PITSTOP

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Right-wing talk show hosts feed anger to their followers

For many years, I have spent part of the summer with close friends in Maine. As a good many Montrealers know, Maine offers a cornucopia of goodies in the summer – ocean swimming (cool-ish), blueberries (pricey), up-scale scenery (the George Bush estate) and lobster (along with champagne, in my view, both vastly overrated.)

As for me, a long-time political junkie, when I’m not playing golf near Old Orchard Beach (once a frequent haunt of René Lévesque) or watching the Red Sox on television, I’m twiddling the dial looking for political talk shows.

Rush Limbaugh is at the top of the list for several reasons. Limbaugh is an entertainer and a good one. But he violates most of the rules I tried to follow when I hosted a Montreal talk show, first on radio, then television. Rush is the center of his show. His callers are just disembodied props. Unless their opinions coincide with his, he has little time for them. Rush uses his callers like cigarette butts: to light up another harangue of his own.

Many of Limbaugh’s views are outrageous. He wants US President Barack Obama to fail. He says again and again that Canada’s health system kills people and is socialism at its worst. He forthrightly advances his view that Sarah Palin, George Bush in a skirt, would make a fine president in 2012, when Obama must be defeated or the Republic will fall.

When I first began to listen to Limbaugh, especially on the car radio, I often had to stop the car for fear of driving off the road in a rage. I believed then that Limbaugh was an ignorant racist who spent most of his time whipping his huge audience (20 million) into a frenzy of hatred.

But I no longer think that. I now believe Limbaugh (and the legions of other right-wing, conservative talk show hosts) are not creating hatred, they are tapping into hatred that is already there. That is the most remarkable thing about the United States this summer, the scary amount of anger and hatred stalking the land. This phenomenon is most visible on the Fox News network, not in its treatment of news (the network has some very able and balanced commentators, like Chris Wallace, the son of Mike Wallace) but in the talk show hosts that take over, mostly in the evening.

You need a strong stomach to watch these people (my wife leaves the room when I turn on Fox.) There are four of them, unleashed by Fox every night like a quartet of Doberman pinschers, snapping and snarling at all things democratic and liberal.

First there is Glen Beck, followed by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren. You need to hear Beck to believe him. He is a teetotaller whose commentaries are so dyspeptic that he seems to be suffering a dry drunk. He charges that Obama is a racist and says his government reeks of the excesses of Nazi Germany.

Bill O’Reilly is a smoother operator than Beck and he has the ratings to prove it. But O’Reilly’s treatment of many of his guests is simply appalling. After inviting them to come on, O’Reilly proceeds to bully and berate them so that the viewer, who already knows what O’Reilly thinks, has no idea what the guest thinks.

When O’Reilly had on an informed Catholic nun who supported Obama’s health care plan and tried to show how it related to Catholic social doctrine, O’Reilly cut her off and bounced her the way Ted Tevan did with his radio callers years ago in Montreal.

Sean Hannity is the poor man’s Bill O’Reilly, and not nearly as well informed as his master. I have not heard Hannity say a positive thing about Obama since he was elected eight months ago. Hannity’s idea of deep analysis is to keep throwing Rev. Wright’s name around; his idea of penetrating questioning is to state his own opinion (“I think Obama is a dangerous radical”) and ask his guests if they agree with him. They invariably do, because most of the guests on these programs are chosen precisely because they hold the same rigid conservative views as the hosts.

Which brings us to Greta Van Susteren. For a lawyer who spent time in the criminal courts, Greta’s questions are about as crisp as wet spaghetti. My guess is that this is because she often does not understand the issue under discussion. She spends much of her time criticizing people in Congress because they do not carefully read bills, like the current thousand page health bill. Apparently Van Susteren does not realize that it is the broad thrust of bills that are voted on, not the minute legal niceties.

So there you have it – Fox’s big four. Yet whatever weaknesses they have, apparently they are cleaning up in the ratings. Why is that? Because night after night, they cater to the anger and rage that is boiling over out there in TV land.

What is the source of this anger and hatred? If Rush Limbaugh and the Fox quartet don’t create this anger, then where does it come from? It comes, I am convinced, from changes in the country that neither Fox nor Limbaugh can control and may not even understand. But they can read the writing on the wall. Before mid-century, the conservative yahoos who make up the Fox audience will be a minority in their own country. They are losing their place in the sun. They look at the White House and they see the first black president. They look at the Supreme Court and they see the first Latin woman.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. They are confused. They are angry. Limbaugh and Fox give voice to their anger and that may well be a good thing. But the game is up and they know it.

The Senior Times Sept. 2009

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