Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time
The most notable characteristic of American politics in the Nineties has been anger. A wave of ignorant and irresponsible hatred, sure in its direction, fearsome in its aspect, and heedless of its consequences, has assailed our social and political conventions, leaving nothing constructive in its wake. In its passion to reverse the destruction of the Sixties, the Right has repeated it.
The key role that radio and television talk shows have played in reflecting and stoking this fire is the main subject of Hot Air, written by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. Kurtz decries the role that radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus and television "journalists" such as Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, and Sam Donaldson have played in dumbing down and polarizing American political discourse into the two-sided shouting match it has become.
In the course of Hot Air, Kurtz assays the entire field of media talk, devoting chapters along the way to Phil Donahue, Larry King, John McLaughlin, and Ted Koppel, among others. He focuses mainly on television, showing how the daytime programs present voyeurism posing as moral outrage, while the nighttime and Sunday morning programs present sloganeering posing as informed discussion. As Kurtz puts it, "television is the enemy of complexity," and, with a few exceptions, it favors action over reflection, appearance over reality, analysis over news, and what sells over what helps.
Kurtz also worries about the symbiotic relationship between televised political talk shows and politicians: talk shows require influential politicians to appear in order to get good ratings; politicians require talk shows in order to get their message out. Also, politicians often become talk show hosts and vice versa, as when Pat Buchanan ran twice for president and Tim Russert became the moderator of "Meet the Press." Kurtz wonders how much this cozy and mutually needy relationship harms both public policy and television coverage of that policy.
Kurtz expresses the opposite worry about radio talk shows: that they are often too disconnected from politics, and willing to air anything, however irresponsible or destructive, that will improve their ratings by pleasing their audiences. Baseless government conspiracy theories and relentless dwelling on the tawdriest aspects of political life foster a cynicism and contempt that can make constructive politics of any sort impossible.
Talk radio can play a positive role in society by providing citizens with a chance to speak their minds and connect with one another. Television talk shows can provide a public service by giving politicians a forum for their positions in exchange for their having to answer hard and searching questions about those positions. Unfortunately, as Hot Air documents in dismaying detail, such programs are feeding public anger and incomprehension rather than addressing and allaying it.
Review posted: 21 October 1998