The proliferation of virulently partisan, often right-wing call-in talk shows on radio
and TV has been a defining feature of American media in recent years. Hailed by some as
a valuable expression of media democracy, these programs have also been excoriated as a
racously uncivil, divisive, and "know-nothing" threat to our political process. This
Forum will consider the political and cultural implications of the radio/TV talk show in
its current intensely ideological, anti-establishment phase.
Edwin Diamond is Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at NYU. His latest
book, published by MIT Press, is titled White House to Your House: Media and Politics
in Virtual America. David Brudnoy is one of Boston's best known and most respected
radio talk show hosts. Jane Shattuc teaches media at Emerson College and has written
extensively on popular culture; she has just completed The Talking Cure, a study
of TV talk shows.
New York University
Research Program on Communications Policy, MIT
At one point in mid 1990s, the authors of the number one and number
two best-selling books in America were talk shows divas Rush Limbaugh and
Howard Stern. The President of the United States marked his first
anniversary in office by taking calls from listeners on Larry King Live,
the same show on which H. Ross Perot announced his candidacy for president.
Though these men couldn't be more different, they share a common ability to
use the new media formats which have become the electronic hearth around
which millions of American now gather. Our political leaders have learned
to entertain us and our entertainers know how to politicize us.
Politics, the enthusiasts say, can be made democratic, participatory,
open, exuberant, in a word, enjoyable. The triumph of politics as
entertainment, and entertainment as politics, speeds the transformation of
the national landscape. We trace the emergence of a place that looks like
a real democracy and a real country but is in fact a construct. Like
reality but not real; it is virtual America. We argue that politics has
been moving indoors from stump speeches at ballpark rallies to living rooms
for the last fifty years. In 1992, the primary and the general elections
took place mainly on these new soft formats: call-in shows, morning
interview programs, and candidates' joint prime-time appearances. And the
latter were more like the Donahue show than debates at the Oxford Union.
They were performances, and therein lies much of their appeal. Of course,
the emblematic figure of the 1990s, H. Ross Perot, received one in every
five votes by conducting a campaign completely on the air. With no precinct
workers and no party, he did little traditional campaigning and kept news
conferences to a minimum. Clinton, and then later Bush, also used the soft
formats. 1992 was just the beginning of the user friendly revolution:
Clinton, Perot, and belatedly George Bush, and their running mates made
thirty-nine appearances on the talk shows from September 1 to October 19, 1992.
Four questions are on my mind about this new media: 1) Are these
new media effective, politically and culturally? The answer to how effective
these techniques are depends on who is asked. The Clinton campaign, for
example, credits the candidate's television appearances and call-in appearances
in New Hampshire in 1992 with stopping his plunge in polls after Gennifer
Flowers materialized with her story and her tapes. Perot and Clinton, and
now Gingrich, all speak about "going over the heads of the professionals"
(that is, the journalists for the main stream media) to reach the real
people. The idea is to let the politicians' unfiltered message enter the
hearts and minds of the American voters. 2) How good are these new media
for increasing audience understanding? Reports show that voter turn out was
higher in 1992. Is this attributable to the new media? 3) What about the
old media? The traditional media is still important, but it now stands along
side the electronic, cybermedia. Last, 4) what kind of country is this anyway?
You've all heard of the dumbing down of America. The fact is that
politicians and cultural leaders have always played to the audience.
Shakespeare wrote for the elite as well as the groundlings. But something was
lost when the campaign migrated from the old hard news format to new media.
"Larry King is not a journalist, as he is quick to admit, but an interviewer,"
the New York Times explained. But by choosing to appear on talk shows, and
having their own home pages, the candidates and the political process circumvent
the scrutiny of journalists. Journalists know what they want to ask, are up to
date on the news, are rational. Talk shows are less timely, mawkish and more
emotional. For example, on a recent radio talk show a caller from Salt Lake City,
commenting on the US role in Bosnia asked, "well, what if there was trouble in
Nevada would we want the UN coming in and dividing Nevada up in two?" That's the
level of the dialog on talk shows.
Modern technology has created a know-nothing populism. Modern communications
has placed a bizarre form of political power in the hands of talk show personalities.
These talkers must fill long stretches of air time with a signature rhetoric: a
distinct style of patter or attitude or else run the risk of becoming background
sound that station mangers discard at the drop of a ratings point. In a wired
nation, the call-in programs present themselves as facilitators of power to the
people. I believe we should take heed of the dangers of factional politics feared
by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay more than 200 years ago. Then again, in the new media,
their message may have trouble being heard.
Broadbased put-downs of what it is that I and my colleagues do are rather odd.
The title of this discussion is Squawk Talk; and there is a presumption that all of
us are at the level of Howard Stern. I prefer to use the term, attributed to a Boston
College professor, " the schmoozeoisie" or the people who make a living by endlessly
chattering on television and radio. What do we chatter about? Are we all simply
interested in making grotesque remarks about people's size or color, their gender, their
handicaps? Are we all that way? I don't think so. Not all talk programs are identical.
How does this dovetail into what Ed Diamond talked about? Talk shows have become
one of the ways in which the political and entertainment factions of our society go around
the orthodox media. Not that the orthodox media, specifically the newspaper, is beyond
going around itself. You remember that the name of the woman who accused one of the
Kennedy boys with rape was kept out of press until the New York Times published it -
then The Enquirer published it. The differences between the tabloids and the great gray
lady of New York are slight. The format is what is similar. A newspaper is like all
other newspapers in being a series of pages that one turns. But within the format, the
content is decidedly different. And the difference between a quality act and a
opportunistic, scuzzy act, is obvious. Broadcast media, especially talk radio and talk
television, is not any more vulgar than the endless reiteration of the same beliefs within
the liberal power structure of the traditional media. I don't regard Rolanda as any worse
than the Brinkley show, except of course that the Brinkley show has people who talk my
language and yours. What is the difference between Sam Donaldson and George Will and Cokey
Roberts except that of course Sam is a little more excitable, George quotes everybody, and
Cokey takes $50,000 to give a speech and pretend that she is objective. Their differences
are minor compared to their similarities. They are both members of the well-educated media
elite with whom you and I would rather have cocktails than with the trailer park dwellers who
are on Jerry and Sally and Jenny and all the other TV talk shows.
We ought not see the audiences for talk, both on television and radio, as identical.
Listeners to my program are better educated, more affluent, slightly older, and more involved
in the political process than others. If you want to find out what the brighter people in
society think about, listen to certain talk programs. The people who never listen to talk
radio and never read the editorial page think they will get from the ether what they need to
People believe the most remarkable things. In 1962, a man named John Kennedy ran for
treasurer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He got elected. He got elected, though no
one had ever heard of him before, because the voters, bright wits though they are, assumed
that the President of the US was moonlighting as a candidate for treasurer. And he got
re-elected because they still thought he was President Kennedy. A young man named John
O'Brien some years ago ran for a school committee in Boston. He got elected because they
thought he was Irish. He was black; during the campaign he didn't show his picture. Let
us not praise the populace as if somehow we who do the talk programs degrade them and lower
them down. I think we do not, and I think the best of us help the mass of people understand
reality far more perhaps than the self-contained elitism, in the worst sense of the word,
of The Group on Channel 2 and so on. I am not convinced that public television (WBUR) is
any wit better than WBZ or Channel 4 or Channel 5 or even Channel 7. I really do not believe
those who glorify only that which seems to appeal to their instinct for being a hoity-toity
are really better than ordinary people.
Are daytime TV talk shows simply sensational commercialism or could they be a new form
of political debate? Traditionally, democratic thought assumes that there must be an
independent public arena where political opinion can be formed freely. This world should be
separate from the taint of government control as well as that of corporate capitalism. For
many Americans, the town meeting remains the central ideal of participatory democracy; the
lone citizen takes part in the politics of her/his community by standing up and speaking up.
But such direct communication is becoming less tenable in the age of information technology
and global communications.
The concept of the public sphere--the place where public opinion can be formed--looms
centrally over all analyses of talk shows. Our culture is hyper-conscious that talk shows are
involved in the political arena. They are highly popular programs that depend on social topics
and participation from average citizens. However, there is the fear that the programs may be
trivializing "real" politics by promoting irrational, victimized, and anomalous individuals as
representative of the citizenry.
The popularity of talk shows continually begs two questions: Can the content of talk
shows be defined as "political"? And, more importantly, can talk shows be considered a public
arena where the "people" form opinion freely?
American culture feels uncomfortable describing the content of talk shows as political.
"Political" is derived from the Latin word politicus which means relating to a citizen. Citizens
are defined by their allegiance to the state. Obviously, talk shows, with their dependence on
spectacle, individualism, and sensation, deviate radically from traditional political discussions
about social policy that define citizenship, such as Oxford debates, Congressional deliberations,
union hall meetings and even the networks news which emphasizes established political institutions.
Even though the practice of debate has shifted from the Aristotelian model of speaker and listener
to the modern form of coordinated discussion, talk shows are still more personal and emotional in
their content and vertiginous in their structure.
TV talk shows are not simply progressive or regressive. First, they do not represent the
death of the public sphere. Although they do not discuss specific governmental institutions, they
offer clear debates about/with the public sphere's growing intercession in the family, the home,
and the regulation of the body. The genre most explicitly enters public sphere debate through
its gesture toward participatory democracy with its town meeting structure. Finally, the programs
maintain the structure of the social debate by always placing the private issue within a social
Talk shows continually move from personal identification to larger group identification in
order to be popular in a broad commercial medium. The host of the TV talk show generalizes the
particular experience of a guest into a larger social frame for the interest of the general audience.
For all their individualized narratives, talk shows speak in social generalities. They do not speak
about or advocate changing specific social and political institutions.
It is naive to assume that talk shows are a public sphere untainted by capitalism, the state,
or even the bourgeois intellectual. Because of their base in commercialism, popular culture, and
the identity politics of the 1970s, talk shows stage a contradictory set of tensions where groups
which normally do not have a voice are allowed a powerful public platform. Not only do these
programs question what constitutes politics, they challenge who is allowed to speak. As we move
from the age of mechanically reproduced debates to the electronically reproduced, talk shows
represent an uncomfortable public sphere. They reveal a profound political change: they assert
the authority of everyday lived experience whether in its reactionary or progressive form. As
talk shows manifest this change with programs on such topics as the militia, domestic violence,
and black pride, this empowerment of the knowledge of people who are not formally educated can be
seen as the failure or the triumph of liberal democratic thought.
-Compiled by Trudy Willcox