The Struggle To Define What’s Wrong With Talk Radio

The tyranny of the majority, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous critique of American democracy, not only disheartened minority opinion and repressed nonconforming expression. It also dumbed down the free press, inhibiting all intellectual discussion. The French aristocrat observed that where opinion got through in the popular press, it was expressed in the form of news, not rational argument.

This 170-year-old conservative view of America is relevant now in the age of radio-cable screamers. The political yell heads may be officially ignored by the staid professionals of traditional journalism, as if the lack of mainstream publicity will make them go away. They won’t. And I have come across a couple of speeches in which news executives struggle to express to their colleagues, in Tocquevillean terms, why the screamers really do worry them.

Tom Brokaw, who is in his last year with NBC News, made his remarks on Nov. 19, reducing the otherwise jocular National Press Club audience to silence—or so it appeared on the C-Span replay of his Fourth Estate lifetime achievement award dinner.

“There has developed in some quarters a dangerous drift toward intellectual and character assassination as a response to opinions or personalities that refuse to conform to the ideological play list of the season,” Brokaw said.

“Radio stations have become instantly jingoistic and savagely critical of any question raised about the decisions leading up to, for example, the war in Iraq, motivated not by ideological or intellectual passions but instead by the raw commercial possibilities of creating a mob mentality.

“Those on other media play on similar base emotions, the NBC anchor continued. “They suffocate vigorous discourse, the oxygen of a system such as ours, by identifying those who refuse to conform and encourage a kind of e-mail or telephonic jihad which is happily carried out by well funded organizations operating under the guise of promoting fairer press coverage.”

Last April, Gail Collins, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, worried on the same theme at Stanford University in the annual lecture sponsored by the John S. Knight Fellowships Program for journalists.
“I do not want to drive Rush Limbaugh off the air, ” she said (as if she could). “But I do want to distinguish between real journalism and partisan advocacy. I think that’s very important, and I want us to be clear about the values that we need to hang onto in this brave new world or whatever the heck it is we’re going into next.”

She said, “The part of the advocacy media that we do have to fight is that part that tries to claim that we’re all the same, just with different agendas. A lot of the battering that the traditional media comes in for I think is mainly an attempt to bring our journalism down to the level of pure opinion. And much as I love opinion, it’s not the same thing. In some ways it is like this ongoing attempt to dub anyone who’s critical of the political end of the current Iraq effort as being against the troops.”

Brokaw and Collins fleshed out their remarks with some press history that, to me, puts the present situation in a less worrisome context. Brokaw venerated Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the free press who was pilloried by it in his own lifetime. There was only a handful of newspapers then with limited circulation in a nation where much of the population could not read. Now the media are so high developed that they can attack instantly and with what Brokaw called “ruthless efficiency” and often just “for sport or profit.”
Collins read sensational 19th Century “news” headlines exposing, for example, Grover Cleveland as a “Moral Monster.” It was not until the Civil War that newspapers actually hired reporters to go out and cover the news, she said, and not until the 20th Century that they cordoned off opinion from news.

The standard of objectivity in American news really took root after World War II, as newspapers consolidated and the network television arose. She described it as a strategy for offending the least number of advertisers. And then came cable, with all those news channels screaming for audience. And then came the Internet, which Collins said, “reminds me of a saloon at like 1:30 on Saturday morning.”

But cheer up! This barroom brawl is not new. I get the impression that it’s sort of like the 19th Century when big cities had dozens of competitive newspapers—take your pick. The problem is that America may have developed what Brokaw called “a tyranny of the right.” (Just as, he said, there was one on the left in the Sixties and Seventies.)

Both Brokaw and Collins, though from different generations, different media, and probably different political persuasions, proposed the same civil solution: a decent respect for the rights of the opposition. I think it will develop, supposing we keep a free press, when the audience actually demands that respect and learns by experience what is, and is not, reliable in the media.

Collins went a little further than civility, advocating renewed emphasis of the objectivity of news reporting, which she described as a profession that requires “an intellectual rigor to do it well, and a real passion for the truth.” (Students: She also said it’s easier to get a job in journalism now than in your parents’ post-Watergate era.)

Well, Collins spoke on April 21. On May 11, her paper broke the news that Jayson Blair, one of its young fast-track reporters, as the Times put it, “committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months.” The story plus the antics of Geraldo Rivera and Peter Arnett about the same time in Iraq were a blow to the ethics of the profession. But the fact that the Times fired Blair and NBC fired Arnett showed the principles of objectivity persist.

Those principles predate the American media expediency of offending the least number of advertisers. They show up in the writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus and his Chinese counterpart Sima Qin more than 2,000 years ago. And they will be around after all of us have gone our way—some kicking, some screaming.