The best article I've ever read about the contemporary cable TV-news business is a story about a Los Angeles talk-radio host in the April Atlantic, "Host."
Written by novelist David Foster Wallace, the piece profiles the tribulations and techniques of KFI-AM evening talker John Ziegler. As immersive a work of feature journalism as you'll read these days, the 22,500-word article breaks the talk-radio formula down to its constituent elements and annotates them—literally, via dozens of footnotes, a Wallace trademark. Although Wallace doesn't make the link directly, it's obvious that Fox News Channel and its imitators have incorporated many of talk radio's basic lessons into their architecture.
Wallace could be writing about Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity when he explains that KFI's Ziegler "is not a journalist—he is an entertainer. Or maybe it's better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved." These radio and cable entertainers do precisely what they damn Mainstream Media reporters for doing: They "interpret, analyze, and explain" news inside their narrow political context.
Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today's AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.
Wallace further confirms the commercial essence of talk radio with a quotation from KFI talk show host John Kobylt. "The truth is, we do everything for ratings. Yes, that's our job. I can show you the contract," Kobylt told the Los Angeles Times. "This is not Meet the Press. It's not The Jim Lehrer News Hour."
To be sure, most of the journalism that answers to the first name of "Quality" contains measurable doses of entertainment. Likewise, quality journalism can't survive very long if it lacks a commercial component to attract audiences and advertisers—or a generous benefactor. What distinguishes talk radio, and by extension the evening talkers on Fox (O'Reilly and Hannity, and to a lesser degree tabloid newscaster Shepard Smith and Greta Van Susteren), from conventional journalism are the emotional extremes to which they go to draw audiences.
Kobylt's popular afternoon show on KFI, Wallace writes, is "based around finding stories and causes that will make white, middle-class Californians feel angry and disgusted, and then hammering away at these stories/causes day after day." Framed that way, it makes sense why such topics as the Scott Peterson murder trial, Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, Ward Churchill's big mouth, France, "America hatred," illegal immigrants, the elite media, the judiciary, and liberals possess such talk-radio staying power.
Nobody on television does a better job of executing the talk-radio formula than Fox's O'Reilly. Take a look at a list of recent headlines from O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo" segment, which opens the show: "More Danger From the ACLU"; "Grim Picture on Illegal Immigration"; "Undermining the War on Terror, Part 97"; "Using Doctors To Hide Sex Crimes in Illegal Abortions"; "The Univ. of Hawaii Should Be Ashamed"; "Too Many in the U.S. Media are Anti-Military." Almost to a one, his commentaries throb with the dark fury of an aneurysm in Joe Sixpack's brainpan.
Kobylt's unvarying broadcasts, Wallace continues, require "an almost perpetual state of affronted rage." But the rage is a persona, he writes, "not exactly fabricated but certainly exaggerated ... and of course it's also demagoguery of the most classic and unabashed sort." As several KFI staffers tell Wallace off the record, "it's unlikely that any middle-aged man could really go around this upset all the time and not drop dead."
To appreciate O'Reilly's talent at refining his semi-contrived umbrage into evening diversion for the masses, try watching Joe Scarborough's execrable Scarborough Country on MSNBC. Scarborough picks the same scabs, seethes about the same issues, and fanny-whacks many of O'Reilly's enemies. But he sounds more like the third-most-popular conservative talker in Duluth than he does a prime-time cable host. His persona just can't carry the load. One suspects that he believes too much in his causes or too little.
Fox, on the other hand, excels at adapting the talk-radio mise en scene to television, right down to the talk-radiolike cut-ins for news briefs at the half hour; many segments running 10 or less; and the ever-present "sweepers," the broadcasting term of art for the tag line the show or the station wants its audience to associate with it—think "Fair and Balanced" and "No Spin Zone," in the Fox News/O'Reilly example.
Although Fox's radioized formula seems incredibly popular, the folks at Annenberg, Pew, FAIR, the Shorenstein Center, and Media Matters for America who monitor the media for incipient fascism can relax. In prime time, Fox News rarely attracts an audience larger than about 3.5 million, which is to say about 26 million less than the average combined audience for CBS, ABC, and NBC's evening news shows. Even PBS's interview program NewsHour, which deceptively bills itself as a news show, draws a reported 3 million viewers a night.
American demagoguery just ain't what it used to be when a show (O'Reilly's) that deliberately taps the accessible emotions of "anger, outrage, indignation, fear, despair, disgust, contempt, and a certain kind of a apocalyptic glee"—to lift from Wallace's talk-radio observations—can't dramatically outperform a public TV program (Lehrer's) that's designed to steer viewers into an early evening nap.
I'm Lester the Nightfly, hello Baton Rouge. Won't you turn your television down? Respect the seven-second delay we use and share your wisdom via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I've got plenty of java and Chesterfield Kings. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)