What little idea I had after downloading an app for my Phone that I would not only find myself drawn into the world of US radio but into the combustible and divisive discourse that prevails in modern American society…
[blogging by Dan]
People shouting at each other
I don’t have a digital radio set. So all I wanted was a way of listening to my favourite stations at home and on the move. Downloading a mobile app – TuneIn Radio – recommended by friends, would, I thought, cheaply solve my 6Music shortage problem, and allow me to listen to the World Service at any time of day. It didn’t really occur to me that I would also be able to listen to just about any station in the world that has taken the initiative to broadcast online.
After downloading the app and quickly saving as bookmarks the stations I had initially bought it for, I soon delved deeper into the ‘browse’ function. The program enables you to browse through stations dedicated to a variety of subjects – such as Sports, Music, Language and Talk. I chose Talk and here the options widened further – to include Business, Conservative, Religious, Public and Progressive. It is this menu which gives away TuneIn Radio’s American roots, and which, I soon realised, led to a more succinct insight into US public discourse than almost anything else available this side of the Atlantic.
I chose Conservative immediately. Partly through inquisitiveness and also because of familiarity. Exposure to the news is enough to make anyone familiar with the names Hannity, O’Reilly, Beck and Limbaugh. But perhaps also I was in an argumentative mood and as I already knew that my generally liberal sensitivities would be confronted by stations labelled ‘Conservative’, that’s what I chose to listen to. After all, where would be the fun in choosing ‘progressive’ and listening to someone extolling the virtues of Medicare, expressing opinions with which I largely agree.
On the conservative talk stations, the shows are generally based around carefully selected news items, which are explored exclusively through the filter of the host’s decidedly fixed ideological slant – more often than not little more than his or her gut instinct. Callers are then invited to phone in and – for the most part – say how much they agree with the host, pointing out further things that he or she might have forgotten to mention in the initial rant. Where callers disagree, challenging the simplistic analysis favoured by the presenter, they can be met with some pretty stern words, and are sometimes shouted down in a surprisingly aggressive fashion.
The hosts are clearly not experts in any particular field (Rush Limbaugh has no qualifications, having dropped out of High School) but instead seek to define themselves as the everyman standing with the caller against Washington and their shared perception of the increasingly shadowy world of big Government – an oft repeated right wing concern.
A few evenings of listening to the internet feeds of various ‘Conservative’ stations is enough to leave the listener in very little doubt as to the standard of their general content or, more precisely, their entire raison d’être. AM and now FM stations, many of which in the US still use their four letter call signs such as KRLA, KNET, WNTP (how do people not get these confused?) regularly host syndicated shows from parent broadcasters with presenters such as Sean Hannity and the increasingly delusional Glenn Beck.
Parts of their mantra are already familiar. Age old Conservative bugbears, such as abortion rights and gun control are ever present, but they have been joined by more recent obsessions – 9/11, the current deficit debate, Obama’s place of birth, perceived liberal propaganda in US high schools, and the supposed socialisation of Medical care. Their arguments are non-challenging to those who already hold broadly conservative views – and they react with fury when a fellow traveler of the right expresses nuanced rather than strident views. The level of debate is designed to offer the listener confirmation of their beliefs and stoke their ire with highly selective, often misleading opinion, with innuendo often masquerading as fact.
As with much US media, adverts are frequent and, in another sign of deregulation, the presenters themselves will occasionallypersonally recommend a product or a service – a facet of broadcasting which is outlawed in much of the rest of the Developed World. There is also, maddeningly for liberals in the US and without, a market imperative to the existence of these outlets. People tune in. If you are willing to provide – ceaselessly – what people want to hear on the way home from work, you have an audience (and no little power) right there.
Subjects covered by the stations I have dipped into over the last few evenings (corresponding usually with Drive Time in the US) have included “traitorous” trade unions in Wisconsin, how convicted Somali pirates ought to be taken to Guantanamo Bay instead of the “luxury” of a Federal prison (the host clearly was unaware of the reputation of such institutions overseas) and, most astonishing of all, how one female LA-based host thought Donald Rumsfeld was “hot”!
America’s fascination with its current weaknesses, and a paranoia about the country’s place in history ironically seem to take up a lot of airtime. I say ironically because it’s clear from listening that although it is a constant bone of contention for the right wing, there’s little to suggest that they have formulated anything approaching a decent analysis of the problem.
First, they completely fail to see the extent to which Reaganomics, Neoliberalism and right-wing dogma – policy lines they ruthlessly promote – have compromised and weakened America’s global reputation, and second they apply desperately simple historical analogies to illustrate their points – showing up their own ignorance. In the last few days alone I’ve heard several school grade standard knowledge accounts telling of the declines of the Roman and British Empires, and how they can be related to the present day US, especially in relation to the acknowledged rise of China.
The constitution is also endlessly picked over – seemingly for clues for which direction the country should take. There is even, I learned, a conservative organisation which distributes pocket-sized constitutions free of charge to members of the public who request them. America’s current heightened level of fascination with its constitution (is there any other people on Earth that have the slightest clue what’s in theirs?!) is partly due to a school-led indoctrination, giving it quasi-religious status and gravitas, but it is also because of current insecurities and infighting within America itself.
After an hour or so of listening each evening I had had my fill, to be honest, frustrated I couldn’t make a transatlantic call and join the discussion, though I feel my input may have been rejected. The lack of checks and regulations on what was being said (and what I suspect is being said on both sides of the discourse) left me feeling quite worried about its effects.
The labels ‘Progressive/Liberal’ and ‘Conservative/Libertarian’ can be applied to much of the media in the United States today. That wasn’t always the case. But in the 1980s the ‘Fairness Doctrine’, a policy of the Federal Communications Commission which stipulated that both sides of an argument during debate must be aired, was repealed. The scrapping of this policy was led by Republicans who saw it as an affront to free speech and in contradiction of the country’s constitution. Various attempts at reinstating the doctrine or versions of it, mainly lead by Democrats, have all since failed. In the meantime the American media has gradually polarised into two opposing camps.
This has had a massive knock-on effect in the social and political sphere of a country that is having, at present, to face up to some of the greatest challenges in its modern history. Throw into the mix the nation’s first black president (something which a troubling number of Americans remain ill at ease about) and the divisive and often misreported nature of some of the reforms he wishes to instigate, and the battle lines are drawn.
Movements such as the committed – yet loosely constructed – Tea Party groups have been directly inspired, and spurred on, by several leading conservative talk show hosts. These groups have made large and quick strides since their establishment and in the recent US Midterms have even pushed aside more moderate Republican candidates and installed men and women into the US Congress who are largely untried and untested representatives of public office. In response to Tea Party marches there have been Liberal marches in opposition, most notably Jon Stewart’s recent ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ in Washington DC. This unusual outbreak of ideological marching has only served to underline the gulf that has opened up in political discourse in the US.
Though it’s easy to dismiss such extreme right wing (and indeed in cases left wing) manifestations of public debate as being wantonly provocative, the 20 year drip-drip of this nature of discourse on both radio and – increasingly – US television is beginning to have a lasting and irrevocable effect. Any population of otherwise rational and educated people would inevitably be influenced by such unrelenting propaganda – whoever instigates it. This is not just a problem in the United States. In other countries too media can prove divisive, though in the case of the UK at least media is much more stringently regulated, meaning that such variances in discourse are kept to a traditional battle between newspaper proprietors.
Americans do have other choices. Despite erratic funding the NPR network of Radio stations produces excellent and fairly balanced programmes. The majority of the free to air national TV stations remain largely free of overt political bias. Therefore surely a concentration on the merits of America’s overwhelming ability to produce globally inspiring output would be far better than passing laws that only lead to a great country shouting itself apart.
The United States, of all countries, should know that with free speech come responsibilities and that free speech on its own, without reason or context can very easily do harm. So please, America, calm down and reinstall the Fairness Doctrine, Ok, so talk radio will be tamer and Fox News duller, but look on the bright side – the increasingly insane Glenn Beck will be out of a job and your political discourse will be enriched and productive once more. America will then surely stand infinitely better equipped to face the challenges that the future will bring.
Commondreams.org – An article bemoaning the loss of the Fairness Doctrine
Washington Post – Article about ‘National Institute for Civil Discourse’ to be opened at Arizona State University. The Centre is to be Co-Chaired by former Presidents George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton. It was set up partly in response to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in the state in January.
Wikipedia – A history of Talk Radio in the US