In Defense of Talk Radio Listeners

Broken glass

by Conor Friedersdorf

In order to offer a more persuasive defense of talk radio listeners, let me share some correspondence I've engaged in lately. Longtime readers are aware of my various arguments with talk radio's Mark Levin, who engages in ad hominem attacks, juvenile name-calling, and inaccurate statements about people who criticize him.

As it happens, I know a few of his radio listeners personally, and they're people for whom I couldn't have more respect. A recent experiment caused me to start contacting Mr. Levin's wider fan base via Facebook, and not at random either. When he'd attack me or someone else on the social networking site, I'd read followup comments of people who were expressing agreement with his tirade, and choose them -- the toughest cases, at least for me -- as my interlocutors.

The whole enterprise was grounded in the assumption that Internet commenters aren't always being real. That is to say, if you read an Internet comments section, and see content that seems like it couldn't have been written by a reasonable person, what's happening is often that whoever wrote the remark wasn't intending to stand behind the literal meaning expressed, so much as engaging in a sort of game where what you do is produce zingers or blow off steam.

It isn't an approach to politics that I like, and it exacts a cost on the rest of us who take a more earnest approach, but I'm paid to engage in political conversations. I tend to hold my colleagues in media to a lot higher standard than people who haven't spent a lot of time thinking about political discourse. They've got other jobs! (Sometimes when I write non-media professionals who've criticized me in particularly harsh terms, they seem genuinely surprised to find out there is actually a human being who writes the stuff that appears under my byline on the Internet.)

Engage the authors of these sorts of comments regularly and you'll find that they're actually a lot more reasonable than their Internet personalities at first suggest, and particularly worth speaking with because they're exactly the kinds of people who don't share my assumptions.

It's nevertheless unfortunate that certain media elites just tend to bring out the worst in their listeners, on the left and the right.

Don't take my word for it.

Go here to see one representative exchange, just posted online, with a Mark Levin Facebook fan. I wrote her after she called me an idiot. She offered some civil criticism. We had an enjoyable back and forth, a productive debate, and by the end of the exchange, she was writing Mr. Levin a rather critical letter... and being insulted herself on his Facebook page for dissenting. I've included our unabridged correspondence except for her name (though I'm confident that any reader of our exchange will come away thinking she is a very reasonable person indeed).

I've heard some harsh assessments of talk radio listeners, and I don't mean to suggest that how they respond to me is what matters, but I do think the exchange I link above, and others like it, demonstrate that those who listen to the less defensible stuff on talk radio shows and conclude that the kind of people who listen to them cannot be engaged are wrong. I'd say half of the Mark Levin listeners I've contacted responded positively -- and remember, these aren't random fans, I've particularly selected the folks who responded favorably to a Levin attacks, often against me. (Most of the rest haven't responded, and a few have stood by their initial remarks, though a bit more politely.)

I've had a lot of positive exchanges like that in my life, dating back to my days covering the immigration debate, a subject rumored to be intractable, though I don't think that's right. I never cease to be amazed by how open even initially hostile people are to being engaged and even persuaded, so long as you reciprocate.

What's going on is that so much professional political discourse is cable news style shout-fests that people put it into a different mental category, where normal standards of intellectual honesty and basic decency don't apply. To a degree, I'm guilty of this myself sometimes, as are all of us who've lost our temper on the Internet, or fallen short of our own conversational standards. I think that if you listen to someone for an hour or two a day who does a lot of shouting, caricatures ideological opponents, engages in a lot of ad hominem, and regularly tries to humiliate callers, you start to imagine that those are "the rules of the game." It's a mistake similar to the one Caleb Howe made.

I know some people reading this post are very hostile to the talk radio right, others are as hostile to the left, and still others are hostile toward me. What I want to insist is that this enterprise of talking to one another is nevertheless worthwhile -- conducted the right way, something none of us has a monopoly on, it can be productive indeed. America is our shared neighborhood, one where broken windows cause everyone to behave a bit more badly to one another, and certain talk radio hosts are Red America's half of the gang members going around smashing windows.