It’s getting ugly out there. And I’m not the only one to say so.
“The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic,” said Utah Sen. Bob Bennett after being rejected by his fellow Republicans for a fourth term. “Throwing around phrases like ‘socialists’ and ‘Soviet-style takeover,’ ‘fascists’ and ‘right-wing nut’ – that may grab headlines,” President Obama recently told graduates of the University of Michigan, “but it also undermines democracy.”
Both were lamenting the increasingly ugly rhetoric that has replaced legitimate debate about the issues today on right-wing talk radio. It’s the very phenomenon I explore in my new book – “TOXIC TALK: How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America’s Airwaves.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we all join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” How boring. There’s nothing more fun or healthier for our democracy than good, old-fashioned, spirited, passionate, colorful, hard-hitting debate on the issues. I’m talking about the lively debates I enjoyed on CNN’s “Crossfire” with Bob Novak, Pat Buchanan, Mary Matalin, John Sununu and Tucker Carlson.
But that’s not what we hear nonstop today. Honest disagreement on the issues has been replaced by a barrage of ugly name-calling from today’s ministers of hate on the right.
Hate-monger No. 1? Rush Limbaugh still holds the title. Without providing any evidence from her speeches or writing, he daily calls Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan a “socialist” and accuses Democrats of rushing into confirmation hearings “before her radicalism is understood by the public.” By nominating her, suggests the ferocious talkmeister, President Obama is guilty of “plotting to overthrow core American values.”
Giving Limbaugh a run for his money in the hate department is Fox News and radio talker Glenn Beck. By criticizing Arizona’s recently enacted anti-immigration law, Beck charges, President Obama is deliberately “trying to destroy the country” and “pushing America toward civil war.” This, of course, is the same talk-show host who, in total ignorance of the Gospels, warned Christians to run out of their churches if they ever hear the words “social justice” or “economic justice.” Because, according to Beck, those are just code words for communism and Nazism.
Unfortunately, Limbaugh and Beck are not the only masters of vitriol on the radio microphone. Sean Hannity asked the loaded question about President Obama: “Is there anything that he likes about this country?” Mark Levin attacked Sonia Sotomayor as a “radical leftist” and a “bigot.” Michael Savage, perhaps the most vicious of all, once told a gay caller: “You should only get AIDS and die, you pig.” He called Rep. Dennis Kucinich a “whore” for voting for health care.
And that’s what passes for talk radio today: pure, unadulterated hate talk, almost exclusively from the right. You never hear those kinds of ugly comments from progressive talkers Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller, or Thom Hartmann, if you can find them on your radio dial at all. And that’s not easy. Ever since 1987 and the end of the Fairness Doctrine, which freed station owners from having to provide any balance on the air, conservatives have dominated talk radio. To the point where today, according to a 2007 report of the Center for American Progress, there are at least 10 hours of right-wing talk for every one hour of progressive talk.
And that’s a real problem – not simply because this torrent of hate is unpleasant for most people to listen to, but because it also debases the level of political discourse in this country, at a time when we need it the most. And it destroys any possibility of reaching agreement through discussion of the issues. As such, the toxic talk we hear on right-wing radio today undermines our democracy and is fundamentally un-American.
What’s the answer? Progressives need to get in the game by buying their own radio stations, for starters. Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine might also be part of the answer, but President Obama’s already said he’s against it.
Censorship’s clearly not the answer. The First Amendment protects all speech, even ugly speech. It also guarantees every American the right to make a fool of himself, as long as there are enough other fools willing to listen.
Which, in the end, is the only immediate answer. Talk radio’s not rocket science. It’s based on a simple formula: listeners equal ratings equal revenue. No listeners, no ratings, no revenue. If you don’t want more hate-filled talk radio, simply turn it off.