The Corner

Re: Jerry Taylor’s Talk Radio Talk

Mark Steyn offered a spirited defense of conservative talk radio yesterday (with a further addendum here).  Kathryn agrees, contending that I have been reckless and that Mark has called me on it. On the contrary, I think Mark fails to persuade. The pertinent “calling-out” (from Mark): 

Mr. Taylor dwells on a poll of “positives” and “negatives”, as if Rush is running for office. Why not use his ratings? Rush has the Number One radio show in America. Sean has the Number Two cable news show in America.

The ratings are only partially relevant, Mark, because the issue at hand — that is, the issue that launched this conversation – is whether Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on balance bring more people to the conservative cause than they drive away from the same. In short, we’re talking about a political cost-benefit test here. Their ratings might be put on the “benefits” side of the ledger. Their negative poll numbers have to be put on the “cost” side of the ledger. Granted, Rush Limbaugh is not running for office. But he is being aggressively targeted by someone who will be. The question for conservatives is this: Do you want President Obama to succeed in painting the Republican party as the party of Rush Limbaugh? Given his sub-Nixon popularity figures, I can’t believe I’m causing a firestorm by suggesting the answer here is probably “no.”

Anybody proposing to cut loose this or that faction ought first to demonstrate that doing so will attract an equal number of people plus one. It’s not clear to me, by that measure, what Jerry Taylor brings to the table.

Who said anything about cutting loose a faction? I don’t think that conservatives — or Republicans writ large — should banish Rush Limbaugh listeners to some political Siberia. I do think, however, that there are ways of appealing to them culturally, politically, and intellectually that don’t drive away an even larger number of non–Rush Limbaugh listeners. What I might theoretically “bring to the table” as a substitute talk-radio host or political leader is neither here nor there, not to mention a red herring. 

The ideas on liberty discussed in Mark Levin’s book — the animating principles of the American idea — are now wholly absent from the daily newspapers, the network news shows, the popular culture, and the public schools. Diminishing conservatism’s lone mass-market outlet doesn’t seem such a smart move.

Wholly absent? Nonsense. George Will is one of the most widely read columnists in America. John Stossel is one of the most prominent figures in public-affairs television. South Park is a cultural sensation. P.J. O’Rourke is one of the nation’s most popular humorists. Cato, Heritage, and AEI are among the most widely cited think tanks in the country — to the chagrin of the Left, which rails about that fact regularly. The Wall Street Journal might well be the most influential op-ed page in America. There is a whole world out there beyond talk radio and talk television.

Rush has been on the air three hours a day, 15 hours a week for 20 years. If he’d left that many hostages to fortune in all those thousands of tapes, you’d think Jerry Taylor could find something a little more substantial to link to than a feeble New York Times story that isn’t about talk radio at all.

Feeble? The New York Times story at issue was about Sean Hannity’s special, Obama & Friends: The History of Radicalism. Was the Times making up the fact that there was such a special? Did it invent quotes from said special? Did it mischaracterize said special? One can watch the show on YouTube to find out for one’s self. That show well demonstrates the appalling nature of the arguments commonly peddled by a not insubstantial segment of the talk-radio Right (of which Sean Hannity, a target of my complaint, is indeed a part). To dismiss the matter because it was discussed in the New York Times is, well, lazy (as Mark might put it).

It reflects a bizarre set of priorities when an obscure think-tanker lazily endorses the liberal critique of American conservatism’s only mass outlet.

Are there any think-tankers (besides Charles Murray, anyway) who are not obscure? Regardless, one doesn’t have to be obscure, lazy, or a liberal to wonder about the way in which talk-radio personalities are arguing the case for conservatism. And given the current state of affairs within the GOP and the conservative movement, it doesn’t strike me as bizarre to entertain the idea that conservatives might want to reexamine what they’re selling and who their chief salesmen ought to be. On the contrary, it would be bizarre for a political movement to categorically refuse to engage in any conversation about that matter.

Insofar as I understand it, I thought the critique of conservative talk radio was that these fellows were too “harsh” and “mean-spirited” and “partisan.” So as evidence of what’s wrong Jerry Taylor approvingly cites two books called Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them and Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot.

I did not argue that conservative talk radio was too harsh, mean-spirited, or partisan (it may be all of those things, but that wasn’t the argument I made). I cited Al Franken’s books because they provide evidence regarding the dodgy arguments and dubious logic frequently encountered on right-wing talk radio and its cousin, right-wing talk television — the basis of my compliant.

Sorry, I think that’s pathetic on its face, and an embarrassment to National Review.

To dismiss a book by its cover is silly. To dismiss an argument because you don’t like its source is a logical fallacy (ad hominem to be specific). The brain will atrophy if you habitually shut off your neurons when people you don’t like open their mouths. I’m sure we wouldn’t want non-conservatives to dismiss any argument found in NR simply because they don’t like the people writing for the magazine or because it’s an organ for an ideology they don’t trust. I’m also guessing we would think less of people who do that.

I will not deny that there are a lot of positive things said on Rush Limbaugh’s show. My inbox is full of messages, for instance, about how this or that person first heard about books like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom on that program. Hence, I am not hoping that Limbaugh’s kidneys fail or that he be waterboarded for his crimes against humanity. I am arguing, however, that the arguments for the ideas forwarded on these shows are too often unworthy of the ideas being forwarded.

Kathryn ends with a plea that “I’d just like to move on and continue that fight for all that is good and right and just. Hitting Rush and Sean isn’t.” But when Limbaugh and/or Hannity argue in a manner that is not “good and right and just” (for instance, when Sean Hannity gives airtime without a discouraging word to someone who claims that Barack Obama is an deep-plant agent for Islamic terrorism), then at least backing away slowly is well worth doing.


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