929 in which he commented on governmental and social issues.
He was as popular as Limbaugh, and
as entertaining. Of course, there are some enormous differences. Rogers was self-effacing. "All I know is what I read in the newspapers," he said. And he was gentle in his criticisms, poking fun at Democrats, such as himself, as well as Republicans. Limbaugh is a partisan braggart with a mean streak.
It's All Entertainment
Laufer quotes Limbaugh as saying talk radio is not journalism. "I really believe radio is turned on for three reasons: People turn it on to be entertained, to be entertained, and to be entertained."
If only that were true.
In fact, many people turn it on to get their own ideas and prejudices reinforced - and act when the appropriate buttons are pushed. The Sun got about two dozen phone calls when Limbaugh urged his listeners to call their local paper and tell them to "stop lying" by saying Republicans were going to cut the school lunch program - even though The Sun had reported and editorialized that the program was to be increased.
That sort of cheerleading, irresponsible or not, makes talk radio hosts players in public affairs. Rush Limbaugh didn't get invited to spend the night in George Bush's White House, or get a one-on-one briefing on the Mexican aid package by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, because they found him entertaining.
Laufer quotes several critics of talk radio who believe the Limbaughs and his mimics lie. Some do, and some more than others. But most of them, much of the time, just don't know what they are talking about.
Why would anyone take a talk show host seriously on, for example, global warming? The scientists who study it disagree. Responsible journalism in this area would be that provided by a person who has some background in science and the luxury of being able to spend a lot of his work time studying it further. Most big-city newspapers, including this one, try to let editorial writers specialize in only a few areas of interest and use op-ed page contributors who are more or less specialists. What commercial radio talk show is similarly responsible?
My own area of special interest is national politics and government. I never listen to a radio talk show host, including the ones I respect, in which I don't hear several wowsers of ignorance or lack of understanding when they talk about politics and government.
One talker I listen to from time to time does not do politics. Bruce Williams gives advice about financial matters. I'm always impressed by his authority. I'm convinced. I'm moved to act. More often than not when I repeat his ideas to professionals in the field, they demonstrate that his ideas are half-baked.
Williams is a prime example of the major ethical flaw in talk radio. He endorses everything. "Radio is a commercial enterprise," he has said. One minute he's a journalist giving advice about investing, the next he's hawking a specific mutual fund. This seamless web from journalist to huckster and back again is a problem talk show hosts need to face. And I don't mean the way Rush Limbaugh did it. He ridiculed the Clinton administration Education Department's plans to give school kids free pizzas for reading achievement. Then he retracted his comments - after pressure from Pizza Hut, for whom he does ads.
Talk radio journalism is still living by ethical and professional standards that were perhaps fitting when news and commentary were only a small part of a station's total broadcasting. Endorse any product you wanted to. Say anything about a public issue you wanted to. The standards of entertainers were appropriate then.
But all-talk radio, at least on those stations that truly believe they're practicing journalism now, needs different standards. Whether you believe, as some talk show hosts and some Republican elected officials believe, that talk radio's popularity is responsible for the conservative tilt of public opinion these days, believe, as I do, that it's the other way around, talkers are a part of the political process.
Talk radio should give a [expletive] about Bosnia, etc., and provide listeners with responsible commentary meant to inform and explain, rather than its more usual off-the-cuff bull [expletive], meant just to entertain, excite and attract audience. It needs to take the high road.
* Theo Lippman Jr. has written editorials for The Sun for 30 years and taught "Opinion Writing" at Johns Hopkins University for 10 years. He is the editor of "A Gang of Pecksniffs," a collection of H.L. Mencken's writings on journalism.