Commentary

Too Nice for Talk Radio?

This article originally appeared in the Investors Business Daily on September 8, 2003.
Liberal Democrats are in a snit because they’ve discovered one corner of the mass media that isn’t sympathetic to them: talk radio. And they’re going to do something about it. Former Vice President Al Gore is recruiting wealthy liberals to fund a liberal cable network, and Chicago venture capitalists Anita and Sheldon Drobny have put up $10 million to create liberal talk shows.

There are plenty of media outlets that present the news with a liberal spin already, of course-ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, NPR, PBS. Against that lineup, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh shouldn’t be so frightening. But liberals aren’t satisfied with setting the news agenda; they want to dominate the commentary as well. Thus the Gore Network and its competitors.

Why don’t liberals dominate talk radio? There’s a standard response from the left: We’re not haters. We don’t demonize our opponents. Oddly, liberals can’t seem to make this point without, um, demonizing their opponents. Liberal columnist Robert Scheer complains, “We don’t have sharp elbows like the right wing does,” he told the crowd. “These people are killers.” Right-wingers “pump out a steadier flow of viscous, untreated political sewage,” Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker.

Liberals, on the other hand, are thoughtful, judicious analysts. This is Hertzberg’s view of NPR: “Their sensibility may fairly be said to be ‘liberal’ in the sense that liberal education is liberal-that is, open-minded and urbane, with a preference for empirical inquiry over dogmatic conclusion-mongering.” On the NPR show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” the host jokes that liberal talk show hosts would issue sharp attacks and unfounded allegations against themselves. So, they say, liberals can’t do talk radio because they’re just too nice.

Is that true? Are liberals just too nice for their own good? Let’s review some liberal criticisms of their opponents. We could go back to Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous “daisy ad” that accused Barry Goldwater of being quick on the nuclear trigger, or to Jimmy Carter’s declaration that Ronald Reagan’s election would mean “the alienation of black from white, Christian from Jew, rich from poor and North from South.” And then there was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s judicious critique of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids.”

Maybe liberals have cleaned up their act since then? Well, in 1994, commentator Julianne Malveaux said of Clarence Thomas, “I hope his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early.” CNN Crossfire’s Paul Begala said in 2000 that if you look at a map of Republican states, “You see the state where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart-it’s red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay-it’s red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees-it’s red. The state where an Army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African-Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: They’re all red too.”

Begala’s view of President Bush is also less than genteel: He has “the intellectual curiosity of a slug” and is “worse than dumb. He’s lazy, arrogant, and defiantly ignorant.”

Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) says of his Republican colleagues, “These are people who are practicing genocide with a smile. They’re worse than Hitler.” When Republicans opposed surgeon general nominee Henry Foster, Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) said, “We don’t believe in lynchings. We don’t want to see that kind of goose-stepping over women’s rights.”

Just this month, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) called a Republican colleague a “wimp” and a “fruitcake,” Sen. John Kerry deemed all his Republican colleagues “52 troglodytes,” and in just one column Molly Ivins managed to call Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor “a hopeless dipstick,” decry the Texas legislature as a “model of 19th century thinking,” and compare the Bush administration to Mussolini’s fascism.

And, finally, take a look at the titles of some new books by liberals: Stupid White Men; Pigs at the Trough; Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth; Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot; and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

Just too nice for talk radio? I don’t think so. There must be some other reason that liberals can’t attract listeners.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer (Free Press, 1998).