OpEd Columns

Listen up, America: Is it real, or is it talk radio?
(Indianapolis Star 11/15/03)

I want my own talk radio show. I deserve it. I know what I'm saying. It's a fact. What I say is right. It's not just my opinion. It's the way things are.
Be loud. Be adamant. Belittle. Be a talk radio host.
Talk radio blurs beyond recognition the already vanishing line in this country between fact and opinion. From sun up to sundown, the streams of consciousness blurted out as facts over the airwaves wash any semblance of common sense back into the ocean.
From TV news to radio talk, Americans have a serious problem - distinguishing perspective. Not just fact or fiction, but what's fun and what's foremost.
On the radio, news updates every half hour bleed into talk radio shows. Hosts huff and puff on the latest events seconds after they happen. Listeners soak it up while they simmer in traffic jams. With nothing but undivided attention to give the radio, drivers turn into devoted listeners.
Devoted beyond reason.
Pick a talk radio host and put them on a ballot. I guarantee they'll be voted into office. Doesn't matter the government position. Mayor, senator, governor. Stick Bill O'Reilly into any state election, and he's an instant contender. Hey Rush, pick a post. You can be a public servant.
But why would a talk radio host run for office when they can smear their untested theories across the airwaves without a worry or regret. No one keeps the runaway mouths in check. In fact, companies like Clear Channel are happy to pass these articulate tongues onto as many radio stations as they can gobble up in their Pac Man attempt to swallow up our nation's over 44,000 radio stations.
Entertaining? Usually. Factual? Rarely.
That's the problem. Talk radio hosts are exceptionally adept at passing along their opinions as fact, for hours on end. It's a strategy once reserved for sportstalk shows-pushed to its extremes by armchair QBs like Jim Rome, and now perfected in the political landscape by among others, O'Reilly and Sean Hannity who also appear on television's Fox News Channel. A place where fact and opinion are invisibly intertwined.
O'Reilly even leaps to the conclusion that his world is fact and the rest of the media world is a Spin Zone. Taken to its logical conclusion, that philosophy has spun a few cults into their own Suicide Zone.
If you need evidence of how our country mistakes opinion for fact, just pick a daily newspaper and read a week's worth of letters to the editor. Or better yet, have a conversation with a Dittohead.
Irritating and instigating, the key to successful talk radio is the same thing that makes Billy Blowhard the most popular kid in the eighth grade. Be the magnet of attention. Obnoxious enough to catch the notice of the closest pair of ears, clever enough to stay out of trouble with those you're lampooning. In school, Billy's back-of-the-class cracks entertain the five slouching students within whispering distance. On the radio, Rush's vociferous voicebox stops the scan function on your car stereo every six seconds. Of course anytime these class clowns run their mouth out of the boundaries of reasonable thought, it's quickly time to back away.
Racist? Not me. I'm just stating the facts.
It only took Rush Limbaugh a couple weeks of crossover into television before his incendiary comments got him kicked out of the studio. But the wasteland of radio is a lawless landscape. Road Warrior terrain. Talk first, ask questions later. Don't worry about getting your facts straight, or presenting them with any sense of perspective. The idea is to manipulate the evidence to fit your theory. Essentially, lawyers out of control with no courtroom judge.
In fact, syndicated jabbermouth Laura Ingraham even has a law degree. Her mantra? "It's not just a radio talk show. It's an addiction." This country needs a talk radio de-tox center.
Ingraham, Rush, and other tongue twisters of fact, present their evidence in carefully chopped up sound bites, then snicker under the sound mix, validating themselves to their jury of loyal devotees.
And validation is what Americans seek. I'm right and you're wrong…and to prove it, I listen to Laura or Rush or O'Reilly. The issues are irrelevant. The topics tangential. Only ego matters. Boy, it sure pads my ego to listen to somebody who agrees with everything I do. And while we're patting each other on the back, let's belittle those who disagree with us.
Wow, that's a rush…Rush.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

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