Published July 26, 2011
Editor’s note: Fox News Opinion is pleased to present two excerpts from Fox News political analyst Juan Williams' new book "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate." The book and audiobook download – narrated by the author -- will be published on July 26. The Crown Publishers hardcover will be available from bookstores everywhere. The Simon & Schuster audiobook download will be available from iTunes and other retailers. Read an excerpt from Muzzled below or click here to listen to an excerpt from the audiobook and an interview with Mr. Williams.
CHAPTER 1 -- I SAID WHAT I MEANT
I AM A BIGOT. I hate Muslims. I am a fomenter of hate and intolerance. I am a black guy who makes fun of Muslims for the entertainment of white racists. I am brazen enough to do it on TV before the largest cable news audience in America. And I am such a fraud that while I was spreading hate to a conservative audience at night I delivered a totally different message to a large liberal morning-radio audience. I fooled the radio folks into thinking of me as a veteran Washington correspondent and the author of several acclaimed books celebrating America’s battles against racism.
My animus toward Muslims may be connected to my desire for publicity and the fact that I am mentally unstable. And I am also a fundamentally bad person. I repeatedly ignored warnings to stop violating my company’s standards for news analysis. And I did this after repeated warnings from my patient employer. Therefore, my former employers made the right decision when they fired me. In fact, they should be praised for doing it, and rewarded with taxpayer money. Their only sin was that they didn’t fire me sooner.
This is just a sampling of some of the reaction to National Public Radio’s decision to fire me last year after a ten-year career as a national talk show host, senior correspondent, and senior news analyst. They were not taken from the anonymous comments section of a YouTube page or the reams of hate mail that flooded my in-box in the days before the firing. No, this is the response from the NPR management whom I had served with great success for nearly a decade. It is also the reaction from national advocacy groups like the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose work I had generally admired and occasionally defended over the years. Joining them was a small, knee-jerk mob of liberal commentators, including a New York Times editorial writer, who defended NPR as an important news source deserving federal funding even if it meant defaming me—“he made foolish and hurtful remarks about Muslims.” Cable TV star Rachel Maddow, a fervent champion of free speech, agreed that I had a right to say what was on my mind, but in her opinion the comments amounted to bigotry. I had a right to speak but no right to “keep [my] job.” NPR also found support among leftist intellectuals who regularly brag about defending the rights of the little guy but had no problem siding with a big institution over an individual journalist when the journalist was me. One writer said I had long ingratiated myself with conservatives and I had gotten what was coming to me. His conclusion about me: “Sleep with dogs, get fleas.”
What did I do that warranted the firing and the ad hominem attacks that preceded and followed?
I simply told the truth.
Looking back on the torrential media coverage surrounding my dismissal, I am struck by how little of it tells the full story of what actually happened. Basic facts were distorted, important context was not provided, and personal attacks were treated as truth. The lack of honest reporting about the firing and the events that led up to it was not just unfair—most of it was flat-out lies.
In this first chapter, I will tell you the full story of what happened to me. My purpose in doing this is not to get people to feel sorry for me. The goal of this book is to set the record straight and to use my experience in what amounts to a political and media whacking as the starting point for a much needed discussion about the current, sad state of political discourse in this country. It is time to end the ongoing assault against honest debate in America.
CHAPTER 8 -- THE PROVOCATEURS IN THE MOVIE
"The American President," actor Michael Douglas plays a president who walks into the White House briefing room and delivers a powerful response to a political opponent’s personal attacks on his character.
“We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them,” he begins. “And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob [his opponent] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it . . . [so he can] win elections.”
In the final line of the speech, he calls out Bob: “This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd and I am the president!”
Like all good works of fiction, that scene is so memorable because it touches on something so real.
Today’s provocateurs in politics and the media see d conflict everywhere. But nowhere do they show a genuine interest in bringing Americans together to achieve positive results. If they did, they might be out of a job, after all. We are no longer living in the 24-7 news cycle. This new era is being called the “1,440-7” news cycle, where media are competing for the audience’s attention every minute of every day. And one surefire way to get attention in the 1,440-7 news world is to say something outrageous. As a result, we have an entire graduate class of professional provocateurs. We all know them. They are my friends, my colleagues, and occasionally my adversaries in the media. Rush Limbaugh. Rachel Maddow. Sean Hannity . Lawrence O’Donnell. Glenn Beck. Even my colleague and antispinmeister Bill O’Reilly has been accused of the role, although I find his show balanced in a way few talk shows on the Left or Right can match.
As is true of the medium, talk-show hosts are entertainers as much as they are commentators, and being bland as toast wins neither reviews nor ratings. Whether on the Left or the Right, whether on MSNBC or Fox News, each is aware of their target audience. Each offers provocative commentary that grabs our attention and fires up debate.
The problem is that talk-show hosts aren’t on the air to compromise or bring opposing sides together; they have a strong point of view, which they fiercely express. By their very nature they are designed to spark debate, not search for answers; focus our concerns, not reach a bipartisan compromise. But in sparking debate that plays off of our fears and concerns, they also act to drive out rational discussion and reasoned debate. Their very function as hosts and provocateurs can serve to drive us apart. The influence of talk-show hosts on today’s political culture is pervasive and worth exploring in more detail. Some have called such pundits and provocateurs perpetual conflict machines. Others have called their shows echo chambers, where the hosts simply preach to the choir. Whatever you call this phenomenon, the point is that the current state of media and public affairs is stifling the genuine give-and-take of honest debate. Every day a stream of snarky , loud, and sometimes angry voices from the Left and Right are giving reinforcement, reassurance, and endless coverage to one or the other political extreme. This is what lies behind our common perception that “the crazies are the ones doing all the talking.” To a large extent, they are.
But when these provocateurs—in politics and the media— are challenged on their crass appeals to fear, anger, and hate, they counter by charging their critics with “political correctness” and claim objectors are attempting to censor them. It is a strategy that has stymied many critics. Casual observers see the deterioration of important debates on the issues into a carnival sideshow, with the clowns running an entertaining, distracting, emotionally charged, but not very informative spectacle. I believe most Americans would passionately embrace reasoned, honest debate on the issues, but they don’t know how to stop the drivel and personal attacks. And critics in government certainly don’t want to risk speaking out too loudly for fear of being targeted for attack by provocateurs on the other side. It has made it harder for the American people to see when politically correct thinking is really being used not to open a debate but to shut one down, such as the NPR response to my debate with Bill O’Reilly about Muslims and terrorism.
The reality of much of American media today makes a movie fantasy such as "The American President" ever more appealing- someone in authority finally stands up to politics and media run amok. The nation would love for a political Super man to take to task the growing horde that has no interest in solving the serious problems facing America.
Let’s face it, these professional rude boys (and girls) thrive on arousing people’s passions. They make money by making our problems even worse. The more bitter the divide over an issue, the more intractable the problem, the brighter they shine. So they make us afraid of problems; they belittle and demonize those with a different point of view as enemies—even political allies who are not willing to be as extreme or radical in their views. We are given superb political theater but little in the way of education. It is like watching a docudrama at times. Yes, it is based on the facts, but they have been embellished, made more entertaining, with none of the painful searching and uncertainty of real life.
The provocateurs delight in coming up with demeaning, cutting sound bites that quickly go viral on the Internet and cable news. My colleague Glenn Beck has been guilty of this repeatedly. Such attacks and personal put-downs attract attention, as well as condemnation from critics. Nonetheless, the spotlight, good or bad, brings the provocateurs to the attention of even more people, putting more people in the seats for their carnival act. And that puts more money in their pockets. It is entertaining among their constituents, to be sure. But their vitriolic displays scare good people away from getting involved in politics, and they have led smart, well-informed people in the political middle to stay away from important debates. The perpetual conflict machine these agitators have created favors entrenched constituencies that are looking not so much for real debate with new ideas and hope for compromise as much as for confirmation of the beliefs they already hold. Their audiences are captivated by the explosive anger they see on the air, arousing their own anger and frustration.
This phenomenon has reached the point where our provocateur culture inhibits the functions of government. Our public servants increasingly respond first to the loudest voices behind the biggest microphones, who can make them or break them in the opinion polls and at the ballot box. The result is a chronic hardening of political views that is destroying the flexibility needed for effective democracy. But today’s politicians fee l they have little choice but to play along. After all, the prophets of doom and destruction get people to attend rallies, to give money to politicians, and to get out and vote. Candidates running for office, and even those politicians in elected office now, find it to their advantage to mimic the screaming, hectoring, and finger-pointing instead of looking for compromise and solutions. Anyone who varies from their party's hard line is condemned and ultimately muzzled.
The First Amendment to the Constitution gives everyone the right to speak without fear of government censorship or reprisal. It allows me to earn a living doing what I love to do—talking and writing about politics. Of course, it does not guarantee there will be an audience when I exercise that right. Sometimes bells and whistles, fireworks and sparkles are needed to attract an audience. Sometimes we nee d political theater to get us into our seats. But this nee d also creates programs with attitude and opinion. Most of the programming day at Fox News Channel is taken up with news presented by working journalists collecting the facts and presenting compelling stories. The channel strives to maintain and grow an audience by providing a mixture of honest, original, and engaging analysis and news. But it also offers a variety of potent talk shows on the issues of the day with hosts and guests who have big personalities. Fox CEO Roger Ailes recognizes that the media is a demanding, competitive business and the audience cannot be taken for granted. Attractive, engaging, provocative people and compelling arguments are always in demand.
Whenever I appear on Fox News or write a column for The Hill, I try to meet the economic demands of those outlets by advancing the conversation, avoiding the predictable, and making a constructive contribution to the discussion. I make a conscious effort to avoid ad hominem attacks or name-calling. I attack ideas and point out their consequences, rather than attack the people who hold them. I don’t say things just for the sake of being provocative. I criticize both liberals and conservatives when I think they are wrong and agree with them when I think they are right, trying to keep my arguments grounded in honesty , civility , and rational thought. As a result, the larger-than-life media personalities—who never entertain any doubt of their fixed position—occasionally shout me down and upstage me. But I give them full credit for having me on in the first place to present what is sometimes a contradicting point of view. I want both left -wing and right-wing audiences to pay attention to what I have to say because they know me as someone who is straight with them, who doesn’t come at the issues from a fixed ideological position. I put a premium on telling them what I really think, and they seem to value that. My bet is that the audience wants to hear what I will say, too, even if they can’t count on me as reliably conservative or liberal.
Of course, caustic political commentary and satire has a cherished, well-established tradition in American history. Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Will Rogers, Dorothy Parker, and scores of other satirists could have been described as political provocateurs in their day. We celebrate their work and can recall their most memorable quotes. When they wrote, the media environment was smaller, slower, less complicated, and less significant in American politics. But as media has evolved over the last several decades, political commentators have become an entirely different species. Today political partisanship has become institutionalized as media technology has increased outlets for niche points of view on the extremes of the political spectrum, and the money and celebrity flow to those voices at the extremes through radio shows, book deals, and Web traffic.
Much of the history of provocateurs in America is part of the glorious history of free people speaking freely—democracy in action. These voices emerged to challenge the status quo or in some cases to defend the status quo against the forces of political correctness, both good and bad. Some of our nation’s most heated debates took place during the post-revolutionary era as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton argued passionately over the details of our nation’s democratic blueprints, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Thomas Paine is among the most renowned of the founding era provocateurs. He is the original American agitator, an immigrant to the United States who wrote the inflammatory "Common Sense." His treatise, which railed against British colonial domination, was intended to inflame and goad Americans to rebellion. He wrote in bold language: “Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART.” His words made the American Revolution much more than an uprising. He transformed it into a holy crusade for all humanity.
“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” Paine wrote.
By the late 1800s, Paine’s pugnacious phrases seemed polite and poetic compared to the daily vitriol printed by the two great newspaper magnates of the time, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Their coverage of the news, from crime to political scandals to war, was a study in sensationalized accounts, including outright distortion and lies, in a battle to sell more papers in New York City . The high-decibel contest between Hearst’s New York Journal and Pulitzer’s New York World gave rise to the term “yellow journalism.” It describes alarmist, sensationalist journalism that is driven by a desire for attention and is willing to incite and provoke readers with little regard for the facts. Hearst and Pulitzer became infamous for starting a real war. They whipped up so much anger at Spain through inflammatory stories about Spain’s handling of American vessels that they incited the United States to go to war with Spain in the Spanish-American War.
Radio had emerged in the early twentieth century as a form of mass media. The best-known voice of early thunder on radio was Catholic priest Charles Coughlin. Father Coughlin spewed an inflammatory mix of political outrage, social controversy, and division. President Roosevelt used radio to reach out to a country struggling to recover from economic depression; his use of radio was a first for a president, and his occasional fireside radio chats from the White House became a signature of his presidency. Father Coughlin first gained prominence as a supporter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. But he turned against them with equal fury. He blamed Jews for the Great Depression, sympathized with Hitler, and became an ardent opponent of U.S. involvement in World War II. He once broadcast a question that combined isolationism and anti-Semitism: “Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany?” His popularity fell, however, when he was linked to a group trying to overthrow the government.
The cold war, with its strong anti-communist sentiments, produced several early versions of today’s provocative media personalities. Fear of communist infiltration into the United States stirred the audiences of that era. Radio shows, pamphlets, and speeches were sponsored by the paranoid, far-right John Birch Society .
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, too, produced a class of racial provocateurs. Several states added some version of the Confederate flag to their state flags. Alabama’s Governor George Wallace propelled himself to national prominence and a third-party candidacy for the presidency using a “states’ rights” argument, as well as championing the “good” of racial segregation. In June 1963 Governor Wallace drew world attention when he physically stood in a schoolhouse door to block black students from entering the University of Alabama. With TV cameras rolling, and in defiance of the U.S. Justice Department officials standing next to him, he announced that the federal action to integrate the school was “in violation of rights reserved for the state by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Alabama.” Later, he stirred warlike passion by proclaiming, “In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!’ ”
Wallace’s success as a political provocateur was aided by his prominence as governor of the state. But it was also bolstered by the growth of mass media—radio and TV—that trumpeted his words to every corner of the nation.
In the era of domestic social upheaval during the 1960s and 1970s, the leaders of the feminist movement, the student protests against the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement all capitalized on the growth of TV news and commentary to build support for their causes. Every cause now had to make strategic decisions on the use of visuals, signs, and symbols intended to display disdain for the establishment, as well as when to stage marches for maximum television coverage, how to increase time on TV by employing Hollywood celebrities to speak for a cause, and how to enlist musicians and messages in movies to agitate for change.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency saw political polarization reach another level. President Reagan’s professional acting and speech-making skills, combined with the birth of TV cable news and the talk/news radio format, turned politics into televised contests of rhetoric and staging. Working with a public relations expert, Michael Deaver, as his communications director, the president led the nation with bold language and powerful settings for his speeches. He stood at the Berlin Wall to challenge Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with the line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He did not hesitate to label the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” He antagonized his liberal critics by talking about poor women as welfare queens in “pink Cadillacs,” taking the bold economic position that if the rich got richer the poor would also be helped because “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Consideration of one Reagan nominee for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork, transformed televised Senate confirmation hearings into a stage for political fights over abortion, race, gun control, and every other hotbutt on issue. As noted earlier, during the Bork hearings, Senator Ted Kennedy unleashed his own inflammatory attack on the nominee . “Robert Bork’s America,” the senator said, “is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”
Talk shows began to combine the techniques of news programs with entertainment shows. Phil Donahue’s TV show, which was syndicated nationally for a record twenty -six years, set the standard for putting serious conversations on the air in the afternoon, but his show also became known for tackling taboo subjects and bringing lightning-rod personalities on to discuss them. Up-and-coming TV producers followed in his footsteps and often took the format to greater extremes. Geraldo Rivera had his nose broken on an episode of his talk show dealing with “teen hate-mongers,” which featured a member of the White Aryan Resistance Youth and a black guest. Maury Povich became known for revealing the results of paternity tests to couples on live TV, with all the predictable emotional outbursts and tears. Jerry Springer’s show actually rang a bell as guests regularly jumped from their seats in rage to fight one another. Oprah Winfrey’s show became the genre’s most popular in the nation as a more respectable talk show for suburban female viewers, yet it has never strayed far from family feuds, Hollywood’s latest celebrity crisis, and talk about sex and health. But Oprah realized ratings gold in clashes over the day’s explosive social issues.
As talk shows became TV sensations, radio programming turned up the volume too, with insults, sex talk, sensational political stories, and caricatures of what hosts saw as politically incorrect politicians. Don Imus and Howard Stern soared in the ratings with a combination of humorous put-downs and a willingness to make controversial, even insulting, statements to incite their audiences. Imus’s focus was political, with senators, congressmen, and business leaders oft en joining him to trade gossip, jokes, and put-downs. Stern rode the persona of an overgrown schoolboy skipping class with his friends to have a smoke in the boys’ bathroom and trade titillating locker room talk about sex. The wild success of both shows inspired countless imitators in local radio markets. And the success of these shows led to the explosive growth of reality television, pitting people against one another to reveal that which is most base, primitive, jealous, and violent in us, as reality TV devolved from shows like Survivor to The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore.
As far back as the late 1970s, Patrick Caddell, a political adviser to President Carter, recognized this critical shift in the media, and its power contributed to a change in the nature of governing. He warned the president that it had the power to drive trends and opinions of such force that they could swamp even the most sincere and able leader. Caddell told Carter, “It is my thesis that governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.” That meant that even victorious candidates, once in office, had to keep campaigning; they needed to see governing as a separate, sometimes secondary, task if they wanted to hold on to the power that comes from strong public approval. In that sense, a permanent campaign became the equal of a Hearst-Pulitzer circulation battle, a ratings war, and a competition between brands—a quest to seize eyeballs, to capture hearts, and to stir passions. Politicians nee d to absorb the lessons of the media about tapping into the biggest possible audience and holding that audience. The key lesson is that there is nothing less dramatic than a few people talking rationally, ignoring extremists and know-nothings, while making steady, incremental improvements in public policy. Even an uninformed, uneducated rube can beat a brilliant statesman in opinion polls if the rube has passion, presents himself as a victim of Washington’s arrogance, and is willing to take a stand and put on a show of populist outrage.
In politics, the heated media culture of the 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of three major political personalities who fit the mold of provocateur—Jesse Jackson on the Left , Pat Buchanan on the Right, and Ross Perot as a political independent. Jackson had first used the power of television in the immediate aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination, when he appeared on air the next day wearing a shirt that he said was stained with Dr. King’s blood. Throughout the next several decades, his public statements and appearances on TV and radio spoke of his ambition to become the next Dr. King. By the 1988 presidential campaign, Jackson was widely acknowledged as the “president of Black America,” a meaningless title except in its power to command the attention of the media and win Jackson his own cable TV show.
Pat Buchanan, a former aide to President Nixon, positioned himself as a social conservative and a man of principle willing to lead the charge in what he called “the culture wars.” It was Buchanan who had coined the term “silent majority .” Buchanan became a regular on political TV and radio shows and eventually landed his own. He was one of the original co-hosts of the cable TV shouting match Crossfire, which created the spit-flying, barbed-put-down, Left -versus-Right template for political panels and programs that have come since. He ran a lucrative newsletter aimed at conservatives see king hard-line right-wing views.
Like Jesse Jackson, Buchanan made a run for president. In 1992 he used his hard-right stands on social issues to attack President Bush as a political moderate who made “backroom” deals with Democrats and did not deserve a second term. Ross Perot, like Jackson and Buchanan, also ran for president. In an amazing turn, the wealthy corporate executive ran as a populist, a man trained by his success in business to get things done. The hero and protagonist of a best-selling book and TV series, "On the Wings of Eagles", about how he organized the rescue of employees being held hostage overseas, Perot presented himself in the news media as a serious leader. He spoke as a no-nonsense pragmatist with a particular distaste for President Bush. In nonstop media interviews, including regular appearances on cable TV’s Larry King Live, he labeled President Bush a weak leader with no economic know-how and lacking in strong principles.
“This city [Washington] has become a town filled with sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don’t ever accomplish anything. We need deeds, not words, in this city ,” Perot said. One of his most telling campaign pledges fit the ever-escalating media culture of the time. He said that as president he would govern by participating in “electronic town halls,” where people could speak out and also register their preferences for policy and legislation.
But Perot’s erratic behavior, dropping out and then re-entering the presidential race in a media frenzy, and his charge that government agents had tried to ruin his daughter’s wedding, as well as his choice of the unknown and out-of-his-depth Admiral James Stockdale as his vice-presidential running mate, undermined Perot’s candidacy. Nonetheless, he won 19 percent of the vote, a record for an independent candidate. But most of all, Perot, Buchanan, and Jackson left an industry of extreme political pundits in their wake, politicians and talk-show hosts who gained a level of wealth and political power never known to earlier political commentators such as Will Rogers and H. L. Mencken. They prided themselves on being outside observers of the process.
The current crop of provocateurs, too—from Glenn Beck to Arianna Huffington—have become players in that process. They are rewarded for being the ones who shout the loudest and make the most outrageous attacks, who garner the highest television ratings, the largest radio audiences, and the most Web site traffic. They net lucrative book contracts and receive rapturous standing ovations at political conferences. And they have discovered they can make or break like-minded political candidates with their commentary and endorsements. Voices of moderation and calm persuasion have a hard time being heard over the loud, grating voices of today’s political provocateurs. And the Internet and the communications platforms it has created—from Facebook to blogs—have supported the emergence of even more provocateurs: people paid for screaming out any controversial idea, any conspiracy theory. Most of these agitators act without fear of being held to account for distortions or outright lies. When challenged on the facts, they run behind the First Amendment and charge that their freedom of speech is being taken away. The acolytes in their audience could care less about spin and distortion—unless it is committed by their political foes. They just want to hear a rousing speech by a talk-show host who agrees with them. This psychological phenomenon is one surprising result of technology’s ability to deliver more cable channels, more radio stations, infinite Web sites, and Twitter feeds. With the greater variety of platforms to get news and opinion, most readers, viewers, and listeners are drawn to platforms and personalities of their choice, in the same way hometown audiences become fans of a baseball team. They believe their team can do no wrong. They revel in the company of like-minded thinkers. They really don’t want to hear news that makes them question their political prejudices. They don’t want opinions that challenge the logic of their political thinking by giving a contradictory point of view. They want consistency. They are glad to dismiss critics, the loathsome “mainstream” or “right-wing” media, and opposing political parties. They bond with others as outsiders and get a kick out of personalities who use mocking tones to debase the insiders or elite who disagree with them. It is this new political culture that produced Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh, stand-up comic and disc jockey with brash political views, two funny guys who have risen to unbelievable prominence in the nation’s highest councils of serious political debate.
Limbaugh is the loudest of all the voices in the conservative media echo chamber. A college dropout and failed disc jockey, he created a one-man political show made possible by the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Radio stations no longer had to air opposing views, and Limbaugh is credited with being the first and certainly the best to take advantage of the new law. He beats one ideological drum for three hours a day— the drum of social conservatism. He has made himself into the voice of opposition to everything liberal, from abortion to war protests to concern over torture of captured terrorists and civil rights activists. He lambasted women’s rights activists as “femi-Nazis,” declaring, “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society .” He mocked AIDS activists by introducing any discussion of the disease with Dionne Warwick’s hit song “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” On Limbaugh’s show, members of the military who did not agree with President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq were “phony” soldiers. He showed no fear of making the kind of racial politics put-downs of black people that have sunk other talk-show hosts. Limbaugh once told a black caller to “take the bone out of your nose and call me back.” His take on the majority of black Americans identifying with the Democratic Party? “They’re only 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?” One time he remarked that all composite pictures of criminals look like Jesse Jackson. A big football fan, he nonetheless disparaged the large number of professional players who are black by saying: “The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” This episode was cited as one of the reasons NFL power brokers blocked Limbaugh’s attempt to buy an ownership stake in the St. Louis Rams football team in 2009. After the plan fell through, liberal comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher joked that this had dashed Limbaugh’s lifelong dream of one day owning black people.
Limbaugh’s comedic talent, his mimicry, his use of music, and his buffoon-like boast that he is taking on the Left with “half my brain tied behind my back” led the New York Times to describe him as a “vaudevillian.” When Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican Party , described the radio talk-show host as merely “an entertainer” who stirred up his audience with “incendiary” and “ugly” comments, he found himself deluged with rebukes from the Rush “ditto heads” and threatened with a loss of financial support for the party . So despite Steele’s political standing within the party , he bowed his head, offered a personal apology to “El Rushbo,” and appeared chastened, even abject, when he beseeched the entertainer to go easy on him. As President Obama entered the White House at a time of war, terror threats, and economic crisis, Limbaugh baldly said, “I hope he fails.” He later tried to explain that he was talking only about the president’s liberal policies, but the un- apologetic comment, indifferent to the needs of the nation but crafted to grab attention, fit Limbaugh perfectly.
Limbaugh’s sharp tongue has made him the most successful radio broadcaster of all time. His eponymous radio show, which began in 1988, now has an estimated weekly audience of fifteen million listeners. According to a Newsweek report last year, he is by far the highest-earning political personality , earning $59 million annually. For reference, Glenn Beck came in second at $33 million. In third was Sean Hannity at $22 million. Limbaugh’s stature is all the more impressive when you consider that his show saved the AM radio frequency from irrelevance. Conservative talk-radio hosts ever since have copied the Limbaugh model.
The success of right-wing talk radio in shaping national political opinions and policy eventually prompted the question, Why don’t liberals have their own talk shows? The answer was that liberals did not feel alienated from what conservatives called the “mainstream media.” The older, white majority of conservatives had long complained that they were ignored or marginalized as religious extremists, sexual prudes, and bigots by the major newspapers and broadcast networks. And the liberal tilt in Hollywood produced popular liberal-leaning TV sitcoms going back as far as All in the Family, in which a conservative blue-collar worker was presented as uneducated, full of blustering resistance to treating women and blacks as equals. The movies promoted liberal themes, including racial integration, premarital sex, and disdain for the American military, from M*A*S*H to Platoon. On the radio dial, NPR got its start in the early seventies as a network of college stations. Its first big news story was the Watergate scandal and the congressional hearings that followed, with President Nixon as the villain. NPR was immediately adopted by the campus protest crowd and liberal intellectuals.
Conservatives had complained for decades that liberals tended to win tenured faculty positions at the nation’s top universities. NPR became an extension of liberal campus counterculture. To conservatives, the arrival of right-wing talk radio on the AM dial created a singular outpost for their views in a liberal media landscape. But to liberals and Democrats the success of conservatives like Limbaugh and their power to push national politics to the right was maddening. Liberal counter programming fi nally hit the airwaves in 2004 with a new radio outfit called Air America Radio. And its star, the Left ’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, was the comedian and satirist Al Franken.
Unlike Limbaugh, Franken was a top-notch student who graduated from Harvard with a degree in political science. And he had been a star on a hip, liberal-leaning TV show, Saturday Night Live, for fifteen years. In 1996 Franken wrote a New York Times best-selling book with the insulting, scathing title Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. In 2004 Franken was selected to host Air America’s main show. He was seen as the man to take on Limbaugh as well as the successful Fox News Channel and its lead personality , Bill O’Reilly. Franken initially called his show The O’Franken Factor. But the show’s preoccupation with mocking conservative radio and cable personalities did not lead to ratings success. Franken left it within three years as the network struggled to pay its bills and then collapsed.
But Franken found another outlet in real-life politics. He had written a second book, titled "Why Not Me?", a satirical account of a fictional Franken campaign for president. And in one of those bizarre moments when life imitates absurdist art, Franken actually ran in 2008 for a real U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Minnesota and won in a very close race over a Republican incumbent. In the Senate, he made news when he rolled his eyes and made faces of disgust while Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell spoke in opposition to a Democratic nominee to the Supreme Court. That prompted McConnell to rebuke him with the comment “This isn’t Saturday Night Live, Al.” (Franken later wrote a handwritten letter of apology to McConnell for using his comic training on the floor of the Senate when real issues were being debated.) But what was astounding was the elevation of Franken, a man best known for clowning and political satire, a man with no prior political experience, to a seat in the U.S. Senate. Franken may now be maturing in the job, but his background is as a heckler and provocateur.
There is a vast constellation of stars like Limbaugh and Franken now blanketing the media and politics. On the Left there is Michael Moore, the most successful documentary filmmaker of all time. He is a folk hero of the American Left who is praised on college campuses, on the liberal cable channels, and in the progressive netroots community . Arianna Huffington, the Republican pundit turned liberal firebrand, created an incredibly successful Web site, the Huffington Post, which provides liberals with news and opinion. The Huffi ngton Post has been so successful that she was able to sell it to AOL for $315 million earlier this year. Lawrence O’Donnell, one of MSNBC’s most popular liberal commentators, now hosts the network’s 8:00 p.m. show, which competes with Bill O’Reilly.
On the Right, Rush Limbaugh’s legacy has spawned a plethora of conservative talk-radio hosts who have followed in his path: Sean Hannity , Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Neal Boortz, and Mike Gallagher. Each one has achieved success by parlaying his or her radio show into television appearances and book deals. Perhaps the most fascinating example is Glenn Beck, who attracts the third-biggest audience in conservative talk radio, behind Limbaugh and Hannity . Like Limbaugh, Beck never graduated from college and had a checkered career as a disc jockey playing pranks and hit records. Beck began his political talk show in 2000 on a Tampa, Florida, AM station, mixing conservatism and conspiracy theories. In dark, whispered voices he claimed liberals were plotting to destroy America, while also confessing to his life as a recovering alcoholic and conveying occasional religious messages.
In addition to his radio show, with a weekly audience of about ten million listeners, Beck had a 5:00 p.m. show on Fox News that garnered higher ratings than the combined ratings for prime-time programs on CNN and MSNBC. His books instantly catapult to number one on the New York Times bestseller lists. Though not as partisan as Limbaugh, Beck’s message is clearly conservative and highly critical of the Democrats and President Obama. He famously remarked that the president was a “racist” who had a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” In fairness, he apologized and retracted that remark later. But he routinely calls the president a socialist, a communist, and a Marxist and has likened him to Adolf Hitler. He 232 oft en compares the agenda of Obama and the Democrats to Nazi Germany, Maoist China, and Russia under the Soviets. The philippics and outlandish tirades against the Obama administration form the engine for Beck’s success. Without them, no one would pay attention to his warmer, fuzzier, and sometimes legitimate claims about history, morals, and values. But rather than spark a genuine debate, Beck seeks to ignite our ire and go on the attack. There is no progressive conspiracy to destroy the United States of America from within, and it is absurd to suggest that there is. Although to Beck and those who follow him, it may well seem as if I am dismissing the idea because I am a part of the conspiracy. For that matter, you must be too, if you agree with my ideas. I can see the chalkboard diagram now.
These provocateurs cross the political spectrum and are paid salaries normally associated with Las Vegas entertainers. Personality is key here. Anyone can say provocative things and voice controversial opinions. The people whom I have mentioned are effective because they are always skating on the edge of outrageous controversy, always pushing the limits of supportable facts, logic, and respect for people who hold opposing political views. Their audiences want to see how far they can go without crashing. Perhaps they share the sense that the rest of the world is crazy and they are not going to take it anymore—they are going to set the record straight and tell it like it is. And our hosts deliver daily jeremiads that confirm we are not the only ones who believe these politicians and world leaders and corporate moguls and pampered movie stars and athletes are a bunch of thieves, liars, and idiots. The iron fist hammering the table with the microphone belongs to a man or woman—conservative or liberal—who is not interested in talking with people. He or she is in the business of talking at people. The closest these dominating radio and TV personalities come to an exchange of ideas is attacking their rivals on another network. The insults fly, and then their respective audiences are roused to defend their heroes, and the ratings climb even higher as more and more people tune in for the spectacle.
Now, there is nothing wrong with talk radio being dominated by conservative personalities or Hollywood being dominated by liberal writers and actors. Competition among political ideas is essential to American democracy. It might be hard to fi nd a liberal radio show as influential as Rush Limbaugh’s program, but there is no absence of liberal ideas and personalities elsewhere in the political universe and the media. At the height of their powers, the conservatives on talk radio could only watch as perhaps the most liberal member of the Senate, Barack Obama, was elected president. That is why I will stand side by side with Rush and Sean in opposing attempts to manipulate that marketplace with the return of the Fairness Doctrine. President Obama has also said he opposes the return of a government-imposed mandate that each individual station provide equal time to all sides of a political issue. At this point that kind of legislative response to the provocateurs will not serve to disseminate more ideas and opinions. It amounts to a liberal strategy designed to take down Limbaugh and the other conservatives who dominate one format—talk radio. I am for the government offering tax breaks to support more programs with local talk and news. Having been muzzled myself, I don’t think muzzling other voices or having the government dictate programming decisions is in keeping with the First Amendment promise that Congress will make no law restricting freedom of the press. The real danger here is beyond the scope of government’s power. The excess of provocateurs corrupting public dialogue in America sets up a fight on every issue for every American. This rebellion against the provocateurs will have to be done in the tradition of colonial patriots, who came out of their homes and formed private armies to fight British tyranny.
Individual Americans are going to have to turn away from the entertainment associated with extremist, at times buffoonish, demagogues on the air and their imitators who are now running for public office. They will have to personally raise the bar for conversations about important social and political issues. In other words, we have to take matters into our own hands. Ordinary Americans nee d to join the fight against the scourge that is undermining our essential American belief in letting people speak their minds. The dominance of the paid agitators has led to a loss of critical-thinking skills by American citizens—we nee d to think for ourselves. The screamers, the self-righteous, and the arrogant on radio, on TV, in print, and on the Internet create an environment in which a lot of people in the middle don’t bother speaking up because it’s hard to shout above the bombast and noise. A lot of us, I suspect, feel an urge to take cover until all the shouting and name-calling stop. We are waiting for someone else to tell the provocateurs that their fifteen minutes are up.
I fear that a backlash against the provocateur culture is creating cynicism about the entire political process. Revulsion for politics and debate is now common among Americans, especially young people. And that path leads to political apathy. Two thirds of the American people tell pollsters the country is headed in the wrong direction. Yet increasingly, politicians themselves begin to act like the provocateurs in the media, resorting to the same crass schoolyard bullying and name-calling. In one of the most offensive campaign ads of the 2010 political campaign, a Florida Democrat, Representative Alan Grayson, referred to his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, as “Taliban Dan.” Labeling someone, even in hyperbole, a member of a brutal regime that slaughters its own people, and Americans for that matter, is bad enough. But on top of that, the vitriol behind the statements was based on a lie. Grayson used a video clip that showed Webster telling women to “submit” to their husbands in keeping with the tenets of an extremist interpretation of the Bible. But Grayson had edited the clip to distort what Webster had actually said. In reality , Webster had cautioned religious men not to use literal translations of some Bible texts to oppress women.
The independent political watchdog group FactCheck.org was appalled by Grayson’s blatant attack on his opponent and the truth. “We thought Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida reached a low point when he falsely accused his opponent of being a draft dodger during the Vietnam War and of not loving his country,” reported FactCheck.org. “But now Grayson has lowered the bar even further. He’s using edited video to make his rival appear to be saying the opposite of what he really said.”
The 2010 election also saw Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for a Nevada U.S. Senate seat, tell a group of voters that she would employ gun violence—“Second Amendment remedies”—to deal with members of Congress who did not go along with her ideas. She made headlines with the sensationalist but totally false charge that her Democratic opponent, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, wanted to give Viagra to sex off enders. Angle also ran ads suggesting Reid was giving tax breaks to illegal immigrants. Those TV ads depicted the people crossing the border to come into the United States as thuggish, threatening, and dark skinned, in a crass attempt to stir up voters’ fears and win votes.
This low level of political discourse is chasing away talented people who would otherwise put themselves forward as candidates for office. Who wants to be subjected to shrill and malicious attacks? Who wants to be called names and verbally kicked around by opponents who are not held to account? In every democracy, no matter what the era, the language of politics is oft en personal, oft en harsh, and at times down in the gutter. This was true of political opponents of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln. But the proliferation of media through high technology in the last twenty years has led to 24-7 stabs from sharp voices, and I fear the body politic is bleeding to death. There is no off -season for political attacks, especially around election time. We now live with a permanent campaign; it is a year-round sport. From terrorism to budgetary crises to immigration to the war in wherever, the talk-show static is so loud that voices of elected officials trying their best to resolve thorny political issues can barely be heard. The result is that a genuine dialogue about important issues gets put off far too long. The urgent need for solutions, combined with our anxiety over a faltering economy, multiple wars, and demographic shifts that have raised the number of racial minorities and immigrants, has created a political pressure cooker. The only sound to be heard is the angry steam venting from overheated people.
That is what happened during the debate over health-care reform in 2010. America’s great tradition of town halls where citizens can express concerns to elected officials devolved into circus-tent spectacles, in which every shriek mimicked the harsh rhetoric, angry tone, and personal insults that typify the media provocateurs Americans listen to and watch daily. And the hostile tenor of the meetings was set by those provocative personalities. During a debate on health care, freshman Senate Democrat Al Franken, sitting as presiding officer of the Senate, cut off Senator Joe Lieberman, the senior senator from Connecticut. “Wielding Gavel, Franken Shuts Lieberman Up!” is how the incident was delightedly described in the liberal-leaning Huffington Post. Given that a request to finish a brief ten-minute speech is commonly granted in the Senate, the decision had the flavor of disrespect. And the fact that Senator Franken, a former entertainer, was the lead actor prompted Senator John McCain to lament the demise of civility even among senators. “I’ve been around here for more than twenty years,” McCain said, “and yesterday on the floor of the Senate, the senator from Connecticut was finishing his remarks . . . and was objected to by the newest member of the U.S. Senate—and in the most brusque way.” Later he added: “That’s how the comity in this body has deteriorated. We got to stop—we got to stop this kind of behavior.”
Senator McCain’s complaint came barely two months after Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina broke traditional decorum at a presidential address to a joint session of Congress to yell, “You lie!” That disrespect was unprecedented, and the congressman was wrong on the facts, as well. At a Massachusetts town-hall meeting during the same period, Representative Barney Frank went toe-to-toe with a woman who held up a sign featuring President Obama portrayed as Adolf Hitler. She asked her congressman why he was “supporting this Nazi policy.” Frank responded: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” The honest answer is that she is living on a planet full of provocateurs on her radio, TV, and Internet. Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin used the Internet to contribute to the poisonous atmosphere in town-hall meetings in 2010. Just before the congressional summer recess and the beginning of the townhall meetings, she wrote on her Facebook page: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Downs Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide . . . [a citizen’s] level of productivity in society [and] whether they are worthy of healthcare.” This misleading description of the provisions of national health-care reform was surprising, and disappointing, given that Palin regularly confronted the media for making things up about her.
Some people might regard the passionate outbursts during the town halls as over-the-top but within the limits of democracy in action. But something different was going on here. The fact that there were so many threats of violence and vicious, personal insults exchanged and posted on YouTube leads to questions about the direction of American political culture and the impact of the provocateurs. Where are they taking us? Is this where we want to go as a country? Surely there were serious people who came to these town halls wanting to get answers to questions about the health-care bill and to hear informative debate on the issue. Polls had consistently shown for decades that Americans, both individuals and businesses, have been burdened by the high cost of health care and wanted reforms. But the town-hall meetings were not about weighing the comparative impact of reform proposals. The goal seemed to be an exercise in mockery, cynicism, and even contempt for the political system. There is no way the town halls were good for debating legislation. Spectacles like these undermine the functioning of governments of any political stripe and are a threat to a vital, healthy democracy.
Robert Reich, who was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, wrote about touring the country to see some of the town halls. He realized that the provocateur media culture had been hijacked by the lobbyists and businessmen opposed to health-care reform to create a circus that fed the right-wing radio talk shows and TV cable programs in an attempt to shoot reform down. It then inspired more threats and further hysteria at future town hall meetings.
“On our drive across America,” Reich wrote at Salon.com, “my son and I have spotted spiffy white vans emblazoned with phrases like ‘ObamaCare Will Raise Your Taxes,’ and ‘ObamaCare Will Put Bureaucrats in Charge of Your Health.’ Just outside Omaha we drove close enough to take a peek at the driver, who looked as dutifully professional as the spanking new van he was driving. This isn’t grassroots. It’s Astroturf. The vans carry the logo ‘Americans for Prosperity ,’ one of the Washington front groups orchestrating the fight against universal health [coverage].” Reich went on to write that these front groups used the ethos of the provocateurs to “stage ersatz local anti–universal health rallies, and fill hometown media with carefully crafted, market-tested messages demonizing healthcare reform.”
Reich is obviously a partisan with a point of view. And not everyone opposed to health-care reform is an agent for the lobbyists or a member of the Republican Party . But his observation that professional political and industry groups were deliberately creating media spectacles to advance their financial and political interests is exactly right. It must be noted that liberals also use the tactic. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker proposed budget cuts and new restrictions on collective bargaining for public-sector unions, opponents did not make their case in debates. They staged spectacular protest rallies that played to the cameras and microphones and starred celebrities like Michael Moore. Those protests clearly had a lot of Reich’s “Astroturf” in them. In this case unions and the state’s Democratic Party supplied the artifice. In fact, fourteen Democratic state senators actually fled the state, preventing the majority Republicans from being able to move the bill through the legislature. The spectacle of the Democrats in hiding included one state senator being interviewed on Good Morning America fr om an “undisclosed location.”
On the one hand, stripping public unions of their right to collective bargaining is drastic, especially without full discussion. Moreover, the unions had accepted many of the governor’s proposals—they had agreed to contribute more to their pensions and health-care plans. It was the governor’s attempt to unilaterally strip the unions of bargaining rights that set off the ruckus. Now we are left with boiling-mad, entrenched parties who are incapable of civil, reasoned debate in service to the public good. One side, the Democrats, left the legislature in an act of theater and political gamesmanship instead of agreeing to talk. But Governor Scott did not seem open to debate and persuasion, at least from the Democrats’ perspective.
Nonetheless, he is the elected governor of the state of Wisconsin. As President Obama famously said: “Elections have consequences and at the end of the day I won.” This is equally true for the Republicans in the Wisconsin state house. To have Democratic legislators run away to deny the governor the quorum necessary for a vote when he had enough votes to win amounted to hijacking our republican form of government. To me, what happened in Wisconsin confirmed that we have entered an era of stunt governing. This goes beyond the pointless screaming discussions among extremists and provocateurs on the talk shows. Now governing, too, has become one big sideshow in which serious issues and the needs of the people can’t be honestly debated and settled; government officials reduce themselves to Beltway versions of the provocateurs. They introduce meaningless legislation to ban Sharia law in Oklahoma or call for President Obama to make public his birth certificate. There is no substance to these acts except to produce headlines and more peppery grist to be chewed over on the partisan talk shows. An outrageous waste of taxpayer time and money by elected officials is tolerated and accepted. And rational voices attempting to do the hard work of see king compromise on big issues know that highly partisan primaries will ambush and punish them for even talking to the other side of the aisle. The provocateurs have led the way to an age in which stunt governing and ineffectual leadership now are 242 the rule. The megaphone of the provocateur culture has overwhelmed deliberation and genuine attempts at legislation. The voice of honest debate in America has been muzzled. And as those voices of honest debate have grown silent, the quality of our political institutions has been diminished. Those townhall meetings, school-board meetings, and joint sessions of Congress determine the viability of the American experiment and all the dreams it embodies. We can’t afford to lose them.
Reprinted with permission from Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.