‘My name is Hugh, and I’m a talk-show host …’

By Hugh Hewitt

Talk-show hosts expect criticism. The best among us make the political weather, and that creates a lot of wind – some of it blowing back at us. So Tom Daschle’s attack was not only to be expected, it was pretty pathetic as attacks go.

What was disappointing about the Daschle tantrum was the counterattack. The defense of the talk shows was every bit as lame as Daschle’s opening move. Daschle attacked the entire medium. Media covered it as a spitting contest between the outgoing Majority Leader and Rush. It ought to have been an examination of the entire spectrum of the talkers, and their combined influence, which is huge.

If all the Democrats had to worry about was Rush, they could at least figure out a response. But their problem is much bigger and it is growing worse every day. To Rush must be added Hannity, Medved, Boortz, Reagan, Imus, Prager, Ingraham, Gallagher, Elder, O’Reilly, North, Savage and, of course, me. These are the syndicated political talkers – the hosts whose meat and grog are the ups and downs of politics in America. There are hundreds more one-market hosts who do more or less the same thing, but with a focus on one city or region.

My audience is high-income, highly-educated and influential in their communities. One program director calls it the “Lexus crowd.” I’ll gladly take the title of the Augusta of the talk shows, and I think it is the growth in this audience segment – the segment with influence beyond their individual votes – that’s worrying Daschle. The long-form of talk radio favors facts and logic, and ultimately the better arguments win. If your entire political program depends upon fear based on lies – the GOP is going to destroy Social Security for grandma! – then, of course, you will want to kill all the messengers bearing truth.

Daschle labels us shrill. My weekly guests include Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke from Fox News, Peter Beinart of The New Republic, Michael Kelly of the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Claudia Rosett of the Wall Street Journal, John McIntyre of RealClearPolitics.com, law professors Erwin Chemerinsky and John Eastman and Congressman David Dreier, chair of the House Rules Committee. Frequent visitors include Michael Ledeen, Victor Davis Hanson, Michael Barone, and various nationally recognized reporters like the Post’s Thomas Ricks. All told, hardly a gang of bomb-throwers and threat-inciters. The show does tend to get shrill now and then, but only because I play a lot of tape of Patrick Leahy and Robert Byrd.

The show tilts center-right, but nowhere with the degree of list that NPR tips left. I worked in the PBS system for a decade, and my program – as does Hannity’s, Prager’s, O’Reilly’s and Medved’s – has more balance among guests in a month than either NPR or PBS does in a year. Because of my production schedule, these are the four shows I hear the most, and not once in the past year can I recall any of these four hosts breaching civility in even the smallest way. Not one of them treated even one caller or guest in the way that Leahy and his colleagues among the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee treated many of the Bush judicial nominees. Not one of these four is even remotely close to being outside of the mainstream. In fact, judging by the elections, Daschle and his colleagues are the radicals, not me and my colleagues.

Talk radio has become a powerful engine of public opinion, surpassing the combined impact of the leading editorial pages of the nation’s elite newspapers and a rival to the network news operations. After only two years, my show matches the audiences of most of the cable programs, and Rush’s and Hannity’s far outstrip the cable talkers. Third-tier forces like PowerLine, InstaPundit, TalkingPointsMemo and Volokhblogspot are adding to the pressure on the traditional news sources, and websites like WorldNetDaily.com, FreeRepublic.com and DemocraticUnderground.com are rallying core constituencies free of the deadening effect of elite spin. The entire universe of political information has undergone a radical and rapid transformation, led by the talkers and accelerated by the Web.

Daschle liked the old world of journalism, where graduates of the Harvard Crimson got to mediate many stories, and dinners in Georgetown with senior writers for the weeklies mattered. That world is gone now, and the audience for a single hour of my broadcast is much larger and more influential than the entire readership of a Mary McGrory column.

Because politics is intensely interesting, the audience for good shows with great guests is growing, and not because voters are confusing the line between entertainment and politics, but because there is real drama in the nation’s security, real emotion in the debate over the border, and real dollars at stake in runaway health-care costs. The news is being delivered by a new set of anchors, and you can hear regular people talk back to them. What a surprise. People – at least intelligent, hard-working people – like the new form.

That is bad news for Daschle. But it is very good news for the republic.