3 Print Columnists Pen Laments for the Decline of Old Media

Why are a handful of conservative columnists reviving complaints about talk radio and the coarsening of discourse?

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Tensions between talk-radio jockeys and staid writers are nothing new, but on Friday, three conservative print columnists pen laments for the loss of influence among journalism's old guard. Why is the issue coming up now? Glenn Beck's meteoric rise is one trigger, as he opens rifts on the right and sparks a backlash among Republicans. The other is the death of many of the leading lights of last generation--from Bob Novak to Irving Kristol.

  • The GOP Is Confusing Rush Limbaugh Listeners with Constituents, David Brooks writes at The New York Times. Republicans, "enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America," believe the shock jocks have more power than they really do. "Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects." Brooks wants Republicans to stop chasing Rush's ghosts and start chasing voters:
They pay more attention to Rush's imaginary millions than to the real voters down the street. The Republican Party is unpopular because it's more interested in pleasing Rush's ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer's niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician's coalition-building strategy.

The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it's not because the talk jocks have real power. It's because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.

  • Who Will Keep Us Safe From the Ranters Now? Peggy Noonan asks at The Wall Street Journal. The death of "the elders," she says-that's Walter Cronkite, Bob Novak, Don Hewitt, and Irving Kristol-has hurt American democracy. The elders were like "tribal chieftains," and without them, there is no one to set the standards for appropriate discourse. The result, according to Noonan? "Daily agitating barrage that coarsens and inflames," and "tears the national fabric." And Noonan is afraid it will lead to violence. 

I see it this way. There are roughly 300 million people in America. Let's say 1% of them, only 1 in 100, are composed of those who might fairly be called emotionally unstable--the mentally ill, those who have limited or no ability to govern their actions, those who act out, as they say, physically or violently. That's three million people.

Let's say a third of them are regularly exposed to political media rants from right or left. That's a million people.

What effect might "they want to see you dead" and "the Republic is falling right now" have on their minds?

[...]This is why, I think, so many people--I include, literally, every person I know, from all walks of life, and all ages--are worried that our elected leaders are not safe, that this overheated era will end in some violent act or acts.

  • In This Brave New World, Those Who Disagree With Us Are Not Only Opponents But Aliens, Michael Gerson writes at The Washington Post. "Because of the diversity and partisanship of the modern media, Americans can live entirely within an ideological universe of their own construction. And those outside that universe become, not only opponents, but aliens." Gerson says defending traditional media may be hopeless, but he's at it anyway.
This danger makes me a conservative defender of the traditional media -- a lonely and probably hopeless calling. It is good for democracy, and for the ideological sanity of individuals, to read both E.J. Dionne and Charles Krauthammer in the same publication, though readers will naturally side with one or the other.
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