Terence Smith speaks with Tony Blankley, the editorial page editor for the Washington Times and former press secretary for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), about the impact of conservative media on politics and elections.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts
TERENCE SMITH: Tony, when you look at the whole phenomenon of talk radio, and I'm talking about political talk radio, do you see it on the rise, or on the decline?
There was so much attention paid to it in the early '90s,
when it sort of came on strong. Where does it stand now?
TONY BLANKLEY: I think it has largely plateaued at a very
prominent place. It became important, to my awareness, in the early
'90s, when I was Newt Gingrich's press secretary, responsible for basically
congressional Republican national communication. It was a major element
of our communication strategy, and I think it remains that today for
Republicans and conservatives in politics.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about its impact in 1994, as you
now have the chance to look back on it, a decade later, nearly. What
do you think the impact was?
TONY BLANKLEY: Oh, very substantial. Keep in mind that back then we didn't really have as much political television as we do today, and you didn't have the Internet at all, of course, back in the early '90s, which it's hard to remember that far back.
And for a conservative message to get out, a largely Republican
message to get out, one had to go around the mainline media, as well
as trying to work with the mainline media, but it was insufficient just
to work with them, and talk radio became a means of communicating with
millions not only of American voters, but of likely Republican voters
because of the nature of the audience.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any way of estimating what
the impact was in the congressional elections of 1994?
TONY BLANKLEY: I don't doubt that, but for, particularly
Rush Limbaugh, obviously, who was, and is, the dominant voice, although
there are many other powerful voices now, but his was then overwhelmingly
dominant, but I don't think we would have won the House race in '94
-- taken over the House -- without it.
Now, we needed other elements, and Newt Gingrich and the
Republicans provided a lot of the other elements, but I think that was
a vital component of victory over the couple of years leading up to
the '94 election.
TERENCE SMITH: Really? I mean, that would be, if you think
about it, a pretty extraordinary thing to say, that a relatively new
force -- such as a talk radio host, Limbaugh and company -- could actually
play a role in delivering control of the House.
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, keep in mind that best estimates
are that 9 million new Republican voters came out for the '94 election
and was the reason why the Republicans were able to pick up 52 seats
and take the House back for the first time in 40 years from Democrats.
I believe that a lot of those 9 million were reached through
particularly Rush Limbaugh and this other talk radio. I don't think
we were reaching them through the broadcast of the evening news.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, did, for Newt, it was a short-lived
triumph, and his career descended after that. Did talk radio play any
role in that?
TONY BLANKLEY: No, I mean, that was the result of what Newt, and I, and the political process, how we all performed during that period of time. Talk radio didn't -- if anything, it continued to be supportive, I would say, of Newt.
|Using talk radio to convey the Republican message|
TERENCE SMITH: You have written that if it were not for talk radio,
you think it's possible that Al Gore, not George W. Bush, would be president
of the United States.
TONY BLANKLEY: I mean, almost certainly. Now, when you have an election
as close as the 2000 election was, almost anything could have caused
it, but if you think of Florida, you know, did Rush Limbaugh and talk
radio deliver another 1,000 votes to Bush? I'm sure it did. Inconceivable
that it didn't. That was enough to turn the election. Had Bush, another
vital thing, had Bush campaigned not in California for two-and-a-half
days the week before, but in Florida, that, too, would have been.
So, in a very close election, obviously, you can look at it, but I
don't doubt that for a second that Limbaugh delivered Florida for Bush,
given the closeness of that election.
TERENCE SMITH: So, I mean, this is pretty extraordinary. You're looking
back on it, and with the advantage of hindsight, assessing that conservative
hosts, like Rush Limbaugh, on talk radio, delivered the House to the
Republicans in 1994 and the White House to the Republicans in 2000.
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, they were the added element. Now, obviously, by
itself, it couldn't do anything. The political process had to work out
an awful lot of, I mean, Bush had to run a good campaign, win the debates
with Al Gore, [inaudible] as Newt had to have been planning for years.
So, I mean, a lot of other things had to happen, but at the margin,
I think there's no doubt that it was the difference at the margin in
both of those historic elections.
TERENCE SMITH: What about congressional races since '94 and these days;
what's the impact there?
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, it's a very large impact, and it should be available to liberals, as well as conservative candidates. The problem, particularly for congressional races in urban areas, is that the local newspaper and the local television barely covers local congressmen.
You can be a fairly prominent congressman from New York City or Los
Angeles and barely ever get quoted in any New York or Los Angeles newspapers.
On the other hand, you can go on talk radio in your community once
a week, every other week, and deliver, you know, a minute or two of
your own message, in your own words, to hundreds of thousands or, depending
on the audience, millions of listeners.
And one of the advantages that talk radio provided us back in '94 was that we could actually get our message out at the local level or congressmen could go home and talk about what they were doing, the contract with America, and actually get listeners. You couldn't get that through -- and I don't blame the newspapers, they've got a whole city to cover, and big cities, and how much time can you give to an individual congressmen's thoughts?
|The dominance of conservatives on talk radio|
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned earlier that, as a simple matter of fact,
most radio talk show hosts are conservatives. Why?
TONY BLANKLEY: I mean, there are a lot of theories.
My theory is that the major media reports conventionally, reports sort
of within the bounds of the establishment. That establishment and conventions
started with Roosevelt and the great liberal traditions that have existed
coming out of Roosevelt, and persist today, although they're diminishing,
and therefore they were the natural target for people who were not part
of that milieu -- which is conservatives.
Now, that's slowly changing. It's clearly already changed on cable news, where liberals are no longer the establishment, the conventional way of viewing events.
On the broadcast stations and the major newspapers, they still reflect
broadly that convention. When people call it the liberal media, I choose
to call it the conventional, sort of establishment-oriented.
And so talk radio is the natural place where people who don't share those views can hear their views expressed and actually express them themselves.
Now, the two-way nature of talk radio makes it additively attractive
for people who are politically conscious and frustrated.
I could imagine a time, should have we have a Republican period for
20 or 30 years, where the media or the main media might become -- the
convention become Republican -- and then you might see liberals sparking
up as sort of the spunky opposition going to talk radio. But most liberals
still get comforted by the tones of broadcast news and the major newspapers.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet if you look at today's political landscape,
you look at a conservative president, a Republican-controlled House
and Senate, a conservative Supreme Court, you could argue that it's
overdue for a liberal talk show outlet to express the kind of feeling
you're talking about.
TONY BLANKLEY: Those are the pieces of the current politics. I don't
think they're the pieces of the current major media. I think the major
media still has what I would call the traditional now tone that is generally
supportive of the liberal view, and not consciously, just by instinct
and by habit.
|What constitutes a liberal radio network?|
TERENCE SMITH: Bill O'Reilly has argued that a counterbalance to conservative
talk radio is National Public Radio, and I know that you are a frequent
guest and panelist on the Diane Rehm show, one talk show. Do you agree
with Bill O'Reilly or has he got it wrong?
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, that's an interesting observation. There's no
doubt that National Public Radio has a liberal tone to it. I don't really
see it as competition, in a certain sense, although, interestingly,
when I'm on Diane Rehm I sometimes find that very conservative good
old boys in Virginia are listening to it as well, so it's not just a
liberal audience, although predominantly I suspect it is.
I think it's such a smaller gauged piece of the political communication
in the country that I, yeah, it's there, and I suppose it tends to be
supportive of a broader agenda. Certainly they focus on the Third World
a lot more than even regular broadcast television does. It's clearly
got a more liberal tone. I don't think of it as competition, actually.
It's just another little thing that's out there.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, and I would agree with you that, in a sense, they seem to me apples and oranges.
Political talk radio, particularly among the conservative hosts, Limbaugh and company, forcefully express their views, and their opinions, and those of their guests.
Is that so on public radio or is it more, more of a questioning role?
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, when you, depending on who you invite as guests
on any show, you know what kind of information you're going to have
coming out over the air. And if you have four-fifths of the guests are
liberal, then even if the hosts sounds, and is, in fact, dispassionate,
and the message coming over the airwaves is still going to be liberal.
But I see NPR, like the broadcast media, as not so much consciously
liberal, but it's just that same, general tone. Where talk radio is
consciously conservative, and makes its point, the mainline media and
NPR simply in its being is that. It doesn't have to be conscious of
it. It's just sort of more natural condition to be traditionally conventionally
And so it doesn't, so stylistically it seems, it seems more moderate, if you will, but it still has the same effect of oozing out a message which liberals find more compatible.
|Talk radio's role in the upcoming elections|
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, we're in the early stages now of a new presidential campaign, with a huge Democratic field and a Republican president likely to be renominated.
What's the role now and in the coming months between now and the election
day of talk radio?
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, talk radio continues, and will continue, for the
foreseeable future, to be a substantial piece of the communication puzzle
for certainly any Republican candidate.
Right at the moment talk radio probably is having an effect on President
Bush by sort of carping a little bit about the fact that he's not conservative
enough. There was quite a rash of that. Limbaugh had been talking about
that a lot. I know that that was heard in the White House. Whether it
affects their 'this waying and that waying,' I'm not sure, but it's
probably a little bit of a conservative check, if you will, on a Republican
president not to go too far to the center.
And depending on the strength of the president in polling, they'll pay more or less attention to what basically is their base support out there.
When the election comes, it'll be a vital piece of communication access
for conservatives and the Republican message.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think there will be similar carping, to use your
verb, about Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Republican candidate in California?
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, it's interesting that right at the moment Rush
Limbaugh's comments about Schwarzenegger not being a conservative, I
talked to a very senior political player who thought that that was one
of the most dangerous obstacles to Schwarzenegger's election was that
Limbaugh had called him not a conservative. Now, Limbaugh clarified
it and said, it doesn't mean I'm not for him. I'm not for anyone right
now. I'm just pointing out he's not a conservative.
But, yes, the players are paying attention particularly to what Limbaugh
is saying. There are millions of listeners in California. Schwarzenegger
has to win over a pretty fair percentage of those listeners and other
similarly situated conservatives to win his election. And so I think
Limbaugh is a big player in the recall vote.
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, starting in 1994, when the Republicans took over the House, and a couple years before that, as they were trying to build to that, I think Rush Limbaugh, in particular, and talk radio, in general, were the decisive extra element to close the election.
After that, if you think through all of those very close House races,
every, every election within a few seats, there is no doubt in my mind
that the ability or Republican congressmen to communicate with their
electorates and, more generally, the commentary of talk radio around
the country was vital in holding the House for the Republicans for those
And then, of course, you get up into 2000, and given the closeness
of the election, the presidential election in Florida, there's no doubt
that Limbaugh personally delivered enough extra votes for Bush that
he decided the Florida election, however they recounted it.
TERENCE SMITH: So that's pretty impressive.
TONY BLANKLEY: I'm impressed by it.
TERENCE SMITH: That's good. Thanks.
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