Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bill Moyers Journal: Rage Radio

Rage Radio
Bill Moyers Journal (PBS)

What happens when America's airwaves fill with hate? BILL MOYERS JOURNAL takes a tough look at the hostile industry of "Shock Jock" media with a hard-hitting examination of its effects on our nation's political discourse. The JOURNAL traveled to Knoxville, where a recent shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has left the pastor asking what role hateful speech from popular right-wing media personalities may have played in the tragedy. "A lot of people are hurling insults from the safety of television studios, the safety of radio studio, the safety of cyberspace," says Rev. Chris Buice, "So that's a void in our community — the chance to be in the same room and to have these exchanges and remember the humanity of the person on the other side."

The Reach of Talk Radio

Talk radio is loud — very loud. According to TALKERS magazine, the leading publication of the talk radio industry, Rush Limbaugh attracts more than 14 million listeners across the nation each week, one of the largest audiences in any broadcast medium; Sean Hannity, over 13 million; Michael Savage, more than 8 million.
With such a large and devoted audience, the topics the hosts focus on may significantly impact the national discussion. Media expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson noted during the last election cycle that talk radio may well wield the power to set the agenda:

When something gets into mainstream media, it has a half-life of about 30 seconds. Where something that moves into talk radio can have a half-life of two or three years.

Not all talk radio is politically conservative, but in TALKER magazine's list of top ten personalities by audience, nine are conservative, and one is lifestyle and finance. And, presidents and policy-makers alike know that the power of talk radio is important to energizing the conservative base. But talk radio's agenda is not always in step with the administration. For example, the top-rated conservative hosts opposed a 2007 compromise immigration bill backed by President Bush. According to a report by the non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), Limbaugh, Hannity, and Savage devoted the single largest chunk of their airtime to immigration in the second quarter of 2007, with immigration consuming 16% of the airtime of conservative talk radio as a whole.

The PEJ stopped short of saying the hosts helped kill the bill, but they did report that others felt that way:

"Talk radio is running America," complained Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott. "We have to deal with that problem." On June 28—more than 40 days after the introduction of a compromise immigration bill backed by President Bush and some senators—the year's most ambitious domestic legislative initiative was defeated in the Senate. Lott was not alone in attributing the bill's defeat to talk radio. Some Democrats even talked of reviving the long-repealed Fairness Doctrine as a way of potentially balancing the politics on conservative-dominated talk radio. In talk circles, this became known as the "Hush Rush" bill, a reference to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who was a vocal critic of the immigration bill.

But others argue the conservative talkers are beholden to their audience — that they amplify rather than invent conservative sentiments. The NEW YORK TIMES reports: "When conservatives are agitated at the president, radio hosts feel pressured to stand with the conservatives against the president to prove their independence," said Tim Graham, an analyst at the Media Research Center, a conservative news monitoring group.

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