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Hosting ignorance

Andrea Laidman | Monday, October 1, 2007

The content of talk radio in the U.S. was particularly dismal last week, with two broadcasts by leading pundits that quickly turned controversial.

On the Sept. 19 edition of his nationally syndicated radio program, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly discussed his recent visit to Sylvia’s, a famous restaurant in Harlem. O’Reilly said, “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, [with] primarily black patronship.”

O’Reilly continued to marvel at the lack of swearing and crude behavior he witnessed during his first meal at Sylvia’s: “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’ … it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all.”

On September 26, Rush Limbaugh called service members who advocate for U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraq “phony soldiers” in an interaction with a caller on his nationally broadcast program. He and a caller distinguished between “real soldiers” – defined as those who are proud to serve and who want to be in Iraq – and the “phony soldiers” – those active duty men and women who express dissatisfaction with the war and the current structure of governance in Iraq.

These comments, on one level, are easily dismissed, both by their content and the credibility of the sources: Bill O’Reilly is a constantly criticized news host, who apparently has a 1950s concept of race relations, and whose remarks last week were reminiscent of Don Imus’ now-infamous description of the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Rush Limbaugh, akin to his ultra right-wing supporters and the officials he hails, speaks only in partisan language and fails to recognize that dissent can be, and often is, patriotic.

But the continued prevalence of radio in American life makes this dismissal too easy. Indeed, broadcasts like the recent performances of O’Reilly and Limbaugh raise larger questions about the objectives of talk radio and its hosts, and their impact on the American civic and political scene.

Ninety percent of Americans age 12 or over tune into radio programs each week. Yet a surprising amount of political and talk radio is explicitly conservative-learning – 91 percent of daily broadcasts, according to a July 2007 report by the Center for American Progress.

This dominance of corporate-owned, conservative stations, says the Center, is due to structural imbalances and not popular demand: “The complete breakdown of the public trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements and the relaxation of ownership rules have tipped the scales against localism and allowed the few to indoctrinate the many.” The Center recommends enhanced local ownership and investment in public broadcasting to alleviate this imbalance.

But the solution may be even more personal than that.

Fifty million American listeners tune into news or talk radio programming every week. And yet the public reaction following all-too-frequent offensive remarks by the likes of Imus, O’Reilly and Limbaugh is one of outrage and disbelief. If Americans are going to continue to tune into this programming, which has its television equivalent in much of the political analysis of cable news, they have to demand a higher standard on the air.

The poor quality of cable news shows is often explained by the quick pace of television programming. While news is on 24/7, hosts and their guests have only minutes to make their points, and thus they fire back and forth at each other, often reducing debate to partisan arguments and buzzwords. But on talk radio, hosts often have a few hours of airtime to discuss an issue, interview experts, or present viewpoints.

Radio outlets like NPR demonstrate that longer stories can facilitate in-depth discussion of controversial issues through thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments, inquiry and interviews.

Bill O’Reilly’s radio program is two hours daily, while Rush Limbaugh’s is three hours – a length of time many news outlets reserve for special reports or emergency programming. Yet both continually fail to present well-reasoned, articulate arguments and viewpoints, and Americans continue tuning in.

What is needed across the board is reform of what is covered and the way it is discussed by some of the leading broadcast figures of our era, but it will not come until audiences demand change. As a collective American audience of both radio and television news programming, we cannot continue to accept a standard of broadcasting that we find outrageous only when ignorance turns offensive.

Andrea Laidman is a senior political science and peace studies major. Her column’s title recalls advice given to John Adams by his wife, Abigail: “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.