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August 5, 2008
Shock Jocks: A Liberal Look at Talk Radio
The surprising thing –
and probably the best thing – about Rory O'Connor's new book, Shock
Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio, is that the book is much more
fair and analytical than its title suggests. The name, in addition to
the subtitle America's Ten Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive
Alternatives, implies that the book is just one long screed against
right-wing talk radio, possibly even calling for its curtailment or
Instead, the book,
which O'Connor co-wrote with Aaron Cutler under the AlterNet Books
imprint, provides a fair look at the top conservative talkers and
actually seems to understand why people like and listen to them.
While undeniably coming
from a left-wing perspective, Shock Jocks actually holds up quite
well as an overview of the political talk radio industry and how it came
to be. Too many on the left constantly rail against talk radio when it's
clear that they have spent very little time actually listening to it,
which O'Connor and Cutler clearly have.
Sure, there's quite a
bit of the recitation of each talker's most controversial statements,
the sort well-known to readers of Media Matters and other left-leaning
watchdog sights. But the authors also get into other, fascinating
aspects of the subject, such as the history of right-wing talk radio,
why liberals have never been as good at the medium as conservatives and
an excellent analysis of the Fairness Doctrine.
The authors' take on
that last subject is probably the book's most valuable. Essentially,
conservatives are attempting to scare up fear about liberal attempts to
reinstate the 1970s-era FCC rule, which mandated equal time for all
ideologies on the public airwaves. O'Connor and Cutler point out that
there's very little political will to do so. Liberals likely couldn't
pass such legislation even if they tried, and the radio landscape is so
different now than 25 years ago that such a doctrine would likely be
unenforceable. Even when the original doctrine was in place, the FCC
never ruled on a single case involving political talk shows.
O'Connor and Cutler
also show they know what they're talking about in their analysis of the
hosts themselves. For instance, they're not afraid to admit that Rush
Limbaugh is in fact an extraordinarily talented broadcaster, which
remains the primary reason for his success over the years. They also
point out the nuances of the different hosts – for instance, as they
point out, Sean Hannity's show comes closer to pure propaganda than,
say, Bill O'Reilly's, while some hosts (Michael Savage, Mark Levin) yell
regularly, and others rarely raise their voices.
What the book largely
leaves out are what I feel are two of the key factors behind right-wing
talk radio's success: One is the use of outrage as a primary organizing
point – playing on the fears, anxieties and anger of the audience in
order to advocate certain policies. And yes, the audience for
conservative entertainment, for the most part, loves to be outraged.
True, the authors touch on this, especially in a chapter about how
conservative radio opposition killed President Bush's 2007 immigration
reform effort, but the book largely leaves this out.
In addition, O'Connor
and Cutler fail to mention just how many liberals listen to right-wing
talk radio. Some do it for the entertainment value, others because they
want to hear what the other side is saying that day and others still
because they enjoy arguing with the radio as they drive home from work.
Michael Savage, as the authors assert and I agree, is a complete nut.
But his show is so ridiculous and over-the-top that I've never not been
entertained by it. I haven't seen figures on the subject, but I'd bet a
healthy portion of talk radio's audience is those who agree with nothing
The book also argues
that "hate speech" of the kind regularly heard on the radio actually
leads to real-life violence. True, there have been a handful of
incidents, but if such a causation were actually a widespread social
problem, conservatives would likely be assaulting liberals on the
streets of American cities every single day.
imperfections, Shock Jocks is a valuable and illuminating look at
this uniquely American medium.
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