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The Trouble with Talk Radio

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Tags Media and Culture

08/09/2004Christopher Westley

A recent article of mine on a public sector scandal, this one in Milwaukee, brought several e-mails from friends and strangers telling me that it was read and discussed on WTMJ-AM in that city by its weekday morning host, Charles Sykes.  WTMJ is Milwaukee’s highest rated talk station, and while I appreciated the plug, I was not sure if that is the sort of station that friends of liberty need to be associated with.

That’s because that station, like so many across the U.S., have adopted the pro-war, pro-Bush nationalist format that dominates AM radio today, robbing it of much of the diversity that once characterized it.  It is a marketing model that appeases small government conservatives (who have always favored radio) by telling them that big government really isn’t all that bad—as long as the right guys can control it. 

It is a successful marketing model too.  While it may be easy for classical liberals to get discouraged by the popularity of the "jaw-jaw, war-war" format, we must recognize that its ubiquity suggests the popularity of our ideas among the mainstream.  Without talk radio keeping the focus of much of the population on Iraq (and away from the expansionary domestic agenda of the last four years), small government conservatives would revolt against George W. Bush as the reincarnation of LBJ.1

I distinctly remember listening to the Sykes show in my car during a recent trip to Southeast Wisconsin.  He played Mel Gibson’s stirring speech on freedom from the movie "Braveheart"2, followed it with a speech excerpt from Bush (equating the two), and then played that most famous line of the summer of 1969: "The Eagle has landed." 

It sounded like propaganda you’d hear in the former Soviet Union.  Bush and [Gibson’s character] William Wallace were fighting the same eternal fight of good versus evil, and since the federal government could achieve such a complex and good thing such as sending a man to the moon, then it can deal with whatever comes up in relatively insignificant places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We have nothing to fear but fear itself!

This should be far from surprising to anyone who has listened to talk radio over the last five years.  Republicans may complain about the liberal media, and they have a point to the extent that the media is dominated by registered Democrats, but they have no argument when it comes to the AM band. 

As any listener of a Clear Channel AM station can tell you, good radio today means keeping the Manicheans listening.  The format is:  reduce complex moral and geopolitical realities to simple black-and-white characterizations, throw in a few ad hominems, and damn the facts.

Two of those damned facts come to mind.  The first is that George W. Bush is no Braveheart.  William Wallace fought against pre-emptive state aggression, which doesn’t exactly correlate with much US foreign policy since 1812.  Wallace defended his faith and family from outside aggression; the US government maintains troops and bases throughout the world.  Wallace was a man’s man worthy of legend; Bush is Poppy’s boy.3

The second is that bad things happen to those who build empires by force as opposed to voluntary agreement.  There are more McDonald’s franchises around the world than there are military bases, yet there is nowhere near the resentment toward the Golden Arches than what exists toward the coercive activities of the U.S. government both at home and around the world. 

The difference is about more than bombs and Big Macs.  Rather, it reflects the chasm between power and market.  The former manufactures instability by forcing results deemed necessary to the interests of the State.  The latter creates the security between nations that can only be had by mutually agreeable trade by creating interdependencies disbursed among individuals, households, and firms.  The difference explains much about why the perimeter around the White House requires so much more security than the perimeter around the McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago

It also explains why talk radio sticks to a simplified version of complex topics.  In an advanced economy where individuals have high time costs, many citizens lack the ability to develop informed opinions about complicated issues.  Talk radio provides the CliffNotes for the portion of the population that works too hard in the labor market to study matters sufficiently to provide judgments about the course of events.4

A valuable service indeed.  The problem, however, is that when the federal government is lumped in on the good side of talk radio’s reductio ad absurdums, there is a tendency for statolatry to develop. 

Statolatry is a word coined by the great 20th century economist Ludwig von Mises that means the worship of the State.5 When statolatry dominates political issues, Mises wrote that

… conflicts are no longer seen as struggles between groups of men. They are considered a war between two principles, the good and the bad. The good is embodied in the great god State, the materialization of the eternal idea of morality, and the bad in the "rugged individualism" of selfish men.   In this antagonism the State is always right and the individual always wrong. The State is the representative of the commonweal, of justice, civilization, and superior wisdom. The individual is a poor wretch, a vicious fool.

… Louis XIV was very frank and sincere when he said: I am the State. The modern [statist] is modest. He says: I am the servant of the State; but, he implies, the State is God. You could revolt against a Bourbon king, and the French did it. This was, of course, a struggle of man against man. But you cannot revolt against the god State and against his humble handy man, the bureaucrat.  (Bureaucracy, pp. 81-83)

Mises could have been commenting on WTMJ, where I heard a caller rattled by the omnipresent War on Terror suggest that the times required everyone to be "subservient" to the president."  The host sympathized meekly.  Such exchanges describe talk radio today, where statolatry is much of what is promoted on the federally-regulated AM dials in the United States.  This is especially true on the Clear Channel stations that donate so heavily to the federal overseers who regulate them.6

Such interdependence between the media and the State is creepy, to say the least.  Large, centralized nation-states, the emergence of which contributed greatly to the bloodiness of the 20th century, are bolstered when "public servants" influence what voters access in the media (such as the U.S. government’s  recent attempt to suppress Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11").7  There can be no better argument against federal control of information sources, the practice of which is antithetical to limited government.  Any attempt to control any information source by an elected official should be an impeachable offense.

If it isn’t, then statolatry is likely, much of which is heard daily on radio, both of the AM talk and FM public varieties.  Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, noted that as Rome declined, "[t]he fine theory of a republic insensibly vanished…"  Of course, the Caesars did not have access to talk radio to pacify the Visigoths.  If they did, how much longer would Rome have lasted?

  • 1. If such comparisons are unfair, then they are to LBJ, who actually grew the government at lower levels back in the glory days of the Great Society than Bush has today. For more information, see Jeffrey Frankel, "Trading Places".
  • 2. This speech can be read (and heard) here.
  • 3. If you doubt this last point, then try to picture Mel Gibson playing George W. Bush in a movie.
  • 4. National Government Radio, the abolishment of which I have long advocated, serves a similar task, although its listener base is much smaller precisely because it examines issues only slightly more thoroughly than its polar opposites on the AM dial.
  • 5. Cf. Mises’ Human Action [1998] pp. 824-828, Bureaucracy [1969], pp. 81-83, and Omnipotent Government [1944], pp. 46-47).
  • 6. At the time of this writing, Clear Channel Communications is the sixth largest contributor to political campaigns among TV/Movies/Music firms for the 2004 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  For more information, see here.
  • 7. According to an article by Alexander Bolton writing in The Hill last month, "…Moore may be prevented from advertising his controversial new movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11", on television or radio after July 30 if the Federal Election Commission (FEC) today accepts the legal advice of its general counsel.  At the same time, a Republican-allied 527 soft-money group is preparing to file a complaint against Moore’s film with the FEC for violating campaign-finance law.   In a draft advisory opinion placed on the FEC’s agenda for today’s meeting, the agency’s general counsel states that political documentary filmmakers may not air television or radio ads referring to federal candidates within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.  The opinion is generated under the new McCain-Feingold campaign Finance law…."  For more information, see this.
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