I am off to D.C. to participate in the Defending the American Dream Summit, hosted by Americans for Prosperity, and then for an extended interview on Sunday’s Book TV. As I head to the airport, e-mails are flowing in about David Brooks’ column in the New York Times which slams talk radio. I’ll talk about it when I broadcast tonight, as will most other hosts throughout the day, but here are some quick points.
First, Brooks gets a lot right. Talk radio, like every other form of media, has lots of influence and very little actual power. We can and do make the phones ring, and we can and do sometimes help stop legislation like the ill-fated and poorly drafted immigration bill of 2007, but moments like that are very rare. We certainly cannot nominate GOP presidential candidates, as almost none of us supported Seantor McCain, but that may reflect only that we lack decisive influence in the course of a fractured long campaign, or that we were ourselves fractured or uncommitted in our choices. Rush, for example, clearly didn’t like John McCain, but neither did he push for any particular candidate. He never does in such settings. Part of the problem with Brooks’ column is that it fails to accurately render the ambitions of talk radio, and thus he cannot accurately assess its successes or failures.
Mostly we aim to influence the life of the country by influencing the ideas that prevail within it, and Brooks greatly underestimates the extent of that influence. There’s a reason why Sam Tanenhaus, editor of Brooks’ paper’s book review, wanted to spend two hours with me on air talking about his new book The Death of Conservatism, and it wasn’t because he was trying to sell his book to dead people. In fact, if you’d like to get a glimpse of one reason why Brooks’ column is at best incomplete, and perhaps even anti-intellectual in that it avoids dealing with persuasive evidence that runs counter to his thesis, run down the transcripts page at HughHewitt.com. In just the past few weeks you’ll find Mark Steyn and Michelle Malkin from yesterday’s program of course, but also Norman Podhoretz, Max Book, Bill Kristol, Walter Russell Mead, Frank Gaffney, Meg Whitman, Jon Kyl, and, oh yes, the New York Times’ London Bureau chief John Burns in an hour long conversation on Afghanistan and Iraq. Day in and day out I and many of my colleagues are in the news business, presenting important voices and stories with the hope of moving the country’s collective opinion on key issues of the day.
As with all media, talk radio has great moments and bad stretches. On the spectrum of talkers there are quite a few very distinct colors, and some of the folks with shows I wouldn’t let borrow my car for a trip to the store. But for the most part, and especially if by talk radio we mean Rush, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham and my colleagues at Salem Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Janet Parshall, Albert Mohler and Michael Medved, we deal with the ideas and debates that matter. Talk radio helped raise the GOP in 1994 after its wipe-out in 1992, and it is doing so again today. It is also providing good information and excellent suggestions about effective action by the tens of millions of Americans who are waking up from their Obamazone torpor and wondering what happened to the centerpoint in the American political debate.
David Brooks is one of the most talented columnists at work today, but like David Frum, Brooks too often gives in to the temptation to prove himself different from the economic, cultural and religious conservatives he finds so interesting but also so very odd. Every so often Brooks has to demonstrate to his friends in the Manhattan-Beltway media elite that he is one of them, not one of us. Talk radio’s strength is that most of us don’t think in terms of “them” and “us,” but of ideas and their appeal to people regardless of class, race, and geography.
Talk radio has entered into one of its cycles of extraordinary growth, powered by the deep felt need of Americans to balance the super-majoritarian power of the Democrats and the deep bias of the legacy media with sources of information they can trust not to be courting favor with those in office.
That would be us. The GOP is poised for a strong return to the prominence. That will not be because of talk radio but because of the ideas and ideals the renewed GOP holds. Talk radio’s job is to help identify those ideas, persuade our audiences they are the correct ones, and point to those political figures who hold them.
The first test of influence between legacy media and new media in the era of Obama Incumbent comes next month in New Jersey and Virginia. If David Brooks is right, Jon Corzine should be re-elected and the Democrats should hold on to the statehouse in Richmond. We’ll see.
In the meantime, a hat tip to Mr. Brooks. He borrowed one of the best tricks from those in talk radio who are not confident in the appeal of their ideas or good humor –a slashing personal attack that focuses attention on what might otherwise pass unnoticed. That is ratings crack cocaine and many hosts have fallen for it in the past. I hope that it doesn’t become a habit for the estimable Mr. Brooks.