What Should The Right Talk About?

by Conor Friedersdorf

Over the weekend, Senator Tom Coburn noted on Meet The Press that he is disgusted with the political media on the right and left. Asked what he meant during a subsequent talk radio interview – the host was incredulous that a Republican had attacked the media machine on the right – he expanded on his critique:

When we spend all our time talking about rhetoric and pointing our fingers, what we’re doing is ignoring the death knell to our country, which is our debt and our spending. And so we’ve taken a week and a half, and done nothing but talk about incivility, and this person said this, and this person said that. And all it’s done is take us off our message, which is this country’s in trouble because we’re spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need.

Here's how his questioner, Hugh Hewitt, responded:

...if you do not challenge the left’s abuse of language, and its manipulation of storyline, the narrative becomes true. I talked about it with your colleague, Jon Kyl, yesterday. To even talk about it is to buy into the idea that what you and I are doing right now somehow contributes to a climate of hate.

Would you have us be silent in conservative media?

What follows is a conversation between two kinds of conservatives: Senator Coburn, whose focus is America's debt problem (I wish there were more like him), and Hugh Hewitt, whose highest priority is being an apologist for the talk radio right.

Tom Coburn: No, I wouldn’t have you be silent. I’d have you make your point the first five minutes of the show, and then move on to what the real problems are in the country.

Hugh Hewitt: But five minutes does not, you know, my show has got three hours with a rolling audience, with the average time spent listening of a half hour or an hour. And if you don’t talk into the media narrative, you abandon it. I mean…

Tom Coburn: Okay, so talk five minutes out of every thirty minutes. But spend the other twenty minutes on what the real problems in the country are...

The most surreal part of the exchange is when Hewitt insists that the United States Senator ought to be spending more time defending talk radio: "Well, here’s what I know, Doc, is that if Tom Coburn doesn’t defend conservative media, conservative media isn’t around to make the arguments about the debt limit." What explains the belief that talk radio will be swept from the airwaves if Republican officials don't offer enough sound-bytes defending it? He's too smart to believe that, and he was just getting started:

...if we’re not careful with the left’s narrative, Senator, we will be back to the days when the Wall Street Journal has a nice op-ed that’s read in boardrooms and in country clubs across the United States, and all of media is controlled by the left and the way left, and we’ll never hear Tom Coburn’s arguments again.

It's always fascinating to hear these hosts harken back to the days before their medium exploded. To listen to them talk, you'd think that the conservative movement hadn't a hope of accomplishing anything until Rush Limbaugh became a nationally syndicated broadcaster in the early 1990s. Don't get me wrong. I share the opinion that the American media of several decades ago had its ideological blind spots. And I'm thrilled that the Internet has given the public many more options for news and opinion than ever before, especially for conservatives and libertarians.

But I have a question for Hewitt. In 1980, before the talk radio explosion, Fox News, or Power Line, Ronald Reagan won the White House. Four years later, despite his detractors in the establishment media, he cruised to a second term. Now skip ahead to the time after talk radio's rise. It's been a terrible period for the conservative movement's professed goals: despite Congressional wins in 1994 and presidential victories in 2000 and 2004, we've seen the size and scope of government increase, the erosion of federalism, and an explosion in the national debt.

So Professor Hewitt, for conservatives out there who care about actual policy accomplishments and the health of the country as opposed to returning Team Red to power – who want to shrink government and protect civil liberties – what evidence do you have that talk radio is a useful ally, let alone an essential one?

It doesn't surprise me that talk radio hosts spend so much of their time talking about being victimized by the left, and spinning absurd fantasies about their impending extinction. It's always seemed to me that most people in the medium are more interested in its success than advancing a sane conservative policy agenda. In a conversation with Senator Coburn, one of the few guys who is focused like a laser on shrinking government, you asked him whether Sarah Palin has been unfairly victimized, and said that he should spend more of his time defending people like you. Do you see why I am skeptical of your medium?