JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: the TV talkers and their impact on how the rest of us talk politics.
Jeffrey Brown reports.
GLENN BECK, Host, “Glenn Beck”: If it wasn’t for FOX or talk radio, we would be done as a republic.
JEFFREY BROWN: In a multimedia world of talk and more talk, the latest big talker is Glenn Beck, known for his folksiness and emotion, which sometimes spills over to tears…
GLENN BECK: I just love my country.
JEFFREY BROWN: … and, most of all, for his over-the-top style and words, which, for many, push the limits of acceptable public rhetoric.
GLENN BECK: … is that there are Marxist revolutionaries who have dedicated themselves to principles that will destroy our nation as we know it.
I’m saying he has a problem. He has a — this guy is, I believe, a racist.
JEFFREY BROWN: Since moving from CNN Headline News to FOX last year, Beck has successfully built up his cable TV audience. He now reaches almost three million viewers with his 5:00 p.m. show, unseating FOX’s Sean Hannity for the number-two spot, right behind the network’s Bill O’Reilly. On radio, Beck’s audience of nine million is second only to Rush Limbaugh.
All of these talk show hosts far exceed the numbers of their liberal counterparts. And, as the numbers grow, so has the attention in other media, and Beck’s seeming influence on the national agenda.
Beck is a persistent critic of the president and his policies. Among much else, he helped rally opponents to show up and speak up at this summer’s town hall meetings on health care, and led the way on exposing problems with ACORN, the community organizing group that ran into numerous public controversies.
ROGER HEDGECOCK, Radio America: I like Glenn Beck personally. And I like that his TV show, in that he is speaking truth to power. That’s his attitude. He really is trying to overturn the apple carts.
We’re not in favor of illegal alien amnesty.
JEFFREY BROWN: Roger Hedgecock is a nationally syndicated conservative talk show host carried on 100 stations through the Radio America network. He recently joined dozens of other talk show hosts to broadcast live from Capitol Hill, addressing their discontent with the Obama administration's immigration policies.
Beck and others, says Hedgecock, are giving the public something it otherwise doesn't get.
ROGER HEDGECOCK: I mean, where in the mainstream press are we actually getting investigative reporting of who's behind Barack Obama? What is -- who are the elements of his coalition? Why do so many of them appear to be self-avowed socialists and communists, in a way that suddenly we can't talk about without getting labeled, without having our advertisers attacked? This is fascism, in a way.
JEFFREY BROWN: That kind of rhetoric, says Thom Hartmann, a progressive radio host, is both uncivil and dangerous. Hartmann reaches 60 stations nationally on his daily show.
THOM HARTMANN, radio talk show host: There are some people who will use the excuse of it being show business to be very irresponsible and present things that are not news, things that are not fact as if they were fact.
I'm concerned that, in the United States, demagogues are -- are reaching out to people who are appropriately frightened and concerned about their economic situation, and telling them that the people they should blame are actually the people who are trying to help. You have got people standing in the streets, saying, well, you know, Glenn Beck told me that this is -- this is some evil plot.
MICHAEL HARRISON, editor and publisher, Talkers: Yelling, screaming, insulting, not always checking its facts. And I say, what else is new?
JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, a leading industry trade publication, says that some historical perspective is necessary.
Advocacy and sharp opinion have had a place in American journalism from its beginnings, sometimes attracting huge audiences. Harrison points to the broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, whose hate-filled rants against Jews and others drew some 40 million listeners in the 1930s.
FATHER CHARLES COUGHLIN: So that the people would drive the money-changers from the temple, and you did it!
MICHAEL HARRISON: Radio, popular radio in America, all the way back to the '30s, has been a street medium. It's always been the medium of the street, reflecting populism.
So, what you hear on radio and what you're seeing now on cable news talk television, which is really an extension of talk radio, is just the First Amendment in action.
JEFFREY BROWN: In some ways, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies public rhetoric at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, and often helps analyze it for us, today's sharp-edged talk does come with advantages.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: To the extent that opinion talkers argue from one clear ideological point of view, they increase the likelihood that their listeners understand that ideology, are able to see politics through that ideology, and, as a result, that politics is coherent for them. That's important, because it increases engagement, and that's a positive effect.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, Jamieson says, it's engagement of a certain kind.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The downside occurs when this type of insulating discourse is used to tag the other side, the opposition, as more different than it actually is from the listener. It polarizes.
So, the audience becomes locked up in its own little ideological world. The rhetoric becomes more shrill, more strident. It becomes hysterical and hyperbolic. And then one's sense of that as appropriate discourse is something that one begins to feel. One think that it's appropriate to ridicule the other side, to demonize the other side. One stops calling it ridicule and demonization. One starts to think that that's how we talk politics.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, there's the rub for many, if what we see and hear in the talk-fests is actually how we increasingly talk and do politics.
One response from a cable news heavyweight, CNN's Lou Dobbs: What's wrong with that? Dobbs, who's made himself a lightening rod for his oft- stated blasts against immigration policy, added a radio program to his portfolio last year, and has built an audience of 160 stations.
LOU DOBBS: That's one of the great things about talk radio, is that people, whether they're the talk show hosts, or whether they're the listeners, the callers, are speaking forthrightly.
And I think we need more of that, not less of it, in this country. We have now a body politic constrained by some sort of political correctness that seems to seek to control thought and expression. We need to break away from that. I don't mean to be profane and to be ugly in our speech, but we certainly need to be direct, and, yes, even salty.
JEFFREY BROWN: But Eric Burns of Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, says the breaking away goes too far.
ERIC BURNS: That's one of the biggest problems that we see with folks like Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, and other personalities in the conservative movement, is they are regularly peddling conspiracies theories, lies, smear campaigns.
And this is -- these are provably wrong information that make its way into mainstream media, that makes its way into people's homes, into their living rooms, where they're turning on their television sets expecting to get news, and they're not getting news. They're getting propaganda.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another argument sometimes put forward is that all this talk, after all, is just a form of entertainment, and most of us know the difference.
GLENN BECK: But that's just me, you know, your typical white, hate-mongering bigot clinging to God and my guns.
Politics as entertainment
JEFFREY BROWN: Glenn Beck has long worked as a stand-up comedian. He performed on a Common Sense Comedy Tour this summer while promoting his latest bestselling book.
MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who regularly attacks media figures and politicians on the right, spent his early career doing sports.
The bottom line for these people, this argument goes, isn't politics; it's the bottom line.
MICHAEL HARRISON: One of the mistakes that political activists and political junkies and political media watching itself make is that they forget that Olbermann's job is not to get anyone elected or to get elected himself, nor is Beck's job to do that. Their job is to be in the news, to create controversy, to be entertaining, to draw audience, and to make money for their companies.
JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe so, but one area where the rise of talk may be having an influence is on blurring the line between opinion and traditional straight news reporting.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that the public's trust of news stories is at its lowest level in more than two decades.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson says, that's no accident.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Opinion talk has actually helped precipitate the decline of mainstream media.
JEFFREY BROWN: Precipitate, not...
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Precipitate...
JEFFREY BROWN: OK.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: ... and reinforce, because one of the arguments made in opinion talk on both the left and right is that you can't trust the mainstream; it distorts our points of view on our ideological side; it selectively uses evidence to disadvantage us; it uses a double standard.
And, as a result, if you pay attention to it -- and there really isn't much reason, given that it distorts -- you're less likely to trust it.
Creating a backlash
JEFFREY BROWN: A backlash of sorts may be under way.
The White House has signaled it's had enough, with Communications Director Anita Dunn recently calling FOX News -- quote -- "a wing of the Republican Party."
A number of companies have refused to advertise with Beck.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: We're going to have a conservatives' honor roll...
JEFFREY BROWN: And, in September, conservative MSNBC host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough announced an honor roll for conservatives willing to denounce what he called Glenn Beck's hatred.
Still, Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine, embracing provocative speech, says there is one more point worth remembering: As today's media becomes more fragmented, programs appeal to smaller slices of the pie than in the days of three television networks, a handful of radio groups and city papers. That may, in the end, limit the larger influence of any particular talker, no matter how loud his or her voice appears to be.
MICHAEL HARRISON: We have these nationally famous people who really have much smaller audiences than the awareness of them would indicate or make you believe. What happens is, they -- they talk to their faithful in terms that the faithful expect and understand. They preach to the choir. And some of the things they say are repugnant to people who have other choirs.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, a nation of choirs. The question is, is it the beautiful music of democracy in action or the cacophony of destructive politics?