"Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time: An Inside Look at the Performers and Pundits," by Howard Kurtz. Times Books. 407 pages. $25
What a great title! Appeals to everybody. To those of us who hate radio and television commentary, "hot air" means "empty, exaggerated or pretentious talk," according to my dictionary; to those of you who love it, "air" means "broadcast" and "hot" means "currently popular and commercially successful; in demand; marketable." Which talk radio and television definitely are.
In fact, Howard Kurtz argues that talk shows, especially radio talk shows, have "revolutionized the way millions of Americans get information and opinions about public issues ... and broken the monopoly of major media in ways that, at bottom, are healthy for public debate."
The last half of that quotation puzzles me. Maybe I don't understand what "at bottom" means. Because Mr. Kurtz could not be clearer throughout this fine book that he believes most talk journalism is baloney, just showbiz - and dangerous because it masquerades as something else: serious journalism. Most of the most influential talkers don't know what they are talking about most of the time - and succeed because of that, Mr. Kurtz says. They are unencumbered by the ability or the desire to put public matters in real perspective. No shades of gray in "loudmouth" journalism. No thoughtful admissions of doubt. No quiet analysis. No on-the-one-hand-this and on-the-other-hand-that exegesis of complicated matters of public policy.
Mr. Kurtz quotes John McLaughlin of the syndicated television show "The McLaughlin Group" as saying of his ensemble of panelists, "Blurting is good! We want blurting!" Mr. McLaughlin is important in this book because it is basically a book about talking heads in Washington. Donahue, Oprah, Howard Stern and a few local talk show hosts get a mention, but 11 of the 15 chapters of "Hot Air: All Talk, All the time" deal with Washington punditry.
Many of the stars of the McLaughlin-type shows are serious print journalists. Don't they know what they're talking about? No. Margaret Carlson of Time, a regular on CNN's "Capital Gang," is quoted here this way: "What I write in Time magazine are things I've thought through, I've studied, I've gotten every point of view. What do I know about Haiti? I know what everybody else knows and maybe a little bit more. Nobody can be a specialist on five subjects every week ... [TV bookers]'re not looking for the most learned person; they're looking for the person who can sound learned without confusing the matter with too much knowledge."
Or, as Fred Barnes, a writer for the new Weekly Standard magazine and a television regular on numerous shows, put it when told he would have to discuss a topic he hadn't studied, "I'll fake it." To which his colleague, The Sun's Jack Germond, commented, "If you can't fake it on this show [McLaughlin], where the hell can you fake it?"
Why do good newspapermen do this? Mr. Kurtz, who does it himself, suggests it's because it's fun. "Going on TV is a blast," he says. He quotes his Washington Post colleague E.J. Dionne as calling him and others like him "media sluts."
I think that's the wrong insult. I think many Washington newspapermen and women who turn up all the time pretending to know that they're talking about are not metaphoric sluts but metaphoric whores. They don't like it, they do it for the money.
I bet Germond speaks for many when he says, "I'm not comfortable with any of this ... [but] if you want to make enough money, you have to do television. If I didn't have to pay alimony, I wouldn't do it."
Faking it for money is, of course, the oldest profession, and talk radio and, especially, television are creating a sort of harlot journalism. This is bad for journalism and bad for this democratic country. If voters make their minds up on candidates and issues of the basis of what Mr. Kurtz calls "run at the mouth" journalists, what can be expected of government?
Theo Lippman Jr. is the author of five books, four of which dea with Washington politicians and one with journalism. He teaches opinion writing in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.