When “right-wing” radio and talk shows started to get blamed by people on the political left for various things, I decided to spend some time looking into them to see what all the fuss was about. Over the last few years, I have spent some time listening to Rush, Hannity, et al., and I have periodically watched Glenn Beck, O’Reilly, et al.
The short review: There is, as one would expect, quite a range in quality, but the floor is higher than one might expect, and the best of them are actually quite good.
For example, I think that Beck and O’Reilly are much better than most critics give them credit for. No, they aren’t academics; no, they aren’t historians or philosophers or constitutional scholars. But they are making good-faith efforts, it seems to me, to articulate their positions on daily events, and they both take time to listen to, and even speak with, representatives of opposing sides. Yes, they sometimes get things wrong; but a lot of the criticism strikes me as captious—either ideologically driven because they come down on the “wrong” side of issues, or carping because they aren’t perfectly logically consistent or make historical mistakes. (Yes, yes, it’s bad when they do that; but who doesn’t—except, of course, the omniscient internet blogger?)
For my money, the best television news and comment program from a conservative or libertarian perspective is Andrew Napolitano’s “Freedom Watch.” Napolitano is smart, principled, fearless, and unapologetic, yet without being uncharitable or mean. As a former New Jersey Superior Court Judge, Napolitano knows the law, but he is also well versed in American history and economics—and he knows how to craft a persuasive argument.
Second place: The O’Reilly Factor. Bill O’Reilly is surprisingly well informed overall, and he manages to work in some occasional humor. He can be overbearing, though I think he’s gotten better about that over the years; and I fault him for his sometimes overzealous let’s-break-their-heads approach to crime and criminality. Overall, however, I found him far more reasonable than what I expected based on criticisms I have heard from him.
Honorable mention: John Stossel’s show on the Fox Business Channel. Stossel is careful and principled, but I think he’s gotten a bit more dogmatic—even if I often agree with him—now that he has his own show on Fox.
The best radio program: Michael Medved. Second place: Dennis Miller. Honorable mention: Dennis Prager. Rush, Hannity, and Mark Levin aren’t in the same league as them, Medved in particular. Medved is smart, astonishingly well informed, and capable of making sustained, intelligent arguments—with evidence and reasons and everything. Miller is the wittiest person on the radio, I think, and his brand of wit is Shaftesburyesque—it requires you to pay attention. But he doesn’t make the arguments that Medved does.
I have not been able to understand Rush Limbaugh’s popularity. He is sometimes entertaining, and somtimes outrageous; but I find myself thinking ho-hum most of the time. Solid but unexciting. Medved is smarter, Miller is wittier, Levin is more controversial, and Hannity is, well, prettier. I can see why Rush would have been big when he was the only game in town, but he’s not anymore. So why do people—fans and critics alike—pay him so much attention?
I have also spent a lot of time watching Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and a handful of other “left-wing” programs. Perhaps I will offer my opinions on them in the future.
How do you rate the “right-wing” programs? My own judgment, I must say, is that it is nowhere near as full of seething anger, of hate, or of uncivil discourse as it is usually portrayed—and I looked really hard, indeed with hopeful anticipation, for some emotional salaciousness, but, alas, it was very difficult to find. I couldn’t find the racism that others claim to find, I couldn’t find the sexism, and though I found rather tepid reluctance about things like homosexual marraige and repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, there was hardly the “homophobia” people accuse them of. (Ann Coulter certainly does use inflammatory language, but I found her to be an exception, not the rule. And she doesn’t have her own radio or television show.)
If I am missing something, or looking in the wrong places, please do point me in the right direction. In the meantime, my listening and viewing has led me to believe that the people talking about the “vitriol” produced and the “climate of hate” fomented by talk radio and programs on Fox are either not actually listening to or watching these programs, or are greatly exaggerating for effect. I found most of them entertaining and relatively harmless, often thought-provoking, and sometimes excellent. And their ratings certainly suggest that they resonate with Americans.
So the devils were not all that diabolical. What, then, is the cause of all the fear and loathing directed their way?