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America is a nation of bigmouths. For 350 years we’ve been trading gossip, uninformed opinion, and poisonous personal attacks in every imaginable venue, from town meetings to newspapers to political rallies to saloons to the office water cooler. If this country hewed to the old saying, “If you can’t say something nice…,” we wouldn’t have a whole lot to say.
Given that tradition, it’s surprising that talk programming took so long to gain prominence in the broadcast media. While both radio and television dabbled in talk from their earliest days, the past 10 years have seen an explosion in the amount and variety of yammering on the airwaves. Nearly 1,000 of the country’s 11,000 radio stations currently rely on some form of spoken-word programming. Talk shows dominate midday television, Sunday morning television, and at least a half-dozen cable channels. Politics, sports, self-improvement, news, business, titillation, voyeurism—it’s an all-you-can-stomach talk buffet with something for every taste.
Talk’s migration from back fences and barrooms to TV and radio troubles many social observers, including Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who sets forth his concerns in his second book, Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time. In theory, Kurtz is an ideal person to put the talk phenomenon in perspective. He’s a solid reporter with excellent sources and an obvious desire to share what he knows—he scores a byline almost every day. What’s more, Kurtz has significant experience as a participant in talk media. He has hosted his own radio talk show and worked TV’s political gab circuit.
Thus it is surprising and disappointing to report that Hot Air suffers from a flaw its author ascribes to many talk programs: This superficial work substitutes anecdotes for analysis and ultimately adds little to our understanding of the issues it raises. Indeed, Hot Air is little more than a pastiche of predictable tsk-tsking, oft-made observations, and warmed-over bios of key players—all delivered from the exact perspective one expects from a reporter for official Washington’s clubhouse newsletter. Cliff Notes version: Nightline good, Rush Limbaugh bad; Tim Russert god, Jenny Jones devil’s minion.
Hot Air’s most evident shortcomings appear in an examination of talk radio, America’s most overhyped and misunderstood medium. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Kurtz’s analyses prove underwhelming. After praising the format as a conduit for a sometimes informative, always passionate discussion of the issues, Kurtz rips into talk radio for its regrettable tendency to spew hyperpartisan bilge. Yet he makes no effort to explore that problem. At one point, Kurtz even seems to shrug as he observes, “Outrageousness seems to sell.”
Well, yes and no. If Kurtz had done more than order up a Nexis search of recent reports on bad-boy talkers, he would have learned that talk hosts ultimately rise or fall on true talent and personality. The radio charnel house is full of hosts whose one “talent” was a willingness to make outlandish or smutty remarks. The most recent example: J. Paul Emerson, the San Francisco talker cited by Kurtz for his crude comments about hunting illegal immigrants. Radio station KSFO-AM fired Emerson 30 days after he started. Why? Because management realized there was no substance behind his bomb-throwing. G. Gordon Liddy, pilloried for his remarks about shooting federal agents, has had trouble getting major-market stations to carry his show. Another fading star: Ollie North, who built his program largely on his Iran-contra notoriety and his Clinton-bashing.
Hot Air could have made a fascinating contribution to talk radio literature if Kurtz had taken his concerns to some of the medium’s top executives. Why does family-friendly Disney/ABC allow its New York talk station, WABC, to keep nasty talker Bob Grant? Does Infinity Broadcasting Chairman Mel Karmazin ever lose sleep over the sometimes reprehensible antics of his company’s edgier personalities—Liddy, Howard Stern, and Don Imus? If—as we suspect—it’s all about money, let’s hear the head honchos say so.
Kurtz also misses an opportunity to explore the true extent of talk radio’s much-ballyhooed political power. Hot Air’s coverage of this topic consists simply of listing the areas where talk hosts supposedly exert their greatest influence (another Nexis sweep), and tossing out a few generalizations: Talk hosts focus on the hot buttons of the moment; the medium is most effective when it opposes something. With a minimum of research, Kurtz could have outlined the fact that talk radio’s influence over national affairs is limited to those rare pocketbook or visceral issues where the public has already reached a broad and angry consensus. What’s more, he might have shown that talk radio crusades tend to peter out unless the “mainstream media”—the television and newspaper reporters that talk hosts love to bash—pick up on the message.
If, in Kurtz’s opinion, talk radio occupies the bottom rung of the media food chain, daytime television is the mud beneath the ladder. The monomonikered denizens of daytime—Donahue, Oprah, Jenny, Jerry, Rikki, Sally, and Geraldo—take a savage beating in Hot Air. Kurtz adds his voice to an already droning chorus of criticism (currently led by former Secretary of Education William Bennett), by accusing the midday mouths of “defining deviancy down” and bombarding the audience with “sleaze to the point of numbness.” Such programming, Kurtz contends without evidence, skews the audience’s view of America and “add[s] to the sense that there is something terribly wrong with the country.”
In other words, those stupid stay-at-home moms believe everything they see on television. If Kurtz really thinks viewers consider the mate-swappers, “power dykes” (Kurtz’s term), white supremacists, and trans-whatevers that parade across the tube each day as indicative of America’s true sociological health, the Post should ship him off to its Omaha bureau for a couple of years. He’d quickly discover that the average viewer sees trash talk TV for what it is: a modern incarnation of the carnival freak show, base entertainment designed to prompt head-shaking, snickering, and a sense of moral superiority.
Meanwhile, Kurtz goes somewhat easier on such Washnocentric television shoutfests as The McLaughlin Group, The Capitol Gang, and Crossfire. He gripes that these programs eschew nuance and value confrontation over a “come, let us reason together” ethos; he disapproves of the name-calling, shallow analysis, and worthless predictions. But after making these no-duh charges, Kurtz backs off. None of this foolishness, he says, “poses a threat to the republic.” In fact, he confides with a mixed religious metaphor, one of the most serious problems with these shows is “the omniscient tone that requires professional journalists to pretend they are dispensing biblical wisdom from a televised Mount Olympus.”
Let’s get this straight. When talk radio hosts scream, spit venom, and proffer inaccurate information, they harm politics and society. When McLaughlin, Novak, and Co. do the same thing, it’s no biggie. Could it be that Kurtz went comparatively easy on Washington’s talking heads because he hopes to one day join their ranks? As he freely acknowledges in the book, he’s already a bit of a minimouth, having appeared on everything from Nightline to Larry King Live to CNN’s Reliable Sources. Such appearances, Kurtz repeatedly explains, are crucial to achieving big-money success as a member of today’s Washington press corps. Besides, by his own admission, he kinda enjoys being a jawman. At minimum, the guy’s got a big stake in the game he’s covering.
Hot Air closes with a hand-wringing essay decrying the supposed dangers posed by the rise of our “talk show culture.” Kurtz recaps many of the problems raised in the book: talking heads who accept huge corporate speaking fees, the oversimplification of issues, extremist broadcasters, the revolving door between media and government, to name just a few. But then, after subjecting readers to 364 pages of Chicken Little-ism, he declines to offer possible solutions to these problems. “I will forgo here the usual ten-point plan to improve the subject,” he writes. His justification for not entering the arena: “We already know how to create quality talk shows;
there are a number of them around….The real question is whether there is a significant market for talk that is not driven by bluster, sensationalism and superficiality….Perhaps, in the end, people get the talk they deserve.” Wait till Rush Limbaugh hears about this!
Kurtz’s reticence may stem from his journalist’s worship of objectivity—he can report on problems but doesn’t think he should be involved in solving them. Or maybe he is just too busy to make the effort. Or maybe he really doesn’t have anything to add. In any case, he shortchanges his readers when he throws up his hands and says, in effect, “Hey, what can you do?”
Hot Air also falls short on its promise of an “inside look at the pundits and performers.” The book’s profiles offer scant new information about their subjects. In some instances, Kurtz even overlooks key tidbits. The Larry King bio, for example, omits the Suspendered One’s well-known propensity for fabricating stories about his relationships with rich and famous people. The Washington Post Magazine and a March 25 Style profile have both highlighted this revealing aspect of King’s personality. Similarly, the Limbaugh backgrounder neglects to mention that one of the conservative talker’s most important mentors, KFBK-AM program director Norm Woodruff, was a gay man who died of AIDS.
And for all his fretting about the coarsening of public discourse, Kurtz takes his share of smirking cheap shots. He calls McLaughlin a “former sex lecturer,” gratuitously references Limbaugh’s obesity, and reduces Sally Jessy Raphael to “a former food stamp recipient.” More reprehensibly, Kurtz publishes poorly written memos issued by the WRQX-FM (107.3) program director who canceled Kurtz’s short-lived Sunday night talk show. This adds nothing to the book and serves simply to embarrass a nemesis.
Seems talk media doesn’t have a lock on nastiness after all.CP